We’ve now officially reached the midway point of the NFL season as every team has played at least 8 games. Entering the second half, there are multiple teams that were expected to be contenders prior to the year that have struggled to live up to that billing. The Denver Broncos, entering the year with a dominant defense and what they hoped would be good enough QB play, are 3-5. The Atlanta Falcons, fresh off their Super Bowl loss, are 4-4 two games back of the Saints for the division lead. The Oakland Raiders are 4-5 and like the Falcons, two games back of the division leader.
I bring all of this up because these teams now find themselves in “season saving” mode. The Raiders are off this week, but the Broncos and Falcons both have match-ups against teams in the playoff race and are trying to keep their respective seasons alive. As we saw with the Redskins in Seattle last week, that can be a powerful motivator for a team. I’m not saying both will get wins, but it is something to keep in mind when looking at their match-ups. To the tiers!
No way we can lose – locks of the week: As you can guess, these will be the stone-cold locks of the week. The games I’m so confident about that I’d wager my life’s savings on them, if I had a life’s savings to wager.
Feeling pretty… pretty good: Not quite willing to bet the farm on this batch, but as Mr. Larry David would say, ‘I’m feeling pretty… pretty good’ about these games.
Heads or tails: These are your true toss ups: they can go one way or another, and you should pick with caution, even after heeding my expert advice.
All lines courtesy of Sportsline. All times Eastern.
Seattle Seahawks @ Arizona Cardinals (+6), Thursday 8:25 p.m.
Level of confidence: No Way We Can Lose….Locks of the Week
ATS & Straight up: Seahawks
We picked the Cardinals last week in spite of them starting Drew Stanton because they were playing the lowly Niners. It worked out with Stanton being aggressive and the Cardinals handing the ball to Adrian Peterson 37 times en route to a 20-10 win. Now, they turn around on a short week to play the Seahawks. I know that the last time these two teams played it ended in that 6-6 tie, but that was with Carson Palmer and David Johnson in the lineup for the Cardinals.
No offense to Peterson, but I don’t think he can handle another week of 37 carries. That means Stanton would need to beat the Seattle secondary and I don’t see that happening.
No Way We Can Lose….Locks of the Week
New Orleans Saints @ Buffalo Bills (+2.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Saints
The Saints are on a six-game winning streak and it’s not simply because they’re winning shootouts. In fact, the only game in this six game stretch in which their opponents have scored more than 20 points was that wild Week 5 game against the Lions that featured multiple defensive touchdowns on both sides. Aside from that Lions game, they’re giving up just 10.4 points per game on average in their other five wins.
Buffalo’s defense had been playing well until last Thursday night against the Jets. Things unraveled a bit in that one with the Jets rushing for 194 yards. While New Orleans isn’t thought of as a running team, the combination of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara has been quite effective this year and should give the Saints enough of an edge to win and cover.
New York Jets @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+2.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Jets
The Bucs are bad. The defense ranks 30th in DVOA, 28th in yards (389 YPG), and t-26th in scoring defense (24.8 PPG). Their offense hasn’t been much better, and they have now shut down QB Jameis Winston for “a few weeks”. That means Ryan Fitzpatrick takes over as the starter facing his old team, the New York Jets. The Jets have been much better than expected this year and they should have no problem moving the ball against the Bucs.
Feeling Pretty…Pretty Good
Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears (-5.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Bears
I don’t know if coaches buy players Christmas gifts, but Mike McCarthy owes Aaron Rodgers a really expensive one. Without Rodgers, the Packers offense looks completely lost and they’re going to be facing a Bears defense that ranks 13th in DVOA and 8th in yards allowed per game. Granted, the Bears still haven’t really opened things up for rookie QB Mitch Trubisky, relying largely on the run to win. But, facing a Packers defense that ranks 22nd in the league allowing 118 yards per game on the ground, they likely won’t have to get away from that strategy. Bears at home.
Minnesota Vikings @ Washington Redskins (+1), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Vikings
The Redskins got a huge win last week in Seattle but, they’re still the walking wounded. Now, they face a team similarly beset by injuries in the Vikings, though Minnesota is coming off a bye. The Vikings defense is 9th in DVOA, allows just 16.9 points per game and I think that unit is the determining factor in this game. It’s basically a pick’em here and I’ll take the Vikings on the road.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Tennessee Titans (-4.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Titans
The Bengals somehow escaped a suspension for wide receiver A.J. Green after he did his best wrestling moves on Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey last week. They’ve got to be thankful for that because the offense was dreadful after Green left the game gaining just 16 yards in the second half. They face a much less stingy defense this week in Tennessee and should be able to score quite a bit with the Titans allowing 24.1 points per game.
