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Seattle’s top NFL ranked defense will look to guide the defending champs in a battle for sole possession of first place in the NFC West against Arizona. Plus, Tony Romo and the Cowboys could wrap up the NFC East with a win over Andrew Luck and the Colts at AT&T Stadium, while AFC‘s Cincinnati and Denver will square off in a Monday night showdown at Paul Brown Stadium.
Thursday, December 18 8:25 PM ET – TV: NFL Network
Tennessee Titans 2-12 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 2-12
The Titans have gone from Jake Locker to Charlie Whitehurst to Zach Mettenberger – back to Locker and now to Whitehurst again. Locker was placed on injured-reserve after dislocating his shoulder last week against the Jets before being replaced by Whitehurst, who completed 10 of 24 passes, throwing for 203 yards in 16-11 loss. Though Blake Bortles has a chance to start, Jacksonville could be rolling with their backup as well. Bortles sprained his foot in 20-12 loss to the Ravens – leaving the possibility of veteran Chad Henne to be the signal-caller for Gus Bradley’s team, in a battle between both squads that are going through the rebuilding process with new head coaches at the helm.
Between Locker, Mettenberger and Whitehurst combined, the Titans have allowed 42 team sacks while Jacksonville has been worse allowing 62 — with Bortles being brought to ground on 46 of them. Jurrell Casey is Tennessee’s creator up front in defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 scheme. Casey’s ability to penetrate past blockers to stuff the run and get after the quarterback as a down-lineman will play a key-role against Jacksonville’s guards Zane Beatles and Brandon Linder. Toby Gerhart, Jordan Todman and Storm Johnson don’t possess the same elusiveness as the injured Denard Robinson at running back for Jacksonville, but attacking Tennessee’s vulnerable against the run defense on power based concepts would be ideal for Jacksonville to stay out of low-percentage passing downs – whether Bortles or Henne gets the nod under center. It’s hard to determine who’ll get more touches for Tennessee’s ground attack between Shonn Greene and Bishop Sankey, but if there’s going to be anything good shown from them – the interior of Tennessee’s line has to keep Jacksonville’s defensive tackles (Sen’Derrick Marks and Roy Miller) from being disruptive. Building a winner takes time, and at the moment, the Jaguars have more going for them, particularly in the avenue of team attitude. Bob Babich’s defense is feisty and has been more consistent than Tennessee’s on rushing the passer, and with a lack of holes for Tennessee’s backs to run through — throwing the football often should hand things over to Jacksonville’s strong rotating D-line to get after Whitehurst.
Pick: Jaguars 20, Titans 13
Final Score: Jaguars (3-12) 21, Titans (2-13) 13
Saturday, December 20
4:30 PM ET
Philadelphia Eagles 9-5 @ Washington Redskins 3-11 – TV: NFL Network
The Eagles still have a shot at winning the NFC East for the second straight season, and they have inferior opponents left on their docket to win their final two games — starting with the messy Redskins and then against the Giants to finish the regular season. However, a hiccup is always possible, and if they’re to shockingly lose at Washington and Dallas tops Indianapolis, the Cowboys would clinch the division. Or, say the Eagles win out and Dallas loses one of their final remaining games, the Eagles would wrap up the east. That’s the scenario within the division, but other variables are in the fold that could take place for Chip Kelly’s team to make the wild card. As far as their matchup against Washington goes – defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ unit has to be licking their chops going up against Washington’s porous offensive line. Washington’s chances of upsetting Philadelphia would more so be from controlling the tempo by leaning on their running game with Alfred Morris carrying a heavy workload. The Cowboys and Seahawks committed to their prowess on the ground against Philadelphia’s defense, and with Kelly’s offense staying up-tempo, drives aren’t resulting in the time consuming department. Therefore, their defense has been on the field lots with limited rest periods, and fatigue is starting kick in.
The Cowboys and Seahawks are more equipped than Washington on the offensive line to run the ball effectively, and where the weaknesses on the interior of Washington’s O-line stands with their hands in the ground, Shawn Lauvao, Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester better show up against Philadelphia’s 5 technique force in Fletcher Cox. Cox is constantly penetrating past blockers off the snap while the rest of Philadelphia’s front has closed out gaps to contain the run. Exterior protection hasn’t been any better for Washington, notably at right tackle where Tom Compton has struggled. Davis could overload on Compton’s side with Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry rushing on the edge, and it would be smart for Washington to try to combat Barwin and Curry with an extra blocker to help Compton in protection. Ultimately, Washington’s offense needs to be better on first and second downs, not falling behind the chains on third down to help Robert Griffin III on his drop back reads and progressions against Philadelphia’s speedy rushing front. Philadelphia’s defensive backs have proven to get exposed in man-coverage, and if Morris gets going early – Griffin III could find high-percentage chances to attack Philadelphia’s secondary with former Eagle deep-threat DeSean Jackson. The putrid play from Washington’s offense has overshadowed Jim Haslett’s defense, and if Washington’s offense can play mistake free football and eat up clock on the ground — along with the defense mitigating LeSean McCoy from dictating the play-fakes and boot game for Mark Sanchez, the Redskins could come away with spoiling win over rival Philadelphia. If Haslett decides to use 8 man fronts with blitzes in this matchup – Kelly can counter it with screens to McCoy and Darren Sproles – an element I’m expecting to see from the Eagles, mixed in with pouncing off Washington’s turnovers to stay in the NFC playoff race.
