Massimo’s NFL Blog
NFL Predictions | Week 11: NFL Football Picks, NFL Football Predictions
By Massimo Russo: Co-Editor Silver and Blue Report & Hook’em Report

NFL, Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys, Massimo Russo In a rematch of last year’s NFL Divisional Playoff, Andrew Luck and the Colts host Tom Brady and the Patriots in a battle of AFC top contenders at Lucas Oil Stadium. Plus, the Eagles and Packers will square off at Lambeau Field in a marquee NFC showdown, while the Chiefs look to knock off defending Super Bowl champion Seattle at Arrowhead Stadium.

Week 11
Thursday Night Football, November 13 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
Buffalo Bills 5-4 @ Miami Dolphins 5-4
On a short week to bounce back from their heartbreaking losses, the Bills and Dolphins know their battle with each other on Thursday night can determine their playoff aspirations. Buffalo’s pass rush got to Ryan Tannehill in their first meeting on Sep. 14, sacking him 4 times, while their special teams got 5 field goals from Dan Carpenter and a 102 yard kickoff return from C.J. Spiller. Spiller (broken collarbone) won’t be part of Buffalo’s plans this time, but for Miami, a key injury to their offensive line has left them in a makeshift situation against a defense that leads the league in sacks.

The Dolphins lost left tackle Branden Albert (torn ligament) for the remainder of the season, leaving them to do some shuffling on the offensive line. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James will move over to Albert’s spot to protect Tannehill’s blind side, and to take over on the right side for James, Dallas Thomas will make his first start at right tackle. If there’s going to be a saving plan for Tannehill from getting ambushed by Buffalo’s monsters upfront, offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor) will need to continue using creativity at the line of scrimmage and snap, getting the football out of Tannehill’s hands quickly. The motioning around in the backfield with receivers (Mike Wallace or Jarvis Landry) on quick swing-passes could isolate Buffalo’s linebackers, freeing up tight end (Charles Clay), stymieing Buffalo’s edge rushers (Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams). Tannehill can also use his feet, but as far as running the option goes – that might be limited, unless Miami uses extra blockers on the edges. Still, the play-fakes should be part of the plan, and when the Dolphins run the ball, it’s a must for them to stop Buffalo’s ‘Bull Dogs’ (defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams) on the interior. Guard Mike Pouncey, center Samson Satele and guard Shelley Smith will need to stop them at the point of attack and be ready to see some stunts — so communication will also be vital.

The screen game and getting the football out to their backs through the air for Miami is another aspect in diminishing Buffalo’s defensive front, particularly if they get them to move laterally. Lamar Miller (shoulder) is nicked up, and even if he plays, they’ll likely run by committee with him and his counterparts (Damien Williams and Daniel Thomas).  In case Miller misses the game, the Dolphins signed LaMichael James off the practice squad to potentially be part of the mix for Miami’s ground game. The Bills will deploy the same approach on the ground between running backs (Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon) sharing the work, but like Miami’s offensive line concerns, the Bills will have their hands full on trying to create open lanes for the run and protect the non-mobile Kyle Orton. Bills’ head coach Doug Marrone and offensive assistant Jim Hostler should take notice of being overmatched at the line of scrimmage and should use extra chippers on the edges for tackles (Cordy Glenn and Seantrel Henderson). More so on Henderson’s side to help him against Miami’s Cameron Wake. The Bills don’t boast the same ammunition the Lions have in the passing game Miami faced last Sunday, and if they’re going to sustain drives against Miami’s stout defense, they’ll need better than average productivity on the ground on early downs to place Orton in short distance third down opportunities. Brent Grimes going up against Orton’s prime-receiver (Sammie Watkins) is my circled matchup in this contest. Watkins has the ability to gain yards after the catch on intermediate passes, but with Orton under center, vertical attempts have increased towards the standout rookie. Grimes has been outstanding when challenging the oppositions best targets, and as long as Miami’s secondary takes away downfield stretching-passes and tackles well in the open field, they should come out on top.
Pick: Dolphins 24, Bills 16
Final Score: Dolphins (6-4) 22, Bills (5-5) 9

Sunday, November 16
1:00 PM ET
Minnesota Vikings 4-5 @ Chicago Bears 3-6 – TV: CBS
After making key offseason acquisitions and bolstering their roster through the draft, the Bears had high hopes when training camp began. But porous play has tarnished those high hopes for head coach Marc Trestman’s team, and in the avenue of confidence, Mike Zimmer has brought a positive attitude to Minnesota in his first season at head coach.

Coming off back to back blowout losses against the Patriots and Packers, the Bears have fallen into the deep pits of a lost season. Their defense has been a mess, and their offense that sports one of the better skilled position players at their respective positions isn’t cashing in. You can point your finger in the direction of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker not doing enough to adjust his defense during the course of a game, but when you don’t provide pressure in the trenches, your secondary will get exploited. Minnesota doesn’t carry a world of talent on offense like the Packers and Patriots do, but what they do have is an offensive coordinator in Norv Tuner, who has the experience and track-record of attacking defenses weaknesses through game planning. Jerick McKinnon is his best back to lean on, running behind fullback Jerome Felton on tosses and making him use his vision through their zone-blocking concepts on running downs against a Bears’ defense that’s allowing over 100 yards per contest — will be part of the plan. But Turner can open things up within the pass. Chicago safeties (Chris Conte and Ryan Mundy) have been tested this season, and when they have, they’ve been burned over the top. Receivers (Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson) are Minnesota’s most lethal downfield targets for rookie quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) to heave the football to, and though getting the football out of Bridgewater’s hands on quick passing plays has been a forte of their passing game, this could be the week Turner takes the training wheels off the youngster for the deep ball to kick in.

