Dallas @ Chicago
Neither team can play the “short rest” card in this one, so maybe we can get a well-played Thursday night game for a nice change of pace? I’m looking for the Cowboys to win this game, but not in the fashion that they’ve won games up to this point. The Bears actually boast a reasonably strong run defense (only Joique Bell has scored a rushing touchdown against them since Week 7) and DeMarco Murray, while still running well, has failed to eclipse 100 yards on the ground in two of his last four games after opening the season with eight straight triple-digit performance. Tony Romo should be the difference-maker on Thursday and, believe it or not, that should be considered a good thing. Since 2009, in the week following a Turkey Day game (four games), the much-maligned signal caller has tossed 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions (at least 300 yards three times). Parlay that with the fact that the ‘Boys are 5-1 this season (as compared to 2-5 last season when Dallas had less balance) when Romo does not throw an interception, and you’ve got yourself a winner. Chicago’s defense figures to help the cause as they rank 31st in yards per pass attempt allowed and own a near 2.5 touchdown-to-interception against ratio through 13 weeks. They also have earned the third-lowest grade in terms of team pass coverage, a major issue against the fifth-best pass-blocking offensive line. Dallas very much struggled with a two-way back similar to Matt Forte last week (LeSean McCoy), but part of that was due to the Eagles playing with a lead for the entirety of the game. The road team should control the clock, dictate tempo, and play with a lead this week, all key contributors to their surprise success this season and the driving force behind my pick.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Cowboys 31 – Bears 20
Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati
If you’ve been reading this column consistently, you probably know that I like the Bengals more than you, but I can’t pick them here. While I have faith in the direction this defense is moving and think that this offense has potential, the Steelers can match them at their strengths without the major flaws. When looking at the skill positions, which tandem would you rather have: Andy Dalton/A.J. Green or Ben Roethlisberger/Antonio Brown? Le’Veon Bell or Giovani Bernard/Jeremy Hill? When it comes to the pass rush, the Steelers grade out significantly higher and while the front sevens have been close in terms of run defense, the Steelers still hold the slight advantage. The Bengals rely on generating turnovers, and while Roethlisberger has thrown five picks over the last three weeks, he is taking as good a care of the ball as he ever has and hasn’t often put his defense in a short field situation. These two teams are very familiar to one another and it should be another great AFC North showdown, but the rules of the NFL are geared to favor the passing game, and that might be the biggest mismatch when comparing these two rosters.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Steelers 27 – Bengals 23
St. Louis @ Washington
At the beginning of this season, the Sam Bradford/Robert Griffin matchup would have been an intriguing one, but now it is Shaun Hill/Colt McCoy in a game that means very little to two teams that had bigger dreams this season. The Rams, however, have shown signs of life this season and seem to be headed in the right direction, something that would be awfully difficult to say about the ‘Skins. St. Louis has found their running back of the future in Tre Mason and is a team playing with confidence (wins over Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver will do that, but so will a 52-0 shellacking of the Raiders on Sunday). They may have less raw talent than Washington, but they’ve consistently been competitive all season long while the home team has underperformed more often than not in 2014. Neither offense is one that I would call “explosive”, so I’ll roll with the defense that has been playing better of late and owns an advantage in annual production in all of the advanced metrics.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Rams 20 – Redskins 16
New York (Giants) @ Tennessee
