We’ve hit the final four weeks of the NFL season. As of Thursday afternoon, all games are still on schedule. The weather doesn’t appear too gnarly in any matchup for the calendar being mid-December.
Last week: 10-5
New England Patriots at Los Angeles Rams (-5.5): The Rams are the better team, but the better team doesn’t always win. And I don’t expect them to in this week’s interesting kickoff game. Between Jared Goff’s inconsistent play and the illustrious history of Bill Belichick’s Patriots on Thursday nights (10-1), it’s a tall task.
New England spent the week in California after beating the Chargers last week, so they’re not going to be lagged by travel or unfamiliar with the field conditions. If the Rams can run the ball effectively, they’ve got a good chance to not only win but also cover, but they have sputtered on the ground lately.
Patriots 22, Rams 20
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills (-2.5): The Bills being favored over the one-loss Steelers is a bit surprising, even with Pittsburgh coming off their loss and an unusual schedule thanks to the Ravens’ COVID-19 issues. It’s a gut check for Pittsburgh and Mike Tomlin, no question.
I think the Steelers bounce back from the funky scheduling, the dropped passes, the defensive lapses and the injury to Bud Dupree. Buffalo is a very well-balanced team, however. Josh Allen is coming off a fantastic performance on Monday night in shredding the 49ers defense. The Bills defense is average overall but does a good job preventing the big play, and the big play seems to be the only way the Steelers can score.
It makes for a game where the smallest details will matter. A holding penalty here, a missed block on a punt return there. The Bills have been doing those things better of late, and it is just enough to hold off the Steelers in a Sunday night matchup that will be worth staying up to watch.
Bills 20, Steelers 17
Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins (+7.5): The Dolphins are a feel-good story under head coach Brian Flores. But their offensive style doesn’t match up well with the explosive Chiefs, who can score from anywhere and defy conventional defending with their speed and MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes dealing throws that others can’t even attempt. The Dolphins will have to take the yoke off Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, asking him to do more than not just lose a game. I don’t think Tua or his team are up to that task quite yet.
Chiefs 30, Dolphins 20
Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-6.5): It’s hard to know what to make of the Buccaneers coming out of a bye. Some weeks they look like viable Super Bowl contenders. In others, they look like a poorly coordinated collection of talent disinterested in winning. And the same can be said, with less volatility of late, of the Vikings.
The key here is Tampa Bay’s ability to impact Kirk Cousins throwing to Justin Jefferson down the field. When that’s working for the Vikings, it makes Dalvin Cook even more lethal as a backfield weapon. Interestingly, the Buccaneers defense has performed much worse at home. I expect that to continue, though not quite enough to give up the win. I love the Vikings with the points. Straight up? Not so much…
Buccaneers 33, Vikings 30
Indianapolis Colts at Las Vegas Raiders (+2.5): This is a massive game in the AFC playoff picture. The Colts currently sit a game up on the Raiders in the Wild Card race, and the Raiders cannot afford to fall farther behind. Indianapolis is also chasing the AFC South title, tied with Tennessee at 8-4.
Las Vegas has been living on the edge lately, playing their worst football as the weather turns colder. They’ve lost two of three and needed Gregg Williams sacrificing his coaching career with the Jets to beat a winless New York team last week. Maybe they’ll draw some inspiration from the miracle comeback, but I’m more concerned that they needed a miracle comeback against the worst team in the league. The Colts will not beat themselves like that.
Colts 27, Raiders 20
Houston Texans at Chicago Bears (+1.5): The Bears have lost six games in a row since opening 5-1. Everyone focuses on their QB dysfunction with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles taking turns at running coach Matt Nagy’s predictable offense into a grinding halt, but the Chicago defense has also fallen off. The pass rush and back-end coverage are playing poorly, and that’s a problem against Deshaun Watson and the Texans, who are 4-4 since Romeo Crennel took over. The Bears offense isn’t capable of outsourcing what the Chicago defense allows against good offenses, and the Texans happen to have one of those.