Everson Griffen, Brian Robison, Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph have been a solid group of down-lineman for the Vikings’ defensive front. Zimmer’s defense has harassed the pocket all season long, and Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler is known for threading the needle when under duress. Zimmer does like to blitz, but he needs to make sure he has enough defenders in coverage against a bona fide Bears’ receiving core. Rookie standout linebacker (Anthony Barr) will play a key role on containing Chicago’s all-around back (Matt Forte). Barr has been exceptionally well against the run and as a rushing force at the line of scrimmage for Zimmer, but when it comes to being caught in pass-coverage, the rookie has had his troubles, and Forte’s prowess of being a receiving threat should be part of Trestman’s play-selection plans to negate him. Safety Harrison Smith, cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn’s duties are to slow down Cutler’s trio of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett. Marshall (ankle) and Bennett (ribs) have missed practice, but it doesn’t look promising of them missing this weekend’s game at Soldier Field. The execution and togetherness aspects of the game have more life pumping in the veins of coach Zimmer’s team, but for at least one week, the Bears will find a way to come through, and this is their best chance yet to win their first home game in 2014.
Pick: Bears 24, Vikings 20

Houston Texans 4-5 @ Cleveland Browns 6-3 – TV: CBS
Texans’ head coach (Bill O’Brien) has acknowledged it’s time to give quarterback Ryan Mallett the chance to prove his worth as a starting quarterback at the pro level. The veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick did fairly well on managing the offense, but with some costly mistakes and inability to get enough out of the passing game, O’Brien and the Texans hope the 2011 third-round pick could improve Houston’s offense out of their one-dimensional ways of mostly producing running the ball.

Speaking of producing on the ground, in their first season with the team, head coach Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have brought a new philosophy to the Browns’ offense, becoming a run first team, and they’re doing it with three talented backs (Terrance West, Ben Tate and Isaiah Crowell). In their dominating win over the Bengals on the road to take sole possession of first place in the AFC North last Thursday, the Browns ran the ball for a wowing 52 times for 170 yards, getting all three of their touchdowns from each of their trio set of runners. And when facing a defense that has the games most electrifying force on the defensive line in J.J. Watt, Shanahan’s zone-running scheme is the perfect approach from stopping the incomparable Watt from being a force upfront. Houston’s top linebacker Brian Cushing is dealing with a knee-injury, but the team expects him to suit up, and they’ll need him to be the ball-hawk he is to slow down Cleveland’s downhill/cutback runners that fit the mold of Shanahan’s system. Watt may be the talk of town around the league as the games best defensive player, but Houston also has other assets on defense. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett clogs the interior and gets bench press pushes off the ball, and one of Cleveland’s interior lineman Joel Bitonio’s responsibilities will be to keep Pickett from getting in the backfield before Cleveland’s runners can cut back to the edges. Texans’ defensive coordinator (Romeo Crennel) will move Watt around, but wherever he roams – the Browns need to negate the strengths of Pickett and Watt by using their basic concepts of their zone-blocking schemes to get them to move from east to west, laterally so it limits them from getting past the line of scrimmage.

The Texans could be without Arian Foster (groin), the focal part of their offense. And though the Browns have been bad against the run this season, they were able to contain Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill and the Bengals’ rushing attack under the century mark. If Foster doesn’t get the go, Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes will take over by committee, and that could hurt Mallett in his first career start. I’d expect O’Brien to go heavy on the run in play-selection and not have Mallett throw a million passes off the bat, but finding opportunities to get the football to receivers (Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins) may come from short distance passing plays on screens and slants to them to get the ball out quicker – letting his playmakers do the talking with the ball in their hands.  The Browns have some injury concerns of their own heading into Sunday. Tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins (leg) are listed as questionable, but returning to practice on Wednesday hinders to them playing. Safety Tashaun Gipson (concussion) may sit out. Gipson has been a playmaker in the Browns’ secondary and if he’s to miss the game, it will help Hopkins, Houston’s deep-ball threat on chances to get open over the top. Brian Hoyer is in sync under center, and his running game has been setting up the play-action pass for him – and when it comes down to passing downs, I like him to be the more efficient passer than Mallett, who’ll be getting his feet wet, learning the ropes as a starter.
Pick: Browns 24, Texans 17                  

Seattle Seahawks 6-3 @ Kansas City Chiefs 6-3 – TV: FOX 
Both the Chiefs and Seahawks are riding winning-steaks heading into their bout at Arrowhead Stadium in one of the more intriguing matchups this weekend. Both offenses are predicated on the run to dictate the outcomes of their success, and glancing in at the remaining brutal schedule on the defending champs’ docket — starting with Andy Reid’s Chiefs this Sunday — head coach Pete Carroll’s Seahawks will need to keep the dominance of their league-leading rushing attack behind the powerful legs of Marshawn Lynch and the improvising from the pocket of quarterback Russell Wilson to continue to roll for a chance to repeat as champs.

The Chiefs’ defense is ranked 20th against the run, allowing 115.6 yards per game, but when it comes to allowing teams to score on the ground against them, they’re the only unit that hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in 2014. Getting center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung back helps mightily for Seattle’s offensive line to get nasty upfront, and in this matchup, Unger will need to do his part to take Kansas City’s top-rated nose tackle Dontari Poe out of his disruptive creating ways on the interior. There’s no intimidation for Seattle’s offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on attacking D-fronts with Lynch between the tackles, and wearing Kansas City’s defense down by the fourth quarter with a physical ground game should be in the fold for Bevell’s plan. On the outside, the Chiefs have one of the better tandems of outside linebackers that use their speed to gain leverage on the edges. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are the examples of using that exertion, and with Bevell using Wilson on zone-read concepts, Hali and Houston will need to stay disciplined and not over-pursue as Wilson can also step up in the pocket, using his legs to make big plays to move the sticks. Having a safety that can defend the pass, come up in the box, spying on running quarterbacks and top-level backs always helps a defense, and that’s what Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has in Eric Berry. Berry will likely play near the tackle box to help contain Wilson and Lynch from making game-breaking runs. If Sutton’s unit can force Wilson to throw from the pocket and hold Lynch from gashing them on the ground, it will stump Seattle’s chances of developing over the top passing plays, something Wilson and Seattle’s offense patiently waits for.

Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis and De’Anthony Thomas in the Kansas City backfield are a mixture of speed, a little bit of power but ultimately backs that are dangerous in the open field, carrying the football or in the screen game. Losing defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (hamstring) for the remainder of the season hurts Seattle’s D-line that’s already felt the wrath without Chris Clemons and Red Bryant this season. Their defense has already been thin without linebackers Bobby Wagner (toe) and Malcolm Smith (groin), but in an important area of trying to halt Alex Smith from distributing the football to his tight end (Travis Kelce), safety Kam Chancellor (groin) has returned to practice this week. The Chiefs don’t present a concern for beating Seattle vertically within the pass, and with Chancellor back in the lineup, Seattle’s defensive coordinator Dann Quinn can use him up near the line of scrimmage on Kelce and to help on the edges against the run. This matchup has all the implications of being a field position/turnover battle, and I think the Chiefs need to be taken more seriously here. There’s a good reason why they’re ranked first against the pass and tied for 4th with 28 team sacks on the season, and like Seattle when they’re defense is playing at its best before their home crowd, they usually make more plays in games of this magnitude.
Pick: Chiefs 19, Seahawks 16

Atlanta Falcons 3-6 @ Carolina Panthers 3-6-1 – TV: FOX
With the Saints dropping one at home last week to San Francisco, the NFC South doesn’t have a team that’s sporting a .500 record. The Falcons and Panthers, who have only three wins through the first ten weeks of the season, are still alive and breathing with playoff hopes heading into their Week 11 square off at Bank of America Stadium.

The luck of the draw may have the Falcons and Panthers in position to turn their seasons into something positive, but their play needs to improve, particularly Ron Rivera’s Panthers on important facets of the game. Defensively, the Panthers have been lacking consistent pressure from their defensive line, and without defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who injured his ankle on Monday night, their D-line has grown thinner. Atlanta’s offensive line has been playing better of late, and if their coordinator on offense (Dirk Koetter) uses all of his backs to their strengths with Steven Jackson getting the hard fought yards between the tackles behind guards Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah – and Devonte Freeman, Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers on speed based concepts (screens and stretch runs) – quarterback Matt Ryan will find getting the play-action pass going to his best capabilities to attack a Panthers’ secondary that’s been getting torched for big plays galore. Carolina’s safeties (Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper) haven’t been anything spectacular on the deep end — cornerbacks Melvin White and Josh Norman have been fair, but the weak link of the secondary has been Antoine Cason. And with Ryan having threats at his disposal in receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White to chuck the pigskin at, the Falcons could have a tremendous day through the air. Carolina’s defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s strong points are at linebacker with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, both top level tacklers in the middle of the field, but if McDermott’s unit doesn’t win their battles in the trenches – he may be forced to manufacture pressure – giving Ryan a few different looks to try to keep him guessing on pre-snap concepts. Bottom line – the Panthers need to pressure Ryan or else it’ll be long afternoon for their defense.

Atlanta’s defense hasn’t been miles-and-miles better than Carolina’s, and like their division rivals, they lack a pass rush. In fact, they’ve been worse than Carolina in that department, recording only 11 sacks, ranked second to last in the league. The Falcons brought in nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson as high-priced free agents to anchor their D-line, but the team has yet to see their production live up to those deals. And if there’s a game for them to finally start producing, it could come against a porous Panthers’ offensive line that isn’t developing holes for their running game. And when Cam Newton isn’t extending plays from the pocket, Carolina’s offense has sputtered on numerous occasions. DeAngelo Williams (foot) and Jonathan Stewart (ankle), Carolina’s top running backs have been banged up, playing at only 75 percent, and for Carolina to get back to playing smash-mouth football, their running game needs to come to life down the stretch so they can sustain drives and keep their defense from overly being on the field to get exposed. Newton does have two options that he can exploit Atlanta’s league worst pass defense with in receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen — mainly Benjamin going up against the undersized defensive backs of Atlanta’s secondary. Both defenses have been horrid, but I see more room for Carolina to potentially play better on that side of the ball. And knowing the Falcons have been one of the worst at bringing quarterbacks to the ground, what makes you think they’ll get to the elusive Cam? He isn’t facing a speedy Eagles’ defense this week.
Pick: Panthers 30, Falcons 24  

Cincinnati Bengals 5-3-1 @ New Orleans Saints 4-5 – TV: CBS
After winning their first three games of the season, Marvin Lewis’ team was looked upon as the AFC’s top team, but since then, his team has won 2, lost 3 and tied 1. The good news for Cincinnati is that they’re alive and well positioned to make a run at the division and playoffs, but doing so needs a table-turning of getting rid of their recent negatives that has them searching for answers. Most certainly, they need better play at quarterback from Andy Dalton, who’s thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes, not finding any rhythm for the Bengals’ offense.

