Saturday, September 26, 2020


      The first week of Purple Nightmare picks went about as well as one could have hoped.  We went 13-1 with the lone incorrect outcome from Monday night's Saints-Raiders game, but I shouldn't pat myself on the back too enthusiastically as most of last week's games were not terribly competitive matchups.  This week, however, appears to be a far greater challenge.  As I look over the schedule for the week, nine games jump out at me as fairly evenly matched, and thus, difficult to predict.  Mind you, we're still in the first quarter of the season, so we have such a limited sample of statistics from which to derive conclusions.  We shall, nevertheless, press on and see which teams emerge as true contenders by the end of the week.

         No game will be as highly anticipated as the Chiefs-Ravens game on Monday night.  Both teams are not only unbeaten but also led by sensational young quarterbacks that appear on track to be the future premier rival AFC gunslingers for years to come much the way Tom Brady and Peyton Manning held that position for roughly a decade and a half.  Oddly enough, Lamar and Patrick aren't so different from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady even if their play styles contrast heavily.  Tom Brady led his team to a Super Bowl and won Super Bowl MVP in his first season as a starter.  Patrick Mahomes led his team to Super Bowl victory in his second season as a starter, and he too took home MVP honors after the game.  Peyton Manning won league MVP twice early in his career before finally reaching and winning a Super Bowl against the Bears in early 2007.  Lamar won league MVP in his first full season as a starter, but like Peyton Manning, has struggled in the post season early in his career thus far.  That doesn't mean he can't break that trend this season, but one must admit that there are curious similarities between the two pairs of stars.  

     Like Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes is guided by a head coach whose system tends to help mold and elevate young quarterbacks.  Lamar's head coach is no such guru, but he certainly hired one in Greg Roman.  Roman has a knack for designing a playbook around the talents of athletic quarterbacks.  He coordinated Colin Kaepernick to a Super Bowl that the 49ers came yards away from winning, and he guided Tyrod Taylor to a season that earned Pro Bowl honors in 2015 when Roman was offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.  I must admit that after last post-season's first round playoff exit, I wondered if Lamar simply couldn't win a game when he had to come from behind.  When playing with a deficit, most teams are forced to largely abandon the run and rely upon the passing game to score quickly while conserving the clock.  It didn't appear as though Lamar was at the stage in his development last season that he could put the team on his back and come back against a Titans team that found success chewing up the clock with a strong rushing attack from Derrick Henry.  It easily also could have had to do with drops and poor performance from his receiving targets, but for whatever the reason, the Ravens just couldn't seem to put the ball in the endzone often enough last post-season.

     Week 1 of the 2020 season certainly showed that Lamar Jackson is capable of taking over a game with his arm when a team has committed to stopping the Ravens rushing attack.  It must be noted that the Browns secondary was missing notable starters, and the Ravens likely knew they were going to spend most of the afternoon attacking Cleveland's apparent weakness.  As luck would have it, the Chiefs suffered injuries to defensive pieces as of late, and without defensive end Alex Okafor, starting defensive tackle Khalen Saunders, and starting cornerback Charvarius Ward, the Chiefs were weakened to the point where they were taken to overtime by an unquestionably inferior Chargers team.  It seems reasonable to conclude that if the Chargers can take the Chiefs into overtime, the Ravens should be able to do significantly better.  The Ravens' biggest worry will be slowing down the Chiefs explosive offense.  Patrick Mahomes can make every conceivable throw, and he has no shortage of impossibly fasts target to which to distribute the football.   The Ravens have two top-level cornerbacks, but they'll need more than that to slow down a Chiefs offense that also boasts an all-world tight end.  The Ravens can't expect to keep the Chiefs out of the end zone most of the day the way they did with the Texans and Browns, but they can aim to outscore Mahomes and company if they can simply force a handful of key stops with a turnover or two added into the mix.

     The Chiefs succeeded in taking away the Ravens rushing attack last season, and Lamar struggled to mount drives until there wasn't quite enough time to truly overcome the deficit.  Greg Roman will always try to establish the run, but if the Chiefs commit to stopping it early this time around, Roman knows he can trust Lamar to attack the Chiefs' uneven secondary.  The strategy for this week may very well be to use the pass to open up the run rather than the other way around.  The beautiful thing is that Lamar finally appears ready and more than capable of attacking a defense no matter where it appears weakest.

      The Chiefs are not nearly the only team dealing with key injuries.  Major and season-ending injuries swept across the league last Sunday, and they must be taken into account as we examine each upcoming contest.  For the Ravens, last Sunday saw the loss of starting nickel corner, Tavon Young, but many other teams lost even more pivotal players.  The Giants lost Saquon Barkley while the 49ers lost Nick Bosa to an ACL tear and could be without Jimmy Garoppolo for the foreseeable future due to a high ankle sprain.  The Broncos were hit equally hard with the loss of Von Miller and the 3-5 week loss of starting quarterback Drew Lock. One has to wonder if the shortened, unconventional off-season contributed to the calamitous rash of early injuries, but I suppose there is no way to draw definitive conclusions.

      I write this as I watch the Dolphins unexpectedly suffocate the Jaguars.  I had planned to pick the Jaguars to win, so we'll count this one as a loss in the predictions column.  With that said, let's get to the picks!


BEARS AT FALCONS-  The Bears had a single player listed on their injury report this week.  The problem is that he is one of the top 5 defensive players in the NFL.  Khalil Mack was limited in practice for the second straight day, but I would be shocked if he didn't play on Sunday.  The Bears are 2-0, but I was not exactly blown away by either of their wins.  Most recently the Bears squeaked by a Giants team that lost Saquon Barkley.  The Falcons, on the other hand, lost an impossibly frustrating game to the Cowboys last week with a score that I've never seen in a professional football game before: 40-39.  The Falcons seem content to just not play defense, but do not believe the bears will be able to keep up with the Falcons from an offensive standpoint.  Old Matty Ice is finally going to win won.  FALCONS 31-27

RAMS AT BILLS- The Rams showed they can go on the road and annihilate another NFC team last week with a 37-19 win over the Eagles in Philly.  The Bills, meanwhile, held their own in wins over two of their 3 divisional opponents, but neither one of those was the Patriots.  One thing is for sure, the Bills defense does not appear to be nearly as strong as the thunderous unit from last season against which even Lamar Jackson and company struggled to consistently move the football.  Despite their undefeated record thus far, I'm going to need to see more from the Bills before I can pick them to beat another undefeated team like the Rams.  RAMS 27-20

WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM AT BROWNS- The Browns have enough playmakers to shred a secondary as thin as Washington's.  The team formerly known as the Redskins mustered a thunderous pass rush in Week 1 to come from behind and beat the Eagles, but their secondary was still repeatedly exposed.  The Skins do not have defensive backs capable of shutting down Jarvis Landry and OBJ.  They'll have enough trouble dealing with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to take pressure off of Baker Mayfield and offer the third ear QB some clean shots deep downfield.  BROWNS 28-14

TITANS AT VIKINGS- It's difficult to see the Vikings stopping the Titans.  They have yet to put the brakes on any opponent, and the Titans are red-hot.  TITANS 38-20

