Massimo’s NFL Blog
NFL Predictions | Week 15: NFL Football Picks, NFL Football
By Massimo Russo: Co-Editor Silver and Blue Report & Hook’em Report

NFL, Dallas Cowboys, Cowboys, Massimo RussoLooking to keep Cleveland’s NFL playoff hopes alive, head coach Mike Pettine has decided to turn things over to Johnny Manziel against defending AFC North champion Cincinnati. Plus, The Cowboys and Eagles will battle on prime time television for first place in the NFC East, while Denver looks to clinch the AFC West against San Diego.

Week 15
Thursday Night Football, December 11 8:25 PM ET – TV: NFL Network
Arizona Cardinals 10-3 @ St. Louis Rams 6-7
The Cardinals need the men up front on their offensive line to perform like it did against Kansas City, creating lanes for their backs, and without Andre Ellington (hernia), the Cardinals got a good deal of production from Kerwynn Williams, who ran for 100 yards on 19 carries to help Arizona end its two-game losing streak. Head coach Bruce Arians has stated earlier this week that Stepfan Taylor is the starting runner, but with Williams riding the hot hand — I’d expect him to get most of the work while Taylor, Marion Grice and Robert Hughes share touches. For them to find room against Gregg Williams’ physical and athletic D-line, guard Jonathan Cooper, who did his part against Kansas City’s nose tackle Dontari Poe will need to keep Rams’ interior D-lineman (Aaron Donald) from getting bench press pushes into the backfield that could ruin Arizona’s execution. When Donald is a factor, Robert Quinn and the rest of the Rams’ front pressures the pocket, and without balance from Arizona’s offense, Drew Stanton isn’t trustworthy to have an efficient day throwing the football to his main targets (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown) when under duress. The screen-game was a viable element when Ellington was the featured runner for Arizona’s offense, but Arians shouldn’t abandon those concepts in this matchup. Banking on time in the pocket for Stanton to stay upright isn’t the ideal approach, but running screens to the backs and quick outs to the receivers is another way to negate St. Louis’ rush. If this works effectively for Arizona – it could draw in the backend of St. Louis’ defense to help setup the vertical stretching plays that Arians’ offense is mostly based on when it comes to throwing the football.

In two of the Rams’ last three wins, Tre Mason eclipsed the century mark, and the Rams could use a big game from him against Arizona’s blitzing fronts, coordinated by Todd Bowles to keep Shaun Hill out of third and longs. Bowles could be without Antonio Cromartie (ankle) on the opposite side of Patrick Peterson, and the Rams have a receiving-core that’s playing well with Hill managing the offense. Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin are a mixture of speed, physicality and good route-runners, but the more vital area in coverage will be Arizona’s safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon defending the middle of the field against Rams’ tight end Jared Cook. Cook is deadly on the seams and Buccannon will need to shadow him throughout the game. Another assignment for Buccanon will be spying on Austin, a versatile receiver that’s used on gadget plays for Brian Schottenheimer’s offense. Austin motioning around creates lots of attention, and if he gets in the open field — he can make defenders miss and take it to the house for scores. Arizona is much better than the last two teams the Rams have faced, but had Shaun Hill not thrown an interception late against the Chargers on Nov. 23 — Jeff Fisher’s team would be standing at 7-6 instead of being under .500. And I’m liking just about everything the Rams are doing — more so on defense as the cornerstone to building a dominant defense is set in stone for St. Louis’ future.
Pick: Rams 17, Cardinals 13
Final Score: Cardinals (11-3) 12, Rams (6-8) 6     

Sunday, December 14
1:00 PM ET             
Pittsburgh Steelers 8-5 @ Atlanta Falcons 5-8 – TV: CBS
Against the Cardinals in Week 13, the Falcons brought intense pressure from every angle towards Drew Stanton, creating turnovers in a 29-18 shocking win over a top NFC team. Of course, Stanton isn’t Aaron Rodgers the Falcons faced on Monday or Ben Roethlisberger defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will scheme against, but it’s going to be interesting to see if he deploys more blitzing fronts and challenges Roethlisberger’s wide-range of ammunition he’s been dissecting defenses with.  The Falcons don’t have a defensive front that’s been generating sacks, but for Nolan’s group to ignite the flame for his defense to get after Roethlisberger — Pittsburgh’s all-purpose running back Le’Veon Bell can’t get into the second level of Atlanta’s defense. Atlanta’s linebackers (Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Kroy Biermann) need to come downhill, shedding blocks, making Bell make quicker decisions to keep him from scanning lanes before he can use his savvy style of running when he cuts back and dictates the defense to his advantage. Nolan needs to keep a spy on him, particularly on passing downs where Bell leaks out of the backfield as a viable pass-catcher for Pittsburgh’s screen-game that’s been one of the best in football this season. If Bell is doing his thing, it will put more stress on Atlanta’s cornerback Desmond Trufant going head-to-head against Roethlisberger’s main read (Antonio Brown).  Keeping a safety over the top on Brown and Martavis Bryant will be vital for Nolan’s defense, but with the status of William Moore (foot) looking iffy to play, Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael will be called upon to bracket the deep end of Atlanta’s defense.

