Buffalo @ Miami
Knock on wood, but this looks like an enticing Thursday night game with playoff implications. Both the Bills and Dolphins are coming off of very tough losses and need a bounce back victory in order to keep pace in an AFC that currently has 11 teams over .500. I’ll be honest with you, I thought I was going to pick the Dolphins here: strong defense, improving quarterback, and a home game on short rest. But the further I dug into this game, the more the scales tipped in the favor of the best team located in New York. Buffalo has been victimized by physically imposing pass-catchers in their four losses (Malcolm Floyd, Andre Johnson/DeAndre Hopkins, Rob Gronkowski, and Dwayne Bowe), something that the Dolphins don’t have. If they aren’t going to stretch the field with big weapons and are counting on a banged up Lamar Miller (shoulder) to carry the workload against a strong run defense, how is Miami going to score more than three times in this contest? It’s not as though I love the Bills’ offense, but their depth at running back is a plus and Sammy Watkins (groin) appeared to be healthy enough on Sunday (on the field for 93.3 percent of offensive snaps) to be the difference-maker he was when these teams faced off in Week 2 (eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets … from now-benched QB E.J. Manuel). Dolphins fans may be disappointed in a game that very closely resembles their Week 10 loss to the Lions, while the playoff drought in Buffalo moves closer to ending in a game that looks like their nail-biting Week 7 win over the Vikings.
Soppe Score: Bills 24 – Dolphins 17
Minnesota @ Chicago
I’ll bet Chicago doesn’t extend their streak of consecutive games with 50-plus points allowed to three (Minnesota is averaging 56 points … every three weeks), but that is a minor victory. Listen, it was Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers that hung those numbers on the Bears, and while they are a team in flux right now, Teddy Bridgewater is not exactly in the same class (Rodgers had twice as many touchdown passes at halftime of Week 10 as Bridgewater has in his career). The Vikings are struggling to consistently protect their rookie signal caller and while the Bears have been atrocious on defense, they can defend the run at an above average level, giving them the potential to shut down this run-dependent offense. On offense you may not like Jay Cutler, but you can’t argue that he doesn’t give Chicago considerably more scoring upside than the Vikings have. He has been at his worst when the game gets out of hand and he is forced to lead a one-dimensional offense, but the construction of this Vikings team simply doesn’t allow them to build a massive lead. Could they benefit from a week off and the continued growth of Jerick McKinnon? Sure, but we should see a well-rounded Bears offense, and I’ll take my chances on that. Look at the standings and you’ll notice that the Vikes are ahead of Da Bears, but the majority of their wins have come against below average quarterbacks (Austin Davis, Mike Glennon, and a rusty Robert Griffin III), and I just can’t lump Cutler into that class.
Soppe Score: Bears 27 – Vikings 17
Houston @ Cleveland
This game is my pick for the shortest game of the week. So if you pick this game, feel free to make plans for 3:30. The clock is going to be running, as these two teams follow a similar game plan and will not put the game in the hands of their quarterback if at all possible. While I would prefer Arian Foster as a talent to the entire Browns backfield for Fantasy Football purposes, the Texans’ poorly graded run defense is a major concern. The Browns’ rush defense isn’t great, but they’ve graded out as league average thus far, and that may be enough against a hobbled Foster, who is going to be responsible for carrying the offense in Ryan Mallet’s first career start. Yes, the bye week is a huge plus when it comes to making a quarterback change, but the Browns also have an extended week of preparation and a confident Brian Hoyer, who is less likely to make a game-breaking mistake. Andrew Hawkins (thigh/knee) should return to action and it is possible that the Browns welcome Jordan Cameron (concussion), adding a dimension to an offense that typically relies on pounding the rock and the occasional big gain through the air (Hoyer is quietly averaging 14.1 yards per completion over the last three weeks). The Texans have given up at least 30 points in three of their last four games, while the Browns have allowed fewer than 20 points in three straight: if one of those trends holds up, Cleveland leaves Week 11 the way they entered it … a first place team.