Pick: Eagles 30, Redskins 20
Final Score: Redskins (4-11) 27, Eagles (9-6) 24
8:25 PM ET
San Diego Chargers 8-6 @ San Francisco 49ers 7-7 – TV: CBS
The 49ers won’t be returning to the playoffs, and the speculation of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future with the team continues to make its way across the media-wave-lengths. Playing spoiler against the Chargers and finishing out the season strong is the only thing left for Frisco to play for in 2014. There’s more than just the saga of Harbaugh not getting along with management playing a role. Injuries have beaten the team across the board – both on defense and offense, and for their matchup against the Chargers, who are in the hunt of the AFC playoff race — Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward and Chris Cook are likely out, and Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox could also miss the game – not giving the 49ers a healthy set of defensive backs to defend Philip Rivers’ talented pass-catchers. However, San Diego’s offensive line has been putrid of late. The injuries they’ve suffered on the interior, has back-peddled Rivers’ protection and lanes aren’t being created for their ground game. Adding to San Diego’s injury-list –running back Ryan Mathews (ankle) looks doubtful to return to the lineup – leaving Branden Oliver and Donald Brown to share the touches, once again for a reeling rushing attack. Rivers’ best receiver Kennan Allen (ankle/shoulder) will miss the game, and with Allen out – Malcom Floyd, Eddie Royal and Seyi Ajirotutu’s roles will expand.
Even with the issues the Chargers have going for them up front, offensive coordinator Frank Reich can’t abandon the run. Losing linebacker Chris Borland (ankle) leaves the middle of San Francisco’s defense thin and attacking them between the tackles should be an objective for Reich, whether it’s Oliver or Brown carrying the football. The 49ers are hoping Michael Wilhoite (hip) plays to keep the tandem of him and safety Antoine Bethea continuing to limit the seams against opposing tight ends. Antonio Gates is Rivers’ middle target that could stretch the field and red zone option, and Wilhiote and Bethea will be responsible for bracketing Gates in the middle, who can open up the perimeter windows for Rivers if his tight end moves the chains from the start. Taking away the middle of the field will force Rivers to look to the outside often – which will help Vic Fangio’s secondary on their reads against one of the best passers in the game. The main issue that’s regressed Colin Kaepernick’s play at quarterback, has been the downfall of what once was one of the better rushing attacks. Frank Gore has only rushed for 100 or more yards in two games and rookie Carlos Hyde hasn’t been anything expected on spelling Gore. Hyde (ankle/back) will miss the game, and for the 49ers to take the burden off of Kaepernick’s shoulders, Gore needs to be part of a 20 plus touch plan for the 49ers to finally look organized on offense. The future is cloudy for San Francisco and the only thing positive for them is – they still have a core of talent on both sides of the ball that could prosper heading into next season, but for the moment, they look dazed and confused. Sloppy play and porous execution on offense isn’t going to get them a win against Mike McCoy’s Chargers that are fighting to make their second straight postseason appearance.
Pick: Chargers 23, 49ers 17
Final Score: Chargers (9-6) 38, 49ers (7-8) 35 OT
Sunday, December 21
1:00 PM ET
Minnesota Vikings 6-8 @ Miami Dolphins 7-7 – TV: FOX
For the Dolphins to make the playoffs, they’ll need to win their final two games and get some miracle-like-help from a few teams. The scenarios aren’t in their favor, but hope only remains for Joe Philbin’s team, who could be playing in their final days with him at head coach. Injuries are part of the game and in Miami’s case – the bumps and bruises they’ve suffered has hurt them badly. Since losing tackle Branden Albert for the season, their offensive line has found its way into ineptness. Ja’Wuan James was playing well at right tackle before shifting over to the left side after Albert went down for good, and since James has been playing as the blind side protector for Ryan Tannehill – pressure has been mounting and Miami’s offense has tanked over their last three games. On the strong side of Minnesota’s defensive front, defensive end Everson Griffen and outside linebacker Anthony Barr presents a challenging task for James. Griffen has won most of his battles on the edges, and with James struggling — it would be wise for Miami’s offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to give James help on the left side of Miami’s line with an extra blocker. It would also help Lazor’s offense if Miami can get the best out of running back Lamar Miller to give the offense the balance it needs.
The Dolphins rely mostly on dink and short passes for Tannehill to distribute the football intermediately, but last week against the Patriots – Lazor dialed up some vertical attacks to Brian Hartline and speedy deep-ball threat Mike Wallace. The Vikings mix things up in coverage with some press and off-man approaches, and considering the Dolphins deploy most passing attempts underneath with one real option to beat you over the top – Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota’s best corner is more suitable to man up and press Wallace at the line of scrimmage. Captain Munnerlyn will likely be assigned on Jarvis Landry, Miami’s leader in receptions, but mixing things up between Landry and Wallace won’t be out of the equation, especially if Landry gets open in space lots against Munnerlyn – defensive coordinator George Edwards can place Rhodes on Landry. The Vikings have been playing through injuries and changes of their own on the offensive line and at running back. With the losses of Phil Loadholt and Brandon Fusco for the season on the right side of their O-line and left guard Charlie Johnson nursing an ankle-injury — Mike Harris, who’s filled in nicely at right tackle will be dealing with Miami’s Cameron Wake – a matchup that will come a long way in deciphering Teddy Bridgewater’s pocket against Miami’s 4th ranked pass defense. Without Jerick McKinnon, Bridgewater doesn’t have a reliable back to lean on, but the committee of Matt Asiata, Ben Tate and Joe Banyard will need to keep Miami’s defense honest – more so to keep Bridgewater out of long distance passing downs. Bridgewater has become more comfortable within the system — making wiser decisions with the football, but protecting the football is still an issue for the rookie. The Dolphins have more all-around talent than Minnesota, and though chances for them to make the postseason are slim — there’s more fuel to add to the fire for them to play grimy defensively and win the turnover battle in a slobber-knocker.