Dalton does have a dynamic duo on the outside in A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu at receiver, but for the Bengals to get back to playing football that led them to the postseason in 2013, they need to get back to what puts Dalton in position to be sound under center. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has taken the heat on play-selection, and at times, he’s drawn away from the run on certain situations they should’ve kept their game plan flowing. Without Giovani Bernard (hip), they do lack the change-of-pace setting they had in the works earlier in the season, but that shouldn’t stop Jackson from giving his talented rookie the ball 20 plus times on the road this Sunday. Controlling time of possession by grinding things out with Jeremy Hill needs to be the centralized objective for the Bengals to limit the possessions of Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense that can score points in bunches against any defense — especially at Mercedes-Benz Superdome where the Saints are on their A-game more than 90 percent of the time. The Bengals have a quality group of skilled position players on defense, but they’re not coming through this season. And without their best linebacker (Vontaze Burfict), who’s been nursing a knee injury, their run defense has been one of the worst in the league, allowing 143.4 yards per game, ranked 31st in the league.

And (Red Alert) for them, because the return of Mark Ingram has given New Orleans’ offense the balance it was looking for before he took off in Week 8 against the Packers, the first of his three straight 100 plus yard performances. Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks are Brees’ vertical threats that can get past defensive backs on the deep-ball, and how the Saints set it up comes from a variety of ways to force the back seven of defenses to get caught in single coverages. Coach Peyton will never shy away from establishing the run, but using the screen game and horizontal routes intermediately forces the safeties to move up into coverage. And once the opposition falls asleep at the wheel, down the field goes Stills and Cooks for Brees to connect with. In Pierre Thomas’ absence due to a shoulder-injury, Travaris Cadet has picked up the slack as the passing down back to keep New Orleans’ element of drawing in linebackers and safeties near the box going — to set up favorable matchups for Brees. If I’m Bengals’ defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, I’m keeping my two safeties (Reggie Nelson and George Iloka) deep, giving Brees and his corps the underneath routes, but taking away the deep pass as my main plan. Tight end Jimmy Graham has receiver like route-running abilities that can stretch a secondary down the seams behind the linebackers, and go over the top and out-jump defensive backs from every angle and situation on the gridiron — so keeping the safeties deep will also be imperative in this aspect for Cincinnati. Linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring) is planning on returning to practice and the Bengals could use him to help their woes on stopping the run in this matchup. With a cloudy outlook at linebacker, Cincinnati’s talented front that features Wallace Gilberry, Geno Atkins, Domata Peko and Carlos Dunlap need a wakeup call for their defense to have hopes on getting off the field on third down. Offensively, they’re capable of playing much better and have the weapons to make plays, but the between these two clubs, I’m favoring the Saints’ defense to win the turnover battle.
Pick: Saints 34, Bengals 24

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-8 @ Washington Redskins 3-6 – TV: FOX
Washington’s head coach Jay Gruden has had a quarterback carousel on his hands like Lovie Smith’s Bucs. Gruden at least has the organizations franchise signal-caller to revamp himself back to what he set forth for the franchise in his rookie campaign, while Smith’s is going with a veteran journey man for the NFC’s most struggling club that’s won only 1 game thus far.

A number of players on the Redskins’ roster stated their displeasures after Gruden replaced third string quarterback (Colt McCoy) after leading the Redskins to a win over the Titans and upset over the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 27 before a nationally televised audience. Putting Robert Griffin III back under center didn’t help Washington keep their winning streak alive against the Minnesota Vikings – as the third-year quarterback was sacked 5 times and threw an interception before halftime that led to a Minnesota touchdown. RGIII had one more chance down three late in the game but didn’t deliver in a 29-26 loss, dropping Washington three games under the .500 mark. RGIII and the Redskins’ offense have a good chance to turn things around this week by applying their zone-blocking schemes on the ground against a susceptible to the run Tampa Bay defense. Bucs’ defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy) is one of the games most gifted and talented D-lineman in the business the Redskin’s offensive line needs to keep from getting into the backfield off the snap. Center Kory Lichtensteiger and right guard Chris Chester can’t be singled up with Tampa Bay’s dominant down-lineman – so double teaming McCoy and using stretch runs, forcing McCoy to move laterally should be the ideal plan for Washington when they run the ball with power back (Alfred Morris). Neutralizing McCoy and getting the running game flowing in a positive direction will help RGIII work off the play-action pass, and with Tampa Bay’s best cornerback Alterraun Verner (hamstring) possibly missing the game, Redskins’ receivers (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon) are in line to cradle in a slew of passes for big plays against a second to last ranked Bucs’ pass defense.

Redskins’ defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is known for using blitzing fronts, and with Tampa Bay’s running game reeling without the injured Doug Martin (ankle), using extra rushers to rattle McCown while locking up his cornerbacks (Bashaud Breeland and David Amerson) on Tampa Bay’s tall and talented receivers (Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson) would be ideal for his defense to disrupt the timing of Tampa Bay’s passing game. The rookie Breeland has been playing lights out, and it’s going to be interesting to see who Haslett has him matched up on. My guess is he’ll be on Evans, who’s been on fire of late, catching 14 balls for 249 yards and 3 touchdown catches in his last two games. Without Martin, Bobby Rainey, Mike James and Charles Sims need to get positive runs on early downs when the Bucs run the ball to help McCown throw the ball in shorter distance passing downs. The Bucs run a Tamp 2 defense under Smith with two deep safeties to take away the opposition deep pass, but where RGIII can attack it is in the weak spots in the middle of their zone to his tight ends (Jordan Reed and Niles Paul). This is a perfect opportunity for Washington to win their third contest out of their last four, and they have more pluses than Tampa Bay in this matchup to take advantage of.
Pick: Redskins 27, Buccaneers 17

Denver Broncos 7-2 @ St. Louis Rams 3-6 – TV: CBS
Veteran quarterback Shaun Hill was named the Rams’ starting quarterback after Sam Bradford went down for the season due to tearing his Achilles in the preseason. But after Hill went down with an injury after his first 13 pass attempts, third stringer Austin Davis took over the duties at quarterback for St. Louis. Davis had a strong stretch from late September to late October, but in his last three games, including last week against Arizona, costly turnovers and poor decisions has made head coach Jeff Fisher decide to go back to Hill, who’ll get the start against the high-powered Broncos this Sunday.

