NFL Week 12 Game-By-Game Previews

Wait, it’s already Thanksgiving week? How time flies by when we’re having fun! It that statement holds up, then continuing to watch Patrick Mahomes accomplish unprecedented achievements is going to have our lives flying by quicker than Maverick on a fly by. By this point, we’re starting to see the postseason picture become much more clearer, and, boy, could the top-tier teams be anymore entertaining?

Welcome, everybody! Every week for the NFL season, we’ll be going over every matchup, analyzing storylines, key matchups, and, most importantly, making predictions. To help with this, having a strong foundation is paramount. Thus, using previous research on what facets of play, as measured by Pro Football Focus, leads to NFL wins, as well the effect of each offensive/defensive play-caller, I was able to create a statistical projection model that has been a feature on this site before. By factoring in each team’s projected PFF grades in each significant area based on their personnel, and than using a multi-variable formula to project a unit’s expected points added per play, and, thus, their points per game/points allowed per game, we can then project their expected point differential. Essentially, all of this can be leveraged to predict the winner of every NFL game, the margin of victory, what the actual betting line (spread+total) for each game should be, and much more!

As helpful as the model can be, though, something I’ve come to learn is the significance of added context upon it. In 2020, for instance, we perhaps leaned too much on the statistical projections at the expense on how each teams matched up against each other, losing significant predictive power. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to use all information at hand to make the most calculated decision, so cutting out any source of information puts us at a disadvantage. How else would you know that nobody came to a quarterback’s birthday party.

Kidding, of course- consider that part from Draft Day one that has always puzzled me. Regardless, whether you have a vetted interest in the game as fan of a specific team, are a sports better, or just a fan of football, there is nothing more fun than going through every game to find any sort of edge in terms of predictive power. Having betting lines give us a strong foundation for an expectation of the game, but nobody’s perfect, and you never know when the upset of the world (see Jets over Rams 2020) is going to happen.

With only two underdogs winning outright last week and both of them (Raiders, Titans) not being seen as longshots to win those games, doesn’t it feel like we’re destined for a return to chaos this week? With two of the three Thanksgiving games featuring spreads over nine points, we’re going to need that, and there are plenty of theoretical mismatches overall. Of course, that’s when the unpredictability of the NFL comes in to give us an absolute treat!

Stats via Pro Football Focus, 33rd Team, Football Outsiders, and rbsdm.com

Before we start, let’s go over a few key points of data that can help us shine a light on prior weeks in other to forecast future events. Let’s start with the most important position in all of sports- the quarterback. We recently delved into a method to project quarterback production, measured by adjusted expected points added per play (adjusted EPA/play), using several key peripheral metrics, and although this is more meant to project a full season output, there is great benefit of monitoring the performance of the players that almost entirely dictate the outcome of an individual game:

EPA/Play: Expected Points Added Per Play

CPOE: Completion Percentage Over Expectation

BTT%: Big-Time Throw Rate

TWP: Turnover-Worthy Play Rate

Think of these as quarterback composite ratings for how they’ve performed, rather than an actual ranking of how they’ll do moving forward. Regardless, knowing which quarterbacks may have over/underperformed based on the overall data is significantly important for analysis sake, and allows us to paint a better picture.

So does knowing which team’s success is the most sustainable. Turnover luck is an easy way to measure this, but there is another underrated facet. See, third-down performance has been found to be more unstable compared to production on early downs, yet success on third downs make a major difference in an individual game’s production. Alas, when projecting for the future, we want to focusing on how teams are performing in more stable areas of play:

Performance in specific situations is measured by EPA/play, and then converted to a percentile ranking. A positive difference on offense or defense means the team was better on early downs than third downs, and, thus, could be in line for positive regression, while the opposite is true vice versa. From there, the offensive and defensive ratings are combined for an aggregate ranking; the chart is sorted by their overall success on early downs.

After leading the league in third-down success rate on both sides of the ball in Week 10, it’s going to be very interesting to see if the Bucs can continue to see third-down regression moving forward, starting with a Cleveland defense that has performed poorly in all situations. Meanwhile, both the Cowboys (12-17 on third downs) and Vikings (1-11 on third downs) found themselves on the opposite end of their usual spectrum in Dallas’ blowout victory in Minnesota, and we’ll see if that happens for teams like the Jaguars, Bills defense, Jets defense, and Patriots offense. As we’re seeing, third-down situations have a great deal of variability week-to-week.

Finally, there’s one other notable measure of variance that we’d be remiss not to mention. Since 2018, the percentage of touchdowns scored in the red zone by team is as unstable (r^2= .026) as it gets, meaning that, in theory, the teams that score the most red-zone touchdowns should be the ones who get to the red zone all together. Thus, if we adjust each offense and defense’s performance for red-zone variance, we can better grasp their true level of performance:

The Raiders as a top-ten offense? On both sides of the ball, their struggles in the red zone have really come back to bite them, and improvement there serves as a main reason for any sort of optimism moving forward. The Bucs offense, meanwhile, may be poised for quite the run of success for the rest of the year, and we’ll see if the Titans’ red-zone dominance continues. If anything, they overcame struggles there to win in Green Bay last week, a good sign for their future success.

Now, onto the previews!

Buffalo Bills (7-3) at Detroit Lions (4-6)

Spread: DET (+9.5)

  • Projected Spread: DET (+9.4)
  • My Pick: BUF (-9.5)

Total54.5

  • Projected Total: 49.41
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • BUF: 78.35%
  • DET: 21.65%

Score Prediction: Bills 31 Lions 21

Top Storylines:

  • Von Miller vs Penei Sewell
  • The Ultimate Offense vs Defense Mismatch
  • Can The Bills Defense Get Back On Track?

Generally, when it comes to the Thanksgiving slate, the early game in Detroit is not the one that garners the most excitement. Well, perhaps that’s changing. It’s already one thing that the Lions come into this game as a top-ten scoring team, but add in the league’s #1 team in point differential, and you get quite the doozy here.

It hasn’t been the smoothest of roads for the Bills, who, since their Week 7 bye, have gone just 2-2, haven’t covered the spread, and have lost their division lead over the Dolphins. On the bright side, they’re at least coming off of a promising victory, but even in that win against the Browns, showed fatal flaws. See, lost in the fiasco of Josh Allen’s struggles with turnovers and his elbow injury is the drop-off in Buffalo’s defensive play; they’ve allowed a success rate over 50% (28th) during that span, and were gashed (60.8% success rate, .469 EPA/dropback) through the air against Cleveland. The return of cornerback Tre’Davious White is critical for a team struggling with cornerback depth, though they remain without linebacker Tremaine Edmonds and edge rusher Gregory Rousseau, which certainly has also played a factor in their recent woes. Eventually, you’d expect the league’s fourth-best defense on early downs to figure it out on later downs, and this will be a great test.

Ironically, third downs are where the Lions offense (84th percentile in third-down EPA/play) has thrived, and they’ve quietly been very productive through the air (8th in EPA/dropback when excluding turnovers). With DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds back into the fold, there are at least complementary options to support Amon-Ra St.Brown, and their entire offensive line has earned an above-average PFF grade both in pass protection and run blocking since their Week 7 bye. At the end of the day, though, is that enough to compensate for the limitations provided by Jared Goff, a bottom-ten graded quarterback from PFF with nearly twice as many turnover-worthy plays (18, 4.7%) as big-time throws (10, 2.9%)? After facing four straight defenses ranked in the bottom-12 in defensive-adjusted value over average, now facing a defense still ranked third in DVOA will muddy the waters there.

Then, of course, you have the most-efficient offense in standard dropbacks in the NFL against the league’s worst when excluding turnovers. At the moment, the Lions already had the lowest PFF coverage grade in the NFL, but, now, will be without cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, instead needing to start Amani Oruwariye (139 passer rating allowed, 29 PFF coverage grade) in his place. Plus, the league’s leading passer on throws of 20+ air yards facing a secondary allowing the most air yards/attempt. Yeah, this could get ugly in a hurry. Or, for entertainment purposes, a beautiful masterpiece of offensive excellence.

