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NFL Week 12 game predictions
Philadelphia Eagles (4-6) at Detroit Lions (3-7)
Thursday, 12:30 p.m. ET, at Ford Field, Detroit – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews
*Keys to the game: A difference for Detroit during a two-game winning streak and credit to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is adding speed to the base defense. Linebacker Tahir Whitehead and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus have played more to give the defense a jolt of speed while linebacker Josh Bynes and safety James Ihedigbo have seen their saps decrease. The improved range will come in handy against the Eagles’ multiple-receiver sets.
The Eagles stumble into Detroit with three losses in their past four games, averaging less than 19 points per game in those losses. Sam Bradford (concussion, shoulder) could be back for Philadelphia after Mark Sanchez started at quarterback last week. RB DeMarco Murray averages just 2.8 yards on first-down carries this season, forcing the Eagles into long down-distance situations and exposing a ragtag offensive line.
Philadelphia’s run defense is a major worry after Doug Martin peeled off runs of 17, 27, 58 and 84 yards last week. The Eagles are allowing 5.1 yards per carry in their past seven games, and have issues defending No. 1 receivers such as Calvin Johnson.
*Matchup to watch – Eagles CBs Byron Maxwell and Nolan Carroll vs. Lions QB Matt Stafford: Opponents have a 94.1 passer rating against the Eagles on third down. Stafford lives in attack mode and will give the Eagles chances to flip the field if they can stick with WRs Johnson and Golden Tate.
*Player spotlight – Lions RB Theo Riddick: With 50 catches for 445 receiving yards through 10 games, Riddick is proving to be one of the most reliable receiving backs in his third NFL season. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing Theo since he’s been here,” Johnson said.
*Fast facts: The Lions have scored more than 20 points just twice this season. … Eight players account for the Eagles’ 13 touchdown catches this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Detroit is determined to run the ball and avoid a track meet. If their secondary limits breakdowns, the Lions can win with the same formula that worked in wins over Green Bay and Oakland.
*Our pick: Lions 24-21
Carolina Panthers (10-0) at Dallas Cowboys (3-7)
Thursday, 4:30 p.m. ET, at AT&T Stadium, Arlington – TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
*Keys to the game: The Panthers are the 16th team in NFL history to start a season 10-0, but coach Ron Rivera publicly ripped oddsmakers who opened the Panthers as one-point underdogs this week at Dallas.
The Cowboys are one of the most explosive teams in the league with Tony Romo behind center, as the quarterback helped prove again last week at Miami in his first game in eight weeks. The Panthers are one of the strongest teams in the NFL up the gut with DT Kawann Short and MLB Luke Kuechly playing at an elite level. CB Josh Norman is in the same class and gets the stage and matchup vs. Dez Bryant to prove his worth.
QB Cam Newton & Co. haven’t had a turnover in two games. The Panthers keep the ball on the ground and try to set the tone in a raucous environment before taking their shots with WR Ted Ginn and TE Greg Olsen. Dallas held up fine in Miami but tackling issues on the second level have contributed to big gains, and the Panthers won’t let up if RB Jonathan Stewart finds success early.
*Matchup to watch – Cowboys DE Greg Hardy vs. Panthers LT Michael Oher: While Oher has been a pleasant surprise on the blind side, he has holes in his game. Panthers LB Thomas Davis said of his former teammate Hardy, “He can go out and totally wreck a game plan if you allow him to.” Hardy is motivated to make an impact and with experience working against Newton, he could give the Cowboys an upper hand.
*Player spotlight – Cowboys CB Byron Jones: A hamstring injury continues to limit Morris Claiborne, meaning Jones logs more snaps at cornerback. Owner Jerry Jones said the first-round pick has exceeded expectations this season but he was dreadful in Miami, allowing five receptions on six passes intended for Miami’s top receiver Jarvis Landry.
*Fast facts: With six receptions, Cowboys TE Jason Witten will become the 11th NFL player to record 1,000 career catches. … The Panthers have a point differential of 108. Only Arizona (120) and New England (141) are better in 2015.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Dallas is dialed in for a rally to push for a playoff spot in the lowly NFC East, but Carolina proves too sound in all three phases to fall victim to the upset with QB Cam Newton starring again to pick up steam in MVP discussions.