Pick: Dolphins 20, Vikings 16
Baltimore Ravens 9-5 @ Houston Texans 7-7 – TV: CBS
Ryan Fitzpatrick broke his leg last week against the Colts, ending his season. Tom Savage replaced him and also suffered an injury to his knee, leaving him out this week and head coach Bill O’Brien has declined to announce who his starting quarterback will be. It will be either Thad Lewis or Case Keenum at signal caller for Texans against Baltimore at NRG Stadium, and it would make more sense for O’Brien to go with Keenum, who started 8 games for the Texans last season. In any event, Houston’s offense is predicated on running the football with Arian Foster – one of the games most polished backs the Ravens’ defense must focus on halting. Dean Pees’ defense relies on its hybrid 3-4 linebackers ambushing opposing offensive lines, and as a unit, Baltimore’s defense has registered 45 sacks while allowing only 84.3 yards per game against the run, ranked third in both departments. The aggressive approach has left an abundance of opportunities for the oppositions passing game with singled up looks, and as result, Baltimore’s secondary has given up big plays against the pass, ranked 30th, allowing 259.9 yards per contest.
The tandem of Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins is a solid one at receiver for Houston, but an ankle-injury could keep Hopkins – Houston’s vertical threat from playing. If Hopkins is absent, Damaris Johnson and Keshawn Martin will be involved more in Houston’s offensive game plan. To keep Pees’ forces of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw from dominating up front, Foster will need a strong performance, and whether Keenum or Lewis is chucking the football – it would be ideal for O’Brien to use short passing concepts, screens to backs, slants and bubble screens to his receivers to limit Baltimore’s steady and feisty rush. Baltimore has the perfect setting and game plan behind one of the best offensive lines in football to contain Houston’s monster on their defensive line in J.J. Watt. Normally setting the pace on the ground opens up the pass, but in this matchup – expect to see Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have his defense sell out against the run with large fronts and press coverage on the perimeter. With that in mind, Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ passing game may start out by using their aerial attack to back Crennel’s defense off the line of scrimmage. Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith have favorable matchups against Houston’s Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson – both cornerbacks that’ve been burned this season. Flacco has only been sacked 16 times this season, and if Watt and the rest of his bunch can’t place Baltimore’s quarterback under duress, it could be a long day for Crennel’s defense. Baltimore’s offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has been a master on deploying his zone-running scheme to negate defensive lines from penetrating into the backfield, and he has the dogs in front of running back Justin Forsett opening up lanes for him to keep Baltimore’s offense balanced.
Pick: Ravens 27, Texans 17
Detroit Lions 10-4 @ Chicago Bears 5-9 – TV: FOX
It couldn’t get any worse for Chicago or better for Detroit. Chicago’s ownership has hinted on the possibility of cleaning house at the end of the season, from GM Phil Emery all the way down to the entire coaching staff after Chicago’s embarrassing and seemingly effortless blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints on Monday. Ramifications have already taken flight on the roster at quarterback, as Jay Cutler has been benched – turning the signal-calling duties over to Jimmy Clausen, who’ll make his first start since the 2010 season. Clearly, the Bears are a hot mess, but as long as Marc Trestman is coaching the Bears, he still has a job to do — formulating a game plan for his team that still has enough talent to play well. Chicago’s best talent is running back Matt Forte, who should be the prime featured player for Trestman’s offense to try to neutralize the heavy-hitters of Detroit’s defensive front. Right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills of Chicago’s O-line will have their hands full when engaging against Detroit’s top D-lineman (Jason Jones and Ndamukong Suh). With Long and Mills’ matchups against the strengths of Detroit’s front – running the football off left, away from Suh and Jones would be a better strategy for Chicago to deploy at the point of attack, and Forte is Chicago’s best hope to set the tone against Teryl Austin’s unit. I’d be shocked if Austin doesn’t send the house towards Clausen to rattle him from the get-go, and I wouldn’t expect Trestman to have Clausen start the game without feeding Forte the pigskin. This is a golden opportunity for Detroit not to have the same meltdowns of seasons past, and they have everything they need in this matchup – ranging from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate flourishing on the opposite side of a healthy Calvin Johnson to put the icing on the cake and seal this contest up quickly against the Bears, who are already thinking about 2015. By the way, with the Eagles losing to the Redskins yesterday, Detroit has clinched a playoff berth. Now, it’s about moving on to bigger and better things.
