If it feels like this NFL season is missing something critical compared to last season, it’s because it is.
We have no villain in the NFL right now. Last year at this time the Seahawks were 10-1 and demolishing every team in their path. They also had a trio of trash talkers in Richard Sherman, Golden Tate and Earl Thomas, three guys who had never won anything significant in the NFL, yet didn’t mind telling the world that they were the greatest. You also had a coach in Pete Carroll who isn’t that hard to hate. And of course, there was the vaunted 12th man. Nothing worse than a group of fans who think they’re affecting games just a little bit more than they actually are.
Seattle gave us the villain we needed in 2013, and of course anyone who actually picked against them ended up being disappointed.
As I looked through all the teams with a chance to make the playoffs, I really struggled to find a candidate for this role. There’s essentially no team that the masses can root against in unity it seems.
Here are the only possibilities I came up with, and even then they’re a stretch:
- Detroit: If only they still employed Jim Schwartz, one of the easiest coaches to hate. I guess you can hang onto the bad feelings that everyone had for Ndamukong Suh over the last few years and say he’s a dirty player. No one would argue that really. And the Lions did pick up Golden Tate, one of Seattle’s best trash-talkers from last year. But otherwise, what’s to dislike? The Lions haven’t been very successful lately, they don’t have star players that really make you gag at the mere sight of them, and their fan base doesn’t seem particularly obnoxious.
- San Francisco: Their recent run of three straight NFC Championship game appearances probably sparks some hatred in fans of other NFC teams, and their coach is easily the least likeable head coach in football. Yes, you can’t help but root against the 49ers because it’s fun to see all the ways Jim Harbaugh can act like a three-year-old when the game isn’t going his way. They also have some questionable character guys, but which NFL team doesn’t at this point? Overall, this is probably my favorite team to hate out of the group, but I’m concerned that they might not even make the playoffs so we won’t have a chance to hate them in January.
- Seattle: The Seahawks could absolutely go on a roll, end up with the #1 seed again, and give us a redo on rooting against last year’s villain. Not much has changed in terms of my dislike for them, except that they’ve been humbled repeatedly this year so a little bit of my passion for them is gone.
- New England: I would guess that any year where we don’t have a true villain, the Patriots are the backup villain. This is mostly on account of their constant success and the ease with which people can point to Bill Belichick and say “what a dick.” As a Patriots fan, I just can’t understand this. New England is the model franchise and you should all look up to them and pray that your team someday becomes even half as good as they’ve been during this 14-year run. But if someone doesn’t volunteer to be the villain soon, and New England continues its march to another #1 seed, I’m afraid they’ll be the stand-in villain.
- Baltimore: These guys might be just a hair behind the Patriots in terms of perennial dislike by the rest of the world. These days Terrell Suggs is probably the main reason for that. Just an ass of a person really. This is another team that has had a lot of recent success. As a bonus this year, people can decide to dislike them for the way they handled the Ray Rice situation. And don’t forget this is the team that employed Ray Lewis after he most likely murdered someone!
- Denver: OK, so I’m well aware that the general public isn’t going to turn on Peyton Manning. They’re way too in love with him. But maybe it’s time to root against the guy who publicly called out a scoreboard operator because he revved the Denver crowd up too much when the Broncos were winning by like 45 points a few weeks back. A humble scoreboard operator probably lost his job, his home, his wife and his kids because of Peyton Manning. Why can’t we root against that?
In conclusion, we need a team to start throwing 80-yard bombs in garbage time when they’re up three touchdowns. Or we need a player to stomp on another player’s head/balls on a nationally-televised Thanksgiving Game. Or we need a coach/quarterback to go all John Rocker in a press conference and offend either an entire city or a specific group of people. WE NEED A VILLAIN!
Let’s move on to week 12, starting with the games we can appreciate for pure competitive reasons. This slate of games isn’t as promising as last week’s, but maybe that just means they’ll actually deliver some intriguing football compared to the week 11 bust. Here they are:
- Detroit (7-3) @ New England (8-2) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Cleveland (6-4) @ Atlanta (4-6) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Cincinnati (6-3-1) @ Houston (5-5) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Arizona (9-1) @ Seattle (6-4) – Sunday 4:05pm ET
- Miami (6-4) @ Denver (7-3) – Sunday 4:25pm ET
- Baltimore (6-4) @ New Orleans (4-6) – Monday 8:30pm ET
Basically any game featuring an AFC North team against an opponent that’s .500 or better will be on this compelling list the rest of the season.
We’re in the final week of byes, and we have only two:
- Carolina (3-7-1): Hard to believe there was a time this season when Carolina was 3-2 and we didn’t think Cam Newton sucked. Their current six game winless streak makes perfect sense considering who they’ve faced in that time: Cincinnati, Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Atlanta. OK, they should have won at home against Atlanta last week. That’s a loss that ends a season, except when you play in the NFC South. The Panthers’ remaining schedule isn’t very intimidating and they face New Orleans and Atlanta, the two teams they’re trying to catch in the standings, in December. But of course it’s useless trying to figure anything out in that division.