Ultimately, as competitive as the Lions have been, this matchup, in spite of Buffalo’s recent struggles, may create too much of a talent deficit for them. Winners of three straight, we’re starting to see legitimate progress in the second year of their new regime, and they don’t face a daunting schedule the rest of the way. Nevertheless, once again, we’ll likely be looking at the city of Detroit coming up just short on Thanksgiving day. Or, in this case, very short.

New York Giants (7-3) at Dallas Cowboys (7-3)

Spread: DAL (-10)

  • Projected Spread: DAL (-9.5)
  • My Pick: DAL (-10)

Total45.5

  • Projected Total: 42.69
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • NYG: 21.29%
  • DAL: 78.71%

Score Prediction: Giants 17 Cowboys 27

Top Storylines:

  • How Do The Giants Find a Way To Manufacture Offensive Production?
  • A Strong Giants Defensive Line Versus An Improving Dallas Offensive Front
  • The Emergence Of Darius Slayton

Two NFC East teams with a 7-3 record? What else could you ask for? Unfortunately, as we’ve hopefully come to realize by now, a team often is not what their win-loss record says they are. We’ll see if that plays out here, while also simply getting a very fun matchup between two of the more interesting teams from an analysis standpoint. So, I ask again; what else could you ask for?

We’re well aware of what the Cowboys bring to the table defensively, yet it’s their offense complementing it that is what ultimately making them a Super Bowl contender. Since Dak Prescott returned from injury in Week 7, the results have been simply spectacular:

  • EPA/Play: .170 (4th)
  • Dropback Success Rate 56% (1st)
  • Rush EPA/Play: .084 (4th)
  • Points Per Game: 35.25 (1st)

Not too bad! The best part? Everything is clicking from a process standpoint. During this span, Prescott’s play-action rate (35.6%) is up ten percentage points from last year, tight end Dalton Schultz has rebounded back (2.19 yards/route run) to his production from last year to go along with the third-year eruption of CeeDee Lamb, they’re getting quality play from their offensive line (no player below a 63.6 PFF grade), and have continued to get Tony Pollard, the league’s leading rusher in yards after contact per attempt, more involved consistently. Do you wish they had another true wide receiver to complement Lamb? Yes, yet with Prescott (84.2 PFF grade) playing at the level he is and everything else coming into form from a supporting cast and scheme perspective, it may be time to start talking about them as one of the premier offenses in the NFL. Compared to where we were at the start of the year, that’s incredible to write with a straight face.

Now, from a points per game standpoint, it’d appear the Giants (13th) have had a well-performing defensive unit. Make no mistake about it, though, this is a bottom-ten defense in EPA/play allowed and DVOA that is now without their top-two cornerbacks, and already had the second-worst PFF coverage grade as is. To boot, they’ve been quite poor (fifth-most yards allowed per game) to tight ends, which sets up very well for Schultz, and have the second-worst EPA/play allowed on early downs in the entire NFL. That sets up quite favorably for Dallas, who, on the other hand, don’t have any issues defensively: 3rd in EPA/play allowed, 2nd in DVOA, first in PFF pass rush grade and pressure rate. Speaking of which, only Justin Fields has been pressured on a higher rate of his dropbacks than Daniel Jones, who comes into this game with *checks notes* THREE big-time throws for the entire year (1%). While they’ve been productive due to an absence of mistakes, unique personnel packages, and the third-highest play-action rate, there’s a limit to said strategy, which explains their ranking (18th) in yards per drive despite facing the 27th-hardest strength of schedule, per Football Outsiders. The magic of Brian Daboll knows no boundaries, but, on paper, this isn’t a pretty-looking matchup for him.

Down two cornerbacks, multiple starting offensive linemen, and now without rookie receiver Wan’Dale Robinson as well, the Giants have gone from playing with a talent deficit to making this a David vs Goliath situation. If they find a way to overcome the odds here, it’s time to not only give Daboll the Coach of the Year award, but build him a statue as well. That being said, they’re running into an ascending Cowboys team at the wrong time.

New England Patriots (6-4) at Minnesota Vikings (8-2)

Spread: MIN (-2.5)

  • Projected Spread: MIN (-2.1)
  • My Pick: MIN (-2.5)

Total42.5

  • Projected Total: 42.73
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • NE: 43.73%
  • MIN: 56.27%

Score Prediction: Patriots 17 Vikings 20

Top Storylines:

  • The Cage Match: Vikings Offense vs Patriots Defense
  • A Game That Could Be Defined By Sacks and Pressure
  • Can Mac Jones Build Off Of The Positives Of Last Week?

With the two first games of the day featuring spreads of nearly double digits, it’s refreshing to finish off Thanksgiving with a game that truly could go any which way. Now, despite what the records of these two teams say, this almost certainly isn’t a Super Bowl preview, but the continued unknown regarding both of them is what, in some sense, makes it more entertaining. Plus, with Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell facing off against Bill Belichick, we get another instance with Belichick taking on one of his former players, which is the ultimate “student teacher” situation. Ultimately, it’s that cage match that should dictate the outcome of this game.

Can someone please tell me what the real version of the Vikings offense is? Per DVOA and EPA/Play (19th), the results have been disappointing for a unit with many of the same pieces as the group that finished 11th in EPA/play between 2020 and 2021, and was supposed to theoretically see an uptick in production with O’Connell taking over. One issue? A complete lack of weapons outside of Justin Jefferson; the trio of Adam Thielen, KJ Osborn, and TJ Hockenson are averaging just 1.02 yards/route run, while Jefferson has all but four of the team’s receptions of 20+ air yards. Add that to a struggling offensive line that has played a major role in Kirk Cousins being the sixth-most pressured quarterback in the NFL and is now without Christian Darrisaw, PFF‘s third-highest graded tackle, and there are a lot of deficiencies that have plagued them thus far, and may continue to as well. Unfortunately, this isn’t the ideal matchup to hide those issues.

After all, when you lead the league in DVOA and EPA/play allowed, the chances are you’re set up to have success against a struggling offense. Now, they haven’t exactly been tested (bears, Jets twice, Colts) over the past month, but DVOA is still adjusted for strength of schedule, and it’s rather consistent with a Belichick-coached defense; somehow, someway, the pieces continue to work together. This year, though, in addition to their tremendous secondary, they’re also getting incredible production from their defensive line, who has the second-highest pressure rate and three pass rushers in the top-25 in pass-rush win rate, which seemingly is problematic for Minnesota’s hampered offensive line. With pressure comes mistakes, and, of course, that’s led to the Patriots being where they are right now.

Unfortunately, football is ultimately won on the offensive side of the ball, and the Patriots have not only struggled the entire year (26th in DVOA), but have shown zero progress, with Mac Jones grading out worse as a passer from PFF than every quarterback not named Zach Wilson and Taylor Heinicke. On the bright side, Jones was quite efficient (9.1 yards/attempt) last week, but he’s also taken 16 sacks in the past three games, something the league’s eighth-highest graded pass rush will look to take advantage of. With the lowest average depth of target over the past three weeks as well, there’s no explosive element of this offense for Minnesota to be concerned about, which combined with the sacks and a bottom-ten rushing attack, has led to the poor offensive showings that are becoming far too common for them. So, can Jones build off of the positives of last game while getting back to being one of the league’s best quarterbacks at not taking sacks? Regardless of what happens this year, his development remains the critical point, but the offensive futility has become too extreme to ignore.

That theoretically should be what shifts the game in Minnesota’s favor, but, really, any outcome here wouldn’t be surprising. I would certainly not expect many points to be scored here, with turnovers and sacks likely to define this game. When push comes to shove, you’d hope that the upside associated with Cousins and Jefferson are enough to do just enough, but is that the attitude an 8-2 team facing arguably the most dysfunctional offense in the NFL should have? You are who your record says you are, until you aren’t.