Pick: Lions 30, Bears 14
Cleveland Browns 7-7 @ Carolina Panthers 5-8-1 – TV: CBS
Cam Newton (back) got most of the first-team reps in Thursday’s practice and looks ready to return to the starting lineup. That’s great news for head coach Ron Rivera’s team that remains one-half game behind first place New Orleans in the dreadful NFC South. If New Orleans tops Atlanta, Carolina will need to defeat Cleveland to stay in contention for the division — otherwise Carolina won’t repeat as division champs. Barring any setbacks, having Newton back under center gives offensive coordinator Mike Shula the luxury of getting creative on deploying zone-read concepts, relying on running back Jonathan Stewart to gain the hard fought yardages to setup play-fakes, keeping Cleveland’s defense guessing on the run and pass. It’ll be a plus if DeAngelo Williams (hand) returns to the Carolina backfield to give Stewart a breather and as a third down back, but with Stewart riding the hot hand, Cleveland’s defense that’s struggled defending the run needs to play sound in their gaps to limit Stewart on early downs, and contain Newton when he tucks in the football and gets out to the edges.
Cleveland could be without Joe Haden, one of the games top cornerbacks. Haden is nursing a shoulder-injury he suffered last week against the Bengals, and if he’s to miss the game – Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin, who poses the biggest threat to Cleveland’s secondary could have big day without Haden’s ability to stay toe-to-toe with him on the outside. Cleveland’s safeties Jordan Poyer, Jim Leonhard and Donte Whitner will need to bracket Benjamin over the top and limit tight Greg Olsen from being a factor on the seams. The Browns have been far better defending the pass, but if they allow the Panthers to establish the run and don’t get solid trench-play from Billy Winn, Desmond Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin, or pressure from Paul Kruger – holding Olsen and Benjamin in check won’t look good for them. If the read-option is going to work for Johnny Manziel or any quarterback – the backs have to be able to set the pace on the ground, and last week against the Bengals – Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell were held to 40 yards on 12 carries combined. That’s not going to make offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense function, and though Carolina’s defense has played better of late – they’ve proven to be vulnerable against the run. Getting West and Crowell going early will better Manziel to work off the run-action to get Carolina’s stout linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to roll to the play side. Getting Davis and Kuechly out of position will open up the middle of the field for Manziel to connect with tight end Jordan Cameron, or on crossing routes to his receivers. Josh Gordon never had a prayer to get going with Manziel making poor decisions in his first start, and it would be good for them to find some chemistry with each other. But the “Johnny Football” thing has started a little too late, and based on what we all saw from Manziel’s debut – he needs lots more reps to improve on his progressions.
Pick: Panthers 24, Browns 17
Atlanta Falcons 5-9 @ New Orleans Saints 6-8 – TV: FOX
Losing to New Orleans will wipe out Atlanta’s chances of capturing the NFC South, and for the second consecutive week, Matt Ryan could be without star-receiver Julio Jones (hip). Jones’ status is up in the air for a critical matchup against a division rival, and If Jones is absent again, Roddy White and Harry Douglas will play the same roles as last week, receiving more than the usual targets without Jones as the prime-receiver. Atlanta’s offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter likes to attack the field vertically with the ammunition Ryan has at his disposal by spreading opposing defenses out on four-receiver spread-alignments, and in some cases, he’ll deploy two tight end sets. If Jones plays, Ryan will have the comfort of chucking the football to him against tight man-coverage, but without him – White and Douglas are capable of getting separation with precise route-running. Atlanta doesn’t sport a better than average ground game with Steven Jackson as the lead-back, but I’d expect Koetter to at least attempt a decent amount of carries for Jackson to have the Saints be wary of the run. New Orleans’ defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knows the Falcons’ offensive pedigree will be based on attacking his defense through the air, and with an expected high number of pass-attempts coming from Atlanta – applying pressure is one thing, but mixing up coverage’s to give Ryan different looks should be an objective for New Orleans’ defense. Pressuring Ryan isn’t going to be enough for the Saints to diminish scoring opportunities for Atlanta. New Orleans’ most formidable pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, as well as interior defensive lineman Akiem Hicks need to bring Atlanta’s deadly passer to ground to get off the field on third down.
Strategically, running the ball effectively in a matchup like this helps to keep your defense off the field by eating up clock, and the Saints are better than the Falcons when it comes to being balanced. Mark Ingram is physical runner who runs downhill, and at the point of attack, the Saints can soften up Atlanta’s front seven by pounding the rock with Ingram. Atlanta’s defense ranks dead last against the pass, and on bringing opposing quarterbacks to ground, Mike Nolan’s group has registered a league-worst 16 team-sacks. For Nolan’s defense to slow down the likes of Drew Brees’ pass-catchers of bona fide tight end Jimmy Graham, receivers Kenny Stills and Marques Colston, and screen-game option back Pierre Thomas – Atlanta’s front has to find ways to hit Brees often to rattle him. And with nothing generating from Nolan’s defense to strike fear in New Orleans’ prolific offense, look for the Saints to play discipline and protect the football better than Atlanta. Note: If head coach Sean Payton’s team wins and the (5-8-1) Panthers lose to Cleveland, the Saints will clinch the NFC South.
Pick: Saints 34, Falcons 27
Green Bay Packers 10-4 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2-12 – TV: FOX
Buffalo’s defense got the best of Aaron Rodgers and company last week – something that’s rare for an offense like Green Bay’s to have a lowly performance against any defense. Uncharacteristically, play-calling, dropped passes and poor execution stumped Green Bay, as the Bills were able to pounce off their mistakes and hold on for a 21-13 win. Against the Bucs, the Packers have advantages to right the ship to get the W and stay in contention for a second straight NFC North division title. Tampa Bay’s defense has been fairly solid against the run, but without defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who hyperextended his knee in Week 15, placing him on injured reserve – the Packers should have their way running the ball with authority through the heart of the Bucs’ defense with power back Eddie Lacy. Against the pass, Love Smith’s defense has been getting beat in a bend but don’t break approach of his Cover 2 scheme. Though Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy shouldn’t shy away from running the ball like he did at Buffalo, Lacy doesn’t have to produce mightily on the ground for Rodgers to pick apart Tampa Bay’s susceptible to the pass secondary. And without McCoy anchoring Tamp Bay’s D-line, Rodgers’ pocket should be clean enough for him to get the football to Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who will be manned by Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks.
