Who says defense is dead in the NFL? Week 14 of the NFL season has brought us a slate of games featuring some of the more potent and intriguing offenses in the league facing off against some of the stoutest and toughest defenses in the NFL. Let’s look at five of our favorite NFL games in Week 14:
Indianapolis at Houston (-4.5)
Heading into Week 13, the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans were the two hottest teams in the entire AFC.
But after the Colts’ had their five-game winning streak rudely ended by another AFC South division rival (Jacksonville), they’re likely looking to pass along such a favor to the division-leading Texans, who are riding an NFL-best nine-game winning streak. After watching the New Orleans Saints have their 10-game winning streak (the only one longer than Houston’s) snapped last week, should the Texans be on high alert themselves?
In terms of the Colts, the question has to be asked: was their performance last week just one of those stink bombs that a team is bound to lay throughout a 16-week season, or is it a sign that a team might’ve stumbled upon a blueprint to limit Indianapolis’ offense? Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck was one of the hottest players in the NFL, but against the Jaguars last Sunday, it took him 52 passing attempts to get to 248 passing yards (which translates to less than five yards per attempt); it’s no surprise that Luck’s team was shut out for the first time in his seven-year NFL career. He was the 10th quarterback in the NFL to have fewer than 250 yards passing and zero touchdown passes, despite throwing 50 passes, since 2013. Luck saw his streak of throwing at least three touchdown passes in every game snapped at eight games, as well as his streak of completing 71% of his passes end at five games.
If the Colts had a tough time against the Jaguars’ defense (while playing on the road), life doesn’t exactly get any easier on Sunday, when they play against the Texans’ defense (also on the road). Houston’s opponents have scored on only 28% of their possessions since Week 4, which is the lowest rate in the NFL. Among those possessions, Houston’s opponents have scored a touchdown only 18 times since Week 4, which is the lowest in the NFL.
After an 0-3 start to the season, Houston — almost to a man — will call their Week 4 win, which ironically came against these same Colts (in Indianapolis), as the day they got the proverbial monkey off their back. As mentioned, they haven’t lost a game since. Their defense has allowed the fewest red zone plays per game (six), and the fewest plays run inside of their five-yard line (nine plays). And those stats are just when Houston’s team actually makes it to the red zone, which is easier said than done considering Houston doesn’t give up any chunk plays, either. The Texans have given up the fourth-fewest explosive plays in the NFL, defined as a run of more than 15 yards or a completed pass going more than 20 yards.
Even with Houston’s 5-1 record at home this year, the fact that they’re 4.5-point favorites feels a bit generous, if not a little over-reactionary to Indianapolis’ loss last week. That’s especially the case, considering the Colts are 4-2 against the Texans in Houston since Indianapolis drafted Luck.
Houston seems like the more likely pick to win this game, but if they do, it might not be by much. In this situation, take the points.
Pick: Indianapolis (+4.5)
Baltimore at Kansas City (-6.5)
At first glance, this game might not have football’s equivalent of sex appeal that some of the other games this weekend has, but the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs matchup has the potential to be the real highlight of Week 14’s slate.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re very familiar with the fact that Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense can move the football seemingly at will. Kansas City has the most passing attempts of more than 20 yards this season, and the highest completion rate of such throws. They’re #1 in the NFL in explosive plays as a whole (running or passing. They’re among the top three teams in the NFL in the fewest three-and-outs by their offense; more than 75% of their drives go for more than three plays. Mahomes has thrown for more than four touchdowns in seven games this year, which is the second-most such games in a season; Peyton Manning holds the record with nine games with more than four touchdown passes (in 2013). Tight end Travis Kelce has at least five catches in 11 straight games, which matches the team record set by Tony Gonzalez.
All of that being said, Kansas City’s loss of running back Kareem Hunt cannot be understated. For the record: what Hunt is shown doing on the infamous tape recording is completely unforgivable, and extremely troubling considering there are other allegations of a similar nature; the Chiefs made the right move by separating themselves from the situation he now finds himself in.
But you could very legitimately make the argument that Hunt was the third-best running back in the NFL this year, trailing only Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. Kansas City is confident with their insertion of Spencer Ware back into the lineup, but you can’t expect Ware — or any other running back — to be a ‘plug-and-play’ replacement for a guy who was on pace to record 1,200 rushing yards, 550 receiving yards, and 18 total touchdowns. Losing Hunt is a devastating blow to a team that had a very legitimate chance to dethrone the New England Patriots as the new king of the AFC.
But the playoffs are still a ways away. This week, Kansas City has to worry about Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, who are riding a 3-0 winning streak since the electric rookie became the starting quarterback. Before Jackson had to step in for the injured Joe Flacco, Baltimore head coach was fielding questions about his job security from the media, and the proverbial buzzards were circling this team. Now, the Ravens are only a half-game back of the Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the AFC North, and they hold a one-game lead for the last spot in the AFC playoff race overall.