*Our pick: Panthers 28-20
Chicago Bears (4-6) at Green Bay Packers (7-3)
Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Lambeau Field, Green Bay – TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
*Keys to the game: Winless in the division (0-3), the Bears are back on the road for the sixth time in nine games and could have RB Matt Forte (knee) back in the mix with impressive rookie RB Jeremy Langford. Chicago’s preference is to limit the damage inflicted by QB Packers Aaron Rodgers, who has dominated QB Jay Cutler in the series.
Forte had 141 yards in a Week 1 loss to Green Bay, when Cutler hit TE Martellus Bennett for a touchdown, the start of a season-long struggle against tight ends for the Packers. Cutler uses his backs and tight ends, including No. 2 TE Zach Miller, as much as his receivers. That’s partly because lead receiver Alshon Jeffery has been saddled by leg injuries all season. Getting better in the red zone — an area of admitted failure for offensive coordinator Adam Gase — is a must for the Bears to compete with the Packers. Chicago is 3 of 10 in the red zone the past two games.
Rodgers has owned the Bears — 13 touchdowns, zero interceptions in the past three meetings — but his completion percentage is under 57.5 in three of the past four games. That’s dreadful by Rodgers’ MVP standard, but receivers are struggling to separate and the Packers hadn’t been a threat on the ground until a rejuvenated Eddie Lacy plowed for his first 100-yard game of the season last week. Lacy, who has only 183 yards rushing in his last three games against the Bears, and RB James Starks will get a chance to test a Bears defense ranked 25th (123.7 yards per game) and allowing 4.63 yards per carry.
*Matchup to watch – Packers C JC Tretter vs. Bears NT Eddie Goldman: Tretter appears to be in line for the Thanksgiving start with Corey Linsley ailing. Goldman, a rookie second-round pick, has nine quarterback pressure and 2.5 sacks.
*Player spotlight – Bears FS Chris Prosinski: He’ll get a second consecutive start with Antrel Rolle hurt, and the Packers are likely to attack him after Prosinki’s missed tackle in the open field made low-light reels in last week’s loss to the Broncos. “Chris was ready to go and did a commendable job,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.
*Fast facts: The Packers had nine first-quarter touchdowns in their first six games and one in the past four games. … Cutler has a 67.2 career passer rating against the Packers with 15 touchdowns and 22 interceptions
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
QB Aaron Rodgers finds a soft secondary to his liking and the Packers look like their September selves until the Bears make it a fight in the second half.
*Our pick: Packers 32-26
Buffalo Bills (5-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (5-5)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo. – TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Kevin Harlon, Rich Gannon
*Keys to the game: The Bills expect QB Tyrod Taylor (shoulder) to play, although he was limited mostly to handoff work midweek. They need a healthy Taylor, and they need him to step up his play. Taylor continues to rack up decent yardage and completion percentages, but he misfires on too many key opportunities downfield and the Bills have gone three-and-out a league-high 28.5 percent of their possessions.
Ideally, the Bills lean on RBs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams in a ground-and-pound approach that limits Taylor’s exposure to the Chiefs’ strong pass rush, but Kansas City also enters the game allowing just 3.8 yards per carry.
Both offenses are likely to utilize the underneath passing game – the Bills because of Taylor’s injury and spotty pass protection and the Chiefs because they simply don’t stretch the field often. Chiefs QB Alex Smith does most of his damage underneath and will look often to TE Travis Kelce, who leads the Chiefs with 50 catches for 620 yards. With RB Charcandrick West (hamstring) day-to-day, Knile Davis should be active and involved in the game plan.
Buffalo blitzed Patriots QB Tom Brady heavily last week, but coach Rex Ryan prefers to sit back and let his front four do the bulk of the pass rushing. That has led to issues throughout the season as the team’s personnel has struggled to adjust to new roles – particularly in picking up underneath coverage.
*Matchup to watch – Bills WR Sammy Watkins vs. Chiefs CBs Marcus Peters and Sean Smith: Coach Rex Ryan has stated it is a priority to get Watkins (25 catches for 368 yards and three TDs) more involved in the game plan. Watkins often draws the opponent’s top cover man. Whether the Chiefs employ that strategy remains to be seen. Smith would draw the assignment regularly and is the more consistent, while Peters is more athletic and a big-play threat.
*Player spotlight – Bills RG Kraig Urbik: With rookie John Miller expected to be sidelined by a high ankle sprain, Urbik is likely to start. Buffalo sacrifices athleticism and mobility for experience.