Smith has stayed the course of playing more zone based coverage’s with Banks and Verner, but free releases for Cobb, Nelson and Rodgers’ third and fourth options will only create tons of open windows for Green Bay’s aerial attack to move the football with high-efficiency. Safety help from Dashon Goldson and Bradley McDougald over the top playing two deep prevents the deep ball, but instincts and being able to read and react on the double moves from Nelson and Cobb needs to be precise. Goldson and McDougald biting the dust on the outside before Nelson can accelerate to the deep middle on post-routes will open up Rodgers’ striking over the top ways for scores. The ground game has been atrocious for Tamp Bay and even a healthy Doug Martin hasn’t helped an undisciplined offense find ways to mix things up between the run and pass. When Tampa Bay’s offense has produced – receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson have stretched defenses on vertical routes for big plays – mainly Evans as Josh McCown’s lethal red zone target. Sam Shields and and Tramon Williams are at height disadvantages against Tamp Bay’s tall order of pass-catchers, so defensive coordinator Dom Capers should deploy more off man coverage and keep his safeties deep to be better situated on defending Evans and Jackson on deep-ball attempts. The Buccaneers haven’t been able to play sound football in 2014. Committing penalties and turning over the football has been their downfall in Smith’s first season coaching the team, and playing against a heavily favored opponent looking to position themselves for big things – Green Bay should take care of business at Raymond James Stadium.
Pick: Packers 34, Buccaneers 17
Kansas City Chiefs 8-6 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 9-5 – TV: CBS
There’s lots of different variables riding in the AFC wild card race — and while the Chiefs don’t have a shot at winning the AFC West with Denver already clinching the division, they’ll need a win at Heinz Field to stay in the hunt. The Steelers are tied with the Ravens for second place behind the Bengals in the AFC North, and if the Steelers top the Chiefs, regardless of the Bengals’ outcome against the Broncos on Monday – it’ll set them up for shot at winning the division against the Bengals in the regular season finale. Bottom line; if Pittsburgh wins out, they’ll win the north, even if the Ravens end up winning their final two games with Pittsburgh owning a better conference and division record.
The Chiefs have defended the pass well in Bob Sutton’s 3-4 scheme, but stopping the run has been their kryptonite, allowing 4.9 yards per carry and 132.6 yards per game. And Sutton’s unit will have an extreme challenge trying to mitigate Pittsburgh’s all-around running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell can do it all, and it takes gap discipline and the ability to limit him from creating his own space with his amazing vision and cut backs against the grain. Crowding the box with eight-man fronts may seem like the ideal approach for Sutton to try to halt Bell from getting through the second level of Kansas City’s defense, but that could be risky, especially when aligning your deep end with a lone safety playing center field in single high, and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has a wide-range of playmaking receivers that could spring free against singled up matchups. Normally, Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Todd Haley will have Roethlisberger in shotgun spread alignments, but to force Sutton’s defense to throw extra defenders up at the line of scrimmage – Haley may elect to use big fronts to establish the run early on. This strategy could best Pittsburgh’s top-rated offense to neutralize Sutton’s three most viable players (Dontari Poe, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) of Kansas City’s defensive front. Poe, Hali and Houston need to be factors for Kansas City’s defense to get after Roethlisberger, and without pressure – Roethlisberger will be able to light up Kansas City’s secondary by slinging the football to his receivers Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. Plus, tight end Heath Miller and Bell will draw lots of attention from Kansas City’s middle linebackers Josh Mauga and Joe Mays. Whoever it is to spy on Bell and defend Miller between Mauga and Mays, how they fare against Bell and Miller will be critical to help the deep end of Kansas City’s defense.
It begins and ends with Jamaal Charles when the Chiefs have the ball, and without Kansas City presenting a pool of vertical threats at receiver, you’d think Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau should have the green light of stacking the box, but that’s not the case. Playing more of their base defense would be a wiser approach, considering Charles can cut back on stretch runs, and if Pittsburgh’s defense over-pursues on screen-attempts to Charles or spell back Knile Davis, LeBeau’s defense could get toasted in the yards after catches allowed department. LeBeau’s safeties and linebacker Lawrence Timmons — one of the league’s best run-stopping inside linebackers will need to contain Charles and Alex Smith’s tight ends Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano from being chain-moving elements for Andy Reid’s offense. The Steelers are a few notches up matchup-wise in this pivotal AFC showdown, and though both offenses dictate the pass from the style of runners they have, Roethlisberger has more before him to take shots downfield than Smith. That’s the real difference between both of these clubs, favoring Pittsburgh’s offense to better Kansas City’s on third down.
