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On Thanksgiving, the Lions, Eagles, and Seahawks all earned pivotal wins in divisional matchups to give us a better glimpse at the NFC playoff picture.
That was the start of Week 13, but there are many more NFL games on the slate this Sunday and on Monday night.
A week ago, we predicted Josh Gordon would carve up the Falcons defense en route to a Browns victory and the Seahawks would knock off the NFC West-leading Cardinals at CenturyLink Field. And no thank you to Peyton Manning, whose tremendous effort ruined our Miami over Denver upset pick.
That was then. This is now. Let’s move onto Week 13 …
San Diego Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens
Two teams with 7-4 records meet in this showdown, with the Chargers coming off a three-point victory over the Rams which marked the Bolts’ second consecutive victory since their Week 10 bye. Despite being on a short win streak, San Diego has not been impressing anybody, at least not like it did earlier in the season when the team beat Seattle and Buffalo and looked to be the class of the AFC. This game with Baltimore is the team’s biggest test since facing Miami at the beginning of the month, but that resulted in a 37-0 shutout, so this one will likely determine how legitimate the Chargers’ chances of making the postseason are.
Baltimore is 4-1 at M&T Bank Stadium and just knocked off the Saints in New Orleans to win their second straight game. The Ravens have been one of the streakiest teams in the league in 2014. They won three in a row from Weeks 2-4 before winning two in a row Weeks 6 and 7, losing two in a row Weeks 8 and 9, and now winning two in a row entering Sunday’s action. The team has shown it has the ability to beat any team in the AFC North, but could also lose to any one of those squads. Which Ravens team will show up at home in a game with Wild Card ramifications?
Bold prediction: Both of these teams have played at exceptionally high and questionably low levels this season, so it’s fitting they’re in somewhat of a playoff game this Sunday. The Chargers’ defense has played well since the bye week, and the 27 points posted in Week 12 was the highest total since they dropped 31 points on the Raiders back in Week 6. However, their road woes are evident. After losing to the Cardinals by one point in the opener, they’ve beaten Buffalo and Oakland on the road then lost to Denver and Miami by two touchdowns or more. We’re leaning on the Ravens to take advantage of home-field advantage to defeat San Diego, which will start the Chargers’ five-game losing streak to conclude the season.
New Orleans Saints @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Saints did the near-impossible, losing three games in a row in the friendly confines of the Superdome, including two games to AFC North teams. Welp, here comes another, and the Saints could fall to 0-4 against that division if they come up short a fourth game in a row. At 4-7, the Saints unfathomably remain in the NFC South race after both they and Atlanta lost in Week 12. New Orleans is 1-4 on the road, with the lone win against the Panthers. On the year, the Saints have one victory against a team .500 or better, and that was a month ago against Green Bay, in which the team was playing a lot better and was healthier.
The Steelers have won four of their past five games, with the one loss on the road against the Jets. The team had offensive outbursts against Indianapolis and Houston, while Le’Veon Bell sparked a comeback win on Monday night on the road against Tennessee in Week 11. Coming off the bye week, the Steelers defense will have a healthy Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor back in the fold. And it seems unlikely the Saints defense will have an answer for Antonio Brown, who ranks second in the NFL in receiving yardage.
Bold prediction: The Saints get a lot of credit for their offense, and deservingly so. But while Drew Brees ranks third in the NFL in passing this season, Ben Roethlisberger is not too far behind sitting at fifth. In addition, Big Ben has the second-leading receiver and fourth-leading rusher on that same offense, and is going up against the Saints’ 31st-ranked defense DVOA, per Football Outsiders. The Steelers aren’t much better, but reinforcements are on the way. The NFC South is bad … very bad. Expect Pittsburgh to rout the Saints by two touchdowns, handing the visiting Saints a fourth consecutive loss.
Arizona Cardinals @ Atlanta Falcons
It’s a battle of the birds, with both teams essentially in must-win situations. Arizona is coming off just its second loss of the year, but the team’s NFC West lead is quickly dissipating as the defending Super Bowl champions make their late-season push. Drew Stanton was exposed in the Cardinals’ 19-3 loss to the Seahawks a week ago, the fear most Cardinals had when the backup took over for the injured Carson Palmer.
