Week 13 Marquee Matchups

Heading into Week 13 of the 2018 NFL season, the football gods have blessed us with a bounty of games that will have significant implications on the playoff race, but also feature potential postseason matchup previews. Without further ado, let’s highlight, analyze, and make predictions for some of the Week 13 marquee matchups.

New Orleans (-7) at Dallas

When it comes to offenses, the New Orleans Saints’ will draw the lion’s share of praise, and rightfully so. But should we be looking that of the Dallas Cowboys?

Very quietly, running back Ezekiel Elliott has overtaken even Todd Gurley for the NFL lead in rushing yards, having ripped off three straight games with more than 120 yards and at least one touchdown in each game. In Dallas’ wins at Philadelphia and Atlanta (their first two road wins of the season), Elliott had at least 25 total touches and over 180 combined yards in each game.

Given what we’ve seen from him in the past, we always knew Elliott was capable of such numbers; he’s less than two seasons removed from leading the NFL in rushing yards. The problem was, opponents had no reason to fear the Dallas’ passing attack meaning they could load up the box and sellout to stop Elliott. In three of Dallas’ first five games of the season, Elliott had less than 80 yards rushing; not coincidentally, they were 2-3 in that five-game stretch.

It’s also not a coincidence that the running lanes are much more open for Elliott after the arrival of wide receiver Amari Cooper. The Cowboys were widely panned for the deal, after surrendering a first round pick in exchange for the underperforming receiver, but Dallas has to be delighted with their early return(s) on investment. While he has only one game with over 75 yards receiving, courtesy of the eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns he had against the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, he’s done something perhaps even more important: giving quarterback Dak Prescott a weapon to challenge defenses downfield and open things up underneath for Elliott.

With all of that being said, Dallas will have their hands cut out for them — and it’s not just on defense. The Saints possess not only one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL but also the best rushing defense in the NFL, surrendering just over 73 yards per game. Last week, against the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints held the Atlanta to only 1.6 yards per carry. And they’re not doing anything to tilt the field against the run, either. Instead, it comes from improved play from the front seven on defense, which was supposed to be one of the question marks for this team heading into the year.

Now, stopping Atlanta’s 31st-ranked rushing offense and Dallas’ 6th-ranked rushing offense is two entirely different matters. But while Dallas will do everything they can to keep New Orleans’ offense off the field, the Saints can do the same with Elliott by getting ahead on the scoreboard early and turning Dallas into a passing team in this game. If the Cowboys have to chase New Orleans on the scoreboard, things won’t be pretty for them, especially considering they currently have the 5th-worst passing attack in the NFL (in terms of yards per game).

Trying to go toe-to-toe with Drew Brees doesn’t seem like a sound strategy for betting. The Saints are really, really good.

Pick: New Orleans (-7)

Baltimore (-3) at Atlanta

We’ll get to the Baltimore Ravens in a moment.

But after watching Atlanta go from a 4-4 team that overcame a crippling slew of injuries to put themselves right back in the NFC playoff race, to losing the next three consecutive games and finding themselves on the outside looking in, we have to ask: are the Falcons a good team that’s played poorly this year, or a bad team that’s looked good in spurts?

On the flipside, after years of gnashing their teeth at the play they’ve gotten from the quarterback position, Baltimore finally got a taste of what life could look like with someone other than Joe Flacco. Rookie Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson will get the start again this Sunday, after winning his first two games of his career. His statistical production (as a passer) look like what you’d expect from a rookie: completing less than 61% of this passes overall this season, and having thrown one touchdown but three interceptions in his two starts. But he’s also run for 190 yards (and a touchdown) in those two games, flashing his electric running ability in the two wins. When you watch him play, between the incredible top speed and the ease in which he flicks the ball downfield, Jackson is reminiscent of a young Michael Vick. So, it shouldn’t be any surprise why the Ravens are apt to make him “the guy” sooner rather than later.

There certainly feels like an element of overreaction in this line. Atlanta is 0-3 over their last three games, but those losses came against the rejuvenated Cleveland Browns (after firing Hue Jackson) and Dallas Cowboys (after acquiring Amari Cooper), as well as the white-hot Saints. If there are such things as quality losses, you could classify those as such.