Houston Texans (1-8-1) at Miami Dolphins (7-3)

Spread: MIA (-14)

  • Projected Spread: MIA (-13.3)
  • My Pick: MIA (-14)

Total47

  • Projected Total: 46.03
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • HOU: 9.72%
  • MIA: 90.28%

Score Prediction: Texans 14 Dolphins 30

Top Storylines:

  • It’s Always Fun Watching The Dolphins Offense
  • However, Can They Sort Things Out In Their Secondary?
  • What Does The Texans’ Quarterback Change Accomplish For The Rest Of The Year?

Fresh off of four straight wins and with the AFC East lead heading into their Week 11 bye, it’d be quite hard for the Dolphins to not feel on top of the world- their theoretical best-case scenario has played out before them. That being said, starting in Week 13, they won’t face a single opponent with a losing record outside of the still-dangerous Packers, making their road ahead quite difficult. Well, in their case, thank goodness for this game.

It may seem hyperbolic, but right before the team’s bye week, you can make a case Tua Tagovailoa had put together as dominant of a three game stretch as it gets:

  • 96.2 PFF grade, 9.9 yards/pass attempt, 0.634 adjusted EPA/play, 13.1 CPOE, 7.6% big-time throw rate, 0% turnover-worthy play rate, 1.9% sack rate

During this span, the Dolphins (.573 EPA/play) were a complete outlier compared to the rest of the league, though it did come against the Lions, Bears, and Browns, who currently all rank in the bottom-four in EPA/play allowed. A date with the 49ers next week will prove to be a much greater challenge, but, for this week, it doesn’t get much better than facing the 29th-ranked defense in DVOA, who also have earned a PFF coverage grade of 45.5 or below in three straight games. Now, all they have to do is face the league’s most-efficient passing attacks when Tagovailoa has been healthy, led by two receivers (Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle) ranked in the top-three in yards/route run. What could possibly go wrong?

Speaking of the Texans, they find themselves in strong position to receive the #1 overall pick in next year’s draft, which would take care of their search for a new franchise quarterback. Certainly, that won’t be Davis Mills, who has been benched in favor of Kyle Allen; technically, Allen has provided more throughout his five-year career in terms of accuracy (1.5 CPOE), but will also take his fair share of sacks (7.7%) with turnovers (5.1% turnover-worthy play rate) along the way. We’ll see if there’s any sort of spark with a quarterback willing to take more chances down the field, but if the Dolphins’ poor pass defense (29th in dropback EPA/play and PFF coverage grade) can’t sort things out here,when will they? With a top-ten graded run defense and pass rush by PFF, it’s ultimately up to the secondary to live up to their end of the bargain, and any struggles here would be remarkably concerning.

There’s not much to add for a game that, on paper, wouldn’t figure to be coming down to the wire. That being said, simply avoiding extra concern with any unexpected struggles in pass defense, in addition to continued offensive excellence, would be quite the bouncing-off point going into such a critical part of their schedule- “stealing” the AFC East title from the Bills would be quite the turn of events. At the very least, who doesn’t want to watch their offense continue to shine? Man, we’ve come a long way since the Laremy Tunsil trade.

Chicago Bears (3-8) at New York Jets (6-4)

Spread: NYJ (-6)

  • Projected Spread: NYJ (-5.2)
  • My Pick: CHI (+6)*

Total38.5

  • Projected Total: 39.07
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • CHI: 34.47%
  • NYJ: 65.53%

Score Prediction: Bears 17 Jets 21

Top Storylines:

  • Mike White Time?
  • Does Justin Fields Play In This Game? If So, What Shape Is He In Against a High-End Defense?
  • How Do The Bears Manage To Limit Sacks In a Brutal Matchup?

Sometimes, a matchup doesn’t quite play out the way you expected it to at the beginning of the year. After all, the narrative around a face-off between the #2 overall pick in the 2021 draft (Zach Wilson) and one of the quarterbacks the Jets passed up the chance to take (Justin Fields) had “talk show discussions” all over it. Instead, with Wilson benched and Fields 50/50 to play in this game due to a shoulder injury, there’s a legitimate chance this becomes a game quarterbacked by Mike White and Trevor Siemian. Ultimately, Fields will likely play, even if it’s not in his best interest, though it’s other news that took place this week that will dominate the storylines here.

When a team benches their chosen franchise quarterback, whom they selected with the second overall pick nonetheless, in just his sophomore year, it certainly isn’t a promising sign regarding his future outlook; if they aren’t going to have confidence in him to play at a competent enough level to let a very talented team have a postseason shot right now, are they really going to risk wasting any future seasons due to poor quarterback play? Since the start of 2021, only Davis Mills, who also was just benched, has a worse adjusted EPA/play (-.121) than Wilson, and no quarterback has been less accurate (-6.2 CPOE). On top of that, he’s PFF’s lowest-graded quarterback, has ten more turnover-worthy plays (13, 5.7%) than big-time throws (3, 1.5%), and has specifically been putrid (21.9 PFF Grade, 3.3 yards/attempt) when under pressure. What we’ve seen from new starter Mike White – a four-game sample with a 51.4 PFF grade and a 6.1% turnover-worthy play rate in 2021 – but he also only took four sacks on 137 dropbacks and performed at a higher level of play (.108 adjusted EPA/play) than Wilson has. In fact, it’s rather telling that, if anything, the spread has moved in the Jets’ favor since White was announced as the starter over Wilson.

Now, the Jets’ two healthy running backs are averaging under four yards/carry, and they’re also a bottom-ten graded pass-protection unit from PFF. That’s where a Bears defense ranked 30th in DVOA comes into play, making the idea that this is the game Wilson was benched for even more ironic- if there was ever a spot for him to succeed, it would have been here. On the other hand, Chicago certainly feels they have their quarterback of the future in Justin Fields, who, since the team made significant offensive changes prior to the Week 7, is 8th in the entire NFL in adjusted EPA/play, and that includes games against the Patriots and Cowboys. Unfortunately, though, he’s now dealing with a notable shoulder injury, which certainly isn’t ideal for the amount of hits he’s taking while being their main source of production as a runner, and now would have to face a Jets defense that is not a pleasant group for offenses to deal with. The team with the highest sack and pressure rate allowed against the defense with the fourth-highest pressure rate, in addition to a secondary with three cornerbacks in the top-16 in PFF coverage grade? Yeah, that doesn’t sound ideal. It’s impossible to know how the Jets would deal with the rushing prowess of Fields, but all indications (5th in PFF run defense grade, 6th in yards/carry allowed) are that they’re about as well-built to handle it as any defense, and that’s before considering Fields’ injury.

Now, that’s enough to take down the Bears, though a six-point spread is lofty for a team with arguably the worst quarterback situation in the NFL. Yet, what happens with the Vikings and Bills up next? There’s still a pathway where enough defensive success gets the Jets into the postseason this year, but that’s a difficult formula to repeat on a yearly basis given the volatility of defensive performance, and they’re not in position to draft a quarterback. So, does that mean Jimmy Garoppolo or Derek Carr are on their way to New York? It’s a tough situation to be in; for as well-constructed of a roster general manager Joe Douglas has built, it all comes down to the quarterback position. For now, though, it’ll be up to Robert Saleh’s defense to continue to carry the load.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-4) at Tennessee Titans (7-3)

Spread: TEN (+2.5)

  • Projected Spread: TEN (+1.8)
  • My Pick: CIN (-2.5)

Total43.5

  • Projected Total: 44.19
  • My Pick: Over

Win Probability:

  • CIN: 55.39%
  • TEN: 44.61%

Score Prediction: Bengals 24 Titans 21

Top Storylines:

  • Welcome Back, Ja’Marr Chase!
  • The Bloodbath Unfolds: Bengals Offense vs Titans Defense, Especially On Third Downs
  • Can The Titans Continue To Build An Improved Passing Attack?