Denver’s backfield has been banged up, but that hasn’t stopped them from keeping it in good hands. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson have filled the absence of Monte Ball effectively, and now with Hillman (sprained foot) out and Ball returning from a groin-injury that sidelined him for five straight games, the Broncos now have the goods to get more physicality going on offense. Rams’ linebacker (James Laurinaitis) is their best defender on stopping the run, and if he can be a tackling force, it could help the Rams’ pass-rush that’s found their way recently on generating pressure upfront. And as the sound of a broken record goes, pressuring Peyton Manning is essential. Defenses know the deal when it comes to the best director at the line of scrimmage, and Rams’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should be cautious on using overloaded fronts against Manning — knowing that he’s best when it comes to adjusting to pressure and going to his hot reads against the blitz. But where Williams needs pressure is from his top-talent on the defensive line. All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn didn’t record a sack in his first five games, but in his last four, he’s brought quarterbacks to the ground 6 times. Quinn will be lined up against Denver’s left tackle Ryan Clady, a tackle that’s been one the best in pass-protecting Manning, who hasn’t been sacked more than twice in a single game. If Clady keeps Quinn from getting around the edges towards Manning, it’ll give him more time to strike the Rams’ secondary to his dangerous vertical threats (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders).

Denver’s defense has been dynamite against the run, allowing just 67 yards per game, and if the Rams are going to have success on offense, their offensive line better be juiced up and ready to handle multiple assets of Denver’s D-front. One in particular on the interior will be Rams’ center Scott Wells going up against Denver’s big and beefy nose tackle (Terrance Knighton). Knighton and Sylvester Williams have been run-clogging machines in the middle that’s freeing up the outside rush for DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, and if Wells and his two other interior blockers (Rodger Saffold and Davin Joseph) next to him don’t win their battles off the ball, it could be a long afternoon for the Rams’ running game trying to get Tre Mason and Benny Cunningham running with authority. And the lack of an effective running game will create plenty of opportunities for Denver’s defense to pressure Hill and force him to make ill-advised throws. The Broncos don’t necessarily need their running game to set things up for Manning, Hill does, and on the fast track of Edward Jones Dome, slowing down the speed and precise route-runners of Manning’s world of dynamic pass-catchers will be an extremely difficult task for the Rams’ defense.
Pick: Broncos 37, Rams 23

San Francisco 49ers 5-4 @ N.Y. Giants 3-6 – TV: FOX
Facing the possibility of falling under .500 last Sunday against the Saints, 49ers’ quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) used his unorthodox style of extending plays late in the fourth quarter — completing a critical 51 yard fourth down pass to receiver Michael Crabtree to help send the game into overtime — where the 49ers’ defense pulled through, sacking Drew Brees, forcing a fumble the defense recovered to set up a Phil Dawson game-winning field goal. The Win helped keep Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers’ playoff hopes alive, while Tom Coughlin’s Giants’ season continued to fall deeper and deeper away from postseason chances after losing their fourth consecutive game to drop to 3-6.

A dramatic win could always boost the level of confidence for any team that’s still breathing in the second half of the season, but in some cases, adversity can place a team to overcome injuries without the heart and souls of their teams. The 49ers defense will have to do it without the services of star-linebacker Patrick Willis (toe) for the rest of the season. Rookie linebacker Chris Borland continues to show promise of a next up and coming potential star, but relying on a rookie for leadership is lots to ask for. The good news, however for San Francisco’s defense will be the return of outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who returns from his suspension, giving the 49ers their best pass-rusher back on the edges. And though Eli Manning has upped his level of play from a year ago, he’s been sacked 18 times this season. The reasoning is not getting any production from his running game without Rashad Jennings (knee). Rookie Andre Williams has averaged only 2.9 yards per carry in Jennings’ place and hasn’t been much of a factor out of the backfield as a receiver with only 7 catches. Jennings is expected to return barring any setbacks for a much needed upward level of play for New York’s offense to spark balance between the run and pass. Jennings is a versatile runner and option in the passing game New York’s offense has lacked without him. And in offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system, when Jennings was healthy, he was used on swing passes, matched up on a linebacker that created confusion on the deep end of opposing defenses, while McAdoo used his receivers on slant concepts, getting in open spaces to gain yards after the catch. It also helped tight end Larry Donnell down the seams on singled up matches. So 49ers’ defensive coordinator (Vic Fangio) needs to be wise on who he chooses to spy on Jennings, and I’m almost certain McAdoo will try to draw Borland into coverage, away from his strengths of stopping the defense.

In their win over the Saints, the 49ers got back to the formula of relying on the blood, sweat and tears of physical prowess that’s made them one of the league’s top teams over the last three seasons. And there’s no reason for offensive coordinator Greg Roman to go astray from dialing up Frank Gore’s number 20 plus times again this week, especially against a Giants defense that’s ranked last in the league against the run – thanks to getting hammered by the run out in Seattle last week for 350 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. It’s a tough challenge for Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to right the ship against a physical offense that also has good enough threats in the passing game. New York’s defensive ends (Jason Pierre-Paul and Robert Ayers) getting pressure from the outside won’t be enough if Kaepernick uses his feet to move the sticks, and that’s what I see being the winner for Frisco here. Giants’ rookie receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.) is Manning’s new deadly weapon with the injured Cruz out of the picture, but the 49ers have a solid duo of safeties in Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid to help take away the deep-pass. Plus, the 49ers’ D-line should fare well against a non-trustworthy Giants’ O-line.
Pick: 49ers 31, N.Y. Giants 21

4:05 PM ET
Oakland Raiders 0-9 @ San Diego Chargers 5-4 – TV: CBS
Returning from their bye, the San Diego Chargers need to stop the bleeding and take advantage of the only winless team in the league. Before the Chargers lost three consecutive games, they defeated the Oakland Raiders 31-28 in Week 6 to improve to 5-1. And in that win, it was closest the Raiders have come to winning in all nine of their losses.