Texans 29, Bears 27
Denver Broncos at Carolina Panthers (-3.5): The Panthers got a chance to regroup in their inordinately late bye week. It should allow Christian McCaffrey to return against his father’s old team. It’s the rested defense that will be more critical to the Panthers’ win, however. Look for a big game from EDGE Brian Burns, whose speed is a real problem for Denver’s blocking.
Panthers 24, Broncos 14
Dallas Cowboys at Cincinnati Bengals (+3.5): Andy Dalton returns to Cincinnati with a chance to ensure the Bengals get a better draft pick in 2021. Both these teams are playing out the string, though the Cowboys might not be as acutely aware of their sorry fate. Dallas has some truly dreadful linebacker and safety play against the run, but the Bengals and their own terrible offensive line and weak run game are about the least capable team to exploit it. Expect Dalton to have a big night and serve a little cold revenge on his old team.
Cowboys 33, Bengals 20
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars (+8.5): In any other season we’d be marveling at how the Jaguars have lost 11 games in a row and have been largely uncompetitive in many of them as they cycle through three starting QBs. But the winless Jets exist, and that allows the Jaguars to stink in relative anonymity. Jacksonville has given up exactly 27 points in four of the last five games. Consistency!
Titans 27, Jaguars 13
Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants (+2.5): Believe it or not, the Giants have more wins in the last 10 weeks than the Cardinals do. So much for narratives. New York’s well-coordinated defense is equipped to slow down Kyler Murray, though inefficient play from Arizona’s own offense has done a pretty good job of that lately. It would not surprise me at all if the Cardinals have a death-gasp game in them and score a blowout win, but the way New York is finding itself, the G-Men are the smarter play.
Giants 23, Cardinals 21
New York Jets at Seattle Seahawks (+13.5): Nope. Not gonna happen. Not in Seattle. Next.
Seahawks 28, Jets 9
Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers (+2.5): Atlanta has been a solid team under interim coach Raheem Morris. The Falcons are 4-3 since he took over, with two of those losses to the NFC-leading Saints. They should have little trouble with the self-destructive Chargers, who appear to have lost the joie de vivre of playing as the losses mount. Good test to see if Morris and his crew can handle relative success as he attempts to earn the head coaching job permanently. I think they pass the outdoor, late-afternoon test.
Falcons 24, Chargers 21
Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions (+7.5): The Lions got their interim coach boost in Week 13 with a cathartic win over the Bears. Now the reality sets back in for Detroit and coach Darrell Bevell and his injury-riddled lineup. The Packers offense should have little trouble exploiting the slowest defense in the league. The Lions will be more spirited and competitive, but they don’t have the horses to run with the Packers if Green Bay brings even it’s “B” game.
Packers 36, Lions 27
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles (+6.5): Jalen Hurts will officially start for the Eagles at QB, and that should help reduce the team-killing mistakes that Carson Wentz was making. But Hurts doesn’t play on the offensive line or wide receiver or defensive back, and the home team is woefully deficient in all those spots. The Saints are not, and that won’t help Hurts.
Saints 25, Eagles 21
Washington Football Team at San Francisco 49ers (-3.5): The 49ers nightmare season continues. Rendered homeless by the pandemic, they’re playing a home game in Arizona with about half of their projected regular starters sidelined. Washington is brimming with confidence after knocking off the Steelers, and their defensive front has given trouble to better offenses than this 49ers edition. I don’t buy the Niners being the better, favored team, not at this point of the season.
Football Team 20, 49ers 16
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns (+1.5): The Cleveland Browns are 9-3, winners of four in a row. They're at home. Quarterback Baker Mayfield is playing the best football of his NFL career. They have the NFL's top 1-2 punch in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to lean upon.
The Baltimore Ravens, meanwhile, have dropped four of their last six since their bye week to fall to 7-5. Their roster has been ravaged by COVID-19 issues and injuries in key spots. And while they're getting healthier on those fronts, it's still not a team trending in the right direction.
Trust your eyes and not the ancient history that was Baltimore’s Week 1 win, a 38-6 destruction of the Browns. These are not the same teams. It’s Cleveland’s chance to prove it.
Browns 27, Ravens 21