In a post-Thanksgiving slate with no other game featuring two teams with a winning record, this one particularly stands out compared to the rest. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but last year’s divisional round matchup between the Bengals and Titans had extensive ripple effects for both franchises. Whether it was Tennessee establishing the defensive blueprint the Bengals offense has worked hard to combat, or the Titans going from #1 seed in the AFC to trading away their best player (AJ Brown), those effects are still in place, and will be put on a collision course here.

To be fair to the Bengals, if there’s a defensive blueprint for them, it’s not showing up on the field. Over the first five weeks of the season, that was certainly there; Cincinnati ranked 20th in EPA/play, Joe Burrow slotted in just 22nd of 35 quarterbacks in PFF grade, while he only had five completions of 20+ air yards. Since then, they’re the top-performing offense in the NFL, Burrow leads the league in PFF grade, and has ten big-time throws compared to one turnover-worthy play rate. Even better, with how often (70.1%) they’re passing on early downs, they’ve become the exact spread-out offense we started to see at the end of last year, and now will likely be getting Ja’Marr Chase back from his hip injury. Heck, Burrow, largely to his credit, is the fourth-least pressured quarterback as well. To say their offense is functioning at a high level would be a dramatic understatement, which is the exact type of upside that gives them the opportunity to go on a Super Bowl run at any time.

That being said, they are few defenses that are less enjoyable to play against than the Titans, who, in addition to being extremely physical and fundamentally-sound, are allowing the second-lowest success rate in the NFL, rank in the top-five in PFF run defense and pass rush grade, and also are 12th in PFF coverage grade? Strength of schedule be damned, to not allow 20 points in regulation in seven straight games is absolutely remarkable, and their consistent success as an outlier on third downs is a direct threat to an offense who is currently second in third down conversion rate over expectation. Back in the postseason, Burrow took nine sacks with just a 4.8-yard average depth of target, and it’ll take another similar approach (success rushing with four with two-high shells) for them to have similar success here. Still, this is a different Bengals offense, and while there have been peaks and valleys, the peaks are worth chasing.

Certainly, the cagematch between the Bengals offense and Titans defense dominantes the intrigue for this game, but can Tennessee show enough as a passing attack to have any sort of fighting chance in the AFC? It’s been a struggle for an offense averaging the second-fewest yards per game, but they’ve been able to get by based on red-zone efficiency thus far, while Ryan Tannehill quietly ranks 4th in the entire NFL in yards/attempt (8.1). The potential emergence of first-round rookie Treylon Burks, fresh off catching eight passes for 111 yards and 5.29 yards/route run, perhaps can give them the semblance of explosiveness they’re lacking from their offense, which has escalated by the fourth-best early-down pass rate in the NFL. With the season-ending injury to Chidobe Awuzie forcing the Bengals to start Eli Apple and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt on the outside, you’d be hoping that emphasis on an aerial attack continues into this game, though it’s also hard to expect that to continue for the league’s previously second-lowest ranked offense in early-down pass rate. In some ways, though, this strategic development could be the notable tipping point for them.

It’s pretty difficult to not just anticipate the Titans continuing to crash the AFC party, though that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not facing Joe Burrow and top-performing offense in the NFL over the past six weeks. In a game likely to be filled with high-leverage situations, the edge the Bengals have in the passing game stands out, though nothing with Tennessee should be surprising at this point. Really, can we flex this game into primetime? This truly is a football nerd’s heaven!

Denver Broncos (3-7) at Carolina Panthers (3-8)

Spread: CAR (+1)

  • Projected Spread: CAR (+2.6)
  • My Pick: DEN (-1)

Total36

  • Projected Total: 36.14
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • DEN: 58.01%
  • CAR: 41.99%

Score Prediction: Broncos 19 Panthers 16

Top Storylines:

  • The Stoppable Force Takes On The Immovable Object
  • How Does Denver’s Offense Evolve With More Games Under a New Play Caller?
  • Sam Darnold’s Audition To Be a Backup Next Season?

Sometimes, it’s best not to sugarcoat things: this is probably not the game you want to show someone looking to be entertained by quality football. If you opt to take a “glass half approach”, you could say that a low-scoring game is a sign of strong defensive play, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Hey, someone has to win, right?

Certainly, with only one loss of more than seven points, the Broncos have been plenty competitive this season, but that’s simply due to a defense 2nd in the NFL in EPA/play allowed; had they merely scored 18 points in regulation throughout all of their games, they’d be 8-2. Instead, their offensive futility has completely wasted such a dominant defensive effort, which definitely isn’t what you expect as a franchise when you trade multiple first and second-round picks and players to acquire a perceived star quarterback in Russell Wilson, only to also sign him to a $245 million deal. Interestingly, we saw head coach Nathaniel Hackett give over play-calling duties to quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, though the team’s lack of play-action pass usage (14.3%) and depth of target from a clean pocket (4.9 yards) left a lot to be desired against defenses not ranked dead last in EPA/play allowed. Still likely without receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, the “big-play” element of this offense is lacking, which, without any sort of efficiency and the second-highest sack rate in the NFL, leads to their current version.

While the Panthers aren’t exactly the Broncos defensively, they’ve been rather competent (14th in EPA/play allowed), enough so to be competitive with even a league-average offense. Unfortunately, they don’t have that, and their quarterback situation encapsulates that perfectly: relying on a bounce-back season from Baker Mayfield to turning to PJ Walker to Mayfield again, and, now, Sam Darnold gets a chance to start as well. Just about now, selecting Justin Fields with the 8th overall pick in the 2021 draft would have been useful. It’s hard to expect much from the third-worst quarterback in the NFL based on adjusted EPA/play (-.096) and PFF grade (54.7), a resume much worse than what Mayfield brought to the table this year, and they’ve still been by far the least-efficient passing offense (-.178 EPA/dropback) in the NFL. Did I mention they’re facing a defense ranked #1 in dropback success rate and PFF coverage grade? That doesn’t sound like a fair fight.

Wow, this is not shaping up to be a game on the Red Zone channel at all. For once, Denver has found their match offensively, which may allow them to finally win a game due to dominant defensive production; that, combined with the still-added upside of Wilson and a better offensive infrastructure, makes all the difference here. At this point, that’s the best-case scenario for a Panthers team looking to “secure” the #2 overall pick in next year’s draft, hopefully leading to some sort of resolve at the quarterback position. If we’ve learned anything by now, though, it’s to never count your chickens before their hash.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5) at Cleveland Browns (3-7)

Spread: CLE (+3.5)

  • Projected Spread: CLE (-2.4)
  • My Pick: CLE (+3.5)

Total42

  • Projected Total: 45.67
  • My Pick: Over

Win Probability:

  • TB: 42.62%
  • CLE: 57.38%

Score Prediction: Bucs 24 Browns 23

Top Storylines:

  • An “Explosion” Spot For The Bucs Offense Coming Out Of Their Bye Week
  • The Final Start For Jacoby Brissett
  • Is Tampa Bay’s Defense Still Strong Enough To Support a Late-Season Run?

If there’s been one staple throughout Tom Brady’s career, it’s that beating the Browns has not been an issue. Just take a look at the laundry list of Cleveland quarterbacks he’s beaten:

  • Tim Couch (2001)
  • Couch and Kelly Holcomb (2003)
  • Luke McCown (2004)
  • Derek Anderson (2007)
  • Jason Campbell (2013)
  • Cody Kessler and Charlie Whitehurst (2016)
  • Baker Mayfield (2019)

Let’s give credit where it’s due to Colt McCoy for bucking this trend in 2010, but the difference in functionality between Brady-led teams and Cleveland has been stark. This year, though, there’s been a different feel- in spite of the Browns playing with a backup quarterback, they are averaging the fourth-most yards per drive in the NFL, compared to Tampa Bay at 17th; it’s hard to believe one would have been able to prognosticate that at the beginning of the year. On the bright side for the Bucs, they’re coming off arguably their best performance of the season in Week 10 (.173 EPA/play), and, most encouragingly, used play-action concepts on 34.5% of Brady’s dropbacks, where he absolutely thrived (12.1 yards/attempt). That, combined with continued positive third-down regression, would set them up for success down the line. However, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is on record stating that his solution to the least-efficient rushing attack in the NFL is to increase the rushing volume, which he did in that Week 10 win (-8% pass rate over expectation). The best part? While their 161 rushing yards sounds impressive, it translated to 3.7 yards/carry and a below-average rushing success rate (36.8%), and that hampered them on early downs (18th in success rate). Can they get away with that against PFF‘s lowest-graded run defense, allowing an EPA/rush 2.5 times more than the second-worst rushing defense? Sure, but what happens with a similar approach against superior defenses? That’s where things could get dicey.

