It’s hard to believe we have just five weeks left in the regular season, and what a season it’s been. After two down weeks, we still sit at 83-75-4 (52.5 percent) through 12 weeks, and in games where our spread is two points or more different than Vegas, we have a better mark (45-35-2, 56.3 percent). This week offers a lot of value, with seven games where my spread value is two or more points different than Vegas’. We are also picking two home dogs to win outright, and in a week where there are not a lot of clear survivor picks (among teams that most people have remaining), we are bullish on the Raiders (66.4 percent chance of winning), the Saints (63.2 percent), and the Bears (61.2 percent).
For my picks of Thursday Night Football games, as well as win probabilities for Sunday games, follow me on Twitter @EricEager82.
[Editor’s note: Analyst Eric Eager utilizes Pro Football Focus’ NFL Premium Stats in his predictive model. For more on Premium Stats, click here.]
Broncos (-5) at Jaguars
Prediction: Broncos win by 5
The Broncos are coming off an emotional overtime loss against the Chiefs, and head to Jacksonville sitting in third place in the AFC West. The Jaguars were competitive again in a road loss at Buffalo, and have lost their last four games by seven points or less. Broncos QB Trevor Siemian appeared to have figured some things out last week against the Chiefs, throwing for 368 yards with a 12.4 average depth of target, despite being under heavy pressure from Kansas City edge rusher Justin Houston all night. Siemian faces a sneaky tough matchup against a Jaguars' pass defense in the upper half of the league in our grading, giving up just the third-most passing yards per game and the fifth-most passing yards per attempt. Whether or not Siemian, who’s been slowed this week with an injury, can build on last week’s success against this unit will go a long way towards deciding this one in Jacksonville.
Chiefs at Falcons (-3.5)
Prediction: Falcons win by 2
Both of these teams are coming off impressive performances a week ago, wins in many ways built by pressure up front defensively. Atlanta's Vic Beasley had two quarterback hits and six quarterback hurries against, while Brooks Reed added a sack and five hurries in the Falcons' win over the Cardinals. The Chiefs’ Justin Houston played out of his mind against Denver, piling up three sacks, six hurries, a batted pass, and 10 stops defensively. While he had a tough week against Von Miller, Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (78.0) is comparable to Atlanta’s Ryan Schraeder, meaning we’ll see some pretty compelling matchups on the edge in this one. If the pass blocking holds up on both sides, look for the team that best handles injuries/weaknesses in the secondary to take this one.
Texans at Packers (-6.5)
Prediction: Packers win by 7
The Packers appeared to turn it around Monday against the Eagles, and Aaron Rodgers has the highest grade among quarterbacks over the last five weeks of play. The Texans were disappointing at home last week against the Chargers, with budding-star cornerback A.J. Bouye committing three penalties, giving him six over his last three games. The Packers' offensive line was tremendous in Philadelphia, and they continue to be the most efficient pass-blocking offensive line in the league by a wide margin. With this Texans' strength taken away, it’s hard for me to envision Brock Osweiler (72.2 passer rating this season, better only than Blaine Gabbert's 69.9 mark) being able to keep up on the road, where the Texans have won one game all year.
Eagles (-1) at Bengals
Prediction: Bengals win by 2
The Eagles still have slim playoff hopes to compete for, while the Bengals have nothing more than head coach Marvin Lewis’ job on the line. However, after a strong start, the Eagles are fading a bit, with an offense that has a negative grade through the season’s first 12 weeks—hardly the type of unit that can take advantage of a Bengals defense 24th in PFF's grading so far this season. Thus, the matchup in this one comes down to how the Eagles' defense—which is weak in the secondary (21st in pass-coverage grades) and strong up front (third in pass-rushing grades)—fares against a Bengals' offense missing its best player in A.J. Green. Last week in Baltimore, TE Tyler Eifert and RB Rex Burkhead played well, but the Bengals ultimately scored just 12 offensive points, with quarterback Andy Dalton earning his third negatively-graded game in the last four (he was positively-graded in six of the first seven weeks). If Dalton can return to his early-season form, look for the Bengals to surprise some people at home.
Lions at Saints (-5.5)
Prediction: Saints win by 6
Here comes the first of the Lions’ big tests down the stretch, a road game against a New Orleans team with more than enough talent to give Detroit's 32nd-graded defense trouble. While Darius Slay (85.9) has been a top-five cornerback in the league to this point, Nevin Lawson (80.5) has emerged in his second year, and Glover Quin (80.4) has been good for most of his career, the Lions have just one front-seven starter earning an overall grade above 55.0. The Saints, known mostly for their passing game, have seen good backfield play from former first-round pick Mark Ingram (5.3 yards per carry, the seventh-highest elusive rating and 12th-best breakaway percentage among RBs) and a rejuvenated Tim Hightower (583 scrimmage yards and zero drops on 17 targets). If they can soften the Lions’ defense in the running game, look for their strength at receiver to peek through and be the difference in this one.
49ers at Bears (-1.5)
Prediction: Bears win by 6
Both of these teams gave valiant efforts last week in losses to .500-or-better teams. Colin Kaepernick had his best game in a quite awhile in Miami, but the 49ers are still the lowest-graded team in the entire league to this point. Despite their similarly-poor record, the Bears (19th) have fared quite a bit better, and are at home. Even if Matt Barkley (a top-10 graded quarterback in the league last week) is nothing more than a passing fad, he should be able to keep up the façade against a 49ers' defense that, while being the worst in the league against the run, has allowed the most passing touchdowns (32) in the league so far.
