With the season now at the three-quarter mark, we are starting to see some clarity at the top, but the middle of both the AFC and NFC continues to be muddled with mediocrity.
In the AFC, the Bengals, Broncos and Patriots are all 10-2. There is quite a drop off after that. The Chiefs and Jets currently occupy the two wild card spots, but that is absolutely subject to change. The Steelers, Bills and Texans are all still hanging around. Of the five teams, the most threatening of the bunch looks to be Pittsburgh, as long as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is healthy.
Meanwhile in the NFC, the unbeaten Panthers and high flying Cardinals rule the roost. The drop off is even more dramatic here than in the AFC. The Packers and Vikings both have appealing looking 8-4 records, but each have quite glaring flaws. The Seahawks may be the biggest threat to either Carolina or Arizona at this point in time.
By far and away the best match-up this weekend is an AFC North tilt between the Steelers and Bengals in Cincinnati. This game always brings out the best in both teams, and this game should be no different. With a Bengals win, they will wrap up the AFC North title. A Steelers win will not only keep their division hopes alive, but also keep them right in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race.
Minnesota Vikings (8-4) @ Arizona Cardinals (10-2)
The Vikings knew they’d be in for a challenge when the Seahawks came to town last week. And unfortunately they were not up for the challenge as they were throttled by Seattle 38-7, with their only points coming off a kick-return touchdown. The NFL’s leading rusher Adrian Peterson was held to a measly 18 yards on just eight carries, and when Peterson can’t get going, unsurprisingly the Vikings offense struggles when Teddy Bridgewater has to do it all.
Winners of five straight going into a game on the road against the Rams, the Cardinals dispatched their division rivals with relative ease, cruising to a 27-3 win. Without running backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, the Cardinals did not skip a beat, and in fact, their running game looked to actually have a little more juice with rookie David Johnson starting, as he amassed 120 total yards and a touchdown.
Game Pick: Cardinals – The Cardinals are in cruise control right now, and the smooth ride shouldn’t stop this week at home against the Vikings. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they will be missing their top three defenders again (Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith) which automatically puts them behind the eight ball. Throw in the fact that the Cardinals strength on defense is stopping the run, and the Vikings will likely struggle again to score much.
Seattle Seahawks (7-5) @ Baltimore Ravens (4-8)
There were some who believed the Seahawks were in trouble after blowing a lead at home three weeks ago to the Cardinals. However, three straight wins later, and with Russell Wilson arguably playing some of the best football of his young career, the Seahawks are right in the thick of the NFC Wild Card race. With a very favorable schedule to finish the season, it would be quite a big disappointment if they didn’t make it to the big dance.
It’s a testament to head coach John Harbaugh that the Ravens have managed to win four games this season. They almost managed win number five against the Dolphins last week, but came up short after Justin Tucker missed a field goal late in the fourth quarter that would have put the Ravens on top. Rookie running back Javorius Allen was the star of the afternoon for Baltimore, racking up 170 total yards of offense and a touchdown.
Game Pick: Seahawks – The Seahawks typically don’t shine on the road, but they bucked that trend last week and should buck that trend again against a Ravens team that is just playing out the string. Seattle’s offense is firing on all cylinders and their defense is again playing at a high level. If the Ravens win this one, it would qualify as a major upset.
Atlanta Falcons (6-6) @ Carolina Panthers (12-0)
The Falcons continue to spiral out of control after a tough four point loss to the Buccaneers on the road last Sunday. Running back Devonta Freeman was unable to get on track and Matt Ryan continued to struggle as the Falcons offense remains stuck in neutral. What once looked like a surefire playoff team under new head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons have now lost five straight games and the playoffs are looking more like a pipe dream at this point.
On the other end of the spectrum in this game is the Panthers. The Saints game them a bit of a scare last week, but as is often the case, the Panthers found a way to win. This time, it was time for Cam Newton to shine again as he passed for 331 yards and five touchdowns in a 41-38 win over New Orleans. With another win this week, the Panthers will secure a first round playoff bye.
Game Pick: Panthers – The Panthers continue to play at a high level, while the Falcons continue to flounder. Will that continue this week? More than likely, that answer to that questions is probably yes. It’s just hard to envision the Panthers losing at home this week to an Atlanta squad that can’t seem to get their season back on track.
Washington Redskins (5-7) @ Chicago Bears (5-7)
The Redskins had a chance to make a statement on Monday Night against the Cowboys at home, but in true NFC East fashion, they fell flat on their face, losing 19-16 to Dallas. It was an ugly game, but one Washington definitely had a chance to win. They’re still in first place in the division, albeit they are sharing that division lead with two other teams.