RAIDERS AT PATRIOTS- The Patriots will take a big step up this week.  They lost an impossibly close game in Seattle last week, and although the Raiders looked strong in their win over the Saints, I also don't believe the Saints are an elite team anymore.  This one will be close though. PATRIOTS 34-27

49ERS AT GIANTS- The 49ers are without Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, and Nick Bosa, and the Giants are without Saquan Barkley. The 49ers are going on the road against a bad team, but they're probably missing too many integral cogs in their system to win a game right now.  GIANTS 20-14

BENGALS AT EAGLES- In a matchup between two winless teams, it would make sense to give an edge to the home team, but the Bengals have been highly competitive in both of their losses, while the Eagles have been beaten like a drum.  I'm not sure how this team has fallen so hard from a Super Bowl win in the recent past.  They even made the playoffs last season.  Joe Burrow will find his footing and Joe Mixon will rumble for 100+ yards in the first win for Cincy in 2020.  BENGALS 26-17

TEXANS AT STEELERS- The Texans have some nice receivers and a talented young quarterback, but their offensive line won't be able to give him enough time to find open receivers against this Steelers defense.  The Steelers barely beat a wounded Broncos team last week, but they'll continue to get better as Ben Roethlisberger continues to round back into form.  STEELERS 28-14

JETS AT COLTS- This is one of the few easy predictions.  The Jets don't have enough around Darnold to make an honest go of this season.  The Colts aren't Super Bowl contenders, but they'll win 8 games.  COLTS 31-20

PANTHERS AT CHARGERS- The Chargers took one of the top teams in the league down to the wire last weekend, and the Panthers have had an embarrassing start to the season.  It's tough to imagine the Panthers traveling all the way across the country to get their first win against an objectively better team.  CHARGERS 21-17

BUCCANNERS AT BRONCOS- The Bucs will continue to improve this week over a severely wounded Broncos team.  Brady might even finally find rhythm with Gronk.  BUCCANEERS 35-21

LIONS AT CARDINALS- The Lions are atrocious again, and I maintain my lofty opinion of the Cardinals from the beginning of the season.  I don't know whether to characterize Matthew Stafford's career as a mountain of wasted potential or a total farce...or both.  Either way, they're not going on the road and upsetting one of the top teams in the league.  Kyler Murray will find more rhythm through the air this week.  CARDINALS 24-13

COWBOYS AT SEAHAWKS- Russell Wilson is playing at too high a level right now to lose a home game to a team that just gave up 39 points to the Falcons.  The Cowboys look as though they'll likely win  the absolute worst division in the league, but they'll win that division with 8-9 wins--tops.  This will still be a close one. SEAHAWKS 33-30

PACKERS AT SAINTS- Aaron Rodgers is still an elite quarterback, and he appears to be gunning for MVP honors thus far.  Drew Brees is no longer that guy, but he has impressive weapons.  This will almost certainly be the NFC's shootout of the week.  I don't expect a ton of defense to be played, and the game likely won't be decided until final 2-4 minutes.  PACKERS 38-35

CHIEFS AT RAVENS- The loss of Tavon Young certainly hurts the Ravens as they face one of the fastest offenses in the league.  The ace up the Ravens sleeve will actually be their former top shutdown corner, Jimmy Smith.  Jimmy possesses the length and strength to be able to both jam and cover Travis Kelce.  Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters will be tasked with covering Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins, while Anthony Averett will likely cover Demarcus Robinson.  Averett is the weak link in this chain, but I worry more able safety play against the elite speed of the likes of Hill.  Chuck Clark is solid in coverage, but DeShon Elliot still struggles at times despite his willingness to lay the wood at a level that Earl Thomas simply isn't capable or willing at this point in his career.  Patrick Mahomes' ability to throw accurately on the run will make life incredibly difficult to a Ravens defensive front that has already struggled to get consistent pressure on lesser quarterbacks.  With that said, the Chiefs defense doesn't possess a J.J. Watt or even a Whitney Mercilus type player to present problems to Lamar.  The Ravens can attack the Chiefs defense in ways they couldn't manage to last year, and they're just as explosive as the Chiefs, if not more so.  The major difference will be the Ravens ability to get several key stops and 1-2 pivotal turnovers.  This is a Ravens defense that has already limited a host of high-level receivers over the first two weeks of this season.  This will be a tougher test, but Baltimore is currently the more complete team.  RAVENS 31-24





Sunday, September 20, 2020


      I sit here writing these as we watch the Browns take it to the clearly useless Bengals, and I must apologize for not having released these in time to have predicted the outcome of that game prior to it beginning.  For what it's worth, I would have picked the Browns, but in a much closer game.  

     Cleveland's offense clicking on a short week answers some questions I had following Sunday's blowout loss to the Ravens.  The Browns are, as I mentioned several days ago, absolutely loaded with top tier weapons.  Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb are two of the best backs in the league and they happen to be on the same team. Neither Odell Beckham Jr. nor Jarvis Landry needs any introduction. The question that remained after Sunday was whether or not Baker Mayfield simply isn't good enough to get these weapons the ball, or if the Ravens defensive backfield is truly as good as advertised.  Considering how little pass rush the Ravens got from Matt Judon and Jaylon Ferguson, I think it's safe to say that the 83 yards that Landry and Beckham Jr. combined to total on 16 targets are a testament to the elite coverage skills of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters--oh, and it doesn't hurt to have a healthy Tavon Young back too.  That trio is easily the best group of corners in the NFL (fight me), and the fact that Hunt, Landry, Beckham Jr., and Chubb were all kept out of the end zone in a 38-6 rout last weekend means the glaring issues with the Ravens probably aren't as worrisome as I may have thought.  After all, that same Browns offense is currently up 28-13 as I type this.

    The Bengals are also not exactly devoid of playmakers.  Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, Giovanni Bernard, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and John Ross offer a level of speed and elusiveness that on paper should scare teams.  Joe Burrow has also displayed some talent despite likely going 0-2 in his first two starts.  I fully expect the Bengals to find themselves at the bottom of the AFC North by the end of the season, but they've got more than enough to build around within the next few years.  Bottom line: the Browns and Bengals each have a host of weapons and young talent at the quarterback position that should allow them to both prove at least solid teams this season, and the Ravens are likely just that much better. 

    I can't say the Texans showed much in their first game to scare the Ravens, but this Sunday's game will show how the Ravens are able to perform in their first road matchup.  The Texans no longer possess one of the most explosive wide receivers in the league as DeAndre Hopkins is now an Arizona Cardinal, and his presence last year did not seem to mean much as Houston was blown out in a trip to Baltimore.  That isn't to say there aren't still formidable receivers on the Texans roster.  Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Kenny Stills, and Will Fuller are all quality targets, but they didn't exactly light it up against a Chiefs secondary that possesses far less clout than that of Baltimore's.  David Johnson had a solid performance on the ground with 77 rushing yards on 11 carries, but his yards per carry average over the past three season has been an underwhelming 3.6.  The Ravens will face an unquestionably better quarterback in DeShaun Watson than they did last week with Baker Mayfield, and this will be a chance for the Ravens edge rushers to redeem themselves against an elusive target.  It will also be a chance for the Ravens rushing attack to find its footing and help grind clock late if Baltimore finds itself with a lead.

