Homer Simpson once said that the two sweetest words in the English language are “de-fault,” and the New England Patriots might soon feel the same way. Rob Gronkowski is out for the season, Tom Brady is hobbled, and the defense is mediocre. And yet, if you rack your brain for teams likely to beat the Pats in the playoffs, you might wind up thinking that New England looks like the default AFC pick anyway.
The Patriots have a lot of problems. But they picked a great year to have them, because the AFC is so weak that they would need to suffer a few more setbacks before abdicating favorite status. Sometimes The Artist wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Sometimes Mike Weir wins the Masters. Hell, someone has to win the Heisman this year. And guess what? Some deeply flawed team will win the AFC this season, and New England is still better positioned than its fellow hopefuls.
Consider: The Raiders are giving up 6.2 yards per play, tied for worst in the league with the Colts (who, for the sake of credibility, will not be listed here as a contender). Oakland’s quarterback has played as well as anyone in the league, but has a grossly dislocated finger. They’re also outscoring opponents by fewer points than the 6–5 Steelers. The Raiders are a great team, but they’re far from a no-brainer to supplant the Gronk-less Patriots as AFC favorites. The Broncos, meanwhile, may be without Trevor Siemian this week because of a foot injury. Even when they have him, though, their offense seems to require one or two sublime, huge plays downfield to function. We saw the Broncos win the Super Bowl last season with bad QB play, but their overall offensive output — 19th in rushing, 23rd in passing — is down across the board. The margin for error is so slim when a team can’t score points. Von Miller mauling quarterbacks is enough to keep the Broncos in the hunt, but they’ll need some turnover luck and some Siemian miracles to get any further. And the Chiefs, despite being 8–3, have been punching above their weight statistically all season, ranking 27th in yards gained and 28th in yards allowed.
And then there’s Houston (awful quarterback), Miami (feasting on some easy opponents), Pittsburgh (blah everywhere), Baltimore (employs Joe Flacco), and Tennessee (is Tennessee).
With the Pats compromised, the AFC race is shaping up to be a bit like the NCAA tournament: When there are no perfect teams, it comes down to coaching, luck, and experience. The Patriots may have lost out on the luck part due to their injuries, but they have everything else. They’re slightly less flawed in almost all areas than their competitors are, they have the best coach of the modern era, and Gronk or not, they’re still the damn Patriots. I’ll pick against them when they’re no longer the default option.
And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)
San Francisco (+1) over CHICAGO
Colin Kaepernick and Matt Barkley are better than we thought. The expectations for Kaepernick were higher, of course, since the Barkley bar was “don’t throw an interception on every play.” But he hasn’t: Jay Cutler’s replacement managed 316 yards and three touchdowns (to two interceptions) last week, almost beating the Titans despite playing with a ludicrously bad receiving corps. Kaepernick, meanwhile, is using his legs again, rushing for 113 yards against the Dolphins in Week 12 while passing for 296 yards and three touchdowns. Chip Kelly’s system lends itself to Kaepernick’s skills, and it’s tantalizing to wonder what the future could hold if the quarterback keeps improving in this offense. Kaepernick made a similar observation this week, saying Kelly’s three-receiver sets create space for him. That trend will likely continue against the Bears.
Los Angeles (+13) over NEW ENGLAND
When these two teams get together, the talk naturally centers on the coaches, one of whom is famous for winning, and one of whom is unclear which positions his opponents play. Jeff Fisher name-checked Patriots running backs “Brandon” and “Danny” — neither of whom are Patriots running backs. (Brandon might be Brandon Bolden, a former back who’s now exclusively a special teamer, while the Rams clarified that Danny meant Danny Amendola, who is decidedly not a running back.)
But let’s not lose sight of the real news: Belichick is totally in love with a punter. He called Rams punter Johnny Hekker a “tremendous weapon,” which, considering Belichick’s love of touchback rules and special teams, is basically the nicest thing he could say about anyone or anything. With Gronk out, Brady ailing, and the defense struggling, expect a low-scoring win for the Pats, meaning they won’t cover. Expect lots of punts as well. Belichick will love it. So will Brandon and Danny.
Detroit (+5.5) over NEW ORLEANS
Officials should stop this game after Matthew Stafford’s third touchdown so that Drew Brees can ceremonially pass the “guy who puts up huge numbers, makes a ton of money, and prays the supporting cast is sorta good each year” torch to the Detroit QB. Brees will be that guy for two more years, max; Stafford’s looking at about 10. That reality is not deterring Stafford’s coach, Jim Caldwell, who called Stafford a future Hall of Famer. Brees will assuredly get the Canton nod because he excelled before 2009, when passing numbers became absurd. Stafford will likely have to win a Super Bowl to put himself above any number of great-stats-average-wins guys trying to get into the Hall of Fame in 2031. It’ll help if he can continue his almost impossible string of comebacks, which had a 40,000-to-1 chance of happening this season, according to a website. This game will be something like 31–31 late, at which point someone will get a turnover and win it. I’m giving the edge to the Lions, who are slightly less bad on defense than the Saints.