Meanwhile, the once 4-5 Ravens have won two straight games, though those wins have come against the Cincinnati Bengals (who look like they’re a tiny step away from packing it in for the season) and Oakland Raiders (who remain utterly hapless and mostly hopeless). Moreover, those two wins came at home, where the Ravens have always performed better. This week, the Ravens have to go back on the road; they’re 1-3 away from home this year, with their one win coming in a squeaker over the Jackson-led Browns.

The betting public feels the same way about this game. Depending on your sportsbook of choice, the Ravens opened up anywhere between one to three-point favorites in this game, but by Tuesday evening, the line swung all the way in favor of Atlanta being favored by one in most sportsbooks.

The Ravens would be a playoff team if the postseason started today, but don’t expect it to last that long. After playing Atlanta this week, they’ve still got road games against Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers. Even with Jackson, they just don’t have the firepower to go on the road and compete with any of those offenses – including Atlanta.

Pick: Atlanta (-1)

LA Chargers at Pittsburgh (-4)

For those NFL fans eagerly awaiting some of the matchups that could take place in this year’s playoffs, this game represents an early teaser of potential things to come. If the postseason started today, the Pittsburgh Steelers would be the AFC North division winners, albeit the one with the worst record among the four current division leaders. That would match them up against the first Wild Card team in the conference, which if the playoffs started today, would be the Los Angeles Chargers.

If it weren’t for the hiccup the Steelers had this past Sunday; you could argue that these are two of the hottest teams in the AFC, along with the Houston Texans. But Pittsburgh’s 24-17 loss to Denver last Sunday, at home no less, was a bitter pill to swallow. When a team puts up 527 yards of offense against what could be considered a top-five defense (Denver has the fourth-ranked overall defense (based on the overall DVOA metric of FootballOutsiders.com), they shouldn’t lose. But when they turnover the football four times, like the Steelers did, their chances of losing go up exponentially.

Most players on the Steelers said the game was an uncharacteristic performance for the team, and they’ll be fine moving forward. But it might not be as simple as that. It’s no secret that wide receiver Antonio Brown has been rather cantankerous this season, and the recent comments made by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during his weekly radio segment, aren’t going to help Brown’s mood.

Roethlisberger publicly blamed Brown for one of his interceptions, saying that the receiver broke off a route too early. While Roethlisberger has been known to make incendiary comments like this one, only to have it blow over just a few days after (usually after he pretends he never made such comments), it’s just not a good look – especially when Roethlisberger said he should’ve thrown the ball more to fellow wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

By comparison, Phillip Rivers of the Chargers had no reasons to make any such comments about his team, considering he started the game with 25 consecutive completions, which tied an NFL record. Of course, his pass catchers did their fair share of favors in helping Rivers’ tie that mark, but the darkhorse MVP candidate quarterback was downright surgical for most of the game, carving up a hilariously overmatched Arizona Cardinals team in a way that was befitting of a game taking place the weekend after Thanksgiving.

If there was one blemish in Los Angeles’ brutal 45-10 dismantling of Arizona, it’s the fact that they decided to let Melvin Gordon play, despite the hesitation of their medical staff, only to watch him suffer a knee injury that will sideline him for likely the remainder of this season.

The rub on Los Angeles has always been that they’re able to beat the bad teams (like they did – quite emphatically – last Sunday) and struggle against the better teams. In the same manner, the Steelers tend to play better at home than on the road (last Sunday notwithstanding). In a money line betting situation, we’d say to go with the Steelers.

But, the four-point spread feels a bit too high, especially against a Los Angeles team that always keeps things close but finds cruel and unusual ways to lose tough games in the end. So, take the points.

Pick: Los Angeles (+4)

Minnesota at New England (-6)

The NFL doesn’t award style points with wins. That’s a good thing for the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots because while both teams won last week, they wouldn’t have earned a lot of style points in the process of doing so.

So why is it that the Patriots are favored by almost a touchdown in this game? It should say something that the line started at seven but went down to six by Tuesday, meaning that the money was flowing in the direction of the Vikings.

It’s easy to point to New England’s 5-0 record at home this year, and the fact that, well, they’re New England. But if we’re honest, this is nowhere near the same dominant team that we’ve been accustomed to seeing in years past. This is a team that’s no longer among the top three scoring teams in their own conference, and are actually outside the top four teams in the AFC in point differential.