     The one AFC North team I have yet to mention has a good opportunity to show that it can do more than just pull away late from the rebuilding New York Giants.  The Steelers host a Broncos squad that just lost a painfully close game to the Titans.  This is a game the Steelers absolutely should win, but how they perform will tell us much about their potential to contend for the AFC North Crown that they relinquished two years ago.  Big Ben is still a wily playmaker, and the Steelers defense may be one of the top if not the top unit in the league this season.  I reserve my judgement for a larger statistical sample size before making that pronouncement because it's still the same defense that lost to the Ravens backups last year 28-10 when their playoff hopes were on the line and Baltimore rested its starters.  That same Steelers defense allowed Gus Edwards to rumble for 130 yards on the ground without Lamar on the field to present a threat to run the ball himself.  With that said, having Ben Roethlisberger back to sustain and finish drives does much to keep a defense rested, and James Conner and/or Benny Snell Jr. should be able to take enough pressure off Ben and help chew up clock.  I can't say at first glance that I believe this Steelers team to be as explosive as it was a few years ago with Antonio Brown and Le'veon Bell, but the defense is certainly improved to the point where they appear to be getting back to the old Pittsburgh formula for success of a strong rushing attack and being hard-nosed on the other side of the ball.  Not that I don't enjoy the Ravens sweeping Pittsburgh, but it honestly would be nice to see Ravens-Steelers get back to violently aggressive slugfests decided by a field goal in the waning moments.  Ok, let's get to the picks!


GIANTS AT BEARS- The Bears had a nice road win last week over the Lions, and Mitch Trubisky had a decent enough showing to convince me that they'll be able to grind out a solid win over the Giants this Sunday. BEARS 24-17

FALCONS AT COWBOYS- Despite having the player with the greatest name in the NFL, Younghoe Koo, the Falcons are a constant disappointment.  Matt Ryan has had faaaar too many elite receiving weapons over the course of his career to be this inconsistent.  The Falcons have never struck me as a team that travels particularly well, and they allowed Russell Wilson to be too successful through the air last week to let me believe they'll be able to slow down Dak and company on the Cowboys' turf.  Tough to envision much defense in this matchup.  COWBOYS 33-27

LIONS AT PACKERS- Aaron Rodgers appears so incredibly motivated by his franchise drafting his presumptive successor that he began the season showing why he's still unquestionably elite.  The Lions are starting a 147 year old man at running back, and don't give me any reason to believe they can go into Green Bay and win this game.  PACKERS 38-20

JAGUARS AT TITANS- I was rather shocked that the Titans only barely edged the Broncos last week, and though Tennessee is the overwhelming favorite to win this game, I have a feeling it'll be far closer than their fans would prefer.  TITANS 20-17

VIKINGS AT COLTS- I thought the Colts might look decent with Philip Rivers out there--I was mistaken.  Rivers threw a single touchdown and a pair of picks last week, and it might take him a little while to really develop chemistry with this receiving corps after spending a decade and a half with another team.  The Vikings produced enough offense to win most football games last week, but they allowed a dismal 43 points.  It's hard to believe how hard the Vikings defense has fallen from the scariest unit in the league only a few seasons ago to the disaster that took the field last week.  Let's just have some fun and say that this is a week that Philip Rivers wins a shootout at home.  COLTS 35-28

BILLS AT DOLPHINS-  The Bills are too strong up front on both sides of the ball and too defensively stout to lose to a Dolphins team that managed to put up 11 points in their opener last week.  BILLS 23-13

49ERS AT JETS-  It's kind of difficult to know what to make of the 49ers after a season-opening loss to the Cardinals, but I also believe the Cardinals are going to be a serious Super Bowl contender this season with the addition of DeAndre Hopkins and as Kyler Murray continues to develop.  The Jets simply don't have serious weapons surrounding Sam Darnold.  They vastly overpaid for an overrated (that's right, I said it) aging Le'veon Bell, and their receiving corps is filled with no-name players and draft busts.  49ERS 31-14

RAMS AT EAGLES- There was a point last weekend where it looked like the Eagles were a solid team trouncing a perpetually rebuilding Washington Football Team.  That simply didn't last long.  Carson Wentz found himself running from his life, and it's tough to assume Aaron Donald and company won't be able to harass him to no end as well.  I don't, however, expect this to be a blowout. RAMS 24-20

BRONCOS AT STEELERS-  I am not nearly as high on the Steelers as some people I know, but theit defense should be able to limit the Broncos to under 20 points, and the offense will find its rhythm in the second half.  Losing Von Miller was a big deal, and it likely killed any shot the Broncos had of being some kind of surprise playoff team.  STEELERS 30-17

PANTHERS AT BUCCANEERS- I have made it no secret that I don't expect this group of thrown-together big names to suddenly turn into a Super Bowl contender.  Tom Brady has already been on a serious decline for two years coming into this season, and that was all within a finely-tuned system with which he was familiar on an unprecedented level in football terms.  Losing on the road to the Saints is no reason to hang one's head, but the WAY Brady lost was rather telling.  With that said, the Panthers likely don't have the defensive clout to stop the Buccaneers from eventually getting into a rhythm and mounting 3-4 successful second half scoring drives.  Allowing the Raiders to score 34 points on them at home last week didn't exactly instill confidence.  BUCCANEERS 35-24

REDSKINS AT CARDINALS- The Redskins showed some impressive ability to get to the quarterback last week, but their secondary looked unimaginably bad.  The Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins connection should be off the charts today, and the Cardinals will further solidify their status as one of the best teams in the NFC.  This doesn't mean the Redskins won't still win some games; they just happen to be traveling across country to play one of the best teams in their conference.  CARDINALS 27-17

CHIEFS AT CHARGERS- The Bengals just allowed the Browns to score 35 points.  The Chargers barely beat those same Bengals 13-10.  The Chargers simply won't be able to hang with the Kansas City offensively.  CHIEFS 42-16

RAVENS AT TEXANS- The Ravens will be seriously challenged soon, but it won't be this week.  The Texans will give solid effort for about the first 3rd of this game, but they looked utterly confused facing the Ravens last season, and they haven't upgraded their roster enough to give me reason to believe they'll be any different this season.  They do still have some solid receivers, but the Ravens shut down a pair of elite receivers last week.  Fortunately for Baltimore, both Ronnie Stanley and Jimmy Smith returned to practice over the course of the week and appear ready to go.  Coach Greg Roman was not please with the ground attack last week, and I expect him to give plenty of carries to J.K. Dobbins after the rookie scored two touchdowns in his NFL debut.  We'll see how this balanced attack compares with what the Chiefs were able to do to the Texans in Week 1, but I also expect the Ravens defense to limit the Texans much more effectively than the Chiefs.  RAVENS 31-13

PATRIOTS AT SEAHAWKS- Cam Newton did a nice job of getting back to winning in Week 1, but Russell Wilson has been my objective favorite quarterback in the league for years, and he has never been afraid to face the Patriots defense.  This will be Wilson's 4th time facing the the mind of Bill Belichick, and Bill has only come out on top once--it just happened to be in the Super Bowl.  Newton is not yet to the point in that system where he can lead several rapid scoring drives like Brady did for years.  Wilson, on the other hand, is more than capable of doing exactly that at home, and he's even done it against the Patriots more than once.  I don't enjoy it when the Seahawks have beaten the Ravens in the past, but I otherwise love to watch Russell Wilson play and am happy to see Lamar developing into a similar type of duel threat player.  This is still a strong Patriots defense though, so I don't expect and utter blowout.  SEAHAWKS 26-20

SAINTS AT RAIDERS- They may have beaten up on the Buccaneers at home, but the Saints typically struggle as a road team.  The Raiders are a bit banged up with injuries to their starting right tackle and his backup.  The Saints are unquestionably a better team, but they're going to struggle to pull away in this game. SAINTS 24-21

     We're still in the opening month of the NFL season, and no appreciable amount of statistics currently exists to really make more educated predictions, but we'll have fun seeing which teams emerge over the next few weeks as true playoff contenders.




