Last week the most obvious theme was that the most rugged, most physical and most brutal teams were the ones that took the cash. Jacksonville. Oakland. Minnesota. New England. Cleveland. Every one of those teams bludgeoned their opponents for 60 minutes and each and every one of them managed to take the ‘W’ and the cash, throw it over their shoulder, and walk away leaving a trail of blood and broken dreams behind them.
It has been a season of flash, of offensive explosions, and of rule changes intended to soften up our violent national past time. But brute force is the mantra of December football. And as we get deeper into the grips of another harsh winter the reality is that the core of football – running the ball, stopping the run, and being bigger, stronger and more of a badass than your opponent – is going to be at the heart of any playoff push this holiday season.
This week the weather should be even a bigger factor in dictating style and quality of play. Six of the 16 games on the NFL schedule are being played in domes this week. Two others are being played in California. But that still leaves eight games – half of the slate – that will be playing football in the elements. A quick look at the forecasted low temperatures in places like Chicago (29 degrees), Carolina (10 degrees), Pittsburgh (19), Buffalo (19), and New York (15) shows that it is going to be a cold, cruel Sunday in the NFL as pretender and contender alike is going to be exposed to Mother Nature and Father Football this Sunday.
It’s going to be bloody. And keep that in mind while making this week’s plays. Just ask yourself, “Is this team tough enough to warrant me betting my money on them.” Because when all else fails, that is what December football is all about.
Here are my Week 14 NFL Power Rankings:
1. New England Patriots (10-2) – It’s definitely going to be hard for this team to gear back up after Monday night’s peak performance. However, Tom Brady has always had a field day against Cover-2 defenses. What I am most interested in is how the Patriots secondary is going to handle Chicago’s speedy and multifaceted receiving corps. The Patriots defense has surrendered an average of 26 points per game in its last four on the road compared to just 17 per game at home. The Patriots are the most heavily bet team o the board this week and are taking nearly 90 percent of the action. They are 0-4 ATS the Sunday after playing on Monday Night Football.
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-2) – The Falcons are one of just four teams in the NFL to start the same five offensive linemen in every one of their games. They keep finding ways to win, and with two games left against Carolina they are nearly a lock for home field advantage in the NFC. However, I am still not buying this team as a championship club. Matt Ryan was lucky – flat-out lucky – last week. By my count he should have been intercepted four times.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) – The Steelers have been favored by a touchdown or more in three of the last six meetings with Cincinnati and they have covered all three times. The most recent blowout was a 17-point win as an 11-point favorite in 2008. The Steelers have no mercy on divisional opponents (ask the Browns). But what has to worry any would-be backer is that Pittsburgh is just 3-7 ATS against a sub-.500 team and just 2-6 ATS as a home favorite recently.
4. New Orleans Saints (9-3) – Now that looked like the 2009 Saints: unstoppable offense, unflappable in the clutch, a weak but opportunistic defense, and an overall win. The Saints are just 5-7 ATS on the season. And the fact that they are laying more points to scrappy St. Louis than Atlanta is laying to horrendous Carolina shows that the Saints are still overvalued.
5. Baltimore Ravens (8-4) – On the one hand, this team has played brilliantly against one of the most challenging schedules in the NFL. On the other, they have now blown last-minute leads against New England, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. I know it would be a tough one, but could you make the case that this team is underachieving? The Ravens are just 4-11 ATS as a road favorite and they are just 2-7 ATS the week after facing the Steelers. That last mark includes a horrid 1-4 ATS record when playing on the road after facing the Steelers, dating back to 2005.
6. Green Bay Packers (8-4) – The Packers – surprise, surprise – have owned the Lions. They have won 10 straight and covered seven of those last 10 meetings. The Packers are 23-11-1 ATS in their last 35 road games and they are 12-5 ATS in their last 17 divisional games. This team has gotten better as the season has progressed and their four losses are by a combined 12 points this year. That is despite significant injury issues and an inconsistent running attack.
7. Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) – This is a dangerous time for the Eagles to be playing a suddenly confident Dallas team. And the big issue when these teams face off is that it is such a contrast in styles (the speed of Philly vs. the raw power of Dallas) that whichever club can dictate tempo should manage to win. Last year the Eagles were manhandled in their three meetings, losing all three games SU and ATS. But Philly did have extra time to prepare and they do have that triple-revenge angle.
