Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Jacksonville Jaguars: JAX +2
A closer look at this game reveals that JAX should be able to dominate it on the ground. MJD will have his opportunities to make fantasy owners happy as TB rank pretty low with run defense. In fact, TB has given up an average of 170 yards rushing per game during their 6 game losing streak! On top of this, JAX's O-line is motivated to get MJD the rushing title. In the air they don't have as much to fear as Gabbert still looks very much like a rookie, but with Talib looking doubtful the edge might go with JAX here too. TB was already bad vs the pass to begin with. They can't pressure the QB, get stops in the red zone, or get off the field on 3rd down either.
Adding insult to injury, Freeman is coming off a shoulder injury, Blount is denying legal allegations, and Price was sent home by Morris last week. This is a young, immature bunch and it shows on the field with costly penalties and a bad turnover differential. How motivated are they going to be to take out a lowly JAX team on the road?
Offensively things don't get much better for TB. JAX has been pretty good against the run and pass this year and the last time I checked Freeman doesn't have the skills or weapons that a Rivers has. Roll with the home dog in this one. Prediction: Bank JAX +2.
Houston Texans vs Cincinnati Bengals: HOU +3
On the flip side, CIN is a team going in the opposite direction. After their promising first half of the season, more was expected of them down the stretch. No one was really quite sure how they would respond when the going got tough, but they are 0-3 against top teams. That's not a good sign when you have one of the best AFC teams coming to town this week.
Look for HOU's defense to dominate most of the game. I like what CIN has going on with Dalton, Green, and Gresham, but they are far from a polished bunch and will have their hands full all day. HOU's defense have them outmatched in the air and on the ground. They also know how to get off the field on 3rd down, limit points from long drives, and win the turnover battle. Whatever points CIN do get, it won't come easy--especially with a hobbled Benson.
CIN's defense is pretty good too and there won't be any huge mismatches on this side of the ball either. I expect HOU to stick with the ground game and make life as easy as possible for Yates to manage. The main problem that CIN face is the fact that HOU have made it clear they are going to run the ball before and teams still haven't been able to slow them down. That O-line is no joke and Vickers will be back in the lineup leading the way. The one area that I expect HOU to have the edge in is in the red zone. CIN rank near the bottom of the league in red zone defense. Additionally, CIN's secondary is banged up so Yates should have some play-action opportunities in the air. Prediction: Bank HOU +3.
Philadelphia Eagles vs Miami Dolphins: MIA -3
When you break this game down to its fundamentals the advantage should be with PHI in the air and on the ground. However, Vick has been out a few weeks and he's coming back to a mess of a situation. I'm a huge fan of McCoy, but he's not 100% right now. D-Jax is acting like a diva and Maclin is hobbled with a hamstring injury. Vick has also never been very good with Celek either. Once again he'll rely on his athleticism to make things happen and he'll be relying heavily on Avant in 3rd and long situations. The problem for PHI's offense though will be MIA's 3rd down/red zone defense--they rank near the top in both of those categories. MIA are also a very disciplined bunch so PHI won't get a lot of freebie calls to sustain drives.
If PHI hope to win this game they'll need a stellar performance from their defense. However, Castillo is a sitting duck and there have been rumors all season long that the players never bought into his system or eclectic approach to coaching. Cole, Jenkins, DRC, and Asomugha are all banged up and it's uncertain how effective they will be come game-time. My suspicion is this is a team waiting for the other shoe to drop so they can move onto the off-season and hope for changes come next year. That said, things aren't all peachy for MIA's offense either. They are horrible on 3rd down and don't protect the QB very well. This could be a problem area with PHI's front-four. Having said that, they are playing better of late and just need to get in the 20 so they can go up against the worst red zone defense in the NFL.
The most glaring stat that jumped out at me is PHI's record against the bottom third of the league (1-3). Good teams that under-perform can usually take care of business in this area, but PHI can't even do that. Fade PHI until further notice. Prediction: Bank MIA -3.
Atlanta Falcons vs Carolina Panthers: ATL -2.5
The first half of the season was a tale of two tapes for these clubs. Everyone was on the CAR bandwagon as Cam shocked the NFL landscape. ATL came out trying to morph into the GB Packers, but quickly found out that Matt Ryan isn't Aaron Rodgers. Since then ATL has returned to what they do best--play fundamental football, control the clock, and take their shots when they can. As a result they've slowly but surely climbed my power rankings and now sit as a legitimate playoff contender. Meanwhile, CAR have never really lived up to the early season hype and all those glaring mistakes have turned out to be part of their identity rather than negative variance.
ATL should control this game running the ball since CAR haven't been able to stop the run all year. CAR can't get off the field on 3rd down, keep people out of the end zone, stay disciplined, or win a turnover battle. Overall it is a group that is a mixture of sub-standard talent and youthful mistakes. Cam isn't tearing it up like he was earlier in the year either. Some of that is due to a natural regression to the mean and some of it is defenses figuring out how to defense him in the air. Look for him to continue making plays with his feet instead. CAR's offense should be able to drive the field against ATL, but they'll find things tough once they get inside the 20. They'll also need to rely heavily on their main units because CAR rank near the bottom in special teams play. ATL is still a solid team across the board and I expect them to take care of business against an up and down CAR team still trying to figure out how to win games in this league. Prediction: Bank ATL -2.5.
New York Giants vs Dallas Cowboys: DAL -3
First and foremost DAL should be able to have their way with NY on the ground both offensively and defensively. It's a little surprising that NY have done so well this year without a good running game to rely on, but they rank near the bottom in rushing yards per game and per rush. Injuries haven't accounted for it so it's safe to chalk it up to underperformance. What NY has been good at though is points from long drives and red zone offense efficiency. DAL aren't bad defending these areas, but they aren't great either. If NY are going to win this game they'll need a great game from Eli Manning.
The problem for NY is they are on the road and outmatched on both sides of the ball in several key areas. DAL should be able to mix it up enough with the pass and the run to dictate play and put points on the board. They have been horrendous in the red zone however and Romo doesn't have the best December track record. The fact that this is a prime-time game only makes it worse. That said, it's not enough for me to pass up this value. I think DAL should be favored by 5 or 6 points based on everything I see. They do a good job pressuring the QB and don't have big problem areas like NY does. Give DAL credit for not falling apart so far and I expect them to win the division. Ware has returned to practice and Lee wasn't lost for the year like many people feared. Even Miles Austin could see some playing time this week. He's expected to return, although it's unknown how effective he'll be since he's had issues with his hamstring all year. Roll with the home team, but don't lay more than a field goal. Prediction: Bank DAL -3.