Still, while the talk might be about what Jackson has done to reinvigorate this team, Baltimore is still all about its defense. The Ravens have the 4th best defense (according to FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA metric), encompassing the 5th-best passing defense DVOA and 5th-best rushing defense DVOA as well. Simply put, they’re not going to make things easy for Mahomes. Baltimore gives up a 1st down on precisely 30% of the passing attempts by opponents, which is the lowest in the NFL. They have the second-best passing defense in the NFL, as defined by the collective passer rating of all the opposing quarterbacks they face (83.4).
Baltimore has to do everything to slow down this offense because the methodical style of their offense isn’t conducive to a shootout. Even though Jackson and the Ravens’ offense might be in for another big game on the ground (the Chiefs have the worst rushing defense DVOA in the NFL), it’s a tall task to ask them to curtail the Chiefs’ offense all game long.
Pick: Kansas City (-6.5)
Philadelphia at Dallas (-3.5)
Either the Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys are almost certainly going to win the NFC East. But the favorite to win the division, at least as of today, isn’t the team we thought it would be just three months ago.
After the first half of the season, the Cowboys were left for dead with a 3-5 record, and serious questions about their head coach, quarterback, and future overall. But after beating the New Orleans Saints last week, Dallas has won four straight games, and could in fact be the hottest team in the NFC.
While there has certainly been their fare of big plays, the Cowboys’ winning streak comes as a result of playing “the old-fashioned way:” running the ball down their opponent’s throat, and playing sound defense. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is neck and neck with Todd Gurley for the NFL’s rushing crown and has four-straight games with more than 120 combined yards and a touchdown. Over the past five games, Elliott has averaged 155.8 yards per game and has 28 receptions. If you’re an Eagles fan, the fact that Philadelphia has allowed 139 yards per game rushing (and 6.6 yards per carry) to their last four opponents, and five rushing touchdowns in those games, has to be concerning.
Conversely, the Cowboys’ defense has allowed a touchdown on less than 16% of opponent’s possessions when playing at home, which is the lowest rate in the league. In general, the entire Cowboys’ defense is playing extremely well. They’re 7th in overall defensive DVOA, including 10th against the pass and 6th against the run. They’ve given up the third-fewest explosive plays in the NFL, and they’re #1 in the NFL in limiting the top wide receiver of their opponents (thanks in large part to cornerback Byron Jones emerging as one of the very best in the NFL at his position).
In general, the Cowboys’ defense is buoyed by a core of young talent that’s helped this team take a big step forward. Aside from Jones, no member of the Cowboys’ young nucleus on defense is playing as well as rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (the team’s top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft), who currently has 100 tackles this season, which is tied for 5th in the NFL. It’s very much between Vander Esch and safety Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award race right now.
How the Cowboys come out after such a massive victory against New Orleans last week bears watching. Will they spend the week reading all their press clippings, or keep their foot on the gas pedal? Head coach Jason Garrett isn’t exactly known as a master motivator (or anything good, when it comes to coaching). Can he keep them focused against a Philadelphia team that beat up on a Washington team that’s a walking infirmary in a fashion more lopsided than the final score would indicate? Or will the Cowboys regress closer to the mean, because of the lack of leadership they have (both at head coach and quarterback)?
Pick: Philadelphia (+3.5)
LA Rams (-3) at Chicago
Of all the great offensive vs. defensive matchups in Week 14, if there’s a real “unstoppable force vs. immovable object” duel, it’s gotta be the Los Angeles Rams traveling to Chicago to take on the Bears.
You already know that the Los Angeles Rams, thanks in large part to the offensive scheme and play designs of head coach Sean McVay, have one of the most lethal offenses in the NFL. Todd Gurley is still the best dual-threat running back in the NFL. The Rams have the fewest 3-and-out’s of any team in the league, with more than 89% of their drives going for more than three plays (it certainly helps that they average 7.1 yards per play on first down). In terms of explosive plays, the Rams are #3 in the NFL. And after a string of four-straight games with at least 30 points scored, Los Angeles is on pace to score 558 points this season, which would be the 4th-most points in a season in NFL history.
You also already know that the Rams loaded up on talent on the other side of the football this past offseason, though it didn’t result in the same level of on-the-field production. Still, the Rams can very much get it done on defense. They generate the most pressure of any team in the NFL on opposing quarterbacks, and they still have the single-best defensive player in the NFL in Aaron Donald, who’s right in the thick of the race for his second-straight NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Donald not only leads the NFL in sacks (16.5) despite being an interior defensive lineman (his total sacks rank highest for interior lineman through 12 games over the past 36 years, but he also leads the league in sacks (7.5) and QB pressures (21) in the 4th quarter, meaning he saves his best for when it matters most.
