The playoff race is crowded with virtually nothing locked in at this point. So whether you gamble or pick the games against your buddies, here are the teams the numbers favor, with the opinion of yours truly serving as a tie-breaker in tight games.
Tennessee @ Jacksonville
For the third consecutive week, the Titans play a game that has the potential to set the game of football back to before the television era. The best part? It’s the standalone Thursday night game. Yuck. That said, our football obsessed society dictates that you watch this game, so why not get an idea about who is going to win it? Thursday night games are typically dominated by the ground attack, and while I don’t trust either set of running backs (sorry Storm Johnson, Toby Gerhart, Shonn Greene, and Bishop Sankey), the fact that the Titans have earned the lowest run defense grade is enough to give the home team the slight edge here. But maybe these two questionable teams defy trends and treat us to an aerial display of mediocrity … scary thought, isn’t it? The Titans’ fourth-worst pass blocking offensive line could struggle a bit against a Jaguars front seven that ranks within the Top 10 in the league in sacks, and when you’ve got a marginal NFL talent to begin with, any added pressure is too much. This is a quarterback driven league, and while Blake Bortles is far from flawless, he hasn’t thrown multiple interceptions in six straight (five multi-pick games in his first six career starts). However, he has shown some growth and owns the advantage in this ugly matchup. He lost his receiver with the greatest upside in Allen Robinson, yet he probably has the advantage here in talent to throw to, giving the Jags the edge in this rough start to Week 16 (hey, the Golden State Warriors host the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night … maybe grab a nap and watch that instead?).
Week 16 Soppe Score: Jaguars 23 – Titans 16
Philadelphia @ Washington
Everyone is waxing poetic about the Cowboys victory over these Eagles last weekend, but let’s not forget that they nearly came back from a 21-point deficit against Dallas’ ball control style of offense. Yes, they lost, but I still think this is a very good team and they should have no issues dominating a Redskins team that is looking forward to ending the nightmare of 2014. Consider this: LeSean McCoy carried 19 times for 22 yards (and lost a fumble), the Eagles picked up just 36.4 percent of their third downs, and not one, but two Washington receivers caught a handful of passes for 100-plus yards and a touchdown when these two teams first met in September … and Philadelphia won. Sure, things have changed since then (both teams have different quarterbacks), but is there a situation in which more goes right for Washington? The Redskins can’t cover receivers and that’ll be an issue, but their inability to run block (Bottom 10 in the league) is a major concern against a Top 10 run defense. Divisional road games are often dangerous given the familiarity of one another, I just don’t see how Washington can hang around for more than 2-3 quarters in this game, and I’d honestly be surprised if they can do that.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Eagles 30 – Redskins 13
San Diego @ San Francisco
San Francisco has been a massive disappointment this season and will be considered a failure, but this is still the talented team we thought they were coming into this season and I don’t see them quitting as this is a good spot for them to impact the playoff chase. They match up very well with an overrated Chargers team and could well show some of the promise that we expected to see with more consistency this season.
