We are coming up on Week 10 of the NFL/Fantasy Football season, and if you are still hanging in there in your survivor pool then you’ve done a tremendous job of picking winners. However, this is when the going gets tough; a limited schedule due to bye weeks, changes in starting lineups due to injury or just plain poor play and even the weather can all make picking a winner very difficult. Plus, the whole concept of a survivor pool in which you can only use each team once can make it almost impossible to survive each week from here on to the end of the season. Well, that’s where this column may come in very handy, as we pick every single game and explain the logic behind the thinking. If you agree with it then you’ve got yourself a whole list to pick from. If not, well…good luck with that just the same.
Cleveland @ Cincinnati
If trends hold, and they wouldn’t be called “trends” if they didn’t hold more often than not, the team that can run/stop the run at the most efficient manner is going to have success in the Thursday Night showcase. Well, that gives the Bengals a decided edge (as does the fact that they are the home team), as they have rushed for more yards and touchdowns while piling up more yards per carry (oddly enough, both defenses have allowed exactly 1,117 rushing yards through nine weeks). Straying from the numbers a bit, Cincinnati has two running backs that are simply better than anyone Cleveland has on their roster. Neither team excels at rushing the passer, giving the Bengals the edge through the air, as they have an increasingly healthy A.J. Green and an emerging talent in Mohamed Sanu. Don’t get me wrong, the Browns’ Brian Hoyer to Andrew Hawkins tandem is nice, but it’s not the same. Cleveland has been a different team on the road this season (1-2, with their lone win being a squeaker against a bad Titans team and one of their losses coming to the Jaguars) and the short travel week can’t possibly help that. If they can establish a running game they can keep this close and making it interesting in the fourth quarter, but should the Bengals strike quick, you might be able to catch the new episode of The Big Bang Theory and not worry about this selection.
Soppe Score: Bengals 27 – Browns 13
Kansas City @ Buffalo
In a game that features two quarterbacks with the career label of “game manager”, I think this game comes down to a quarterback making an inopportune mistake. The Bills’ ability to stop the run (just 3.6 yards per carry and the next run they allow of at least 30 yards will be their first) is huge against a Chiefs offense that wants to ride Jamaal Charles to victory, and that should keep them in this game. Where I struggle in picking the Bills is two-fold: their inability to consistently protect Kyle Orton and their vulnerability to the short passing game. No defense in the league has allowed a higher percentage of passes to be completed but fewer yards per pass attempt than Buffalo, a perfect matchup for Alex Smith, the owner of the lowest aDOT (average depth of target) in all of football. As for the pass protection, Kansas City ranks as the fourth-most effective pass rushing team in the NFL, while Buffalo ranks in the bottom third in giving their signal caller time. The Bills should be able to find success on the ground, but with Fred Jackson likely out for another week, the current backfield tandem of Boobie Dixon and Bryce Brown may not be talented enough to beat a Chiefs team that is playing with confidence (5-1 in their last six games after a 0-2 start).
Soppe Score: Chiefs 24 – Bills 18
Miami @ Detroit
I have no reason to lie to you: this was the hardest game of the week for me to pick. The Lions will be rested after their Week 9 bye, while the Dolphins are forced to travel and fight complacency after a dominating shutout victory over the Chargers. Detroit figures to welcome back Calvin Johnson, while Miami’s top receiver (Mike Wallace) has caught just 33 percent of the passes thrown his way over the last two weeks. In addition, starting running back Lamar Miller saw a doctor for a shoulder MRI, which may be a lingering problem if the injury is serious. The difference in this game that tips the scales in the ‘Fins favor is two-fold: their pass coverage and their quarterback. Starting on the defensive side of the ball, it is no mistake that Philip Rivers (one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football over the last 1.5 seasons) completed just 52 percent of his passes (69.1 completion percentage from 2013 prior to last week) and threw three interceptions (three times as many as he threw in September). The combination of an elite pass rush behind Cameron Wake and a pair of physical/experienced corners (Brett Grimes and Cortland Finnegan) should give Matthew Stafford issues and could potentially force a game-changing turnover or two. We know the Lions can shut down almost any running game, but the mobility of Ryan Tannehill (four straight games with at least 47 rushing yards) could give Miami a reasonable presence on the ground and open up things in the passing game. Megatron is likely to be less than 100 percent, making a feisty defense a less than ideal matchup. As long as Lamar Miller starts, Miami continues their march to a wild card spot with an upset victory.
