LAC (10-3) @ KC (11-2) | THU 8:20 PM ET | FOX/NFL Network/Amazon
Philip Rivers started his career with a 13-4 record against the Chiefs, but since then, the Chargers have dropped nine in a row to their division rival while scoring just 15.3 points per game during the losing streak. However, the individual struggles for Rivers ended in the opener when he threw for 424 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception in a 38-28 loss, so the bigger concern for Los Angeles is finding a way to stop Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, who went for a 7/169/2 line and opened the game with a 91-yard punt return touchdown in Week 1. Kansas City won’t have Sammy Watkins (foot) this time, though, which will give the Chargers a better chance of at least slowing “Cheetah” down if they don’t let Casey Hayward cover him without over-the-top help. Unfortunately, Melvin Gordon (knee) doesn’t sound like he will play, but seventh-round pick Justin Jackson has looked good in limited action, and his patience should allow him to find the running lanes against a defense allowing the second most yards per carry (5.0) in the league, especially with all the receiving weapons leading to lighter boxes. I’m interested to see how much Eric Berry is tested downfield in his season debut, but LA will pick their spots as they try to control the clock—a tall task at Arrowhead Stadium if their superstar back is out.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
HOU (9-4) @ NYJ (4-9) | SAT 4:30 PM ET | NFL Network
The Texans saw their nine-game winning streak snapped in Week 14, but while it could end up costing them a first-round bye after New England slipped against Miami, it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to head into the playoffs without a 13-game streak hanging over their head. Now, Houston needs to regain some momentum for a two-game stretch in New York and Philadelphia before finishing things off at home versus the Jaguars, but I expect Deshaun Watson to play his best this week for the first Saturday matchup of the year; I’m not sure it qualifies as a primetime game, but the Texans are 3-0 in standalone spots this season, and Watson has thrown for 264.7 yards per game with an 8:1 touchdown-interception ratio. The Jets don’t have the pass-rushers to make things difficult on the former Clemson star, so he should again have a big game in front of a national audience. Perhaps weather could play a factor (rain is currently in the forecast), but I think New York will have a difficult time keeping up as Sam Darnold is forced to throw against a stout front. As long as the Texans—who have struggled against deep threats including 199 yards allowed to T.Y. Hilton last week—contain Robby Anderson, they should get to ten wins and put the pressure on the Patriots at Heinz Field.
Winner: Houston Texans
CLE (5-7-1) @ DEN (6-7) | SAT 8:20 PM ET | NFL Network
NFL fans should be very excited about the nightcap on Saturday, as we get to see Baker Mayfield’s first primetime start in what amounts to an elimination game for two teams looking to keep their playoff hopes alive. Of course, the Browns need a lot to break their way, but interim head coach Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens have righted the ship, going 3-2 with losses to the 11-2 Chiefs and 9-4 Texans so far. The key to the turnaround has been featuring Nick Chubb—the rookie has a 1,684-yard, 18-touchdown pace since Carlos Hyde was traded—as the offensive line was built to run the ball, and it has made things much easier on Mayfield, who has been mostly excellent outside of a three-interception quarter in Houston two weeks ago. Playing in Denver could be imposing, but the first-year duo should be ready. For the Broncos, losing in San Francisco was a huge blow to their postseason aspirations, and a disappointing finish could put head coach Vance Joseph right back on the hot seat. Optimistically, the defense has been extremely stingy against the run over the past two months, but they need to play from ahead on Saturday night to allow Von Miller and Bradley Chubb to make plays. I’ve got the Browns in a down-to-the-wire game over a Denver offense that is heavily reliant on rookies of their own (Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton, and DaeSean Hamilton).
Winner: Cleveland Browns
GB (5-7-1) @ CHI (9-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
This is a revenge game of sorts for Chicago, as they want to make amends for their Week 1 loss to Aaron Rodgers, who is 17-4 (including playoffs) against the Bears throughout his career with a seven-game winning streak at Soldier Field. Over the past five years in particular, Rodgers has been sensational with a 24:1 touchdown-interception ratio against the Bears, but unlike the true dominance in the division rivalry, the numbers for Green Bay’s quarterback this season (23:1 touchdown-interception) exceed his actual play. However, a win this week for the Packers would turn long playoff odds into realistic opportunity, and Matt Nagy’s squad could come in overconfident after an overwhelming display against the Rams on Sunday Night Football. Looking at the landscape of the conference, though, Nagy should have his guys ready to go, as getting the No. 3 seed to face a team hovering around 8-8 would be a lot better than facing the surging Seahawks. I want to see Jordan Howard—coming off his first 100-yard game of the year—sneak closer to 1,000 rushing yards (currently at 712) to hit the milestone for the third year in a row to begin his career, and the ground attack should help Mitchell Trubisky find his rhythm. Defense wins the day for Chicago.
