Stick with something long enough in this life, and it usually pays off. Sure, there were some confusing episodes of Westworld, but the finale delivered. Yes, James Harden was an unfun ballhog until this year, but now he’s a joy to watch. Admittedly, NFL fans had to sit through a whole lotta awful games this season, but they’re about to get the good stuff. No more Colts, Jets, or Bears in prime time, folks. The moment for good football TV is finally here.
Last Thursday began a four-week stretch of prime-time games featuring a legitimately good Cowboys team. The Patriots are great. The Ravens are relevant. There are some damn good contests on the horizon in Week 14 and beyond, featuring some of the best TV products that the NFL has to offer. To celebrate this long-awaited return to compelling viewing, here are the five best things this sport can put on your screens at night:
5. Ben Roethlisberger Hosting a Prime-Time Game
Look at these numbers:
Roethlisberger is a machine in prime time, and so is Antonio Brown. The pairing makes for great television, and not just because of the scoring: Think of the twerking and the penalties that come with it! Roethlisberger has suggested that officials target Brown’s twerks when the games are important. Who can forget this?
Every prime-time Steelers game has a chance of turning into Footloose.
4. Al Michaels Singing the ‘Sunday Night Football’ Song
3. The Seahawks Playing One of Their Crazy Games
Seattle specializes in something fans and media call “scoragami,” the art of creating scores or scenarios that no one has ever seen before. Remember the Fail Mary?
Or the 6–6 overtime contest filled with missed kicks that was more Black Mirror episode than football game?
They can do it all. And even when they’re bad, it’s good.
2. The Patriots Against a Rival
Maintaining a real rivalry has been a tricky thing for the Patriots since they started their run 15 years ago. They haven’t gotten much competition from their AFC East foes, because while the Dolphins, Jets, and Bills certainly hate the Patriots, New England could show up without shoes on and still beat those teams. So, less conventional rivals have emerged: namely, the Colts, Broncos, Steelers, and Ravens, who’ve all played big prime-time and playoff games against the Pats in recent years.
The tension with the Ravens has probably been the most fun. While the Pats denied the presence of a rivalry this week, one definitely exists: Terrell Suggs refuses to even say Tom Brady’s name. Plus, the Ravens are a shockingly fun prime-time team despite employing Joe Flacco, and the Pats always deliver on the big stage. In the last five years, the Ravens won five prime-time games decided by a field goal or less, the most in the league. Flacco=fun!
1. A Good Cowboys Team Against an NFC East Foe
Here’s the thing: Even when the Cowboys were struggling in recent years, their big afternoon and evening games were fun. Now that the Boys are actually good, their games are a phenomenon. Entering Week 13, four of the five top-rated broadcasts of the season have been Cowboys games.
Seeing Tony Romo try (and often fail!) to beat the Giants or Eagles late at AT&T Stadium was always one of the most enjoyable things in football. Now, when Dallas is in those scenarios, it’ll be with its typical array of trademark personalities, but a better team and the ability to actually win the close ones.
They may just be the best thing on television.
And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)
Washington (-2) over PHILADELPHIA
The Redskins may be without Jordan Reed, their star tight end and Kirk Cousins’s beloved target. That’s very bad:
In many scenarios, that injury would swing the game out of Washington’s reach. Playing the Eagles is not one of those scenarios, however. Doug Pederson is mad at his players for failing to give enough effort; Malcolm Jenkins is mad at Pederson for failing to specify which players lollygagged; and Zach Ertz is mad at the media for asking about effort. It’s a mess. Oh, and of course: Everyone who once said Carson Wentz was good is mad at Carson Wentz for making them look bad.
INDIANAPOLIS (-6.5) over Houston
Yes, we criticize the AFC South all the time. No, the division would not be good enough to get a team into the playoff if it were a college conference. But things are getting better!
When the Texans and Colts met last December, four quarterbacks played: Brandon Weeden, T.J. Yates, Matt Hasselbeck, and Charlie Whitehurst. Seeing human turnover Brock Osweiler and a now-charging Andrew Luck face off will be an instant classic in comparison. The Colts have won Luck’s last three starts, with the QB getting sacked just five times in those contests. Meanwhile, Osweiler will surely want to regain the top spot for most interceptions thrown after Blake Bortles took the lead on the charts last week. Even if Osweiler stays two off that INT pace, he’ll find creative ways to look just as bad as he does when he’s actually coughing up the ball:
Chicago (+8) over DETROIT
The John Fox era in Chicago has not gone well: He’s 9–19 in his two years, and now there’s talk of a rift with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. That’s a problem, because as the Chicago Tribune noted, the defense has been the lone bright spot this season. Apparently, though, Fangio isn’t even the assistant coach on Fox’s mind: He revealed this week that he “[loves] saying” Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s name.