Oakland’s running game has been absolutely terrible, averaging only 62.1 yards per game. To sum it up, their ground game has been so horrific to the point where it’s been non-existent in usage. However, If there was a game it had some effectiveness flowing through the play-selection of offensive coordinator Greg Olson, it was against San Diego on Oct. 12 – a game in which running back Darren McFadden ran for 80 yards (his season high) on 14 carries. As a team in that contest, the Raiders eclipsed the 100 yard barrier, giving them room for balance, and rookie quarterback (Derek Carr) threw a career high 4 touchdown passes in a losing effort. San Diego’s offense isn’t going to put forth the same dreadful execution they displayed against the Dolphins in Week 9, and If Olson and interim head coach Tony Sparano want to get off the ‘Goose Egg’ in the W column — their game plan and emphasis should lean more on McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew to try to set the pace on the ground (if they want to keep Philip Rivers and company off the field). Other than Khalil Mack and Justin Tuck setting things off the edges for Oakland’s defense, the Chargers’ offense should be able to attack Oakland between the tackles, and with running back (Ryan Mathews) returning from a knee-injury that kept him out for seven games, the Chargers now have a healthy combination to get back to changing the pace on the ground with Mathews and Branden Oliver.

The second level of Oakland’s defense is where most of the issues are. Safety Charles Woodson will need to have a stellar game down near the tackle box to help support the run and help cover the seam-routes when Rivers decides to go to his tight end (Antonio Gates). Mainly, without pressuring Rivers or getting him off his spots, the Chargers’ multiple spread formations, ranging from dubs and trips alignments should be able to generate a good deal of favorable looks for Rivers to connect with his deep and talented group of weapons. San Diego’s defense has struggled with key starters out, but with the possible returns of linebackers Melvin Ingram (hip), Jerry Attaochu (hamstring) and Manti Te’o (foot), San Diego’s defensive woes could turn around for the better down the stretch. The Chargers can’t afford to lose this game at home against a team they should be able to take care of, and unless the Raiders’ defense finds ways to create turnovers, the Chargers should be able to end their losing streak.
Pick: Chargers 30, Raiders 20            

4:25 PM ET             
Philadelphia Eagles 7-2 @ Green Bay Packers 6-3 – TV: FOX
As expected, Aaron Rodgers is carrying the Packers with top-notch play as arguably the games best passer. As for Chip Kelly’s Eagles, who lost starter Nick Foles (collarbone) for what could be the rest of the season, backup Mark Sanchez kept the Eagles’ prolific offense intact on Monday, throwing for 332 yards and 2 touchdown passes in a 45-21 thumping over the Carolina Panthers.

Winning on the road in cold environments against upper echelon teams like the Packers requires a running game, and this season, the Eagles have been stuck in the ruts of make shifting their offensive line due to key injuries — and it’s hurting a key element of their offense. The 19 yards rushing on 12 carries against the Panthers LeSean McCoy tallied isn’t going to help the Eagles’ chances of keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field much. And for the Eagles’ defensive sake, getting after Rodgers like they did against Cam Newton won’t be as easy against Rodgers that’s light years ahead of Newton on recognizing blitzes and coverage’s before the snap. And the Elite QB has receivers that are fine-tuned with him that constantly feast off of getting separation downfield. And when it comes to getting separation on back-shoulder fades, horizontal or vertical routes, there isn’t a better connection duo than Rodgers and receiver Jordy Nelson on deploying it. Eagles’ defensive coordinator Bill Davis should stick to using the speed his unit has upfront to pressure Rodgers, but in pass-coverage, he needs to make sure both of his safeties (Nate Allen and Malcolm Jenkins) don’t cheat up near the line of scrimmage. Randall Cobb and Nelson’s abilities to speed past blown coverage’s needs to be kept in check, and Eagles’ cornerback Cary Williams has one of the more difficult jobs as a defensive back this weekend against Nelson on the perimeter.

Williams can allow Nelson to catch the ball on the underneath routes, but if Davis doesn’t want him to get burned on double-moves, his safeties need to stay over the top on Nelson. Cobb plays the slot role most of the time, and Eagles’ nickel corner (Brandon Boykin), who’s better suited to play on the inside against the speedy Cobb will also have a difficult task. Cobb is Green Bay’s most creative tool in Mike McCarthy’s offense that can also line up outside of the slot when the Packers throw in receivers (Jarrett Boykin and Davante Adams). Adams has been used more than Boykin, and on the spread alignments the Packers roll with, Brandon Fletcher will also need to be on point against them. The smart strategy for Davis’ unit to have success will be to put trust in his down-lineman and linebackers (Mychal Kendricks, Connor Barwin, Emmanuel Acho and Trent Cole) to keep Green Bay’s power-back (Eddie Lacy) from breaking free for large gains, and make Rodgers work the intermediate routes in a bend but don’t break approach to take away the vertical stretching’s of Green Bay’s juggernaut offense.