Matt Ryan could be without Julio Jones, a machine-like unstoppable receiver that’ll be going up against a Steelers group of defensive backs that doesn’t possess the talent to hang with him. Jones injured his hip against the Packers in a game he caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown, and though he’s listed as questionable, head coach Mike Smith told reporters this week that there’s a good chance Jones plays and practice time won’t determine his availability. Regardless of Jones’ status – Dick LeBeau’s defense needs to be prepared as if the star-receiver is suiting up, and like Roethlisberger being capable of lighting up a defense, so can Ryan through the air. If Jones is no show, Harry Douglas, Roddy White and Devin Hester’s roles will expand. I’d expect an increased emphasis on running the football with Steven Jackson as well if Ryan is without his deadly vertical-stretching target. This contest could turn out to be a high-scoring affair, and I’m assuming Jones plays, but what separates these two squads in terms of efficiency is balance. Bell and Brown have been consistent in Todd Haley’s offense, and there’s many ways for Pittsburgh’s offense to attack Atlanta’s defense with counter running plays, draws and screens, all concepts to setup the deep ball.
Pick: Steelers 34, Falcons 27

Washington Redskins 3-10 @ N.Y. Giants 4-9 – TV: FOX
If Colt McCoy (neck) doesn’t gain medical clearance, the Redskins will be rolling with RGIII or Kirk Cousins against New York. The more likely starter if McCoy can’t go would be RGIII, but whoever is operating Washington’s offense, they’ll need to prepare for the adjustments and changes New York’s defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has made on using blitzing fronts – a game plan that worked to the strengths of his defense in 36-7 blowout win over the Titans last Sunday. Strong side linebacker Devon Kennard was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for the Giants – recording 6 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback hits and a forced fumble in a stellar performance against Tennessee. Fewell has deployed Kennard as a rusher off the edges on the same side as Jason Pierre-Paul that’s creating the proper overloaded fronts for the Giants to get after the quarterback. Trent Williams is Washington’s best pass-protector on the blind side, and for Washington’s offensive coordinator (Sean McVay) to combat New York’s rush against Kennard and Pierre-Paul, using an extra chipper with a running back or a tight end would be ideal on passing downs. Alfred Morris was shut down by St. Louis’ defense last week, and for the Redskins to sustain drives and up their percentages from not being exposed on protecting the pocket – Morris needs to set the pace on the ground early for Washington to negate New York’s pass rush to get the play-action pass functioning positively.

Eli Manning torched Washington’s defense in their first meeting at FedEx Field, throwing all 4 of his touchdown passes to his tight ends. Larry Donnell caught 3 of them – getting behind Washington’s linebackers throughout the game. Jim Haslett’s defense has been getting beaten to the drum badly by tight ends of late, and against the Giants – his safeties need to be sharper on reading the run and not over-anticipate before the snap. Safety Ryan Clark bit against the play-action against the Rams, and when he crashed down near the tackle box, St. Louis’ tight end Jared Cook was able to spring free over the middle against Washington’s defense. Haslett has deployed aggressive approaches before and having his cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and David Amerson press New York’s receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Ruben Randle would be the better route to take for his defense to break them off their routes. Doubling Donnell also comes into play, but if The Giants establish the run with Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams – the play-fakes for Manning will open up. The quarterback situation between both clubs clearly favors New York, and even if RGIII or Kousins gets thrown to the fire – neither of them have performed better than McCoy.
Pick: N.Y. Giants 24, Redskins 17

Miami Dolphins 7-6 @ New England Patriots 10-3 – TV: CBS
Losing Branden Albert to a season-ending injury has forced the hands of Miami’s coaching staff to make changes on the offensive line, and looking over the porous play of Dallas Thomas since being moved to right tackle – the Dolphins need to place a back or tight end to help him in protection often. One of the masterful traits of Bill Belichick is breaking down the oppositions weak-points, and on the right side of Miami’s O-line – it wouldn’t surprise me if the Patriots use some overloaded fronts with Rob Ninkovich and Jamie Collins to pressure Ryan Tannehill. Miami’s offense coordinator Bill Lazor has done a fine job implementing game plans to get Tannehill to make quick decisions with the football, but the running game has to be essential for Miami to top the favored Patriots. This is a game where Lamar Miller needs to be heavily involved at the point of attack for Miami. Without balance, it’ll be difficult for Lazor’s offense to get his receivers to win their one-on-ones against arguably the best group of defensive backs the Patriots feature in cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and free safety Devin McCourty.

Tannehill has found success when Lazor has dialed up option plays for him, and when motioning his receivers around the backfield, swinging out on short passes along with crossing route concepts and screens to the backs. But for Jarvis Landry, Mike Wallace and the rest of a deep core of targets at Tannehill’s disposal to find open spaces – pass protection needs to improve and Miller needs to put forth a better than average rushing performance to keep New England’s defense guessing. New England’s defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can’t overlook Miami’s offense – it’s played well against top defenses this season, and without pressuring Tannehill, Miami has showed flashes of being able to finish off drives and produce points. Needless to say, defending Rob Gronkowski will take more than just one defender for Kevin Coyle’s unit to do their best trying to keep New England’s bona fide tight end from shredding Miami’s defense, but the prowess of Coyle’s defense comes from his D-lineman (Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon). For Wake and Vernon to win their battles on the outside, Miami’s defense has to mitigate New England’s ground attack. Look for the Patriots to lean on LeGarrette Blount early to soften up Miami’s front to dictate the effectiveness of Tom Brady working off the play-action pass. Using extra blockers has helped turn a once struggling New England O-line around, and with Shane Vereen drawing in the deep end of defenses, the favorable matchups for Brady should continue to operate like a well-oiled-machine against the reeling Dolphins.
Pick: Patriots 34, Dolphins 23