*Fast facts: TE Charles Clay has a team-high 41 receptions, the most ever by a Bills tight end through the first 11 weeks of a season. … Smith has completed 64.2 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions over his past seven games.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Bills may be the more physically gifted team, but they also took a physical pounding during Monday night’s loss at New England. Traveling again on a short week against a surging Chiefs team proves to be too much as the steady Chiefs wear the Bills down through ball control offense and a defense that can force a steady diet of three-and-outs.
*Our pick: Chiefs 23-19
Miami Dolphins (4-6) at New York Jets (5-5)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. – TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn
*Keys to the game: The Jets whipped the Dolphins in London, 27-14, in a game that spelled the end for former coach Joe Philbin. Miami’s run defense, gouged by Darren McFadden and the Cowboys last week, was worked over by RB Chris Ivory in England (166 yards on 29 carries). With CB Darrelle Revis (concussion) unlikely to get on the field this week, the Dolphins won’t hesitate to cut QB Ryan Tannehill loose once they are confident the front five will hold up. Tannehill (3-0) has never lost a game in this stadium.
The Jets haven’t been able to execute the formula that put them in the thick of the AFC East in September, but still have the personnel to harass Tannehill. Ivory has just 219 yards on 81 carries during the Jets’ 1-4 skid. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is likely to get Bilal Powell, who had 89 yards last week, more involved to prop up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s playing hurt and needs the running game to click for the play-action scheme to thrive. WRs Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker can consistently win one-on-one if the Jets build momentum with the ground game.
*Matchup to watch – CB Buster Skrine vs. WR Jarvis Landry: Revis covered Landry for most of the Oct. 4 game between the teams. Skrine is a shifty slot corner who should be able to contain the voluminous Landry, who has 64 receptions but is tied for 100th in the NFL with 10.2 yards per catch.
*Player spotlight – Dolphins DE Quinton Coples: He’ll enter MetLife Stadium as a visitor this week after being waived by the Jets. A first-round pick in 2012, the No. 16 selection in the draft, Coples is expected to serve as a pass-rushing specialist in the Dolphins’ 4-3 scheme.
*Fast facts: Only 29.3 percent of teams that reached their 11th game with a .500 record since 2002 made the playoffs. … Coples had 16.5 sacks in 56 games with the Jets.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Dolphins slow down Jets RB Chris Ivory and keep QB Ryan Tannehill upright long enough to put up points against a Jets defense that has lost its bite.
*Our pick: Dolphins 23-17
Minnesota Vikings (7-3) at Atlanta Falcons (6-4)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
*Keys to the game: The Falcons stand a good chance of knocking the Vikings out of their preferred game plan – run Adrian Peterson and set QB Teddy Bridgewater to work off play-action. Atlanta owns the league’s top-ranked run defense and while those stats can often be explained away by typical game situations, the Falcons allow a meager 3.6 yards per carry.
Atlanta can legitimately stop the run, but Bridgewater can complement his ground game by picking on CBs Jalen Collins and Akeem King, the latest in the Falcons’ turnstile at nickel back. Look for slot receiver Jarius Wright and TE Kyle Rudolph to have impacts on this game.
The Falcons’ offensive struggles have now devolved into fatal flaw territory. They’re hopeful of getting RB Devonte Freeman (concussion) back, but who is going to step up as a legitimate threat opposite WR Roddy White? Coordinator Kyle Shanahan came out of the bye week determined to get Roddy White involved, but he had four catches for just 24 yards on nine targets last week. Meanwhile, QB Matt Ryan was intercepted three times despite being sacked once and hit six times. It’s clear teams have found something on film about Shanahan’s scheme, and Ryan’s struggles with decision-making and accuracy haven’t helped matters.
*Matchup to watch – Vikings LT Matt Kalil vs. Falcons OLB O’Brien Schofield: Just as Kalil was starting to earn raves this season after struggling through 2014 on a bad knee, he attempted to play through a toe injury last week and was flagged three times. Schofield switched sides with rookie Vic Beasley last week and the results were underwhelming – Schofield had three tackles and a forced fumble while Beasley hit the stat sheet with one tackle. They remain tied for the team lead in sacks – with two.
*Player spotlight – Vikings WR Stefon Diggs: It’s approaching broken-record status, but Diggs continues to defy his fifth-round rookie status. He has 36 catches – the only rookie in franchise history to do that through seven games was Randy Moss, who had 37 in 1998. After being inactive for three weeks, Diggs has at least six catches in five of seven games.