It looked like the Bears were going to grab a hard fought victory at home against the 49ers to bring their record to .500 and keep them in the NFC playoff hunt. However kicker Robbie Gould whiffed on a potential game winning 36 yard field goal (his second miss of the game), and then lost in overtime to San Francisco, dropping the Bears to an unsightly 1-5 at home.
Game Pick: Bears – The Bears were a little flat after a big win in Green Bay, and perhaps looked past the 49ers thinking it would be an easy victory. Expect them to not make that same mistake this week against the Redskins. Yes, the Bears have struggled at home, but the Redskins have also struggled on the road. Something has to give here, and expect the home side to come away victorious.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) @ Cincinnati Bengals (10-2)
The Steelers crushed the Colts at home last Sunday night 45-10 thanks to 364 yards passing and four touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger. Even without star running back LeVeon Bell, the Steelers offense has been humming along at a blistering pace the past few weeks, racking up points at will. Whether it’s Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant or the less heralded Markus Wheaton, it’s hard for opposing secondaries to match up against these three wide outs.
Not surprisingly, the Bengals handled the floundering Browns with ease 37-3. To be honest, the game was pretty much over after Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green from 23 yards out to make it 14-0 early in the second quarter. With the Bengals in control of the game, Jeremy Hill was able to get in a bit of a groove, something that has eluded him for most of the year. The Bengals are going to need more of that from him as the sledding gets tougher down the stretch.
Game Pick: Bengals – This is a very difficult game to call. On the one hand, the Steelers have a red hot offense that is going to be tough for the Bengals and their banged up secondary to contain. On the other hand, the Bengals have found their groove again after a brief two game losing streak and may be the most well rounded team in the NFL. And they already beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh this year. It will be close, but take the Bengals to win and clinch the AFC North title.
San Francisco 49ers (4-8) @ Cleveland Browns (2-10)
Thanks to a 71 yard bomb from Blaine Gabbert to Torrey Smith, the 49ers were able to win their first road game of the season in Chicago 26-20 over the Bears. After completely flaming out as a first round flop in Jacksonville, Gabbert has looked rejuvenated in San Francisco and legitimately may have a shot at being the 49ers starting quarterback next season as well.
It’s been another season to forget for Cleveland fans, as the Browns continue to bumble along to another losing season. The latest Browns defeat came at the hands of the Bengals last weekend, as Austin Davis was in way over his head at quarterback. Coach Mike Pettine is going to go back to mercurial Johnny Manziel at the controls this week after sitting him as a result of his off field behavior during the Browns bye week.
Game Pick: Browns – Take away a 44 yard touchdown run by Gabbert and the game winning touchdown in overtime to Smith, and the 49ers overall offensive showing in Chicago was quite pitiful. The Browns were as flat as humanly possible last weekend, but should get a bit of a spark with Manziel at quarterback at home. Take the Browns at home to end their seven game losing streak.
Indianapolis Colts (6-6) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (4-8)
The Cinderella story of Matt Hasslebeck came to screeching halt last Sunday night as the Colts were steamrolled on the road against the Steelers. Luckily for them, the Texans lost as well so they are still sitting in a tie for first place in the AFC South. They are hoping to get Andrew Luck back next week, but in the meantime, they’ll have to find another way to win without him this week.
The last two weeks the Jaguars had a glorious opportunity to stay in the thick of the AFC South playoff chase, but as most young teams still trying to find their way often do, they weren’t able to get the job done. They lost two very winnable games against the Chargers two weeks ago and against the Titans last week 42-39, despite five touchdown passes from Blake Bortles.
Game Pick: Colts – The Jaguars might have the edge at quarterback, but their advantages pretty much end there. Bortles will give the Jags a chance, but the Colts will continue to dominate this series, coming out on top and maintaining serve atop the AFC South.
San Diego Chargers (3-9) @ Kansas City Chiefs (7-5)
Injuries continued to take their toll on the Chargers as they floundered again at home against the Broncos, falling 17-3. Already playing without Keenan Allen and playing with a severely banged up Maclom Floyd, the Chargers lost Stevie Johnson and Dontrelle Inman to injury during the game. Philip Rivers is an elite level quarterback, but he’s running out of weapons behind a beat up offensive line. There’s only so much he can do.
They needed a full 60 minutes to do it, but the Chiefs managed to outlast the Raiders 34-20 in Oakland last Sunday afternoon to extend their winning streak to six games. The game was actually quite close until the Chiefs racked up 20 points in the fourth quarter to pull away late. Alex Smith continues to provide solid, yet unspectacular play at quarterback, doing just enough and not turning the ball over.
