Chicago @ Detroit
Nobody embodies the holiday spirit quite like the Lions. OK, so maybe they aren’t a PG-rated team, but they are a very good football team and I expect them to flex their muscles (ideally in a legal fashion) in the short work week against a rollercoaster Bears team. Listen, we know that the running game tends to thrive on Thursdays, and that is a good place to start when defining the home team’s advantage in this divisional showdown. Detroit owns the second-best run defense in the league this season, and while Chicago’s offensive line has graded out as an above average unit in run-blocking, they simply aren’t willing to commit to the ground game for four quarters (only two offenses in the league have fewer rush attempts and fewer rushing scores). I understand that Jay Cutler can be very good, but a one-dimensional offensive attack doesn’t cut it in today’s NFL and it won’t be good enough in this game. On the flipside, the Lions appear more willing to commit to the run the in past few weeks (Joique Bell’s carry count has increased in two straight games), thus allowing Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to find seams downfield. I’m not going to tell you that this Lions run game is great (or even good), but the simple threat of a handoff could be the difference when dealing with the two inconsistent quarterbacks leading these offenses. There should be a handful of highlight plays in this one, as there is extreme talent at the skill positions, but the Lions are a good bet to win the battle of the trenches, and that goes a long ways toward determining the winner since both teams are fatigued from playing on Sunday. The Lions have beaten Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in Detroit this season, while the Bears have won only one road game since Week 4.
Soppe Score: Lions 26 – Bears 20 (Joique Bell turkey leg winner)
Philadelphia @ Dallas
The first of two meetings in a three week span should be a beauty, and for my money, the best game to watch on Thanksgiving. With 16 combined victories this season, these two teams have combined for more wins than the entire AFC South division combined, but only one of them seems to be trending upward while the other has shown some signs of fading. The Eagles have responded nicely to losing Nick Foles for the season and this up-tempo offense is clicking on all cylinders. They have two wide receivers that are capable of hurting opposing defenses in a variety of ways in Jordan Matthews and Jeremy Maclin, and they have a pair of running backs in LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles that can dictate tempo and move the chains. We finally caught a glimpse of Shady last week (he hadn’t lived up to the nickname up to that point), as he broke off his first gain of 30-plus yards this season (something he did in seven separate games last season). Despite his varying levels of success, the Eagles have stayed committed to the ground game, thus allowing The Sanchize (is this the most nickname-loaded roster in the NFL?) to throw for at least 300 yards in three straight games (that’s two more than he had in all of 2009 and 2010, when he was the toast of the NFL and making it to back-to-back AFC Championship games). The Eagles can beat you in a number of ways, whereas the Cowboys live and die with DeMarco Murray. Sure, I could tell you that they are 7-0 when Murray carries the ball at least 23 times (1-3 when he doesn’t) and convince you that all Dallas needs to do is pound the rock, thus keeping Philadelphia off the field, but I don’t believe that to be true. These divisional games are about familiarity and knowing your opponent, an edge that backs Philly in a big way. Jordan Matthews, Darren Sproles, and Mark Sanchez are players the Cowboys have seen on film, but are not overly familiar with between the lines. The Eagles have been seeing the Tony Romo-Dez Bryant-Murray trio twice a year for nearly five years now, and while they are supremely talented individuals they aren’t that much different than what we’ve seen in the past. I don’t like Dallas’ prospects if they fall behind early, and even if they don’t, I like the new blood in Philadelphia to shine brightest in a nip-and-tuck affair.
Soppe Score: Eagles 30 – Cowboys 24 (Mark Sanchez turkey leg winner)
Seattle @ San Francisco
By now, you’ve already had your pregame adult beverage (an exciting start to the day) in the form of Bears vs. Lions and your main course with the Eagles vs. Cowboys, so what’s left?
Where I’m from, that’s Aunt Lori’s homemade apple pie; but the idea remains the same regardless of what you indulge in your post-tryptophan state. Sure, the turkey (high-flying passing games) is what everyone thinks about, but the dessert (physical defenses and steady offenses) provides the lasting memory (a Super Bowl?). A great meal can be ruined if not concluded in a strong fashion, but your great buffet of NFL games this weekend will not be ruined by a game that figures to resemble playoff football. Both of these squads are fighting for their playoff lives and if tensions weren’t already going to be high enough, you’ve got that whole Michael Crabtree/Richard Sherman thing to watch. Both teams have won three of their last four games and seem to be slowly rounding into form. But who holds the edge? Neither team owns a dynamic passing game, but both quarterbacks are more than capable of making game-changing plays in a variety of ways, a crucial skill to have when faced with these elite defenses. Having said that, both teams would prefer to decide this game on the ground and that style of play favors the home team. Marshawn Lynch is the best running back on either roster, but I’ll take my chances with the slight edge held by the Niners’ offensive and defensive lines when it comes to establishing/shutting down the run game. Given the Niners’ slight edge up front along with their advantage in making the big play through the air (25 percsent more 20-plus yard pass plays this season than Seattle), San Francisco projects as a nice pick to protect their new home field. The Legion of Boom is still an elite crew, but they haven’t been forcing turnovers at nearly the rate that they did last season, and in a game in which the number of possessions figures to be limited, that could be all it takes to fall. For the record, I think both of these teams are capable of making a run this winter, but the 49ers are a mirror image of the Seahawks with slightly more explosive upside on the offensive side.