Rams at Patriots (-13.5)
Prediction: Patriots win by 12
The Rams gave their fans a glimmer of hope last week, with rookie QB Jared Goff throwing for three touchdown passes on the road in New Orleans. This success is sure to be short-lived, though, as they head east to play a New England team fresh off a less-than-stellar win in New York. The Rams’ only hope in this one is that the injury to Rob Gronkowski is significant enough to warrant him missing this week, and that their combination of Lamarcus Joyner (80.0), Alec Ogletree, and Mark Barron (73.3) will be able to simultaneously hold up against Martellus Bennett (83.1) and Julian Edelman (73.2) on the inside of the Patriots' passing game, while slowing LeGarrette Blount (12 touchdowns rushing on 4.1 yards per carry) in the running game.
Dolphins at Ravens (-3.5)
Prediction: Ravens win by 3
If the season ended today, both of these teams would be in the playoffs—a bit of a surprise given that Miami and Baltimore finished last season with a combined record of 11-21. I write this almost every week, but the strength of the Ravens is their run defense, and the strength of the Dolphins is their run offense. If the Dolphins’ offensive line returns to health and these two units neutralize one another, look for the Miami passing game, with the recent emergence of QB Ryan Tannehill (85.4) and WR DeVante Parker (79.9) to attack a Ravens’ defense that has relied on backups in recent weeks due to an injury to CB Jimmy Smith (73.7). If Smith is slowed again, it should be a productive day for Parker and WR Jarvis Landry (84.3) in a close one in Baltimore.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 2, 2016
Bills at Raiders (-3)
Prediction: Raiders win by 7 A big wildcard in this game is the health of QB Derek Carr, whose injury against the Panthers took that game from an easy cover for Oakland to a backdoor cover for the Panthers. If he’s near his peak, this game looks troubling for the Bills, where their strength (the league’s 10th-highest-graded pass-rush) should be neutralized by the Raiders' third-most-efficient pass-blocking offensive line. After playing strongly a year ago, the Bills’ cornerbacks have not had a good second season together, with Ronald Darby (73.6) and Stephon Gilmore (69.8) surrendering a total of 1,100 yards into their coverage so far (last year, they allowed just 1,326 all season as a pair). Our model has been bullish on the Raiders all year, and nothing changes in this one.
Buccaneers at Chargers (-3.5)
Prediction: Chargers win by 4 It’s been a long time since Tampa Bay has been this impressive, knocking off two teams with a combined 15-6-1 record in the last two weeks. Sunday marks another test as the Buccaneers travel west to face a Chargers' team that hasn’t lost by more than one score all season, and would likely be in the playoff hunt if they played in a different division. The upcoming matchup between Chargers CB Casey Hayward, surrendering just a 53.2 passer rating into his coverage, and Mike Evans, second in the league in receiving yards and the PFF's highest-graded wide receiver, is among the best of the weekend. Look for a great game out west.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 1, 2016
Washington at Cardinals (-2.5)
Prediction: Cardinals win by 2
The Cardinals were more impressive last week than the score would indicate in Atlanta, as they were snakebitten by penalties in many key instances in the Georgia Dome. That said, they have hardly anything to play for at this point, while Washington is firmly in the thick of the playoff race. With QB Kirk Cousins playing very well (he has a top-three grade at the quarterback position over the last seven weeks), the matchup between Washington’s passing offense versus the Cardinals' passing defense (11th-highest coverage grade in the league) is going to be the premier determinant of who comes out on top in Glendale this weekend.
Giants at Steelers (-6)
Prediction: Steelers win by 3
The Giants keep humming along, securing their first non-losing season since 2012 last week with a win in Cleveland. The Steelers won in Indy, but questions abound as to their fitness in competing against the league’s best (they are 2-5 against teams with records of 5-6 or better this season). The Giants' defense (the sixth-highest graded unit in the league) appears well-suited to slow a Steelers' attack that has the league’s best RB-WR combo and a solid offensive line. The matchup that looks a bit more uneven to me is the Steelers’ defense (16th-highest graded in the league and 10th in pass coverage) versus Odell Beckham Jr., second in the league in missed tackles forced (15) by wide receivers and fourth in touchdowns (eighth). The lack of high-end talent in the defensive backfield for the Steelers to match up with Beckham makes this spread a bit high for me to back Pittsburgh.
Panthers at Seahawks (-6.5)
Prediction: Seahawks win by 3
The Seahawks sputtered last week in Tampa, showing what’s possible when a poor offensive line is combined with an off day by a star quarterback. At home this week, I think the Seahawks get back on track a bit, as the Panthers will be without their top two centers (as well as left tackle Michael Oher) against a Seattle front that might be getting Michael Bennett (83.6) back from injury to team with Cliff Avril (78.9), who is leading 4-3 defensive ends is sacks (11) so far this season. On the other hand, the Panthers have been playing with a lot of pride lately, with six of their last seven games (and their last four losses) decided by exactly three points. Look for this to continue in Seattle.
Colts (-1) at Jets
Prediction: Jets win by 1
ESPN is probably wishing they had this choice back, as a game versus two old AFC East rivals is now an inter-division matchup between two sub-.500 teams. Last week we made the argument that Ryan Fitzpatrick, in an odd way, keeps the Jets in some games they shouldn’t be in—as well as out of games they should be in. Last week was the former, as he was the Jets’ highest-graded player on offense in a close home loss (though they covered) to the best team in football. Will he start a streak of good play this week? The Colts’ defense is one of the league’s worst, with zero starters earning overall grades above 80.0, and nine starters with grades below 55. I see this game being a close-fought matchup in New York.
[Editor’s note: To see how PFF Analyst Eric Eager fares versus other spread pick experts, check out the latest rankings on NFL Pickwatch.]