Game Pick: Chiefs – These are two teams going in different directions. The Chargers are just hoping to make it through each game without suffering any more major injuries, while the Chiefs right now look like a team that nobody wants to play. The Chiefs shouldn’t have too much difficulty dispatching the Chargers at home.
Tennessee Titans (3-9) @ New York Jets (7-5)
The Titans finally broke their 11 game home winless streak thanks to a superlative performance at quarterback by rookie Marcus Mariota, both through the air and on the ground. Mariota passed for 268 yards and three touchdowns, while also racking up 112 yards on the ground, including a highlight reel 87 yard run in a wild fourth quarter that saw the Jaguars and Titans combine for 41 points.
Despite being without star defensive back Darrelle Revis, the Jets were able to come out on top in the battle of New York over the Giants 23-20 in overtime. Ryan Fitzpatrick lit up the Giants secondary throwing for a whopping 390 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker both cracked the century mark in receiving yards, and continue to quietly be one of the best receiver duos in the league.
Game Pick: Jets – With the way Fitzpatrick has been firing the ball around the field, it’s hard to imagine the much maligned Titans defense standing much of a chance in this one. Throw in the fact the Jets front seven will likely wreak havoc on the Titans offensive line and you have a mismatch on both side of the ball. The Jets shouldn’t have too much difficulty moving to 8-5.
Buffalo Bills (6-6) @ Philadelphia Eagles (5-7)
The Bills managed to hold off the Texans 30-21 last Sunday at home. They can often be a hard team to get a read on, but when their offense gets into a groove, they can be very difficult to stop. Running back LeSean McCoy is over his early season injury struggles and playing at an incredibly high level, while sophomore receiver Sammy Watkins is on an absolute tear, hauling in bomb after bomb from Tyrod Taylor.
After two straight pitiful performances that saw them give up 90 combined points, there weren’t a whole lot of people who gave the Eagles much of a change against the Patriots, especially on the road. But that’s why they play the games. Thanks to a complete performance from their offense, defense and special teams, the Eagles pulled off a huge upset, taking out the Patriots 35-28.
Game Pick: Bills – This is one of the more intriguing games of the week. Both teams have shown a tendency to be very Jekyll and Hyde all season long, so it’s hard to predict just what the outcome will be, especially considering both teams have a lot to play for. This game will likely come down to the wire, but expect the visiting Bills to emerge as the winner.
Detroit Lions (4-8) @ St. Louis Rams (4-8)
The Lions were oh so close to moving to 5-7 and sticking around in the NFC Wild Card race. Unfortunately, thanks to a 61 yard desperation heave at the buzzer by Aaron Rodgers that hit pay dirt, the Lions fell to Green Bay at home last Thursday. The Lions at one point were up 20-0 in the third quarter, but couldn’t hold on.
It continues to go from bad to worse for the Rams, who dropped their fifth straight game 27-3 to the Cardinals at home. They continue to get practically nothing from the quarterback position, limiting what Todd Gurley can do. Coach Jeff Fisher fired offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti this week and replaced him with Rob Boras. Unfortunately it’s likely too little too late for St. Louis.
Game Pick: Lions – Don’t expect too many fireworks in this game. It will be interesting to see how the Lions will respond to such a devastating loss last week, while it will be interesting to see if the Rams will get any kind of spark from the offensive coordinator switch. The Rams have just looked so out of it lately that it’s hard to pick them right now, so take the Lions to take this one on the road.
New Orleans Saints (4-8) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6)
The Saints went toe to toe with the unbeaten Panthers at home last week, and almost knocked Carolina from the ranks of the undefeated, but ultimately came up short losing by a field goal. The Saints defense continues to be a huge problem area, despite the change at defensive coordinator from Rob Ryan to Dennis Allen. The Saints just plain and simple can’t stop the pass or the run, which puts them at a major disadvantage every week.
In what was more or less a make or break game for the Buccaneers, they emerged victorious at home over the Falcons last Sunday, squeaking out a 23-19 win thanks to some superb play from 2015 first overall pick Jameis Winston. Winston continues to make plays with both his arm and his legs and has the Bucs at 6-6 and with a legitimate shot at a playoff birth, something that didn’t seem likely at the beginning of the year.
Game Pick: Buccaneers – It’s becoming hard to pick against the Bucs, as they have really started to come into their own. They’re a very young team, but they are coming together at the right time. This game is by no means going to be a cake walk, but with the Saints defense is a mess, and they also will be without leading rusher Mark Ingram for the rest of the season. The Buccaneers will be 7-6 after this one.
