NFL WEEK 13: With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror playoff races are in full swing now and just about everybody is still alive, as 26 of the league’s 32 teams are within a game of a postseason berth. This Week 13 kicked off with two of those teams, Dallas and New Orleans, doing battle on Thursday night, and despite a change at quarterback the Saints were not able to stop their slide, as Taysom Hill threw four interceptions in a 27-17 Cowboys win. That makes five straight losses for New Orleans, and Drew Brees ain’t walking through the door to save the day. Dallas, meanwhile, has opened up a 2-game lead in the NFC East that could stretch to 3 games if Washington were to lose this week. With the NFL’s top-ranked offense and an opportunistic defense that ranks 4th in the league in turnovers forced, the Cowboys are looking like a legit Super Bowl contender.
While this Week 13 slate might not quite pack the punch of a terrific Week 12, there are still several intriguing matchups, like the Bengals/Chargers showdown that will feature two of the league’s best young quarterbacks in Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, and the Monday nighter in Buffalo, where frigid temps and possible snow will be the backdrop when the Patriots and Bills battle for first place in the AFC East. Here are my thoughts on that one and three others:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Atlanta Falcons (TB -10.5, 50.5)
Recommendation: Tampa Bay -10.5 at 1.92
At first glance, this seems like too many points: the Falcons are coming off a hard-fought road victory to pull within a game of .500, and they’re hosting a Tampa team that has lost 2 of its last 3 road games and has allowed 29 points or more in 3 of the past 4 games overall. That being said… have you seen the Falcons play lately? Yes, they beat the Jags last week, but this team is BAD. The offense is reliant on a rookie tight end and a journeyman jack-of-all-trades who is playing running back for the first time in his 9-years of professional football; Matt Ryan is coming off the worst 3-game stretch of his long career, and the defense has allowed more points than every team but the lowly Jets. Yes, they beat Jacksonville last week, but prior to that the Falcons had lost back-to-back games by a combined score of 68-3. They now face a Tampa team that is very comfortable winning by big margins, as the Bucs have already posted 4 double-digit victories on the season, one of which came against these Falcons in Week 2, when Tom Brady threw 5 touchdown passes in a 48-25 Tampa victory. This is a straightforward mismatch– the Buccaneers are better on both sides of the ball and should win this one going away.
Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers (BAL -4, 44.5)
Recommendation: Pittsburgh +4 at 1.98
After getting walloped by Cincinnati 41-10 last week to fall to 5-5-1 on the season, Pittsburgh is approaching desperation time. Every team in the AFC North is .500 or better, so a loss to division-leading Baltimore this week could spell doom for the Steelers, who would then be 3 games back with only 5 remaining. The Ravens have won 3 of 4, but a closer examination reveals that all might not be well in Baltimore, after all. To be clear: the problems are on offense, and they began three games ago, when the Dolphins pulled off a stunning upset on a Thursday night after continually blitzing Lamar Jackson and effectively playing “Cover-0” in the secondary. This forced Jackson to make quick decisions and took him totally out of his comfort zone, and the results have been stunning: in the two games since Jackson has faced this new approach (Miami and again last week against Cleveland), he has thrown for a mere 403 yards on 75 attempts, with 2 touchdowns and a staggering 5 interceptions. Simply put, it appears as though the Baltimore offense has been figured out, and you can be darn sure the Pittsburgh coaching staff has been devouring recent game film and will have a plan to make Jackson uncomfortable. The Steelers have always done a good job of that anyway, as Jackson has thrown 5 interceptions and has been sacked 9 times in two careers starts against Pittsburgh. I expect the Steelers to make life miserable for him once again, and for Ben Roethlisberger to make enough plays to keep the season alive. Don’t be surprised if Pittsburgh wins this one outright.
Denver Broncos @ Kansas City Chiefs (KC -9.5, 47.5)
Recommendation: Denver +9.5 at 1.93
This rivalry has been incredibly one-sided in recent years, as the Chiefs have won 11 straight over the Broncos, with 3 of the last 4 victories coming by 20 points or more. This Kansas City team isn’t quite what it once was, though, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where shaky o-line play and the lack of an effective running game have made Patrick Mahomes & Co. look like mere mortals. During their current 4-game winning streak the Chiefs have simply had trouble finding the end zone, scoring 20 points or fewer in 3 of those 4 contests. Denver has a stout defense that ranks 8th in the NFL in yards allowed and surrenders just 17.8 points per game, the third-best mark in the league, so this seems like a tough spot for the Kansas City offense to just suddenly find its explosiveness again. On the other side of the ball, Teddy Bridgewater will be facing a KC defense that allows 7.7 yards per pass attempt and ranks 24th in passing yards allowed, so he’ll have some opportunities downfield, and Denver has one of the league’s more underrated receiving corps. The Broncos are playing well, having won 3 of 4 to move to 6-5 on the year, and I expect them to put up a good fight in Kansas City on Sunday night. Take the points in this one.
New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills (BUF -2.5, 42)
Recommendation: Buffalo -2.5 at 1.89
At 2-4, with their only wins over the Jets and Texans, the Patriots looked more like a team that would be picking in the top-5 of next year’s draft than a playoff contender. After 6 straight wins, however, the league has been forced to sit up and take notice, and the way these Pats are winning games– playing great defense, forcing turnovers, limiting mistakes on offense– is awfully similar to the formula they used to win their first couple of Super Bowls under Bill Belichick, before Tom Brady became one of the NFL’s most dangerous pocket passers. This time it’s rookie Mac Jones playing the role of game-manager, and he’s been doing a phenomenal job, throwing 9 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions over his last 6 starts. The difficulty will get ratcheted up a couple of notches this week, though, as Jones will be making his first career start in Buffalo, and will be doing so in sub-freezing temps with possible snow/precipitation. For a Florida boy who played collegiately at Alabama, weather like that is no joke, and the fact that Buffalo has the best defense in the NFL, a unit that leads the league in yards allowed and ranks second in points allowed, makes the prospect of Jones playing a good game seem incredibly remote. His counterpart in this one, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, has had ball-protection issues lately, turning the ball over 8 times in his last 4 starts, but he has considerably more experience than Jones and has always looked comfortable in the icy weather, which is what you would expect from a Wyoming kid. I think that will be the difference in this game– both of these teams are well-coached and have great defenses, but the Bills have a superior QB who will be better-equipped for the challenges that come with playing a night game in Buffalo in December. The Pats have been rolling, but their streak ends here.