Week 16 Soppe Score: 49ers 24 – Chargers 18
Green Bay @ Tampa Bay
The Pack looked awful in Buffalo last week, but I’ll take the 13-game sample we had prior to that to forecast their future. They are still an elite team with one of, if not the best quarterbacks in the league and a strong bounce back effort is to be expected. Critics are going to point to Green Bay’s lack of success on the road, and that may be a viable concern in the postseason, but not in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers don’t own the type of defense that the Bills do, nor do they boast an offense that can keep up with Aaron Rodgers and company. Buffalo boasts a strong pass rush (they were able to do so with just their front four in Week 15) and rank above average when it comes to coverage, two areas in which the Bucs rank in the Bottom 10 of the league. Eddie Lacy was able to find some room against the Bills, but Buffalo trusted their front four enough that they could drop seven off in coverage. The Buccaneers don’t have the talent to do that, which means they either die a slow death and get gashed all afternoon on the ground (think Broncos/Bills Week 14), or they stack the box and provide Rodgers with single coverage on the perimeter. Good luck with that. Tampa Bay lacks the skill on defense to stop Green Bay, and with the third-lowest average time of possession, their offense isn’t likely to keep this Packers juggernaut on the sidelines for very long (the only other way to compete against this team). The “Battle of the Bays” used to be a storied rivalry: used to be.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Packers 38 – Buccaneers 16
Minnesota @ Miami
Both of these teams have shown glimpses of good play and if I’m a fan of either, I like the direction they are headed, but the ‘Fins are at least a year ahead in the process and I expect an aggressive game plan that reminds us of why this looked like a playoff team less than a month ago. The Vikings own the edge in the trenches when it comes to both team’s running games, but the talent of Lamar Miller is enough above the level of play from Matt Asiata to keep the running production at a similar level. If Minnesota can’t enforce their will via the run game, this is going to be a long afternoon. Neither offensive line can protect their quarterback at a high level, but Cameron Wake leads a strong pass rush and Brent Grimes heads a strong secondary that should give Teddy Bridgewater major problems. The Vikings can win this game if they can control the clock. But if they fall behind, the snowball could roll down hill in a hurry. Ryan Tannehill is an above average quarterback, and that’s all it takes to have a significant edge over Minnesota (2-7 against teams with a reasonable QB under center).
Week 16 Soppe Score: Dolphins 23 – Vikings 16
Baltimore @ Houston
I personally think the Ravens are a very good team and this matchup has the potential to make them look elite. Arian Foster is an elite talent, but what is going to stop the Ravens from putting every single defender in the box? The mess at quarterback is a major issue and Baltimore’s top ranked pass rush figures to make throwing the ball a nightmare. Foster can only do so much and once the Texans fall behind his impact will be limited, and this has the potential to get ugly rather quickly. Should the Ravens get on the board early, their Top 10 run-blocking offensive line should have a field day with non-Watt members of this Texans front line that ranks in the bottom third of the league. Houston is playing decent football right now, but the Ravens are the team with postseason aspirations and I expect that level of desperation to be apparent in a rather easy victory.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Ravens 27 – Texans 14
Detroit @ Chicago
Divisional games are always hard fought and I expect this to be a competitive contest, but the dysfunction in Chicago and a short week of rest is not how I’d want to lead into a game with the physical Lions. Detroit has been clicking for more than two months now and their defensive tenacity has been leading the charge. We all know about the Bears’ potent passing attack (although calling it “potent” based on production is a bit kind), but no offense is overly effective when they are one-dimensional, and that is exactly what I expect them to be. Detroit has allowed just one set of running backs to total 100 rushing yards in a game this season and have allowed just 78 total rushing yards (to running backs) over the last three weeks. If Chicago is forced (or simply chooses) to abandon the ground game, turnovers could be a major issue given the gun-slinger mentality of Jay Cutler and the fact that the Lions rank third in interceptions this season with 19. Da Bears won’t go easily and should keep this close into the fourth quarter, but give me the team with something to play for that takes care of the ball.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Lions 25 – Bears 17
Cleveland @ Carolina