Tuesday, September 15, 2020


      I resisted the temptation to write predictions for the first week of the 2020 NFL season because the total lack of a preseason not only deprived us of a look at all of the teams, but also because each organization was unable to go through the usual process to prepare in the month leading up to their respective regular season openers.  It is, after all, wise to avoid crowning a team as champion based solely on big name play-makers on its roster.  Football is a sport wherein preparation, chemistry, and schematic fine tuning can absolutely outweigh pure athletic talent.  In most cases, one cannot simply emulate Lebron James and recruit several superstars to immediately dominate the league.  There are cases where a big name free agent can fill a major hole in an otherwise strong team and elevate the organization to new heights the way Randy Moss did with the Patriots in 2007. There are even rarer occasions where a transcendent leader can arrive at a new team and bestow his experience and maybe even his own system upon his new squad to bring unparalleled success the way Peyton Manning did with the Broncos in 2012 and his offensive record-setting 2013 season.  

     The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have thought they were getting just such a transcendent leader in Tom Brady, and I am sure they thought surrounding him with weapons such as Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans, and Leonard Fournette would give him everything he needed to immediately catapult the Bucs into contender status, but Brady looked uncharacteristically out of sync with his targets yesterday.  I refuse to count him out purely based on his performance in Week 1 as Brady often struggled through the first 3 to 4 weeks of many seasons with the Patriots before making adjustments and dominating the rest of the way, but anyone looking to crown the Buccaneers as Super Bowl champs prior to the season must temper their expectations.  

     The Cleveland Browns are quite familiar with the temptation to prematurely celebrate their success because of major free agent acquisitions.  After a strong 2018 rookie campaign, many thought Baker Mayfield would run the league with the additions of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.  Reality shattered their hopes, however, as the Browns' 2019 season was a disaster, and yesterday's blowout loss to the Ravens offered even more evidence that one simply cannot underscore the importance of quality coaching and consistently strong drafting.  One announcer remarked yesterday that 45 of the 53 players on the Ravens roster were, in fact, drafted by the Ravens.  It did not matter that the Browns have two formerly elite wide receivers who should both still be in their athletic primes.  The Ravens got far better production out of a receiving corps that consisted of 3 wide receivers and a tight end on their rookie contracts.  Even the Ravens rookie running back J.K. Dobbins found his way into the end zone twice on Sunday.

     With all of that said, one must resist the temptation to crown the Ravens Super Bowl champs after a big first win.  The first 4 weeks of a season are not typically indicative of how strong a team will be late in a season for a few major reasons.  The first reason is that no one has seen the team on film in Week 1, and teams later in the season have far more film to utilize in preparation to thwart anything particularly gimmicky that may have caught other teams off guard early on.  The second reason is that no team returns all its players and staff from one year to the next, and even WITH a preseason it can still take several games for players to develop chemistry and for a system to be executed smoothly.  The third reason is that injuries can totally change a team--especially with a running quarterback.  I must admit that I was worried the Ravens would trot out the same run-heavy offense yesterday that would ultimately lead to a violent injury to Lamar Jackson at some point.  The Ravens rushing attack, instead, looked uncharacteristically weak.  Lamar was often bottled up when he tried to find room to run, and Mark Ingram seldom broke off a run for more than just 2-4 yards.  If you had told me that would be the case before the game, I would have predicted a Ravens loss, but just the opposite took place.

     Lamar Jackson took control of his offense through the air and absolutely shredded the Browns defense to the tune of 275 passing yards and 3 passing touchdowns with no interceptions, and he did so without even just 30 rushing yards from any running back on his team.  Jackson, actually led the team himself with 45 rushing yards, but his ungodly completion percentage of 80% was the statistic that proved particularly impressive.  The touch on Jackson's passes was consistently superb despite often having to throw on the run.  Suffice it to say, this is the big step up we all wanted to see from the young superstar to allow him to grow into a complete quarterback capable of aggressively attacking a defense even when the Ravens rushing attack sputters.

    The Ravens rush defense performed equally poorly to the rush offense on Sunday.  Forget the fact that the Browns only scored 6 points; they still managed to amass just shy of 140 rushing yards.  That stat is totally unacceptable and presumably correctable, but it was baffling to see a team gash Baltimore on the ground after the disappointing first round home playoff loss from last season to the Titans came in large part because Derrick Henry rumbled for 195 yards and embarrassed a team that has long prided itself on being stout against the run.  I assumed the much of the Ravens' off season would have been devoted to making sure nothing like that would happen again in the foreseeable future.  That is not to say the Browns do not have two elite power running backs in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, but elite running backs have seldom found success running the football against the Ravens in the past.  The Ravens once again appear particularly vulnerable to outside runs.  The 49ers first exposed that apparent weakness last season in what turned out to be a hard-fought win for Lamar and company, but San Fran provided a blueprint for how to attack an otherwise statistically elite Ravens defense.  

     It should not come as any surprise that the Ravens struggled against the run, particularly early.  Baltimore is young and relatively in experienced at the linebacker position.  Patrick Queen performed well for his first ever NFL game, but it will take time for the game to slow down for him to the point where he can truly utilize his outrageous speed and athleticism to carry out the tradition of the great run-stuffing middle backers that came before him in Ray Lewis and more recently C.J. Mosley.  The Ravens outside linebackers were particularly disappointing.  Matthew Judon and Jaylon Ferguson combined for 5 total tackles, zero sacks, and little in the way of pressure despite the Browns starting a backup offensive tackle.  I would be shocked if Baltimore's personnel department was not currently looking to sign a veteran pass rushing outside backer who also knows how to set the edge.  Things have not quite been the same in that department since Suggs became old and ultimately departed.  The acquisitions of Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell proved immediately impact with multiple passes defensed between the two, but their presence must be complimented by consistent pressure off the edge as the Ravens face far more impressive quarterbacks than Baker Mayfield as the season presses onward. 

     Regardless of the host of issues on display last Sunday, the Ravens still absolutely obliterated a divisional rival with two elite wide receivers and two explosive top 10 caliber running backs.  The Ravens young receiving corps looked up to the task despite the absence of a wily veteran the likes of whom the Ravens have typically relied upon in the past with such names as Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith Sr., and Mike Wallace.  Hollywood Brown caught for more than 100 yards, Mark Andrews and Willy Snead combined for 3 touchdowns, and both Miles Boykin and Devin Duvernay occasionally got in on the action.  The fact that the Ravens were that dominant despite their glaring issues only means their ceiling on the season should be quite lofty.  Harbaugh's squad will have a great chance to correct many of the major issues against a Texans team that should not scare anyone without DeAndre Hopkins next Sunday before the Chiefs come to Baltimore the following week for a matchup that will undoubtedly establish conference supremacy in the minds of many fans and sports analysts.   Stay tuned later this week for Week 2 predictions!