On October 12th, Eddie Royal had the second most receiving touchdowns in the NFL. It was also the last time either one of these teams won a football game. Yea, it’s been a while. And even then, it was a squeaker over the Jaguars by the Titans; the same Jags team that had just completed a 21-point comeback to beat the Giants. In a matchup of bottom-feeders, it is only fair to assess this game a bit differently; who is the least bad. New York’s porous pass coverage is less bad than the turnstile approach of the Titans, and no run defensive line has been worse at stopping the run than the unit in Tennessee. Both teams possess a struggling quarterback, but it is New York with the slightly less terrible offensive line when it comes to protecting their signal caller. Tennessee holds the slight edge in run blocking, but Bishop Sankey isn’t as talented as Rashad Jennings, thus nullifying the Titans’ lone edge. Yuck. Somebody let me know if I get this game right, I’m not watching the game and grabbing dinner during this portion of the highlight show. I’m taking the Titans to lose this game, but nobody actually wins here.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Titans 17 – Giants 18
Carolina @ New Orleans
The Saints earned an impressive road win in Pittsburgh while the Panthers suffered their latest setback, a drubbing at the hands of the Vikings. Logic would say that the Saints are finding their rhythm and might finally seize control of this division, which of course means Carolina wins this game going away. In all seriousness, a hot Drew Brees (making a late push for his fourth consecutive 5,000 yard season) is as scary as anyone in the NFL, even if he plays for a team that is hoping to go .500 and win their division. The future Hall of Famer has completed 69.3 percent of his passes in his last four games against the Panthers, a trend I’d have a hard time betting against, as Carolina is allowing opponents to complete 67.9 percent of their passes this season. When the Saints are on defense, their last-ranked pass coverage is a major concern, but considering that Cam Newton not only plays behind the worst pass-blocking offensive line in football but also is struggling with consistency (his completion percentage ranks 30th among qualified quarterbacks this season), the lack of elite cover men might not be an issue. Are his struggles a result of the poor offensive line? That is a chicken/egg argument for another day, as neither is going to be fixed in the very near future.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Saints 34 – Panthers 19
New York (Jets) @ Minnesota
Hopefully you don’t live in one of these markets because this just doesn’t project as an entertaining way to spend the afternoon. I’ll make this recap a short one: the Vikings’ defense is better than you think and the Jets offense isn’t. Teddy Bridgewater’s grasp on the offense is growing and the health of Kyle Rudolph gives him a nice red zone option to compensate for the injured Jerick McKinnon. Neither team has much fire power. I have more confidence in Minnesota being able to sustain drives. The Jets are going to battle, but they lack skill and will be traveling on a short week. Percy Harvin revenge game? New York is going to need their most versatile weapon to show up in a big way to earn the victory here, and I’m not sure he has the help around him required to do so.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Vikings 23 – Jets 17
Baltimore @ Miami
Two teams that I feel would be dangerous in the postseason square off in a game that might all but eliminate the loser from playoff contention. The Dolphins will not benefit from a short week, but I’d be more worried about a fierce Ravens’ pass attack. This defense seems to be peaking at the right time, and while this Dolphins offense is on the up-and-up, this isn’t a favorable spot for them. Miami can also put pressure on the quarterback, but the Ravens’ offensive line has been keeping Joe Flacco comfortable this season, a skill that should allow the Baltimore receivers the extra time required to get open against this physical Dolphins secondary. Did someone say physical? Steve Smith tends to thrive in such situations and I’m not betting against him in a big time game. Miami has played to the level of their competition for the most part this season, so expect a four quarter battle, but the Ravens are hitting their stride on both sides of the ball and have the big game experience it takes to win a game like this.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Ravens 24 – Dolphins 22
Indianapolis @ Cleveland
Andrew Luck is playing at as high a level as any quarterback in the league and Johnnnnny Fooooootball is likely to be under center for the Brownies. Is there another game on the slate you’d rather be watching? The correct answer is “hell no!” That is, until the Colts begin to enforce their will upon the overachieving hosts. The Browns rank as the top coverage team in the NFL, but Luck burned the only Top 10 cover team he has played this season to the tune of 303 yards and two scores. Cleveland ranks as the fourth-worst pass rushing defense and Luck has averaged 324 yards and two touchdowns in his two games against defenses ranking in the Bottom 10 in pass rush. In other words, he is going to have his way with a defense like this. Add to that the projected success of Trent Richardson and Daniel Herron against the fourth-worst run defense (in terms of yards) and you’ve got a recipe for a successful afternoon for the Indy offense. On the flip side, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks have given this Colts defense issues, but Manziel isn’t quite there yet. Indianapolis’ defense is going to prevent them from making the type of run they want this winter, but it shouldn’t stand in the way from them leaving Johnny-world with a W.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Colts 34 – Browns 24
