When sports were a little cornier, loaded football days earned nicknames. In November 1997, for example, college football’s “Judgement Day” featured undefeated Michigan and Penn State and the similarly unblemished Florida State and North Carolina. For whatever reason, even when the networks toss out a moniker these days, the names fail to catch on.
It’s time to change that, because there’s a ton at stake in the NFL this weekend. Call it “Save Your Season Sunday” for the coaches, teams, and divisions in these key battles:
Rex Ryan vs. Marvin Lewis
Ryan turns from funny guy to tough football guy very quickly, usually under losing circumstances. With his Bills at 4–5 and falling behind the Dolphins in the AFC East, Ryan is saying things like: “I’m not here to make friends, man. I’m here to win.”
On Sunday, he’ll face Lewis, who has led the Bengals to a 3–5–1 record. Cincy is still contending in the clustered AFC North, but the team has underwhelmed enough to spark conversation about the end of his tenure.
The winner of this game could still keep his team in the playoff race, while the other coach will be on the hottest seat this side of Gus Bradley. The Bengals as a whole are losing their head a bit, with A.J. Green calling out the offensive line. They’ll face the Ravens and Eagles after this, so there are no gimmes on the immediate horizon.
Chuck Pagano vs. His Imploding Season
Here’s Pagano’s take on the 4–5 Colts facing the 5–5 Titans: “It’s playoff football, really.” Luckily for the NFL and its ratings, it’s not really. Though Pagano is overstating things a bit, every game is a must win for him at this point. The Colts’ shocking win over the Packers on November 6 gave him a few more weeks of job security, but with Green Bay flailing, that win isn’t as impressive as it may seem. Pagano spent Indy’s bye week watching a bunch of college football, which is good preparation, because he’ll be working at that level if the Colts fail to beat the Titans and start climbing toward a division title.
The Cardinals and Vikings vs. Their Expectations
The Vikings and Cardinals are very different teams: The Cardinals have looked like a disaster all season, while the Vikings have looked like a disaster for only the past four weeks. With Arizona at 4–4–1 and Minnesota at 5–4, no one is in danger of losing his job here, but with each additional loss, the preseason Super Bowl talk looks less likely to pan out.
Packers vs. Redskins vs. the NFC’s Other Playoff Teams
The Redskins are 5–3–1, which is decent, but in the competitive NFC East, that tie will haunt them in December. The Packers, meanwhile, are already in free fall, and Mike McCarthy is getting weird:
Both teams have a conceivable shot at the playoffs. Amazingly, the 4–5 Packers are still within reach of the NFC North title, with the division-leading Lions and Vikings sitting at just 5–4. But they have to win on Save Your Season Sunday.
And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)
NY GIANTS (-7.5) over Chicago
Eli Manning has thrown multiple touchdowns and interceptions in the same game 22 times. That’s fourth most among active players, but interestingly, Eli is the only one among the top 10 who has a winning record in those games, going 12–10. (Jay Cutler, by comparison, is 5–12 and Drew Brees is 11–19.) Manning is coming off of two such games in a row, both wins over quality opponents. Somehow, his franticness actually helps the Giants more than it hurts.
It would be just like Manning to flop this week against a very bad team, but I think he’ll avoid the trap. The Bears just lost Alshon Jeffery to a suspension, but that didn’t stop linebacker Pernell McPhee from losing it when discussing how badly the Bears would beat the 6–3 Giants: “We gonna tear their ass up,” McPhee said. “I don’t care what everybody else did. I mean, we’re going to sack him around.” Manning’s response? “Well, he’s a good player.” Never change, Eli.
Baltimore (+7.5) over DALLAS
You know how all of your friends are excited for Fantastic Beasts this weekend, but you maybe don’t understand what that is? (Maybe that’s just me?) That type of nerdy excitement also defines how football fans feel about this game. The Ravens have the league’s best run defense, while the Cowboys gain a league-best 161 yards per game on the ground. The Cowboys lead the league — by a lot — in drive length, with an average of three minutes and 17 seconds; the Ravens, meanwhile, hold opponents to the shortest drives in the NFL.