Interestingly, the Browns came into this season expecting to be a defensive-oriented team while Jacoby Brissett was filling in for the suspended Deshaun Watson, but while their defense (31st in EPA/play allowed) has been an absolute liability this year, it’s been Brissett and the offense that has carried the load (6th in EPA/play). In fact, a lot of the credit needs to go to Brissett, a top-ten quarterback in PFF grade and EPA/play, who has clearly played well enough to receive a shot at a starting job next season. It’s a shame this will be the last we see of him this year, though it instills a high level of expectation for Watson, though the idea they’re in this position despite strong quarterback play is a notable concern. The Bucs have quietly had troubles in run defense (11th-lowest PFF run defense grade) and pass rush (third-lowest PFF pass rush grade), adding another worrisome element to their Super Bowl desires, and is something that paves the way for plenty of success offensively for Cleveland. Hey, who would’ve thought Tom Brady going to head-to-head with Jacoby Brissett would be a baseline expectation for a game in 2022?

In many ways, the Browns are the team with the much-better performing offense, which, as it has often, gives them a strong chance to win. Of course, the reason they’re 3-7 is in large part to a defense that has discarded any of that offensive success, and is the one clear weak-link unit of this game. Even if Tampa Bay can get by in this game by exploiting the same weaknesses the Browns have fallen because of, what we see from them off a bye week, both from a process and execution standpoint on both sides of the ball, truly could shape the rest of the season. For Cleveland, it’s about looking ahead to the future, and, hopefully, a promising final showing for a quarterback that has performed admirably this year. After all, have you seen some of the quarterback situations in the league currently? Heck, this may be the best quarterbacked season in Cleveland this century! How’s that for perspective?

Atlanta Falcons (5-6) at Washington Commanders (6-5)

Spread: WSH (-4)

  • Projected Spread: WSH (+2.1)
  • My Pick: ATL (+4)

Total40.5

  • Projected Total: 43.89
  • My Pick: Over

Win Probability:

  • ATL: 56.43%
  • WSH: 43.57%

Score Prediction: Falcons 23 Commanders 21

Top Storylines:

  • Trench Match: Falcons Run Blocking vs Washington Defensive Line
  • How Long Does Washington’s Heinicke Magic Last?
  • Speaking Of Magic, Keep It Going Terry McLaurin!

Usually, I like to come into these games with a clear lead-in, but, to be frank, I’m blanking here. Ironically, this is one of the games of the day with the largest postseason implications, and both of these teams have been very competitive this year. Hey, I guess that works as a lead in? Interestingly, these two teams are extremely one-sided, yet in completely different fashion, making for a very fascinating matchup. Actually, this game is quite intriguing!

Once upon a time, the Commanders were a meager 2-4, and had averaged just 11.75 points per game over their past four games. Then, Taylor Heinicke came in for the injured Carson Wentz, and they now have a 52% chance of making the postseason, per PFF. So, was a quarterback change all that was needed here? Not exactly; Heinicke is the second-lowest graded quarterback in the NFL by PFF, has eleven turnover-worthy plays compared to just three big-time throws, and a very low 69.8% adjusted completion rate as well. In terms of EPA/play (24th), they’ve also continued to be a bottom-ten offense even since the quarterback change, and that’s with them relying on an unsustainably high 68.75% of their contested-catch opportunities of 20+ yards down the field. The Falcons defense (28th in DVOA) certainly haven’t provided much resistance here, but the red flags are extremely evident.

Really, a vast majority of Washington’s hot stretch lies with the defensive side of the ball- they’ve allowed the third-lowest EPA/play during this span. Whether it’s rushing the passer (third-highest pressure rate), playing sound in the back end (sixth-best PFF coverage grade), or providing resistance up front (third-lowest EPA/rush allowed), they’ve been as well-rounded as it gets, though if there’s a place to exploit them, it’s over the top; they’re allowing the third-most air yards per completion in the NFL, which is an interesting storyline against a passing attack averaging the third-most yards before the catch per reception. Speaking of which, the Falcons offense, ranked 12th in DVOA, is no joke, creating chunk plays with the highest average depth of target and play-action rate in the NFL, along with the fifth-most efficient offense on the ground. Per Football Outsiders, they’ve also had the fourth-least amount of variance from game-to-game, demonstrating an ability to perform effectively consistently, increasing their floor in a game where the opposing quarterback is playing with as much fire as possible. In essence, with just a -15 point differential through 11 games, they’ve remained very competitive, and their ability to produce at a high baseline offensively is a critical reason why.

So, in what world does the dramatically better offense end up as a four-point underdog? Can we give Arthur Smith’s team the credit they deserve for their feistiness? The model of winning the Commanders have relied upon right now has been about as unsustainable as it gets, and, eventually, it’s very likely to crash down hard on them. The Falcons, simply based on their overall stability, are the exact type of team that would stand to benefit from that, which, in turn, would keep them in the postseason mix. The mere fact both of these teams have something to play for here is a pleasant surprise, though, eventually, a team can’t walk on tightropes for too much longer, right?

Baltimore Ravens (7-3) at Jacksonville Jaguars (3-7)

Spread: JAX (+3.5)

  • Projected Spread: JAX (+6.1)
  • My Pick: BAL (-3.5)

Total43.5

  • Projected Total: 45.83
  • My Pick: Over

Win Probability:

  • BAL: 68.35%
  • JAX: 31.65%

Score Prediction: Ravens 27 Jaguars 21

Top Storylines:

  • Can The Ravens Sort Things Out Offensively?
  • On The Bright Side, Their Defense May Be Back To Being An Elite Unit
  • Can Trevor Lawrence Build Off His Recent Performances?

How can a team be 3-7 with a negative point differential? How can a team not be better than 7-3 when they’ve led by ten points in every one of their games? Enter in two of the most mysterious teams in the NFL. In fact, if you merely look at offensive EPA/play (BAL 9th, JAX 11th) and defensive EPA/play allowed (BAL 17th, JAX 18th), these two teams have been remarkably similar, though that’s not taking strength of schedule into account. That, in many ways, would lead to an interesting upset proposition, though that’s only a small part of the picture.

For instance, I’m not sure there is a team that has undergone more iterations than the Ravens, who have consistently evolved as the season has gone along. Offensively, it’s certainly been a journey, with them going from a pass-heavy attack to losing receiver Rashod Bateman for the season, tight end Mark Andrews for multiple games, and shuffling through various running backs and offensive linemen as well. In the end, though, that’s still led to a highly-functional offense, and you’d hope that Lamar Jackson’s inefficiency throwing the ball down the field (second-lowest yards/attempt on passes of 20+ air yards) positively regresses. At the same time, starting in Week 5, they’ve been the sixth-worst offense per dropback, and the team’s lack of receiver talent (no wide receiver with at least 1.5 yards/route run) is paramount in those struggles- this correlates exactly with the loss of Bateman, taking away the team’s one source of explosiveness on the perimeter. Absurd rushing efficiency (1st in EPA/rush) has compensated for that, which, to be fair, is to be expected with the yards before contact (1st in the NFL) that having Jackson allows you to get.