Inexplicable game management by head coach Mike Smith plagued the Falcons a second time this season, which cost the team a lead they took late into the fourth quarter and snapped a two-game win streak. At 4-7, Atlanta remains atop the NFC South. But the team is 2-3 in the Georgia Dome, with its lone wins against New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Against teams from other divisions, the Falcons are just 0-7.
Bold prediction: I find it difficult not to pick Arizona to bounce back in a big way to conquer the Falcons, who have had success against only the weak competition in their own division this year. If the NFC South wasn’t the worst division in all of football, I would have guessed that another timeout miscue from Smith would’ve cost the coach his job after Week 12, but because four wins is enough to put you in the playoffs in 2014, he’s still patrolling the sidelines. Interestingly enough, Atlanta has forced more turnovers than Arizona (21 compared to 20), but the Cards have a +10 turnover differential compared to the Falcons at +4. Matt Ryan will have to play out of his mind to pull off the upset, but that translates into a huge third quarter for the Arizona defense, which eventually turns into a runaway win.
New England Patriots @ Green Bay Packers
With 12 weeks in the books, New England against Green Bay is the most probable Super Bowl matchup. The red-hot Patriots, who have won seven straight games, have beaten the league’s heavyweights, including Denver, Indianapolis, and Detroit, all current division leaders. The offense has been nearly impossible to slow down, both on the road and at home, posting an average of better than 39 points per game during the streak. That includes a 34 spot on the league’s leading defense in Detroit a week ago. The defense could get its best pass-rusher back in the form of Chandler Jones, which could complement a defense that’s held opponents to 16 points per game over its last seven wins.
Only one team has rivaled the Patriots’ play the past two months, and that team is the Packers. Green Bay has won seven of its last eight games, while MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers has engineered an offense averaging as many points (39.5) as the Pats. What’s more scary is that the offense has averaged 47 points per game at home over the last four games, where Green Bay is 5-0.
Bold prediction: It’s as difficult to pick the Patriots to lose as it to pick the Packers to lose at home. Regardless of who wins and who loses, both of these teams must be considered the best team in their respective conferences, and nobody is going to be upset if they meet again in a few weeks at the Super Bowl. Both these teams have solid running games, and both have maintained a high level of success through the air. It’s Rob Gronkowski in one corner against the tandem of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in the other. Both sides have a lot of weapons, but the Pack are perpetually deep. This winds up being lower-scoring than anticipated — around the likes of 27-21 — as another Rodgers, Richard Rodgers, has the game-winning touchdown.
Denver Broncos @ Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City has had 10 days to let their loss to the Raiders soak in, and now returns to the field following a few extra days of practice, game planning, and Thanksgiving feasting before playing host to the Broncos. The Chiefs are 4-1 at Arrowhead Stadium, and are playing to keep their chances of winning the AFC West. A victory would pin the Chiefs and Broncos in a first-place tie atop the divisional standings.
Denver put forth their most balanced attack a week ago in the shootout win over the Dolphins, with third-string running back C.J. Anderson surfacing to give the team its best rushing performance of the year. Peyton Manning has struggled away from Mile High this season. This year, Manning has thrown 13 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions on the road, resulting in a 2-3 mark. This time, he’ll face a Chiefs defense that’s held opponents to 15.4 points per game at home.
Bold prediction: It was a bit of an overreaction to start worrying about Denver after losing in Foxborough to the Patriots then getting upset by the Rams two weeks later. We haven’t seen many teams that can beat New England playing at this level, while the Rams have also knocked off the defending champions this season with a stout defensive effort. The Chiefs’ defensive strength is their pass rush, while offensively they rely on Jamaal Charles to run the ball — which fits Denver’s strengths. No quarterback is better at beating the pass rush with a quick-passing game than Manning, while the Denver defense has held opponents to 75.5 yards per game on the ground this season. In the preseason, we pinpointed Kansas City’s secondary as a weakness, and now without Eric Berry, Manning is poised to exploit that. The Broncos prove they’re the class of the AFC West by knocking off the Chiefs at home, and with a Patriots loss to Green Bay begin their push toward the No. 1 seed in the conference.
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