Green Bay Packers (+6) @ Detroit Lions (50): Lions 28-27
Thursday, 12:30 PM, Ford Field, Detroit, MI (Weather: Indoors)
Reasons: The Packers certainly have a better chance with Matt Flynn at the helm, clearly more familiar with Green Bay's schemes than Scott Tolzien, having been their back up QB a few years back. That doesn't necessarily say much about the Packers, who were reeling after three straight losses before their unceremonious tie last week, although they did come back from 16 points down to do so. However, the Lions pass defense is awful, and banged-up to boot, which gives the Packers 5th-ranked passing attack the perfect opportunity to pounce. The Lions 4th-ranked run defense will battle the Packers 5th-ranked run game all game, opening the door for Flynn to silence the many critics (of his bank account). This game will come down to the air as the Lions 3rd-ranked pass offense tries to take advantage of a weak and hobbled Packers secondary. Both teams are coming off stinging weeks: the Lions lost on a last-minute INT that could have gone for a Megatron TD and the Packers had to come back down 16 in the 4th just to tie. A Lions win puts them in the drivers seat; a Packers win ties the division up and creates a mess. Despite the Mighty Flynn, the Lions literally escape this game at home on Turkey Day.
Oakland Raiders (+9.5) @ Dallas Cowboys (47.5): Cowboys 27-20
Thursday, 4:30 PM, Cowboys Stadium, Dallas, TX (Weather: Indoors)
Reasons: Vegas has Dallas 9.5 point favorites in a game with an expected o/u of 47.5, which means that they expect the Cowboys to do their thing and the Raiders to continue their downward spiral this month, save one laughable win at Houston. The Cowboys have one of the worst statistical defenses in the league (31st v. pass; 30th v. run), but I don't see the hapless Raiders exploiting that. Except for an inexplicably great running game (ranked 4th despite the injuries to McFadden), they have no passing game to speak of (ranked 29th). I fully expect Romo and the Cowboys to exploit the Raiders poor pass defense (ranked 25th) and run away with their annual Thanksgiving Day game.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+3) @ Baltimore Ravens (40.5): Ravens 23-17
Thursday, 8:30 PM, M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, MD (Weather: Clear, cold, low 30s)
Reasons: Tell me if you've heard this one before: Steelers face Ravens in a tough defensive battle late in the season in the cold weather for an advantage in the division. Both teams have two of the better defenses in the league, and both offenses are struggling, expect for the Steelers pass game of late, which has become the 8th-ranked pass attack in the NFL. Both teams average a pedestrian 21-22 ppg, and both teams sit mired in the AFC North at 5-6. The only real difference between these teams is one expected to be mediocre and one was predicted to return to the Super Bowl. Ain't happenin'. But the Ravens could still make the playoffs, and that push begins tomorrow as most of the country sleeps off their tryptophan overdoses. This game could be won in the air as both run games have suffered this season (Steelers: ranked 30th; Ravens: ranked 27th). As long as Baltimore's pass game (ranked 19th) can get something going I expect their defense to clamp down to win close at home and give the fans something to be thankful for - to just be in the hunt not even a year after winning the whole thing.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+7) @ Cleveland Browns (40): Browns 20-10
1:00 PM, First Energy Stadium, Cleveland, OH (Weather: Cold, high 30s, light snow)
Reasons: Brandon Weeden gets the nod after Jason Campbell went down last Sunday. That's not good news, at least not by this season's standards. Lucky for the Browns their top-notch defense (ranked 6th v. the pass and 5th v. the run) takes care of business, and this is one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL, perhaps NFL history. They rank 32nd in the run game, despite having (a clearly aging) MJD and don't do much better in the air (ranked 22nd). They only average 13 ppg, and despite winning last week for only the second time this season, they did it v. a hapless Texans team...and did it by scoring 13 points. They are awful. Additionally, the cold winds will blow a little snow into Cleveland Sunday afternoon, which ultimately spells doom for this suntanned joke of a football team. I actually expect Weeden to answer some critics this week, if it counts v. the Jaguars, and keep the Browns relevant.