Pick: Steelers 27, Chiefs 20
New England Patriots 11-3 @ N.Y. Jets 3-11 – TV: CBS
In what’s expected to be his final days as the head coach of the Jets, Rex Ryan would like nothing more than ruining rival New England’s shot at locking up home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. You’d think an offense that’s ranked second in the NFL when running the football would have at least a better than average passing game, but during Ryan’s span in New York – quarterback play has never blossomed, and the Jets are wary of Geno Smith’s ineptness at the games most important position. Smith’s arm isn’t going to lead New York to victory over New England, but running the football with Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson on inside power-runs, using the read-option with Smith and reverses to receivers Jeremy Kerley and Percy Harvin should be the objective for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to try to offset New England’s defense. New England’s interior D-lineman Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, and Alan Branch along with linebacker Dont’a Hightower are viable on containing the run between the tackles, and as long as they keep both Chris’ from getting past their linebackers – it’ll help the outside responsibilities of Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones on defending New York when they try to get out to the edges for positive runs.
I’d expect Patriots’ defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to roll a safety over Jets’ receiver Eric Decker with the physical Brandon Browner locked on him, and for Darrelle Revis to stay on Harvin for most of the game while potentially manning some on Kerley. Bottom line; without the ground game working – Patricia’s defense will put it on Smith, and doing that will create ample chances for turnovers against the mistake-prone quarterback. New York’s defense is ranked 4th against the run, allowing 87.5 yards per game and New England’s offense thrives off of mixing and matching with production coming through the air and on the ground. You can’t pencil in who’ll get more touches between LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray when the Patriots run the ball, and though Shane Vereen is used more as a flanker – Ryan’s defense needs to be aware of Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels calling Vereen’s number to carry the football. The changing of pace is one of the slew of ways for New England to attack New York’s defense, and with most of the attention placed on Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady should be able to stay in rhythm by finding Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Vereen. Primarily, look for the Patriots to exploit New York’s secondary that’s been horrific against the pass in the red zone.
Pick: Patriots 34, N.Y. Jets 14
4:05 PM ET
N.Y. Giants 5-9 @ St. Louis Rams 6-8 – TV: FOX
In his rookie campaign, Rams’ defensive tackle Aaron Donald is showing the expected promise of becoming one of the games best on wreaking havoc on the interior. Donald has strength and a good deal of athleticism to shed blocks and get into the backfield to record tackles for losses – and he has 16 tackles for minus yards – ranked fourth in the league. The Giants have had issues up front and one of their weak-links is guard Jon Jerry that will play across from Donald. To nullify Donald from disrupting the pocket – Jerry will need to combat Donald’s speed and maneuvers at the snap. Giving Jerry some help on double teaming Donald on passing downs and with a lead blocker on running downs when the Giants run towards his side would be a smart strategy for offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to attack the meat of St. Louis’ D-line. Point being – if Donald isn’t contained, the rest of Gregg Williams’ front that features top-tier pass rushers (Robert Quinn and Chris Long) will feast on pressuring Eli Manning. Chances of New York’s starting back Rashad Jennings (ankle) playing is down in the dumps, which puts the work load on Andre Williams to carry the rock against a much more formidable defense than what the Giants’ offense has faced during their 2-game winning streak.
To keep St. Louis’ front from derailing New York’s offense from functioning effectively – McAdoo needs to keep the opposition respecting the run and utilize his best weapon Odell Beckham Jr. to create confusion on the second level of the Rams’ defense. Beckham Jr. isn’t only capable of burning defensive backs – he can be used as a motion option in the backfield on reverses to set up play-fakes, and leak out of the backfield for quick passes. Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis’ best cornerback will be responsible on limiting the standout rookie from making big plays, and wherever the Beckham Jr. is lined up – Jenkins needs to be aware of Manning’s top target using double-moves to get to the outside shoulder. Keeping Beckham Jr. on the inside with safety help over the top should be the objective for Williams’ defense to mitigate New York’s most talented asset. Perry Fewell’s defense has been inconsistent in gap control and tackling has taken a dive with injuries to important pieces at linebacker, but where the light has shined for Fewell’s defense recently – is rookie linebacker Devon Kennard. Kennard has come on strong as a blitzing option on the edge and is playing with a high-motor on wrapping up ball-carriers. If Kennard and the rest of New York’s linebackers can hold Tre Mason, St. Louis’ led-back in check – it will give New York’s D-front ample situations to get after Shaun Hill on passing attempts. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Fewell roll with Antrel Rolle, Stevie Brown and Quintin Demps in three safety sets to help defend St. Louis solid seam-route running tight end Jared Cook, but Fewell can’t sleep on Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin – three capable receivers of stifling New York’s secondary. What this matchup boils down to is pressure, and the Rams have the dogs up front to keep Manning harassed while the Rams have the opportunity to be balanced and keep Hill in third and shorts to help the Rams sustain drives better than New York.
Pick: Rams 24, N.Y. Giants 20
4:25 PM ET
Buffalo Bills 8-6 @ Oakland Raiders 2-12 – TV: CBS
Despite standing at 8-6 with two games left to play, Buffalo’s chances of ending the longest active playoff drought in the NFL are low. Buffalo has thrived on the prowess of their defense, arguably sporting the most talented defensive front in the NFL. Led by Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus anchoring a sack-eating-unit that’s brought opposing quarterbacks to the ground 49 times – the most by any team this season, Jim Schwartz’ defense has even made elite quarterbacks look silly against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers over the last two weeks – holding them both under 200 yards passing in each game. Oakland’s offense doesn’t boast the same upper levels of talent the Broncos and Packers have, but strategy and proper execution needs to be clicking on all cylinders for the Raiders to neutralize Buffalo’s mean and viscous rush. First and for most, offensive coordinator Greg Olson needs to have his backs heavily involved in the game plan.