Soppe Score: 49ers 23 – Seahawks 18 (Michael Crabtree turkey leg winner … yea, I said it!)
Washington @ Indianapolis
Remember when the debate was who won the 2012 NFL Draft: the Colts for nabbing Andrew Luck or the Redskins for moving heaven and earth to acquire Robert Griffin III? Well, three years in the answer is pretty clear. Griffin may have more commercial spots but Mr. Luck continues to pile up the statistics and the wins, two things that are but a distant memory in Washington. The Colts are a well-oiled machine that owns the most prolific passing offense in the league and the Redskins … well, they aren’t. In fact, the Colts even have more rushing attempts this season than the run-heavy ‘Skins, seemingly in an effort to outperform their Week 13 in every single facet of the game. Long-term, I have some serious questions about the Colts’ ability to pass block and their defense as a whole, but those flaws won’t be highlighted against a team limping to the finish line. Look for Washington to bring some pressure, but for Luck to beat it with a quick strike passing game that’ll open up the big play (if needed) in the second half. Griffin has said that his team will not quit, but they’d be better off conserving their energy for a game they have a better chance to win.
Soppe Score: Colts 34 – Redskins 17
Tennessee @ Houston
We are in an era of great quarterback play, but this game will not be a reflection of that. The Titans have been counting on Zach Mettenberger (a promising prospect, don’t get me wrong, but not exactly NFL ready), while the Texans will be forced to decide between Ryan Fitzpatrick (currently benched) or the unknown Tom Savage (rookie out of Pittsburgh) to replace the injured Ryan Mallet. Yea, I’m not going out of my way to watch this one. The Texans do boast a pair of receivers in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins that are capable of making up for some shortcomings at the quarterback position, giving “Houston Quarterback” a chance to succeed against a less than opportunistic defense. I also plan on seeing Arian Foster back in action, giving the Texans the three most talented skill players (by a wide margin) in this game, a tough obstacle to overcome. The Texans’ defense has a league-high 24 takeaways this season, and the fact that they rank as league-average when it comes to giving up big plays through the air, they should be able to limit the Titans’ ability to sustain drives.
Soppe Score: Texans 24 – Titans 16
Cleveland @ Buffalo
Reports out of Buffalo are optimistic that this game will be played in Ralph Wilson Stadium, so that’s a step in the right direction. But the Bills will be operating on a short week and against a team coming off an emotional win, a tough combination to overcome. Neither one of these teams is capable of pulling away; though, the Browns have proven to be the more capable team when it comes to making “winning plays” down the stretch. Brian Hoyer isn’t great, but he is better than any of the quarterbacks on Buffalo’s roster and Josh Gordon is a game-changing talent. This is an interesting game, as the Bills have won games thanks to their stable run defense (Cleveland is among the most run-heavy offenses in the NFL), while the Browns have been effective in limiting passing success (Buffalo has taken a pass-heavy approach since benching E.J. Manuel and suffering injuries at the running back position), so don’t be surprised if this game is decided by the team that has the most success doing what they are not comfortable doing. With Gordon not missing a beat in his first action since a 10-week suspension and the impending return of Jordan Cameron, give me the Browns’ pass game to outperform the Bills run game in the final stanza of a close game.
Soppe Score: Browns 24 – Bills 20
San Diego @ Baltimore
Why does the public love San Diego so much? I just don’t see it. They can’t block, their receivers are inconsistent, and the results really haven’t been there. Try to think back to the last time you left a football Sunday being impressed with what the Bolts were able to accomplish. Unless victories over the Raiders, Bills, and Jets really spoke to you, it hasn’t been since their Week 2 win (at home) over the Seahawks. Yea, that was a nice win, but that was 2.5 months ago! Heck, the Bills were undefeated and the Patriots were no good at that time; things change. Ryan Mathews is healthy, but that doesn’t mean this offensive line can open up holes, and while Philip Rivers is efficient, is he capable of taking over a game? I haven’t been overly impressed with the Ravens either, but, in my eyes, they’ve been more competitive. They have a complete back in Justin Forsett, who should be able to have his way against a Chargers’ defense that has been susceptible to giving up yardage to pass-catching RBs. Their passing game is more up-and-down than I would like, but Steve and Torrey Smith provide Joe Flacco with game-breakers on the perimeter. Baltimore has won four straight home games (allowing just 7.5 points per game) while San Diego has been blown out in their last two road games and lost all three of their away contests against playoff contending teams.