Saturday, January 5, 2019


     There has only been two weeks since the Ravens faced the Chargers in L.A., and somehow it doesn't matter that Philip Rivers has historically had almost no success in the playoffs; many pundits still predict a win for a team that just lost at home to the Ravens 22-10.  It's not that the Chargers aren't a good team--they are.  It's simply that they lack what it takes to beat the Ravens: a reasonably mobile quarterback.

     Evading the Ravens pressure is no easy feat, but it certainly has been done this season.  Patrick Mahomes did it juuuust enough to make one more play than the Ravens needed to allow to win in Kansas City, and Drew Brees did it repeatedly on 3rd and 4th downs to find Michael Thomas for critical drive-extending passes that ultimately made the difference in a game the Ravens lost by a single point.  Two weeks ago, however, the Philip Rivers found no such luck.  He looked slow and utterly bewildered by the ways the Ravens brought pressure to the point that his otherwise high-flying offense was held to a pedestrian 10 points.

     It's highly likely that the Chargers will attempt to run an up-tempo offense in hopes of getting the Ravens defense on its heels and to prevent Baltimore from executing more sophisticated blitzes, but that will likely be hindered by deafening noise from what may prove to be one of the most motivated, raucous crowds in recent Ravens home game history.  Beyond crowd noise, this game will feel as though it's being played at 10:00 AM for the Chargers as they are traveling nearly 3000 miles to play a 1:00PM game in the Eastern time zone.  No one should be surprised if a team used to playing in southern California struggles to find an offensive rhythm against the top defense in the league in a cold, wet playoff environment in what functionally feels like the morning to them.

     I have heard all week how the Chargers will have figured out the Ravens offense having already faced it once before.  I am not entirely sure how they have some kind of advantage on that front considering the Ravens have also already seen the Chargers offense and will have had even more time to prepare for it as the Ravens never had to take a day to travel for this game.  It certainly does make me nervous that Lamar Jackson has struggled to finish drives, but the Ravens still managed to dominate in total yards with 361 versus a disappointing 198 for the Chargers.  The Ravens also had a slightly greater number of first downs and won the time of possession battle.

     Despite appearing to be the better team nearly all night in their last meeting with the Chargers, the Ravens still found themselves being driven on by Philips Rivers and company before Patrick Onwassor had one of the most timely forced fumbles taken back for a touchdown in Ravens team history.  The same was true last week against the Browns when it took an interception on 4th down to beat a Browns team that came storming back to make the city of Baltimore hold its collective breath.  I would say that these isolated occurrences, but critical turnovers and defensive points have been so frequent in the second half of this season that they seem likely rather than lucky.

     Many would point to the Ravens offense's ability to sustain drives and keep its defense well-rested and off the field as a reason for an increase in big-time impact defensive plays.  I'm sure that has played a major factor, but I would actually point to the fact that this is the first stretch this season where both a healthy Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey have taken the field together.  Before Lamar Jackson took over as starting quarterback, the Ravens had a healthy Marlon until he was injured.  With Marlon out, the Ravens turned to Jimmy Smith, but he struggled in his first few weeks back and didn't start to round into form until he had played for about a month.  As Jimmy got back up to speed and Marlon returned to the field, the Ravens defense suddenly started to look like the dominant unit it should have been all year, and having a pair of quality corners on the outside goes a long way to allow your pass-rushers to hunt and allows a defensive coordinator to bring pressure with more confidence.

     There's simply no way the Chargers have gotten so significantly better in two weeks that they'll be able to totally flip the script of the last game and dominate the Ravens--right?  Well there is one factor that must be accounted for when analyzing the Ravens: fumbles.  Lamar Jackson has had a troubling number of fumbles that have stifled drives and allowed games to stay much closer than they could be.  The fumble at the goal line last week against the Browns was baffling as it was only inches away from being a touchdown had Lamar not perplexingly pulled the ball back just as it was about to break the plane of the end zone.  A major focus this week by the Ravens staff has to be reduce the odds of such mistakes and utilizing running backs and receivers more to take the pressure off of Lamar.  The Ravens won the turnover battle 3-1 last time they played the Chargers, and they need to do it again.

     I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm not worried because even if the Chargers come out swinging and the Ravens find themselves down by 10-14 points late, they still have a quarterback sitting on the sidelines who can run an effective two-minute drill and is has ice in his veins in the playoffs.  I'm confident the Ravens won't be forced to resort to putting Flacco back in, but if they need him, he's there.  In the end, that's the reason the Ravens can run the offense they run without fear that they lose their starting quarterback.  If they do lose their starting quarterback...well they have their starting quarterback who has more playoff wins than any quarterback in the league other than Tom Brady right now.  Whatever happens here, the Ravens are prepared.

RAVENS 23-17




     With the exception of the Patriots, no team has had as much post-season success during this decade as the Seahawks.  There was a time where Seattle's success seemed to be securely rooted in its defensive prowess with a historically outrageous amount of talent suffocating even historically great offenses such as that of the 2013 Denver Broncos.  The legendary Legion of Boom is, however, now a thing of the past with nearly all of its members retired or on different teams.  It is because of this Pete Carroll should be revered for his ability to overcome the loss of some of the biggest names in the game and find away to redefine the identity of his team, overcome a poor start to the season, and ultimately earn a playoff berth.

     The Dallas Cowboys had to overcome a similarly poor start to their own season to find their way to a division championship and a home playoff game.  Their offense finished ranked a disappointing 22nd in the league in both yards and points per game, but Dallas' defense finished the season ranked an impressive 7th.  Dallas' offensive ranking, however, is at least somewhat misleading as their ability to move the football changed drastically following a trade for Amari Cooper.  It wasn't necessarily an increase in the Cowboys' average points per game, because that was itself a misleading statistic prior to the arrival of Cooper as the Cowboys produced big time against poor opponents during their few early victories, but they produced little against almost anyone else.  Instead one could look to the quality of opponent the Cowboys were finding a way to beat.  With better offensive production, their offense sustained drives and kept their defense fresher.  The Cowboys held the electric Saints offense to a shocking 10 points, and the Cowboys offense give them enough support to sweep the playoff-bound Eagles, and put up major points in always-tough divisional matchups against the Redskins and Giants. 

     The Seahawks experienced their own offensive upswing, but they did so seemingly on the sheer will of Russell Wilson who I contend might actually be the most valuable quarterback in the NFL at this point regardless of impressive performances by the likes of Brees, Brady, and Rodgers on any given year.  After narrow losses to the powerhouse Chargers and Rams, the Seahawks went on 5-1 run to finish their season in which they averaged an outrageous 34.83 points.  The Seahawks even put up a monster 38 points on the Chiefs in a game wherein Wilson out-dueled the sensational Patrick Mahomes. 

