NFL WEEK 14: We’ve seen some ugly Thursday night games over years, with the shortened week of practice and less recovery time undoubtedly playing a role, and the first three-plus quarters of Thursday’s Rams/Raiders game rank right up there with the worst of them. But then, magic: Baker Mayfield, who was picked up off waivers less than 48 hours prior to kickoff and is now on his third NFL team, improbably led an 8-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in under 2 minutes to deliver the Rams an unlikely victory. It was yet another failure in what has been a disastrous season for first-year Vegas coach Josh McDaniels, and you have to wonder if we’re seeing the end of Derek Carr’s time in a Raiders uniform. As for L.A., the playoffs are still probably out of reach, but Mayfield should at least make things interesting in the short term and could give the franchise something to think about if Matt Stafford’s spine injury becomes an ongoing issue.
Hopefully the rest of this Week 14 slate will feature a bit more action to go along with the end-of-game drama, and matchups like Vikings/Lions and Chargers/Dolphins are likely to deliver in this regard. With six teams on bye there are fewer games than usual, but there are three that stand out to me as fairly juicy opportunities:
Cleveland Browns @ Cincinnati Bengals (CIN -5.5, 46.5)
Recommendation: Cincinnati -5.5 at 1.94
The Browns cruised to a 27-14 win over the lowly Texans last week in Deshaun Watson’s long-awaited debut, but… did you see Watson play? He completed just 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards and threw an interception, but the bigger concern from Cleveland’s perspective should be his legs– he was definitely a step slower than the Watson we’re used to seeing, and he finished the game with a mere 21 yards on 7 carries despite facing one of the league’s worst rushing defenses. He looked exactly like a guy who hadn’t played football in over a year, and there’s no way he gives the Browns a better chance to win than Jacoby Brissett in his current state, but given his contract and the team’s record, he’s going to play. I’m anticipating a full-blown disaster this week in Cincinnati, where a Bengals defense that has allowed just 11 passing TDs all season will be ready and waiting. The Cincy offense is now whole again with the return of Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Mixon, and the Bengals are riding a 4-game winning streak after taking care of Kansas City last week. This one won’t be close.
Minnesota Vikings @ Detroit Lions (DET -2, 51.5)
Recommendation: Detroit moneyline (to win) at 1.85
The Vikings have won 10 games and are a shoo-in for the playoffs at this point, but over the last month or so I have become strong in my conviction that they are not a team to be trusted for the remainder of the season. I’m obviously not alone in this belief considering they’re underdogs to a 5-7 Detroit team this week, and there’s nothing unusual about not trusting a team that ranks next-to-last in the NFL in total defense, and dead last against the pass. Still, they keep winning, and the skill-position talent on offense provides enough eye candy to keep bettors interested. I’m telling you right now, though: it all comes crashing down in Detroit on Sunday. It may not get quite as ugly as Week 11’s 40-3 massacre at the hands of Dallas, but the sieve-like Minnesota defense is ill-equipped to slow down a Detroit offense that has been red-hot in recent weeks, averaging 31.8 ppg over their last four contests. The Lions have won 4 of 5 overall to move into playoff contention, with the only loss in that stretch a 28-25 result against AFC powerhouse Buffalo. The Vikings, meanwhile, have looked awfully rickety in come-from-behind wins over the Jets and Patriots since getting humbled by Dallas. This feels like a tough spot for them.
Miami Dolphins @ Los Angeles Chargers (MIA -3, 53.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles +3 at 1.99; Los Angeles moneyline (to win) at 2.52
This is a fun matchup and a critical game in the AFC playoff race, with both teams well-positioned to make a run for a Wild Card spot but neither likely to win their divisions. The Dolphins saw their 5-game winning streak snapped in San Francisco last week, but they’re still getting plenty of respect in the betting marketplace as a road favorite in this spot. Is it warranted, though? Each of Miami’s five recent wins have come against teams with losing records, while the Fins are 0-4 in their last four against teams who are .500 or better. The defense has been mediocre, ranking in the bottom-half of the league in most major statistical categories and surrendering 24 points per game, and though the offense has been explosive, this week’s matchup is not ideal, as the L.A. defense has been built with pass-first teams like Miami in mind– they have an excellent secondary and a front seven that can get after the quarterback.
Offensively, the Chargers are finally becoming whole again, with Keenan Allen now back in the fold and improving every week and Mike Williams set to make his return from his latest injury-related absence this week. When they’re firing on all cylinders the L.A. offense is nearly unstoppable, and all the pieces are now in place for the first time all season. This game, a home game on a Sunday night primetime stage against a team with a vulnerable defense and high-scoring offense, is an absolute showcase opportunity for Justin Herbert and could be a springboard to a deep playoff run for these Chargers. I like their chances.