NFL WEEK 13: For my money, this is the best time of the NFL season: playoff races are tight, players and coaches are under intense pressure, and seasons are made and broken. The weather is cold, the teams are banged up, and the in-game violence and bitterness seems to be accentuated. Bring. It. On.
This Week 13 slate is full of those types of games: Steelers/Browns, Colts/Titans, Ravens/49ers, Chiefs/Raiders, Texans/Patriots… all are tremendously important for both teams involved, and at least a couple should turn out to be absolute bloodbaths that come down to the final minutes.
The three Thanksgiving Day games sort of eased us into the week, with Buffalo’s thrashing of Dallas standing out as the eyebrow-raiser. New Orleans clinched the NFC South with a win over Atlanta, and their showdown with San Francisco next week looms large in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Of course, first the Niners will have to contend with the Baltimore freight train this week, so let’s not be looking too far ahead.
Our own fortunes improved last week, with only Philadelphia’s loss to Seattle preventing us from the clean sweep, and hopefully the Seahawks will treat us a little better this week, as we’re fading them again. Here’s what else we’ve got for this Week 13:
Tennessee Titans @ Indianapolis Colts (IND -1, 43)
Recommendation: Tennessee moneyline at 2.04
The Colts have a well-earned reputation as a tough out, particularly at home, where they’ve won 3 of their last 4 games. But they head into this week having lost three of four overall, with one of those losses coming to the lowly Dolphins (albeit with Brian Hoyer at quarterback), and the offense hasn’t had much punch as injuries have piled up. This week, T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack have both been officially ruled out, so Jacoby Brissett will be without his two most potent weapons as he tries to crack a Titans defense that limited the Colts to 288 total yards when these teams met back in Week 2. Indianapolis won that one 19-17, but the two teams are very different now, particularly the Titans, who have rallied behind Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and are 4-1 in their last 5 games.
But I guess “rallied behind” is kind of cliched; truth is, Tannehil is simply a better quarterback than Marcus Mariota at this stage of their respective careers, a fact that has been evident since the moment Tannehill took the reins. He’s able to get the ball out on time and has developed a nice rapport with the receivers, particularly rookie A.J. Brown, who caught four balls for 135 yards and a touchdown in Tennessee’s win over Jacksonville last week. And unlike his time in Miami, Tannehill is not being asked to carry the offense, but only to support a rushing attack that has become increasingly more lethal as the season has progressed, as Derrick Henry has averaged 115 rushing yards per game on 6.2 yards per carry over the team’s last five contests. Henry will look to keep it going against a middling Colts defense that allows 4.3 yards per rush, and I have a lot more faith in the Tennessee offense here than I do in the Colts’ neutered attack. The Titans are simply the better team right now and should be backed enthusiastically in this spot.
Washington Redskins @ Carolina Panthers (CAR -10, 39.5)
Recommendation: Carolina -10 at 1.94
Let’s start with the obvious: the Redskins are bad. I mean, really bad. Yes, I know they were able to pull out a 19-16 win over Detroit last week, snapping a 4-game losing streak and possibly creating a little value this week, but that win was about as ugly as it gets, as Washington failed to score an offensive touchdown and needed a brutal interception from Detroit quarterback Jeff Driskel in the final minute to seal the deal. The offense is the worst in the NFL by any measure, ranking last in the league in both yards per game (253.4) and points per game (13.1– yikes!!), and the defense ranks in the bottom-half of the league in every major statistical category. This is a dysfunctional, nonthreatening, heartless football team. I’ll be shocked if they win another game.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are in a desperate situation after three straight losses, and at 5-6 they probably need to win out to have a shot at a Wild Card berth in the ultra-competitive NFC. But if their 34-31 loss to New Orleans last week was any indication, they’re going to go down swinging behind the best running back in the NFL and a passing attack that has been better than most realize. Kyle Allen was nearly flawless last week, going 23/36 for 256 yards and 3 touchdowns, giving him three consecutive games of 250 yards or more and 62% completions or better. Allen should have a big day against a vulnerable Redskins defense that will surely be keying on Christian McCaffery, the NFL’s leading rusher, and the Carolina offense will likely post its sixth 30+ point performance of the season. Based on what we’ve seen out of the Washington offense week after week, I can’t imagine this one staying competitive. Panthers BIG.
Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers (CLE -2, 39)
Recommendation: Cleveland -2 at 1.91
I’ve heard lots of people talking up the Steelers in this spot, and it’s understandable. After all, this is the first time that the Browns have been favored in Pittsburgh in three decades, and Cleveland’s vulnerable o-line and general inconsistency on offense is rightly viewed as a weak point that a quality Pittsburgh defense can exploit. But that’s what the vast majority of the pro-Steelers crowd seems to be focusing on: the mismatch in the trenches, specifically the Cleveland o-line vs. the Pittsburgh d-line, and the fact that Baker Mayfield is sure to be harassed throughout the game. And this line of thinking is perfectly valid– Mayfield has been under near-constant pressure anytime Cleveland has faced a decent pass rush this season, and having backup LT Justin McCray lining up opposite T.J. Watt for most of this week’s game will only accentuate the problem.
But everybody seems to be glossing over the other side of the ball– just how is the impotent Steelers offense, led by a rookie from tiny Samford University, going to score points in this one? I mean, this is a team that has had trouble getting first downs, much less scoring touchdowns, and now that their ineffective backup QB has been benched for a rookie third-stringer– a guy who the coaches had decided was worse than the aforementioned ineffective backup after watching both practice together for months– this is supposedly an offense worth backing? How much has changed from two weeks ago, when the Browns held these Steelers to just 236 total yards and seven points? Yes, Cleveland will be without its best d-lineman and Pittsburgh has a new QB, but if you have more faith in the Devlin Hodges-led Steelers offense than you do in Nick Chubb and the superior skill-position talent in Cleveland, then you’re viewing this game differently than I am. I expect Chubb to be the best offensive player on either team, and for the Browns to pull out a much-needed victory in a tough, low-scoring game.
Minnesota Vikings @ Seattle Seahawks (SEA -3, 49.5)
Recommendation: Minnesota +3 at 1.93
This is a huge game, as both teams are fighting for a division title– Seattle is 9-2 and one game back of San Francisco in the NFC West, while Minnesota is tied atop the NFC North with Green Bay at 8-3. The Seahawks in particular have been hot, winning four straight and 7 of their last 8, and they’re a popular public bet this week as a short home favorite. But there are reasons for concern, particularly in the secondary, as only three teams have allowed more passing yards than the ‘Hawks this season and Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins has been red-hot, completing at least 70% of his passes in 8 of his past 9 games (!) with a 19/1 TD-to-INT ratio.
It’s a turnaround that few saw coming from Cousins, who was roundly criticized after a couple of poor early-season performances but has now been playing at an elite level for so long that “hot streak” has given way to “that’s who he is”. And he’ll be getting his favorite target back this week, as Adam Thielen is expected to return after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. Tailback Dalvin Cook’s emergence has given the Vikings one of the leagues most balanced offenses, and I fully expect them to move it up and down the field on a Seattle defense that has slightly rehabilitated its image over the past two games against offenses that were banged-up and not nearly as potent as the one they’ll see this week. Russell Wilson is a phenomenal competitor and a strong contender for league MVP, but he has a considerably tougher matchup than his counterpart, as the Minnesota defense is one of the league’s best, ranking 5th in the NFL in points allowed (18.6 ppg) and 6th against the run. Despite this game being in Seattle, I think the Seahawks are going to have a tough time extending their winning streak against a Minnesota team that is playing well and coming off a bye. Gimme the Vikes here.