     Now the Seahawks and Cowboys did  meet earlier this season, but the Cowboys were still without Amari Cooper and had not yet found their groove.  That game was also on the road in Seattle, and few football fans are unaware of exactly what a difficult road environment it typically is.  The Seahawks will not have the advantage of a thunderous crowd behind them, and they won't have any remnants of the legion of boom to help shut down a revived Dallas offense.  What will the Seahawks have?  They will have Russell Wilson, his underrated receivers, and the league's top rushing attack (the Ravens are ranked 2nd).  They will have an offense that has found a way to score on even the elite defense of the Vikings while putting up major points on lesser teams such as the 49ers. 

     The Cowboys will come to this fight with their guns loaded and shouldn't themselves be underestimated.  The Cowboys only lost a single game at home this season.  Their road record is significantly worse, and that may come into play should they move on to the next round, but tonight is the game is in Arlington.  Dak Prescott isn't remotely as talented as Russell Wilson, but he has an impressive running back to help take pressure off of him and just enough receiving weapons to whom he can distribute the ball.  Add to that a defense that has stifled some impressive offenses this year and you officially have a more balanced team that the Seattle Seahawks.

     On paper one could point to a better defense, home-field advantage, and an offense that can grind down the clock to take away offensive opportunities for the opposing team as reasons to pick the Dallas Cowboys.  I'm hesitant commit to that seemingly safe assessment because of just how incredibly experienced and intelligent the Seahawks have been in the playoffs during this decade.  As highly ranked as the Cowboys defense finished this season, it never totally shut down even lesser opponents down the stretch.  Decisions, decisions.  In the end I think I have to go with the better coaching staff, better quarterback, and the offense that finds a way to put up points on essentially anyone.





     Neither of Saturday's games feature the Ravens, but that actually gives fans in Baltimore a chance to relax and simply enjoy watching football without the inevitable anxiety that I am deadly certain I'm not alone in feeling on any given weekend during the season.  Saturday's matchups feature two pairs of teams that all started the season rather poorly.  The Cowboys began the season 3-5, the Colts began the season 1-5, the Seahawks were 4-5 after 9 weeks, and the Texans were 0-3 early one before winning their next 9 straight.  It is for that reason that football fans should avoid proclamations about teams after a fast start or an early slump.  The hottest team through the first 3/4 of the regular season is often not nearly the most dominant team when the post-season rolls around.  A good coaching staff will evaluate weaknesses and make adjustments after losses, and teams such as the Seahawks and Patriots almost always begin the season with a losing record through the first month before getting on track.

     The other major factor beyond simple coaching adjustments is the health and available personnel of a team late in the season.  The Chiefs, for example, appeared nearly unstoppable for much of the season, but they then lost one of their most dominant weapons when video surfaced of star running back Kareem Hunt getting into an altercation with a woman in a hotel.  That isn't to say that the Chiefs aren't still a major Super Bowl contender, but their ability to grind down the clock to keep their own inept defense off the field has definitely taken a major hit without Hunt.  Meanwhile the Cowboys traded for Amari Cooper, and not a moment too soon.  Their offense suddenly began to function again, and like the Ravens, their offensive success helped their defense to become more well rested and explosive to close out games. 

     I've heard many people give cliche predictions about who they expect to see in the Super Bowl such as the Saints, Chiefs, Rams, and Patriots, but I it would not shock me to see one or even two teams from today's games make it to the AFC and NFC Championship.  After all, some of the strongest teams in the league at this moment had some of the poorest starts to the regular season.

     Of the five remaining teams, the Texans have taken the biggest hit as of late when they lost Demaryius Thomas to a tore Achilles in December.  After winning 9 straight games, the Texans went 2-2 to finish the season including a 24-21 loss to the Colts in Houston.  The Colts, meanwhile, haven't lost in over a month and won 9 of their last 10 games.  It would be easy to point to the last matchup between these two teams and crown the Colts the champion, but it was such an incredibly close game that it would be far wiser to examine what has happened since.

     Heading into today's game, the Colts have only a single lesser-known player listed as questionable, but even he is slated to play.  The Texans have no injuries reported, but they are, of course, without Demaryius Thomas.  Thomas' effect on the the Texans offense may not have appeared particularly profound as his stats didn't jump off the page, but his presence at the very least helps to take pressure off of DeAndre Hopkins.  Hopkins, however, may struggle for a different reason.

     Despite not appearing on the team's official injury report today, DeAndre Hopkins has dealt with an ankle injury all week.  The elite receiver will definitely play, but a major part of his effectiveness comes from his ability to stick his foot in the ground and cut.  It's safe to wonder just how much his ankle will hinder his ability to perform. 

     The Colts, meanwhile, have found success with T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron leading the way in the receiving corps along with a handful of supporting receivers with between 300 to nearly 500 receiving yards a piece.  Andrew Luck has enough weapons with which to spread the ball around, and a decent rushing attack to compliment them with Marlon Mack totally 908 rushing yards on the season and an impressive 4.7 yards per carry.  The Colts offensive line has been instrumental in the revival of Luck's career but will have its hands full facing the likes of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. 

     The Colts and Texans defenses ranked 11th and 12th in the league respectively.  From a matchup standpoint, however, the Texans ranked near the bottom of the league in pass defense while the Colts pass defense fell in the middle of the pack at #16.  This will likely prove pivotal as I don't foresee the Texans defense having quite enough to stop a balanced Colts passing attack considering just how dangerous Andrew Luck is when he has time to sit in the pocket and throw.

      Like both of the regular season games between these two teams, this will come down to a single score, but with DeAndre Hopkins not 100% and the recent loss of DeMaryius Thomas, it's difficult to imagine the Texans having quite enough offensive firepower to come out on top. 
COLTS 27-24



Thursday, December 27, 2018


     National respect for the the Ravens has not surprisingly crept up over the past 6 weeks.  Baltimore's 5-1 record during that span is certainly reason to regard them as one of the hottest teams heading into the post-season.  Many have credited the success to the major upswing in rushing production with the changing of the guard from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson.  There's no question that the Jackson-led offense has allowed the Ravens to control the clock and keep their own defense and opposing offenses off the field, but one has to examine the health of the team and available personnel over the course of this season to truly understand the Ravens' highs and lows.

     Too many people looked at the mid-season slump the Ravens experienced and suggested that it was the result of Joe Flacco being "finished."  Closer examination of the available personnel during the Ravens' losses, however, reveals a starkly different narrative.  Casual fans ignore the fact that Ravens top corner Marlon Humphrey and 3 of the Ravens 5 starting offensive linemen went down during the mid-season slump.  To add to that, Jimmy Smith made his return a week after Humphrey was injured, and it took weeks for him to round into reasonable form.  It's no surprise the Ravens sputtered against the Panthers without legitimate pass protection for Joe, and it's no surprise that the Ravens struggled to edge the Saints without Marlon Humphrey to cover Michael Thomas.