The biggest problem the Bengals face here is the Titans running attack. The Bengals have been just average at stopping the run allowing 116.5 yards per game while Tennessee are 10th in the league at 117.9 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Tennessee is still scrapping for a playoff spot, and I think they stay alive here with a win.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Jacksonville Jaguars (-4), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Jaguars
The Jaguars are…dare I say it….legitimately good. The defense has been dominant ranking 1st in scoring defense (14.6 PPG), 1st in DVOA, and 1st in the league in sacks with 35. And, (whispers) Blake Bortles has actually not been terrible. I know, I know, he hasn’t had to do much. But, last week without Leonard Fournette in the line-up, Bortles completed 24/38 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown against a good Cincinnati pass defense.
However, the Chargers have been pretty good at protecting Phillip Rivers this year (just 11 sacks 38 QB hits) and have a running back capable of bludgeoning the Jags defense in Melvin Gordon. Coming off a bye and flying cross country isn’t necessarily ideal, but the Chargers are certainly capable of keeping this game close. That said, I actually find myself believing in the Jaguars…..which may mean the apocalypse is coming.
Houston Texans @ Los Angeles Rams (-11.5), Sunday 4:05 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Rams
The Rams offense was impressive in their 51-17 win over the Giants this past weekend and they now face a Texans defense that is without two of its best players (J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus) and gave up 20 points and 371 yards to the Colts last week. Plus, they’re starting Tom Savage at QB. That makes me less scared of this line than the other two double-digit games we’ve talked about so far.
Heads or Tails….Toss Up
Cleveland Browns @ Detroit Lions (-12.5), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Straight up: Lions
Detroit looked very good in demolishing the Packers on Monday Night Football. But, every time they’ve looked good this year, they’ve seemed to falter. They dominated the Giants in Week 2, then lost 30-26 to Atlanta. Stifle the Vikings 14-7 in Week 4, lose three straight. Then, the dominating victory on Monday night over the Packers. You see the pattern I’m looking at here.
Still, they are facing the Browns who have somehow looked worse in most aspects than they did last year when they had seemingly less talent. Still, if you’re a consistent reader of this column, you know I really don’t like lines that are this high. Coming off a bye, after being the laughingstock of the league for the botched A.J. McCarron trade, I think the Browns come back angry and cover the spread. Lions still win though.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Indianapolis Colts (+10), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Straight up: Steelers
The Steelers come off the bye feeling good after winning three straight. Now, they draw the Colts, whose defense has struggled to stop anybody outside of Tom Savage this past weekend. We’ve hammered this point home already this season, but it’s worth noting once more. When the Steelers give the ball to Le’Veon Bell 25 times or more, they’re 5-0 this season. 25 or fewer touches they’re 1-2. They’ve handed it to Bell 32, 35, and 25 times in this three game winning streak and I’d expect more of the same here.
Dallas Cowboys @ Atlanta Falcons (-3), Sunday 4:25 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: Falcons
I said it at the top, beware of the desperate team. Entering this week, that is Atlanta. The Falcons need a win to stay in the mix in the playoff race and they honestly weren’t far off from one last week. Julio Jones dropped a wide open touchdown pass from Matt Ryan last week that would have given the Falcons a lead and likely a win.
The Cowboys defense has continued to get better, but there’s still the chance of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension upsetting the balance of this team. Combine that looming situation with injuries to both Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams and the offense has a lot more question marks. Atlanta, in front of their home fans, gets the win.
New York Giants @ San Francisco 49ers (+1), Sunday 4:25 p.m.
ATS & Straight up: 49ers
This pick is purely based off the effort, or lack thereof, that the Giants showed last week against the Rams. That game immediately had Ben McAdoo talking about benching anybody and everybody including Eli Manning. While the 49ers are 0-9 and haven’t won a game yet with C.J. Beathard at QB, I’ll take them to get their first win here.
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos (+7.5), Sunday 8:30 p.m.
Straight up: Patriots
Again, this is a desperation game. The Broncos were embarrassed in front of the nation last week by the Eagles. Now, they get to play in front of their home fans against an AFC rival. That defense will be raring to get after Tom Brady and though I expect the Patriots to win, I think Denver keeps it close.
Miami Dolphins @ Carolina Panthers (-9), Monday 8:30 p.m.
Straight up: Panthers
Miami played well against Oakland on Sunday night, including an almost unbelievably efficient game from Jay Cutler who completed 34 of 42 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns. But, that was against a terrible Raiders defense. This Panthers defense will give a much bigger test. Still, the Panthers haven’t blown anybody out this year (outside of the 49ers) so, giving nine points seems too high.
(*not counting Texans game which we picked prior to Deshaun Watson’s injury.)