*Fast facts: The Vikings are 0-2 against teams that currently have a winning record. … The Falcons scored 162 points (32.4 points per game) while going 5-0 over their first five games. They have scored just 88 points (17.6 points) over the last five games.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Both teams are taking stock following disheartening losses last week. Minnesota hasn’t beaten a winning team this season, the Falcons have dropped four of five, and we don’t quite know what to make of either team yet. Matt Ryan’s mystique at home has been cracked significantly and the Vikings are a bit more balanced on both sides of the ball.
*Our pick: Vikings 23-20
New Orleans Saints (4-6) at Houston Texans (5-5)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at NRG Stadium, Houston – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Joe Davis, David Diehl
*Keys to the game: The Texans are fifth in pass defense, a credit to the strong front seven, but QB Drew Brees has a lightning release and two dynamic if undersized targets outside in Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead. Houston isn’t great against the run, and New Orleans wants to threaten with RB Mark Ingram to keep DE J.J. Watt honest.
To spark their flat-lining running game the Texans dusted off the Wildcat formation last week and it was effective. With QB Brian Hoyer back from a one-week absence due to a concussion, the Texans will be more aggressive but thrive with a short-range passing attack that centers around WR DeAndre Hopkins, who has huge mitts to haul in passes it looks like he shouldn’t, and speed to blaze by any cornerback the Saints put in front of him. There could be some changes from New Orleans, which was off last week and changed defensive play-callers. That doesn’t mean they’ll be any less aggressive, especially given Houston’s woes running the ball.
The Saints were scorched by the Redskins before the bye week and third-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired as New Orleans settled into last place in total defense and scoring defense, allowing 31.5 points and 424.3 yards per game.
*Matchup to watch – Hopkins vs. Saints CB Brandon Browner: Hopkins outdid himself last week with a huge effort against Jets CB Darrelle Revis. Now Revis’ former Patriots teammate Browner, a bulky and physical cover man who is short on speed and long in penalties, gets the call but will need plenty of help over the top.
*Player spotlight – Texans LB Jadeveon Clowney: Health has been his steepest hurdle, but the coaching staff might have unearthed ways to maximize Clowney’s skills last week. “We used him on the inside, used him on the outside. He was disruptive,” coach Bill O’Brien said of Clowney’s game last week against the Jets.
*Fast facts: Watt recorded his first career sack with a takedown of Brees in 2011. … The Saints allowed 26 touchdown passes last season. They have given up 28 in 10 games this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Texans QB Brian Hoyer wins with efficiency while the Saints struggle to string together enough first downs, and points, against Houston’s rising defense.
*Our pick: Texans 27-20.
New York Giants (5-5) at Washington Redskins (4-6)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at FedEx Field, Landover, Md. – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnson, Laura Okmin
*Keys to the game: QB Eli Manning has nine touchdown passes in the past three meetings and the Giants are riding a five-game winning streak against Washington because of modest offensive output from the Redskins. Washington has no answer for WR Odell Beckham – 21 catches in his past three games – which means more zone behind a pass rush struggling to get home. Manning tends to pick apart simple schemes and after the bye week to reset the running back rotation, the Giants are likely to drop the plow to move the chains with RBs Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen and Andre Williams. When Washington walked its safeties toward the line in the Week 3 loss to the Redskins (32-21), WR Rueben Randle picked on single coverage with 116 yards and a score.
Washington’s Kirk Cousins has won all four starts at home this season, a credit primarily to better blocking and steady contributions from a running game that has been hot and cold. The Redskins tried to feature third-down back Chris Thompson – eight catches, 57 yards – in Week 3 and he could play a regular role this week with TE Jordan Reed (knee) uncertain. Cousins can test the Giants’ secondary – New York is 32nd in the NFL with 11 sacks in 12 games — with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon both healthy, but New York’s third level defense happens to be at its healthiest all season.
*Matchup to watch – Giants RDE Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Redskins LT Trent Williams: Ten quarterback pressures but no sacks allowed this season are a credit to Williams’ toughness as he fights a knee injury. Pierre-Paul, in his third game of 2015, has fresh legs and a hunger to start cashing in on some of those incentives in his contract tied to getting to the quarterback.
*Player spotlight – Redskins RB Matt Jones: Three non-contact fumbles surface as more than a blip on Jones’ resume according to coach Jay Gruden, who along with teammates called for improved focus from the rookie.