Because we’ll give him as much of the benefit of the doubt as any quarterback in the NFL deserves, it’s time we start asking the question as to whether we’re starting to see the real twilight of quarterback Tom Brady’s career. A season after throwing the third-most touchdown passes in the NFL (en route to winning the league’s MVP award), Brady is on pace to throw for 25 touchdowns this year, which would’ve put him on the fringe of the top 10 quarterbacks in that stat category last year, but would also tie him with the lowest single-season touchdown pass total since he tore his ACL in 2008.

There’s plenty of blame that can be assigned to the PuPu platter of pass-catching options surrounding Brady. Chris Hogan seems to have fallen off the side of the Earth. Julian Edelman isn’t quite the same guy as he was before. Josh Gordon was a midseason pickup. Phillip Dorsett is a fourth or fifth receiver at best. Even tight end Rob Gronkowski looks like he’s completely washed up, with all the injuries he’s sustained throughout his career finally taking their full toll.

You can debate where the Minnesota Vikings currently stand in the power rankings of the NFC, but since started the season with a 1-2-1 record, they’ve won five of their past seven games, with all but one coming by a touchdown or more. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is currently fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game, and his 22 touchdown passes are good for ninth-most in the NFL, ahead of guys like Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

This Is another situation where you should bet against the Patriots at your own risk in money line situations, but concerning the point spread, this feels too lopsided. Against teams with winning records, New England’s average margin of victory is less than seven points, and they have yet to beat a winning team by more than seven points. And Minnesota is perhaps the most talented team – at least on paper – that they’ll play this year.

Pick: Minnesota (+6)

Washington at Philadelphia (-6.5)

Regarding the race for the NFC East crown, there’s a distinct “loser goes home” element to the Monday Night Game. Whoever wins will keep pace with the Dallas Cowboys, while the other will find themselves looking up at two teams within the division.

For the second-straight season, the Washington Redskins look ready to fall off a cliff after a promising start to the season, thanks almost entirely to injuries utterly decimating their team.

The offensive line has been shuffled and reshuffled due to injuries to all five of their starters at some point during this season. The perilously-thin group at wide receiver got even thinner over the course of the year. Even running back Adrian Peterson, who was arguably the team’s offensive MVP through the first half of the season, is starting to show the wear-and-tear of an NFL season on the body of a 33-year old running back.

And then there’s the gruesome, season-ending injury to quarterback Alex Smith (an injury that reportedly could limit him from even starting the opening game for the Redskins in 2019). Given Smith’s milquetoast level of performance (in terms of passing statistics) this season, many Washington fans believed that there would be little dropoff from Smith to backup quarterback Colt McCoy, given that the latter had been with Jay Gruden since the head coach arrived in Washington. But against Dallas, we saw a lot of the same McCoy that prevented him from ever becoming a viable starter: savvy throws at times, and terrible throws at others. If Washington cannot get its running game untracked because of the growing limitations of Peterson and the injury-ravaged offensive line, there’s no way McCoy can put this team on his back and pick up a win.

While Carson Wentz has looked good-to-very-good at times this season (though not quite near the MVP-caliber of play he had last year), he’s precisely the type of quarterback the Redskins have struggled with in recent years (this one included): mobile quarterbacks in the pocket who can move around and shrug off less-than-perfect sack attempts. Washington got burned by Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott in consecutive weeks, and Wentz absolutely ripped their hearts out last season with timely plays made using his feet.

The only hope Washington really has in winning this game is if they were able to attack the also injury-plagued secondary of the Eagles, which features four new starters among their top five defensive backs (including slot cornerback). But Washington’s lack of weapons in the passing game and a general lack of passing ability overall will be a welcome respite for the getting-torched-every-week group of Eagles.

While the Redskins could come out with a fast start to this game (they tend to play better after losing a game, and especially more than one game), their record on Monday Night Football is the worst of any team in the NFL. Somehow, some way, the Eagles always find a way to torment the Redskins on prime time television. Even with the much-reported struggles of the Eagles, it just feels like that’s bound to happen again.

Pick: Philadelphia (-6.5)

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