The objective is to get Buffalo’s edge rushers in more of a containment role by running Latavius Murray outside the tackles, which spreads Hughes and Williams out – minimizing Derek Carr from being harassed. And if ran effectively – Olson can start to find some breathing room to have Carr operate on play-action and misdirection plays to potentially catch Buffalo’s stout defense out of position. Using the short passing game also comes into play and Olsen has used his backs out of the backfield as receiving options. Marcel Reece and Darren McFadden both have over 30 receptions on screen-based concepts – and utilizing them against Buffalo’s back seven along with tight end Mychal Rivera in the middle is imperative for Carr to find some rhythm and opportunities on the perimeter to target his top two receivers Andre Holmes and James Jones. Buffalo activated running back C.J. Spiller, who’s missed the last seven games due a shoulder-injury, but being a big part, if not any of Buffalo’s offensive plans against Oakland is unlikely. When Spiller was healthy at the beginning stages of the season, Buffalo’s ground attack still couldn’t get going – and that won’t change in this matchup. Without the Bills’ running game striking fear into the hearts of opposing defenses – Oakland’s safety Charles Woodson can now shift his duties more into coverage over the top on Buffalo’s best receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins has the size and speed to draw defenses to double team him, but too much attention could open up the pass for Kyle Orton to get the football to his other options in Robert Woods, Scott Chandler and Chris Hogan. Buffalo’s offensive line has been porous while Oakland’s has been solid in pass protection until last week against the Chiefs, and keeping Carr upright — not having him force the issue will be vital for Oakland to win their third straight home game. But catching a glimpse of what Buffalo’s defense is doing from top to bottom – they should be able to handle the Raiders out west.
Pick: Bills 19, Raiders 13
Indianapolis Colts 10-4 @ Dallas Cowboys 10-4 – TV: CBS
Indianapolis has already secured a home playoff game by clinching the AFC South with a win over the Texans last week. Dallas can also clinch its division with a win over Andrew Luck and company after the Eagles shockingly lost to the lowly Redskins yesterday. However, if the Cowboys have a slip up and lose to Indianapolis – they’ll need to beat Washington or have the Eagles lose to the Giants since they can’t finish with the same record as the Eagles. Both the Cowboys and Colts have done enough on the offensive side of the ball to get them where they’re at, but there’s two different philosophies when examining Chuck Pagano and Jason Garrett’s team. Starting with Indianapolis, it’s about stretching the field with Luck’s herd of pass-haulers. The Colts have been dealing with a banged up O-line and will be without tackle Gosder Cherilus and guards Joe Reitz and Hugh Thornton, but with Luck’s ability to withstand hits and improvise from the pocket – Pep Hamilton’s offense has been mostly consistent on sustaining drives and putting points on the board. And they’ve been doing it without a quality running game since Ahmad Bradshaw suffered a season-ending injury.
Trent Richardson and Daniel Herron’s roles have expanded since Bradshaw’s absence, and for both backs to keep Dallas’ defense honest – Cowboys’ linebacker Rolando McClain can’t be a force on running downs. Rod Marinelli’s defense is playing with a much improved attitude in 2014, and McClain has been viable on defending the run, rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage to defend tight ends. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen are two tight ends in Hamilton’s system that put lots of weight on the shoulders of opposing linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field. Marinelli likes to use strong safety Barry Church in the box while free safety J.J. Wilcox plays center field when the Cowboys challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage. But against Indianapolis’ vertical threats, especially if T.Y. Hilton, Luck’s favorite deep-route target plays, playing more two deep may be a safer alignment to bracket the deep-ball. Hilton is nursing a hamstring-injury, and if he misses the game – Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief and Reggie Wayne are still a hefty-set of capable receivers for Luck to be able to exploit a susceptible Dallas secondary with. Despite having surgery on his injured hand Monday, DeMarco Murray is planning on playing. How effective he’ll be could determine Dallas’ outcome. Most of all, how many touches will he get? Expect to see Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar in the mix, but the more concerning injuries for the Cowboys are on the offensive line. Right tackle Doug Free (ankle) is out and standout rookie right guard Zack Martin (ankle) is questionable. Jermey Parnell will take over for free, and if Martin can’t go — Mackenzy Bernadeau will step in on the interior of Dallas’ O-line. The Colts like to blitz, and without a couple of viable contributors to protect Tony Romo, Colts’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will look to attack the weak areas of Dallas’ pass and run-blockers. Will Manusky stack the box? My guess is yes, and he has a physical cornerback in Vontae Davis that could press Dez Bryant, Romo’s lethal-threat on the outside. That will be the best one-on-one battle in this contest that could decipher this game. In conclusion – both defensive fronts aren’t threatening, but even without Murray being 100 percent, the Cowboys can still mix it up between the run and pass for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to keep Dallas’ game plan intact of setting up the play-action pass.