Oakland Raiders 2-11 @ Kansas City Chiefs 7-6 – TV: CBS  
Despite losing three consecutive games, Andy Reid’s Chiefs are in the hunt of the AFC Playoff race. The Raiders are playing their best football, but the corks and weaknesses are still there for a better Kansas City team to top Oakland and get back to the fundamentals of what makes them successful, and that’s getting Jamaal Charles more touches than what he’s received recently. For Kansas City to turn things around for the better against the run, it starts on the interior of their defensive line – an area where nose tackle Dontari Poe roams. Opposing running games have been gashing Kansas City between the tackles, and without Poe clogging gaps or forcing the opposition to run outside the tackles, it leaves their 3-4 defense exposed against the run. And though the Raiders got a huge performance from Latavius Murray in their Week 12 win over the Chiefs, the vulnerabilities remain within their ground game. Pass protection has been the bright spot of Oakland’s offense in giving Derek Carr time to distribute the football, and if Poe is silent, Kansas City’s outside rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Ali’s battles on the edges against Oakland’s tackles Donald Penn and  Menelik Watson will be in favor for Carr to stay upright on passing downs. Simply put, Poe is the key to start the engine for Kansas City’s defense in this matchup.

Offensively, converting on third down has been putrid for Reid’s offense. The Chiefs have converted on only 9 of 37 third down attempts in their last three games, and if Charles (knee/ankle) is to miss the game or play on a limited amount of touches — Knile Davis and De’Anthony Thomas will be called upon for expanded roles. The prowess of Kansas City’s offense starts from the running game dictating the play-fakes and creativity on pass-selection for Alex Smith, and his favorite go-to-pass-catcher is tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce and the rest of Kansas City’s receivers don’t run many vertical routes – therefore tackling and defending the underneath routes well will be the objective for Oakland’s defense. Oakland’s defensive coordinator (Jason Tarver) has one of the games up and coming best linebackers in rookie Khalil Mack that rushes the passer and is sound on containing the edges on the strong side of Oakland’s defense, but the more viable player up in the box to defend the run and hover on top of Kelce is safety Charles Woodson. Even at the age of 38, Woodson can do it all at the position, and for Kansas City to sustain drives, Woodson, Mack and Justin Tuck have to be excluded from igniting Oakland’s defense. Look for Kansas City to rely heavily on the run and for Bob Sutton’s defense to use extra rushers to pressure Carr in front of their loud faithful at Arrowhead Stadium, a pedigree that’ll get the Chiefs back to looking like they did in their first 10 games.
Pick: Chiefs 24, Raiders 16

Houston Texans 7-6 @ Indianapolis Colts 9-4 – TV: CBS
Thanks to Andrew Luck’s toughness of being able to withstand hits and mobility behind an inferior offensive line — the league’s leader in yards passing and touchdowns has kept Indianapolis’ offense at high standards. A win for Indianapolis will clinch the AFC South for head coach Chuck Pagano’s team for the second straight season, and for his team to take care of business — offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s preparation for Houston’s defense that sports the games best defensive player in J.J Watt comes from a few concepts that could mitigate him from taking over the game. Losing Ahmad Bradshaw for the remainder of the season not only stumps Indianapolis’ ground game, they’re also minus his ability to pick up blitzes and as an extra chipper on the edges. Normally, Watt lines up at his natural position at defensive end, but Romeo Crennel has used Watt’s hybrid-traits – moving him around to create headaches for opposing offensive lines. For Hamilton to minimize Watt, he’ll need to deploy double teams, using an extra tight end and keep his backs on the edges, particularly on the right side of the O-line to help Gosder Cherilus, a liability at right tackle for the Colts.

Having Luck roll out on bootlegs away from Watt and using screens to the backs can also work for Hamilton’s offense to keep Houston’s front from disrupting the timing and execution of Indianapolis’ offense. The Colts won’t shy away from giving Trent Richardson and Daniel Herron a share of carries to have the Texans wary of Indianapolis’ running game, but attacking Houston’s secondary vertically with T.Y. Hilton is the best option for Hamilton’s game plan. Whether it’s Kareem Jackson or Johnathan Joseph lined up on Hilton, Houston’s cornerbacks need to challenge him at the line of scrimmage. Playing bump-and-run coverage while rolling safety Kendrick Lewis over the top on Hilton is the more ideal approach for Houston to minimize Luck’s dangerous target from dancing all over Houston’s defense like he did on Oct. 9 – catching 9 balls for 223 yards and a score. Houston may be without their well-polished veteran receiver Andre Johnson, who’s yet to be cleared from a concussion he sustained against the Jaguars, but the passing game isn’t what Houston’s offense is predicated on. The Colts have had periods of lapses defending the run, but the aggressiveness is still there for Greg Manusky’s unit. Look for Manusky to crowd the box to give his defense the best chance to contain Houston’s top-tier back Arian Foster — and on third down – expect to see blitzes sent towards Ryan Fitzpatrick – a quarterback that’s vulnerable and prone to make mistakes against pressured fronts. Houston can keep the game within reach by eating up clock, but with all the attention Hilton will receive – Luck’s second, third, fourth and fifth options, ranging from tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne to receivers Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and Donte Moncrief will find open spaces against a suspect Texans secondary.
Pick: Colts 30, Texans 20

