AFC North Standings: Week 12
Bengals 7-3-1 (2-1), common games (5-1-1, 1 left, @TB)
Ravens 7-4 (2-3) (5-1, 2 left, vs. JAX, @ HOU)
Steelers 7-4 (2-2) (5-1, 2 left, vs. NO, @ ATL)
Browns 7-4 (2-2) (4-2, 2 left, vs. IND, @ CAR)
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Cincinnati Bengals @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CIN -3.5, Sun. 1:00
The Bengals lead the division by a half game by way of their week four tie against the Carolina Panthers. They get a favorable matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who have yet to win a game at home this year. This matchup features two of the most exciting players in the league. Proven star wideout A.J. Green, and Bucs up and coming rookie Mike Evans. Green leads the league with 2.95 yards per route run, and Evans is becoming the league’s top deep threat with his combination of size and deceptive speed. A league best six TDs of Evans eight have come on passes over 20 yards downfield. With neither team having a good secondary, it could be a big day for those receivers.
Andy Dalton’s home and road splits are very similar, and he also excels against NFC teams with a 100.8 passer rating in 15 games. With Gio Beranrd returning, and Jeremy Hill running the ball well, the Bengals have more weapons than the Bucs do. However, Cincy is playing their third straight road game. Eventually that has to take a toll, right? I think it will be closer than folks think, and so do the experts with the line at 3.5. Two weeks ago the Bucs were a seven point dog to the lowly Redskins and won big.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Bucs 24
Baltimore Ravens vs. San Diego Chargers: BAL -4.5, Sun. 1:00
The Ravens return home after a convincing road win 34-27 at New Orleans on Monday night. They are 4-1 at home while the Chargers are 2-3 on the road. Not to mention the last time SD traveled east for an early game, they were shutout 37-0 by the Miami Dolphins. Shutout, in this day in age of the NFL where you can get into FG range by way of a few ticky-tack penalty flags, it’s downright unforgivable.
San Diego was on a roll starting off the season 5-1 including a home win against the defending champ Seahawks. They would lose three straight entering their bye week but have now won two in a row, albeit against the Raiders and Rams. It’s worth noting that San Diego is only 2-4 against teams with winning records. But so are the Ravens, mainly because the NFC South is that bad. The only non-division team Baltimore has played with a winning record is Indianapolis.
This week represents the first week in a gauntlet finish to the season for the Chargers. They face Baltimore, New England, Denver, San Francisco and Kansas City to finish out the season. A combined record of 38-17 (.690). Does that mean that this is a trap game for San Diego as they could get caught up looking ahead to the AFC leading Pats and division rival Broncos? Or does it mean that they understand how important it is to get a win this week as they will likely be heavy underdogs the next two weeks.
Phillip Rivers is still one step behind the elite guys in this league, but owns a respectable 101.4 passer rating (fifth best). Also 22 TDs to go along with just nine INTs. That is about where the offensive accolades end for the Chargers as the running game is not very good. It’s so bad, they don’t bother with play action, running play actions on just 9.8% of all dropbacks. Nick Foles and the Eagles lead the league with play action calls on 32.3% of pass plays. If Rivers throws the ball 30 times, only about three times all day will they utilize play action, meaning Ravens might as well just zero in on the ball carrier all the time when Rivers hands that ball out for the handoff. Chargers RB Brandon Oliver has notched just 2.8 YPC in three of his last four games. The other game, he managed 1.5 YPC. 13 rushes for 19 yards in the Miami debacle. Ryan Matthews is back in the fold, but missed significant time with an injury. He did go for over 100 yards on 12 carries last week against the Rams though.
To sum it up, the Chargers are one dimensional. The Ravens front seven should have no problem stopping the run. The Ravens secondary should only have to worry about one thing. Not getting beat deep, and they shouldn’t because there is no reason to get caught peeking in the back field. The Chargers don’t run the ball well, and they rarely fake as if they will which often draws the secondary up.
For more on the Ravens, check out the coverage here at BSL throughout the week.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Chargers 13
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New Orleans Saints: PIT -3, Sun. 1:00
This is one of the tougher games to predict. The Steelers were a five point dog vs. IND and put up 51 points, winning by 17. They were a two point favorite against the Ravens and won by 20. However, they were heavy favorites in each of their last two matchups and failed to cover the spread against poor Jets and Titans teams. The Saints have the same resume coming into this one. They were favored in their last three home games and lost all three.
Pittsburgh is 4-1 at home this season, while New Orleans hasn’t traveled well going 1-4 on the road. After three straight home games, are they too settled in to handle a road game?
Both QBs are having great seasons, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees. According to PFF, they rank #1 and #2 in accuracy under pressure. So blitzing won’t exactly be the answer here. With both teams having good QBs, and receiving weapons like Antonio Brown and Jimmy Graham, Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell will be the X-factor here. He’ll need to have a game for Pittsburgh to win. The way Justin Forsett carved up the Saints D on Monday night, this looks like it could be a given.
On the defensive side, Pittsburgh has the advantage as well. Lawrence Timmons is one of the better run stopping LBs in the league, leading a top ten unit in stopping the run. It could be a long day for Saints RB Mark Ingram, but opposing defenses have to respect Drew Brees so much that it should open up lanes underneath for Ingram to run through. This one could come down to coaching, and who executes better in crunch time.
The Saints don’t want to endure that eighth loss. As bad as the NFC South has been, led by the 4-7 Falcons, a sub .500 record still may not get you the division title. The one takeaway from the Monday night game, Drew Brees can still take over a game and win, as bad as their defense may be. Forsett and the short passing game just kept Brees’ playing time limited in the fourth quarter, leading to a longshot at a comeback. With their backs against the wall, Sean Payton and the Saints should be about to throw caution to the wind and play with reckless abandon. That makes them pretty dangerous.
Prediction: Saints 42, Steelers 31
Cleveland Browns @ Buffalo Bills: BUF -1, Sun. 1:00
The Bills enter this game as one of the teams the experts can’t seem to find a pulse on. They have covered the spread just twice in their last eight games, but are coming off a dominating 38-3 showing against the Jets. For the Browns, sure they have seven wins now, after being gift wrapped a prevent (you from winning) defense by Atlanta, for an easy drive for Brian Hoyer to move into FG range and steal a win from the Falcons. Aside from division wins in Cincinnati a couple weeks back, and early on against the Steelers, they haven’t faced and passed a real test otherwise. They we’re beat by Ryan Mallett and the Texans a week ago, lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and narrowly escaped with a one point win against the Titans. Both of those games on the road. The Browns will once again head on the road against a team that with a win can find themselves in the playoff conversation. Something Bills fans have been waiting a long, long time for.
The folks in Buffalo are enduring quite a hardship with the deadly snow storms that blasted them, now dealing with the flooding from the thaw. You can’t explain it, but teams usually find a way to rally when their fans face adverse conditions. Think the Saints and Hurricane Katrina, the Red Sox following the Marathon bombings. Of course the snow pales in comparison, but you get the idea. It’s a hardship nonetheless.
Combine the extra motivation by Buffalo with Cleveland’s road struggles, plus the Bills looking to improve to 7-5 and find themselves in the hunt…
Prediction: Bills 23, Browns 16
Other Games of note:
Denver (8-3) @ Kansas City (7-4): DEN -2, Sun. 8:30
Miami (6-5) @ New York Jets (2-9): MIA -4.5, Mon. 8:30
Happy Thanksgiving all!