Boxing fans say “styles make fights” and these styles will make this a great one. If you need anything else to get you pumped, Terrell Suggs invented a persona called “Hacksaw Smithers” to crash a Dak Prescott conference call. I think the Ravens defense can do enough to keep the Cowboys offense in check.
Pittsburgh (-9) over CLEVELAND
Ben Roethlisberger, an Ohio native whom the Browns passed on in the 2004 draft, has been trolling Cleveland relentlessly these past few years. This week’s digs were masterful:
Of course, he hasn’t only trolled the Browns with words; he’s crushed them on the field, too:
While past QB play hasn’t been an issue, the Steelers are currently dealing with other problems, which Mike Tomlin dubbed “popcorn” — many different, small things. The phrase is handy; the issue it describes is concerning, because it’s much easier to fix one large problem than many small ones. If the quarterback or a cornerback is god-awful, a lineup switch can potentially solve things. But how can a team help a defense that has forced just four interceptions or an offense that ranks just 21st in rush yards per attempt? The Steelers have good players who are simply not performing. That’s frustrating, but it’s not easily fixable. Still, the Steelers should be able to overcome those flaws this week against a team whose big news is that Robert Griffin III is nearing a return to practice.
INDIANAPOLIS (-3) over Tennessee
In addition to being a playoff game in Pagano’s mind, this is a case study in what happens when a team properly protects its young quarterback. Marcus Mariota is putting up big numbers despite his tendency to create costly turnovers, largely because rookie Jack Conklin has quickly become one of the best tackles in football. The Titans have invested heavily in drafting linemen and hired a coach who wanted to put an emphasis on protecting the passer. The Colts, of course, have not made the same investment. Andrew Luck has been sacked eight times in his past two starts. With the Texans playing the Raiders and likely picking up a loss, the winner of this game will gain a massive boost in the divisional race.
All that said: I’m picking the Colts here because I still believe that they have enough talent to win at home against a team that has overachieved these past few weeks.
MINNESOTA (-1.5) over Arizona
Folks break out the “Larry Fitzgerald was a Vikings ball boy” line as often as the “Antonio Gates played basketball” remembrance, but this is a genuinely cool video:
There’s a more intriguing wide receiver in this game than Fitz, though, and it’s Stefon Diggs. Bruce Arians said that Patrick Peterson will shadow Diggs, but advanced metrics say that Peterson doesn’t necessarily work well in the slot, where Diggs will likely play. I think the Minnesota defense can shut down Arizona, while Diggs and the Minnesota offense can do just enough.
DETROIT (-7) over Jacksonville
Buffalo (+3) over CINCINNATI
Cincinnati has been losing because of its offensive line. The real issue for the Bengals isn’t just that Andy Dalton is getting sacked like this:
It’s that the Bengals rely so heavily on the deep pass that if the play never has time to develop, the offense will never be successful. Look at this chart:
It takes time for a deep play to work, which is why aerial yards increase as the play extends. Dalton, who’s been rushed all year, is averaging a half-yard less on all of his completions this season. He’s been sacked 28 times this season, eight more than last season’s total. (He started 13 games last year, he’s played nine so far this year.)
Dalton’s going to face more pressure against an aggressive Bills team with new pass-rushing star Lorenzo Alexander, whose 10 sacks at age 33 are 7.5 more than he’s ever had in a season. Dalton will hit the turf on Sunday. The only question is whether he’ll be able to get off a few deep plays when he manages to stay upright.
Tampa Bay (+7.5) over KANSAS CITY
This is unbelievable:
The Chiefs will likely get Justin Houston back this week in perhaps one of the biggest late-season additions a team could get. If he’s fully recovered from his knee injury, Houston will drastically improve Kansas City’s 21st-ranked pass rush and give the secondary, which my colleague Danny Kelly brilliantly examined this week, even more help.
