SF (8-6) @ TEN (9-5) | THU 8:20 PM ET | NFL Network
The loss of Derrick Henry (foot) has really started to affect the Titans with a 1-3 stretch during which they’ve scored 14.8 points per game—and Ryan Tannehill has a 2:6 touchdown-interception ratio over that span. Fortunately, though, the offense will get A.J. Brown (shoulder) back from injured reserve tonight, and Julio Jones not being listed on the injury report after leaving last week’s game will at least have the passing attack in a much better position. The 49ers are beatable at cornerback if Tannehill is given time, so whether Tennessee can hold up in pass protection could be what decides the game one way or another. On the other side of the field, Jimmy Garoppolo has been one of the league’s top quarterbacks since Halloween, and the primary playmakers mostly staying healthy has been a big reason for it. At home, I’ll say the Titans can still come away with a close victory led by impact defenders Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard to pair with Brown’s return on offense.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
CLE (7-7) @ GB (11-3) | SAT 4:30 PM ET | FOX/NFL Network/Amazon
Green Bay’s defense has fallen off recently with 28+ points allowed in each of their past four games, but it hasn’t mattered for the most part with Aaron Rodgers again playing at an MVP level. Since the shocking loss to New Orleans in the opener, Rodgers has tossed 30 interceptions with just two interceptions, and for the offense in general, AJ Dillon becoming more of a factor in 2021 makes the Packers a greater threat than they were last season. On Christmas, the bruising second-year runner could be given an opportunity to shine on a national stage versus Nick Chubb for a cold-weather game (similar to when he rushed for 124 yards and two scores against Derrick Henry’s Titans last December), and Cleveland being without Myles Garrett (groin) would be a significant loss for their hopes of stopping Green Bay both on the ground and through the air. Perhaps Chubb will be able to power the Browns back into the AFC North race, but I have much more faith in Matt LaFleur than I do the coaching staff of Cleveland when it comes to putting together a winning game plan.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
IND (8-6) @ ARI (10-4) | SAT 8:15 PM ET | NFL Network
A main selling point for buying into Arizona this season has been their physicality despite the air-raid label under Kliff Kingsbury, but that will be tested on Christmas Night with Jonathan Taylor and the Colts coming to town. Indianapolis is 5-1 since the start of November, while the Cardinals have lost two of the past three games started by Kyler Murray—who has shown concerning body language when things don’t go his way. That said, I think the 30-12 loss to Detroit may play in Arizona’s favor if it allows them to focus up and get back to bullying opponents on both sides of the ball, and even without DeAndre Hopkins (knee), Murray doesn’t lack for weaponry with Christian Kirk, A.J. Green, Rondale Moore, and Zach Ertz (not to mention James Conner and Chase Edmonds at running back). Still, we know the Colts are the physical team that can run through opponents behind Taylor and a dominant offensive line, so I believe they’ll continue rolling ahead of January football.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
NYG (4-10) @ PHI (7-7) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Jake Fromm was excellent off the bench for the Giants in his NFL debut last week—showing all the traits you want in a quarterback with accuracy, poise, decisiveness, and the ability to work through progressions. The doubters will say it was against a soft defense of the Cowboys with a two-score lead, but he completed a couple of throws down the field, and you have to use your eyes to evaluate the game; Fromm very clearly was putting the ball on the money to allow for run-after-catch opportunities, and he was unphased by multiple drops on his lone drive. As stated previously, Fromm feels like he could be a Joe Judge-style quarterback (ignoring the fact that Judge says he doesn’t know what a “gamer” is) because of his willingness to take what the defense gives him combined with impressive intangibles, so we’ll see if he gets a chance to prove it over the final three games. Assuming he starts, Fromm heads into a difficult road environment versus an opportunistic defense, but New York’s defense won the first matchup versus Philadelphia and will hope to do it again. For now, I’ll go with the Giants pull off the upset, and the pick will likely be changed if Kadarius Toney (oblique) doesn’t play.