Johnny Football – Part 2. That’s all that needs to be said to make this a must-see game. He offered very little in his first start, but it is only a matter of time until we see some flashes of excitement. Maybe not greatness, but the man will entertain and the Panthers’ defense isn’t exactly the most resistant. That said, I think the recently improved play from Carolina is set to continue given the Browns’ inability to generate a pass rush. Assuming Derek Anderson is once again under center (I still like the Panthers, but for different reasons should Cam Newton return), the extended time in the pocket could well be fatal, something he proved last week, as Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen both piled up over 100 receiving yards. Neither team can stop the run, but the Panthers are unlikely to respect Manziel as a passer (or as a man), thus allowing them to load the box and take away Isaiah Crowell to some extent. Can Manziel exploit single coverage? That narrative will go a long way towards determining the winner of this game, and while I think he plays considerably better than he did in his debut, I don’t think it is enough to sustain consistent drives. Derek Anderson, on the other hand, will lack the spectacular play, but is also less likely to make the game-changing mistake, a trait that gives the home team the edge.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Panthers 27 – Browns 23
Atlanta @ New Orleans
No excuses. An indoor game with a “playoff” spot on the line; now is the time for these teams to convince the nation that the NFC South deserves to have a team in the postseason this season. New Orleans will be working on a short week and that could well be the difference between these two underachieving teams. This should be a fun game to watch that features plenty of points scored, but the first defense that makes a big play will be in good shape. While the Falcons have been gashed through the air this season, they have been able to turn over their opponent at a much higher rate. Both quarterbacks are playing at a high level, but I’ll take the confidence of Matt Ryan to give him the slight edge. Listen, I don’t like picking against Drew Brees at home any more than you do, but how can you deny a pass-first offense that was making history with Julio Jones for two weeks and seemingly didn’t miss a beat with Harry Douglas taking over last week? Consistency wins in the NFL, something the Saints have lacked from possession to possession, let alone for an entire game. Look for lots of lead changes and highlights, but give me the team that I am convinced is peaking, while I simply don’t know what to expect from New Orleans.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Falcons 34 – Saints 30
Kansas City @ Pittsburgh
The Chiefs aren’t a sexy team, but their defense has the potential to lead to an upset here … but I’m not picking it. Kansas City has been a bend (4.9 yards per carry) but don’t break (two rushing touchdowns allowed) run defense, a trend I fully expect to be broken by, for my money, the best running back in football. Le’Veon Bell is the type of versatile threat that the Chiefs really haven’t seen this season, and given the Steelers’ creative ways to get him involved, he should be able to led this offense to an efficient afternoon. On the flip side, the Chiefs have an elite running back of their own that should find some room to roam, but I’m not convinced that Alex Smith can exploit the Steelers’ weak pass coverage (zero wide receiver touchdowns this season). His conservative approach should lead to mistake-free football, but Pittsburgh is a team that can hang 25-30 points, something Smith is going to have a difficult time doing. At the end of the day, I believe Pittsburgh’s strong pass-blocking offensive line can negate Kansas City’s aggressive pass rush, thus making the Ben Roethlisberger/Antonio Brown connection too much for the Chiefs to handle for four quarters.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Steelers 27 – Chiefs 20
New England @ New York (Jets)
This game is going to be closer than you think, but the winner is going to be exactly who you think. Tom Brady and the Patriots steamrolled the Dolphins in the second half last week after sleepwalking through the first two quarters, a lack of focus that I expect to be addressed in a big way against the Jets. New England may have clinched the AFC East, but they still need this game in the race for home field advantage in the playoffs, so there should be no worry about them taking their foot off the gas at any point. The Jets are working on their longest win “streak” of the season, but outlasting the Titans is hardly an accomplishment worth hanging your hat on. New York gets the credit for having a strong defense, but what good will taking the ball out of LeGarrette Blount’s hands and putting it in Brady’s do? On the other side of the ball, New England’s defense is very overlooked. They cover as well as anybody in the league, an ability that allows them to crowd the line of scrimmage and take away the run. The Jets aren’t able to exploit bad defenses and should struggle from the very beginning. I trust Rex Ryan as a competitor and think that he can have his team in this at the half, but barring a major roster overhaul in the next few days, it is difficult to imagine the Jets having a chance to win this game late.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Patriots 30 – Jets 16
New York (Giants) @ St. Louis