Facing a Jaguars defense with the fifth-worst PFF coverage grade and no linebacker with a PFF coverage grade of 52 or higher should help, though, and most of the team’s downfield struggles have come from a lack of connection with Mark Andrews (2 yards/route run on said passes vs 12.89 in 2021); this should not sustain. That being said, Baltimore is awfully lucky their defense seems to be coming into form at the perfect time. Over the past four games, they’ve been one of the top units (7th in EPA/play allowed) in the league, and the growth makes sense; it generally takes time for a new defensive coordinator to figure things out with the personnel he has. One boost? The acquisition of linebacker Roquan Smith has not only limited the responsibilities of Patrick Queen, but has also allowed them to play more nickel packages with rookie safety Kyle Hamilton in the slot, solving their key defensive liability. Between Hamilton, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and safety Geno Stone, they have three defensive backs in the top-14 in PFF coverage grade, and that’s not including Marcus Peters, or the linebacker duo of Smith and Queen. Or, a deep defensive line with five players with an above-average PFF pass rush grade, in addition to a top-ten graded run defense from PFF. Sometimes, it’s not about how you start, but how you finish, and the sudden well-roundedness of the Ravens is what continues to make them incredibly scary in the uber-competitive AFC.

That’s quite a tough test for Trevor Lawrence, who went into the Jaguars’ bye week off an incredible two-game stretch (90.1 PFF grade, .190 adjusted EPA/play, 56.2% success rate). For a perceived franchise quarterback, those are the peaks you want to see, and I’d expect a similar strategy catered towards the quick passing game- Lawrence averaged a time-to-throw of just 2.33 seconds and 7.1-yard average depth of target), and the Ravens are allowing third-lowest average depth of target this year. At the same time, the combination of a bottom-ten graded receiving corps without impact talent against a fully-functioning secondary and Lawrence’s woes under pressure (fifth-lowest PFF grade) against an improving pass rush also sparks worry. If he comes out of this game looking strong once again, what a win it’d be for a Jaguars team that is counting on him to take the next step in his development.

For now, though, in spite of Jacksonville clearly being better than their record would indicate, it’s hard to not feel confident in the Ravens molding into the best version of themselves down the stretch. To say that about a 7-3 team is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and they don’t face a team with a winning record until Week 18. That’s plenty of time to work things out offensively, while also seeing the fruits of their labor defensively. It really does pay to be a consistently functional franchise.

Las Vegas Raiders (3-7) at Seattle Seahawks (6-4)

Spread: SEA (-4)

  • Projected Spread: SEA (-3.9)
  • My Pick: SEA (-4)

Total47.5

  • Projected Total: 49.45
  • My Pick: Over

Win Probability:

  • LV: 38.03%
  • SEA: 61.97%

Score Prediction: Raiders 23 Seahawks 27

Top Storylines:

  • What Is The Real Version Of The Seahawks Defense?
  • Time For Fireworks In Seattle?
  • Is Derek Carr Playing For His Future In Las Vegas?

Coming into the year, the idea that this game would possess teams with a 6-4 and 3-7 record, respectively, would not have been a surprise. Surely, the Raiders would be hanging tight in the first year of the Josh McDaniels era, whereas the rebuilding Seahawks would be heading towards a top draft pick! Wait, the exact opposite has happened? Football, my friends, is anything but predictable. To be fair to the Raiders, all seven of their losses have come by one score, which has inflated their record in a negative way. Nevertheless, you couldn’t find two teams who feel differently about the way their season has gone, and perhaps that’s demonstrated even further here.

Even if they couldn’t go into their bye week with five straight wins, the Seahawks still enter this game with a 68% chance of making the postseason, per PFF, and that’s in spite of a win total of just 4.5 coming into the year. So, what changed? Naturally, it’s all about the quarterback position, and Geno Smith going from a backup for seven years to a top-five graded quarterback by PFF is about as remarkable of a turnaround as one can have. With obscene accuracy (1st in CPOE), especially down the field (#1 in PFF passing grade), Smith has clearly established himself as the epitome of a down-field passer who complements said big-play ability with efficiency (highest completion rate), not a common combination with a large enough sample size. Add onto that with an offensive line that has earned an above-average PFF pass-blocking grade in every game since Week 3 and the receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and it’s hard to beat that as passing attack. In fact, only the Chiefs and Bills have a higher dropback success rate, and they now get to face a Raiders defense allowing the highest EPA/play on designed passing plays in the NFL. On paper, it’s easy to connect the dots there!

Now, does Seattle have enough on the defensive side of the ball to potentially win the NFC West altgoether? Starting in Week 6, they can take pride in allowing the second-lowest success rate in the NFL, and their 17th-ranking in DVOA for the entire season paints the picture of them merely being a league-average unit. Ranked 14th in EPA/play allowed on early downs yet 31st on late downs, it’s easy to see a pathway to positive regression there, and that, combined with their passing attack, would be enough to make them a legitimate threat in the NFC. The Raiders, 9th in yards/drive, aren’t an easy offense to go up against, and we’ll see if rookie corner Tariq Woolen is truly ready to shadow Davante Adams, who is playing at an absurd level (91.2 PFF receiving grade, 3.49 yards/route run) over the past three games. Nevertheless, they’ve been an incredibly “boom or bust” passing attack – 26th in dropback success rate – that now faces a defense in the top-ten in air yards allowed per attempt and completion. What does that mean for Derek Carr in the midst of his least-efficient (64.2 PFF passing grade, 72.2% adjusted completion rate)? If he’s going to remain the starting quarterback in Las Vegas moving forward, he’s likely running out of time, making this a critical pivot spot for him.

The better quarterback and passing attack combined with a significantly better defense at home off a bye? When you put it together like that, the Seahawks have quite the advantage here, though I wouldn’t discount a Raiders team that has been extremely competitive this year. It’s always interesting to see two teams heading in completely different directions encounter one another, though, sometimes, they’re heading in their respective directions for a reason. Let’s just say this upcoming offseason is going to be quite important for both of these two teams.

Los Angeles Chargers (5-5) at Arizona Cardinals (4-7)

Spread: ARI (+3)

  • Projected Spread: ARI (+.5)
  • My Pick: LAC (-3)

Total48.5

  • Projected Total: 42.82
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • LAC: 51.62%
  • ARI: 48.38%

Score Prediction: Chargers 23 Cardinals 20

Top Storylines:

  • Can The Chargers Build Off Last Week’s Offensive Surge?
  • Will Something Please Change With The Cardinals Offense?
  • A Test For Los Angeles’ Interior Offensive Line

Coming into the year, one would have assumed this would be quite the high-powered game; what could go wrong between two star quarterbacks leading two hyped-up teams with postseason expectations, especially in a dome on the West Coast? Instead, this game features two offenses averaging negative expected points added per play, in addition to two quarterbacks in the bottom-ten in yards/pass attempt. Alas, consider this game one of notable disappointment, but let’s change that here.

After all, it’s hard to not look at the Chargers’ struggles offensively this season and attribute a decent portion of it to injuries to receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, as well as tackle Rashawn Slater. The combination of poor pass protection and little receiving talent is the prototypical formula for Justin Herbert averaging the third-lowest depth of target in the NFL, which, in turn, leads to little efficiency (6.6 yards/attempt) through the air. At the same time, Allen’s return to the lineup not only was critical in terms of his production (3.36 yards/route run) last week, but also in terms of Herbert pushing the ball down the field (9.1-yard average depth of target) and the team averaging a strong 12.2 yards/reception. Honestly, for the first time this season, we got a glimpse of the Chargers offense we expected to see, but is that going to continue against a blitz-happy Cardinals defense allowing the fewest air yards per completion in the NFL? Unfortunately, for entertainment purposes, where Arizona has been exploitable is their propensity for allowing consistently successful plays for opposing offenses (32nd in dropback success rate, 28th in completion rate allowed) and yardage after the catch (second-most yards after catch/reception), which is something they can get away with here, and there’s plenty of time to build on their offense with the Raiders up next as well. For now, they’ll take every win they can get.

