DAL (6-6) @ CHI (6-6) | THU 8:20 PM ET | FOX/NFL Network/Prime
Week 14 kicks off with an NFC matchup between two playoff teams from the 2018 season that still have January aspirations this year, and they are coming off very different Thanksgiving performances. Shortly after the Bears were able to escape with a win in Detroit last week to essentially keep their season alive, Dallas was embarrassed at home against the Bills, and even though Week 16 in Philadelphia seems like the de facto NFC East championship game, the Cowboys need to get going if they want to a) win that game, and b) have any chance of making noise in the postseason. A trip to Soldier Field tonight won’t be easy, but Chicago has been susceptible to opposing running games, and I am assuming Ezekiel Elliott will get a monster workload after just 12 carries (for 71 yards) last week. Also, cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) is unlikely to play for Chicago, so Dak Prescott should have some success through the air—including on downfield, play-action passes to Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. The Bears will have a chance if they continue featuring Allen Robinson both outside and in the slot like we saw on Thanksgiving, but the Cowboys have too much overall talent to drop below .500 at this point.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
CAR (5-7) @ ATL (3-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Falcons will finally be at full strength offensively with Austin Hooper (knee) returning and Julio Jones (shoulder)—who pushed to play on Thanksgiving Night—back after a one-game absence, and I think the entire team is determined to potentially give head coach Dan Quinn another year by showing well over the final four games. Last month, Atlanta completely dominated the Panthers, forcing Kyle Allen into four interceptions and bringing him down for five sacks in a 29-3 win. Carolina was able to move the ball a bit despite the score, though, and it will be interesting to see how the offense operates under newly-promoted offensive coordinator Scott Turner (Norv Turner’s son) following Ron Rivera’s firing. There will be plenty of time to discuss the team’s next head coach, but for this week, Rivera being replaced by secondary coach Perry Fewell on an interim basis could negatively impact pass coverage in a tough spot versus Matt Ryan. Perhaps the Panthers will be sparked by change, but it feels like the Falcons will play a complete game on Sunday to show more glimpses of what could have been in 2019.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
IND (6-6) @ TB (5-7) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Colts looked to be in great position for the AFC South crown after destroying Jacksonville, 33-13, a few weeks ago, but they dropped two division games since then and now sit in third place behind Houston and Tennessee. Marlon Mack (hand) being out and T.Y. Hilton (calf) being out or playing at less than 100% have been impactful losses, so it’s important that Mack—who seems on track to return along with rookie Parris Campbell (hand)—is available to boost the offense against an underrated Tampa Bay front. Establishing the run is significant because it will keep NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett (14.5 sacks) and rookie inside linebacker Devin White from being overly aggressive game-wreckers in Todd Bowles defense; and I think Indy’s offensive line will be able to open holes for Mack or the other runners in a game the Colts want to control. Plus, getting into a slow, low-scoring battle might force Jameis Winston to press when he does have the ball. And for what it’s worth, the former No. 1 overall pick has thrown an insane 15 interceptions in home games this year, while Indianapolis has shown they can be road warriors by already beating the Chiefs and Titans away from home. Assuming Mack plays, I have more trust in the contending Colts.
Winner: Indianapolis Colts
MIA (3-9) @ NYJ (4-8) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Coming off three wins in a row, the Jets were probably too confident last week in Cincinnati, but the loss—combined with previously allowing the Dolphins (like the Bengals) to get their first win of the season against them—should have New York prepared for Week 14. There aren’t many positives to draw from losing, but at least Sam Darnold and Robby Anderson built on a 4/86/1 line from two weeks ago with a 100-yard game, and perhaps the connection will continue into 2020 and beyond after the team declined to trade the deep threat at the trade deadline. Despite improved play as a team, Miami has really struggled to contain perimeter receivers in recent weeks, and Anderson has the speed to get behind inexperienced cornerbacks Nik Needham and Ken Webster. Offensively, the Dolphins have an emerging playmaker of their own in DeVante Parker (who is on a season-long pace of 93/1,635/10 during the team’s current 3-2 stretch), and Ryan Fitzpatrick deserves a ton of credit for the former first-rounder finally reaching his potential. Confidence is key, and you can say what you want about the veteran passer, but he isn’t afraid to trust his guys to make plays. The Jets cannot allow Fitzpatrick to get hot again.
