NFL Top 5 Week 12 Matchups
5. Chicago (6-4) at St. Louis (4-6)
For all intents and purposes the Rams are out of the playoff hunt, but the Bears are very much in the fight for the NFC North title, as well as a wild card spot if they aren't able to win the division. Josh McCown is still leading the charge for the Bears as Jay Cutler is dealing with yet another injury. I think the Bears botched this situation by bringing Cutler back a week early, but McCown has showed competence in both of his starts this year, throwing 5 TDs and 0 INTs. The Rams are coming off of a bye week, but the previous week thrashed the Colts 38-8, so they're no pushover. The Rams have played indoors six times this year and are 3-3 in those games, having outscored their opponents 143-121 in those games. On the flip side, they are 1-3 playing outdoors, having been outscored 81-113.
The Rams look like a different team indoors and Tavon Austin awoke from his coma against the Colts to be the track star that the Rams thought this drafted this past April. The Bears don't have anyone on defense that can keep up with Austin, but for all we know he may have gone into hibernation for the remainder of the year. The strength of the Rams defense relies on rushing the passer and if they get to McCown consistently they have a great chance of winning. The emergence of Alshon Jeffery as the Bears' #2 receiver was necessary, as teams are no longer able to solely focus on Brandon Marshall in the passing game. Plus, the Bears have running back Matt Forte, who is an excellent receiver. The Bears defense isn't what they used to be, but they can still force turnovers and score. I think the Rams play a clean game on offense and their defense does just enough to pull this out, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Bears run away with this one.
Prediction: Rams 24 Bears 23
4. New York Jets (5-5) at Baltimore (4-6)
It's an ugly game, but it has plenty of playoff implications. The Jets currently hold the second wild card spot, despite losing last week. They have easily been the most up and down team this year. Geno Smith has shown the ability to both manage games effectively and hand them over. He was benched last week after his 4 turnover performance, but is expected to reclaim his starting role this week. Despite his 8 TDs and 16 INTs this season, he is the only QB in the league to have beaten both Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Let that sink in for a minute. Baltimore is coming off of a 23-20 loss to the Bears and with a win over the Jets will more realistically put themselves in the playoff discussion. Despite Ray Rice's struggles and the over-compensated Joe Flacco looking lost several times throughout the year, the Ravens are right on the doorstep.
The spotlight will be on both defenses in this game. Both teams are going to come out running the ball and use it to set up the pass. I believe whichever team ends up running for more yards will be the victor in this matchup. I think the Ravens defense comes up with a big stop late in the fourth quarter, perhaps due to a gift from Geno Smith.
Prediction: Ravens 20 Jets 17
3. Dallas (5-5) at New York Giants (4-6)
Dallas is coming off of a painful, but much needed bye week, due to all of their recent injuries on defense. As the Cowboys sat idle last week they watched the Eagles take care of business and takeover first place in the division. With the Eagles on the bye this week, Dallas has a chance to return the favor. The Giants, once considered to be playing a lost season after their 0-6 start, have clawed their way to four straight wins. A big part of this has been the improved play of Eli Manning. In their first six games Eli threw 9 TDs and 15 INTs; in their last four games, he has thrown 3 TDs and 2 INTs, as they have focused more on the run.
The Cowboys front seven is decimated right now, and with the underrated Cowboys MLB Sean Lee out for this matchup, I think the Giants lean heavily on the run. Look for Eli to hit a few deep passes to his wide receivers, with at least one or two set up by play action. This Cowboys team is difficult to predict, but the bye week came at a great time for them. It gave them an opportunity to acclimate the new defensive lineman that they signed off the street and hopefully formulate a better offensive gameplan than throwing the ball on every down. I think the Cowboys come out running the football, but ultimately get away from it as the game goes on. The Cowboys should pull this one out, but they sputter at this time every year and the Giants are way too comfortable being in a hole and having to go on a run to make the playoffs--it's how they win Super Bowls.
Prediction: Giants 27 Cowboys 24
How many games did I predict correctly this week?
2. Indianapolis (7-3) at Arizona (6-4)
I have no idea what to make of Indianapolis this year. I don't think that they're as good as their 7-3 record and wasn't surprised that they lost to the Rams two weeks ago, but thought it would be closer. Yet, they have beaten both the Broncos and the Seahawks this year, which are many people's prediction for this year's Super Bowl matchup. I was a huge fan of the trade for Trent Richardson and thought that Cleveland was making a mistake, but it turns out that the Browns may have known what they were doing. Richardson is averaging less than three yards a carry since joining Indy and is being outplayed by Donald Brown. Meanwhile Arizona has been flying under the radar all year. As of now they are a game out of the second wild card spot, but no one has talked about them. They are 0-3 in this division, which may ultimately derail their season, but let's talk about them while we can.
The Colts want to run the ball and Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton won't stray from that in this game, whether it's with Richardson or Brown. Andrew Luck has shown the ability to take over games, but he's also come up small at other times. The Cardinals defense is second in the league stopping the run, only allowing 81 yards per game, so I see this as the key matchup of the game. The Cardinals don't do anything on offense really well, but they know how to win games. Arizona's head coach Bruce Arians took over when Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia last year and led the Colts to a 9-3 record so these teams know each other very well. I feel like the Cardinals find a way to eke this one out. Keep an eye on Cardinals' cornerback Patrick Peterson; he has 75 punt returns the past two years, but has yet to find the end zone after scoring four times on only 44 returns his rookie season. Whether by return, turnover, or even a play of offense, look for Peterson to make an impact in this game.
Prediction: Cardinals 24 Colts 23
1. Denver (9-1) at New England (7-3)
The marquee matchup of the week: Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. These two quarterbacks have met 13 times previously, with Brady winning nine times. Both teams have looked nearly unbeatable at times, and fairly beatable at others. Denver is coming off of a win over previously undefeated Kansas City and now holds the top spot in their division as well as the AFC. The Patriots are coming off of a loss to the surprising Panthers and are fighting for the #2 spot in the AFC. Tom Brady finally had all of his weapons healthy for the first time last week.
Both teams run the ball effectively, but do the majority of their damage through the air. Look for the Broncos to spread the field with three and four wide receiver sets all day to create favorable matchups for Peyton to exploit. The Patriots defense is solid, but it's not the stout defense that they boasted in the early 2000s. Look for the Patriots to counter by creating matchups of their own, especially with tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen. I'll be interested to see who the Broncos use to cover each of these players. I expect a back and forth game that comes down to a score late in the fourth quarter. I think Manning inches closer to .500 against Brady, but this will most likely be a preview of a future playoff matchup, potentially in the AFC title game.
Prediction: Broncos 31 Patriots 27
This year has been a crazy, unpredictable one in the NFL and I don't expect this week to be any different. After this week's slate of games all bye weeks will be over and we will be back to 16 matchups every week. The playoff picture should begin to become more clear as we move forward, but I expect this to get more interesting and complex for a few more weeks before it begins to take shape.
Let me know your thoughts on my predictions and how you feel each game will play out.