PIT (6-5-1) @ MIN (5-7) | THU 8:20 PM ET | FOX/NFL Network/Amazon
Perhaps it’s because both teams have played on Christmas in recent years, but Steelers-Vikings feels like a prototypical December matchup—though I was surprised to see the defenses rank at the bottom of the league in terms of yards per carry allowed this season (4.8 for Pittsburgh; 4.7 for Minnesota). Injury issues are a possible explanation, and the Vikings will at least have Anthony Barr (hamstring) back in the lineup on defense, while Dalvin Cook (shoulder) sounds like he will give it a go on offense despite not being projected to return until Week 15. The Steelers aren’t as fortunate with Joe Haden (foot) remaining out, so I’m interested in their defensive game plan to stop Justin Jefferson since they don’t have to worry about also covering Adam Thielen (ankle) at wide receiver. Maybe the return of Cook will be enough to keep Minnesota from falling too far behind in the NFC wild card race, but Najee Harris will be difficult to stop, and concern about Kirk Cousins and the Vikings in primetime still lingers with a loss to backup quarterback Cooper Rush in their only 2021 opportunity before tonight.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
DAL (8-4) @ WAS (6-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Washington has won four games in a row, and they control things in the division down two games with both matchups against Dallas still to go. Dak Prescott and the passing attack of the Cowboys hasn’t been sharp during their 2-3 stretch, so they need to get back on track this weekend against a defense Prescott dominated with a 7:1 touchdown-interception ratio back in 2019. Also, the extra time to rest will hopefully have Ezekiel Elliott—clearly at less than 100% with a knee injury—feeling more like himself, and Amari Cooper should have a full-time role after sporadic playing time in his return from COVID-19 last Thursday night. Defensively, the increased usage of superstar rookie Micah Parsons as a pass rusher has resulted in 7.5 sacks over the past five games, and it’s a scary thought for the rest of the NFC East that him and Trevon Diggs will be creating headaches for years to come. It’d be a surprise if the Cowboys didn’t play significantly better than they did on Thanksgiving of 2020 when Washington scored 41 points, and the focus needs to be stopping Antonio Gibson (122.5 rushing yards per game and four touchdowns against Dallas as a rookie).
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
JAX (2-10) @ TEN (8-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Urban Meyer seems to have the faith of ownership and has said he’s committed to staying in Jacksonville, but as I said earlier this season, the experiment should end if the franchise has any doubts. From an outside perspective, it’s almost as if Trevor Lawrence—widely regarded as one of the best quarterback prospects in history—isn’t even in the league, as he’s been handcuffed with a directionless offense, and the No. 1 overall pick has thrown for zero touchdowns in four of the past five weeks (with zero multi-score games since his debut, which was a blowout loss). At this point in the season, changing things up by having Lawrence used more as a runner might not be worth the injury risk, but it’s something to consider if only to build some semblance of direction/confidence for 2022. I doubt Tennessee comes out flat this week with losses to the Jets and Texans already on their résumé.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
SEA (4-8) @ HOU (2-10) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Seattle set the tone early in last week’s win over San Francisco with a 70-yard touchdown by Travis Homer on a fake punt, and in general, they relied on a more deliberate, balanced offense to move the ball. A matchup in Houston could be an opportunity for Russell Wilson and the downfield passing attack to be re-unlocked, but the Seahawks can’t get reckless by going away from what worked in Week 13, and Rashaad Penny becoming more of a factor would give opponents—namely the Rams and Cardinals down the stretch—another player to prepare for to take the pressure off D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. It’s a prototypical trap game for an early kickoff coming off a hard-fought victory, but facing rookie Davis Mills, Seattle should be able to take care of business with no room for another slipup if they want to have a shot at sneaking into the postseason.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
LV (6-6) @ KC (8-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Raiders had finally solved Kansas City last season with 35.5 points per game in a series split, but no Jon Gruden and potentially no Darren Waller (knee) puts them in a difficult spot against a team they lost to by 27 points less than a month ago. Similar to the Broncos last Sunday night, though, remaining committed to Josh Jacobs and the running game is the No. 1 key to having a chance, and Derek Carr can keep the offense in the game if the other side of the ball plays better than they did in Week 10 when Patrick Mahomes went off for 406 yards and five touchdowns. In that loss, Las Vegas did the opposite of what you need to do in order to slow down Mahomes by allowing Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to dominate, but maybe the possible return of cornerback Trayvon Mullen (toe) would give them a better shot in the rematch. Overall, it might take until 2022 for the rivalry to be back on more even footing—and we might even see Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney leading the Silver and Black if being a guest of team owner Mark Davis last week and having FaceTime conversations with Carr is any indication.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
