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NFL WEEK 9: We’ve reached the midpoint of the NFL season and things are really starting to heat up, as this week’s slate of games is the most compelling we’ve had in quite a while. The headliner is probably the Sunday night showdown in Baltimore, where the undefeated Patriots are a slim 3-point favorite over the 5-2 Ravens. But that’s far from the only compelling matchup with playoff implications; we also have Houston/Jacksonville from London, Chiefs/Vikings, Bears/Eagles, Raiders/Lions, Colts/Steelers, Packers/Chargers… you get the idea. In essence, this is the beginning of the playoff race– every week now, the field will be whittled down and the better teams will cement their positions. Welcome to the heart of the season.

Of course, this is not only the midpoint for the teams and players, but also for us bettors, so hopefully we can apply what we’ve learned over the last eight weeks and stack up a little bit of cash over these next couple of months. I know I’m certainly ready for a hot streak, as a 2-2 Week 8 capped off what has been a very mediocre stretch for the good guys. Let’s hope we can find a little magic, starting with these four selections:

Chicago Bears @ Philadelphia Eagles (Phi -4.5, 41.5)

Recommendation: Philadelphia -4.5 at 1.97

Both of these teams entered the season with Super Bowl hopes, and with Philly sitting at 4-4 and Chicago at 3-4, this is a tremendously important game. For the Bears, in particular, this is almost a must-win, as they’ve lost three in a row to fall to last place in the NFC North, and their schedule the rest of the way includes just one team that currently has a losing record. But to win, you must score points, and the Chicago offense has been abysmal this season, ranking 29th in the league in yards per game and producing 21 points or fewer five times in the team’s seven contests. They got the running game going against the Chargers last week, but the Philly defense is much better up front than it is in the secondary, so this will be a Mitch Trubisky game (cue the collective *gulp* from Bears fans).

The Eagles, at the very least, have a quarterback they can rely on, but it was a re-commitment to the ground game that marked their 31-13 victory over Buffalo last week, as they rushed for 218 yards and 5.3 yards per carry on a very good Bills defense. The Chicago D is very similar to Buffalo’s statistically, but the Bears are better against the run, so Carson Wentz is going to have to make some things happen. Fortunately for him, DeSean Jackson, one of the NFL’s premier deep threats, will make his return to the lineup this week, and though Jackson has never been considered a primary option, his ability to take the top off the defense is hugely impactful in opening up the field for guys like Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery. And that, I believe, is going to be the difference here– the Chicago secondary, while solid, is by no means impenetrable, as B-listers like Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr have proven over the past month. Wentz and Co. just put up 31 points on the road against a top-5 Buffalo defense, so it’s reasonable to expect a certain amount of production out of them in this game. The Chicago offense, meanwhile, hasn’t been able to produce against anybody, piling up fewer than 300 total yards in 6 of their 7 games (!!). Even if they have a few hiccups, Wentz and the Eagles should be able to outpace the Bears here and win this one fairly comfortably.

Indianapolis Colts @ Pittsburgh Steelers (pk, 40.5)

Recommendation: Indianapolis at 1.98

I’ve heard a lot of people picking the Steelers in this game, and in some ways it does seem like a good spot for them– they’re at home in a must-win situation, their defense has been solid all season, and they’re facing a Colts team with an average offense that will be missing its best player on that side of the ball in wideout T.Y. Hilton. In a “circle the wagons” type of game, you can’t ask for much more than an opponent with a nonthreatening offense and a middling defense, and that’s exactly what the Colts are at this point. However, you could say that about Indianapolis any week, and skeptical bettors and opposing teams have paid dearly for doubting a Colts team that has won 5 of 6 to take control of the AFC South.