Soppe Score: Browns 23 – Texans 16
Seattle @ Kansas City [Game of the Week]
Both of these teams are legitimate playoff teams and will be a tough out this winter. Solid running game, check. Stingy defense, check. Versatile quarterback that is capable of winning games but refuses to make the big mistake that loses the game, check. While the Chiefs do all of the above things at a level that could land them five wins in their final six games this season, Seattle does them all better. I prefer the physical style of Marshawn Lynch to that of Jamaal Charles, the shutdown run defense of the Seahawks to the lockdown passing defense of the Chiefs, and the higher level of risk that Russell Wilson can take (3-1 in games in which he throws an interception) and get away with, over that of Alex Smith (0-2 when he throws a pick). Continuing on that last point, the trust that Seattle has in Wilson to make the smart decision when it comes to the big play (35-plus yard pass play in six of his last seven games) gives this Seattle offense a higher ceiling than Kansas City (zero pass plays of at least 35 yards and zero touchdowns by wide receivers this season), and that’s enough in what figures to be a defensive struggle. The Seahawks’ elite run defense against the Chiefs less than stellar run-blocking line (PFF grades them as the fourth-worst) should force the home team to fight from behind, a style of play they simply can’t thrive with.
Soppe Score: Seahawks 20 – Chiefs 13
Atlanta @ Carolina
Are either of these teams any good? Is this division any good? It doesn’t really matter, as one of these teams is going to win (I’m not in the business of projecting tie games) and be in the thick of the divisional race. Neither team has a consistent offensive or defensive line, a big reason why they are both struggling to gain consistency on a weekly basis. This game comes down to which offense you trust more, and I’m not convinced that Cam Newton is 100 percent healthy. Matt Ryan tends to struggle on the road, which is a concern, but both Julio Jones and Roddy White appear to be healthy, while Steven Jackson has given the Falcons a grinder on the ground (Carolina ranks among the five worst teams in terms of yards per carry). I expect this to be a hotly contested divisional game. However, with opponents’ able find consistent success both on the ground and through the air on the Panthers, give me Atlanta to sustain a late drive.
Soppe Score: Falcons 26 – Panthers 24
Cincinnati @ New Orleans
After a brutal Week 10, both of these teams need a strong bounce back in Week 11 in the worst way. Something has to give here, as the Bengals have won just two times in six weeks after winning their first three and the Saints look to avoid their second consecutive home loss (they had won 11 straight at home prior to last weekend). If you think this game is a tossup, it would be easy to blindly take the Saints because of their advantage at the quarterback position (I know Drew Brees isn’t playing great, but Cincinnati would gladly take Brees playing left-handed and leading their team after the disaster that was last Thursday night), but that’s not why I am picking the home team to survive. How about Mark Ingram and this run game? He has totaled at least 100 yards in three straight following the bye (4.84 yards per carry) and this Bengals defense, the same one that allowed the fifth fewest rushing yards in the league last season, currently ranks as the third-worst unit against the run this season. I’m losing confidence that either one of these teams can “win” a game, so bet against the team that is more likely to make the big mistake.
Soppe Score: Saints 30 – Bengals 23
Tampa Bay @ Washington
The combination of Washington coming off of their bye and their willingness to run the rock could lead to an oddly convincing victory this weekend. Listen, I don’t like this team any more than you do, but the mismatches align nicely here. The Redskins are averaging 57.2 percent more rushing yards in their victories this season and should feel confident in pounding Alfred Morris against a Buccaneers defense that has earned the worst grade against the run in all of football through 10 weeks. On offense, the Bucs have a few talented running backs, but their game-breakers (Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson) are in the pass game and need to produce if they are going to win. The issue with that game plan is that Washington ranks as an above average defense in terms of getting after the quarterback, and Tampa Bay owns the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL. In order to win this game, the Buccaneers would need to jump out early and lead from start to finish, something I have a difficult time projecting against an increasingly healthy team that has two weeks to prepare for this one.
Soppe Score: Redskins 31 – Buccaneers 16
Denver @ St. Louis
Peyton Manning vs. Austin Davis. Demaryius Thomas vs. Kenny Britt. DeMarcus Ware/Von Miller vs. Jake Long-less offensive line. I’d love to make the case for the Rams keeping this close and competing like they have against the elite teams this season (wins against San Francisco and Seattle and close losses to Dallas and Philadelphia), but no part of me believes that they can withstand a run of any sorts from this explosive offense that is clicking on all cylinders. The Rams lead this game in number of “Austin’s” on their roster; other than that, I’m struggling to find (or create) a single edge they hold.