Fortunately for them, there’s no offense in the NFL with worse efficiency through the air in terms of yards/reception and yards/pass attempt than the Cardinals, which is damning considering Kyler Murray had just finished as PFF‘s fifth-highest graded passer, and led the league in big-time throw rate and passing grade on throws of 20+ air yards- there’s a reason Arizona decided to make him the highest-paid quarterback in the league. Even if DeAndre Hopkins’ suspension and Marquise Brown’s injury has hurt them, there’s no excuse for Murray averaging a lower depth of target in a clean pocket than every quarterback not named Matt Ryan, especially when they’re also averaging the sixth-fewest yards after the catch/reception as well. Furthermore, running back James Conner has also been one of the least-efficient runners (3.7 yards/carry) in the NFL, Murray’s utility on the ground is an unknown coming back from a hamstring injury, and they remain without four starting offensive linemen. Not exactly how you drew it out. For all of the Chargers’ defensive woes, that mainly comes from allowing the most yards/carry in addition to being bit over the top (seventh-most air yards allowed/attempt), two things the Cardinals have not shown the ability to exploit. One year into extensions of head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray, what’s the plan in Arizona? Standing pat certainly shouldn’t be it.

While these two teams can be bucketed similarly, they’re extremely different in terms of the chances of them turning the boat around. We’ve clearly seen the flashes of excellence in Los Angeles that made them a popular Super Bowl pick, while Herbert’s underlying play hasn’t dramatically changed. Murray, on the other hand, has struggled mightily in even more-individualized metrics, and there have simply been no signs of life to speak of. Hey, based on reports this week, this could be considered the Sean Payton bowl! Would you trade a first-round pick for a head coach? It’s a peculiar dynamic both of these franchise will have to contemplate this offseason; they can’t settle for the current ineffectiveness of their passing attacks, regardless of the origin of those struggles.

New Orleans Saints (4-7) at San Francisco 49ers (6-4)

Spread: SF (-8.5)

  • Projected Spread: SF (-9)
  • My Pick: SF (-8.5)

Total43

  • Projected Total: 42.96
  • My Pick: Over

Win Probability:

  • NO: 22.86%
  • SF: 77.14%

Score Prediction: Saints 19 49ers 28

Top Storylines:

  • How Long Can Andy Dalton Keep This Up?
  • A Tough Debut For First-Round Tackle Trevor Penning
  • Just How Dominant Can The 49ers Offense Be?

I don’t know about you, but this game provides tremendous flashbacks to 2019, where we saw one of the best games in recent memory; a 48-46 49ers win in New Orleans that led to them securing the #1 seed, capped off by George Kittle carrying three defenders with him to get the 49ers in field goal range. Add in a dynamic postseason shootout in 2012, and these two teams have provided us with exceptional entertainment in recent years. That being said, this may not be as close.

Strangely, though, that isn’t a given; the Saints, in spite of their 4-7 record, haven’t played as poorly as the win-loss record would indicate. While their overall numbers are skewed by the worst turnover differential in the NFL, but when excluding turnovers, they rank 11th in EPA/play, 6th in success rate, and 9th in EPA/play allowed. To boot, Andy Dalton is PFF‘s fourth-highest graded passer, and certainly figures to see further turnover regression with more interceptions (seven) than turnover-worthy throws (five). The issue? For starters, this is a much higher baseline than Dalton has played at in recent years, notable against the third-softest schedule of opposing defenses (per Football Outsiders), and their offensive line remains disastrous- they’ve received a PFF pass-blocking grade under 48.5 in three straight games, are still without three starters on the offensive line, and now face stout defensive line with the 9th-best PFF pass rush grade. Right now, Dalton has faced an above-average defense in terms of dropback EPA/play allowed in just two games this year, and the 49ers (5th in dropback EPA/play allowed, 4th in air yards allowed/attempt) are a completely different test.

Plus, the 49ers defense may not even be the best part of their team; San Francisco has the second-best EPA/play over the past month, and for the first time all year, are fully healthy both on the offensive line and with their playmaking talent. With the amount of matchup nightmares they have, it isn’t surprising that Jimmy Garoppolo has been able to shred man coverage (.360 EPA/play), which is why they see it the second-least of any offense. Yet, no team, per The 33rd Team, runs more man coverage than the Saints, who have also been vulnerable to yardage after the catch (10th-most per reception). In other words, don’t expect the 49ers offense to go away anytime soon. I mean, how many teams can claim a potential top-five offense and defense? The Bills, Eagles, and Cowboys all deserve mentions, but it’s quite scary how dominant San Francisco can be at full force.

Really, a two-score victory for the 49ers here would say more about them than it does about the Saints, who’ve certainly been bit hard by poor luck this year. That being said, New Orleans has also benefitted from potentially unsustainable production at the quarterback position and a very favorable schedule, which is about all they could have asked for coming into the year. Alas, that hasn’t been enough, and the massive gap between them and the elite teams in the NFC is precisely why an “all-in” strategy when you don’t have the resources to be a true Super Bowl contender has major flaws. In many ways, it’s astonishing how much has changed in New Orleans, yet how much has stayed the same in San Francisco; organizational stability and young talent will do that for you.

Los Angeles Rams (3-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-2)

Spread: KC (-16)

  • Projected Spread: KC (-12.2)
  • My Pick: LAR (+16)

Total42

  • Projected Total: 43.63
  • My Pick: Over

Win Probability:

  • LAR: 13.14%
  • KC: 86.86%

Score Prediction: Rams 19 Chiefs 31

Top Storylines:

  • Hello, Bryce Perkins
  • Can The Rams’ Defensive Stars Keep Them Somewhat Competitive Here?
  • Another Prime Showing For Chris Jones’ Defensive Player Of The Year Campaign

Could you imagine telling anyone before the season that the defending Super Bowl champion Rams, at any point in the season, would be a 16-point underdog? One would have to assume FOX fought hard for the right to broadcast this game as the premier late-afternoon matchup, which certainly has not gone as planned. It’s been a rough season as is for the Rams, but to enter a game in Kansas City without Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, and multiple offensive linemen is about as tough of sledding as it gets, further demonstrating one of the largest drop-offs we’ve seen in some time.

With Stafford out with his second concussion, the Rams will now turn to former undrafted free agent Bryce Perkins to make his first-career start. The third-year quarterback did not demonstrate much in the way of passing effectiveness (sub-65 PFF passing grade, zero big-time throws), but created a lot of production as a runner, something that will likely be the pinpoint of Los Angeles’ offensive strategy. The issue? No offense has a lower success rate on the ground that them, and only the Colts and Texans have averaged fewer expected points added per play. Remember, that’s including them at a much healthier state; an unproven passer playing behind the second-lowest graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF with very few weapons to throw to and no semblance of a running game doesn’t sound like a blueprint for success, especially when the baseline is already so low. In that case, enjoy the afternoon off, Chiefs defense.

One could point to the impact talent the Rams have on the defensive side of the ball, such as interior defender Aaron Donald, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and linebacker Bobby Wagner, as their pathway to success moving forward. Nevertheless, all of that has accumulated to a defense ranked 26th in pass DVOA allowed, as their insistence on playing very soft coverages has led to the third-highest completion rate given up in the entire NFL. Certainly, there are troubles with said strategy against the top offense in the NFL in EPA/play and dropback EPA/play, particularly with Juju Smith-Schuster now healthy. By now, we’re well aware of who these two teams are, which is precisely why we’re looking at the largest spread of the season so far.

In spite of that, 16 points is an incredible amount, so who knows if the Chiefs will cover, though I’m sure they’ll take a comfortable win in which everyone comes out healthy. The Rams, on the other hand, could be without Stafford and Kupp for the rest of the year, and without a first-round pick or much in the way of available cap space next year, are in about as brutal of a position as any franchise can be in. Ultimately, ever win-now move comes at a cost; why can’t every contending team simply have Patrick Mahomes to cover up any warts?