The Eagles have a few weapons of their own that could be X-Factors in this matchup. Receiver Jeremy Maclin is a tremendous route-runner that’s used on a variety of passing plays. Kelly uses him on quick screens and as a vertical target in his system. Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia’s second-round pick has become a reliable slot receiver for Philadelphia, and like Boykin’s matchup with Cobb in the slot on the opposite side of the fence — Green Bay’s nickel corner (Casey Hayward) will have the same duties defending the slot. Green Bay’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers uses his linebackers as a pedigree for success on defense, but where they’re vulnerable is in coverage. This is where defending the ever so dangerous Darren Sproles comes into play. Sproles’ game is far better when he’s used as a receiver and utilizing him in this aspect could stifle Green Bay’s defense. Stopping McCoy will always be an objective for any defensive coordinator’s plan, but if Sanchez finds success on using his backs in the screen game, it will create lots of opportunities for the Eagles to have a successful outing. Special teams can be a deciding factor and the Eagles have been making big plays all season in that facet of the game. Green Bay has struggled mightily against the run on defense, and this could be a game where McCoy and the Eagles’ running game guides them to victory — but if they’re going to halt Rodgers from dissecting their defense, they’ll need to keep their turnover generating ways running, and the Packers aren’t a sloppy team that coughs up the football.
Pick: Packers 34, Eagles 28                   

Detroit Lions 7-2 @ Arizona Cardinals 8-1 – TV: FOX
The battle for top seed in the NFC has a compelling story line to go along with it. A season-ending injury to starting quarterback Carson Palmer has given the hands of Drew Stanton to steer the wheel the rest of the way for Bruce Arians’ Cardinals. Stanton was drafted by the Lions in the second-round of the 07 draft, two years before Matthew Stafford was drafted as the number 1 pick, and now they both will be the signal-callers for their respective teams in a marquee matchup at U of Phoenix Stadium this Sunday.

In Bruce Arians’ system, it’s all about stretching the defense by deploying a vertical passing attack, and to take that element away, you need the horses upfront to pressure the pocket to help your cornerbacks and safeties fare well on applying their techniques in coverage.  Detroit’s cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay, along with safeties James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin have displayed their excellences of not allowing opposing passing games to beat them over the top – thanks to a defensive front that boast a core of well-rounded talent on the defensive line that’s forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quick and use the underneath routes. Detroit’s defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and Jason Jones have the more challenging duties on the outside against Arizona’s tackles Jared Veldheer and Bobby Massie, but on the inside where the Lions have a power-house defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh, Arizona’s interior line will need to keep him from being disruptive. You shouldn’t expect both offenses to hit the jackpot on rushing attempts, but both offenses find ways to get the ball in the hands of their backs. Arizona’s back Andre Ellington is the center piece of Arizona’s offense that gets plenty of touches per game. He’s versatile and a receiving threat, and in the slew of different spread alignments the Cardinals line up with, defenses will find him lined up in the slot as a receiver. Whether he’s carrying the football or in open space off of screen-plays, he’s a threat that creates lots of attention for the second level of defenses to focus on. Rookie slot specialist John Brown and Michael Floyd are the deep threats at receiver for Arizona’s offense, while Larry Fitzgerald is more so targeted on shallow crossing routes. Arians won’t have Stanton in Gun-Shy-Mode and will at least test Detroit’s secondary on a few downfield passing attempts, but if Detroit’s defense can continue to take away big plays against the pass, it will place the Cardinals into having to move the football methodically and help their defense that’s been strong in the red zone.

When the Lions have the ball, they’ll likely be without Reggie Bush (ankle). That shouldn’t stop head coach Jim Caldwell from game planning a physical approach to try to wear down Arizona’s extra fronts. Joique Bell’s attributes of using his running with authority style is capable of taking a beating from gang-tackling units. And if he can get a better than average amount of touches, primarily to gain positive yards on running downs, it’ll be the proper usage and strategy to keep Stafford in higher percentage passing downs against Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ aggressive blitzes. Another way to attack the ‘Swarming Bees’ of Arizona’s blitzes is using the screen game to backs Bell and Theo Riddick. Bunch formations and bubble screens can also force extra rushers away from the line of scrimmage into coverage, and the Lions have the players and concepts to use it to their advantage. Arizona has arguably the best one-two-punch at cornerback in Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie that’ll shadow Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Golden Tate throughout the game. Peterson should man up on Johnson on most downs, but Bowles will move him around and mix things up between him and Cromartie on Detroit’s bona fide receivers. The objective here is to be physical and Bowles will press them at the line of scrimmage for an ultimate hard core battle of toughness on the perimeter. Protecting the football will be vital for Detroit to come out of the desert with a win. Bowles’ approach has been masterful on being aggressive within his scheme that’s giving the talent on the backend the luxury of being opportunistic. And against a fearless quarterback like Stafford that’ll take chances in tight windows, I see Arizona’s defense coming up big in critical downs in the final quarter to stay atop the NFC.
Pick: Cardinals 20, Lions 17

Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC   
New England Patriots 7-2 @ Indianapolis Colts 6-3
With the center of attraction circulated around Tom Brady and Andrew Luck, NBC will have an exciting extravaganza for millions to witness across the nation. Before their byes, the Patriots and Colts won convincingly against their opponents, and standing tall in their divisions and conference, both clubs know a win could decipher their positions in the AFC playoff picture.