Pick: Cowboys 31, Colts 27
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Seattle Seahawks 10-4 @ Arizona Cardinals 11-3
The implications on the line for Seattle and Arizona aren’t just for the NFC West division crown – as both squads have their sights on locking up home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. A win for Bruce Arians’ club will clinch all of it, but a win for Seattle will only move them a step closer to have NFC playoff foes have come to their house for a second straight postseason. Prior to their Week 12 matchup, I examined Arizona’s blitz-happy ways coordinated by defensive assistant Todd Bowles, and the price his defense could pay by sending blitzes towards Seattle’s elusive quarterback Russell Wilson. Well, Bowles didn’t put his foot on the brakes of sending multiple rushers towards Wilson, and though Arizona sacked him 7 times, it made Wilson use his feet to escape pressure to move the sticks and improvise from the pocket before finding open targets downfield. Will Bowles change the strategy up this time, or will he stick with fire-blitzes in a risk for reward method? Bowles hasn’t shown enough changes on attacking at the line of scrimmage, but in this type of matchup – his defense needs to stay discipline on containing their gaps and be sound on the edges to minimize Wilson on zone-read concepts. If Bowles’ unit takes away the edge-lanes, it doesn’t mean that Wilson and Seattle’s offense will get out of their way of being physical, but all in all, Arizona’s defense can’t tolerate Marshawn Lynch and Wilson from doing the dirty work on the ground. Deone Bucannon, a safety/linebacker for Arizona will be essential on spying on Wilson and supporting Bowles’ defense when they swarm towards Lynch, and he and the rest of Arizona’s ball-hawks need to go for the strip and try to make Lynch cough up the football.
Despite Drew Stanton’s (knee) limited return to practice, Ryan Lindley will get the go at quarterback for Arizona. If the Cardinals are to stand a chance against Seattle’s vaunted defense, Lindley will need to make smart decisions and not force the issue against Seattle’s rush. Arians will never get out of attacking the field with receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown vertically, but with Lindley operating the offense, short-passes, quick-slants, screens to the backs and bubble-screens should be in the mix. Without Andre Ellington, Arizona’s running game hasn’t missed a beat with Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor running the rock, but notably – Williams showed his ability to create his own space on cut backs against Kansas City and St. Louis. Creating lanes will be much more challenging for Williams this week – much to do with Seattle’s linebacker-corps, led by speedy middle linebacker Bobby Wagner hunting down backs along with his counterparts K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin laying the hammer down against the run. Insert safety/linebacker/defensive end Kam Chancellor as a dynamite scary force in the box for Dan Quinn’s defense — and Seattle has the ways and means of putting it on Lindley. Word out in the street has it that Arians has packages for Logan Thomas to come in and be used on play-flakes to give Seattle’s defense two different looks on Arizona’s quarterbacks. This is going to be a hard-hitting defensive battle that’ll come down which offense will covert better on third down, and which team will have the edge on field position and turnovers. The Cardinals have been winning all season through QB-switches, but in a game of this magnitude – big time players do big time things, and Seattle has more of them on both sides of the ball.
Pick: Seahawks 17, Cardinals 13
Monday Night Football, December 22 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Denver Broncos 11-3 @ Cincinnati Bengals 9-4-1
While the Bengals are in the midst of a tight race for the AFC North division, the Broncos are sporting the best record in the AFC at 11-3, tied with the Patriots. The Broncos have already received their ticket to the postseason, but losing to the Patriots in Week 9, Denver stands as the number 2 seed and will need to finish with a better record than New England for home field advantage rights in the AFC playoffs. In recent weeks, the Broncos have switched up their offensive philosophy at the point of attack. Running back C.J. Anderson has been the focal part of a now run-heavy offense leaning on the work-horse back that’s averaged 27 carries over his last four games. In the past, opposing defenses would gear up to defend Peyton Manning and Denver’s high-octane aerial attack, but with Anderson giving the offense a new dimension, the Broncos have established a complete overall balanced attack. Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s defense hasn’t fared well against the run, allowing 124.8 yards per game, and for his defense to have success against Denver’s top-notched offense — the men with their hands in the ground of Cincinnati’s defensive line (Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap) have to be superb in the trenches.
The reasoning here is – stacking the box or blitzing will put Cincinnati’s defense in danger of allowing Manning to strike Guenther’s defense dead. And you never know when the Broncos are going to go play-action – so it’s vital for Cincinnati’s linebackers (Vincent Rey, Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur) along with safeties (Reggie Nelson and George Iloka) to be able to read and react, not getting caught out of position for Manning to hit the seams with tight end Julius Thomas and slot receivers Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders. Welker and Thomas will run intermediate routes while Sanders and Demaryius Thomas both stretch the field in just about every way possible a receiver can. Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones are solid veteran tandem of defensive backs for Cincinnati, but whoever Denver’s bona fide receivers are matched up on – you have to take into account of keeping them in front of you to mitigate them from making big plays. Cincinnati’s offense is predicted on utilizing their skilled-combo of running backs (Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard) to decipher the success of Andy Dalton’s efficiency through the air. Jack Del Rio’s defense has been dynamite defending the run, ranked second behind Detroit, allowing a slim 71.6 yards per game, and there isn’t a glaring weakness up front or in the secondary for Denver’s defense. The Bengals will take a physical and spearheading approach on the ground to try to wear down Denver’s Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams, two beefy defensive tackles on the interior of Del Rio’s D-line. When Knighton and Williams are penetrating, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware dominate and make quarterbacks days miserable rushing off the edge. I like what Denver’s defense has to man up and work against Cincinnati’s playmakers. Safety T.J. Ward has been remarkable as an in the box head-hunter to run down backs and will be a factor against Hill and Bernard – Aqib Talib is physical enough to press Dalton’s prime target A.J. Green on the outside, and unless Cincinnati is able to get their backs in space – the Broncos are in line to force turnovers against the erratic Andy Dalton.
Pick: Broncos 31, Bengals 21
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