*Fast facts: The Giants have two-plus takeaways in five consecutive games. … Cousins has nine touchdowns, zero interceptions at home this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
If the Giants can avoid the breakdowns in the middle of the field that cost them an upset of the New England Patriots, Eli Manning hangs another “L” on Washington to create some cushion atop NFC East.
*Our pick: Giants 33-22
Oakland Raiders (4-6) at Tennessee Titans (2-8)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Nissan Stadium, Nashville – TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl
*Keys to the game: The Raiders have some intriguing pieces on offense, but they have struggled to find the right balance during their three-game losing streak. WR Amari Cooper was limited to one catch for 4 yards on just four targets while dropping two passes last week, while RB Latavius Murray has rushed for a combined 76 yards the past two games.
Tennessee’s defense has actually played quite well considering it is often put against the rails early by the fledgling offense. The Titans allow 4.0 yards per carry and enter with the No. 3 pass defense. Expect them to follow the blueprint of focusing on Murray early and rolling coverage to Cooper. Can QB Derek Carr move the ball consistently with WR Michael Crabtree his only other proven weapon?
Mike Mularkey vowed to protect rookie QB Marcus Mariota when taking over as the Titans’ interim coach, but he simply doesn’t have five solid linemen to do it with. RB Bishop Sankey has been banished to the bench with Antonio Andrews (3.8 yards per carry) and rookie David Coob (minus-3 yards on four carries) the preferred tandem. Minus even a mediocre ground game, Mariota is too often left to fend for himself shortly after the snap.
Detroit had success last week attacking Raiders CBs DJ Hayden and TJ Carrie on short passes. Tennessee needs to work to find Mariota manageable passing downs where he can get rid of the ball quickly and let his receivers make plays after the catch.
*Matchup to watch – Raiders DE Khalil Mack vs. Titans RT Byron Bell: Bell lacks the foot speed to handle Mack on passing downs – as does LT Taylor Lewan. Mack will command double-teams and chips, which could create more opportunities for rookie Mario Edwards Jr. on the other side.
*Player spotlight – Raiders LB Ben Heeney: The rookie saw his most action of the season last week, playing 38 snaps while seeing extensive time in the nickel and dime defenses.
*Fast facts: Cooper has been attributed with eight drops through 10 games. … Mariota has a 115.6 passer rating with 11 touchdowns vs. no interceptions inside the red zone this season.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Raiders travel for second straight week while riding a three-game losing streak. Their defense is vulnerable, but they rediscover the offensive firepower that had energized the fan based until the midseason malaise took over.
*Our pick: Raiders 30-26
San Diego Chargers (2-8) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla. – TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots
*Keys to the game: The losses, both physically and in the loss column, have clearly had an impact on the Chargers. They have dropped six straight games, while offensive linemen and wide receivers have dropped like flies. With rookie RB Melvin Gordon struggling to be a factor, QB Philip Rivers has far too much of the offensive weight thrust upon his right arm with a dwindling crew of competent options to throw to downfield.
That reality is likely to play out again Sunday with the Jaguars sporting the league’s ninth-ranked run defense but just 25th in defending the pass. San Diego has tried to establish the ground game, but there are very few holes for Gordon. Rivers can again expect to be harassed on long passing downs, pushing the ball downfield to a receiving corps that drops too many passes.
The Jaguars’ offense is driven by QB Blake Bortles, who continues to mix exciting growth with maddening inconsistency and accuracy issues. They should be able to establish RB T.J. Yeldon, especially at home against a defense coming off a questionable effort outing against Kansas City. That will ease the burden on Bortles and ratchet up the pressure on the Chargers’ secondary to keep tabs on WRs Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns.
*Matchup to watch – Chargers TEs Antonio Gates and Lardarius Green vs. Jaguars pass defense: Everyone knows Rivers has to look often at his tight ends with WR Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd out. However, they combined for just two catches for 15 yards on six targets last week. Meanwhile, Jacksonville has given up 23 catches to tight ends over their past two games.
*Player spotlight – Chargers LB Denzel Perryman: The rookie has continually earned more playing time, including a start last week in place of Donald Butler that produced his first career sacks.