- Pittsburgh(7-4): If the playoffs began today, the Steelers would be the #6 seed in the AFC. They still have two games against Cincinnati remaining, and those are huge because the Bengals lead them in the AFC North by half a game. Just like the NFC South, the AFC North is probably a long way from being determined, but for entirely different reasons. A three-team race among Pittsburgh, Cincy and Baltimore for two spots (division and a wildcard) is what we’ll be looking at over the season’s final month.
And now for the week 12 picks.
Kansas City (-7.5) @ Oakland
- The Pick: Oakland
- The Score: Kansas City 29, Oakland 24
Well, shit. This was supposed to be easy. Thursday night games are mostly blowouts so why wouldn’t we quickly pick the Chiefs and move on? Two things give me pause: 1) The Chiefs are coming off a very physical game against Seattle and had to travel to Oakland on short rest, and 2) Kansas City hosts Denver on Sunday Night Football in week 13.
If ever there were a combination trap game and letdown game, this would be the perfect spot for the Chiefs.
Could the Raiders pull off the upset? Probably not.
Could the Chiefs start out slowly, struggling to get up for a game on such short rest, and barely pull out the win? Absolutely.
If the Raiders can go a few more weeks without a win, I’ll be able to start hedging my 0-16 bet on them. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close.
Cleveland @ Atlanta (-3)
- The Pick: Atlanta
- The Score: Atlanta 26, Cleveland 19
One team is 4-6, currently holds the #4 seed if the playoffs started now, and won a division road game last week.
The other team is 6-4, sits at #10 in the AFC’s playoff standings, and lost a home game last week to a QB making his first career start.
Should the 4-6 division-leading Falcons really be favored by three points over the Browns? Are the Browns the road team that beat Cincy by 21 in week 10 or the road team that lost to Jacksonville by 18 in week 7? And does Josh Gordon play a meaningful number of snaps right away, and how big will his impact be?
All these questions, and more, will be answered on Sunday.
I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I’m pretty confident the Falcons are taking this game and will be the proud owners of a three game win streak! Easy, there, NFC South. Don’t go being all good on us all of the sudden.
Listen, the Browns are seriously screwed on defense right now, and that’s never a good recipe for a road game against a better-than-average offense. I’m sorry to say, but this run of games that we thought was the winnable portion of the Browns’ remaining schedule—Houston, Atlanta, Buffalo—will probably end up as an 0-3 stretch that ends their season.
Tennessee @ Philadelphia (-11)
- The Pick: Tennessee
- The Score: Philadelphia 33, Tennessee 25
I used the most simplistic method as possible to pick this game. I simply repeated to myself out loud five times, “Mark Sanchez is favored by 11 points.”
Try it out yourself and see what conclusion you come to. I’m guessing it’ll be the same as mine.
After watching the Titans pretty closely on Monday night, my guess is that Zach Mettenberger plays just well enough over the final six weeks that the front office tricks itself into committing to him as their starter for next year, causing them to bow out of any QB sweepstakes in the upcoming draft. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing. I just know that Mettenberger will be Tennessee’s starter next September.
Detroit @ New England (-7.5)
- The Pick: Detroit
- The Score: New England 27, Detroit 23
The Patriots have covered the spread five times during their six game winning streak, and it hasn’t even been close in those games. They’re destroying the lines that Vegas has been setting.
That’s why I think this line is inflated a bit. My guess on Sunday night was that New England would be a 5.5-point favorite, maybe it would stretch to a full 6 points. The fact that it’s even more than a touchdown is Vegas’ way of saying, “We know you’re all gonna keep betting New England. All we can do is make the line ridiculous and hope they finally cool off a bit.”
What’s really interesting is that Green Bay has been destroying the point spread in their games lately too (five of their past seven games have been double digit blowouts in Green Bay’s favor). In week 13, the Patriots are at the Packers. Something’s gotta give.
I’m taking the Lions because I think both teams will struggle to score, and even though it might be one of those games where it feels like the Patriot are in control the whole time, they’ll only end up winning by 4 or 7.
Green Bay (-10) @ Minnesota
- The Pick: Minnesota
- The Score: Green Bay 30, Minnesota 22
As fantastic as the Packers are playing right now, they’re only 2-3 on the road this year, most recently losing at New Orleans and barely pulling out a last-minute win at Miami.
The last time these two teams met up, on October 2nd, Green Bay only won by 32 (In Minnesota’s defense, it was a Thursday night game and they were forced to start Christian Ponder at quarterback).