Jacksonville Jaguars 2-11 @ Baltimore Ravens 8-5 – TV: CBS
John Harbaugh’s Ravens are in the race of the AFC wild-card picture along with San Diego and Pittsburgh sporting the same record at 8-5. Winning the AFC North isn’t out of the equation either, but for that to happen they’ll need to finish with a better record than current division leader Cincinnati, who swept Baltimore this season. In any event…the Ravens have three winnable games remaining on their schedule, starting with the rebuilding Jaguars at M&T Bank Stadium. Gus Bradley’s Jaguars are going through the growing pains of a young team learning the ropes of what it takes to win at the pro level, but examining the areas of where his team has glimmer hope against a much more talented team – Jacksonville’s best players have come from the front of their defense.  Defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks is playing at a Pro Bowl level, and in order for Jacksonville’s defense to slow down Baltimore’s excellence of execution of deploying Gary Kubiak’s zone-running concepts, Marks, along with Roy Miller and Abry Jones’ trench play will need to overcome Baltimore’s stout interior trio of blockers in center Jeremy Zuttah and guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele. Those three run-blockers of Kubiak’s system has propelled Baltimore’s running game that’s averaged 168 yards per game over the last four games.

Baltimore’s lead-runner Justin Forsett played through a knee-injury last week against the Dolphins and should be able to go again this week, but the touches could be limited with Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro giving him a breather to change the pace. Taliaferro is dealing with a banged up knee and ankle and could miss the game – leaving Pierce as the prime spell-back behind Forsett. Joe Flacco’s been comfortable and has been placed in high-percentage passing downs, and for Jacksonville to create an abundance of opportunities to get after him, they’ll need to halt Baltimore’s ground game to take away Flacco from utilizing the play-action pass. Jacksonville’s defensive backs don’t match up well against Baltimore’s receivers (Steve Smith Sr., Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and  Kamar Aiken), and without pressure coming from Bob Babich’s defense, sustaining drives and scoring points will come in handy for Baltimore’s offense. Baltimore’s defense is susceptible to the pass, but the only way for Jacksonville’s offense to neutralize Dean Pees’ hybrid-linebackers (Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee) from sandwiching Blake Bortles – Toby Gerhart, Jordan Todman and Storm Johnson need to spark a solid attack by committee for Jacksonville’s running game without Denard Robinson. Robinson is done for the season due to a foot-injury and without his presence, the creativity goes downhill for the Jaguars — and having Bortles throw often behind an abysmal offensive line only makes matters worse for an offense that keeps giving the football away.
Pick: Ravens 31, Jaguars 9    

Green Bay Packers 10-3 @ Buffalo Bills 7-6 – TV: FOX
Outside of Aaron Rodgers continuing to play the quarterback position at an elite level, Green Bay’s offensive line has been outstanding. All of their O-lineman (David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga, T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton and Corey Linsley) are dominating in trench play, creating running lanes and giving Rodgers clean pockets. This week, on the road at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the five horses of Green Bay’s line will be going up against Buffalo’s dominant front. Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are arguably the most fearsome group in football that’s led Jim Schwartz’ defense to 48 team sacks, bettering every defense on bringing opposing quarterbacks to the ground. A power running game would be ideal in negating a strong front, but the Packers may have to do it without Eddie Lacy. Lacy injured his hip against the Falcons on Monday and if he’s to miss the game, James Starks will take his spot as the lead-runner against the Bills. Starks may not bring the same shedding of tacklers Lacy brings to the table as a bruising back, but he’s discipline on reading the lanes his blockers provide for him to use his shiftiness to get into the second level of defenses. Starks is also a viable tool out of the backfield in the screen game, one of the concepts to keep Buffalo’s rush away from Rodgers. Dareus and Williams are the creators on the interior that ignite Williams and Hughes on the outside – so Green Bay’s offensive coordinator Tom Clements needs to use some stretch runs when the Packers run the ball to get Buffalo’s front to move laterally — which could limit them from getting into backfield to stuff the run for negative plays.