*Fast facts: San Diego’s Danny Woodhead leads all NFL running backs with 530 receiving yards. … Bortles made his first career start against the Chargers last season, completing 29 of 37 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in a 33-14 loss at Jacksonville on Sept. 28, 2014.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
For the first half of the season, the Chargers were an underperforming team struggling through an incredible spate of injuries. They’re still banged-up, but motivation has also become a question. And that’s a massive red flag traveling cross-country against a young, hungry team still in a division race.
*Our pick: Jaguars 27-21
St. Louis Rams (4-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (8-2)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, Charles Davis, Tony Siragusa
*Keys to the game: It doesn’t matter who the Rams have behind center, they lack a quarterback who can legitimately stretch the field – or the weapons such a quarterback could rely on. The offense is heavily reliant on RB Todd Gurley and inventing ways to get the ball into the hands of WR Tavon Austin close to the line of scrimmage.
The Bengals are ranked 13th in defending the run but do five up 4.5 yards per carry, so they can’t rely on their front seven containing Gurley without help. A safety will factor into the mix regularly, and tackling will be paramount in shutting down the Rams’ playmakers near the line of scrimmage.
The Rams can’t count on moving the ball with much consistency, so they will have to come up with a few turnovers to flip the field. Cincinnati is fifth in the league in averaging 26.6 points per game on offense, but the ground game has been extremely sporadic the past several weeks. Minus a strong running attack, QB Andy Dalton has proven he will make shaky decisions when pressured. He would be well served to have RBs Gio Bernard or Jeremy Hill provide balance at home and help thwart the Rams’ pass rush that is the biggest threat to the Bengals on Sunday.
*Matchup to watch – Rams RT Rob Havenstein vs. Bengals LDE Carlos Dunlap: Havenstein, a second-round pick out of Wisconsin, is expected to return from a calf injury to reclaim his job from fellow rookie Aaron Donnel, who went down to a sprained MCL last week. Dunlap leads the Bengals with 8.5 sacks and is difficult to double-team with the other pass rushers Cincinnati can bring.
*Player spotlight – Rams PRs Austin and Wes Welker: In order to threaten the upset on the road, the Rams need to not just gain field position on special teams but produce a big play or two. Austin and Welker were in the punt return mix last week, and Rams coach Jeff Fisher is well-known to turn to creative special teams plays to give his team a spark.
*Fast facts: Gurley has started the past seven games for the Rams. During that time he leads the NFL with 766 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns and four carries of 45-plus yards. … Dalton needs 262 passing yards to join Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history with 3,000-plus yards in each of their first five NFL seasons.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Rams have the talent at several positions to put up a legitimate fight against any team in the NFL. Unfortunately, they also are saddled by inferior quarterback play and significant offensive line issues. Cincinnati steadies the ship by controlling the field position and pulling away late at home.
*Our pick: Bengals 26-19
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5) at Indianapolis Colts (5-5)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Dick Stockton, Matt Millen, Peter Schrager
*Keys to the game: Keep a close eye on Tampa Bay’s production on first down. The Bucs entered last week’s game converting just 38.5 percent of their third downs but with the ground game clicking with RB Doug Martin, QB Jameis Winston was set up in favorable down-and-distances. Tampa Bay wound up converting 10 of 16 third downs and Winston finished with five touchdown passes to down the Eagles.
The Colts allow a respectable 4.0 yards per carry, but may not be able to afford to commit extra defenders to the run with CB Vontae Davis (hamstring) and S Mike Adams (ankle) likely game-time decisions.
Indianapolis also has injury concerns on the other side of the ball with LT Anthony Castonzo (knee) likely out, RB Frank Gore working through a quad injury and QB Andrew Luck missing his fourth full game of the season. With Matt Hasselbeck at the helm the Colts have done a good job of playing ball-control offense and relying on more underneath routes in the passing game. Coach Chuck Pagano does continue to emphasize cleaning up sloppy play after Hasselbeck was picked off twice last week.
*Matchup to watch – Bucs RDE Jacquies Smith vs. Colts left tackle: We may not know until game time who will replace Castonzo, who has started all 70 games during his five-year career. RT Joe Reitz swapped sides when Castonzo was injured last week, with LG Jack Mewhort moving to right tackle. And Lance Louis replacing Mewhort. Smith is second on the Bucs with 5.5 sacks.
