A nice Thursday Night matchup between a team that we’ve expected to fail, but hasn’t, and a team that is trending upward as quickly as any team in the league. Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill may not be the household names that you’re looking for in a competitive game, but these are two stable teams that do enough well to overcome the shortcomings of their signal callers. We’ve learned that the running game is what succeeds on a short work week and that is exactly why I am taking the home team in this one. While Arizona looks to fill the void left by Andre Ellington, the Rams appear to have found their future at the position in Tre Mason, a rookie who has more carries over the last four weeks than DeMarco Murray. More importantly than the ability to run the ball is the ability to stop it, and while you are aware of how nasty the Cardinals’ front four is, did you know that the Rams have actually graded out as the stingier run defense? Combine that with the fact that their pass rush is more aggressive and you’ve got a team that no one wants to play. It feels as if the Cardinals are on borrowed time when it comes to being considered among the elite in the NFC and I think the clock could strike midnight on Thursday.
Soppe Score: Rams 20 – Cardinals 16
Green Bay @ Buffalo
I’m sure that there will be whispers about this game, as the Bills are a desperate team that just ended Peyton Manning’s 51-game touchdown streak. R-E-L-A-X. I could see looking into that if Buffalo had WON the game, but Denver controlled the game from start to finish and didn’t need Manning to do what Manning does. They challenged him to beat them with run plays (heck, it’s beyond me why more teams don’t do that) … and he did. I have no doubt that the Packers can win a similar game, but I also have no doubt that at his current level of play, Aaron Rodgers could shred a defense that put 15 players in coverage. The Packers have the best pass-blocking offensive line in football and rank in the top third of the league in both pass coverage and pass rush. In other words, the Bills are overmatched, and the cold weather might only make Rodgers more comfortable. Buffalo isn’t going to lie down and I expect them to battle, but just like last weekend, they simply cannot score enough to win this game.
Soppe Score: Packers 27 – Bills 17
Pittsburgh @ Atlanta
For the record, I do think there are real concerns in Pittsburgh that will prevent them from making a deep playoff run, but I don’t expect those flaws to be exploited in a big way against the Falcons. Le’Veon Bell is playing at a historically high level and Ben Roethlisberger has never been more effective through the air. Pittsburgh’s secondary is a bit shaky … but the Falcons are worse. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is pretty average across the board … but the Falcons are below average everywhere. The Steelers have given up the fourth-most passing touchdowns in the league this season, but Andrew Luck and Drew Brees had massive statistical performances that have inflated those numbers a bit. The Steelers’ defense is far from great, but they should be good enough to get one or two more stops than the Falcons on a short week.
Soppe Score: Steelers 30 – Falcons 24
Washington @ New York (Giants)
I don’t care who starts at quarterback for the ‘Skins; when I watch this team play, I see one that has checked out. Talent is one thing, and these teams are close in that respect, but if you aren’t 100 percent committed to the task at hand, scoring (forget winning) in the NFL is very difficult. Could they catch lightning in a bottle, get the Rookie of the Year version of Robert Griffin III, and beat a division rival? Sure, but the Giants have shown a little more fight in the past few weeks and I’ll take my chances there. Eli Manning had the five interception game against the 49res, but he is taking better care of the ball this season than last, a trend I like to continue against a Washington defense that ranks 31st in interceptions. The Redskins are the worst cover team in the league this season and given their struggles to stuff the run, Manning should be comfortable in the pocket. This probably won’t be a pretty game, but a team with question marks at the quarterback position that is 0-4 since their bye week (losing by an average of 17.5 points) isn’t one that I am confident in.
Soppe Score: Redskins 24 – Giants 20
Miami @ New England
The Dolphins are a really good football team, but they aren’t the class of the AFC East and I can’t imagine them beating the Pats twice in one season. Tom Brady hasn’t lost a home game since 2012, and has this offense functioning at a very high level, but the defense is the reason I like the home team in this one. Remember when Revis Island was a thing? Well, it is again. Wide receivers are disappearing on a weekly basis and with the Patriots’ defense owning a Top 10 grade against the run, Miami’s offense figures to reflect what we saw from San Diego against them on Sunday night. This should be a hotly contested game, but with one of the all-time greats under center and the third-best turnover differential in all of football, is there one team in the NFL you trust more to make the big play with the clock running down? I’ll say the Pats get plays at the end of both halves that make the difference in this divisional matchup.
Soppe Score: Patriots 26 – Dolphins 17
Oakland @ Kansas City
The Chiefs lost last week, to a team that they are probably better than and the Raiders beat a desperate team that is far more talented than them, not to mention that Oakland beat Kansas City in Week 12. But I’m not worried about the Chiefs’ ability to defend their home field this weekend. Jamaal Charles is an elite back as it is, but he has been especially good against Oakland, as he has totaled 475 yards (7.2 yards per touch) and eight touchdowns over his last three games against the divisional rival. Alex Smith is going to do what he does and manage the game, and that should be plenty, as I expect them to be playing with a lead for the majority of this one. Latavius Murray is a real talent and he keyed the upset victory over the Chiefs three weeks ago, but I’m willing to dismiss that as a poor day for Kansas City rather than a sign of things to come. For the season, Oakland has the second-worst run-blocking offensive line, thus making it tough to count on their running game controlling tempo again. Assuming that finding room on the ground is difficult, Derek Carr is a real longshot to take this game over since the Chiefs are the fourth best at rushing the passer. Kansas City is going to control this game from start to finish and prove why they should be a feared team.