Soppe Score: Dolphins 23 – Lions 20
Dallas @ Jacksonville in London
Have the Cowboys been exposed? Well, no; they are still who we thought they were. This offense relies on a successful running game; I don’t care who is playing quarterback. Tony Romo (back) is going to make the trip, but making the trip and playing are two very different things (especially with the Week 11 bye looming). The Jaguars have given up the fifth-most rushing yards per game and rank as the fifth-worst team in terms of time of possession, stats that spell doom against a Dallas offense that tops the league in both rushing attempts and rushing yards in addition to ranking as the fifth best offense in time of possession. This Cowboys defense is not good and might keep them from succeeding this winter, but it shouldn’t prevent them from bouncing back this weekend, even if Brandon Weeden is under center. At the end of the day, the Cowboys’ strengths and the Jaguars’ weaknesses not only coincide, but they both figure to travel just fine “Across the Pond”.
Soppe Score: Cowboys 27 – Jaguars 13
San Francisco @ New Orleans
Both teams neeeeeeed this game (if my editor would allow for more “e’s”, there would be more) about as much as you could possibly need a Week 10 game. The 49ers gave away a game they had no business losing last week, while the Saints need to win every game at home since they continue to struggle on the road. I’m siding with the team that is doing what they do well at the highest level and that’s New Orleans with their passing game. Drew Brees has thrown for at least 310 yards and multiple touchdowns in three straight non-divisional games, completing 72 percent of his throws over that stretch. On the flip side, San Francisco has been unable to establish their bread and butter behind Frank Gore. They are averaging a mere 3.3 yards per carry over their last three games and this isn’t a pushover Saints run D (ninth fewest rush yards allowed). Colin Kaepernick is playing at a high level, but if this game comes down to quarterback play, San Fran will lose a third consecutive game.
Soppe Score: Saints 30 – 49ers – 24
Tennessee @ Baltimore
The Ravens have lost four games this season, three to divisional opponents and one to an elite quarterback in Andrew Luck. The Titans don’t fit either one of those qualifiers and could well fall in the fashion that non-divisional non-top notch quarterbacks have against Baltimore this season (0-3 with a -81 point differential). The Ravens boast a strong pass rush and are giving up the sixth-fewest yards per carry, so how exactly is this limited Tennessee offense going to move the ball? On offense, Joe Flacco is still capable of stretching the field, but this offense is operating at maximum efficiency when Justin Forsett is running effectively and Owen Daniels is moving the chains in the short passing game. They were blown out by the Steelers last week as they were forced to be one dimensional, something that even a good day from the Titans offense won’t result in. Tennessee’s defense doesn’t give up many big plays, but they are giving up nearly 11 yards per completion, a trend that could burn them against the Super Smith Brothers of Baltimore. The extended rest is nice, but it doesn’t increase the talent on the roster, and that is what it would take for the Titans to win this road game.
Soppe Score: Ravens 27 – Titans 17
Pittsburgh @ New York (Jets)
The hottest offense in the league opposes a defense that has allowed 24 touchdown passes while intercepting just one pass. Need I say more? How about a pass rush for Pittsburgh that ranks as the fourth-best in terms of creating pressure opposing a pass offense that is totaling 13 fewer yards on a per game basis than any other team in the league? The Jets stop the run at a high level, so that’ll be an interesting matchup with Le’Veon Bell (who, in my humble opinion, might be the best running back in football), who is capable of dominating a game. But that matchup might not matter if Ben Roethlisberger is busy throwing six more touchdowns. I don’t think he gets to six, but three should be enough, as the Jets have scored fewer than 20 points in five of their last seven. The only way Gang Green keeps this interesting is if they have one of those 40-carry 200-yard performances on the road … I don’t see it.
Soppe Score: Steelers 31 – Jets 16
Atlanta @ Tampa Bay
Finally, a team coming off of a bye week that I think will win! The knock on Atlanta is that they struggle on the road, and while that is true, Tampa Bay struggles everywhere. Buccaneers fans will argue that they have been a break here and a break there away from winning three games, but the close losses have come against equally poor teams. No defense in the league is allowing opponents to complete a higher percentage of their passes for more yards per pass attempt than the Bucs (they rank as the fourth-worst defense in terms of pass coverage), a concerning statistic given the strong receiving duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White. I can’t tell you that the Falcons defense inspires optimism, but the advantage they own on offense is greater than the disadvantage they possess on defense. Could this be a high scoring affair that makes Fantasy Football owners happy? I think so, and the Buccaneers simply don’t have the firepower to win such a contest.