Winner: New York Jets
SF (10-2) @ NO (10-2) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Technically, San Francisco is the No. 5 seed right now, but 49ers-Saints is still for first place in the NFC (if only for a few hours depending on the result and what happens with Seattle on Sunday night), and I think there’s a good chance of this game being a Divisional Round preview. New Orleans should re-commit to the run against a stingy defensive unit that’s better attacked on the ground, but Sean Payton hasn’t shown the willingness to feature Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, which is frankly a mistake—after the latter showed he can be a force by averaging 153.5 total yards 1.5 touchdowns per game in two starts at the end of October. If the Saints instead try getting Michael Thomas’ numbers back up following his quietest game of the season, they could be in trouble. That said, Richard Sherman won’t shadow the All-Pro wideout, so defensive coordinator Robert Salah needs to make sure he has multiple defenders bracketing him out of the slot. For the San Francisco offense, things will run through a three-man backfield committee and George Kittle, but the Saints cannot allow rookie Deebo Samuel to expose Eli Apple in coverage. I’m going with the Payton/Brees pairing at the Superdome.
Winner: New Orleans Saints
DET (3-8-1) @ MIN (8-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Vikings made a big misjudgment in not letting Adam Thielen (hamstring) get to 100% before bring him back last month, and heading into a very winnable game versus Detroit, they better be sure Dalvin Cook (chest) doesn’t put himself at risk by playing instead of resting until at least next week’s road trip to take on the Chargers. This obviously isn’t the NBA where you can take “load management” days because the regular season doesn’t matter, but Cook is clearly affected by the injury, and rookie Alexander Mattison has shown he is more than capable of filling in for him. Either way, the Lions can be exploited via both the run and pass, so Minnesota shouldn’t have a problem putting up points. There is some concern that David Blough will be able to have another admirable showing following his impressive NFL debut, but the Vikings—for all their struggles in coverage this season—have too many proud players to not turn things around, and Sunday is the time to do it. I’m not anticipating a letdown coming off a tough primetime loss in Seattle.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings
DEN (4-8) @ HOU (8-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Texans were finally able to knock off New England on Sunday night, and they will now hope to potentially run away with the AFC South by beating Denver and Tennessee over the next two weeks. Still, I’m not completely sold on Houston as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, as they have issues in the secondary and on the offensive line that could doom them come January. For this week, those flaws might not be tested much by Denver with rookie Drew Lock at quarterback and Von Miller (knee) possibly out another week, but Bill O’Brien’s squad still needs to be wary of a letdown following a big win. In the 2018 matchup between these teams, the Broncos pushed Houston to the limit (Brandon McManus missed a would-be game-winning field goal as time expired), so perhaps Vic Fangio can get a similar result but finish the job with a road upset. Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman should work in tandem as the offensive engine to take pressure off Lock, set up play-action shots to Courtland Sutton, and shorten the game, but all of that might not be enough if the talented Texans remain focused. You have to also cover Will Fuller and Kenny Still, but the Broncos should do their best to make sure DeAndre Hopkins doesn’t beat them.