Also, you must ask yourself why this, in Week 9, is a must-win, circle-the-wagons spot for the Steelers. I’ll give you a hint: perhaps it’s because they’re not very good. This is a team whose only decent win has come against a wildly inconsistent Chargers team, and even in that game Pittsburgh produced only 256 total yards to L.A.’s 348. The Steelers’ other two victories have come against Cincinnati and Miami, the NFL’s only winless teams, and the Miami game last week was in doubt until the 4th quarter. For the vast majority of the season the Pittsburgh offense has been utterly inept, producing fewer yards per game than every AFC team other than the Dolphins and Jets, and there are seemingly no solutions on the horizon. There’s absolutely no reason to think it’s going to get any better, especially now that they’re likely going to be without starting tailback James Conner as he deals with a shoulder injury. So tell me why, again, are we expecting this team to beat the 5-2 Colts? Undoubtedly a lot of it has to do with reputation and expectations, and as far as I’m concerned that stuff is nothing but noise that creates value for the “right” side. In this case, I believe the right side is Indianapolis.

Green Bay Packers @ Los Angeles Chargers (GB -3.5, 48.5)

Recommendation: L.A. +3.5 at 1.9

The Chargers are a tough team to figure out. They’re 3-5 and nearing life support in the AFC playoff race, and yet they have marquee talent on both sides of the ball and a future Hall of Fame quarterback who is still playing at a high level. They’re dangerous, in other words, and they’re certainly not a team that’s easy to put away, as all five of their losses have come by 7 points or fewer, with three losses coming by 3 points exactly. That may be something to keep in mind as we consider them here as a 3.5-point home ‘dog against a Green Bay team that has been involved in some close games themselves this season.

The Packers have been winning, but every time I see this team play I seem to dig in a little deeper to my belief that they’re a tad overrated– the latest underwhelming victory came last week against a Kansas City team that was without league MVP Patrick Mahomes. Aaron Rodgers had his way with the generous Chiefs defense, but he needed a great performance, as the Green Bay defense surrendered 24 points or more for the 4th time in their last 5 games (they allowed 22 in the other game). That defense will now try to contain an L.A. offense that will have a new playcaller after OC Ken Whisenhunt was dismissed this week. Normally, a midseason coaching change like that would be viewed as a negative, but in this case, given the fact that the Chargers offense has underachieved and Philip Rivers is a vet who could probably call the game himself, I view this situation as a shake-up that is likely to have a positive effect. The L.A. defense will have its hands full against a Green Bay offense that has thrived since re-committing to the run game, but the Chargers have some game-changers on that side of the ball, so I don’t expect a clean performance from Rodgers and Co. I view this game as much closer to a toss-up than the records would indicate, and considering the Chargers are involved in one-score games literally every week, I think they’re a nice value as 3.5-point ‘dogs.

Cleveland Browns @ Denver Broncos (Cle -4, 39.5)

Recommendation: Cleveland -4 at 1.95

It’s been a tough road for the Browns, as a team that many had pegged the favorite in the AFC North is now 2-5 and flailing. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is lashing out at the media, prize offseason acquisition Odell Beckham has been mostly invisible and is now claiming that a preseason groin injury never fully healed, and head coach Freddie Kitchens is being accused of incompetence by just about everybody. It’s a team that needs a win in the worst way, and if you’re a team in that situation, and the Bengals or Dolphins aren’t up next on the schedule, a trip to Denver to face a backup quarterback is just about all you could hope for. If Cleveland can’t pull out the victory here, the playoff dreams are all but extinguished, and Kitchens will likely be fired before next week’s game.

But, look, as bettors we know that chaos often creates opportunity, and the chaos, negativity, and dysfunction surrounding Cleveland right now has gifted us with this opportunity: the chance to back the Browns as a mere 4-point favorite here. Make no mistake– the Denver team that will take the field on Sunday will be among the NFL’s worst. The offense has been lifeless all season, averaging just 15.6 points per game, and I fully expect them to reach new levels of futility now that Brandon Allen is replacing Joe Flacco at quarterback. Remember– the move has nothing to do with Allen’s quality or lack thereof, but rather Flacco’s impudence at the podium last week, when he essentially blamed Denver’s loss to Indianapolis on the coaches’ lack of courage and belief. Allen is a journeyman backup, and after the team shipped top wideout Emmanuel Sanders to San Francisco in a trade last week, it’s difficult to envision a path to success for Allen, in this game or any other. Surely the Broncos will try to run the ball and lean on their defense, but the Browns know that as well, and when Allen does air it out, the Browns have some ballhawks in the secondary who will be looking to feast. This game has blowout written all over it. You can thank both teams’ dysfunction for the opportunity.