Without forcing Rodgers up in the pocket with edge pressure or interior pressure to flush him outside the hash marks, the Packers will be able to sustain drives. On the boundaries in coverage for Buffalo, Stephon Gilmore, a physical corner will be matched up on Jordy Nelson while Cory Graham should defend the versatile Randall Cobb. Solid safety play will be vital in helping Gilmore and Graham defending Green Bay’s dynamic duo. Da’Norris Searcy (hamstring), a playmaking safety will miss the game for Buffalo – leaving Duke Williams to replace him at the deep end with free safety Aaron Williams. Both of Buffalo’s safeties can’t bite the dust on double moves from Nelson and need to bracket the deep middle well to not get burned on post routes – an area where Rodgers has connected with Nelson and Cobb for big plays when they split the safeties deep. Letting Green Bay’s receivers run their routes on free releases is a death like situation for any defense, and though Schwartz has the luxury of rushing four — giving Buffalo’s defense more defenders in coverage — he needs to have his defensive backs play aggressive against Rodgers’ receivers at the line of scrimmage. Buffalo’s offense isn’t a prolific group but they can win this game on strategy. Their running game has been one of the worst in football, but they have a back in Fred Jackson who could get Dom Capers’ strengths of deploying his linebackers away from rushing Kyle Orton. Jackson has always been an asset catching the football out of the backfield and using him in the screen-game will force Green Bay’s linebackers into coverage, an area where they’ve been vulnerable at times this season. Orton has done a decent job of managing Buffalo’s offense on the underneath routes and since pass-protection has forced him to get rid of the ball quickly, the vertical game has been limited. The sleeper in this matchup is tight end Scott Chandler for Buffalo. If Chandler is a factor on the seams, it could help Orton and Buffalo’s passing game open up outside attempts to Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.  In conclusion, I’m looking at red zone opportunities and the Packers have been golden in the red area – Buffalo hasn’t. And for the Bills to top the Packers — they’ll need to win the turnover battle, and considering Rodgers doesn’t throw the ball to the other team, I don’t like Buffalo’s chances.
Pick: Packers 31, Bills 19

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-11 @ Carolina Panthers 4-8-1 – TV: FOX
Sigh of relief and thank goodness Cam Newton is going to be alright. Newton was released from the Carolinas Medical Center on Wednesday morning after spending the night following a car accident on Tuesday. Newton’s health is far more important than football, but the bad news is – Newton won’t play in the heat of a tight NFC South division race until two fractured transverse processes in his back heal up. Backup Derek Anderson, who played in the absence of Newton in Week 1, guiding Carolina to a 20-14 victory over the Bucs, throwing for 230 yards and 2 touchdown passes will get the nod. Anderson doesn’t bring the threat of using his feet like Newton or the norm for offensive coordinator Mike Shula to dial up option plays against Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 defensive scheme, but Anderson can beat Tampa Bay’s defense with his arm, and with Jonathan Stewart running the rock effectively, Anderson and Carolina’s offense could find balance and work the soft spots of Tampa Bay’s zone. Record-wise, Smith’s Bucs don’t show many positives, but his team has picked up the concepts of his scheme.

However, against Carolina, Smith’s unit could be without two vital pieces as linebacker Lavonte David (concussion) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (knee) are listed as questionable. Without McCoy disrupting the middle on the D-line and David bracketing the middle against Panthers’ tight end Greg Olsen, Tampa Bay’s defense could be in for a long afternoon. Only the Raiders have been worse than Tampa Bay when it comes to trying to establish the run. Doug Martin, Bobby Rainey and Charles Sims aren’t mustering enough plus-plays to provide the offense to mix things up, but where the Bucs have made the most of their positives on offense is — attacking opposing defenses through the air. McCown will take shots downfield to Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson against a weak Carolina secondary, and though Tampa Bay’s secondary is allowing lots of scores against the Pass like Carolina is – they still have a good deal of talent in Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks and Dashon Goldson to keep Carolina’s red zone target Kelvin Benjamin out of the end zone. The Bucs and Panthers have displayed a good amount of sloppy play, but the pluses go to Carolina, who showed lots of resiliency on the road last week in New Orleans. Ron Rivera’s team is still fighting and they’ll play with lots of emotion for Cam on Sunday.
Pick: Panthers 27, Buccaneers 17

Cincinnati Bengals 8-4-1 @ Cleveland Browns 7-6 – TV: FOX
It’s “Johnny Football Time” in Cleveland. Usually, when a rookie quarterback makes his first career start, it’s hard to get a clear feel of how he’ll perform or what type of play-selections will be given for him to manage the offense. Cleveland’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has utilized Pistol-Snap concepts for the betterment of a running-style quarterback when running Washington’s offense, getting the best out of a healthy version of Robert Griffin III. With Manziel’s skill-set, the Browns now have a triple threat scheme for usage against opposing defenses. The boot-game and run action forces opposing linebackers to roll to the play side that’ll open up throwing windows for Manziel to connect with tight end Jordan Cameron and dynamite receiver Josh Gordon. What makes this scheme work to the tee is having downhill running backs the Browns possess with Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell getting out to the edges quickly. Setting the pace on the ground with them sets up the play-fakes, and in order for Cincinnati to minimize the effectiveness of this scheme – edge-play from defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry along with good tackling and gap control from their linebackers Vincent Rey, Emmanuel Lamur and Rey Maualuga needs to be consistent for Paul Guenther’s defense.