Soppe Score: Ravens 23 – Chargers 16
New York (Giants) @ Jacksonville
Odell Beckham Jr. There’s your one reason to watch this game. The display he put on last Sunday night deserves tuning in for the encore in a game that otherwise lacks intrigue. Both of these teams seem to battle top shelf opponents harder than you’d expect, but will either bring their best to the table in this one? Blake Bortles is taking his lumps now (for the record, I think he’ll have a nice NFL career) and Eli Manning is not exactly playing at a high level, so this contest could come down to the running game. However, neither team is creating a lot of room for their backs this season, making this a game that figures to spend plenty of time between the 20-yard lines. Again, not exactly must-see TV. I maintain my thought that this Giants secondary is better than the statistics show, and I think they can force a crucial turnover or two down the stretch to decide a game closer than you may assume.
Soppe Score: Giants 23 – Jaguars 22
Cincinnati @ Tampa Bay
The Bengals are a good football team that no one will want to play if they qualify for the postseason. This defense has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush, something that has been the Bengals’ downfall this season in losses to Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Tom Brady, but that shouldn’t be a major issue against one of the worst pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL. Cincinnati has quietly won four straight games on normal rest (that blowout loss to the Browns can be overlooked) and Andy Dalton has taken a conservative approach during their last two victories (one interception and a 70.2 completion percentage). The backfield is developing into a nice two-headed monster, as both Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill offer an array of skills that allow the Bengals to control the clock. The Buccaneers have flashed some quick strike potential with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, but they lack the consistent approach it takes to beat a good team (their leading rusher hasn’t totaled 40 yards in three straight games). The Bengals rank among the best defenses in the league when it comes to yards per pass attempt allowed, thus limiting the impact of the monster play. The Bucs can win this game if they pressure Dalton and hit on a few home run plays, but this Bengals team is beginning to settle in a bit and should have their way with the undermanned Bucs.
Soppe Score: Bengals 27 – Buccaneers 18
Oakland @ St. Louis
The Raiders finally got their first victory of the season and they get a long week to prepare for a Rams team that is a bit overrated by the public thanks to their big wins against elite opponents. I believe that Oakland has more talent than their record indicates and think this will be a close game. However, this game will likely be decided by which ultra-promising running back can make the greatest impact. It took forever, but it seems that the Raiders have finally accepted that Latavius Murray is their most talented running back. However, he is going to miss practice time with a concussion and the Oakland coaching staff has made a point of saying he will not be a featured back this season. The Rams, on the other hand, are pounding with Tre Mason (fifth most carries over the last four weeks) and allowing him to gain experience in his rookie season. Neither of these teams is capable of making big time plays in the passing game, and the fact that the Raiders rank dead last in turnover differential is what is swaying my opinion in this one.
Soppe Score: Rams 22 – Raiders 17
New Orleans @ Pittsburgh
Two very talented teams that have underachieved at points this season square off in a game with major postseason implications. Mark Ingram and Le’Veon Bell have both been solid of late, providing their respective teams with balance that makes them tough to completely shut down. As expected, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees are playing at high levels, something I don’t see changing as a result of either opposing defense. The X-factor in this game is how well the offensive lines can protect their signal callers. The Steelers own the stronger pass rush and the stronger pass-blocking offensive line, so combining that with a short week for the Saints, two weeks for the Steelers, and the outdoor locale of this game, and Pittsburgh should be viewed as the percentage play. If New Orleans is going to win on the road, Jimmy Graham is going to have to be the best player on the field. The Steelers rank in the bottom quarter of the league in terms of defending tight ends, so the potential is there, but I’ll take my chances with the extended prep time.
Soppe Score: Steelers 31 – Saints 24
Carolina @ Minnesota
Is Cam Newton the quarterback of the future in Carolina? I don’t want to say this is a defining moment, but with a postseason berth still mathematically possible and two weeks to prepare for an inferior opponent, this is a game Newton (and Carolina) needs to win, and win convincingly. Sure, the defense isn’t nearly what it was a year ago (giving up 24.1 percent more yards per game) and the running game is virtually non-existent, but Panthers fans don’t want excuses. Minnesota is going through their own growing pains with Teddy Bridgewater, but they weren’t going anywhere once Adrian Peterson was lost for the season and have the ability to let the rookie learn via experience. Late in the season, I favor the team playing with desperation, and that is without question the Panthers. The Vikings have been gashed by WR1s over their last five games, a trend Kelvin Benjamin will look to extend in his impressive rookie campaign.
Soppe Score: Panthers 23– Vikings 13
Arizona @ Atlanta
The Falcons are a much better team at home than on the road, but that doesn’t make them a good team. The Cardinals, on the other hand, seem to have lost an insane amount of public support after being dominated in Week 12…in Seattle…with a backup quarterback…after six straight wins. Don’t get me wrong, the game was less than inspiring, but let’s not overreact here. The defense is still elite (heck, even in the loss, they held Marshawn Lynch to 39 yards on 15 carries and surrendered just 293 total yards), and the offense can still make enough plays to make them a tough team to beat in the postseason. Drew Stanton was iffy last week when under pressure, but given that the Falcons own the second-worst pass rush in football it is hard to imagine the backup having happy feet this week and struggling to complete passes. With an NFL-high 15 rushing touchdowns allowed, Atlanta should expect to see a heavy dose of the electric Andre Ellington, a game plan that will allow Arizona to physically dominate this game and control it throughout. Give Matt Ryan his due when playing indoors, but don’t expect the upset.
Soppe Score: Cardinals 27 – Falcons 23
New England @ Green Bay
What more could you possibly ask for? These are two storied franchises with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks that are playing at as high a level as anyone in the league. It is easy to fall in love with the aerial attacks, but both teams have shown encouraging growth when it comes to their ground games over the last couple of weeks. Eddie Lacy (552 yards and 7.1 yards per touch over the last four weeks) has recovered from a slow start this season, while the Patriots continue to plug in effective backs behind Tom Brady (Jonas Gray, LeGarrette Blount, and Shane Vereen). The ability to establish balance is nice, but both Aaron Rodgers and Brady are at the center of their team’s elite success and I expect this week to be no different. New England has earned respect around the league for their ability to stop the opponent’s top threat, but with both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb capable of taking over a game, what can they do? Rob Gronkowski is a walking mismatch, but Green Bay’s secondary is finally healthy and should be able to limit the effectiveness of Julian Edelman and the surprisingly effective Brandon LaFell. Fantasy Football owners will be watching this game and should be rewarded in a big way; a style of play that I believe favors Rodgers, as he plays behind the top ranked pass-blocking offensive line. This game may be decided by who gets the ball last and the game should live up to the hype (much like the Colts/Broncos game in Peyton Manning’s initial return to Indianapolis).
Soppe Score: Packers 38 – Patriots 34
Denver @ Kansas City
Man, I really hope you get your chores done early in the day, as this Sunday has “sit on your couch for eight straight hours” potential. The Broncos and Chiefs played a one possession game in early September, but both teams have come a long way since then. The Broncos seem to have found a back that they feel comfortable with in C.J. Anderson, while the Chiefs’ defense is locking down opponents at a level that has their fan base dreaming of a long postseason run (feel free to ignore last week’s debacle against the Raiders). Kansas City gets a nice bump as a result of a long practice week and this game being played in front of the crazy fans of Arrowhead (four straight home wins, two of which came over the Patriots and Seahawks), but there is one thing they don’t have: Peyton Manning. Denver’s defense is very talented and even more potent when playing with a lead, something I expect them to do against a Chiefs’ defense that thrives in limiting the effectiveness of opposing running backs (this is one offense I’m fine picking if they are “forced” to be one-dimensional).
Soppe Score: Broncos 30 – Chiefs 20
Monday Night Football
Miami @ New York (Jets)
Can we move this game? Or just not play it? We’ve got plenty of exciting teams to watch in the NFL these days, but we get the Jets on MNF in back-to-back weeks? Well, good thing it’s my job to pick winners, not TV schedules. The Dolphins have lost two of their last three games, but the fact that they have averaged 24.7 points against three stingy defenses is encouraging. We know this team can defend at a high level (they rank in the top third of the league in passing yards, rushing yards, and points against) behind the aggressive Cameron Wake and the emerging Brent Grimes, so the offensive growth under the tutelage of Ryan Tannehill makes them a legitimate playoff contender. The Jets … well, the outlook isn’t so bright. They can stop the run with the best of them, but they’ve failed to force turnovers in the passing game and lack the offensive firepower to keep defenses honest. New York can have success if they can establish balance and protect Michael Vick, I’m just not sure that they can do either, let alone both.
Soppe Score: Dolphins 23 – Jets 16