And while Adrian Peterson isn’t going to be around to help the Vikings, I’m taking them to cover. Maybe the Packers are looking ahead to a season-defining game against New England. Maybe Teddy Bridgewater at QB instead of Ponder is enough to swing this game. Or maybe I just hate taking a road team that’s favored by this much no matter the circumstances.
Jacksonville @ Indianapolis (-14)
- The Pick: Jacksonville
- The Score: Indianapolis 29, Jacksonville 20
Now a home team favored by an exorbitant amount…that I can get behind!
Well, actually I can’t. Because this week I’m employing a new strategy: Take the underdog in any game where the point spread is a touchdown or greater. I also appear to be taking almost all underdogs in general so far.
For this particular game, I’m justifying the Jaguars due to their 16th-ranked pass defense and the fact that they’re coming off some extra rest (remember that the Colts are down to Trent Richardson as their only running back. I think Jacksonville knows as well as the rest of America that Indy is throwing 50+ times per game for the rest of the year).
What scares me is that Andrew Luck seems like one of those guys who takes losses especially hard, and I doubt there’s any chance the Colts come out unprepared on Sunday.
But these huge point spreads are just like having a 16 in blackjack with the dealer showing a face card. Either you always hit or you always stay, and you just accept the fact that you’ll probably be right 50% of the time.
Cincinnati @ Houston (-1.5)
- The Pick: Houston
- The Score: Houston 33, Cincinnati 17
I’ll admit I was a little premature in declaring weeks ago that the Colts had locked up the AFC South. While it’s still more than likely that they do take the division crown, suddenly the Texans are right on their heels.
If Ryan Mallett is as legitimately un-Fitzpatrickian as he looked in his first start last week, couldn’t you see the Texans beating their next three opponents—home Cincinnati, home Tennessee, at Jacksonville?
If that happens, the Texans will go into Indy in week 15 either tied with the Colts or one game back. And then Houston finishes with home games against Baltimore and Jacksonville. It’s not totally unreasonable to think Houston gets to 10 or 11 wins, keeps the Colts honest through the end of the season, and secures a wildcard spot as the rest of the contenders deal with Big Boy NFL schedules.
Anyway, there’s no way Cincy’s winning this game. Mark it down as my favorite pick of the week.
NY Jets @ Buffalo (-4.5)
- The Pick: NY Jets
- The Score: NY Jets 17, Buffalo 3
What if I told you there’s an upcoming NFL game where one team got to practice and go through their weekly routine like normal for the past five days, and the other team was not able to practice once and their professional and personal lives have been chaotic for the past five days? Without knowing the teams or the point spread, you’d want to put a large bet on the team that got to practice all week, right?
Here are some sentences from an espn.com report about Buffalo from Wednesday:
- “With driving bans in place across much of the area, Bills players were unable to get to the facility Wednesday and may not be able to practice Thursday either.”
- “It’s very difficult to put in words exactly what is going on,” Doug Marrone said. “It’s just a very, very difficult and challenging situation…”
In case you’ve been in a technology-free blackhole all week, just know that Buffalo got five feet of snow on Tuesday and a couple more feet were due on Thursday.
This doesn’t feel like one of those situations where the home team thrives in the tough elements while the road team struggles, mainly because the home team hasn’t been able to practice in a week.
UPDATE: All of the above was written on Wednesday night, and by Thursday morning New York’s Governor was saying it would be impractical to play this game on Sunday. I have no idea what the league is going to do about this. If you have them play this game on Monday or Tuesday, you’re really screwing the Bills over because they face Cleveland next Sunday and would be on much shorter rest than the Browns. Good luck to the NFL. At least we know they’ll nail this decision like they do everything else.
Tampa Bay @ Chicago (-6)
- The Pick: Tampa Bay
- The Score: Tampa Bay 18, Chicago 6
Hey, it’s the matchup of two of the NFL’s worst teams this year who happen to be coming off wins and are trying to build on those! The Bears won their first home game of the year last week against Minnesota, and the Bucs won their second game in general at Washington. Who’s going to continue that slow rise up the NFL standings? And who deserves even the slightest nod of respect by being picked in this game?
I’m going with Tampa because I’m hoping (key word) their pass rush confuses Jay Cutler and that Lovie Smith has a trick or two up his sleeve to slow down his former team.
Also, Tampa can still win the NFC South!!! I won’t stop rooting for that until it’s mathematically impossible.
And it would be borderline criminal not to mention the Josh McCown revenge game factor. You can totally picture the Chicago faithful chanting “We Want McCown” during the 4th quarter as their Bears are losing by double digits, right?
Arizona @ Seattle (-7)
- The Pick: Arizona
- The Score: Seattle 23, Arizona 20
This line worked out perfectly because I guessed it would be Seattle by only 3, and because I’m already averse to picking touchdown-or-greater favorites this week.