Still, the Rams’ defense is not Chicago’s defense; the latter has been nothing short of stellar this year. The Bears have the #1 overall defensive DVOA. That includes #1 in rushing defense DVOA and #1 in passing defense DVOA. Moving the ball through the air is much easier said than done, as they give up a first down on less than 32% of their opponent’s passing attempts, which is the third-lowest rate in the league. The combined passer rating of 78.5 by quarterbacks playing against the Bears is the worst in the NFL. On first downs, the Bears’ defense gives up an average of 4.5 yards, which is the lowest total in the league. And no defense in the league is stingier against explosive plays than the one Chicago has.
As we saw last week, however, the Bears’ defense still isn’t good enough to overcome a self-destructive performance by their offense. Despite a fantastic day from running back Tarik Cohen, who’s secretly emerged as one of the Bears’ very best offensive weapons, Chicago couldn’t overcome a slew of costly mistakes and less-than-perfect play from backup quarterback Chase Daniels, losing to the lowly New York Giants in the process. With their defense being forced to bail out the offense’s mistakes so many times, it created opportunities for Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley to make plays against this otherwise air-tight unit.
Although quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will be back in the lineup for Chicago this week, if he shows any signs of rust (and limits the offense as a result), even the Bears will have a tough time trying to stop Gurley, Jared Goff, and the Rams’ offense. The biggest key to this game is whether Chicago can get pressure on Goff, who secretly had a not-that-great game last week (against Detroit) after the Rams came off their bye week after that incredible shootout against Kansas City on Monday Night Football. Of the 25 offensive touchdowns scored on the Bears’ defense this year, 21 were through the air, representing the most one-sided split for any defense in the NFL.
With a comfortable line (only three points), and with firepower possessed by Los Angeles, feel safe taking the Rams in this game. However, keep an eye on the weather. If things get nasty in the midwest (as is apt to happen in December), you might be wise to go in the other direction.
Pick: Los Angeles (-3)
Minnesota at Seattle (-3)
If you looked at this game back in August, you would’ve almost certainly thought the major storyline would’ve been Minnesota’s $84 million quarterback (Kirk Cousins) squaring off whatever was left of the great Seattle defenses from recent years.
Yet, that would mean we’re overlooking the other quarterback — who’s been playing like one of the best in the game — for the second year in a row. After coming off career-best numbers last year, and even with the much-maligned hiring of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, quarterback Russell Wilson has quietly played like a dark horse MVP contender as of late. He’s actually on pace or career-bests in touchdown-to-interception ratio, touchdowns per pass attempt, and passer rating. He’s also on pace to tie his career marks in interceptions per pass attempt and yards per attempt. The fact that Wilson is is still getting sacked on almost 10% of his dropbacks (the third-highest total in the NFL) and getting pressured on just under 36% of his dropbacks (also third-highest in the league), yet still performing at this level, is a testament to his mobility and elusiveness, in addition to his prowess as a passer. And teams should be wise not to try and pressure Wilson into making a hasty decision; he’s the best quarterback in the league against the blitz, registering a passer rating of 132.1 in such situations.
By comparison, there was a large contingent of fans of the Washington Redskins who warned their counterparts in Minnesota about what they might be signing up for when handing Cousins one of the most player-friendly contracts in NFL history. The stigma against Cousins remains: he doesn’t seem to be able to win the game that matters the most. Of the six wins that Minnesota has this season, none have come against an opponent with a winning record.
There’s a growing “chicken-or-the-egg” argument with Cousins’ ineffective play in the most high-pressure situations, or whether Cousins is stifled by the play calling of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been nothing short of exasperated for much of this season when talking about the offense’s performance (or lack thereof in many cases), often publicly lamenting the fact that the team just doesn’t run the ball with the frequency or efficacy he desires. Zimmer even stated that Minnesota getting away from running the ball last Sunday played a big role in the Vikings losing against the New England Patriots.
If the Vikings can’t get things going against Seattle’s secretly-shaky pass defense, things could get very uncomfortable. The Seahawks are 26th in DVOA against the #1 receiver of their opponents, meaning Adam Thielen of the Vikings could be in for a big day. Even in their last three wins, Seattle has been roasted by the top wide receivers of their opponents, including giving up 129 yards and two touchdowns to rookie wide receiver Dante Pettis of the San Francisco 49ers last week.
Even though the Vikings still have as much roster talent as any team in the NFL, it still feels like most people are not giving Seattle their full due. The Seahawks are 5-2 over their last seven games. They might’ve thrown us off the scent with back-to-back losses against the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, but it’s hard to fault a team for losing to those two teams — by 8 points or less — when those teams have combined for only four losses all season.
That being said, the only reason we’ll take the Vikings in this game is that they’ll enter the matchup with a greater sense of desperation, as they cling on to their faint playoffs lives, and Cousins has experience playing — and winning —in the raucous stadium that is CenturyLink Field… even though a win against Seattle would be his first road win of the season.
Pick: Minnesota (+3)