Meanwhile, Detroit’s Jim Caldwell, long ripped for his head coaching, is suddenly being praised far and wide for his leadership style. We learned this week that he’s a devotee of a business theory called “productive paranoia,” which details the “paranoid neuroticism” that all innovative leaders have. Jim Caldwell: Innovative Leader! That’s a first!
That leadership will help Detroit get the win on Sunday, but it won’t come in blowout fashion. Fangio and the Bears defense will keep it close against Cooter and his name.
Pittsburgh (-3) over BUFFALO
Bills corner Stephon Gilmore is asking to cover Antonio Brown, which is a bit like Quint volunteering to go kill the shark in Jaws. Things ended poorly for Quint, and while I like the attitude and think Rex Ryan’s team will avoid folding even though it’s basically out of contention, spirit won’t be enough to actually stop the Steelers. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor is so frustrated with the heat he’s taken for his recent play that he’s “done talking.” He’s gone three straight games without throwing for 200 yards — a very low yardage bar for a starting quarterback to clear — and that dip in production sets up well for the Steelers, whose top three secondary performances of the season have come in their last three games.
San Diego (+1.5) over CAROLINA
Everyone’s talking about Cam Newton’s wardrobe benching, but not enough people are focusing on how crappy Newton’s on-field showing has been. In adjusted completion percentage, a stat that accounts for drops, throwaways, spikes, etc., Newton ranks among the worst QBs in the league:
If not for Ted Ginn’s drops last season, Newton would have completed every single one of his passes for approximately 532 touchdowns. This year, however, he’s taken a massive step back. Offensive line injuries have crippled the offense, with Newton proving incapable of consistently picking up 10 yards through sheer force of will, as I thought he could. The Panthers’ 33-point loss to Seattle last week suggests they’re in for a rough rest of the season on both sides of the ball.
The Chargers, meanwhile, continue to keep things close against decent teams. I attended practice this week, and they seemed genuinely engaged and optimistic. That’s not something you see very often from a 5–7 team with almost no shot at contention — not to mention a team that’s literally trying to move to a new city.
MIAMI (+2) over Arizona
Miami is going to win this game, so instead of previewing an inevitable result, I want to turn everyone’s attention to Arizona head coach Bruce Arians, who gave a great, if sorta sad, answer to questions about reports of his potential retirement:
Arians also revealed that he gets extremely sick after the end of each season: “I’ve been sick every year for the last 30 years within two weeks of the end of the season,” he said, while also noting that this kind of thing is common in NFL circles. Coaching is not good for you, people.
Denver (+1) over TENNESSEE
Since Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl without being able to throw a football, we’ve assumed that anyone could look competent while helming the Broncos thanks to all of the team’s other pieces. But rookie Paxton Lynch is quickly disabusing us of that notion. Pro Football Focus named him the worst quarterback of Week 13 after he missed on all four of his deep balls and was just 3-of-8 for 13 yards when facing pressure. The Broncos won because they were playing the Jags, allowing them to get away with an incredible collection of mistakes:
On the plus side, Lynch’s poor play allows us to better appreciate that Trevor Siemian has been a genuinely productive quarterback and not just a stop-gap option who’s ridden the Broncos’ defense to relevance. Siemian will likely return this week from the foot injury that kept his 89 passer rating and 15–7 TD-INT ratio out of the lineup and thrust Lynch into action.
While there’s no QB debate in Denver, there’s controversy in Tennessee, where Marcus Mariota has shaved the mustache that he sported throughout November, when he posted a 115 passer rating. Look for a surging Von Miller (three sacks in the last two games) and the Broncos defense to take advantage of the mustache-less one, Siemian to make some big throws in his return, and the Broncos to win by a score.
CLEVELAND (+5.5) over Cincinnati
The newly healthy Robert Griffin III said that Hue Jackson is so upset (“welled up” is the phrase local media used) about being 0–12 that it makes the Browns want to play even harder for him. Man. The Niners and the Jets are playing this week, and somehow THIS is the most depressing game of the week. In addition to the Browns’ quest to win a game, there was a “quarterback controversy” involving who would start between RG3 and the stable of Browns QBs who’ve helped the team win exactly zero percent of their games. Jackson, who named Griffin the starter on Thursday, had said he was not trying to trick anyone by waiting to name a starter, and I believe him: It’s hard enough to find a healthy and competent Browns quarterback, let alone one who’s healthy and competent enough to trick anyone. I don’t think the Browns will actually win this week, but I think they’ll cover at home against a poor Bengals team that spent the week thinking about its coach’s future.