This is the most confusing line of the week. Drew Stanton or not, how are the 9-1 Cardinals getting a full touchdown against a 6-4 team? Is it because Seattle’s effectively out of the playoffs with a loss and Vegas expects that back-against-the-wall mentality to shine through on Sunday?
Is it because the Cardinals continue to play over their heads and Vegas wants a ton of money on Arizona knowing soon enough they’ll cash in on the fall?
Whatever the reason for the line, I love it. Give me the Cardinals, and I’m looking forward to putting a moneyline bet on them because they will win this game outright.
One very specific thought on this game: It swings on a special teams play.
St. Louis @ San Diego (-4.5)
- The Pick: St. Louis
- The Score: St. Louis 26, San Diego 19
In the last 32 days, the Rams beat Seattle, San Francisco and Denver. They also outplayed the Cardinals for 3.5 quarters in Arizona until Austin Davis threw a pick-six and got strip sacked (also returned for a touchdown by Arizona) on back-to-back drives. Somehow, some way, they’re playing really good football.
In this week of picking underdogs when all else fails, all I’m looking for is a reason. The Rams’ recent play gives me plenty of reason to pick them to win outright.
Miami @ Denver (-7)
- The Pick: Miami
- The Score: Miami 23, Denver 21
I’m on a roll with the underdogs so let’s keep it going! This was going to be the game where I zigged while you were predicting me to zag. I was set to pick Denver to cover. After all, they’ve just gone through a rough stretch of three straight road games, and now they’re returning to the friendly confines of Sports Authority Field where they’re 5-0 this year.
But based on the information we have at this moment, it appears Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Ronnie Hillman may all be out for this game.
Miami has been good enough to this point to deserve my pick when facing any team that’s not at full strength.
The one danger with this pick: This will be Miami’s first cold weather game in 2014 as it’s expected to be 40 degrees at game time on Sunday. Many Miami teams just haven’t been able to win in cold weather. Will this be one of those teams?
Washington @ San Francisco (-9)
- The Pick: San Francisco
- The Score: San Francisco 43, Washington 3
There are enough games I’m confident in this week that I can happily stay far away from this one. What do you even do about these two teams?
In Washington, you have a team that is in utter disarray. In fact, we might have to make up a new word for them, whatever is way beyond disarray, chaos and anarchy. And that’s just in terms of off-the-field B.S. On the field it’s just as bad. They lost at home last week to Tampa Bay, the laughing stock of the NFC South (think about that designation for a second).
In San Francisco, you have a team that’s getting healthier, that’s been able to drown out the non-football noise that was so loud during the first half of the season, and has quietly won five of their last seven. But the concern with them is the nine points. You have to go all the way back to week 1 to find a game where the 49ers dominated (in their 14-point win at St. Louis in October, they were actually trailing 14-0 so that one doesn’t count).
I’m picking San Francisco because I’m certain the PotatoSkins players are just waiting to quit on their team (specifically their quarterback) at this point. If they’re down 10-14 points at any time during this game, I’m thinking it expands to 24-28 points rather quickly. It’s scary to think we maybe haven’t seen Washington’s low point just yet.
I realize I broke away from my “bet against all the heavy favorites this week” strategy, but this Washington team is now being dealt with by its own set of rules.
Dallas (-3.5) @ NY Giants
- The Pick: Dallas
- The Score: Dallas 37, NY Giants 17
That the Giants are only one game better than the worst team in the NFC is a sneaky fact. They’re not a shoo-in for the top pick in the 2015 Draft like Tampa, and they’re not a headline-grabbing drama show like Washington. They’re kind of under the radar awful, which means the general population has accepted Eli Manning throwing five interceptions as part of the norm.
Anyway, Dallas actually showed me something with an easy win against Jacksonville in London two weeks ago. It was a good bounce back effort after the Tony Romo injury and the loss to Arizona with Brandon Weeden playing. The Cowboys are a solid enough team to win by more than a field goal. They also happen to be 4-0 on the road, the only team in the league without a road loss. BIG game with Philly coming up on Thanksgiving for these guys.
Baltimore @ New Orleans (-3.5)
- The Pick: Baltimore
- The Score: Baltimore 33, New Orleans 16
This is the Ravens’ final game against an NFC South team this year. In their previous three games against that division, Baltimore did the following: win vs Carolina by 28, win at Tampa Bay by 31, and win vs Atlanta by 22.
This is a rare scenario where we know all four NFC South teams are about equal when it comes to winning football games in 2014. I don’t think the Saints at home should give you too much confidence these days. I like Baltimore to keep doing what they’ve been doing to this group of overmatched sorry excuses for a football team.
So I went really heavy on underdogs this week. I’m not making any promises, but this feels like one of those weeks where everything goes berserk throughout all of Sunday. We just haven’t had one of those in a while.
Enjoy week 12.