NFL WEEK 13: With twelve weeks behind us and five remaining, we are entering the home stretch of the NFL’s regular season. Playoff scenarios and seeding concerns will come into focus now, which means we’ll get some truly meaningful games in the weeks ahead, games like this weekend’s Saints/Panthers showdown. On the flip side, this is also the time of year when we begin to see certain teams deprioritize winning games in hopes of bettering themselves for the future, which often includes two things that go hand-in-hand: playing young players for developmental purposes and losing games in order to improve draft position.
On that note, the 2-9 New York Giants shocked the NFL world on Tuesday by benching quarterback Eli Manning, who has started a record 210 consecutive games for the franchise and has won two Super Bowls. Manning was dealt a bad hand this year, as injuries have decimated the talent around him, but considering New York is averaging fewer points per game (15.6) than every team but Cleveland, giving someone else a look at this point doesn’t seem all that crazy… unless that someone is Geno Smith.
Yes, that’s right, the Giants are benching franchise icon Manning for Geno Smith, a 5th-year player who was one of the league’s worst QBs by any measure during his ill-fated stint as the starter for the crosstown Jets. Smith’s career stats: 34 games, 57.7% completions, 28 TDs, 36 INTs, 8 lost fumbles, and a rating of 72.3. Calling him a “developmental prospect” is probably a bit too kind. Nevertheless, the Giants will go forward with Smith in Oakland this week, where they are 7.5-point underdogs to a Raiders team that hasn’t won a game by more than 7 since early September.
Fortunately, most of us won’t be stuck with Raiders/Giants on Sunday. This is an especially big week in the NFC playoff race, as games in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Seattle will go a long way towards shaping the postseason picture in that conference. We also get several intra-division rivalry games this week, starting with Thursday night’s Redskins/Cowboys clash, so we should be in for some good football. Here are a few games that I have my eye on:
MINNESOTA VIKINGS @ ATLANTA FALCONS (Atl -2.5, 47.5)
Recommendation: Atlanta -2.5 at 1.82
The Vikings have won seven consecutive games to improve to 9-2 on the season, but this will be a major test for them: can they go on the road and beat a team that has an elite quarterback and a truly explosive offense? Can Case Keenum continue to rise above the “game manager” stereotype and win a game with his arm? Because the way the Atlanta offense has looked lately, putting up 95 combined points in the team’s past three games (all wins), Keenum will likely be called upon to do more than usual in this game.
As good as the Minnesota defense is, they won’t be able to shut down a rejuvenated Falcons attack that is once again at full strength now that tailback Devonta Freeman is back in the fold. And though Keenum has proven to be efficient and effective for Minnesota thus far, we’ve seen him struggle in the past when asked to do too much, and the jury is still out as to whether he can stand in the pocket and beat a quality defense with accurate downfield passing.
And make no mistake: the Falcons have a quality defense. After years of serving as the team’s primary weak spot, the defense has (almost) caught up with the offense, ranking 10th in the league in yards allowed and surrendering 20 points or fewer in four of Atlanta’s past five games. When the Vikings have faltered this season, it’s been the offense that has let them down, producing just 9 points in an early-season loss to Pittsburgh and a mere 7 points in a loss to Detroit a couple of weeks later. If the Falcons defense can control the Minnesota rushing attack, which has held up better than expected since the loss of Dalvin Cook but is far from elite, averaging a middling 4.0 yards per carry, and put the playmaking onus on Case Keenum, then I’m not sure the Vikings will have the firepower to keep pace.
This is the type of matchup that Minnesota surely hopes to avoid in the playoffs— a road game against an explosive offense— and I’ll be surprised if they escape the Georgia Dome (err, Mercedes-Benz Stadium) with a win.
LOS ANGELES RAMS @ ARIZONA CARDINALS (LA -6.5, 45.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -6.5 at 1.84
The Cardinals upset Jacksonville last week are are still hanging on to a shred of hope at 5-6, but the problems are obvious and they aren’t going away. The offense has been terrible since Carson Palmer went down, producing just 16.8 ppg over the team’s last five contests. The o-line is having trouble opening holes for an over-the-hill Adrian Peterson, and the team is now down to Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. As anyone who has followed Gabbert’s career knows well, you’re in big trouble if you’re relying on him to carry the offense.
The Arizona defense, meanwhile, has surrendered 22 points or more in 6 of the team’s past 7 games. One of those games was against the Rams, this week’s opponent, and, well, it wasn’t pretty: Rams 33, Cardinals 0. L.A. rushed for more yards (197) than the Arizona offense produced. It was an utter annihilation. So why are we supposed to believe things will turn out differently this time around? The venue?
