NFL Week 14: Cowboys Look to Lasso Eagles
While Steelers fans got their Xmas booing out of the way, the rest of the NFL audience gears up for what is certain to be a scintillating push for the postseason.
It starts on Week 14 Sunday.
Front and center are key divisional tussles, highlighted by Philadelphia traveling to Big D to take on the Cowboys for first place in the NFC East. Fresh off turning the Eagles into roadkill, the 49ers return home to do battle with a Seattle team looking to tighten up the NFC West and end a recent run of Niners’ domination in the series.
And the question hanging over the AFC North showdown in Cleveland is whether Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence will give it a go on a damaged ankle.
If those storylines do not get you salivating for some NFL football, then you must live in Pittsburgh.
Jacksonville (8-4) at Cleveland (7-5), 1 p.m. ET
All eyes are on the health of Jags QB Trevor Lawrence who practiced on Thursday, but is still expected to be a game-time decision. If he can not go, then C.J. Beathard, who played well in relief of Lawrence Monday night, gets the call.
The Browns come off a fourth-quarter collapse in Los Angeles, but return home for a chance at first place in the AFC North. Rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who missed the Rams game, was limited at practice and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, as of Friday, has not yet named a starter. If not DTR, then doddering vet Joe Flacco will need to postpone his afternoon nap and line up under center.
Cleveland’s No. 1 defense took a hit against the Rams, allowing three Matthew Stafford TD passes, but expect to get back corner Denzel Ward for the Jacksonville game. Of concern for Lawrence, if he plays (Beathard, if he does not), and the Jacksonville offensive line is facing a more-motivated-than-usual Myles Garrett, who played through an injured shoulder against the Rams but was blanked on the stat sheet. To combat the Cleveland’s tough pass defense, look for Jacksonville to feature running back Travis Etienne Jr.
This matchup is right there with the Colts-Bengals as on of the weekend’s most compelling. So much depends on Lawrence’s availability and whether he is physically compromised. If Beathard gets the start, the Browns win handily. We think Lawrence gives it go, but still like the home team. Cleveland 20, Jacksonville 16.
Indianapolis (7-5) at Cincinnati (6-6), 1 p.m. ET
One of the more intriguing games in Week 14. The Bengals come off a stunning win Monday night that may have saved their season and QB Jake Browning will try to recreate his MNF magic in front of a home crowd. but has to do so against a defense with 42 sacks. Helping Browning to his big night in Jacksonville was a Bengals running attack that totaled 156 yards. A repeat of that performance will go a long way to giving Browning time to throw against a Colts defense that comes in with 42 sacks.
It appears that the Colts offense will be without star running back Jonathan Taylor (thumb) for a second straight game. Zack Moss and the Indy running game struggled some against the Titans in Week 13, but the Bengals defense ranks last in yards per play and is near the bottom in both pass and run defense. QB Gardiner Minshew and blossoming star receiver Michael Pittman Jr. are gelling into one of the AFC’s top passing duos — Pittman Jr. recorded double-digits in receptions and posted 100-yard receiving days in both of the last two Colts games.
The Colts are playing better and their pass rush is legit, but the magic of Browning’s Monday night performance carries over to Sunday. Cincinnati 28, Indianapolis 26.
Los Angeles Rams (6-6) at Baltimore (9-3), 1 p.m. ET
In need of a big road win to enhance their wild card prospects, the Rams face a tall task: The Ravens play at a whole dihfferent level at home and already demolished NFC teams Detroit and Seattle earlier this year at M&T Bank Stadium. Still, LA quarterback Matthew Stafford knows success in Baltimore, leading a late fourth-quarter drive to beat the Ravens two years ago.
To repeat that outcome, the Rams’ offensive line needs to bottle what it did last week against a terrific, albeit injured, Cleveland front seven, giving Stafford time to pick apart the Browns’ secondary for three TD passes. The Ravens defense tops the NFL in sacks with 47 sacks. But rather than relying on a single dominant edge rusher, the blitzing Ravens get to bring the pressure from all over — nine different Baltimore defenders have three or more sacks, led by Justin Madublike’s 10.
Figuring out where the heat is coming from on any given play will the challenge for the Rams Sunday.
On offense, the Ravens are still all about QB Lamar Jackson and the powerful running game, which puts up a league-high 158 yards per game. Containing Jackson and throttling the thunder-n-lightening tandem of Gus Edwards and Keaton Mitchell is another priority for Los Angeles. But too much attention will leave the Rams vulnerable to big plays from rookie receiver Zay Flowers and vet Odell Beckham Jr.
The well-rested Ravens come off a bye and will control the game from start to finish. Baltimore 31, Los Angeles Rams 19.
Tampa Bay (5-7) at Atlanta (6-6), 1 p.m. ET
First place in the NFC Going South is at stake in this game. If Tampa Bay and New Orleans win Sunday, then there will be a three-way tie for the division lead at 6-7.