*Player spotlight – Bucs TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins: Limited in practice for several weeks, it appears the second-year player is finally in position to return for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury in Week 2. Before going down, he was emerging as a favorite target of Winston’s with seven catches for 139 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
*Fast facts: Last week the Bucs became the first road team in NFL history to have a quarterback throw five touchdown passes (Winston) and have a 200-yard rusher (Martin). … Hasselbeck joined Brett Favre and Warren Moon as the only NFL quarterbacks to win three straight starts after turning 40.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Bucs are healthier and better balanced on the offensive side of the ball. Younger, faster and generally more athletic, Tampa Bay continues its surge with a hard-fought road win.
*Our pick: Bucs 24-22
Arizona Cardinals (8-2) at San Francisco 49ers (3-7)
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. – TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
*Keys to the game: The 49ers have already been manhandled by the Cardinals once this season – a 47-7 drubbing in Arizona in Week 3 when San Francisco was relatively healthy. And this is a shell of the team the 49ers trotted out that day.
QB Blaine Gabbert has shown some promise in his two starts in place of Colin Kaepernick, making some plays on the move and displaying growth as a passer. Unfortunately, he has an undermanned offensive line and a ground game ill-equipped to do much damage against the Cardinals’ sixth-ranked run defense. So Gabbert is likely to be faced with running a one-dimensional offense that has to compensate for a defense ranked last in yards allowed (288.2 per game), 30th against the pass and 18th against the run.
And the Cardinals bring balance. QB Carson Palmer is enjoying an excellent season with RB Chris Johnson providing balance and a strong receiving corps that continues to unearth big-play gem makers. Seattle did force Palmer into three turnovers two weeks ago and that’s where the 49ers’ small opportunity lies – in stuffing the ground game and then pressuring Palmer into mistakes.
*Matchup to watch – Cardinals LT Jared Veldheer vs. 49ers ROLB Aaron Lynch: Veldheer has had a mostly solid season, but Palmer can be especially vulnerable when pressured off his blind side. Lynch leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks.
*Player spotlight – 49ers RB Shaun Draughn: It’s not a good sign for the 49ers that Draughn was transaction fodder for the Browns earlier this season. Now he’s a lead back, taking all 12 carries (for 37 yards) and leading the 49ers in receptions with eight on 11 targets last week.
*Fast facts: Palmer is 21-4 in his past 25 starts. His 27 touchdown passes are the most by a Cardinals quarterback through the first 10 games of a season. … All three of the 49ers’ victories this season have come at home (3-2).
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Cardinals all but have the NFC West sewn up, but there is still plenty of motivation to further bury the 49ers while improving playoff positioning.
*Our pick: Cardinals 34-23
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) at Seattle Seahawks (5-5)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle – TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
*Keys to the game: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger had a bye week to let his sprained foot heal, and he’ll need every ounce of mobility he can muster. Seattle doesn’t like to blitz heavily, but the Seahawks must get to Big Ben early and often due to mismatches downfield. Pittsburgh can combat the pass rush with dump-offs to RB De’Angelo Williams and TE Heath Miller, who should be a factor with Seattle giving up yet another touchdown to a tight end last week.
The Seahawks’ maligned offensive line might be coming off its best performance of the season, and undrafted rookie RB Thomas Rawls is showing quickness to the hole and excellent physicality. He will start again in place of Marshawn Lynch (abdomen). First down is key for the Seahawks, who have struggled with penalties that put the offense in difficult situations but can move the chains with some momentum if QB Russell Wilson isn’t scrambling for his life from the snap.
*Matchup to watch – Steelers WRs Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant vs. Seahawks cornerbacks: Cary Williams has been repeatedly burned over the top in his first year in Seattle – a serious no-no in this scheme. That has led to Richard Sherman often mirroring the opponent’s best receiver, but the Steelers bring two big-play threats to town.
Does Sherman man up against the excellent route-running of Bryant or the size and athleticism of Bryant … or stay on the left side? Williams was benched during last week’s game, replaced by DeShawn Shead. Shead and Jeremy Lane, returning for the first time since suffering a gruesome broken arm in the Super Bowl, are best suited in the nickel. Whoever lines up opposite Sherman will be a popular target.
*Player spotlight – Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett: The rookie burst onto the scene with his return skills, but has become a growing factor in the offensive game plan as the season has progressed. That includes four catches – two touchdowns – on five targets last week, and his speed an elusiveness is well-catered to the big shots Wilson looks for on busted plays.