Soppe Score: Broncos 34 – Rams 14
San Francisco @ New York (Giants)
These are two teams that I view as headed in completely opposite directions. The 49ers are coming off an emotional game that they tried to lose but found a way to win, while the Giants had their manhood challenged in Seattle and allowed 350 rushing yards. San Francisco’s offense has been inconsistent all year long, but the Frank Gore/Carlos Hyde tandem looked good on Sunday and holds the key to this team making a postseason push. Their offensive line actually ranks ahead of the Seahawks this season when it comes to grading their performance on running plays, suggesting that the Giants’ nightmarish Week 10 might not yet be over. The upside of Colin Kaepernick is nice, especially given the contributions he has gotten from Anquan Boldin of late (at least six receptions in four straight and his 32 targets over his last three games rank among the Top 3 receivers in all of football) and the ineptitude of the Giants (109 points allowed in their last three games), but the success of this team rests on its’ defense. They are stout against the run (third-fewest rushing yards allowed among teams that have been run against at least 205 times this season) and rank as one of the best cover secondaries in the league, but the staple of their recent successes has been a fierce pass rush, a part of their defense that receives a major boost this weekend with the return of Aldon Smith. The Giants have actually pass-blocked at a high-level this season, but that has been when the offense has been able to establish a volume based run game. Andre Williams hasn’t been effective (2.88 yards per carry over his last five games) and with Rashad Jennings still at less than 100 percent, New York may be counting on Eli Manning to provide the offensive firepower in this one. I love what Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. have shown since Victor Cruz was lost for the season, but they were both reasonably productive on Sunday and that didn’t exactly workout. Look for a physically dominating effort from a team that I truly believe can make a Super Bowl run if they put all their pieces together.
Soppe Score: 49ers 26 – Giants 13
Oakland @ San Diego
The Chargers have lost three in a row and panic seems to have set in. Well, they’ve lost to three pretty good football teams (Kansas City, Denver, and Miami) that matched up well against them, which is a claim the Oakland Raiders cannot make. With San Diego having an extra week to prepare for this game, their much maligned offensive line should be rested enough to handle an average rush, thus allowing Philip Rivers to pick apart a below average secondary that is allowing opponents to complete 67 percent of their passes for 7.6 yards per attempt. The running game figures to continue to be a concern for this team long-term, but Rivers excels in the short-to-intermediate passing game, a skill I expect to be on full display this weekend. This game is likely to be decided at the quarterback position, as the Raiders grade out as the only offensive line in football that is worse at providing their running backs holes to run through. The primary difference, however, is that the Chargers have far superior options for their far superior quarterback to utilize, thus softening the blow of a limited running game. San Diego isn’t as bad as they have shown of late, nor are they as good as they appeared early in the season, but their time of possession based offense (seventh in the league in offensive minutes per game) should be more than enough to overwhelm the overmatched Raiders. Don’t worry Oakland fans … I don’t think you go winless this year.
Soppe Score: Chargers 23 – Raiders 10
Detroit @ Arizona
The Cardinals believe, or at least they say they do, that they can win a Super Bowl with Drew Stanton under center: color me pessimistic. Drew Stanton has a “live” arm and will make his far share of big plays from this point forward, but this is a rough place to start. The Lions aren’t a flawless team, but their ability to bottle up a run game (second-fewest rush yards allowed and they’ve forced as many fumbles as rushing touchdowns surrendered) could well be the difference in this matchup of surprise division leaders. Stanton’s big play potential has come almost exclusively off of play-action this season, but if Andre Ellington is unable to find consistent running room, Detroit won’t need to load the box and should be able to limit the impact of the big play. On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals’ defense is every bit as good as the statistics reflect (fourth in scoring, second in total takeaways, and first in interceptions), but they possess one major flaw that could well doom them this Sunday. After shutting down Keenan Allen in Week 1 (something most teams have managed to do this season), the Cardinals have given up an average of 134 receiving yards to the opponents’ top deep threat when playing with at least an average NFL talent at quarterback. In those five games, the play-making wideout has found paydirt six times, making a healthy Calvin Johnson a major issue for an otherwise steady defense. The Lions might be forced to be one-dimensional, and they couldn’t be happier.