Tennessee Titans (+4) @ Indianapolis Colts (45): Colts 27-24
1:00 PM, Luca Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, IN (Weather: Indoors)
Reasons: The Colts have fast become a mediocre team, and have been destroyed over the first halves of their last four games (93-12). Their offense (18th-ranked pass offense; 19th-ranked run offense) has injuries and Luck has had to play from behind the past month, and their once-opportunistic defense has been on the decline (ranked 19th v. the pass; 26th v. the run), giving up 33 ppg since playing the Denver Broncos Week 7. All this points to a Colts loss v. a well-coached divisional opponent. That's exactly why they'll win. Two of the most embarrassing games of the year have come in the past three weeks, the only win being sandwiched between them - v. the Titans (30-27). The Colts only maintain a 2-game lead in the AFC South and might not make the playoffs in they don't win the division. The Titans 8th-ranked pass defense will give Luck some trouble, and TY Hilton's status will be key. The Colts bounce back in another close on at home to keep their divisional lead.
Chicago Bears (+1) @ Minnesota Vikings (49.5): Bears 27-24
1:00 PM, Mall Of America Field (terrible name), Minneapolis, MN (Weather: Indoors)
Reasons: Christian Ponder has been playing better, but the Bears defense ranks 13th v. the pass, so the Vikings might lean on a banged-up Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart (10 ypc) and their 11th-ranked run game. Still, none of this does anything for a defense ranked 29th v. the pass and 24th v. the run, and their seemingly relevant tie v. the Packers turned out to be not-so-relevant as Green Bay was destroyed 40-10 Thanksgiving Day by the Detroit Lions. The Bears, on the other hand, are actually a little better then their many key injuries would imply, although they have lost two of their past three and needed OT to beat the Ravens in that lone win. The 7th-ranked pass offense is respectable even without Cutler and Forte should play, helping the run game (ranked 22nd). The addition of Jay Ratliff should bolster the Bears defensive line a bit, which is worst in the NFL at stopping the run, shaking up Ponder's 25th-ranked passing offense and the run game just enough to squeak out a win on the road to keep pace with the Lions.
Miami Dolphins (+2) @ New York Jets (38.5): Dolphins 21-17
1:00 PM, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ (Weather: Mild, mid-40s, light rain)
Reasons: The Jets offense might challenge the Jaguars as the worst in the NFL, if they didn't have the league's 8th-ranked run game; that might be a saving grace, as they'll face the league's 25th-ranked run defense. The Jets average 16.5 ppg, and sport the league's worst passing game, which will do nothing v. the Dolphins average pass defense (ranked 14th) and with key injuries at WR. The Dolphins 26th-ranked run game won't fare much better against the Jets run defense, tops in the league. The Jets pass defense is far worse (ranked 22nd), so the Dolphins 20th ranked pass offense will look to exploit the Jets pass defense. It's a tough call, but you can’t like the Jets on the road with that offense.
Arizona Cardinals (+3) @ Philadelphia Eagles (48.5): Cardinals 27-24
1:00 PM, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA (Weather: Clear, mild, mid-40s)
Reasons: The rule of thumb is that in a game between two evenly matched squads, the home team will get 3 points - perfect example here. About the only thing separating these two teams is a 6-hour flight. Both teams are in the middle of serious win streaks (ARZ- 4 games; PHI – 3 games), both teams average ~24 ppg, both teams are 2nd in their divisions and looking to gain ground, and both teams dominate the game on one side of the ball. Therein actually lies another difference: the Eagles high-octane offense (ranked 9th in the passing game and 2nd in the run game) is countered by the Cardinals stingy defense (ranked 17th v. the pass and 2nd v. the run). The Cardinals average pass defense seems more aberration than fact, as the Cardinals have two of the leagues best at their respective positions in Darnell Dockett and Patrick Peterson. On the other side of the ball, the Eagles can’t really stop the run (ranked 21st), but the Cardinals can’t run it (ranked 24th). One more difference is exposed when analyzing the Cardinals passing game (ranked 12th) v. the Eagles pass defense, which is the worst in the NFL. Considering the weather won’t be a factor, the Cardinals pass game could be the big difference here as Carson Palmer has thrown for over 730 yards the last two weeks, also coming against two bad defenses. The Eagles have struggled at home this season and I think that continues this week, as the Cardinals are just too well coached and too hot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+8) @ Carolina Panthers (41.5): Carolina 24-20
1:00 PM, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC (Weather: Clear, mild, high 40s)
Reasons: The Buccaneers have won three straight after losing their first eight games, but they’ve come against a reeling team, a horrible team, and a team looking past them (MIA, ATL, DET); the Panthers are the hottest team in the NFL, but their last three wins were escape acts (SF, NE, NYJ). To some this might appear as a match up of two hot teams; some might see it as lopsided affair. I see it as neither. Make no mistake, the Buccaneers are bad, but their two strengths are the two things that could give Carolina some problems: the resurgence of TB’s passing game (still ranked 29th) via Mike Glennon v. a banged up Carolina secondary, and the Buccaneer’s 9th-ranked run defense v. the Panther’s 9th-ranked run game. The Panthers were trying out CBs this week; even with that front-seven that’s not a good thing. Still, the Panthers defense (ranked 7th v. run; 3rd v. pass) is beastly, and I can’t imagine the Buccaneers scoring anywhere near 29 points, their average over their three straight wins. If the Buc’s front seven can stop the Panther’s run game, forcing the Panthers to throw (ranked 30th) this could get interesting.