*Fast facts: The Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in Detroit. … Wilson is 6-0 career against AFC teams at home with a 106.3 passer rating, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Steelers are ranked fifth in rushing defense, but numbers have been skewed by dominating performances against inferior teams. Seattle appears to be gaining some cohesion on the offensive line, but it’s again the Legion of Boom that falls prey to Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger and his big-play weapons.
*Our pick: Steelers 27-23
New England Patriots (10-0) at Denver Broncos (8-2)
Sunday, 8:25 p.m. ET, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver – TV: NBC
*TV announcers: Cris Collinsworth, Al Michaels, Michele Tafoya
*Keys to the game: Brock Osweiler gets another whirl at quarterback for Denver after winning his first career start Week 11 at Chicago while Peyton Manning is on the mend for at least another week. New England coach Bill Belichick could confuse Confucius, so prepping for the unexpected is part of the drill this week. The Broncos are still solidifying the offensive line to get a spark from the running game. New England plays to stop the run first, and with Manning not playing, there’s more incentive to roll the dice.
Defensively, the Broncos will try and pressure QB Tom Brady just enough to force him to look away from TE Rob Gronkowski and toward their injury-battered wide receiver corps. Brady’s pass protection hasn’t been bulletproof recently and with unfamiliar targets in critical roles due to injuries, the Broncos like their fleet of cover cornerbacks to win on the edge. RB James White, who scored last week, is emerging as a threat and complement to power RB LeGarrette Blount.
*Matchup to watch – Patriots CB Malcolm Butler vs. Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas: Butler is a bona fide No. 1 cornerback but the size-speed edge goes to Thomas. Given time, Osweiler should be able to get Thomas the ball underneath to give him a chance to turn short throws into serious gains.
*Player spotlight – Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski: A triple-team, LB Von Miller, and multiple cornerbacks tried but failed to cover Gronk when these teams met last season. That was before Wade Phillips became defensive coordinator, and he vows to bring a new wrinkle or two this week.
*Fast facts: Quarterbacks making one of their first 16 regular-season NFL starts are 14-39 against Belichick. … The Patriots have a .796 winning percentage since 2001 in games played after Thanksgiving, best in the NFL by a wide margin (Steelers, .677).
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Betting against Tom Brady in a game that comes down to the final possessions would normally be a losing proposition. The Broncos gain the upper hand with a trio of cornerbacks – Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby – that stand out behind a bullish pass rush.
*Our pick: Broncos 23-20
Baltimore Ravens (3-7) at Cleveland Browns (2-8)
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland – TV: ESPN
*TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
*Keys to the game: Dysfunction rules in Cleveland, where one player said the locker room atmosphere was akin to a reality show. The Browns still have a chance to sweep the season series with Baltimore, and Josh McCown was reinstalled at quarterback in the wake Johnny Manziel’s party-fueled bye week. The recurring flat tire for the Browns’ offense is the running game. McCown can fight off blitzers with agility in the pocket, but the polished offensive line hasn’t been able to pave lanes for Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, who have a combined average of 3.05 yards per carry. Tight end Gary Barnidge is the lone consistent threat in the passing game and had eight receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with Baltimore.
For those who were longing to see Matt Schaub get another start, here it comes. Schaub is part of a skill position trio that will include rookie Buck Allen at running back and TE Crockett Gillmore. Baltimore’s offensive line has allowed 35 sacks over the past two seasons – lowest in the NFL – but Schaub was benched in Houston and again in Oakland because he didn’t trust reads. The result was too many hits and numerous balls up for grabs in coverage. The Browns intend to make Schaub win the game.
On the outside, Kamar Aiken is playing the role of top receiver and leads the team with 37 catches and three touchdowns.
*Matchup to watch – Gillmore vs. Barnidge: The No. 1 receiving options as their offenses are currently constituted, Barnidge is getting open regularly and a favorite target of McCown. Gillmore has 29 catches for 384 yards with a team-leading four touchdowns. Gillmore has also shown the ability to run over people.
*Player spotlight – Browns C Alex Mack: The two-time Pro Bowl selection had a rough outing in the first game this season against Baltimore, when the Ravens sacked McCown four times. One of those sacks was charged to Mack and allowed to DT Brandon Williams.
*Fast facts: The Ravens have placed 19 players on injured reserve through 12 weeks. … Cleveland last won Oct. 11 at Baltimore.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
Neither team is complete due to injuries, but Cleveland claws out a win against what amounts to Baltimore’s B team.
*Our pick: Browns 24-23.
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