NO (5-7) @ NYJ (3-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
People do realize that Taysom Hill was playing with an injured finger on his throwing hand last week, right? There were certainly big plays left on the field for New Orleans, but Hill’s toughness should be commended, and the outcome versus Dallas could have been different if he was at 100% all game. The Saints likely getting Alvin Kamara (knee) back in the lineup will be a huge boost, and based on how the Jets covered last week against Philadelphia, the offense should be able to put up points and build momentum ahead of a huge battle with the Buccaneers next Sunday night. However, New York can’t be overlooked, and Zach Wilson might be able to thrive against the heavy man coverage that he’ll face, particularly if Elijah Moore can continue to create separation; on the other hand, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will be hoping to fool the rookie passer, and the talent of the Saints should be enough to snap their five-game losing streak.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
ATL (5-7) @ CAR (5-7) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
It must be weird for divisional opponents like the Falcons to get away from Cam Newton for a couple of years and then suddenly have him back on the Panthers—but Matt Ryan is 9-6 versus his fellow former NFL MVP, and both sides know how big Sunday’s game is to keep playoff hopes alive. In the first matchup this season, Carolina’s 19-13 victory was powered by four field goals by Zane Gonzalez, so they’ll be expecting better success capping off drives with Newton at quarterback thanks to his ability as a runner. For the Atlanta offense, it’s a shame Calvin Ridley (personal) has been away from the team for most of the season, as Ryan can’t waste too many years at the end of his career, and the NFC remains very open for the non-elite teams to make a run at one of the final two wild card spots. By late Sunday afternoon, the Panthers should be the squad in better position because of their defense.
Winner: Carolina Panthers
BAL (8-4) @ CLE (6-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Coming off the bye week, the Browns have no excuse to not be more prepared for the Ravens than they were in Week 12, and failing to feed Nick Chubb every week—including a combined 24 carries in close losses to the Steelers (15-10) and Ravens (16-10)—is indefensible. Kevin Stefanski built up a lot of goodwill for turning around the franchise in 2020, so the offense will ideally get back to basics in perhaps their final shot to compete for the AFC North, and they’ve had plenty of time to scheme up the best way to run the ball by game planning for the same opponent since November 22. On defense, Cleveland’s pass rush can again make life difficult for Lamar Jackson amid an ice-cold stretch dating back to Miami’s primetime win over Baltimore, and rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah should be the x-factor after 13 total tackles containing Jackson in the first matchup. Assuming the Browns don’t put too much on Baker Mayfield and commit to Chubb, I’ll take them at home.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
NYG (4-8) @ LAC (7-5) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | FOX
Not many will be giving Jake Fromm a chance to beat the Chargers this week if Daniel Jones (neck) and Mike Glennon (concussion) are both out, but I think he’s a tremendous fit for what Joe Judge wants at quarterback as a poised, intelligent player that will take what the defense gives him and try to limit turnovers. That being said, Fromm is sort of being thrown into the fire with essentially one week of practice and zero NFL experience against one of the league’s top pass defenses, and the Giants remain banged up with Kenny Golladay (rib), Kadarius Toney (oblique), and Sterling Shepard (quad) all on the injury report. Los Angeles is also facing multiple potential absences with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Chris Harris Jr. all on the COVID-19 list, but Justin Herbert has shown the ability to make plays no matter who he’s throwing to. While I believe it might be close if the Chargers aren’t a full strength, they should have the edge in terms of both talent and coaching.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
DET (1-10-1) @ DEN (6-6) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | FOX
I was starting to feel not-so-optimistic about the Lions deciding to stick with Jared Goff beyond this season (which I believe they undoubtedly should), but Sunday’s win could be a shift for the franchise, and my guess is that Dan Campbell is a loyal coach that wants a battle-tested quarterback leading the offense.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 5, 2021
When Detroit finally adds more firepower on the outside for Goff, it will be like lowering the difficulty of a video game. They can win a slugfest this week, but Denver is playing for more to stay in the AFC playoff race.