Tampa Bay @ Detroit
The Lions are the much better team … and on more rest … and at home … and with something to play for. Josh McCown has made this Buccaneers offense an occasionally dangerous one, but the Lions’ elite run defense figures to make this a one-dimensional Tampa Bay team. If that is in fact the case, this is going to be a long afternoon for McCown behind the second-worst pass blocking offensive line in the NFL. Detroit is not a team without flaws, but their strengths are far too much for this limited Buccaneers team to overcome.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Lions 27 – Buccaneers 13
Houston @ Jacksonville
That was cute Ryan Fitzpatrick (368 yards and six touchdowns). You too, Blake Bortles (68 rushing yards while overcoming a 21 point deficit). Neither performance was one we saw coming and neither is something you should count on seeing again in the near future. The Texans are still an offense predicated on running the football and the Jaguars are still an offense that ends up on the back of a milk carton more often than not. I’m looking for this game to follow a path similar to other Texan victories: establish a powerful running attack (Jacksonville’s sixth-worst run defense should help) and get after the quarterback as the opponent attempts to stage a comeback (Houston’s Top 10 pass rush will take on a below average pass blocking offensive line). If push comes to shove and this is a game down the stretch, the Texans have a pair of peaking wide receivers while the Jags continue to mismatch pass-catchers and are trying out new roles with Allen Robinson gone for the season.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Texans 26 – Jaguars 16
Buffalo @ Denver
This write up is going to seem eerily similar to the one you’ll read for the Monday Night game. Nice win Buffalo, but the Hoyer/Manziel combination at home is a bit different than facing Peyton Manning on the road. The Broncos have been running the ball at an elite level courtesy of C.J. Anderson (leading the league in rushing yards and total touches over the last month) and that may end this week against one of the stingiest front sevens in the league, but putting the ball in the hands of Manning isn’t exactly a formula for success. On offense, the Bills’ production has been inconsistent of late, in part due to the lingering groin injury to Sammy Watkins and the limitations of Kyle Orton. Buffalo wins games when their defense makes plays and shortens the field, something I expect them to have very little success in doing this week. Don’t sleep on Denver’s defense either, as they are also shutting down the ground game at a high level and rank in the Top 10 in both interceptions and sacks.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Broncos 30 – Bills 18
Kansas City @ Arizona
I feel that I like both of these teams more than most, thus making this a difficult game to pick. Both Kansas City and Arizona possess lock down defenses that are capable of single-handedly winning games, and offenses that are limited enough to keep any opponent competitive. Most people would assume that the superior run game or the better performing defense would win this game, but I think it’ll be the quarterback that makes the most plays (or makes the least poor plays) that earns a hard fought win here. Drew Stanton is the more likely of the two to take chances down the field, something that could haunt him against a defense that is playing at a high level (heck, it killed the Cardinals last week against one of the worst defenses in the league). His receivers (Larry Fitzgerald will once again be questionable) won’t have much time to gain separation this week as a result of the Chiefs sixth-ranked pass rush, only making Stanton’s approach that much more risky. When Kansas City has the ball, Alex Smith isn’t going to take the game over, but he also will not give it away. His conservative approach should thrive against the second-worst pass rush, allowing him to execute at the end of halves and potentially engineer a game-winning drive. I won’t only pick the Chiefs to win this game; I’ll pick them to get their first touchdown from a receiver in the process!
