NFL WEEK 14: Yet another week of this NFL season has been completed without a cancellation, and with only 4 regular season weeks remaining, plus the much-discussed “Week 18” option looming as a possibility, the light at the end of the tunnel has never shone brighter. We’re going to get there, friends, and we’re going to have fun doing so.
Playoff races always come into sharper focus this time of year, and we’ve got a wild one brewing in the AFC: assuming Pittsburgh (11-1) and Kansas City (11-1) are already in, there are 5 available spots to divide amongst 7 teams that currently sit between 7-5 and 9-3. So while the NFC playoffs will likely feature a team with a losing record (unless someone in the East catches fire), the AFC is so top-heavy that two of the BUF/MIA/CLE/BAL/IND/TEN/LV group will be left out in the cold. For those teams, every game is critical going forward.
It will all begin to sort itself out this week with games like Colts/Raiders and Browns/Ravens, and of course we’ll be trying to employ a bit of clairvoyance in predicting how the pieces will fall. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on this week’s slate:
Dallas Cowboys @ Cincinnati Bengals (DAL -3.5, 42.5)
Recommendation: Dallas -3.5 at 1.91
Despite nearly identical records– the Cowboys are 3-9, while the Bengals sit at 2-9-1– these teams are in very different situations. Dallas is still only two games back of the division lead in the NFC East, and the 34-17 Week 13 loss to Baltimore contained glimmers of hope, like Andy Dalton throwing for 285 yards, and a defense that many had left for dead somewhat containing electric Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. Dallas coach Mike McCarthy, undoubtedly aware that his team’s upcoming schedule features four straight games against sub-.500 opponents, said that better days are ahead for his Cowboys, and I believe him. Andy Dalton is looking more comfortable by the week, he’s surrounded by elite skill-position talent, and the defense is healthier than it was earlier in the season and showing signs of life. The Bengals, meanwhile, have been absolutely wretched on offense since losing QB Joe Burrow to a knee injury a couple of weeks ago, and the defense has always been bad, ranking 26th in the league in yards allowed and surrendering 19 points or more in each of their past 11 games. You might think “hey, 19 doesn’t sound that bad”, but when you realize that it’s been over a month since the Cincy offense topped 19 points, you start to get the picture. These teams are both bad, but one is considerably worse at the moment. The Red Rifle will have his revenge.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Miami Dolphins (KC -7, 51)
Recommendation: Kansas City -7 at 1.9
A lot of folks are hyping this matchup as great offense vs. great defense, using as evidence the fact that Miami leads the NFL in points allowed since Week 5. But during that stretch the Dolphins have mostly faced a succession of terrible offenses, teams like the Bengals, Broncos, Jets (twice), and the 49ers with C.J. Beathard at the helm. They did hold the explosive Chargers offense to 21 points, but they also gave up 31 to the Cardinals in Week 9. Point is, while the Dolphins are solid defensively, there’s little reason to think they’re going to have any real success in slowing down the hypercharged Kansas City offense, a unit that leads the NFL in yards per game by a wide margin and ranks second in points scored (30.8 ppg). And on the other side of the ball, Miami feels like a team that’s about to be exposed. Tua Tagovailoa is simply not as good a quarterback as Ryan Fitzpatrick at this stage– and that shouldn’t even be a controversial statement, given that it’s supported by literally every relevant stat and metric– and yet management has decided to proceed with him as the starter for developmental reasons. Tua’s play has been very uneven thus far, and I don’t like his chances against a ball-hawking Chiefs secondary that ranks second in the NFL with 14 interceptions. The Dolphins have taken advantage of a friendly part of the schedule to put themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt, but I think reality catches up to them in a big way this week.
Washington Football Team @ San Francisco 49ers (SF -3, 43.5)
Recommendation: Washington +3 at 1.98
While much has been said about the sorry state of the NFC East this season, it’s worth mentioning that both Washington and New York are starting to get their acts together, and the “Football Team” is on a particularly positive trajectory, punctuating a 3-game win streak with last week’s victory over the previously undefeated Steelers. They’re doing it with defense– WFT ranks 4th in the NFL in yards allowed, 7th in points allowed, and 5th in QB pressure rate, as the resources they invested in the d-line are beginning to pay dividends. This week they’re facing a 49ers offense that has struggled in pass protection this season and hasn’t topped 24 points in over a month, so Chase Young, Ryan Kerrigan & Co. should feast. Alex Smith, the favorite to win the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, has brought a veteran, stabilizing presence to the Washington offense, and though rookie RB Antonio Gibson will sit this one out with turf toe, Smith is still flanked by an excellent pass-catching back in J.D. McKissic and an underrated receiving corps. I wouldn’t even consider it an upset if WFT were to win this game– it’s what I expect to happen.
Baltimore Ravens @ Cleveland Browns (BAL -2.5, 46.5)
Recommendation: Baltimore -2.5 at 1.94
The Monday nighter is a good one this week, as the Ravens visit the Browns in a game with major playoff implications. When these teams met in Week 1 it was totally noncompetitive, with Lamar Jackson accounting for 320 total yards and 3 TDs in Baltimore’s 38-6 win. But the Browns have only lost twice since then, and they’re coming off an impressive road win at Tennessee in which the Baker Mayfield-led offense rolled up 41 points. Mayfield will face a stiffer test this week, however, as the Baltimore defense has been stout this season, ranking 8th in the NFL in yards allowed and surrendering just 19.3 ppg– the third-best mark in the league. The Browns passing attack, and Mayfield in particular, has really struggled against elite defenses (the Pittsburgh game comes to mind..), so I expect the Cleveland offense to be somewhat one-dimensional in this game. And the Cleveland D had better buckle their chin straps, because Baltimore brings a rushing attack unlike any in the NFL, with the sensational Lamar Jackson flanked by three quality running backs. Jackson and his RBs were all healthy and playing last week for the first time in nearly two months, and the results were tremendous, as the Ravens amassed 294 yards rushing on 7.1 yards per carry in a primetime win over Dallas. I know Cleveland has been rolling, but this feels like the wrong time to be catching the Ravens. Gimme the Baltimore side.