Having a receiver like Gordon running nine-routes on the outside forces a safety to play over the top and with the tight end Cameron running the seams in the middle – a linebacker has to drop back into coverage. This is why pressure from Cincinnati’s front has to be on top of their game – because with the linebackers and DB’s backs turned, Manziel could use his feet to move the chains against Cincinnati’s defense on passing downs. The success of Cincinnati’s offense stems from their running game, and they have a combo of running backs in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, both runners that could get the job done on the ground and out of the backfield in the screen game. Cleveland’s secondary got the best of Cincinnati’s receivers in their first meeting in Week 10. Joe Haden, one the league’s top corners held Andy Dalton’s bread and butter target (A.J. Green) to just 3 catches and 23 yards receiving. Since then, Green has flourished and is coming off a 224 yard receiving day in a losing effort against Pittsburgh. Dalton is capable of performing efficiently and getting the football over the top to Green is always part of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s plan. Primarily, attacking Cleveland’s defense early on the ground should be the objective for the Bengals to open up the pass against a feisty and opportunistic Cleveland defense. Both defenses have been gashed on the ground, which makes the emphasis of sticking to the running game imperative for both offenses to stay committed to it. And though Dalton has been an up and down thrower, he still has the qualities to manage Cincinnati’s offense well. Manziel could provide a spark, but it’s hard for me to think he won’t make any poor decisions in his first crack at signal-caller.
Pick: Bengals 24, Browns 20 

4:05 PM ET             
N.Y. Jets 2-11 @ Tennessee Titans 2-11 – TV: CBS
Wins aren’t going to cover up everything that’s gone wrong for the Jets and Titans this season, but evaluating personnel and where the direction of both franchises plans moving forward stands (from coaching to quarterback play) will be the focal point of both organizations to zoom in on. For Tennessee, Jake Locker is expected to start at quarterback for the injured Zach Mettenberger, who aggravated a sprained shoulder last week against the Giants. Reports have it that Mettenberger could be done for the season, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters earlier this week that there’s still a chance Mettenberger could play again this season. Anyways, with or without Mettenberger, Locker isn’t going to turn a porous Tennessee offense into a top-level unit in a blink of an eye, especially signal-calling behind an offensive line that’s caught a serious case of the injury-bug. Adding more sour grapes to the pot — Tennessee’s receivers have also been nicked up and could be without Kendall Wright, who’s nursing a hand-injury. And when it comes to running the football, the Titans are ranked near the bottom pack of the league, averaging only 86.2 yards per game. The Jets, on the other hand, have been one of the best at running the football, averaging 149.7 yards per contest behind the combo of Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson. Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg would be wise to grind things out with both backs against Tennessee’s defense that’s been worse than any unit defending the run. And at the line of scrimmage, the Jets are equipped to win their head-to-head muscle-tussles against the main weak aspects of Tennessee’s offense – run and pass blocking.
Pick: N.Y. Jets 26, Titans 16                  

Denver Broncos 10-3 @ San Diego Chargers 8-5 – TV: CBS
Denver’s offense is known for doing most of its damage against defenses through their prolific passing attack, but in recent weeks, they’ve turned to their ground game – adding another dimension to their offense that’s been imposing their will with physicality behind the legs of running back C.J. Anderson. Having a reliable ground attack puts more stress on the opposition to prepare for, knowing the Broncos can strike you in every facet an offense can, and with the return of Peyton Manning’s dangerous middle target in Julius Thomas from an ankle-injury, San Diego’s linebackers and safeties are in line for some serious challenges. Thomas back in the mix formulates mismatches in coverage, due to the fact of being used in the slot, out wide, near the tackles and on some occasions, he’ll line up in the backfield as a blocker, and if the defense falls asleep at the wheel, you need to watch out for them shovel passes. San Diego’s defensive coordinator John Pagano likes to mix things up with changes in coverage while using zone blitzes, but getting caught in single-high safety looks will be risky for his defense.

Linebacker Manti Te’o played decent against Rob Gronkowksi last week and picked off Tom Brady when defending him in the red zone on one particular play, but with the attention mainly focused on Gronkowski – slot receiver Julian Edelman torched San Diego’s secondary when singled up for 141 yards, highlighted on 69 yard score in the fourth quarter. Safety Eric Weddle will be used near the tackle box to defend the run and match up on tight ends, but drawing him down on Thomas will leave San Diego’s coverage in single-high. And with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both receivers that are capable of winning their one-on-ones against Brandon Flowers and Shareece Wright — Manning could find ample opportunities to attack San Dan Diego’s secondary vertically. Containing Anderson and Denver’s running game is one objective for Pagano’s unit, but pressuring Manning remains the more imperative focus for any defense facing the Broncos. For the Chargers to pressure the future Hall of Fame quarterback, Corey Liuget and Melvin Ingram can’t be silent and have to be able to get around the edges against Denver’s tackles Ryan Clady and Louis Vasquez.

New England’s talented defensive backs shut down Philip Rivers and his receivers last week, and Denver’s secondary boast another set of upper echelon pass defenders for Rivers’ targets to be manned on. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib play tight man coverage in Jack Del Rio’s scheme while safety T.J. Ward plays near the line of scrimmage as one of the better in the box safeties in the league – plus free safety Rahim Moore is solid on the deep end hovering vertical routes. Pass-protection for Rivers and run-blocking for San Diego’s backs Ryan Mathews, Branden Oliver and Donald Brown has been horrendous. Not to mention Denver has one of the best defenses against the run and two lethal outside rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller for San Diego’s lack-luster O-line to handle. Chargers’ head coach Mike McCoy will run the football to a degree to keep Denver’s defense honest, but what needs to come into play here is the screen game. Getting the backs involved along with the receivers in the screen game could back Denver’s defense off the ball. Kennan Allen has made the best of his opportunities on bubble screens when in the clear with blockers downfield creating daylight for him. These concepts could neutralize Denver’s pass rush from derailing Rivers on passing downs, and if San Diego could get Denver’s back seven to back up — it could also leave room for the running game to develop. Tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal are other key-options for Rivers to find downfield, but balance will get things done in this contest and the Broncos have more ways to mix things up against San Diego’s defense.
Pick: Broncos 30, Chargers 23 