Winner: New York Giants
LAR (10-4) @ MIN (7-7) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The play of Kirk Cousins in primetime has been talked about a lot, and although Minnesota has won under the lights in each of the past two weeks, neither would be classified as complete game for them, and we can’t forget about the loss to Cooper Rush and the Cowboys earlier this season. Focusing on the past two weeks in particular, Cousins’ three interceptions match his total from the other 12 games this year, and he’s completed just 26-of-55 passes (47.3%) without Adam Thielen (ankle) in the lineup. On the bright side, a win is a win, and it sounds like Thielen has a good chance of returning versus a Los Angeles defense that might not match up well with the offense of the Vikings (though Dalvin Cook being placed on the COVID-19 list makes it easier for them). Also, Mike Zimmer’s defense has often gotten the better of Matthew Stafford (including six wins in a row), but can he stop him on the Rams? One of Jared Goff’s best career games came in his only matchup against Minnesota with Sean McVay as head coach—throwing for 465 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-31 victory back in 2018. I don’t think Stafford will come close to reaching those numbers, but McVay might know how to best attack them, and the Rams have been at their best since they’ve began featuring Sony Michel with 20+ touches in all three December wins.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
BUF (8-6) @ NE (9-5) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The biggest mistake made by Buffalo in their loss to New England to start the month was not allowing Josh Allen to do more as a runner, and now losing the rematch would have the Bills’ AFC East reign last exactly one season. Allen being at less than 100% with a foot injury may complicate the game plan for Round 2, but I have no doubts that he will say he’ll run every play if needed, and it also helps that Buffalo finally created balance by feeding Devin Singletary with 22 carries last week. Most importantly, the weather being much less of a factor plays more to the advantage of the Bills because of their high-powered passing attack, and Allen can find a way to make it work without Cole Beasley (COVID-19) and maybe Emmanuel Sanders (knee). The bigger question is if Sean McDermott’s defense can stop the run, and the Patriots having Damien Harris (hamstring) would provide a substantial boost considering his success against them with 26 carries for 213 yards (8.2 YPC) and two touchdowns on 33 total snaps in two career meetings (100+ rushing yards in both games). I have gone back and forth with the pick, but Buffalo is more desperate in a crowded AFC playoff race.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
TB (10-4) @ CAR (5-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Chris Godwin (knee) is sadly done for the season and cannot be overstated as a loss for Tampa Bay’s chances of a repeat, but Antonio Brown’s return comes at the perfect time for them. While we haven’t seen AB since the second week of October, the Bucs were 5-0 with him in the lineup, and he was on a 93/1,338/13 pace with a somewhat modest 8.4 targets per game—I’d be shocked if that number didn’t climb into the double-digits for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. For this week, it will be up to Brown, Rob Gronkowski, and Ronald Jones II to lead the way, which is more than enough versus a Carolina team that’s gone 2-9 since a 3-0 start. First-time Pro Bowl selection Brian Burns was notably unable to touch Tom Brady in either of last season’s matchups (Tampa Bay won 31-17 and 46-23), so it’s up to him and Haason Reddick to make TB12 uncomfortable. The Panthers probably don’t have a shot if that doesn’t happen.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
JAX (2-12) @ NYJ (3-11) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Sunday will be the first matchup between No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson, and we can only hope the future is more favorable to the young signal-callers—both of whom haven’t had much of a chance to show their potential in 2021. From losing their top wideouts to an overall lack of talent for their respective teams, Lawrence and Wilson need more help, and it will be up to the Jaguars and Jets to find a way to build up the talent pool of the rosters heading into Year 2; unfortunately, I’m not sure what you’d point to in order to have any confidence about that being accomplished.
Winner: New York Jets
DET (2-11-1) @ ATL (6-8) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Jared Goff (COVID-19) could miss this week’s game, but his hot play has given the Lions confidence to win games, and they are a very dangerous opponent for the playoff-hopeful Falcons. Detroit didn’t even add any serious firepower, so Goff improving with a 9:2 touchdown-interception ratio and 2-2 record since getting former Rams teammate Josh Reynolds (acquired via Tennessee) in the lineup shows he can be a franchise quarterback if you just put some pieces around him. Against the Falcons, Tim Boyle is projected to draw the start based on the usual clearance timeline for COVID-19, but it’s asking a lot to expect he’ll make the most of a lack of firepower like Goff has. On the other side of the ball, Matt Ryan and Russell Gage have formed a very strong connection, and Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Pitts (847 yards) is on his way to a 1,000-yard campaign—with Mike Ditka’s rookie record of 1,076 yards by a tight end potentially in reach, too. I like Atlanta to keep their playoff hopes alive at home.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
LAC (8-6) @ HOU (3-11) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
I fully understand analytics and what Chargers head coach Brandon Staley has done this season, but that doesn’t mean I agree with it, and there seem to be some inconsistencies for his approach. The biggest example from last Thursday night’s loss to the Chiefs—in which Los Angeles passed up three field goal attempts—was the team not going for two with less than ten minutes left in the game, as a successful conversion would have made it a nine-point game rather than 21-13 (and 21-21 not even two minutes later once Kansas City’s offense hit the field). To use a Breaking Bad analogy, Staley is taking a “half measure” regarding his aggressiveness; if he says the strength of the team is the offense/quarterback, then why didn’t they try to make it a two-possession game when given an opportunity with a two-point conversion? I’m sure the analytic people have an explanation that can’t be wrong.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
BAL (8-6) @ CIN (8-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
A similar conversation about analytics can be had about Baltimore and their failed two-point conversion attempts for two of their losses this season. I get that maybe head coach John Harbaugh believed Green Bay would have the advantage in overtime because of Aaron Rodgers, but with the decision made, the Ravens could either win by conversion or onside kick resulting in another score (which didn’t happen). However, by opting for the kick to tie the game in regulation, you have arguably the greatest kicker in NFL history (Justin Tucker) as a weapon in overtime (if you get there; Rodgers did have some time left to put points on the board if it would have been 31-31), and Mason Crosby has been very inconsistent this year for the Packers. Furthermore, all the momentum was on Baltimore’s side—at home—and they lost on a conversion situation they’ve now converted two-of-eight times this season. At this point, I have more trust in Cincinnati getting the job done after they won the first matchup, 41-17.
Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
CHI (4-10) @ SEA (5-9) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | FOX
DeeJay Dallas had every right to be angry with Seattle’s season all but ending on a non-call versus the Rams, and Adrian Peterson was completely right on social media (perhaps his last glimmer of hope for a ring was taken away):
It’s suspicious that Los Angeles seems to always have officiating in their favor, and you can be sure the NFL—which is a business—desperately wants a winner in the city.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
PIT (7-6-1) @ KC (10-4) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Steelers-Chiefs feels like it should have been a Christmas Day matchup to me, but I’m still expecting an excellent game nonetheless, and the status of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce—both currently on the COVID-19 list—could realistically shape the landscape of the AFC playoff picture. A flip switched in the final ten minutes of Kansas City’s overtime win over the Chargers last week, so they’ll try to build on that whether or not everyone is active, and Patrick Mahomes had no issues with Pittsburgh’s defense in his only career matchup against them (326 yards and six touchdowns in a 42-37 win for his third career start). For all the defensive struggles of the Steelers both then and in 2021, though, Joe Haden’s return was a significant boost in their win over Tennessee, and T.J. Watt can wreck the game on Sunday versus Andrew Wylie at right tackle. On offense, the increased involvement of James Washington should continue, and I really like how Diontae Johnson matches up against the Chiefs cornerback group. Ben Roethlisberger and his guys might be able to do just enough to pull off the upset and position themselves to make another run.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
DEN (7-7) @ LV (7-7) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
The Raiders deserve credit for finding a way to win every time it looks like their season is about to fall apart, and now they can get back above .500 by beating Drew Lock and the Broncos this weekend. Somewhat of a secret weapon for Las Vegas is kicker Daniel Carlson—who has made 92.8% of his field goals over the past two years—as he’s hit game-winners on the final play against playoff contenders in the Dolphins, Cowboys, and Browns this season; I have no idea how Minnesota decided to release him after two games with the team as a rookie. For the Raiders’ only touchdown of the evening last week, it was good to see Bryan Edwards get a jump-ball opportunity in the end zone that he took advantage of, and the offense keeping him involved over the final three games takes the pressure off Hunter Renfrow if Darren Waller (knee) remains out. Lock has the ability to catch fire as Denver finds themselves in the same spot as their division rival, but I’m leaning towards the Raiders at home.
Winner: Las Vegas Raiders
WAS (6-8) @ DAL (10-4) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
Despite nearly allowing the game to slip away versus Washington a couple of weeks ago, the Cowboys were dominant for the better part of 60 minutes (they led 24-0 at halftime and then 27-8 with just over five minutes to play), so Sunday Night Football is an opportunity for them to clinch the division with a decisive victory. I don’t believe in Dallas as a serious contender as much as I did earlier in the season because of recent offensive struggles, but the NFC is more open than it was last week due to Chris Godwin’s injury for Tampa Bay, and the defense of the Cowboys looks like a unit that can win in January. Plus, it’s at least encouraging that plays have been there to be made for Dak Prescott, and Michael Gallup—who was missed on a long would-be touchdown and another chunk gain last week—continuing to play over 90% of the team’s offensive snaps with everyone healthy maximizes the upside if/when the entire group eventually clicks. Washington can spoil the potential NFC East celebration as a scrappy team with their backs against the wall, but Dallas gets the advantage.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
MIA (7-7) @ NO (7-7) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
Taysom Hill (COVID-19) being out on Monday night is a definite disappointment, and it could halt the momentum of their huge win over Tampa Bay last Sunday night. That said, rookie Ian Book’s play style is that of the prototypical backup who can come off the bench to win a spot start, and New Orleans being powered by their defense puts him in a position where he doesn’t need to be the hero—which I don’t think would turn out well against Xavien Howard and Byron Jones of the Dolphins. My main concern is the aggressive defense possibly coming in overconfident following a shutout, and Jaylen Waddle can make opponents pay with one misstep in coverage or as a tackler. But as long as they are focused and remain composed (I can picture Tua Tagovailoa frustrating them with short, efficient passes all night), the Saints could do just enough on both sides of the ball to get a win behind the noisy crowd of the Superdome.
Winner: New Orleans Saints