Denver (-5.5) over JACKSONVILLE
CINCINNATI (-1) over Philadelphia
If you think Doug Pederson might have committed one of the dumbest challenges of the year by arguing a 2-yard Packers completion on Monday night, you’re wrong. It was definitely the dumbest challenge of the year. The Eagles won it, but as Pederson explained, throwing the red flag was a mistake because he hadn’t properly weighed the prospect of losing the challenge against … the value of gaining 2 yards. He said he wouldn’t do it again.
He didn’t escape criticism. After a hot start, Pederson has fallen out of favor with the Philadelphia media, seemingly struggling to explain why his team has lost four of five. Pederson defended his defensive line’s play by saying: “If you’ve never played that position or played this level of football, I think it’s easy to speculate …” a well-worn trope for coaches who have no real answers. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane wrote this week that Pederson is essentially a puppet for his GM and owner and was brought in because he’s (a) generally social and (b) is definitely not Chip Kelly. McLane also stressed that the only thing on which Pederson can be judged is in-game decisions, and those, like the 2-yard challenge, have been bad.
So the Eagles, heading for a meaningless December, are playing a Bengals team that has been playing meaningless football for a while now. I’ll take Cincinnati at home — even though I’ve never played the game.
BALTIMORE (-3.5) over Miami
Mike Wallace, who’s putting together a surprisingly nice season as Baltimore’s speed threat, had a heartwarming message about facing his former team: “I have no regrets,” Wallace said. “They gave me a lot of money in two years.”
While that may be true, Wallace and the Ravens now find themselves in a tricky spot. They play the talented Dolphins and Patriots in consecutive weeks, then in three weeks face the Steelers, with whom they’re currently tied for the division lead. That slate makes winning this game crucial if they hope to prevail in the AFC North, which I think they just might. The Dolphins defense showed a few cracks late last week against the 49ers, and we already know the Ravens’ great rushing defense will likely shut down the Dolphins’ solid rushing game.
That means this will come down to Ryan Tannehill, the quarterback that rapper Uncle Luke was ripping at a Miami bar last winter before being interrupted by a Tannehill defender: Adam Gase. That’s the best anecdote of the season, but it’s not going to get the Dolphins the win.
Houston (+7) over GREEN BAY
Aaron Rodgers put together his best win of the season last week, thanks in part to breakout star Davante Adams. Before that win, Rodgers was already talking about running the table to snag an unlikely playoff spot, and now Green Bay seems to have momentum after breaking a four-game losing streak. Still, those playoff hopes rest entirely on whether their defense is a complete disaster on a given week. Performing in Week 12 against a fading Eagles team was a good start, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the Packers have solved all of the problems that contributed to the losing streak in which the defense gave up 30 points in four straight games for the first time since 1953.
Sunday’s matchup will be a big test, not because they will be facing a good offense — heavens no — but because if the Packers allow Brock Osweiler to have any success, we’ll know that they haven’t improved at all. Four teams have allowed multiple passing touchdowns to Osweiler this season: the Bears, Colts, Titans, and Jaguars. If the Packers join that list, they’ll remain who we thought they were.
ATLANTA (-4.5) over Kansas City
Albert Breer’s piece on Dan Quinn featured an interesting detail: When one Atlanta player’s tenure concluded last season, that player exchanged phone numbers with another. Quinn was upset to discover that they hadn’t been contacting each other to that point, which led him to try to change the organizational culture to create stronger bonds. Whether or not the key has been swapping phone numbers or Julio Jones destroying defenders, something has bettered the Falcons, who have avoided the kind of midseason collapse that took them from 5–0 to 8–8 last year. They’ll beat a tired Kansas City team that’s coming off an emotional Sunday night win — although Andy Reid does have a pretty good game plan for beating Jones:
Washington (+2.5) over ARIZONA
I cannot recommend anything more highly than this Washington Post story detailing Kirk Cousins’s love of musical theater. “I would love to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat again,” Cousins said, while also noting that he really wants to see Hamilton, for which he’s only seen Rob Riggle’s spoof.
Even more surprising than Cousins’s Broadway affinity has been his emergence as a legitimately good quarterback. In his past five games, Cousins has shed the one-year-wonder label, hitting the 300-yard mark four times and the 400-yard mark twice. He’s emerging as an extreme dark horse MVP candidate and could soon become one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league: As former Browns and Eagles executive Joe Banner points out, he could command around $25 million per year, and if he’s franchised again, he’ll make more money than all but three quarterbacks next season.
Despite his run of success, Sunday will be a massive test, because the Cardinals allow the second-fewest passing yards per game in the league. But the Washington D has an edge here, too: It forced five total turnovers in the three games before facing the Cowboys, who never make mistakes. For a team trying to get back into the habit of creating turnovers, playing Arizona is a great place to start, and Washington will win this late by forcing Carson Palmer to make mistakes.