4:25 PM ET             
Minnesota Vikings 6-7 @ Detroit Lions 9-4 – TV: FOX
The Vikings aerial attack doesn’t present the same difficult challenges against Detroit’s secondary as Tamp Bay did, but over the recent weeks, Minnesota’s offensive coordinator Norv Turner has opened up the playbook – taking more vertical shots on the perimeter with Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater’s mechanics have improved and he’s making smarter decisions in and outside the hash marks. That trend will need to continue for him and the Vikings to pull off the upset at Ford Field. Detroit’s defensive backs have been sound under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin on limiting opposing offenses from striking his defense over the top. And glancing in on the spread alignments Turner has unleashed for Minnesota’s offense — Detroit’s safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo need to play smart on the deep end and not jump to the inside that’ll leave cornerbacks Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis on an island against Bridgewater’s top targets (Greg Jennings and Charles Johnson) — who could beat them on double moves. Slot receiver Jarius Wright and tight end Kyle Rudolph have been attracting attention in the middle on inside routes – an area where Detroit’s linebackers and nickel cornerbacks will be responsible on containing from getting separation.

Attacking Detroit’s defense this way will only work if Minnesota’s subpar offensive line gives Bridgewater protection against Ezekiel Ansah and Ndamukong Suh, two monsters the Vikings will have their hands full against in the trenches. Ansah destroyed Minnesota’s left tackle Matt Kalil in their first meeting for 4 sacks, and with Austin deploying exotic blitzes with his linebackers (DeAndre Levy the best of their group) – rolling protection over towards Kalil will be taken out of the equation. Without Jerick McKinnon, who was placed on injured reserve due to a back-injury, the Vikings don’t really have a running game to keep Detroit’s defense honest — and unless Bridgewater can dodge a slew of bullets and extend plays – Minnesota’s offense is doomed in this matchup. Detroit’s offense is peaking at the right time with Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Matthew Stafford connecting big over the last two games. The Lions need to get out of their way to lose this one against a team they should handle, and as long as they protect the football and keep Stafford out of third and longs – Detroit’s postseason aspirations will move up a notch.
Pick: Lions 31, Vikings 14

San Francisco 49ers 7-6 @ Seattle Seahawks 9-4 – TV: FOX
San Francisco’s offense has been a dysfunctional group and the deficiencies stem from a few things to look at. One of them is the ineffectiveness of tight end Vernon Davis in the middle of the field. Davis hasn’t caught more than 4 passes in a single game this season, and without him stretching the field on the seams, the passing game for Colin Kaepernick on the outside has failed miserably to open up. Davis was San Francisco’s favorable red zone target the previous three seasons that helped the 49ers get to the conference title game along with a super bowl in 2012, but 2014 has been a different story and the tight end hasn’t seen a red zone target since Week 1. Adding to the woes of the 49ers displaying porous execution is play-selection, and I’m just baffled that bruising back Frank Gore has only two games this season of carrying the football 20 plus times – and the rookie Carlos Hyde, who was supposed to be a great mix to formulate a solid change-of-pace attack hasn’t been involved much. This has to be on coaching and offensive coordinator Greg Roman has taken the 49ers’ prowess of being a top running team out of what’s made them successful in recent years.

In their 19-3 win over the 49ers on Thanksgiving night, Seattle loaded up the box to contain the run and I’d expect the same approach from defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to put it on Kaepernick to beat his top ranked defense. Having Kaepernick throw often isn’t going to give San Francisco an open sea of holes against the likes of Seattle’s talented pass-coverage players. And for Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Vernon David and the rest of Kaepernick’s pass-catchers to get some separation – the blockers of San Francisco’s O-line need to be physical at the point of attack to open up running lanes for Gore and Hyde to establish the run. An effective running game from San Francisco will get all the run-action concepts flowing for Kaepernick, and if they can execute this and get Seattle’s defense to roll to the play side on misdirection play-flakes – there’s potential for the 49ers’ aerial game to catch Seattle’s secondary out of position. Seattle’s ground attack continues to be a nightmare for the opposition to handle when dealing with Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson. Hammering away with Lynch between the tackles has been consistent, and the play-fakes off the zone-read-concepts are in full effect. Blitzing Wilson is only going to get him to use his elusiveness to extend plays and use his feet to move the sticks, but taking more of a containment approach would be ideal for Vic Fangio’s defense — mainly on the edges where Wilson can stifle San Francisco’s defense. Having Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor at 100 percent makes Seattle defense a force again and looking at the overall body of work from San Francisco over the last few weeks, confidence has both of my thumbs pointing down for them to rise above their troubles against a team that’s found themselves at the right time.
Pick: Seahawks 27, 49ers 13    

Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Dallas Cowboys 9-4 @ Philadelphia Eagles 9-4
The Eagles destroyed the Cowboys in every facet of the game in their Week 13 battle at AT&T Stadium. Starting with how the Eagles’ offense executed magnificently at the point of attack, Dallas’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli needs to have his defense prepared better against the read-schemes of Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. Far too many times, LeSean McCoy was able to find a slew of open lanes on sweeps for large gains that kept Mark Sanchez comfortable on operating play-fakes and misdirecting Dallas’ defenders throughout the game with precision passing. It’s going to take gap discipline, edge containment and for Marinelli’s linebackers and safeties to read their keys — most importantly, not get caught out of position. Playing zone coverage and having your defensive backs play off the ball allows receivers free releases off the snap – a scheme that allowed Philadelphia’s speedy receivers Jeremy Maclin and Jordan Matthews get open in space against Dallas’ zone. Marinelli needs to make adjustments this time around and have his two top cover corners Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick press Philadelphia’s receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt their routes. Linebackers Anthony Hitchens, Rolando McClain and safety Barry Church (when he’s down in the box to defend the run) need to do a better job shedding off blockers and close lanes to halt McCoy and Darren Sproles. Sproles and McCoy are also threats in the screen-game, so it’s imperative for Dallas’ back seven not to over-pursue that’ll leave lots of room for Sproles and McCoy to make plays in the open field. This goes back to containment concepts and communication before the play develops will be vital for Dallas’ defense when the Eagles run the no-huddle.

Only two defenses have held Dallas’ league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray under the century mark and Philadelphia is one of them. Bill Davis’ unit crashed just about every gap and Dallas’ running game didn’t have a run longer than 9 yards on Thanksgiving. Mitigating Dallas’ ground attack slowed Tony Romo and the passing game to work effectively off the play-action pass, and Philadelphia’s defense was able to get after Romo – sacking him 4 times, keeping him under duress on third down.  Davis’ down-lineman Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry have been stellar when engaged off the snap, shedding off blockers and getting into the backfield to spark havoc. The interior of Dallas’ offensive line that features guards Ronald Leary, Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick have been dominate in most games, but against Philadelphia’s speed rushers, holes were contained. For Dallas’ offense to neutralize them, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan should throw in some trap and counter runs while double teaming Cox, who’s playing lights out over the last few weeks. Of course, zone-stretch runs need to stay part of the plan, but the speed and athleticism of Philadelphia’s front can shoot through gaps to generate negative plays for Dallas’ running game. Davis’ secondary plays man coverage often with two deep safeties. His corners Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams stayed toe-to-toe with Romo’s playmaking target Dez Bryant, holding him to just 4 catches in their first game. Look for Davis’ approach to stay the same in their second matchup with safeties Malcom Jenkins and Nate Allen hovering over the top on Bryant to defend the deep ball. The Cowboys have the proper element of feeding Murray the ball to control this game at the line of scrimmage behind their massive offensive line, and Romo should feel much better this time with a longer rest period. But I’m going to base my verdict on coaching and scheme, and Dallas’ defense has been getting bamboozled over the last three games despite the team winning two of them. Unless Marinelli’s defense proves me wrong – I’m giving them a vote of no confidence.
Pick: Eagles 31, Cowboys 24                 

Monday Night Football, December 15 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
New Orleans Saints 5-8 @ Chicago Bears 5-8
When your defense is ranked at the bottom pack of the league against the run and pass, you’re not going to win lots of games in this league. Scoring points and sustaining drives is the norm for any offense to be successful and New Orleans’ offense has remained a top unit, but unlike Rob Ryan’s defense a year ago, his group has been getting torched on a weekly basis. Last week, against a struggling Carolina offense – New Orleans’ defense allowed 271 yards on the ground in a 41-10 embarrassing loss at home. Chicago is out of the playoff race, but records could be deceiving and Ryan’s unit has some difficult challenges before them this Sunday at Soldier Field.  Even without Brandon Marshall (rib/collapsed lung) who was placed on injured-reserve, Jay Cutler still has formidable weapons to get the football to in space. Matt Forte is Chicago’s all-around threat – more so as receiver, and though pressure hasn’t been a smoothly functioning aspect of Ryan’s defense, blitzing often against Chicago could open up their screen-game and Forte has 86 catches on the season, tied for fourth in the league.

With that in mind, Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, New Orleans’ most talented pass rushers are the keys to applying pressure on Cutler — and when Cutler is frustrated and under duress, he becomes erratic and will take chances in tight windows for the Saints to generate turnovers. Kennan Lewis is New Orleans’ top cover-corner to be assigned on Chicago’s Alshon Jeffery in a physical matchup on the perimeter. Lewis’ job will be to keep Jeffery in front of him and not let him get open over the top. Rumor has it that safety Kenny Vaccaro has been demoted, but coach Peyton stated earlier this week that the reports are inaccurate — and on the seams, Vaccaro will be vital on shadowing Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett. The Saints can’t allow Bennett to get behind their linebackers, particularly in the red zone and Vaccaro will need to stay on top of him and support New Orleans’ run defense when Forte is carrying the football. This is a perfect matchup for Drew Brees to look off defenders and find holes in the soft spots of Chicago’s zone coverage’s. Mark Ingram should have an effective outing running the pigskin, and with Chicago thin at linebacker due to key injuries and poor safety play – look for Jimmy Graham and Brees to connect often for the Saints to rebound after a miserable performance the previous week against Carolina.
Pick: Saints 34, Bears 24

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

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