While I’m sure it won’t be a 33-0 shutout this time, I’m having trouble envisioning the Cards hanging around in this one. The Rams have just been so good lately on both sides of the ball– they’ve scored 26 points or more in 5 of their past 6 games, and the defense had held five consecutive opponents to 17 points or fewer prior to the last two weeks, when they surrendered 24 to Minnesota and (just) 20 to the high-powered Saints. When they’ve faced the Jacksonvilles, Seattles, Houstons, and, yes, Arizonas of the world, this Rams defense has been dominant. And the offense has been all the rage in league circles lately, with much being said and written about Sean McVay’s creative play-calling and ingenious pre-snap system. The Rams are for real, and with a slim lead over Seattle in the division and their sights set on playoff seeding, don’t expect them to overlook the Cardinals this week.
And if you’re worried about the 6.5-point number, don’t be: every single one of Arizona’s six losses this season have come by 6 points or more and the Rams have made a habit out of winning big, as 4 of their last 5 wins have come by double-digits. They’re likely to ring up another one on Sunday.
CAROLINA PANTHERS @ NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (NO -4.5, 48.5)
Recommendation: New Orleans -4.5 at 1.94
This should be a good one, as these teams are bitter rivals and are now tied atop the NFC South at 8-3. For the Panthers, the challenge is a familiar one: can they slow down Drew Brees and the high-powered New Orleans offense on the fast track of the Superdome?
The Saints rank second in the league in total offense, and for as much talk as there has been about them shifting to a “run-first” approach, it may surprise some to know that they rank second in the NFL in pass yards per game, behind only New England, while also ranking third in rushing. In other words, this New Orleans offense is both balanced and explosive, and is once again as good as any unit in the league. And while the Carolina defense is solid, it is by no means dominant, as last week the Panthers surrendered 391 yards and 27 points to the punchless Jets offense. Josh McCown threw for 307 yards and 3 touchdowns, so if you don’t think Brees can beat this defense, you may want to think again.
I believe that this game will come down to the other side of the ball: can the Saints slow down the Carolina rushing attack? When the Panthers have had success against the Saints, they’ve been able to push them around on the line of scrimmage, control time of possession and keep Drew Brees on the sidelines. I’m sure that’s the game plan again, considering the Panthers have a top-5 rushing attack but rank just 24th in passing offense, but I think the New Orleans defense may be up to the task this time around.
Last week the Saints held up fairly well against the NFC’s leading rusher, Todd Gurley, limiting him to 74 yards on 17 carries, and the Carolina ground game probably isn’t quite as good as the numbers suggest, as quarterback Cam Newton has far and away been the team’s best ball carrier: top running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffery are both averaging fewer than 3.5 yards per carry. And the Saints defense has consistently exceeded expectations since a rocky first couple of weeks, holding the opposition to 17 points or fewer six times in the team’s past nine games. I don’t think this one will be as easy as Week 3, when the Saints cruised to an easy 34-13 win in Carolina, but I do expect New Orleans to get the job done here.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS @ CINCINNATI BENGALS (Pit -5.5, 43.5)
Recommendation: Under 43.5 at 1.87
There is no love lost between these two teams, and with this game being in Cincinnati and the Bengals fighting for their playoffs lives, it should get nasty. Somebody had better keep an eye on Vontaze Burfict. Of course, if Cincinnati actually wants to win this one it’s going to take more than intimidation and physical play, as the Steelers have won six straight games and are starting to look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Bengals, meanwhile, have a record of 5-6, though they have won back-to-back games to keep postseason hopes alive. These teams met six weeks ago in Pittsburgh and it wasn’t particularly close— the Steelers won 29-14, but the more telling number is the total yards gained by each team: Pittsburgh 420, Cincinnati 179.
Yep, that’s right: the Bengals managed just 179 total yards the last time they faced this Steelers team. And it’s not like that performance was totally out of character, either, as Cincinnati currently ranks next-to-last in the NFL in total offense. It’s only natural that they would struggle against a defense like Pittsburgh’s that ranks in the top-5 in both yards allowed and points allowed— frankly, I don’t expect them to do that much better this time around.
If the Bengals are going to make this a game, their defense is going to have to do the heavy lifting. Fortunately, they are talented on that side of the ball, and the defense is used to the pressure: in Cincinnati’s five wins this season the opposition has averaged just 15.4 points per game. The Bengals are especially good in the secondary, ranking 5th in the NFL against the pass, and Ben Roethlisberger has had some head-scratching performances this season. Truth be told, the Steelers offense as a whole has been wildly inconsistent, producing 21 points or fewer in six of the team’s 11 games despite having a Pro Bowl QB and elite skill-position talent. Something tells me the Cincinnati D is going to put up a fight in front of the home fans on Monday night, and I’ll be surprised if this game goes over the posted total of 43.5.