     I am in no way suggesting that the Ravens should now put the ball back in Joe Flacco's hands--it's clear they have absolutely no intention of returning him to starter status. I am, instead, pointing to something else that will make this Ravens team incredibly dangerous going into the playoffs if they handle business on Sunday against the Browns.  The Ravens are healthy.  It matters not how strong or hot a team is through the first half or even the first 3 quarters of a season.  As Baltimore has shown the world, it only matters that a team makes it to the playoffs and that they're healthy when they do so.  I repeat: the Baltimore Ravens are healthy.  They are as healthy as a professional football team could conceivably be at this point in the season, and it has allowed them to physically bully not only mediocre and bad teams but also the Chargers last weekend.

     The health of a team can change in an instant, and it thus requires tremendous fortune to stay relatively healthy all the way through to the Super Bowl.  It is for this reason that I don't like the idea of run-first quarterback as a long-term solution for any professional team.  It's easy to become enamored with the electric playmaking ability of a guy who runs a 4.3 forty yard dash as has been seen with the likes of Michael Vick and RG3, but on a long enough timeline, running the football leads to frequent injuries.  That isn't to say that a mobile quarterback can't win a Super Bowl, but Lamar Jackson's game will have to quickly evolve to mirror that of Russell Wilson if he wants to both stay healthy and find long-term success in this league.

     At least for this season Ravens fans shouldn't worry about Lamar Jackson becoming injured.  It's not that he is somehow impervious to bodily harm, but his backup is one of NFL history's greatest playoff quarterbacks.  Joe Flacco almost certainly won't play for the Baltimore Ravens next season, but they aren't about to cut him now.  If the Ravens find themselves down 10-14 points in the 4th quarter of any game going forward, they may, in fact, turn to old Joe to conserve clock and mount a comeback. In any event, this is a Ravens team that now has both the ability to run the football whilst chewing up clock AND light up opposing secondaries through the air late if need be.

     I stepped back from writing for weeks to fully observe what the Ravens have in Jackson and their new look offense.  It seemed foolish initially to draw major conclusions from Lamar's first few wins against struggling teams with atrocious defenses.  In many cases, timely touchdowns from the defense and special teams helped to put away teams late when Lamar couldn't lead his team into the endzone.  That very same scenario occurred against the Chargers last Saturday as well, but it's safe to suggest that the defense is far less exhausted and thus more prone impact plays and turnovers because time-consuming drives from Jackson and company have kept them fresh on the sidelines.  Lamar even threw for 200+ yards against a fast, widely feared Chargers defense, and that gives me reason to believe that he's getting better every single week he starts.

     The Baltimore Ravens may not be the best team in the NFL at this moment, but it's difficult for me to think of any team in the AFC that is significantly more well-equipped for a post-season run than a team that can run the football on virtually anyone and play defense better than literally any team in the league.  Now all that's left to do is beat the Browns.  How hard could that be, right?  Oh.  Right.  They're kind of awesome now too.  Welp, time to break out the defibrillator lest the people watching next to me realize I've gone down with a major cardiac event because Baker Mayfield ruined the end of my year.


DISCLAIMER: A sizable number of this week's games feature no playoff teams or possible playoff teams and are, therefore, without legitimate motivation for either team to win.  It would, in fact, behoove any team that can't go to the playoffs to lose as it moves their draft placement up.  It is for this reason that I will separate relevant from irrelevant games for this week.


DOLPHINS AT BILLS- The Miami Dolphins were quite an enigma this season.  They began the season 3-0 and then proceeded to beat both the Bears and Patriots at later points, but they fell two wins short of legitimate playoff contention going into the final week of the season.  The Bills' season went even worse at 5-10, and they already lost to the Dolphins in Miami a month ago. The Dolphins' 1-6 road record, however, is both the biggest reason they will miss the playoffs and the biggest reason to believe they'll fall to the Bills in Week 17.  BILLS 23-17

LIONS AT PACKERS- The Matt Patricia experiment didn't quite go as planned as the Lions have gone 5-10 thus far, but far more shocking was the fact that the Packers went 6-8-1.  Aaron Rodgers' once-in-generation talent wasn't enough to will his team to a playoff berth in 2018.  This only reinforces a view I've expressed to many that making even the most elite quarterback the highest paid player in the league is a recipe for disaster as the NFL salary cap is so low that doing so means not being able to pay for talent at many other vitally important positions.  The Ravens did it, Falcons did it, and now the Packers did it, and not a single one of those franchises have seen the same level of success since the respective record-setting contracts were signed. 
     As with every game where the outcome has no bearing on the post-season, the motivation to win is questionable as it hurts draft position, but for a franchise with a new head coach, such as the Lions, an opportunity to show growth and progress by ending the season with a win is a tremendous incentive.  Dome teams don't typically fare particularly well in harsh outdoor environments such as Lambeau Field in late December.  The Lions have also fallen off the map from an offensive standpoint as the last time they scored 20 or more points was 6 weeks ago.  The last time these two teams faced one another, the Lions won 31-23 as Detroit capitalized early on mistakes made by Green Bay.  Rodgers still threw for nearly 450 yards and 3 touchdowns, and it is for that reason that I believe he won't struggle the second time around to shred Detroit's secondary and give his home crowd a reason for optimism leading into next season.  This will still be a hard fought game. 

FALCONS AT BUCCANEERS- The Falcons have, as I mentioned before, proven that throwing a mega contract at a quarterback doesn't magically improve your team--in fact it tends to ruin a team's chances at success.  It is for that reason that teams need to reconsider the popular adage that "this is a pass-driven league, so  you need a franchise quarterback to be successful."  It isn't a horrible thing to have someone you'd consider to be your franchise quarterback, but you'll likely not experience championship-winning success with him if you've broken the bank to keep him around.  The Ravens, Seahawks, and Eagles showed in the last 6 years that having a talented quarterback on an inexpensive rookie contract allows a team to have enough cap space to surround the young signal caller with enough talent to win a Super Bowl.  Even the veteran quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls in the last 6 years, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, were on relatively cap-friendly deals at the later stages in their careers to allow their respective teams to retain such players as Darrelle Revis and Von Miller.
     The Buccaneers have had the misfortune of facing three likely playoff-bound teams over the past 3 weeks, while the Falcons have put together back to back wins as of late over two relatively inept teams.  The fact that this game is in Tampa may be enough to tip the scales in favor of the Bucs, but something tells me the Falcons are set to ride their recent momentum into a season-ending road win in a warm road environment. 


JETS AT PATRIOTS- The Patriots have clinched their own division, but they can't afford to rest their starters as they still have a chance to lose their #2 seed status if they lose and the Texans win.  The Jets have lost some painfully close games to competitive teams, but they don't match up well with the Patriots--and this game will be in Foxboro. 