Oakland Raiders (5-7) @ Denver Broncos (10-2)
Despite having a legitimate shot at beating the Chiefs last week, a sloppy performance cost the Raiders in a key divisional game that dropped Oakland to 5-7 and well behind the pack in the AFC Wild Card race. Quarterback Derek Carr unfortunately had his worst game of the season, throwing a season high three interceptions, including a back breaking pick six that was housed by former Raider Tyvon Branch in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos had a relatively easy time last week against the Chargers, riding their elite defense to a 17-3 win on the road in San Diego. Quarterback Brock Osweiler managed the game well and C.J. Anderson (who left the game with an injury) Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson managed to churn out a combined 100 yards on the ground to help control the flow of the game.
Game Pick: Broncos – The Raiders are much better than they showed last week, and should be to get up for a game against the division leading Broncos. They gave Denver a scare earlier in the season in Oakland, and might give them a scare again this time around, but the well balanced Broncos will still come out on top at home.
Dallas Cowboys (4-8) @ Green Bay Packers (8-4)
Don’t write off the Cowboys just yet. Thanks to four Dan Bailey field goals, including a game winning 54 yard boot with nine seconds left on the clock, Dallas came away with the win over the Redskins in Washington 19-16. Despite having a mediocre 4-8 record, the Cowboys are right in the hunt in the subpar NFC East, sitting just one game out of the three way tie atop the division.
It took a little bit of Rodgers to Rodgers magic, but the Packers will take wins anyway they can get them at this point in the sesason. A Hail Mary pass at the buzzer allowed Green Bay to sneak out of Detroit with a big victory and kept them in a first place tie atop the NFC North with the Vikings, whom the Packers will play in Week 17 in Green Bay to close out the regular season in a game that could very well decide the division winner.
Game Pick: Packers – Is this the week the Packers get back to dominating teams? On paper it appears as if this might be the week that it will happen. If this game were in Dallas, it might be a different story, but in Green Bay, it’s going to be very difficult for the Tony Romo-less Cowboys to win. The Packers will take this one.
New England Patriots (10-2) @ Houston Texans (6-6)
It doesn’t happen very often, but the Patriots have now dropped two straight games after getting dumped at home by the Eagles. Special teams blunders were the major culprit, but Tom Brady had trouble connecting with his receivers most of the afternoon, showing just how important stud tight end Rob Gronkowski is to the offense. He hasn’t been ruled out yet for this week, but at this point he’s looking doubtful to suit up.
The Texans four game winning streak came to an end in Buffalo against the Bills, but luckily for Houston, the Colts lost too, so they are still tied for top spot in the AFC South. The Texans were never totally out of the game, trading touchdowns with the Bills and had their chances to come out on top, but a blown coverage with just under two minutes remaining in the game led to a Charles Clay 40 yard touchdown reception to salt away the win for Buffalo.
Game Pick: Patriots – The Patriots are definitely in a vulnerable spot, having lost two in a row and being quite beat up offensively. But they still have Tom Brady, and it’s hard to envision them losing three games in a row. Throw in the fact that J.J. Watt likely won’t be at 100% for the Texans with a broken hand suffered in practice this week and the Patriots should snap their two game skid on Sunday night.
New York Giants (5-7) @ Miami Dolphins (5-7)
Unfortunately, the Giants lost their third straight game this past Sunday against the Jets 23-20 in overtime when Josh Brown missed his first field goal attempt of the season from 48 yards out. Fortunately though, the Giants still remain in good shape in the NFC East, in a three way tie for first place with the Eagles and Redskins at 5-7. The Giants have had a lot of close calls this season, but injuries and the inability to close out games in the fourth quarter have cost them.
It definitely wasn’t pretty. However a win is a win as the Dolphins edged out the Ravens 15-13 last week. All 15 of the Dolphins points came in the second quarter on a 38 yard touchdown catch by rookie DeVante Parker and a 22 yard interception return by defensive lineman Derrick Shelby. Ryan Tannehill passed for only 86 yards, but the team re-established their running game again as Lamar Miller rushed for 113 yards.
Game Pick: Giants – These teams may have similar records, but the Dolphins just barely defeated an injury ravaged Ravens squad last week. Simply put, the Giants are just the more talented team here. They are a little beat up, especially on the offensive line, but their wide receivers match up well against a Dolphins secondary that has underachieved this season. Expect Manning and Beckham to create some more magic on Monday Night Football.