Soppe Score: Chiefs 27 – Raiders 13
Houston @ Indianapolis
Did you watch the Colts game last week? If you missed it, you may get an instant replay this week. The Colts are considerably more talented than the Texans, but they will turn over the ball on occasion and allow teams that run the football to hang around (no defense has allowed more yards per carry and fewer rush attempts per rushing touchdown). Not breaking news here … Houston loves to run the football. They top the league in rushing attempts and with Ryan Fitzpatrick calling the shots and Arian Foster behind him, how can you blame them? That offensive game plan can serve as a blueprint against Andrew Luck and this explosive Colts team, as long as you can keep the score close early. I think the Texans keep this closer than most expect, but this is a quarterback driven league and the difference at the position is simply too great for them to pull off the upset (much like the Cleveland game lat week),
Soppe Score: Colts 24 – Texans 20
Jacksonville @ Baltimore
Are you a fan of old school football? Watch the Ravens. I don’t think that style of play can win a title these days, but Baltimore is a tough team for opponents that can’t score with consistency. Baltimore can run the ball down your throat with Justin Forsett and pressure all aspects of your offense, a game plan that serves them well against equal or less talented teams. The Ravens have some back end issues in their pass coverage, but are you really scared of a scrambling Blake Bortles exploiting that flaw? The Jags have kept only one road game closer than 10 points and are the fifth worst team in pass coverage, a major issue given the Ravens duo of Smiths that are capable of the game-breaking play. Baltimore has scored at least 28 points in three straight games, a total that the visitors haven’t reached since Week 13 … of last season.
Soppe Score: Ravens 30 – Jaguars 14
Tampa Bay @ Carolina
Was last week a coming out party for Cam Newton and this offense or simply an unexplainable outburst? The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, but there is no denying that there is talent on this Panthers roster that far exceeds their early season production. Jonathan Stewart is healthy, for now, and providing this offense with a running game that allows Newton to feel comfortable in the pocket. Argue all you want that he isn’t a great passing quarterback, but if he is scrambling around and being aggressive with his legs (21 carries over the last two weeks, including some goal line work last week), he’s a tough cover, a really tough cover. Kelvin Benjamin is a legitimate WR1 in this league and Greg Olsen is as reliable a chain mover as there is in the NFL, giving Newton the tools to put some points on the board. That style of offense should be enough against a Bucs team that ranks as the second-worst against the run. The issue with Carolina is that their offensive ceiling is only so high, therefore requiring a complete effort to win a ball game. This defense isn’t as good as it was a season ago, but when opposing the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the league, they can do enough. Tampa Bay has an exciting playmaker in Mike Evans and I don’t doubt that he can have some success here, but the Panthers are a better team than they were in their Derek Anderson led victory over these Buccaneers in Week 1, and I’m not sure Tampa Bay is.
Soppe Score: Panthers 26 – Buccaneers17
Cincinnati @ Cleveland
I could open this section the same way I did the Redskins game, as I don’t think it matters who starts for the Browns, but I do care who starts for them. We’ve suffered through enough Brian Hoyer, haven’t we? I don’t think I need to convince you that the Browns are a struggling team, so I’ll focus on why I’m hanging tough on my belief that the Bengals are a solid team. Yea, yea, yea, I’m well aware that the Brownies went into Cincinnati and left with a win, in large part because they didn’t have the worst quarterback on the field that night. Well, that was a midseason game played on short rest; the type of game that allows a lesser team to compete above their head. The Bengals are a very flawed football team, but they are finding their identity, and that’s a start. They seem to have settled into a two running back system, one that I love the upside of given the skill sets of both Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, and the passing game is revolving around their all world receiver. A.J. Green is as tough a matchup as there is, and with him accounting for 56.8 percent of Andy Dalton’s yardage over the last month, I struggle to believe that a defense that ranks 28th in pass rush can keep Dalton from slinging his way with insane regularity. Rarely do I point to Dalton as a difference-maker in a positive light, but he knows his limitations and has at times, played within them, something I don’t have confidence in the Browns’ quarterback to do.
Soppe Score: Bengals 23 – Browns 16
New York (Jets) @ Tennessee
Not wasting time here. Neither team has a quarterback I trust. Both teams rank among the five worst in turnover differential. Percy Harvin looked good last week, but he is likely out for the season. Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter have looked good in spots, but both are unlikely to play. If plays aren’t going to be made through the air (positive plays anyway) then I’ll side with the team that has a significant edge in stopping the ground game. New York owns the best run stuffing defensive line while the Titans rank dead last. If you’re a fan of either one of these teams, spend your time watching film of the college players that may be joining them next year; it’ll be a better use of your time and much less frustrating.