PANTHERS AT SAINTS- Without Cam Newton the Panthers can't find a way to win.  SAINTS 24-13

COWBOYS AT GIANTS- The Giants have been as bad at home as the Cowboys have been on the road this season, but a win or loss this week will not change the Cowboys' playoff seeding.  Jason Garrett says that healthy players will play, but I have a feeling that the Cowboys won't force the issue if they find themselves down.  Tough to imagine Cowboys players being anxious to play their hearts out in a totally meaningless game.  Let the Giants have their fun this week. 
GIANTS 23-21

JAGUARS AT TEXANS- The Texans dominated the Jaguars 20-7 earlier this season in Jacksonville, so it's difficult to imagine a tremendously different outcome in Houston.  The Jags have fallen the hardest of any team considered elite last season, and it's not entirely clear why that happened.  The Texans overcame an incredibly rough 0-3 start to the season to find themselves winners of 9 of their last 11 games, but their two losses during that stretch have come within the last 3 weeks.  The rcent loss of Demaryius Thomas doesn't render the Texans totally useless, but it certainly takes them down a notch as a Super Bowl contender.  The Texans will smack around the Jaguars again because they have to win to ensure they lock up their own division, but I don't see them advancing to the AFC Championship this post-season.
TEXANS 27-17

CHARGERS AT BRONCOS- The Chargers have the misfortune of being in the same division as the Chiefs.  The Chargers, in fact, BEAT the Chiefs two weeks ago, but still lose out through tie breakers to Kansas City.  It's highly unlikely that the Chiefs will drop a game to the Raiders at home this week, but maybe the chance that they could is enough to give the Chargers motivation to take care of business against the Broncos in order to possibly leapfrog the Chiefs for the #1 overall seed in the AFC. 
     On the other hand, if the Chargers are TRULY smart, they'll scrap the idea of desperately playing for something they likely won't get and will sit their starters because doing so will serve as a functional bye week.  They also have been so good on the road this season that home-field advantage is less of a factor as it would be for many other teams.  I fully expect, however, that the Chargers will play to win this game, while the Broncos are better off losing.  It must be noted that the Broncos narrowly upset the Chargers in L.A. earlier this season.

RAIDERS AT CHIEFS- The Chiefs only beat the Raiders by a touchdown in L.A. a month ago, but something tells me it won't be quite as close in Kansas City this time around.  The Chiefs can't lose this game or they risk not only losing the #1 seed but also falling to wildcard team status.  The loss of Kareem Hunt and lackluster defense doesn't give me confidence that the Chiefs will make a deep run in the post-season, but they'll handle business this week with a solid win over a team they already beat on the road.
CHIEFS 34-21

49ERS AT RAMS- The 49ers have won 2 of their last 3 to build a surprising amount of late-season momentum despite no shot at the playoffs.  They beat the Broncos and surging Seahawks despite losing Jimmy Garoppolo early in the season.  Despite their recent success, the 49ers do not match up well with the Rams who beat the 49ers in San Francisco earlier this season 39-10. 
RAMS 30-16

BEARS AT VIKINGS- This is one of the few games this week that feature two teams vying for playoff position.  The Bears have already clinched their division, but they have the opportunity to knock out a division rival if the Eagles also manage to win this week.  The Vikings are 8-6-1 at the moment, but they risk going 8-7-1 and missing the playoffs entirely.  The Bears also have an outside chance at leapfrogging the Rams in playoff seeding, so they'll have more than one motivation to win this game.  The last game in Chicago between these two teams was a fairly close 25-20 win for the Bears, and Chicago hasn't produced much offensively as of late  The Bears suffered 3 out of their 4 losses on the road, while the Vikings are 5-2 at home. Homefield advantage and a greater need to win should be enough to propel the Vikings to a narrow victory this week, but they're not good enough to make much of a run in the playoffs as a wildcard team. 

BENGALS AT STEELERS- Ravens fans know all too well how much the Bengals relish the opportunity to play spoiler to a division rival.  With Andy Dalton in injured reserve, Vontaze Burfict doubtful to play, Tyler Boyd out, and A.J. Green not healthy, it's difficult to imagine that THIS Bengals team has remotely enough clout to get the job at the end of this season.  The irony is that the Steelers can play their hearts out and absolutely dismantle the Bengals--and a Ravens win over the Browns will mean it will have been all for naught.

CARDINALS AT SEAHAWKS- This isn't an entirely meaningless game for the Seahawks as a loss coupled with a Vikings win would drop them from the 5th to the 6th seed in the NFC playoff bracket, but whether they win or lose, the Seahawks will be a wildcard playoff team.  In light of that, it would greatly behoove them to sit their starters at least for the second half of this game.  A functional bye week is dramatically more important than having the 5th as opposed to the 6th seed.  Pete Carroll, however, disagrees.  He believes that momentum is more important than having starters rested, so he insists he's going to play his starters.

EAGLES AT REDSKINS- The Redskins were blown out by the Eagles a month ago and there's little reason they'd be able to beat a team desperately holding on for a chance to make the playoffs.  Washington has some good pieces for next season, but there's simply not enough there to play spoiler this week.
EAGLES 28-17

BROWNS AT RAVENS- The Browns are 2-5 on the road this season, but both of their road wins have come during the last 6 weeks during which they've won 5 of their games.  The problem is that literally all of the teams the Browns beat during that time are totally inept because of major injury issues.  Two out of those 5 wins came against the Bengals who are missing most of their big name starters, one win came by a single point over a horrible Broncos team, one win came over the Panthers who haven't won in months, and another came against a Falcons team that has proved incredibly disappointing this season.  When going up against a playoff team, the Texans, the Browns were soundly trounced 29-13.  The Ravens may still struggle to produce offensively considering the propensity for Lamar Jackson's offense to score only a single touchdown per game, but the Ravens defense held the Browns to 12 points in Cleveland the first time these two teams met this season.  Now the Ravens are limiting opposing teams possible possessions by chewing up game clock, and at the very least, they should be good for 16-20 points.  This will be a slugfest of epic proportions, but the Ravens have stifled much better quarterbacks than Baker Mayfield this season; they're likely not going to let a rookie get the best of them in Baltimore.  Oh, and if the Ravens find themselves down late with little time left...there is a guy they can turn to who knows how to run a two minute drill.
RAVENS 20-13

COLTS AT TITANS- This may be the most hotly contested game of the week as the winner will make the playoffs and the loser will not.  Both teams sit at 9-6, but the Colts easily defeated the Titans when these two teams last met earlier this season.  The Titans have won their last 4 games, but all of those wins came against non-playoff teams.  The last two games the Titans played against playoff teams happened to be against Colts and Texans, and both Indy and Houston absolutely brutalized the Titans.  The Colts have been red-hot as of late and were even able to beat the Texans in Houston several weeks ago.  It's tough to imagine a Colts team that so easily dismantled the Titans a month ago suddenly falling to them just because they're playing on the road.  It's fitting that this final showdown will be the Sunday night game, and hopefully it proves closer and more exciting than I anticipate.
COLTS 31-23

     This week could prove a defining moment in the career of John Harbaugh.  For the first phase his career, many people remarked that his team truly belonged to Ed Reed and Ray Lewis.  It was suggested that Harbaugh simply walked into a fortunate situation, but he didn't offer any sort of offensive or defensive system of his own to put his stamp on the franchise.  It's true that John isn't a guru of anything other than special teams, but he has done a great job of motivating his players and maintaining a sense of brotherhood and unity that many veteran players have stated they never felt in other organizations.  All the Ravens have to do is win this week to lock up the division and secure a home playoff game the following weekend.  
     If, however, the Ravens fall in heartbreaking fashion to a Browns team with nothing left to play for other than pride and to play spoiler to a potential playoff team, John's legacy as a head coach will take a major hit.  This is where we see what his organization is able to do when everything is on the line.  Battling back into contention only to fall short in the end again simply won't do.  They NEED to win right now.