Minnesota (-3.5) over JACKSONVILLE
The over-under here is 39, meaning Vegas thinks, correctly, that these teams are going to stare at each other, commit a few turnovers, and at some point accidentally fall into the end zone for something called “a touchdown.” It’s no guarantee that those touchdowns will come on offense, though, because Jags QB Blake Bortles is throwing unrivaled amounts of pick-sixes. He features prominently on this beautiful chart, which highlights the eight passers who have thrown exactly 11 career pick-sixes. Of the 50 career INTs that Bortles has coughed up, 22 percent have gone for touchdowns, a remarkably high number (for comparison, only 7.8 percent of Troy Aikman’s did). More troubling: Of the eight players listed in that chart, Bortles has the worst career record. Hell, Stan Humphries won 62 percent of his games! Minnesota doesn’t look good right now, but the Vikings can score off turnovers. Something tells me they will on Sunday.
SAN FRANCISCO (-3) over NY Jets
Seattle (-3) over GREEN BAY
This will be Aaron Rodgers’s biggest test of the year. Though star safety Earl Thomas is out with a broken leg, Seattle’s defense is still built to stop exactly what Rodgers now does best: short passes. This week, The Wall Street Journal called Green Bay’s QB the “master of dink-and-dunk football,” but the Seahawks’ five-year run of defensive dominance has depended on keeping everything in front of them and making tackles. Rodgers will need to get the deep ball going if he hopes to take advantage of the Seahawks’ banged-up secondary; if he relies on the short game, he’ll be doing Seattle a favor.
The Packers have defensive worries of their own, as they’re the NFL’s second-worst team at covering the tight end, having allowed 71 receptions, 851 yards, and five touchdowns to the position. And the Seahawks have Jimmy Graham, who has 57 receptions, 769 yards, and five touchdowns of his own. Uh-oh.
TAMPA BAY (-3) over New Orleans
Jameis Winston is playing great football. In the first four games of the season, Winston threw eight interceptions. In the last six games, he’s thrown three, and the Bucs have won four in a row. A big part of his improvement has stemmed from his ability to command the pocket. In the last three games, he’s been sacked just twice and has shown an incredible knack for evading pressure and executing against the Bucs’ protection schemes:
While Winston is trending up, Drew Brees saw his streak of 60 straight home games with a touchdown pass end last week, as he delivered by far his worst game of the season despite facing a mediocre Lions defense. Expecting Brees to play two bad games in a row is a good way to go broke, and it’s worth remembering that the game before last week’s stinker was his best showing of the season. Still, Winston should outduel him here. Brees has been sacked six times in his last three games, and he’ll be facing a Bucs pass defense that’s making huge strides. Look for Tampa to force some dumb mistakes, as it did against San Diego last week.
Atlanta (-7) over LOS ANGELES
Holy crap, the Rams. To recap: Last weekend, Jeff Fisher got a two-year extension even though his Rams have lost seven of their last eight games. Then, general manager Les Snead also got an extension — after which Fisher said that he was “honestly unaware” it was happening and then threw shade on the entire front office by saying: “We need to do a better job, from a personnel standpoint.” There are two types of people who last a long time in a job: (1) those who are extremely good at their craft and (2) those who are well-liked. Fisher isn’t either. This is dumbfounding.
Dallas (-4) over NY GIANTS
We know that the Dallas offense is good. It would be nice to see more from the Dallas defense, which ranks 18th in yards allowed and 29th in passing yards allowed. The Cowboys are not going to face much of a test this week, though:
Odell Beckham Jr. has been the lone bright spot for the Giants offense, but even he hasn’t performed as well as he did during his record-setting rookie year or even last season, with his yards per reception and catch percentage dropping slightly from 2015. The Giants feasted on five bad teams during their six-game win streak, then struggled mightily to hang with the Steelers last week. They simply don’t have the talent or the schemes to match up with Dallas.
Baltimore (+7) over NEW ENGLAND
Bill Belichick just confirmed what many of us already assumed: He grew up a massive Baltimore Colts fan. “In Annapolis, we were fortunate because from a football standpoint, I mean at that time, there weren’t many games on TV but we got the Colts and the Redskins. But it was kind of all Colts for me,” he said. I love when Belichick nerds out about something, and the military buff shared some thoughts on Pearl Harbor as well:
As for this game: I sort of believe in the Ravens. I like their new, more open offense, brought on by an apparently “candid” meeting between Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. The Ravens scored 38 points against the Dolphins last week, and their defense is stout. If they can keep scoring points at a reasonable rate, they won’t get blown out by teams like the Patriots. Here comes the cover.
Last week: 7–8