Winner: Chicago Bears
DET (5-8) @ BUF (4-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
Even in another two-interception performance, Josh Allen continues to impress for the Bills, and I’m already looking forward to see what pieces the franchise is able to add around him in the offseason. Things will come easy to the six-foot-five gunslinger once he gets improved protection up front and some playmakers on the outside, as Allen is basically single-handedly carrying the offense to keep Buffalo competitive (over the past three weeks, he’s set a quarterback record for rushing yards in a three-game stretch with 331). Detroit has played better defense of late, but I don’t think Allen will have much trouble moving the ball at home based on the throws Josh Rosen missed last week in a 17-3 loss against the Lions, and in another callback to Week 1, Matt Patricia’s defense got destroyed by the rookie-led Jets, 48-17. Perhaps the outdoor practices will pay off the Lions in the Buffalo cold, but I’m not sure they have the personnel to consistently move the ball if Kerryon Johnson (knee) misses another game, and Matthew Stafford could struggle against an opportunistic defense.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
TB (5-8) @ BAL (7-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The biggest storyline to watch in the early slate on Sunday is probably how long of a leash Lamar Jackson has with Joe Flacco set to be active as the No. 2 quarterback. The ground-and-pound attack has certainly worked so far, but I don’t think it’s something that is sustainable into January, and right now, Flacco—who has a Super Bowl MVP under his belt—is the better quarterback. Fortunately for Jackson, the Bucs are attackable both through the air and on the ground, so he could gain some job security by playing well. Also, I highly doubt Tampa Bay is able to get into a shootout in Baltimore, as Jameis Winston has tossed nine interceptions in three-and-a-half road games this season, which could lead to a quick trigger by Dirk Koetter and a long day for the offense. It’s worth noting that Spencer Ware showed some weaknesses in the Ravens run defense last week, but the only hope for the Buccaneers is forcing Jackson (three interceptions and six fumbles in four starts) to make mistakes while Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Adam Humphries make plays in single coverage on offense.
Winner: Baltimore Ravens
ARI (3-10) @ ATL (4-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
There have been plenty of disappointing teams this season, but I think the Falcons are at the top of the list. Injuries definitely played a huge factor, but offensively, the unwillingness to feed Tevin Coleman—arguably the most explosive runner in the league—has been a central cause of their offensive struggles and a five-game losing streak. Matt Ryan is great, but his MVP form hasn’t carried over to the second half of the year due to play-action passes not really being there. Personally, the Cardinals have also been a disappointment in 2018, and I’m not sure there is an NFL franchise with a less promising future. Slow decision-making for Josh Rosen looks like a big red flag, so we’ll see if Dan Quinn’s defense allowing check downs can help him build confidence down the stretch into 2019. If not, it will be interesting to see if the people claiming Buffalo could draft a replacement for Josh Allen as soon as next year (before he even took a preseason snap) will say the same about Rosen following a season of inaccuracy and indecisiveness despite two star players—David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald—to help guide him. For this week, I would be surprised if the Falcons didn’t show some fight at home to potentially give fans a glimpse of what could have been this season.
Winner: Atlanta Falcons
OAK (3-10) @ CIN (5-8) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Could the culture change already be paying off for Jon Gruden in Oakland? Since releasing Bruce Irvin after a blowout loss to the 49ers in Week 9, the team has gelled with a 2-3 record including competitive losses to the Chargers, Ravens, and Chiefs. Any of the “experts” doubting Gruden just a handful of games into a ten-year reign probably haven’t seen the excitement on the sidelines following the past couple victories because they avert their eyes from the screen in anger/jealousy/resentment, but the entire team celebrated like they won a playoff game last week against the Steelers, which—in a good way—was funny to see. The play of Derek Carr in particular shows that Gruden isn’t a “dinosaur” coach, as the 27-year-old hasn’t thrown an interception since October 7th, and it took time to translate into on-field success for Carr in a complex system, but he was undeniably putting passes right on the money last week. The Raiders have a chance to finish 6-10, but I also like what I saw from Cincinnati last week as they finally fed Joe Mixon (31 touches) in a close loss to Los Angeles, and they get the slight edge at home for me.
Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
TEN (7-6) @ NYG (5-8) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The path to the playoffs for New York isn’t that unrealistic at all, as they need to win out (v TEN, @ IND, v DAL), have the Eagles lose two games (@ LAR, v HOU, @ WAS), have the Panthers lose two games (v NO, @ ATL, @ NO), have the Packers lose one game (@ CHI, @ NYJ, v DET), have the Redskins lose two games (@ JAX, @ TEN, v PHI), and have the Vikings lose two games (v MIA, @ DET, v CHI). Minnesota looks like the biggest obstacle, but I would guess everything else that needs to happen is more likely than not for each individual team. Obviously, the Giants need to take care of their own business, and the rested Titans won’t be an easy opponent. Rookie pass-rusher Lorenzo Carter (one sack in Week 14) taking advantage of backup right tackle Dennis Kelly—though he’s one of the better reserves in the league—would be huge, but I think Tennessee will be able to keep the ball on the ground for a cold, rainy game that defenders won’t be eager to tackle Derrick Henry in. Mike Vrabel’s defense is highly unlikely to have the same success against Saquon Barkley as they did Leonard Fournette (14 carries for 36 yards), but I trust the extra few days to get a game plan ready will have them prepared for the improved New York offense, which showed last week that Odell Beckham Jr. (quad) is expendable.
Winner: Tennessee Titans
MIA (7-6) @ MIN (6-6-1) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Teams struggling after a big win over the Patriots is a real thing—just ask Jacksonville—but I don’t think Adam Gase will allow last week’s crazy victory to be Miami’s “Super Bowl” with so much in front of them. The Dolphins would get a tremendous boost if Xavien Howard (knee) returns to shadow Stefon Diggs on the outside, and that could potentially allow them to kick Minkah Fitzpatrick into the slot to double Adam Thielen, which is exactly what New England and Seattle have done over the past two weeks. I don’t know how many people noticed the star receiver duo get frustrated on Monday night in Seattle, but Thielen apparently said, “should’ve been all (expletive) day” after a catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, and Diggs was clearly angry about something as he yelled to himself or others in the huddle at around the same time. If the anger stems from play-calling, then hopefully new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski can have more success; but if it is based on the play of Kirk Cousins, then Minnesota has some serious problems that could keep them in football limbo. Still, the defense should be good enough at home to position themselves for the No. 6 seed and knock Miami down a rung in the AFC.
Winner: Minnesota Vikings
WAS (6-7) @ JAX (4-9) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | CBS
Can someone please explain why Tim Tebow can’t get a job in the NFL? With all due respect to Mark Sanchez and the spark Josh Johnson provided last week off the bench in a blowout, the Redskins should have immediately made a call to Tebow in an attempt to save their season when Alex Smith (leg) and Colt McCoy (leg) went down. The former Heisman winner willed the Broncos to a playoff appearance and victory back in 2011, and Washington is somewhat similar in that they have a strong defense that could hold up until the offense—which needs a mobile quarterback to overcome issues on the line—makes some plays. Plus, Tebow would provide a morale boost to the entire team, and that’s exactly what was needed for the Redskins to sneak into the playoffs. Now, it will be up to Johnson to somehow make a run over the next three weeks. On the other side of the field, Cody Kessler played really well last Thursday night despite what the scoreboard indicated in a 30-9 loss, and he could compete for the starting job in 2019 if the Jags draft a rookie rather than acquire a proven signal-caller via free agency or a trade. Both teams were embarrassed in Week 14, but I’ll take Jacksonville because they had more time to think about it.
Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars
DAL (8-5) @ IND (7-6) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
So, the Amari Cooper trade seems to have paid dividends already, and Dallas deserves a ton of credit for unlocking his potential in such a short amount of time. Also, I think the trade worked as a motivator for Cooper, as he is suddenly playing like a true “Alpha” receiver, which is basically a complete flip from his time in Oakland where he often played soft and would disappear for long stretches. But while the offense gets the headlines, defense remains the calling card for the Cowboys, so we’ll see if the unit travels against Andrew Luck and the Colts. In general, Indy is moving in the right direction under Frank Reich, but I’m not sure attacking through the air—which they are sure to do—is the way to beat Dallas, who has been run on in losses to the Panthers (147 yards), Seahawks (113), Redskins (130 yards), and Titans (125 yards). Rookie linebacker and NFL tackle leader Darius Leonard might have a chip on his shoulder as Leighton Vander Esch draws all the headlines across the field, but I think the Colts are a few weapons short for this matchup, and as stated for Chicago, the Cowboys want to get the No. 3 seed to avoid the Seahawks.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
SEA (8-5) @ SF (3-10) | SUN 4:05 PM ET | FOX
I know the rematch is in San Francisco, but it’s a little surprising to see Seattle only favored by four points after a 43-16 victory over the Niners just two weeks ago. While Nick Mullens ended up throwing for 414 yards and Jeff Wilson broke out for 134 yards on 23 touches, much of the production came when the game was pretty clearly in hand, and defenses often have the upper hand in the second meeting of the year as I warned for Colts-Jaguars to start the month. Furthermore, there is virtually no chance for the Seahawks to get a playoff home game considering the strength of the other wild-card contenders that would need to make it to the NFC Championship, so this week is a good test for them, which is likely a point that Pete Carroll is hammering home before they return to CenturyLink Field for the final two games of the regular season. To pull of an upset, San Francisco probably needs to dominate up front and make Russell Wilson uncomfortable. Also, maybe they can force feed George Kittle to make up for him coming up five yards short of the single-game tight end record (215) last week despite going for all his production (7/210/1) in the first half. The Chiefs traveling to Seattle next Sunday night is the game that fans should really look forward to.