Soppe Score: Jets 17 – Titans 12
Denver @ San Diego
I’ve stood by this all season long and I’m not backing down now; the Chargers just aren’t a great football team. With the exception of a few early season victories, San Diego is generally a team that is going to beat the teams they are supposed to and lose to the teams that have more talent. There are far worse traits to have, but I’m not picking them against a superior Broncos team. While both of these teams stay committed to running the ball, this game is going to be decided in the air, and that heavily favors the road team. Not only is Peyton Manning kind of good, but the Broncos are better on both sides of the line when it comes to the pass. San Diego ranks in the Bottom 6 in both pass blocking and pass rushing, two areas where Denver ranks inside the Top 10. Flip the quarterbacks and I think Denver would still be my pick in this one, as I think that little of the Chargers’ offensive line and their ability to have sustained success against a reasonable defense. But you’re not making me trade quarterbacks, so I’m rolling with the Broncos in a convincing divisional win that ices the AFC West.
Soppe Score: Broncos 31 – Chargers 17
Minnesota @ Detroit
Divisional games are always competitive, and the Vikings are playing better football, but that doesn’t mean they win this game. The Lions stout run defense figures to put Teddy Bridgewater in a position to decide this game, and while I am considerably more confident in him winning it than I was at the beginning of this season, I still don’t think he can get it done against this aggressive Detroit defense. Assuming that the stumbling Matt Asiata can’t fall forward and pick up consistent first downs, the sixth ranked pass coverage and fifth ranked pass rush of the Lions will chase Bridgewater all over the field as a result of the eighth-worst pass-blocking offensive line. On the other side of the ball, Joique Bell has given Detroit a reasonable run attack that plays nicely alongside their high-upside passing game, a combination that should score enough points to outscore a limited Vikings offense. Even if you consider these two teams equal, the fact that Detroit’s time of possession is more than four minutes per game higher than Minnesota’s gives them a significant edge that is awfully tough for a rookie quarterback to overcome.
Soppe Score: Lions 24 – Vikings 18
San Francisco @ Seattle
Talk about two teams headed in completely opposite directions. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Seattle’s “best” is head and shoulders above San Francisco’s “best”, but only the ‘Hawks are functioning at that level right now. It’s not by accident that the Seahawks have held three straight opponents to season-low point totals and the defending Super Bowl champions are peaking at the perfect time. Are the 49ers a bad football team? Of course not, but they are a team operating without cohesion and have gotten away from what made them a true contender. Frank Gore has 13 or fewer carries in three straight games, and while Colin Kaepernick is a solid talent, he is not capable of beating reasonable defenses by himself … so why are they trying? San Francisco will compete in this game and they have a chance to win if they can establish an effective run game (or at least stay committed to the ground attack); I just don’t think they do. The defense is phenomenal, but Russell Wilson is playing at the highest level of his career. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is at a career-high, not to mention that he is on pace for more rushing attempts than Robert Griffin during his rookie of the year campaign. He’s as efficient as he has ever been (his aDOT continues to trend downward) and his defense is shortening the field consistently, a lethal combination at this time of year with Marshawn Lynch is standing in your backfield.
Soppe Score: Seahawks 26 – 49ers 17
Dallas @ Philadelphia
Didn’t we just see this game too? The Cowboys win over the Bears and the Eagles loss against Seattle has done exactly nothing to change my mind. Dallas is still a limited offense that relies on one player, and while that one player is supremely talented, it is simply a dangerous way to live. The Eagles, on the other hand, have a handful of weapons that are capable of breaking this game open, something they showcased when these teams met on Turkey Day. I still expect both defenses to struggle a bit, but the Eagles have proven to be the more opportunistic bunch, giving them a greater probability of making the big play that decides this game. I’m giving you the same score I had on Thanksgiving, as I truly believe the Eagles are the better football team.
Soppe Score: Eagles 30 – Cowboys 24
New Orleans @ Chicago
I’ll admit it … I thought both of these teams were good and legitimate playoff teams this season. The Saints could still make the playoffs, but calling any NFC South team “legitimate” at this point in time simply isn’t accurate. Drew Brees is still putting up big numbers, but this offense has lacked consistency and the defense hasn’t put four quarters together in more than a month. Sound familiar Bears fans? These are very similar teams, but with Brandon Marshall (ribs/lung) done for the season, I think this Chicago offense has a lower floor than the Saints, and that may be enough in a game that I expect to lead the week in total points. New Orleans appears more committed to running the rock than the Bears, a trend that should allow them to control the ball and sustain more drives. These are two of the three worst coverage teams in football, so give me the quarterback and the team that still has a glimmer of hope.
Soppe Score: Saints 34 – Bears 26