Soppe Score: Lions 27 – Cardinals 25
Philadelphia @ Green Bay
I guess you could say that Aaron Rodgers (18/27 315 yards and six touchdowns) looked fully recovered from the minor hamstring injury he suffered in a Week 8 loss to the Saints. The Eagles don’t lack offensive firepower themselves and saw the vintage Darren Sproles last night, but if they get in a shootout this week, they’re going to be in trouble (Green Bay is averaging 38.5 points in victories and 41.5 points at home this season). The encouraging news for Eagles supporters is that they are holding opponents to the lowest completion percentage in the league, but their three-plus touchdown passes per interception is playing with fire against a hot Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay’s defense is their unquestioned weakness and their inability to consistently stop the run (in addition to their lack of interest in their own running game) could doom them in this one. For me, this is an interesting game featuring two strong offenses that have found success in very different ways. This game will be decided early, as the team that finds their offensive rhythm first is going to win. I’ll take the home team with the quarterback edge and an extra day of preparation.
Soppe Score: Packers 34 – Eagles 24
New England @ Indianapolis
What more could we possibly ask for on Sunday Night Football? Tom Brady and Andrew Luck are slinging the ball all over the yard these days, and with an extra week of preparation it is hard to imagine their level of play diminishing in this prime time showdown. I wanted badly to pick the Colts in this one, but the two X-Factors reside in New England and give them the edge in this one. Sure, the experience of Tom Brady and the creativity of Bill Belichick could be highlighted, but I’m looking at Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis as the difference-makers in this contest. There is little doubt that Gronk is back to 100 percent health (he played 90.7 percent of the snaps against the Broncos) and that is simply a mismatch. The Colts don’t have a player that can physically hang with the massive tight end because, well, no one in the NFL does (#23 for the Cavaliers might be able to, but that’s about the only solution I have in all of professional sports). He has a reception of at least 20 yards and at least nine targets in five straight games, trends that should continue as long as he is healthy and Brady is upright (the Colts ranks 30th in pass rush). On the defensive side of the ball, Revis is nearing the level of dominance that he flashed in his Jets days. During the last three games on normal rest (or more), the Patriots have held the opponent’s number one receiver to 12 catch for 189 yards and zero touchdowns. Furthermore, those elite talents (Sammy Watkins, Brandon Marshall, and Demaryius Thomas) have accounted for just 19.2 percent of their receiving yards (Hilton currently accounting for 30.2 percent of receiving yards) in those three games. The play of Luck gives this Colts team a great shot to beat the machine-like Patriots, but they need a big day from Trent Richardson in order to control tempo, something they’ve done as well as anyone in the league, as they’ve maintained possession for nearly 35 minutes per game. Could they do it? Sure. I’d just rather bet on the two X-Factors on New England than the one for Indianapolis.
Soppe Score: Patriots 34 – Colts 27
Pittsburgh @ Tennessee
Le’Veon Bell hasn’t been much of a factor on the ground lately (56 total rushing yards over the last two weeks) and that changes this week. The Steelers were riding out Ben Roethlisberger’s hot play, but with that crashing and burning in a loss to the Jets, we should see the 20-plus touch Bell that we saw in seven of eight games prior to the recent stretch of neglect. The Titans are a great defense to reestablish their premier back, as they grade out as the fourth-worst run defense in football and are allowing opponents to move the chains on nearly 25 percent of carries this season. In addition to moving the sticks, 10 drives have ended with a rushing touchdown, a trend I like the Steelers to exploit in a big way on Monday night. Pittsburgh’s defense is ultimately why I don’t think they will be successful long-term this season, but they can rush the passer a bit, and with the Titans struggling to protect a below average quarterback, that one skill should be enough to limit Tennessee’s ability to move the ball. Bishop Sankey is going to be a good NFL back, but right now he lacks the ability to separate from defenders (43rd in “Breakaway Percentage”, the percentage of yards gained on runs of at least 15 yards) and thus will struggle to keep the Steelers from blitzing Zach Mettenburger with consistency. Pittsburgh just has too much of an offensive edge to come up short in this one and should head into their bye week with confidence.
Soppe Score: Steelers 30 – Titans 18