Still, I don’t think the Chiefs will cover here, because the Bucs can score points. I’m elated by rising star Bucs tight end Cameron Brate, a Harvard grad who — I swear — I once heard in a locker room discussing whether the federal reserve should raise interest rates. Brate randomly approached Jay Cutler (Jay Cutler!) last week to say he was a big fan. “He looked confused,” Brate said. “He had no idea who I was, which was expected, but I shook his hand, which was cool.” While actually paying, Brate has scored a touchdown in three straight games. Houston’s return can help only so much this week, because Jameis Winston has thrown seven touchdowns to one pick when being blitzed this year. The Bucs won’t win:
But they’ll score enough to keep this close.
Miami (-2) over LOS ANGELES
Case Keenum isn’t happy. He’s “surprised” that Jeff Fisher is turning to Jared Goff. If that’s true, it’s incredible. Goff was the no. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, while Case Keenum is Case Keenum.
There’s no such drama for the Dolphins: They’re winners of four straight, executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum looks like a damn genius, and Ryan Tannehill looks like a legitimate NFL QB:
What’s more, Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso, given away by the Eagles via trade this offseason, look downright above average. Alonso also beat Marc Gasol to paying homage to Conor McGregor’s signature strut:
The Dolphins should have plenty of reason to strut against an average Rams team playing a first-time starter.
SAN FRANCISCO (+14) over New England
Classic Belichick, talking up the 49ers like Joe Montana is still on the team:
We’ve heard Bill Belichick wildly praise plenty of teams, including last season’s Jaguars, but this is definitely in the top 10 of Belichick over-praises.
There are plenty of reasons to take the Patriots here. They’re 4–0 against the spread as double-digit favorites since the start of 2015, and Tom Brady is pissed off that his hometown Niners passed on him in the draft. But New England’s defense is not very good right now, and though the Pats will certainly win the game, the 49ers are capable of amassing garbage-time points. Colin Kaepernick has been showing off his wheels lately, and he’ll be able to keep this close-ish.
SEATTLE (-7) over Philadelphia
If the Eagles had drafted Wilson, NFL history would be dramatically different. Andy Reid would still be in Philly. The Seahawks would be the NFC’s Texans, with a great defense but annually frustrating quarterback play. The Chiefs would still be stuck in football purgatory. And that’s the bare minimum of the alternate-history ripple effect.
The idea of missing on Wilson might have tortured Eagles fans for a while, but both teams in this game are likely pretty happy with their quarterback right now. The Wentz Wagon is back on track after a win over Atlanta, while Wilson is working his way into the fringes of the MVP discussion with five touchdowns and zero interceptions the past two weeks. The passers can’t do it all, though, and the Seahawks will win this game by dominating Philly’s outside receivers and stopping the Eagles’ run game. Imagine what Seattle’s D is going to be able to do against this:
WASHINGTON (-3) over Green Bay
It’s common for players to praise stars on other teams; not everyone is Pernell McPhee. Josh Norman took the typical approach, but with some atypical descriptions: “That is pretty much Gandalf the White over there,” Norman said of Aaron Rodgers. “That’s a wizard. That’s who he is to me.”
Norman probably hasn’t seen this comparison between Rodgers and Kirk Cousins:
Rodgers isn’t the only one who’s scuffling: The Packers defense is an absolute disaster right now, opening the door for Cousins and the Redskins to win this one.
Houston (+6) over OAKLAND (Mexico City)
Let’s check in on the Texans:
OK, so this would be sort of a weird game regardless. But it’s gotten even weirder, with reports surfacing that the Texans aren’t allowed to leave their hotel in Mexico City. (Clearly Houston hasn’t seen that The New York Times ranked the city the top travel destination in 2016.)
Something amazing is happening with the Raiders as well: CBS reported that they’re still under the spending threshold for the past four years and have to start spending more by March to avoid having to pay out the difference to the players’ union. Oakland essentially gutted the entire team, rebuilt, and formed a contender in a four-year span without spending like a real team. In a league where rebuilds are usually short-sighted and easily abandoned, the Raiders stuck to the plan and are reaping their rewards.
They’ll reap more rewards this week, though doing so won’t be easy. While Brock Osweiler is likely bad in every country, expect Houston to keep this close under weird circumstances, with a neutral crowd and in high altitude. The Raiders will win, but there should be a little chaos.
Last Week: 6–7