The Falcons won the first game between these two teams in October, QB Desmond Ridder enjoyed one of his most efficient games of the season and the Falcons’ running game rushed for 156 yards.
If those two statistics are duplicated, look for Atlanta to win going away — if they limit the turnovers. But that’s a big if; the Falcons nearly coughed up the win over Tampa by fumbling three times, and the Bucs will count again on Ridder’s history for giving the ball away to keep them in this matchup.
These are two teams whose defenses are top-notch when it comes to keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone. So which offense performs best inside the other’s 20 will have a leg up. Tampa does have WR Mike Evans, whose size and competitiveness with the ball in the air makes him an ideal red-zone threat.
But Atlanta is at home. And Bijan Robinson is carving out a bigger role in the Falcons’ attack. We think Ridder will play clean enough for the game to come down to Younghoe Koo field goal to give Atlanta a win and control of the division. Atlanta 23, Tampa Bay 20.
Carolina (1-11) at New Orleans (5-7), 1 p.m. ET
The Saints find themselves with a chance to land in first place with a win at home over the Panthers. Despite the opportunity, New Orleans heads into this must-win game with concerns about QB Derek Carr’s availability. Carr has been concussion protocol this week, but was throwing Wednesday, so signs point to him playing. If he is unable to go, then backup Jameis Winston gets the nod. (QB Taysom Hill has missed time this week with an assortment of injuries and is being evaluated for Sunday.)
New Orleans’ RB Alvin Kamara and WR Chris Olave put up nice numbers against Detroit, but whether Carr or Winston is under center, the Saints’ offense needs to be better at finishing off drives. Red-zone opportunities should be plentiful against Carolina, but if the Saints trade touchdowns for field goals, then look for Carolina to be dangerously close in the second half.
The Panthers played Tampa Bay tough on the road last week, so it isn’t unthinkable that they could make things uncomfortable. But poor pass protection continues to bedevil Carolina’s offense and rookie signal-caller Bryce Young is, at this point, just trying to survive the season. Playing in a dome stadium against a fast, aggressive defense does not qualify as ideal for a young quarterback.
Look for the pass-protection woes to continue for the Panthers, and for the savvy safety Tyrann Mathieu to pick off Young at least once. New Orleans 20, Carolina 9
Houston (7-5) at New York Jets (4-8), 1 p.m. ET
The matchup between stellar rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Jets’ third-ranked pass defense makes this game worthy of tuning in.
Stroud will be missing a favorite target, rookie wideout Tank Dell, but fellow wideout Nico Collins comes off a 191-yard day in the Texans’ win over Denver on Sunday. The individual matchup between Collins and either New York starting corner — Sauce Gardner or D.J. Reed — could be decisive. Look also for veteran wideout Robert Woods to make an impact in Dell’s absence.
Another key will be whether Houston decides to dial back the passing game and instead attack the Jets vulnerable run defense. Over the last three weeks, Houston RB Devin Singletary recorded the third-most scrimmage yards among NFL backs, but ran for only 36 yards against Denver.
On the other side of the ball, the Jets offense is a mess. The team released QB Tim Boyle, who started the past two games in place of the demoted Zach Wilson. But now it is “Zach in the saddle” for Wilson who tries to take a step towards salvaging a brutal for him and the New York offense. The Texans
It’s a big game for Houston, who with a win closes to within just one game of AFC South-leading Jacksonville while also strengthening their chances for an AFC wild card spot. Weather permitting, this sense of urgency will help the Texans prevail. Houston 20, New York Jets 6.
Detroit (9-3) at Chicago (4-8), 1 p.m. ET
A rematch of the pre-Thanksgiving game that saw the Bears blow a 12-pt lead in the final four minutes. Detroit comes in the NFL’s second-ranked offense, but their red-zone offense slipped in recent weeks. A Bears upset hinges on their defense forcing field goals and getting “Santa” Goff to again serve up some turnovers, which he did enthusiastically in the first meeting.
Both teams come into the rematch relatively healthy, though Detroit center continues to battle a toe issue that held him out of practice this week.
Detroit’s offense is predicated on establishing the run with the running back duo of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. The Bears run defense is in a dead heat with the 49ers’ as the NFL’s best. So expect Goff to go to the air early. The Bears pass defense improved in recent games but is still a huge problem in the red zone, where Chicago ranks last in the NFL.
Until its final drive against the Vikings in Week 12, the Chicago offense was nowhere to be found. The Bears come off a bye, but it is not clear whether QB Justin Fields, who looked rusty against Minnesota, will benefit from the rest. Wideout DJ Moore is really the lone play-making threat on the Chicago offense. He and Fields have established a connection, with Moore catching 50 passes in the eight games Fields started this season. For the Bears to beat Detroit, Moore needs to come up with multiple big plays.