Winner: Houston Texans
BAL (10-2) @ BUF (9-3) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The weekend slate is heavily slanted towards heavyweight matchups at the top of the card (Chiefs-Patriots and 49ers-Saints being the others), but I think the game I’m most excited to watch is Ravens-Bills. As the only site I know of that ranked both Josh Allen (No. 2) and Lamar Jackson (No. 9) as top-ten prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft, it has been fun to watch others either deny the success of the second-year quarterbacks or claim they knew how good each player would be all along (in some cases after furiously deleting tweets that suggested otherwise), but no one is talking about position transitions anymore, and Sunday will feature two of the league’s top playmakers going head-to-head. Baltimore has been excellent on defense over the past several weeks, but Allen is coming off arguably the best all-around game of his career by dismantling Dallas in a variety of ways, and I could see Buffalo wanting to attack Marcus Peters—both in the passing game and by making him come up to tackle. Also, while the Bills aren’t as publicly vocal about it like some other teams, they are a very close-knit group that plays for one another more than they do individual accolades, and that has a real impact on the field. Stopping Jackson on the ground is easier said than done (and it hasn’t been done), but Sean McDermott’s defense has very intelligent players on the backend to at least give them a shot. Buffalo being at home could be the difference in what I expect to be a game that comes down to the final minutes.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
CIN (1-11) @ CLE (5-7) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Last week’s loss to the Steelers realistically ended the Browns’ playoff hopes, and Odell Beckham Jr. already expressing some displeasure about being in Cleveland is probably the most predictable storyline of the entire season—and precisely the reason the hype was out of control for a volatile roster. Even if Beckham is unhappy and will want to find a way out after the season, any talk of that should wait until after the season. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to me that teams all don’t operate like the Patriots do by “coaching” their players to say as little as possible in press conferences (it took one day to turn Antonio Brown into a robot when talking to the media), but OBJ has only created an unnecessary distraction over the final four games. Like I have been saying all year, Cleveland would be wise to feed the soft-spoken superstar of their team (Nick Chubb) to open things up for everyone else, and we will hopefully see that on Sunday. As for Cincinnati, they get speedster John Ross (collarbone) back from injured reserve and have no pressure on them after Zac Taylor was able to pick up his first career win to avoid an 0-16 season, but talent should win out in this Ohio matchup.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
WAS (3-9) @ GB (9-3) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Week 13 was a prime opportunity for Green Bay to open things up with a vertical passing game against the Giants on a snowy track, and that’s what happened as Aaron Rodgers tossed four touchdowns in a 31-13 victory. Rodgers and Davante Adams (three scores over the past two games) finally connecting for touchdowns is bad news for the rest of the NFC, but what makes the Packers more dangerous this season is having multiple threats behind their No. 1 receiver—including both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams at running back. Washington has won two games in a row, but I don’t think they’ll be able to contain all the weapons Rodgers has for a chilly game at Lambeau Field, and Dwayne Haskins will almost certainly have to get an attempted shootout for the Redskins to extend their winning streak. Unfortunately, the rookie has absorbed 14 sacks over the past three weeks, and the Packers are an opportunistic defense that will hope to force him into mistakes early and often. The matchup between Terry McLaurin and standout cornerback Jaire Alexander (who is second in the league with 14 passes defended) is one to watch.
Winner: Green Bay Packers
LAC (4-8) @ JAX (4-8) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | FOX
Nick Foles getting benched has more to do with the weaknesses of Jacksonville’s team as a whole than it does the former Super Bowl MVP’s future outlook, as Gardner Minshew simply brings more pocket mobility to the table behind an offensive line that—despite heavy investment (including a couple of early-round picks at both tackle spots)—is unable to protect the quarterback. It also didn’t help to see the run defense completely collapse when Foles took over in Week 11, and that weakness isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon with linebacker Myles Jack (knee) now done for the season. Los Angeles finds more ways to lose than anyone, but the formula (featuring Melvin Gordon) should lead to a win on Sunday, and their entire offense would be a lot more dangerous if Mike Williams is also prioritized. Protecting Philip Rivers would be less of a concern if Josh Allen (concussion) doesn’t play for Jacksonville after recording his ninth sack of the year last week, but the Chargers will ideally be able to build/protect a lead instead of having to stage another comeback attempt that falls short.
Winner: Los Angeles Chargers
PIT (7-5) @ ARI (3-8-1) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Spoke to Steeler players about Mike Tomlin. Players on defense pointed to the adjustments made at half. They said he “straight up went high school football coach and drew up how they were going to defend Cleveland “ since they Browns showing a different look. “He saved the game”
— Dianna (@diannaESPN) December 1, 2019
Even just one more win to finish 8-8 or better should lock up Mike Tomlin as NFL Coach of the Year this season.
Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers
TEN (7-5) @ OAK (6-6) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
Josh Jacobs playing with a fractured shoulder is about as tough as it gets, and his resolve as the focal-point of Oakland’s offense proves running backs—especially when you have a great one—certainly matter. Last week was a setback for the Raiders, but they can easily go 4-0 down the stretch (v TEN, v JAX, @ LAC, @ DEN) to get the final wild card spot, and the next three games in particular will hopefully have quality weather for Derek Carr to take advantage of. I like Oakland’s current starting quarterback, but if he struggles to close out the season, the team may be forced to evaluate alternatives ahead of their move to Las Vegas (including potentially the backup on the other side of the field this week). The Titans are allowing the sixth-most passing yards per game in the league, so the Raiders should be able to create a balanced attack with Jacobs and a heavy dose of tight end Darren Waller, who seems like he could get the ball on every play at times. The Titans are going to use the formula that’s worked over the past three weeks and to close out 2018 by feeding Derrick Henry, but The Black Hole is an intimidating place to play in its final days.
Winner: Oakland Raiders
KC (8-4) @ NE (10-2) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
The 43-40 regular season shootout and 37-31 postseason rematch might not be repeated in 2019 based on a variety of factors, but Chiefs-Patriots should still be a great game on Sunday. While Tom Brady would surely love to have Rob Gronkowski or Antonio Brown to throw to for this matchup, New England has won more with less, and defense will be the key in containing Andy Reid’s offense. I know people look at his yards-per-carry average this season and think he isn’t good because of it, but Damien Williams (96 total yards and three total touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game) is a huge loss as a weapon out of the backfield, so rookie Darwin Thompson and/or veteran Spencer Ware are “x-factors” behind LeSean McCoy as the Pats do their best to eliminate Travis Kelce, double cover Tyreek Hill, and maybe shadow Sammy Watkins with Stephon Gilmore. The other potential impact playmaker that New England may not be able to fully account for is Mecole Hardman, who has the speed to burn single coverage and crack the game open with a single play. If the defending champions are going to stay in strong position to reclaim homefield advantage in the playoffs, they should run the offense through Sony Michel (109.5 rushing yards and 2.0 touchdowns per game in two meetings last season). Preventing a track meet would give Brady the edge over Patrick Mahomes in a late-game situation.
Winner: New England Patriots
SEA (10-2) @ LAR (7-5) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
As he clarified in his press conference today, Sean McVay doesn’t think he’s an idiot “most of the time,” but it was funny to hear his answer this week about the change that led to an increased workload for Todd Gurley in recent games: “Me not being an idiot.” Sandwiching the throwaway loss to Baltimore on Monday Night Football, Gurley has averaged 24.0 touches per game in two wins for Los Angeles, and there is no reason to believe he won’t remain a huge part of the game plan against a Seattle defense he’s scored a whopping ten times against over the past four meetings. Most importantly, increased usage for the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year makes things easier on Jared Goff, and I think McVay will dial up another great game plan on Sunday night—and the Rams will need it against a Seattle team that seems to gain superpowers under the lights. In the Thursday night thriller earlier this year, it took a rare miss from Greg Zuerlein for the Seahawks to win at home, and we could see a similarly close finish this weekend. Stopping the two-headed running game needs to be the priority for Wade Phillips’ defense with Jalen Ramsey doing his part in coverage to stop Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, and Josh Gordon. Russell Wilson will probably find a new way to win and keep Seattle tied atop the NFC, but I’m going with the Rams.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
NYG (2-10) @ PHI (5-7) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
Two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning is set to start in place of Daniel Jones (ankle) this week, but I hope for his sake that his final career appearance doesn’t come on Monday night—because it could get ugly. In the previous three primetime matchups at Lincoln Financial Field, the Giants lost by an average of 17.3 points per game, and Eli threw for just two touchdowns with just five interceptions in those games, including a SNF shutout (called “Black Sunday”) in which he completed 13 passes and was sacked six times. New York is at least expected to have their starting offense in place if Golden Tate (concussion) and Evan Engram (foot) can both return, and Saquon Barkley single-handedly put on a show last season in both matchups versus Philly with 46 touches for 371 yards and three touchdowns. Plus, unlike last season and previous years, the Eagles simply might not be a good football team, as there doesn’t feel like there is a spark to ignite in 2019 following last week’s loss in Miami. Even if Jordan Howard (shoulder) remains out as expected, though, Philadelphia cannot blow this one at home.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles