Massimo’s NFL Blog
NFL Predictions | Week 14: NFL Football Picks, NFL Football
By Massimo Russo: Co-Editor Silver and Blue Report & Hook’em Report

NFL, Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys, Massimo Russo Chip Kelly’s Eagles and their up-tempo offense looks to get the best of Seattle’s number one ranked defense in a bout between NFC contenders. Plus, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers need to bounce back against NFL division rival Cincinnati to keep their playoff hopes alive, while Miami and Baltimore will square off in a critical AFC showdown at Sun Life Stadium.

Week 14
Thursday Night Football, December 4 8:25 PM ET – TV: NFL Network
Dallas Cowboys 8-4 @ Chicago Bears 5-7
In two of Dallas’ four losses this season, the Cardinals and Eagles held DeMarco Murray, the league’s leading rusher under the century mark. And in those games – the aerial attack spiraled downward for the Cowboys. Dallas’ offensive line has been the best when it comes to run-blocking, particularly on the interior behind center Travis Frederick and guards Zack Martin and Ronald Leary, but when it comes to pass-blocking, when the offense hasn’t been able to sustain balance – they’ve had some deficiencies protecting Tony Romo. Romo is coming off his worst performance, throwing 2 interceptions and 0 touchdown passes in a blowout loss to the Eagles on Thanksgiving. Mel Tucker’s defense doesn’t sport the same speed and pass rushers that were thrown at Romo last Thursday, but he does have a couple of players the Cowboys need to be aware of in the trenches.

Dallas’ left guard Ronald Leary had some lapses last week against Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham, and Chicago’s defensive tackle Stephen Paea brings the same traits on getting into the backfield to disrupt the run and pressure the quarterback. Leary needs to play better this week, and Paea, Will Sutton and Jay Ratliff are essential to give Bears’ edge rushers Jared Allen and Willie Young the betterment of opportunities to get to Romo against Dallas’ brick-walls at tackle (Tyron Smith and Doug Free) on the outside. The effectiveness of play from Chicago’s D-line will determine the success from their linebackers. Lance Briggs (groin) was placed on injured-reserve, ending his season – leaving Jon Bostic and rookie Christian Jones to see more action the rest of the way. Bostic, D.J. Williams and Shea McClellin will need to stop Murray in his tracks, not letting him get first down runs to keep Romo and the Cowboys’ offense away from setting up the play-action pass. Murray will get his yards, but looking back at the tape of the Eagles’ game – Bill Davis’ defense kept Murray from taking over the game, not letting him be the main-player on moving the sticks for Dallas’ offense. Chicago has a running back of their own that presents some difficult challenges for Rod Marinelli’s defense that’s been slam dunked over the last two games. Matt Forte is a versatile back Dallas’ back seven will need to keep from gashing their defense in the open field.

Linebacker Rolando McClain has been Dallas’ best defensive player, and he’ll be assigned on Forte to come downhill off the snap and stop Forte in his gaps – while in pass coverage, where he’s also been effective, he’ll need to be the head-hunter on Forte in the screen-game – along with safety Barry Church to wrap him up when he has the football. Church has whiffed on some tackles — and in this matchup – he cannot afford to do so against Chicago’s high-talented herd of offensive threats. Dallas’ defense has been far too inconsistent on rushing the passer, and without containing Forte, Jay Cutler will exploit a susceptible Dallas secondary. There’s a wide-range of areas for Chicago’s receivers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett to have a big night – the same for Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Cole Beasley and (Terrance Williams to awake from his slumber). In conclusion, Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett knows the basics of what’s been good for his football team this season, and that’s keeping his defense off the field, leaning on Murray and for Romo to get back to converting on third down.
Pick: Cowboys 30, Bears 24
Final Score: Cowboys (9-4) 41, Bears (5-8) 28        

Sunday, December 7
1:00 PM ET
Pittsburgh Steelers 7-5 @ Cincinnati Bengals 8-3-1 – TV: CBS
Facing a running back like Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell puts lots of stress on defensive coordinators to prepare for him. On the field, your linebackers and safeties need to be aware of him at the expense of him being an all-around back that can hurt you both carrying the football and as a receiving threat. Statistically, Cincinnati is allowing 125.1 yards per game against the run, but over the span of their three-game winning streak, their defense has played much better on holding runners in check. That trend needs to continue for Marvin Lewis’ team that could move one step closer to repeating as AFC North champs against Pittsburgh. It isn’t much of a necessity for Bell to gain a good chunk of yardage on the ground to open up the pass for Ben Roethlisberger to find Antonio Brown getting separation against Cincinnati’s defensive backs, but as long as Bell gets the football in space (more so in the screen game), it will draw the Bengals’ defense in – formulating singled up matchups for Brown and the rest of Roethlisberger’s core of pass-haulers. The objective for Paul Guenther’s defense is to come downhill and shed blocks, making Bell make quicker decisions. Bell is savvy and if Cincinnati’s defense allows him to scan open lanes, it’ll give Bell the ability to use his cutbacks and gash through the Bengals’ front for positive runs.

Cincinnati’s offense doesn’t rely on a single featured back – they share the wealth between Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, both versatile backs Dick LeBeau’s defense primarily has to hold to a minimum. Cincinnati’s offense is patient, feasting off the play of their backs to dictate the passing game for Andy Dalton to stretch back sevens, and running the ball effectively — getting the backs involved will open up chances for Dalton, who’ll have lots of matchups against Pittsburgh’s suspect cornerbacks (William Gay and Ike Taylor) matched up on his athletic and talented specimens of receivers (A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu). When you pressure Dalton, he makes bad decisions, and he doesn’t have the skill-set of a quarterback who could extend plays outside the hash marks. LeBeau knows this – he also knows that his defense isn’t generating enough pressure without using manufacturing concepts to rush the passer. Roethlisberger is a total different animal than Dalton. The two-time Super Bowl winning QB has escaped pressure many times throughout his career behind poor pass-blockers, and protection hasn’t been in his favor as he’s been sacked 31 times this season. Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones, a veteran group of defensive backs that are playing well could alter on covering Brown, but without pressure – an avenue where the Bengals have been horrendous, Roethlisberger could torch them with his bread and butter target all afternoon long.
Pick: Steelers 30, Bengals 27                

St. Louis Rams 5-7 @ Washington Redskins 3-9 – TV: FOX 
Over the last three weeks, Jeff Fisher’s Rams have been playing their best football. The defensive line is getting after the quarterback, helping Gregg Williams’ unit create turnovers, and the offense has been sound. One of the elements on the offensive side of the ball that’s improved Fisher’s team is the emergence of rookie running back Tre Mason, who’s coming off his best performance since taking over as the lead back of the Rams’ offense – rushing for a career-high 117 yards on 14 carries while catching 3 balls for 47 yards, scoring 3 touchdowns – 1 receiving and 2 rushing in the Rams 52-0 blowout win over the Raiders last Sunday. Rams’ offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer should take notice of Washington’s defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s ways of playing a numbers game in the box, deploying extra defenders at the line of scrimmage to rush the quarterback and stop the run. And as efficient St. Louis’ veteran quarterback Shaun Hill can be, taking away his poise in the pocket by pressuring him with blitzing fronts should be the ideal approach for Haslett. Linebacker Keenan Robinson has been a viable defender for Haslett’s defense on defending tight ends, and though the numbers don’t say, Rams’ tight ends (Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks) are both capable options on passing downs in the middle to free up the outside for Hill.

Robinson will need to fare well against them, and all of the Rams’ backs (Mason, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham) are receiving options out of the backfield — so Robinson and the rest of Washington’s linebackers and defensive backs can’t get caught sleeping at the wheel. At receiver, another particular position of Schottenheimer’s offense that isn’t lighting up the stat sheet – Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin are a quality group of Hill’s targets that possess a mixture of speed, size and better than average route-running abilities. Bashaud Breeland and David Amerson are Washington’s physical defensive backs that’ll be matched up on Britt and Bailey, but the X-factor could be Austin, who’s a versatile threat that’s scored a rushing touchdown in two consecutive games. Washington’s offense is based off of setting the pace with running back Alfred Morris, and negating St. Louis’ stout D-front will come from running the ball effectively to keep Colt McCoy in better standards to move the chains. DeSean Jackson, Washington’s most lethal offensive weapon injured his fibula against Indianapolis and is questionable for Sunday’s game. McCoy has been Washington’s best quarterback during head coach Jay Gruden’s QB-carousel saga, and when McCoy’s been under center – he and Jackson have been making good music together. Having Jackson active will help McCoy and the Redskins’ offense against the Rams, but protection has been a glaring weakness for the Redskins when it comes to protecting the quarterback — and the likes of Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Aaron Donald of the Rams’ front have the green light in this matchup to help their defense get off the field on critical third downs.
Pick: Rams 26, Redskins 20 

N.Y. Giants 3-9 @ Tennessee Titans 2-10 – TV: FOX
Realistically, the Giants are a better team than what their record indicates. However, nobody wants to hear excuses, but the truth of the matter is – Tom Coughlin’s team hasn’t been able to overcome a barrage of injuries on both sides of the ball. On defense, a season ending injury to linebacker Jon Beason has downgraded Perry Fewell’s defense on stopping opposing offenses from trampling them on the ground. Contrary to New York’s ineptitude of slowing down the run, Tennessee’s offense remains in flux all around, and developing a stabled level of balance from their ground game has been an ongoing issue for coach Whisenhunt’s club. And with Tackles Taylor Lewan (ankle) and Michael Oher (toe) not practicing, and guard Chance Warmack (ankle) getting a limited amount of reps this week, Tennessee’s offense doesn’t look equipped to move on up, especially with center Brian Schwenke (knee) placed on injured reserve last week. Zach Mettenberger left the game in third quarter against the Titans last Sunday with a shoulder-injury but looks ready to return to action against New York.

Tennessee’s offense could benefit from working against an injured-depleted New York defense that’s missing lots of valuable pieces. Upfront, the Giants will be without defensive ends Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers — throwing Damontre Moore, a second-year D-lineman into the starting lineup to play on the opposite side of Jason Pierre-Paul. Moore has upside to his game and with four more games left to play in 2014, he’ll get the chance to prove himself worthy of being a quality starter. Playing against a messy Titans’ offensive line, he and Pierre-Paul can shine in this matchup, factoring in the lack of explosive runs coming from Tennessee’s backs Bishop Sankey, Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster, Tennessee’s offense has been situated for bad results without an effective ground game, and their passing game doesn’t present many challenges for Fewell’s defense to prepare for. Justin Hunter, Tennessee’s most fit vertical threat is done for the season due to a spleen-injury, and receivers Nate Washington and Kendall Wright aren’t serious threats. Where there’s a concern to look at for Fewell’s defense is at linebacker. Mark Herzlich is dealing with a concussion, Jameel McClain is still hobbled, and if both of them miss the game, it’ll leave things up to Spencer Paysinger to defend Titans’ talented tight end Delanie Walker. To contain him, look for Fewell to keep a defensive back over the top on him, and with no respect for Tennessee’s rushing attack – pressure-packed fronts will be part of New York’s defensive game plan to force Mettenberger to make ill-advised throws. Rashad Jennings (ankle) is iffy to play and New York signed Chris Ogbonnaya for depth purposes to spell Andre Williams if Jennings misses the game. The Giants have a few banged up lineman strolling into Nashville, but if Eli Manning doesn’t play like 2013 Eli – he should be able to dissect a highly-suspect Tennessee secondary with a large amount of targets to his main read in receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Pick: Giants 24, Titans 17

Carolina Panthers 3-8-1 @ New Orleans Saints 5-7 – TV: FOX
Rob Ryan’s defense held Cam Newton to a career-worst 10 of 28 passing for 151 yards, sacking him 4 times in the Saints/Panthers first meeting on Oct. 30, a game the Saints dominated the Panthers in a 28-10 win. Coach Rivera’s Panthers have been dreadful in pretty much every phase of the game, and to stop the bleeding of a six-game losing streak, the play from Cam Newton and the rest of his team needs a drastic turnaround for the better. First things first, Newton needs to protect the football and make better decisions with it. You can point fingers in the direction of the offensive line not doing its job, but Newton has thrown 11 interceptions along with 5 fumbles, and is completing below 60 percent of his passes. That’s not going to win you games in this league, and pressure could mount again for him against the Saints, particularly on the strong side of the Saints’ D-front where defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette roam. Galette and Jordan are capable of ruining protection schemes, and I’m expecting some extra blockers to help Carolina’s left tackle Byron Bell from New Orleans’ forces on the edge. Expanded for a bigger role is Jonathan Stewart with DeAngelo Williams (finger) out for this Sunday’s game. Ryan’s defense has been susceptible to the run and controlling the tempo would be the proper plan for Panthers’ offensive coordinator Mike Shula to keep Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-powered offense limited on possessions.

When examining the area of defending the pass for New Orleans – cornerback Kennan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro are the highlighted defenders against Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen. Lewis can stay toe-to-toe with Newton’s prime receiver on the perimeter, while Vaccaro will roll over the top on him and Olsen. Olsen injured his knee last week but doesn’t look in danger of missing any action this weekend. Olsen draws attention on the seams, and if he plays and finds open looks in the middle, the outside opportunities will open up for Newton to convert on passing downs. Saints’ All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham was held without a target and catch against the Steelers last Sunday, but the attention he received left one-on-one matchups for Brees to strike Pittsburgh’s defense over the top to Kenny Stills on double-moves on the outside. Luke Kuechly, one of the games best Mike linebackers will shadow him, but Panthers D-coordinator Sean McDermott better keep his safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper playing two deep to take away the deep pass Brees looks for when he sees opposing safeties cheat up in coverage. New Orleans’ offense has only been stricken when they turn the football over, but Carolina’s defense has been the total opposite of what they were a year ago, and in the red zone, they’re allowing scores galore. And with Brees and company looking to end their three-game home losing streak – the matchups are overwhelmingly in good hands for Sean Payton’s team.
Pick: Saints 37, Panthers 21

N.Y. Jets 2-10 @ Minnesota Vikings 5-7 – TV: CBS              
It would be foolish to believe that Jets’ team owner Woody Johnson isn’t going to be pulling triggers on the coaching staff and potentially general manager John Idzik immediately following New York’s final game of the regular season against Miami. Rex Ryan’s days at the helm are likely coming to an end along with a few other pieces between coaches and personnel. At quarterback, Geno Smith hasn’t shown anything promising to be the franchise signal-caller the organization has been thirsting for. In any event, the Jets still have some football left to play, and only pride to show and prove for the remaining days of what looks like a bunch of dead men walking is something to play for. As for Mike Zimmer’s Vikings, who are in a rebuilding stage with a rookie project at quarterback – Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings’ offense has a much more challenging defense on their plate this week, unlike the dismal Carolina defense and special teams Zimmer’s squad took advantage of in Week 13. The Jets have been one of the best teams in football defending the run, ranked third in that department, allowing just 3.5 yards per play on the ground. Jerick McKinnon is Minnesota’s best back who explodes through open lanes and makes defenders miss in the open field, but a back-injury sidelined him last week and his status for this week’s game is up in the air. Relying on Matt Asiata and Ben Tate running by committee will better New York’s ability of making Minnesota’s offense one dimensional, forcing Bridgewater to throw often. The rookie quarterback has the tendency to turn the ball over, and without positives coming from the running game – offensive coordinator Norv Turner may need to dig deep into his back pocket and get creative by design.

New York carries a physical set of down-lineman in their base 3-4 defense. Muhammad Wilkerson (toe) is questionable to return to the starting lineup, but the two other beefy players of the Jets’ front (Damon Harris and Sheldon Richardson) can still bring the heat, particularly Richardson going up against Matt Kalil, Minnesota’s left tackle. That matchup on the exterior could be a deciding factor on the play of Jets’ outside linebacker Calvin Pace getting pressure on Bridgewater. The Vikings’ offensive line is a solid group, but if New York’s D-line wins their battles in the trenches – this leads back to what I stated earlier on Turner getting creative. I’m perplexed as to why Cordarrelle Patterson hasn’t been involved much in the offensive game plan for Minnesota. Using him on play-fakes could be another element of halting New York’s front seven. Well, don’t expect Turner to go that route, but using short passing concepts for Bridgewater to get rid of the football quickly on screens, check-downs and working the middle to his tight ends (Kyle Rudolph and Chase Ford) would be ideal. Chris Johnson has become New York’s most effective back in the second half of the season – much to do with the wear and tear of Chris Ivory. And with trust lacking from Jets’ offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg on dialing up a decent amount of passing attempts for Smith, Johnson and New York’s ground attack remains aligned for a heavy workload. Minnesota also possesses talent upfront with Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr anchoring it, and like Minnesota needing to neutralize New York’s front, the Jets will need to do the same to have an efficient outing on offense. This game has the implications of a slobber-knocker, which better suites the defense that’s more capable of forcing turnovers, and though both offenses have bad habits of coughing up the football, New York’s offense has been more inept than Minnesota’s. And until Geno Smith proves he can protect the football against good defenses, my faith remains very low in him to guide the Jets to victory in matchups like these.
Pick: Vikings 17, N.Y. Jets 13

Baltimore Ravens 7-5 @ Miami Dolphins 7-5 – TV: CBS
Baltimore’s defense has been stout defending the run, but losing defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to a suspension could stump them down the stretch with playoff aspirations in their grasp. Without him anchoring the line, Miami still has some tough task to handle against Baltimore’s front, and they’ll need balance and scheme to dethrone the likes of Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith – all four talented linebackers of defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ hybrid 3-4 defense. The norm would always be to have your running game equipped and geared to keep a top-level rush from harassing your quarterback, and Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas should receive enough combined touches to keep Baltimore’s defense honest. But, in Bill Lazor’s offense – motioning his receivers from the backfield and having Ryan Tannehill fire the football to them on swing passes, play-fakes to freeze the linebackers that’ll help Tannehill’s targets get behind the linebackers is one of the favoring concepts that could work to Miami’s advantages. Another way to slow down Pees’ defense is having Tannehill throw on the move, using misdirection passing plays that could help Miami’s pass-protection. And for extra chipper purposes to help tackle Dallas Thomas’ assignments against Dumervill, tight end Dion Sims helping him on the edge would be ideal if Thomas loses his battles early on. Sims has been used in the passing game, but if Charles Clay (hamstring/knee) returns to action, Sims will be used more on his strengths as a blocker and Clay, the better route-runner and pass-catcher down the seams would up Miami’s ways of attacking the middle of Baltimore’s defense.

Justin Forsett has excelled in Gary Kubiak’s zone-running scheme, rushing for 1,009 yards through 12 games, and in his last three starts, Forsett has received 20 plus carries, rushing for over 100 yards in each of them. Baltimore’s offensive line is a much higher group of blockers for Miami’s D-line to face than last week against New York’s. Randy Starks, Earl Mitchell and Jared Odrick will be squared in against meat of the Ravens’ interior (Jeremy Zuttah, Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele), who’ve been overshadowed by Dallas’ interior line getting most of the attention around the league. The three have been just about as dominate, and if Starks, Mitchell and Odrick can win their trench-battles – Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon will find some comfort on the outside against Baltimore’s tackles (Eugene Monroe and Ricky Wagner). Unlike Miami, the Ravens aren’t gun-shy to take shots deep with Joe Flacco under center. Torrey Smith has come on of late as a red zone target for Flacco, catching 4 touchdown passes in in his last four games. The other Smith – Steve Smith Jr. may be going up against Miami’s physical and feisty cornerback Brent Grimes for most of the game, but with Cortland Finnegan (ankle) injured, it’s going to be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle makes switches in coverage by moving Grimes on Torrey and have R.J. Sanford on Smith Sr. It’s crucial for Coyle’s defense to contain Baltimore’s running game without having to load up the box – getting in the mess of having safeties Reshad Jones and Louis Delmas to cheat often could give Flacco ample chances of hitting his deep threats for scores. My overall verdict of this matchup has me going with Miami’s defense to focus in on stopping the run — taking out the deep pass from Flacco — playing better red zone defense — and their approach and multiple options for Tannehill to spread Baltimore’s defense out could negate their linebackers and place them to defend the pass instead crashing down at the line of scrimmage.
Pick: Dolphins 24, Ravens 20

Indianapolis Colts 8-4 @ Cleveland Browns 7-5 – TV: CBS
You think they’ll be another chance of a Johnny Football sighting? Look, all the gossip on Manziel’s scouting report and a few former players and coaches on the negative side of things can’t be taken too seriously. And for the record, the Patriots had a low report on Tom Brady before he even got the chance to be the starter in relief of Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Now, I’m not saying that Manziel will carry things over like Brady’s career has turned out as one of the better quarterbacks to ever play the game, but you better believe if Brian Hoyer continues to struggle on Sunday in a must win game for the Browns, coach Pettine will turn things over to Johnny. Nevertheless, the Browns do have a formula that’s at least put them in position for a potential playoff run, and that’s having one of the better ground-attacks in football, doing it within offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-running system.