The sky was falling in New York after a loss to Jacksonville, a game in which they led by 21, but does a win against a Washington team that gave up weeks ago change things? This Giants team isn’t good (Odell Beckham Jr. is, but good receivers can play on bad teams, just ask Alshon Jeffery/Brandon Marshall or Mike Evans) and St. Louis is trending in a very positive direction as the season winds down. Having said all of that, the Giants will win this game, a game they shouldn’t win. The Rams are playing better football, but the passing game does drive success these days and I’m buying what we saw from Eli Manning last week. No, the Redskins aren’t world beaters, but the Rams are allowing opponents to complete 67.5 percent of their passes this season, a flaw that Manning should be able to expose with consistency. I have confidence in Shaun Hill having a decent game this week, but with the Rams struggling to protect the passer and the Giants’ ability to apply pressure, he is the more likely of the two quarterbacks to give the opponent a short field to work with. I still think the Rams are the better team, but this matchup seems to fit the G-men well and could land them the upset victory in a meaningless game.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Giants 23 – Rams 17
Buffalo @ Oakland
The Bills’ defense is very good but let’s not live in a two-week vacuum and say that this is a Super Bowl level defense that makes them a lock in this game. They’ve shut down Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back weeks, a level of play that is above what we can expect, but even steep regression should result in a strong performance against a quarterback in Derek Carr that ranks 28th in completion percentage. Latavius Murray is a very talented player and should have a nice NFL career, but Buffalo’s ability to stuff the running game is real and should put the Raiders in a tough spot to move the ball with consistency (Buffalo owns the league’s best touchdown-to-interception ratio against). If you want to pick an upset, the Raiders are a nice pick, as the Bills offense is actually trending in the wrong direction while Oakland’s defense is a bit better than you realize, but I’ll side with the hot defense that is still mathematically alive in the AFC playoff race.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Bills 23 – Raiders 18
Indianapolis @ Dallas
This is a very interesting game and could be the best of the weekend should DeMarco Murray (hand surgery) be able to carry this offense in the fashion he has all season long; I’m just not sure that that is going to be the case. Andrew Luck has a similar responsibility for the Colts, but he is 100 percent healthy and I like his matchup better than the Cowboys’ running game. Dallas is allowing opponents to complete nearly two-thirds of their passes this season and if Luck can approach that level of efficiency, the NFL leader in passing yardage and touchdowns should lead scoring drives with extreme consistency. If the Colts offense can produce as expected, Dallas’ run game (with or without Murray) may not be as influential as it has been in placing them atop the NFC East. Tony Romo is playing at a high level, but if he gets caught up in a shootout with Luck, I’ll take my chances with the pride of Stanford. Don’t sleep on Indianapolis’ sixth-ranked coverage secondary, as I think Romo’s historic touchdown/interception streak comes to an end at an awfully bad time in the second half.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Colts 30 – Cowboys 20
Seattle @ Arizona
Arizona can only hang on so long, right? Ryan Lindley will start for the Cardinals in this game, and while I normally like a home team on extended rest, the talent discrepancy is simply too much for me to ignore in this one. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have this offense functioning at a high enough level to make another deep winter run and the defense has rediscovered their dominate form. The Cardinals’ defense is being overlooked, as the public focuses on their shortcomings at quarterback, thus making them a sneaky value play down the stretch, but not when facing an elite defensive squad like Seattle. Arizona has been vulnerable to giving up yardage through the air but has escaped as a result of their ability to force turnovers, a dangerous way to live against a conservative Wilson, who only takes calculated risks. This will be a competitive, if not pretty game, but the advantage at quarterback is simply too great for the Cardinals to overcome and will lead to their eventual demise in the second half.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Seahawks 20 – Cardinals 10
Denver @ Cincinnati
The Bengals’ defense has been difficult to figure out, and while they looked good against Johnny Football last week, that tells us nothing about how they will look this weekend against Peyton Manning. The worries about Manning’s arm strength are real, but his mind has always been his most dangerous weapon and that part of his game remains at the highest level imaginable. Much like the Patriots, it is Denver’s offense that gets most of the attention, but their defense is fully capable of supporting a Super Bowl run. Even if the quarterback position was seen as a draw (it’s obviously not, no matter how much concern you have about Manning), the fact that the Broncos have the sixth-best pass rush and the Bengals have the worst rush in the league would be enough for me to side with the visitors. The only hope for Andy Dalton to have success in this game and in any game for that matter, is to have a successful ground game, but the Broncos have allowed just one set of running backs to eclipse 100 yards this season and should constantly have eight men in the box this weekend. No defense has allowed more rushing touchdowns and rushing yards than the Bengals this season, a deficiency that will limit their ability to pressure Manning. It seems that I like every AFC North team more than most, but even I can’t pick Cincinnati to excel in this matchup.
Week 16 Soppe Score: Broncos 27 – Bengals 17