We do not see that happening. The Bears’ offense is too unreliable while Detroit’s is too physical. Goff will play his second straight error-free game, and he and rookie tight end Sam Laporta will exploit the Bears weakness in the red zone. Detroit 33, Chicago 17.
Minnesota (6-6) at Las Vegas (5-7), 4:05 p.m. ET
Still another game ripe with playoff intrigue. Both teams come off a bye following tough divisional losses in Week 12.
This game features two offenses that struggle to run the ball and score in the red zone. Expect to see a lot of passing, which means a lot of sack opportunities for two the NFL’s elite pass rushers.
The endearing plot of the Vikings and Josh Dobbs cooled after their miserable effort in the MNF loss to Chicago. But Minnesota welcomes back Justin Jefferson and hopes to quickly integrate the All-Pro wide receiver into an offense that learned to be more diversified in his absence. Weeks ago, a Jefferson versus Marcus Peters mano a mano looked enticing, but Vegas released the former All-Pro corner, leaving a solid pass defense a bit thin on the back end.
To help ensure Dobbs gets the time to find Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson (team-leading 80 catches) and talented rookie Jordan Addison, the Vikes’ offensive line needs to account for and block Maxx Crosby, the Raiders’ marauding defensive end who comes in with 11.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss (second in the league).
Crosby’s counterpart on Minnesota, Danielle Hunter (13.5 sacks), is equally disruptive and expects to be hounding Raiders’ quarterback Aidan O’Connell most of the afternoon. The winner of this game might very well come down to which squad runs the ball well enough and does a better job of neutralizing the other’s star sack master.
We think Josh Dobbs will do a better job of eluding Crosby than O’Connell will Hunter. Minnesota 23, Las Vegas 21.
Seattle (6-6) at San Francisco (9-3), 4:05 p.m. ET
Over their four wins coming out of a bye, the 49ers looked like a juggernaut. This is especially true on offense, where San Francisco sports two legitimate league-MVP candidates. Quarterback Brock Purdy keeps dazzling with his efficiency, anticipation and ability to transfer everything from head coach Kyle Shanahan’s head to the field of play. Running back Christian McCaffery is the NFL’s most complete offensive weapon.
Quite a Herculean challenge for Seattle defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt to overcome. Loading up to stop McCaffery and the running means expanding the arteries of the defense. And Purdy is expert at using play-action to distribute the ball to George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk — all physical dynamos after the catch.
But for Seattle to win, it behooves them to make San Francisco one-dimensional on offense. Getting out in front early would help, though don’t expect for Seattle’s struggling running game to make much headway against Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and San Francisco’s stout run defense. Which means much of Seattle’s hopes for an upset rest on the shoulders of Geno Smith, D.K. Metcalf and the Seattle passing game.
The Seahawks proved in their close loss in Dallas that their aerial attack can move the ball and score against a tenacious defense, and do so on the road. Smith threw for 334 yards and Metcalf — awesome against the Cowboys — has a history of working over Charvarius Ward, the 49ers corner who did play exceptionally well against the big receiver in the 49ers’ Thanksgiving win between these two teams. To take some of the pressure off Metcalf, others in the talented Seattle receiver corps — especially Tyler Lockett and rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba — need to make plays.
The last time the Niners came off a statement win — Week 5’s 42-10 over Dallas — they got fat and complacent. This showed up most noticeably in poor tackling and an ineffective pass rush. If the 49ers learned their lesson, Seattle will be in trouble. But divisional matchups have a way of equalizing the gap between teams, and Seattle, with the extra three days to prepare, will have some new wrinkles on the both sides of the ball.
That and we still do not buy into the 49ers’ defense. Our upset special: Seattle 26, San Francisco 23
Buffalo (6-6) at Kansas City (8-4), 4:25 ET
A rematch of the Divisional Round overtime classic two years ago features two teams who have slid a bit from their perch this season.
The Bills, coming off a bye, are beginning to pile up impressive numbers on offense, especially since their running game came alive in the last three games (165 yards per game). But turnovers at key moments continue to plague Josh Allen. He needs to clean up the mistakes or a usually opportunistic Kansas City defense will make them pay.
We say usually because the Chiefs’ defense flagged in the past couple of games. A suspect Green Bay OL gave Jordan Love time to throw and the Packers offense racked up nearly 400 yards. It is possible Steve Spagnuolo’s crew is bowing a bit under the weight of carrying the team while waiting for the Patrick Mahomes-led to finally find its groove.
And we keep waiting for that to happen too. Running back Isiah Pacheco is a revelation and seems destined to be a featured back, but KC’s wide receiver group is inconsistent and drops passes all over the place. The Chiefs, solidly in the top five in offense for the first half of season, are now No. 8 and falling, and the odds that the group rediscovers its dominance seem to be more remote with each passing week.
The early-season injuries that sidelined key starters seemed to catching up with the Buffalo defense, but the bye may be all this unit needed to reenergize. At least that is our mindset. Buffalo 28, Kansas City 21.