New England Patriots (-7.5) @ Houston Texans (47.5): Patriots 30-20
1:00 PM, Reliant Stadium, Houston, TX (Weather: Indoors)
Reasons: On paper these teams are about as evenly matched as possible. In reality they’re not even close. No matter the troubles the Texans are in I still expect them to rise to the occasion against the fast-becoming-rivals Patriots. Case Keenum gets the nod, which I can’t decide is good or bad. The Texans have the league’s best pass defense, which could pose some problems for the Patriots pass attack (ranked 11th), one of the keys to the game. The Patriots are also coming off two tough weeks; with a close loss v. Carolina stemming from a bad call, and an epic comeback win v. Denver the Patriots might be a little emotionally drained traveling to Houston, or could be totally rested coming off the holiday. The Texans 14th-ranked run game is banged up, so there isn’t a huge advantage v. the Patriots 31st ranked run defense, and Case Keenum and Andre Johnson won’t exactly have their way with the Patriots secondary, as NE ranks 9th v. the pass. The Patriots run game (ranked 10th) will flourish v. this Texans front seven (ranked 22nd v. the run), which will be another key. The Patriots will score a few in the air and then run the clock out with their smash-mouth run game, taking one on the road against the team we expected to battle for AFC supremacy.
Atlanta Falcons (+3) @ Buffalo Bills (47): Bills 24-21
4:05 PM, Ralph Wilson Stadium, Buffalo, NY (Weather: Cold, 40% chance rain/snow, 30s)
Reasons: Even if Atlanta’s passing game was still top-notch, which despite being ranked 5th it’s not, they could struggle v. the Bills 12th-ranked pass defense. These rankings, although important, only consider total yards, so a few of these teams benefit/suffer from garbage time stats, e.g. running the clock out or from trying to catch up, which has been Atlanta’s issue. So Atlanta’s seemingly high-ranking pass game is somewhat ‘smoke and mirrors’. Considering the Falcons have no run game (ranked 31st), due mainly to injuries and a bad offensive line, they might have to struggle. The Falcons should run more successfully with Steven Jackson back against a less-than-stellar run defense (ranked 23rd), so they shouldn’t have to rely solely on the passing game. Add one of the worst defenses in the league (ranked 24th v. the pass and 29th v. the run) to their offensive woes and you have the answer to the “Why are the Falcons so bad” question. The Bills are a better team with EJ Manuel at the helm, which only improves their 28th-ranked pass game, and having him back also bolsters the 5th-ranked run game, which already yields the two-headed, but somewhat banged-up, monster that is Jackson/Spiller. The weather could get nasty, and the Bills are a tough team at home anyway, so they should take care of Atlanta.