Cleveland’s commitment to the run will once again be their best suited plan against the Colts, and with Andrew Luck and the league’s top ranked passing offense coming to town, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell’s performance will come a long way for Cleveland’s chances of keeping Luck on the sidelines by eating up clock, sustaining drives against the blitzing fronts of Colts’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s scheme. Manusky’s defense will be without his best press-cover corner (Vontae Davis) due to a concussion he suffered last week against Washington. And without Davis manning up on the perimeter against Cleveland’s top-tier receiver (Josh Gordon), Hoyer will look his way often with Gordon matched up on Darius Butler or Greg Toler – a more favorable matchup for Gordon to stretch Indianapolis’ defense. Cleveland has a plethora of injuries, and the one that stands out most is safety Tashaun Gipson (MCL). Karlos Dansby (knee), their leading tackler at linebacker could also miss the game, but one player from their defense that needs to step up is outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who leads the team in sacks with 8 on the season. He and the rest of Cleveland’s front have to force Luck into making bad decisions against an offense that isn’t predicated off the run. Without dropping Luck on his back, the Colts aerial attack will exploit Cleveland’s secondary throughout the game. Joe Haden could use his physicality against Indianapolis’ nifty and speedy T.Y. Hilton, but there’s more than just Hilton Luck has to throw to with his massive ammo before him – and without Gipson rolling over the top, someone is bound to get open deep for Indianapolis.
Pick: Colts 30, Browns 17

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-10 @ Detroit Lions 8-4 – TV: FOX
Neutralizing a dominant defensive front requires a solid ground game, but that hasn’t been the strong-points of Tampa Bay’s offense. So…Bucs’ offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo needs to get creative on play-selection. Certainly, abandoning the run isn’t the recipe for success, especially facing Detroit’s stellar front that sports Ndamukong Suh and Ezekiel Ansah. Arroyo won’t shy away from dialing up 20 plus run plays between Doug Martin and Charles Sims to keep Detroit’s defense honest, and their offensive line that’s struggled mightily will need to get out of their undisciplined habits of committing penalties. Tackles Anthony Collins and Demar Dotson could potentially hold Detroit’s Jason Jones and Ansah on the edges (if Logan Mankins, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Patrick Omameh negate Suh from penetrating on the interior). When the Bucs elect to pass, Arroyo should use quick passes and screens to keep Detroit’s front from tearing Josh McCown to shreds. The short passing game can also set up your vertical game, and Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay’s tall and physical receivers on the perimeter are the main-players to make enough plays for Lovie Smith’s Bucs to pull off the upset at Ford Field.

When the Lions have the ball, it’s been about the aerial attack, averaging 260 yards per game behind the arm of Matthew Stafford connecting with arguably the best duo of receivers in Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson. On the ground, Reggie Bush (ankle) has been plagued by injuries – leaving the duties up to Joique Bell, who leads the team in rushing with 581 yards and five touchdowns. Tampa Bay’s pass rush has shown improvement over the second half of the season, and if Gerald McCoy can wreak havoc in the middle to free up the outside rush towards Stafford, the Bucs might have as good a chance as they had last week in almost topping the Bengals. The only way for the Bucs’ offense to have success in this contest is to buy time for McCown in the pocket, and their lack of proper blocking techniques spells bad news, opening up the gates for Lions’ defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to deploy stunts and blitzes to derail Tampa Bay’s abysmal O-line.
Pick: Lions 27, Buccaneers 16

Houston Texans 6-6 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 2-10 – TV: CBS
Despite their dramatic comeback win last week, Blake Bortles was sacked 7 times by New York’s defense that hasn’t been consistent on bringing quarterbacks to the ground. And going up against a Texans’ defense that has the most viscous and hybrid-like player in J.J. Watt, doesn’t give a dismal Jacksonville offensive line any hopes to perform any better. Primarily, Watt is lined up in his natural position at defensive end, but his freakish athletic traits makes him the most versatile threat at the line of scrimmage – lined up over the center, guards, or in some cases – Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will use him as a standup rusher from all angles. Combating him takes double teams, and if you have a plan to potentially take away enough of his presence of buzzing in quarterbacks and running backs ears, play-fakes and gadget plays could work for your offense. Bortles has made plays with his feet against the rush and off the zone-read-option in offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s system — a strategy that could be used against Watt and Houston’s front. Denard Robinson has been Jacksonville’s most reliable weapon at running back who’s utilized on reverses, screens, and if he gets his opportunity in the open field, he can stifle a defense with his vision and ability to make defenders miss for big plays. When Robinson is effective on the ground and setting up the play-action pass, Jacksonville’s offense functions better.

Sen ‘Derrick Marks and Chris Clemons have been Jacksonville’s most productive players, and on the interior where Houston’s guards Ben Jones and Xavier Su’a-Filo have been vulnerable, Marks can see lots of opportunities to penetrate in the middle – helping Clemons and Red Bryant rush off the edges to get in Texans’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s face. Those matchups are the more vital areas to look at in this game, but the consistency of Houston back Arian Foster running behind zone-blockers could stretch Jacksonville’s front, and in the secondary, Jacksonville will find it difficult defending receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson, both receiving options Fitzpatrick will find open spaces to connect with. Note: Fitzpatrick has only had three un-efficient outings in his 10 starts. He may not be in discussion with the best of them, but he hasn’t gone out of his way to ruin Houston’s offense.
Pick: Texans 24, Jaguars 16

4:05 PM ET
Buffalo Bills 7-5 @ Denver Broncos 9-3 – TV: CBS
Buffalo’s defense has the games most fearsome front in the league. Jim Schwartz’ group currently leads all of football with a wowing 48 team sacks. And in order for Buffalo to stop Peyton Manning from shredding their defense, as any team facing Denver’s bona fide offensive talent – getting in Manning’s face to throw him out of rhythm is a must. With that in mind, it’s time to break down the matchups at the line of scrimmage that could decipher the outcome. On the inside of Denver’s offensive line where Orlando Franklin, Will Montgomery and Manny Ramirez are assigned to contain Buffalo’ defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, double teaming one of them can be costly as both Dareus or Williams could get freed up on stunt rushes when the Broncos elect to pass. On the edges for Buffalo’s front, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams will need to use their speed and inside moves against Denver’s tackles Louis Vasquez and Ryan Clady. The Broncos’ offensive line has been one of the best on limiting QB-pressures, but the athleticism and speed the Bills present in this contest will likely have the Broncos use some tactics and schemes to work best against it.

Using stretch runs to get Buffalo’s D-line to move laterally can come into play to negate them from penetrating into the backfield. And doing so behind running back C.J. Anderson, who’s brought an element of power and balance to Denver’s offense will be as essential for Denver to take away Buffalo’s rush as it did on the road against Kansas City. The Broncos also throw lots of different looks at defenses with bunch and trips formations that places opposing defenses second levels into favorable one-on-one matchups for Manning. Schwartz has used his defensive backs in more zone and off-man coverage, but it’s going to be interesting to see if he alters his game plan on defending Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both receivers who’ve been targeted over 100 times, catching over 80 balls, eclipsing the 1,000 yard barrier while combining for 17 of Manning’s 36 touchdown passes. You can’t allow Sanders or Thomas room in open space off bubble screens and shallow-routes – which should give Schwartz the idea of having his two cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Corey Graham play more bump and run coverage to try stall Manning’s top two weapons at his disposal off the ball.

Buffalo’s offensive line has been the weakest link of their team, and like Buffalo, the Broncos have lots of ammo defensively to rush the quarterback and stuff the run. Getting large gains on the ground will be the unlikely pedigree for success for Buffalo against Denver’s second ranked run defense. And with that facet thrown out of the window, protecting Kyle Orton becomes Buffalo’s number 1 priority. If Orton is going to have enough clean pockets to distribute the football like he has to receivers Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Chris Hogan, his tackles Seantrel Henderson and Cordy Glenn need to hold up Denver’s dynamo duo of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller from taking over the game. Overall, Denver’s defense has the better matchups to keep Buffalo’s offense from sustaining drives against them. Buffalo needs their backs Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown to show up, but with Broncos’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio utilizing safety T.J. Ward in the box to clean everything up on the underneath routes and wrapping up runners, Orton needs to be on point and duress will keep him from being a precise passer.
Pick: Broncos 31, Bills 16      

Kansas City Chiefs 7-5 @Arizona Cardinals 9-3 – TV: CBS
Arizona’s backfield situation looks cloudy with pace-setting back Andre Ellington nursing a hip-injury. Ellington hasn’t practiced this week and it looks like he’ll be a game-time decision. If Ellington is absent Sunday, the Cardinals are situated to start rookie Marion Grice and have Stepfan Taylor, Robert Hughes, or maybe Michael Bush, who the team recently signed spell him. The strengths of Bruce Arians’ offense isn’t predicated by producing mightily on the ground, but without Ellington’s presence as a blocker to pick up blitzes and as a receiving option, protecting Drew Stanton against Kansas City’s pass rush could be their downfall in this contest. Arizona’s tackles Jared Veldheer and Bobby Massie have been sound on protecting the edges, but they’ll have their hands full against Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, two outstanding outside rushers of Kansas City’s defense. The keys for Arians’ offense is — staying physical when they run the ball to wear down Hali, Houston and nose tackle Dontari Poe — using extra blockers to neutralize them from generating tackles for losses and sacks. Bob Sutton’s defense has been torched by runners, and even without Ellington, the Cardinals can have a solid day using their backs on the ground and in the screen game to setup vertical attacks for Stanton.

Without Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona’s passing game has floundered during their two-game losing streak. Fitzgerald (knee) has been limited in practice, but expects to return. Having him back would help Stanton on shallow-crossing routes, slants and comebacks to him, but the more dangerous options Stanton has to work against Sutton’s defense are his two deep-threats in receivers Michael Floyd and slot specialist John Brown. Sutton should place his best cover-corner Sean Smith on the more physical Floyd, playing bump and run to disrupt free-releases, while Ron Parker will be on Brown for most of the game. All of this depends on the availability of Fitzgerald that will alter Kansas City’s man-on-man matchups. Primarily, Kansas City’s defense needs to take away what Arians’ offense does best, and that’s strike defenses downfield. Kansas City’s offense is centralized around one of the games best backs in Jamaal Charles. Falling behind early in games has limited his touches – so it’s imperative for the Chiefs to keep the score close to have Alex Smith keep Andy Reid’s methodical philosophy flowing properly. Without question, Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will send the house at Smith, but when he does, he better keep his safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon shadowing Charles, who can leak out as a receiver and catch the football in the open field when the defense over-pursues. The Chiefs don’t threaten Arizona’s Patrick Peterson or Antonio Cromartie with a lack of receivers to beat them vertically, and with a swarm of fire-blitzes coming Smith’s way, only Charles and Kansas City’s running game can save him from getting pulverized when the Chiefs have to pass. Look for Arizona’s defense to come up big in the final quarter of a game that will come down to field position and turnovers.
Pick: Cardinals 20, Chiefs 13

4:25 PM ET             
Seattle Seahawks 8-4 @ Philadelphia Eagles 9-3 – TV: FOX
When facing the zone-read that has the combo of power and speed between the quarterback and running back – it’s imperative for your defense not to overreact and get caught frozen on the play-fakes off the snap. There isn’t a quarterback walking the face of the earth who’s more elusive than Seattle’s Russell Wilson, and what makes defending the zone-read extremely difficult is Wilson’s ability to read the oppositions linebackers and front before the snap on making the decision to fake the handoff to Marshawn Lynch and keep the football to run out to the edges, or feed Lynch the ball and run out to the edge – getting the linebackers pursuing towards him – leaving the powerful Lynch room to get into the second level of the defense for large chunks of yards. Eagles’ defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ group has been one of the best at getting after the quarterback, but in this matchup – his unit needs to play more containment, having his linebackers (Mychal Kendricks, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin) in more of a spy role, particularly Barwin and Cole on the outside while Kendricks focuses in on Lynch. Blitzing isn’t the ideal approach to attack Wilson if you want to keep him from extending plays, but keeping him in the pocket and making him beat you with his arm gives your defense a better shot against him. Davis’ unit is familiar with the zone-read – the Eagles defend this in practice each week due their offense using the concepts of it, and his defense will be prepared against it.

This doesn’t mean Seattle’s offense will turn stagnant if the Eagles take away the option, but as always, Seattle will make Lynch dictate the success they have, and running the ball effectively will keep the speed of the Eagles’ front contained. Speaking of containment and gap control – having linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Kam Chancellor at full strength is vital for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn on defending Philadelphia’s running backs (LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles). Wagner cleans things up underneath while Chancellor is the best in the box safety in the business. The two are going to be the keys for Seattle’s defense in defending Philadelphia’s screen game and laying bone-crushing hits on McCoy to set the tone for Seattle’s defense. The pace at which Philadelphia’s offense plays and no huddle strategy will put strain on Seattle’s defense, but Seattle has the talent in the secondary to matchup against Mark Sanchez’ prime receivers (Jordan Matthews and Jeremy Maclin).

The techniques and press-instincts of Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell – not allowing Philadelphia’s speedy receivers the freedom of releases in their routes could help Seattle’s front with more time to get after Sanchez. Matthews has been a dynamite target for Sanchez in the slot, particularly when having Maclin start at the top out wide, motioning him to the inside before the snap and having him run shallow crosses to draw singled up looks for Matthews down the seams. This is where Seattle safety Earl Thomas comes into play. Thomas plays center field better than anyone and bracketing Matthews and Maclin on the seams, deep crosses and post routes will be another vital area to look at in this matchup. I’m expecting both defenses to come prepared against the run – which makes efficiency come down to quarterback play, and watching Russell Wilson protect the football and be the ultimate improviser has the Seahawks playing their brand of football that propelled them to a championship in 2013. Sanchez hasn’t gone out of his way to make the Eagles’ offense erratic, but the defense he’ll face this Sunday is a lot better than Dallas’ that he faced on Thanksgiving.
Pick: Seahawks 24, Eagles 20               

San Francisco 49ers 7-5 @ Oakland Raiders 1-11 – TV: FOX
Through the drama surrounding the organization and future of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers still have four games left to play and can’t afford any hiccups the rest of the way. Coming off a horrendous performance, putting up only 3 points, the 49ers look to bounce back against the lowly Raiders, who are coming off an even worse performance by getting embarrassed 52-0 to the St. Louis Rams. With that in mind, glancing in on the differences between the two clubs is on the defensive side of the ball where the 49ers have been playing well under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Injuries to assets on the 49ers’ defense hasn’t stumped Fangio’s unit, and with the return of edge-rusher Aldon Smith, who’s coming into form since returning from his nine game suspension – Smith has given the defense a boost, helping his counterparts Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Aaron Lynch’s game upfront. The Raiders haven’t been able to establish an effective running game, but protecting Derek Carr has been the pluses for Oakland’s offense. Donald Penn, Carr’s blind side pass-protector will need to keep Smith from using his speed and maneuvers to get past him. Negating Smith will be extremely vital for Carr to have time to work against San Francisco’s secondary, and developing the vertical game within the pass will likely not come from their putrid running game – whether it’s Darren McFadden, Latavius Murray, Maurice Jones-Drew or fullback Marcel Reece getting the touches, offensive coordinator Greg Olson needs to find ways on getting McFadden and (Murray, if he’s cleared from concussion) the ball in space.

San Francisco’s safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea have been stout in coverage, not getting beat much over the top, and for Oakland to move the football well, it will take a methodical approach, using the underneath routes to have success against Fangio’s defense. For the 49ers’ offensive line, if right tackle Anthony Davis is to miss his second straight game due to concussion symptoms – Jonathan Martin will have to handle Oakland’s veteran and well-polished defensive end Justin Tuck. Tuck has the experience and leadership traits that could ignite a defense – the same effects safety Charles Woodson can have for Oakland, and if San Francisco’s offense continues to have its woes – it’ll give the Raiders another shot to win before their loyal faithful’s at Alameda County Coliseum. Rookie sensational strong side linebacker Khalil Mack and Woodson are the best parts of Oakland’s defense to contain San Francisco’s backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde. 49ers’ offensive coordinator Greg Roman has been rightfully criticized on play-selection – and he needs to take heed on Oakland ranked near the bottom pack of the league, allowing 130.5 yards per game against the run. Having Colin Kaepernick trying to do too much isn’t going to solve the problem, and if the 49ers are going to take flight into the realm of excellence – Roman and Harbaugh need to look back on what’s made this team a contender over the last three seasons. It won’t be pretty, but their defense and leaving it up to their ground attack should do enough for them to get the W.
Pick: 49ers 20, Raiders 13     

Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
New England Patriots 9-3 @ San Diego Chargers 8-4
Since Week 8, New England’s defense has gone up against offenses that boast one of the best receiving units in the game. And during that time-frame, their secondary has done a decent job of limiting them from making big plays. Most recently, in their loss against the Packers – defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s pass defense held Jordy Nelson to just 2 catches, but one of them went for a 45 yard score before the half. The coverage rolled over on Green Bay’s Nelson and Randall Cobb sprung Rodgers’ third receiver Davante Adams open for 6 catches and 121 yards receiving — and taking a glimpse at the matchups Patricia’s defense has against San Diego’s well-rounded pass-catchers — it makes way for critical man-on-man bouts for two upper echelon quarterbacks – San Diego’s Philip Rivers and New England’s Tom Brady to make the best of their opportunities to guide their teams to victory.

Last week, against the Ravens, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates found open spaces in the middle before the Ravens made adjustments and placed safety Will Hill on him. Darrelle Revis will often be matched up on Rivers’ best receiver Kennan Allen, but who the more physical Brandon Browner defends is going to be interesting to see. Will it be Gates on the seams or the tall and acrobatic Malcom Floyd Browner gets goes against? To me, it depends on the flow of the game and where Rivers’ hot hand delivers from the start. Nickel corner Kyle Arrington has the speed to keep up with slot receiver Eddie Royal in a matchup that could be the X-Factor for Rivers on third down. It’s no secret that pressuring Rivers and Brady is important, but for San Diego’s defense – they have more to deal with in terms of defending a Patriots’ ground attack that can mix it up, changing the pace between all of their backs they have confidence on giving the Pigskin to. LeGarrette Blount appears to be the lead-runner at the moment and should get most of the carries in this contest to soften up San Diego’s front to setup the play-action pass. That doesn’t cancel out Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden or Shane Vereen. Vereen is the X-Factor for New England who creates lots of mismatches for the second level of defenses because of moving him around in the backfield and lining him up as a flanker for receiving purposes. Safeties (Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist) are Chargers’ defensive coordinator John Pagano’s assets defending the incomparable Rob Gronkowski. Weddle has defended the best of them and is also a contributor in the box to stop the run. He and Gilchrist won’t be able to completely shut down Gronkowski, but making sure he doesn’t do damage with his freakish strength after the catch and keeping him out of the end zone will be one of the objectives for San Diego. The Chargers will try to pound the football with Ryan Mathews, but the main difference to me is at the line of scrimmage, and the Chargers have been surviving with a banged up O-line. Protection looks healthier for New England, and other than Corey Liuget, there’s no true threat to rattle Brady for San Diego.
Pick: Patriots 34, Chargers 24         

Monday Night Football, December 8 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN             
Atlanta Falcons 5-7 @ Green Bay Packers 9-3
One of the essentials of being a good coach is being  a top schemer, coming up with strategies to help particular areas of your team, but recognizing weaknesses and making adjustments to better your squad in the course of a 16 game season has kept top coaches on the job. Green Bay’s defensive coordinator Dom Capers has made changes to sure things up for the Packers’ defense to help defend the run. Losing B.J. Raji due to a torn biceps in the preseason proved to work against Capers’ defense that’s had its lapses defending the run, but his versatile players within the personnel of his defense has given him the luxury of moving outside linebacker Clay Matthews to middle linebacker along with implementing Sam Barrington that’s improved the play of Capers’ unit on defending the run. With that thrown in the fold, Capers can still move Matthews back to the outside on passing downs – keeping his unique approach of utilizing his linebackers as the focal part of their effective concepts on defense intact.

Last week, in Atlanta’s upset win over the Cardinals at home, they finally got the effort they’ve been looking for from running back Steven Jackson, who ran for 101 yards against one of the league’s best run-stuffing defenses. The Falcons are deep at receiver and have an elite-pass-catcher in Julio Jones for Matt Ryan to torch defensive backs with, but it’s imperative for head coach Mike Smith’s team to make controlling the clock, feeding the rock to Jackson and his backs their main plan to keep Aaron Rodgers, who hasn’t thrown an interception in 360 consecutive pass attempts at Lambeau Field (the longest streak in NFL history) off the field. Clearly, Mike Nolan’s defense is overmatched, and getting after opposing quarterbacks has been an adventure for his defense. Add the fact of Green Bay’s offensive line gelling at the right time of the season and running back Eddie Lacy tallying 100 yards from scrimmage in five straight games, and the Packers have millions of ways to beat their opponents at the point of attack. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are young cornerbacks for Nolan’s group that will face their most difficult task, trying to shut down the combo of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb of the Packers’ prolific passing attack. Giving Nelson, Cobb and the rest of Rodgers’ slew of targets free releases off the ball without a pass rush will be a piece of cake for Rodgers to continue to show off his amazing arm. So pressing them will be the only hopes of disrupting their routes. Still, Nelson and Cobb are favored to win those matchups and unless Nolan formulates a masterful plan on stunts and perfectly timed blitzes to get after Rodgers — Atlanta’s defense will be in for a long night on prime time television.
Pick: Packers 38, Falcons 20

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

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