Soppe Score: Falcons 34 – Buccaneers 24
Denver @ Oakland
Peyton Manning has lost back-to-back games just once in his Broncos career and there is essentially a zero percent chance of that happening at winless Oakland this week. The Raiders battle and will win multiple games this season, but the fact that they are allowing opponents to complete 67 percent of their passes and have only recorded eight sacks all season long make garbage time a likelihood in the second half. This Broncos defense is better than you think (the Tom Brady explosion was the exception, not the rule) and should have a field day pinning their ears back, assuming that their top-ranked defense can nullify any hopes Oakland has of sustaining drives. Most will argue that numbers can tell any story you want them to, but you’re really stretching if you want to make the case against Manning and Company.
Soppe Score: Broncos 38 – Raiders 20
St. Louis @ Arizona
Look at the Rams’ schedule and you’ll notice that they tend to play at the level of the competition. They’ve been blown out by the Vikings and barely edged out the Buccaneers, but they’ve also played the Cowboys to an exciting finish and have beaten the Seahawks and Niners over the past three weeks. That’s all nice and good, but their talent level would indicate that they’ve overachieved in the big wins and underachieved in the games against lesser opponents. The Cardinals come in playing great football, using a physical brand of defense to go along with their balanced offense. No defense is giving up more 20-plus yard rushes than the Rams. A disturbing trend, as Andre Ellington looks as healthy as he has all season long and is demonstrating why most consider him among the most explosive young backs in the game. His ability to attract attention has allowed Carson Palmer to sit back in the pocket and feast on opposing secondaries with multiple touchdown tosses in all five of his games this season. The Cardinals own one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL against the run and have intercepted a league-high 12 passes through eight games. St. Louis was overmatched, on paper, in every facet of the game last week and won … that’ll be the case again this week, but they are playing a far superior team that is playing at a high level. Go ahead and get cute with the “they only play good against good opponents”: I’ll take a peaking elite team at home. Every time.
Soppe Score: Cardinals 31 – Rams 13
New York (Giants) @ Seattle
A short week to play at Seattle? That’s just not nice of the scheduling committee. Now, the Seahawks haven’t been the dominating team that they were a season ago, but they are still capable of shutting down any run game (league-best 3.2 yards per carry against) and that is enough to make this Giants offense ordinary to below average. Look down the Giants’ game log and is no surprise that their success has come when they establish a ground game, something that is a longshot to happen in Week 10. The G-men have played three road games against opponents on full rest, allowing 31 points per game and really not being all that competitive in a single one of those contests. A common trait of those three defeats has been a stable running game (two rushing touchdowns or 150-plus rush yards in each game), the same style of play that Seattle thrives with (Marshawn Lynch has scored seven of his eight touchdowns in victories and is averaging 73.5 percent more carries in wins). Overmatched teams need turnovers to nullify the talent deficit, but with Seattle only committing three turnovers this season (half the total of any other offense in the NFL), it is hard to imagine the home team giving away points.
Soppe Score: Seahawks 24 – Giants 10
Chicago @ Green Bay
The longest rivalry in football is renewed in prime time at Lambeau Field with both teams fresh off of a bye week. For Fantasy Football owners, that should mean that we see fresh skill position players and plenty of numbers, a style of play that favors the team with the more consistent leader: Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers was playing at an elite level prior to running into a buzzsaw in New Orleans, and with the bye week, it seems that most have forgotten that it wasn’t long ago that he had gone 211 passes without an interception. Eddie Lacy has been better of late and should at least be able to take advantage of an average run defense that figures to put more men in coverage than on the line of scrimmage. The Bears’ offense should have their way with the Green Bay defense, but with the Packers secondary having time to get their starters back, I don’t expect Jay Cutler to play mistake free football. Chicago is better than what they have shown this season, but shootouts rarely end in the favor of the team that commits the most turnovers, and the odds are simply higher of Cutler making that momentum swinging error.
Soppe Score: Packers 34 – Bears 26
Carolina @ Philadelphia
Are the Panthers any good? We get another chance to answer that question this week, as they catch a break in facing the Eagles with Mark Sanchez under center. That said, if Carolina continues to get burned on the ground, Sanchez’s handoff form may be the only thing we get to critique. LeSean McCoy has touched the ball at least 24 times in four straight (the Eagles lone loss during that streak came against the elite run defense of Arizona), a favorable trend against a run defense that ranks among the two worst units in terms of yards, yards per carry, and touchdowns. On the flip side, the Eagles have recovered as many fumbles in the running game as rushing touchdowns and are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just a league-low 56.5 percent of their passes (a rate that Cam Newton has failed to reach in five of his last six games). The athletic ability of Newton and big-play upside of Kelvin Benjamin could keep Carolina close, but even with a backup quarterback, this Eagles team matches up well and should win for the fourth time in five games.
Soppe Score: Eagles 31 – Panthers 23