Winner: Denver Broncos
SF (6-6) @ CIN (7-5) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
San Francisco and Cincinnati both had difficult losses for different reasons last week, and to add injury to insult, respective starting running backs Elijah Mitchell (concussion/knee) and Joe Mixon (neck/illness) haven’t practiced yet this week and could be out on Sunday. Anyone that says running backs don’t matter doesn’t know what they’re talking about, as Mitchell is a tone-setter (based on how physical he runs) with track-star speed, while Mixon is probably the best player on Cincinnati’s roster (the Chargers—usually content to let opponents run on them—selling out to stop Mixon last week says all you need to know about the respect opponents have for him). The Bengals haven’t shown much concern about Mixon’s status, but if he’s unable to go, it’d be a great time for Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase to reignite their early-season connection, and Tyler Boyd notably caught ten-of-ten targets for 122 yards against the Niners a couple of years ago. Deebo Samuel (groin) returning for San Francisco combined with Mixon being out for Cincinnati would have me changing the pick, but I’ll lean towards the home team for now.
Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
BUF (7-5) @ TB (9-3) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Aside from Tom Brady’s return to New England, Bills-Buccaneers was my most highly anticipated game of the season when the schedule released, as it’s been my Super Bowl prediction for each of the past two years. Things are admittedly not looking good for Buffalo right now (they could very well be pushed to “IN THE HUNT” for the AFC playoff picture with a loss), but they are too good on both sides of the ball to get completely derailed. Tampa Bay playing more zone coverage this season might be a bad matchup for the Bills based on some of their 2021 struggles, but it’s not like Josh Allen also hasn’t absolutely torched zone defenses in the past, and I think we’ll see more designed runs out of Buffalo’s quarterback after being underused there in the loss to the Patriots. My bigger concern on Sunday for the Bills is the loss of Tre’Davious White (knee) being felt versus Brady, as the GOAT will be much more comfortable finding matchups to target without having to worry about an All-Pro cornerback on one side of the field. It would have been cool to see if TB12 would have a throwback, cold-weather performance if the game came in Buffalo, but nonetheless, his record versus the former division rival speaks for itself at an unbelievable 32-3.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
CHI (4-8) @ GB (9-3) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
Speaking of all-time great quarterback owning a rival (his words), Aaron Rodgers will take on Chicago this week in primetime, and I fear we might get another Sunday Night Football game that’s not really in question from start to finish. To have a chance at an upset, the Bears need to again get off the field on third down similar to the first matchup (when Green Bay was two-of-eight converting), but even that wasn’t enough to avoid a ten-point loss (at home) with Justin Fields playing well enough overall, and now the Packers might be getting big-time reinforcements if Jaire Alexander (shoulder) and Za’Darius Smith (back) are activated to boost a defense that was already allowing the fifth-fewest points per game in the league (20.2). I’m not getting my hopes up about a close game, and the bye week should have Rodgers feeling better as he deals with a fractured toe.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
LAR (8-4) @ ARI (10-2) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
Although a Sony Michel-led offense was able to get the ship righted for the Rams in Week 13, I don’t think a victory over the Jaguars is quite enough to say they’re back among the NFC’s elite, so a lot of questions will be answered against the Cardinals on Monday night. Matthew Stafford in particular needs to show that he can a) beat top opponents and b) win in primetime—where he is 8-16 for his career, including a couple of terrible outings versus Tennessee and San Francisco last month. The Cardinals are getting healthy and have rolled to an 8-1 record with Kyler Murray this season (remember, the lone loss came on the final play versus Green Bay), and the quarterback run being a factor coming off a 59-yard, two-touchdown game for Murray is another weapon opponents need to stop if it continues (Arizona’s starter had averaged 18.4 rushing yards per game before Week 13). The “soft” label from outside the building might give Los Angeles a push for what is expected to be a very competitive game, but the Cardinals have done much more to prove they’re the real deal in 2021.
Winner: Arizona Cardinals