St. Louis Rams (+8) @ San Francisco 49ers (42): 49ers 28-20
4:05 PM, Candlestick Park, South San Francisco, CA (Weather: Warm, clear, mid-60s)
Reasons: The surging Rams defense is much improved lately, especially v. the pass (ranked 13th), giving up <18 ppg over their last four games (2W-2L); their offense has blasted off scoring an average of 40 ppg over their last two games, both wins. I’m not sure if it’ll be enough to win v. a tough 49ers team on the road this week, but I give them a better chance than I would have three weeks ago looking at the schedule. The 49ers got back on track last week v. the Natives after two straight tough losses (one robbery v. the Saints) and not only boast one of the league’s best run games (ranked 4th), but have one of the best overall defenses in the league and only get stronger with key players back. Colin Kaepernick should thrive v. this blitzing defense (ranked 21st v. the run), as should the run game (ranked 4th). Clemens should be under pressure all day, and a mediocre offense (ranked 23rd passing and 16th rushing) will have to rely on their surging defense on the road to pull this one off. No wonder Vegas has the 49ers giving eight points.
Denver Broncos (-5) @ Kansas City Chiefs (48.5): Broncos 28-24
4:25 PM, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, MO (Weather: Mild, clear, high 40s)
Reasons: In what should be game about two divisional rivals at 9-2 battling for the divisional lead has become a game about two decimated defenses. The once dominating Chiefs defense has suffered major injuries and after playing two high-octane offenses has dropped significantly in the defensive rankings. With key injuries to defensive linemen and a game just three weeks ago v. this defense the Broncos top-ranked passing game should thrive. The Broncos run game (ranked 12th) could roll as well, as they piled up over 200 rushing yards the week before v. the Patriots. The story could be the Broncos defense, which is one of the worst in the league v. the pass (ranked 30th) and only getting worse after key injures to the secondary. Alex Smith could have a break out game v. this Broncos defense, as their 5th ranked run defense could stymie Jamal Charles and the Chiefs 13th-ranked run game. The weather will not effect Manning this week as the Broncos take care of the banged up Chiefs team on as tough a road as there is.
Cincinnati Bengals (-1) @ San Diego Chargers (48): Bengals 27-24
4:25 PM, Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, CA (Weather: Sunny, clear, high 60s)
Reasons: The Chargers are coming off an incredible last-second win last week and the Bengals are coming off a bye week, so this game could go either way. The Bengals 10th-ranked pass game should exploit the Chargers 28th-ranked pass defense, the only real mismatch of the game. The Chargers 4th-ranked pass offense can be deadly and score in bunches, but the Bengals have one of the best overall defenses in the NFL (ranked 6th v. the pass and 10th v. the run) and get after it. Both run games are up and down, and both teams have respectable run defenses, so this one should be won in the air. The Bengals are the better team and should win, but they’re bad on the road (2-4).
New York Giants (-1) @ Washington Natives (45.5): Natives 24-20
8:30 PM, FedEx Field, Washington, DC (Weather: Cold, clear, high 30s)
Reasons: The one major mismatch in this game could be the Natives top-ranked run game were it not for the Giants resurging run defense (ranked 7th). Besides that these teams are mired in mediocrity and headed south. The Giants may have been partially expecting this, but the Natives had Super Bowl aspirations, which are not happening anytime soon, let alone this season. Both of these teams have nearly been eliminated from playoff contention as the Eagles and Cowboys surge, and both teams seem to have nothing but pride to play for. In other words, this is not going to be an epic game. Maybe RGIII’s dad will come onto the field this week to offer his coaching advice. Both teams get to 4-8 Sunday in one of the tougher games to call this week.
New Orleans Saints (+5) @ Seattle Seahawks (47): Seahawks 30-24
Monday, 8:30 PM, Century Link Field, Seattle, WA (Weather: Cold, mid-30s, slight chance of rain/snow)
Reasons: A potential NFC Championship preview these two are the best in the NFC along with San Francisco. Both teams have great offenses anchored by the pass (NO, ranked 2nd) or the run (SEA, ranked 3rd), both teams average 28 ppg, and both teams have two of the best pass defenses in the NFL (NO: ranked 3rd; SEA: ranked 2nd). A recent suspension of Walter Thurman is a big advantage Saints, who’ll look to exploit the Seahawks defense any way they can. I don’t think they will as the Seahawks 12th man makes up for Thurman. Dome teams continue to suck outdoors.