Since their Week 4 blowout loss against Kansas City, New England’s offense has sky-rocketed. And going inside the numbers when the Patriots’ offense looked out of sync in their first four games — Brady‘s QB-Rating was an uncharacteristically 79.1 — completing under 60 percent of his passes — with only 4 touchdown passes, but those statistical metrics have changed supremely in his last his last 5 games. In the span of New England’s five-game winning streak, Brady’s rating has increased to 120.5 — completing near 70 percent of his passes — throwing 18 touchdown passes to only 1 interception. So what’s helped him? Well, having tight end Rob Gronkowski at 100 percent makes an extreme difference, but more imperatively, New England’s offensive line is gelling by using extra blockers and running back Shane Vereen is creating headaches for opposing defenses. Vereen is viable for New England’s offense as a versatile player that can line up just about everywhere. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels uses him on multiple formations – making it difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to find the right match to key on him. Greg Manusky, Indianapolis’ defensive coordinator has given his defense the green light to blitz often, but with some liabilities at linebacker and the Vereen/Gronkowski factor in the fold — he may want to keep as many defenders possible in coverage. This goes back to what Vereen and the ever so changing formations do for New England’s aerial game. Vereen forces defenders in the box into coverage, keeping Brady from facing pressured fronts and blitzes. What Vereen primarily does is drag a linebacker and safety away from the main read, giving Brady singled up favorable matchups for him to exploit — whether it’s Gronkowski or receivers (Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola or Brandon LaFell) – whoever is open, Brady will get them the football.

Andrew Luck has an abundance of weapons at his disposal – his deepest threat is speedy receiver (T.Y. Hilton), who’ll likely see one of the games top-tier cornerbacks in New England’s Darrelle Revis in his face for most of the snaps. Matt Patricia, New England’s defensive coordinator assigned defensive backs (Brandon Browner and Patrick Chung) on Denver’s freakishly talented tight end (Julius Thomas) in Week 9, and though the pair allowed him to score, they held him to just two catches. The Colts have two tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen) that Luck’s connected for 11 of his 26 touchdown passes with, and Chung and Browner will be responsible for keeping them out of the end zone when the Colts are in striking distance. Indianapolis’ ground game has been better than New England’s, utilizing a change-of-pace approach between Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson. And like Vereen for the Patriots, although not on the same formation purposes, but Bradshaw has also been a viable contributor in the screen game. Bradshaw has done wonders for Luck in pass-protection as well, and in the red zone, he’s been a reliable target off play-action concepts, catching 6 touchdown passes. New England’s linebackers (Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins) will need to spy on Bradshaw and Richardson and keep their solid play going in the absence of Jerod Mayo. If the Patriots decide to blitz more than often, Patricia will need to keep either one of his linebackers on Bradshaw, who’s been dangerous against blitzes, leaking out to the flats when defenses bite the dust.  Cornerback (Vontae Davis) and defensive end (Cory Redding) have been Manusky’s top defensive players. To pressure Brady, Redding will need to be a force on the edges. And where Davis lines up — it wouldn’t surprise me if Manusky assigns him on Gronkowksi. Davis is physical and plays the game with a high-motor, but my guess is he’ll start the game on LaFell, while his counterpart (Greg Toler) matches up on Edelman.  It’s a pick-your-poison-complex-outlook for both defenses. Luck can improvise and make plays with his feet, but Brady working off the play-action-pass on some misdirection elements, and the creativity Vereen sparks – there’s more for him to take advantage of to outscore Luck in a shootout.
Pick: Patriots 34, Colts 31

Monday Night Football, November 17 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Pittsburgh Steelers 6-4 @ Tennessee Titans 2-7
Mistakes and uncharacteristic displays ended the surging Steelers’ winning ways against the lowly Jets in Week 10. This week, Mike Tomlin’s team looks to rebound against the Titans, another team that’s been down in the dumps in the AFC.

Ben Roethlisberger lit it up through the air the previous two weeks against the Colts and Ravens, throwing 6 touchdown passes in each game, but where offensive coordinator Todd Haley needs to start implementing the game plan — needs to start finding ways of getting his talented running back (Le’Veon Bell) in open space. Bell has been a viable option out of the backfield as a receiving threat, but the second-year runner has only 1 100 yard performance on the season that came in Week 3 against the Panthers. The Titans’ defense has been bamboozled on the ground, allowing 136.6 yards per game, and Haley should get Bell in the works of a 25 plus touch game against them. Tennessee’s defense has been much better against the pass, and when it comes to bringing quarterbacks to the ground, they’ve done it 24 times, tied with the Colts and Broncos for 10th best in the league. The Steelers have had issues protecting Roethlisberger, and if the Titans’ defense can limit Bell from springing free for big plays, getting after Pittsburgh’s dangerous passer will move on the upwards of puncturing the pocket. Defensive end Jurrell Casey is Tennessee’s best havoc creator upfront, and Pittsburgh’s left tackle (Kelvin Beachum) has been a liability on Roethlisberger’s blind side.

To better protect Roethlisberger, the Steelers should use an extra blocker on Beachum’s side with a tight end or Bell offset behind him. Getting the play-action pass going, not relying on the horizontal routes could dismantle Tennessee’s defense.  Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant are both vertical threats at receiver, and if Bell does his part on dictating the pass, there’s no reason why the Steelers won’t be able to dissect Tennessee’s defense. The Titans don’t have much to threaten opposing defenses on offense, but they do have a couple of players the Steelers can’t sleep on. One is receiver Kendall Wright, two, tight end Delanie Walker (concussion), who is listed as questionable to play, and three, running back Bishop Sankey. The rookie Sankey has upside to his game, but with issues upfront on the offensive line, he hasn’t found much open holes to gallop through. It’ll help rookie quarterback (Zach Mettenberger) if Walker plays, but knowing the expertise of Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s approach of sending pressure, I’m expecting him to play a numbers game with the rookie at the line of scrimmage. The Titans will have a chance if they can control the tempo and play mistake-free football, but they have their hands full on both sides of the ball against a Steelers team that’s thirsty to bounce back.
Pick: Steelers 31, Titans 16      

Bye: Dallas Cowboys (7-3), N.Y. Jets (2-8), Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9), Baltimore Ravens (6-4)

You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and @SilverBlueRpt

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