It won’t be as exciting as Jersey Boys, another Cousins favorite, but he’ll try to provide some entertainment.
OAKLAND (-3.5) over Buffalo
So much of the season has centered on the idea that the Raiders’ return to prominence is good for football. That’s true, but don’t sleep on how fun it would also be if a Rex Ryan team remained in the hunt. It’s easy to forget how fun this can be, because Ryan hasn’t been relevant in December since about 2010. But at 6–5, the Bills can still make the playoffs if they catch a few breaks. And because they’re still alive, the Bills have started talking shit, Ryan style, with corner Stephon Gilmore accusing Michael Crabtree of pushing off all the time without getting flagged. Almost everyone on these teams is brash: Kelechi Osemele, whose name Ryan cannot pronounce, tweeted this video of him absolutely destroying the Panthers last week:
If this game were in Buffalo, I’d pick the Bills, but I love a glove-wearing Derek Carr riding a loud Oakland crowd to a touchdown win.
Unrelated nugget: Former Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, now a tight end, signed with the Bills this week. Earlier in the week, he spent about a day on the Lions, and compared learning the position to Billy Madison graduating from multiple grades in a short period of time. It remains to be seen if Thomas is any good at tight end, but he’s got some great analogies.
Finally, here’s a supercut that begins with Jack Del Rio just yelling different variations of “Go!”
NY Giants (+6) over PITTSBURGH
The Steelers will win this in a close one, but before we talk about that, I’d like to direct your attention to the weird narrative that’s stemmed from Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger being high picks in the 2004 draft: The media keep asking the two if they’re friends. They are decidedly not, but because the media seem so invested, Roethlisberger tried to let them down gently:
“I don’t have his number, we don’t text or call, but I have the utmost respect for him,’’ Roethlisberger said this week. “If I saw him on a golf course or on the street, we obviously would talk and I would have no problem having dinner with him.”
“No problem having dinner with him!” What a bond. Roethlisberger described the relationship as “cordial’’ and respectful. No matter what they eat before the game, there’s no way the Giants, who’ve won six in a row, should be underdogs by this much. The Steelers are ranked 23rd in yards in yards allowed through the air, meaning Manning, Roethlisberger’s best friend, will find Odell Beckham Jr. on at least two huge plays to keep this tight.
Tampa Bay (+3.5) over SAN DIEGO
This week, Jameis Winston revealed that he studies all quarterbacks — all of them! — saying: “I’m just in a universal competition, not just with NFL quarterbacks, but with college quarterbacks as well.” Winston also discussed a letter he wrote to inspire teammates last month. He isn’t the only quarterback doing things like this — Russell Wilson writes inspirational messages to teammates all the time — and Winston’s over-the-top leadership style might be slightly corny, but it’s somehow working. The Bucs have won three straight and are a few Falcons slipups away from making the playoffs. And Winston is good under pressure, minimizing the Chargers’ biggest defensive asset:
The Bucs are also 4–1 on the road. Jameis’s universal competition against quarterbacks at all levels rolls on!
Carolina (+7) over SEATTLE
Ron Rivera called his offensive line “as catastrophe as you can get” this week, because the unit is playing nearly all backups at this point. Unfortunately, Rivera’s wrong.
The real matchup here is not Seattle vs. Carolina (I think Seattle wins close) but rather Russell Wilson and Cam Newton vs. their own offensive lines. Wilson was sacked six times against Tampa Bay last week, and his offense scored five points. Even though the number of sacks he’s taken is down this season — he’s gone down on 6.6 percent of his dropbacks this year compared to 8.5 percent last season — the line has bottomed out in recent weeks, allowing 14 sacks in the past four games. Newton, meanwhile, has been sacked at least twice in each of the past four games, suffering 11 total in that span. Oh, and Seattle’s pass-rushing ace Michael Bennett returns this week.
Anyone who thought this modern, pass-happy era would make offensive line play irrelevant is seeing ample evidence to the contrary this year: Oakland and Dallas are keeping their young quarterbacks upright and are winning big. Meanwhile, O-line injuries sunk Carolina’s season, Sam Bradford can’t get a pass off in Minnesota, and Seattle is going to get Wilson killed.
Indianapolis (-2) over NY JETS
A Darrelle Revis “confidant” told the New York Daily News that the former star “doesn’t want to play anymore.” The Colts should be familiar with this sensation, because it seems like most of their team feels the same way. But Todd Bowles is under serious heat in New York, where he’s having to defend basically everything. Why is the defensive line bad? Because the ball is coming out quicker. If you’re confused by that, you’re not alone: The New York Post wants you to know that “Todd Bowles is refreshingly deaf to everything you say.”
Oh, and the Jets are still starting Ryan Fitzpatrick:
Last week: 7–8–1