Winner: Seattle Seahawks
NE (9-4) @ PIT (7-5-1) | SUN 4:25 PM ET | CBS
The Patriots absolutely own the Steelers this millennium, as they are 11-3, with losses coming in 2011 (October at Heinz Field), 2008 (when Tom Brady missed the year with a torn ACL), and 2004 (October at Heinz Field). Besides that, New England has won by an average 12.5 points per game, so they pretty much dominate the series when Brady plays and the team has had time to find their identity. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they catch the Pats—coming off a last-second road loss—at the worst possible time, and I think their hopes this weekend rely heavily on the status of James Conner (ankle), who appears very doubtful to suit up or be close to 100% if he did somehow play. Without Conner, it will be an all-out aerial assault by Ben Roethlisberger (which he has no problem with), but the Steelers should expect to see a lot of double teams on Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. That said, the Pats using the same defensive game plan they used against the Vikings might not be as effective because a) Big Ben is a better big-game quarterback than Kirk Cousins, and b) James Washington has the talent to be unleashed as a deadly downfield threat if he’s routinely given one-on-one matchups. Being at home gives them a better-than-usual chance, but Pittsburgh hasn’t shown they can beat Brady and Belichick when it matters most.
Winner: New England Patriots
PHI (6-7) @ LAR (11-2) | SUN 8:20 PM ET | NBC
It looks like Nick Foles will get another chance to save Philadelphia’s season, and a streaky pocket passer might be exactly what the Eagles need to somehow start another run. Offensively, Philly has all the pieces to keep up with the Rams, and Foles entering the lineup could spark the downfield passing attack, which was a big reason for their Super Bowl run last year. As said over and over again, Nelson Agholor needs to get targeted more on deeper routes, and there’s no reason for the Eagles to play conservative—especially with the pressure off now that everyone is onto 2019 (or the Sixers/Phillies)—in what will need to be a shootout. Defensively, it will be crucial to win up front, as there is zero chance of an upset if Jared Goff has all day to find Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods against a slow, beat-up secondary. It will be interesting to see how many Philly fans make the trip to take over the Colosseum, but the strong consideration to pick the Eagles was erased when I remember Lane Johnson said their season is pretty much over after the loss against Dallas. Giving up with three weeks to go doesn’t sound like a ton of fun to me.
Winner: Los Angeles Rams
NO (11-2) @ CAR (6-7) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN
I can’t wait to watch Deuce McAllister, Marques Colston, DeAngelo Williams, and all the other great offensive stars on both sides of the ball on Monday night.
In just this short clip Stephen A. Smith:
— Forgot Spencer Ware was out
— Called them San Diego Chargers
— Said he was looking forward to watching Hunter Henry, who hasn't played all year
— Said Henry was going up against Derrick Johnson, who is a free agent
— Broke Tedy Bruschi pic.twitter.com/wOaorAbBKY
— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) December 13, 2018
What a joke ESPN is. In all seriousness, Carolina has played much better at home, so I’ve got the Panthers on a late field goal by John Kasay.
Winner: Carolina Panthers
Last week: 7-9 /// Overall: 101-107
Recommended picks last week: 2-3 /// Overall: 38-32
Chargers @ Chiefs (-3.5)
Texans (-6) @ Jets
Browns (+3) @ Broncos
Packers @ Bears (-6)
Lions @ Bills (-2.5)
Buccaneers @ Ravens (-7.5)
Cardinals @ Falcons (-9)
Raiders (+3) @ Bengals
Titans (+3) @ Giants
Dolphins @ Vikings (-7)
Redskins @ Jaguars (-7)
Cowboys (+3) @ Colts
Seahawks (-4) @ 49ers
Patriots (-2) @ Steelers
Eagles (+11) @ Rams
Saints @ Panthers (+6)
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