Week 14 Soppe Score: Chiefs 23 – Cardinals 17
Seattle @ Philadelphia
These two teams are very much trending in the right direction, so this game comes down to which team’s “best” is better. Mark Sanchez and Russell Wilson are capable of making plays, but the running games are what make these offenses go. If this game is going to be decided in the trenches, the defending Super Bowl champions hold the edge. Their cumulative run rating (both in blocking for it and defending it) is higher and Marshawn Lynch’s physical brand is more conducive to the style of game I expect this to be. I trust Wilson (three straight games without an interception) to play a clean game more than I do Sanchez (one more interception in 160 fewer pass attempts than Wilson this season), and that could well be the difference in the fourth quarter.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Seahawks 24 – Eagles 20
San Francisco @ Oakland
Well, neither team looked good in Week 13, but the Niners benefit from an extra few days of rest (I would say “a few extra days of preparation”, but is game-planning for Oakland really that difficult?), not to mention a substantial advantage in talent. I could try to describe the advantage that the 49ers hold on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as Oakland is home to the worst offensive line in football, but I’ll give you a few skill position nuggets to chew on instead.
The next time Anquan Boldin fails to catch five passes on the road will be the first this season and he has tallied 90 yards and a touchdown in four of his last five games against defenses that rank below average in pass coverage.
The NFC West is a physical division that involves four teams that play a similar brand of football: a brand that is decimating the overmatched Raiders. In two games against the West, the Raiders have allowed the opposing RB1 to total 307 yards and five touchdowns on just 43 touches. Even better news for Frank Gore: the two opponents in those games are averaging 28.5 running players per game this season and the Niners are running the ball 28.9 times per contest.
Week 14 Soppe Score: 49ers 31 – Raiders 13
New England @ San Diego
I wrote the following when the Eagles got white-washed by the Packers …”a loss to Green Bay shouldn’t affect the way you view a team.” We were all ready to crown the Patriots before Week 13 and, believe it or not, they are just as good now as they were a week ago. For the Chargers, it has been a season of runs, as they won five in a row, then lost three straight prior to making adjustments during their bye week and winning their last three games. In all reality, they aren’t as good as the five game win streak made them look, but they also aren’t as bad as they appeared during the three game skid. While the results have been better of late, none of the victories have been of convincing fashion and they aren’t currently functioning at a level high enough to compete with the Pats. San Diego’s offensive line is the worst at creating holes for the run game, a major issue for a team that is going to want to melt the clock. Darrelle Revis is going to limit the effectiveness of the Chargers receivers, and with Antonio Gates in a bit of a funk, I’m not sure how San Diego can keep pace with a Pats’ offense that is going to put points on the board. The faces in New England’s backfield may change, but they are all providing enough production to allow Tom Brady to thrive, a trend I don’t see reversing this weekend. Look for New England to dominate more on the field than the scoreboard, but I don’t see them being in danger of losing a second consecutive game.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Patriots 27 – Chargers 18
Atlanta @ Green Bay
Nice win Atlanta, but good luck sustaining that momentum in Lambeau Field. You might have heard that the Packers are playing well right now, and the Falcons defense hasn’t exactly been a unit that stops hot offenses (or any offense for that matter) this season. Opponents are averaging 41.2 pass attempts against the Falcons over their last five games. Project Rodgers’ career 66 completion percentage with his current four game interception-less stretch in which he is averaging 14.9 yards per completion and is throwing one touchdown every 6.5 completions, and you get a nice 405-yard four touchdown afternoon. If he even approaches those totals, this game won’t be worth watching. As flashy as this aerial assault is, let’s not overlook what Eddie Lacy has meant to this offense over their last five games. He ranks in the Top 10 in rushing over that time period (yards per game) and only Le’Veon Bell has more receiving yards from the running back position, a level of versatility that makes this Green Bay offense as good as it gets. I won’t completely overlook the Falcons impressive victory over the Cardinals last week, but facing Drew Stanton at the Georgia Dome isn’t quite the same as the animal they will have to deal with on Monday Night. Atlanta should have some success on offense against an average Green Bay defense, but this is an offensive driven league, and given the fact that the Dirty Birds are the only defense in the league to grade out in the Bottom 5 in both pass coverage and pass rush, I have a hard time seeing Rodgers regressing from his MVP pace.
Week 14 Soppe Score: Packers 34 – Falcons 17