Green Bay Packers (4-7) at Philadelphia Eagles (8-2)

Spread: PHI (-6.5)

  • Projected Spread: PHI (-8.7)
  • My Pick: PHI (-6.5)

Total46

  • Projected Total: 45.62
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • GB: 23.65%
  • PHI: 76.35%

Score Prediction: Packers 17 Eagles 24

Top Storylines:

  • A Game That Should Involve Both Ground Attacks Significantly
  • Can The Eagles Offense Get Back On Track?
  • Which Version of Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s Passing Attack Do We Get?

Speaking of perceived NFC Super Bowl contenders at the beginning of the year that have fallen on hard times, there aren’t many worse ways to try to eliminate the negative energy generated by struggles than going on the road to Philadelphia to face a 9-1 Eagles team in primetime. Once again, what is it with this slate and matchups that did not match preseason expectations?

With two of their three lowest -scoring games coming in the past two weeks, is it time to panic in Philadelphia? Even when excluding turnovers, they’re in the middle-of-the-pack in dropback efficiency over the past two weeks, though due to their production on the ground, still are in the top-ten in success rate. Facing a bottom-five rushing defense in EPA/play allowed their ability to be one of five offenses generating positive expected points on designed runs sets them up well, allowing them to exploit the third-worst defense on early downs. For their sake, it’d be ideal to see them have more efficiency through the air, but they’ve also faced two top-eight defenses in EPA/play allowed in back-to-back weeks, and Jalen Hurts’ level of play (78.1 PFF grade, 3.6% big-time throw, 1.6% turnover-worthy play) hasn’t changed at all. Without edge rusher Rashan Gary, the Packers have received below-average PFF pass rush grades under 61.5 in back-to-back games, and are just 19th in yards/attempt allowed after a rough showing against the Titans last week. In simple terms, it’s been a very small sample, they’ve been extremely efficient this year, so don’t expect the panic buttom to need to be pushed here.

For the Packers, on the other hand, have been sounding the alarm bells for a considerable amount of time. I mean, who would’ve thought an offense quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers would be in the bottom-ten in EPA/play, and be averaging negative expective points through the air? Rodgers’ underlying numbers (6% big-time throw, 2.1% turnover-worthy play) hasn’t changed much, but his frequency of passes behind the line of scrimmage (highest at 21.8%) and decreased effectiveness on throws of 20+ air yards (11 yards/attempt) is a tough combination. Ironically, the wide receiver trio of Allen Lazard, Christian Watson, and Randall Cobb have all been efficient this season, they’re the fourth-highest graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF, and are incredibly efficient (4th in success rate) on the ground. Nevertheless, it’s taken until now for those pieces to come together, and, even then, have yet to show any signs of that formulating a consistently productive offense. They’ll likely find success on the ground against the worst defense in rushing success rate, but what happens in obvious passing situations against a top-three graded pass rush and coverage unit by PFF? That’s the differentiator in this game, which, unfortunately, is a game they can’t afford to lose.

In fact, one could say the Packers simply can’t afford to lose more than one game for the rest of the year, which could be possible, but would require upsetting one of the Eagles or Dolphins, beating the Vikings, and taking care of business against the Bears, Rams, and Lions. In many ways, you can put together the pieces on paper, but it’s likely coming too late, and at a time where Rodgers, whether injured or not, has also seen his underlying performance and accuracy decline. The Eagles, on the other hand, remain a top-five team in EPA/play on offense and defense for a reason, and perhaps this is a time for us to remember why they’ve been considered the team to beat in the NFC. The intrigue in this game is fabulous.

Pittsburgh Steelers (3-7) at Indianapolis Colts (4-6-1)

Spread: IND (-2.5)

  • Projected Spread: IND (-3.2)
  • My Pick: IND (-2.5)

Total: 39

  • Projected Total: 37.38
  • My Pick: Under

Win Probability:

  • PIT: 40.36%
  • IND: 59.64%

Score Prediction: Steelers 17 Colts 20

Top Storylines:

  • Can Kenny Pickett Show Improvements From a Clean Pocket?
  • The Steelers Defense Finally Gets a Breather; Can They Capitalize
  • A Notable Test For The Colts Offensive Line

Two consistently stable franchises in the midst of disappointing seasons, putting them in a peculiar position without many cost-controlled players on the roster; it’s always fun when a matchup demonstrates such notable symmetry. Plus, how often does an ESPN analyst become an interim head coach, only to participate in a game televised by his previous employer? Really, I’m not sure there’s a better way to encapsulate the chaos of this season better than that.

Speaking of Jeff Saturday’s Colts, they’ve demonstrated offensive competence (20th in EPA/play, 18th in success rate) over the past two weeks, though a large majority of that is inflated by a high-end performance (.178 EPA/play, 53.3% success rate) against a Raiders defense ranked last in DVOA. Notably, they’ve been one of the most run-heavy offense on early downs (26th in early-down pass rate) in those two weeks, with Matt Ryan playing a very conservative brand of football; he’s averaging just six air yards per target, is getting rid of the ball very quickly (2.41-second time-to-throw), and is limiting turnover-worthy plays (1.4%) significantly better than he had been earlier in the season. In games where offensive upside is needed, particularly on third downs, that’s a formula with a very slim margin for error, though it can work in a game with a projected total less than 40 points.

With star edge rusher TJ Watt back healthy, the Steelers have earned a PFF pass rush grade and PFF run defense grade above 75 in back-to-back games, which isn’t extremely surprising given their personnel, but an encouraging sign in what has been a rough defensive season- 25th in EPA/play allowed. At the same time, they’ve faced the most difficult schedule of opposing offenses in the NFL, per Football Outsiders, and that’s factored into a much-more favorable 14th ranking in defensive DVOA. With the sixth-lowest completion rate allowed but the highest yards/reception allowed as well, they’ve been a very boom-or-bust defense so far, yet is that something Ryan would be willing to exploit? Moreover, can a still-questionable offensive line (fifth-worst PFF pass-block grade) hold up against an exceptional defensive line? The Steelers surely have to hope an easier opponent allows them to recapture the defensive magic they’ve come to expect.

That being said, the optimism surrounding their offense is far less evident. So far this year, first-round rookie Kenny Pickett is averaging fewer yards/attempt from a clean pocket (6.2) than Baker Mayfield, while only Mayfield and Cooper Rush have a lower PFF grade from a clean pocket. Considering performance when not under pressure is remarkably stable from season-to-season, this would appear to be a clear concern, and it doesn’t help that the personnel combined with an outside-the-numbers passing attack has led to them being the only offense not averaging at least four yards after the catch per reception. In this particular game, that’s quite noteworthy against a Colts defense allowing the second-fewest air yards per attempt and completion, a major part of their overall success (7th in EPA/play allowed) this year. Plus, Pickett has specifically struggled mightily (-.18 EPA/play) against cover-three coverages, which just happens to be a staple of Gus Bradley’s defense. You could simply state “bad offense meets good defense” to declare how this game may go, but the matchups make it even more difficult.

In a projected close, low-scoring game, you’d assume Ryan’s safe method of play may actually work as a benefit, though it ultimately comes down to their offensive line; his performance under pressure has been very poor this year. At the very least, though, glimpses of promise there have been present in a way not seen in Pittsburgh, who honestly have failed to get any sort of true assessment about their first-round rookie quarterback. So, what happens if they bottom-out and find themselves in position for a quarterback with a presumed better long-term outlook? With that possibility on the table, these final seven games are paramount, though it may be another tough showing for him in primetime. Yep, it’s safe to say we’re not in the Roethlisberger-Manning days anymore.

Photo Creds:

BUF/DET: Buffalo News

NYG/DAL: Big Blue View

NE/MIN: NFL.Com

HOU/MIA: FanDuel

CHI/NYJ: ESPN

CIN/TEN: Cincy Jungle

DEN/CAR: gssentinal.com

TB/CLE: FanDuel

ATL/WSH: Hogs Haven

BAL/JAX: FanDuel

LAC/ARI: Sharp Football Analysis

LV/SEA: AZCentral

NO/SF: Sporting News

LAR/KC: Daily Bulletin

GB/PHI: NBC Sports

PIT/IND: NFL.Com

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