8. New York Jets (9-3) – I still can’t believe how soft this defense is. Amidst all of the flak that was being tossed toward Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez (and both deserved to be chastised) I think that the most underreported story about this team this year is that its defense has gone from dominating to demure. The numbers look cute for this team, statistically, compared to the rest of the league. But last year they gave up 20 or more points just five times all season. They have now allowed that mark seven times in their last 10 outings.
9. Chicago Bears (9-3) – Hey, I know when I’m wrong. And I have been wrong about this team for most of the year. But I have especially been wrong about Mike Martz adjusting this offense to fit the lack of talent on the offensive line. This team is ranked No. 29 in the league in total offense and they can still be disgusting to watch. But they are keeping opponents off balance and they have averaged a solid 24 points per game since their bye week. All that said, they still have only played two above .500 teams since Week 3 (Giants, Eagles) and now they finish with a gauntlet of two road divisional games (at Minnesota and at Green Bay) weaved in with games against the Patriots and Jets.
10. San Diego Chargers (6-6) – The stats might say that this team has the No. 1 defense in the league right now, but they got absolutely mauled last week. They were outgained 251-21 on the ground against the Raiders and they had absolutely no answer for Oakland’s rushing attack. That was San Diego’s first December loss since 2005. This is a revenge spot for the Bolts against the Chiefs, but then again so was last week. And once again special teams was a crippler for this team. Darren Sproles’ fumble set up a big Oakland TD last week. So even though that won’t show up in the year-end stats, it was another seven points given away by the Third Unit.
11. New York Giants (8-4) – I love it that the Giants have returned to their power running game roots. However, I have been killing teams like Jacksonville and Tampa Bay all year for not playing anyone. Yet, the Giants have only faced four teams with a winning record this year and they are just 2-2 in those contests. The Giants finish with three of four on the road, and if they remain loose with the ball on offense I could see them dropping three of four. The Giants are 21-8 ATS on the road and the road team is 6-1 ATS in the Minnesota series. But the Giants are just 2-6 ATS after covering a spread and this team really could be one of the more overrated in the league right now.
12. Indianapolis Colts (6-6) – Like everyone else, I am pretty surprised by Peyton Manning’s play over the course of the last few weeks. But it makes sense. I have said time and time again this year that without Manning this team has four- or five-win talent. Obviously, he is pressing. However, check out whom they have played the last five weeks: Philadelphia, Cincinnati, New England, San Diego and Dallas. That is five straight games against 2009 playoff teams, so a 1-4 slide – with three of the four losses by a field goal or less – isn’t all that stunning. I can see them winning out and there might be some nice value on this group.
13. Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) – Big news out of Chiefs camp on Wednesday is that Matt Cassel had appendectomy surgery. Kansas City promoted Tyler Palko to the active roster and today he and Brodie Croyle were taking all of the snaps. The odds on this game have been pulled off the board at many books, but team brass insists that Cassel will be back to work later this week.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) – I have to give kudos to the Bucs for their play on Sunday. Yes, they are 0-5 against teams with a winning record and, yes, I have railed against how overrated I think they have been this year (they have played a cupcake schedule). But they had Atlanta beat on Sunday. However, I am still not sure about Josh Freeman. He, and this young offense, is very exciting. But I definitely wonder about his overall decision-making. This team has been ravaged by injury over the last few weeks and just lost two more starters, corner Aqib Talib and center Jeff Faine. That is the second starting lineman to be lost of the year in two weeks. Tampa is 10-1 ATS in its last 11 road games.
15. Washington Redskins (5-7) – This is another team that I’m done talking about. What a debacle. They had the talent and the situational factors all lined up for a playoff trip. But this franchise is just in shambles. McNabb has mailed it in and Haynesworth is finally done for the year. They had six turnovers last week and a shockingly poor game plan. All that said, this team is taking heavy sharp action this week. Over 80 percent of the bets in this game have come in on the Bucs but the spread in this game has dipped from Washington +3 to +1. Eight of their 12 games this year have been decided by six points or less but this group is just 2-8-6 ATS as an underdog of three points or less.
16. Cleveland Browns (5-7) – This marks the fourth straight season that the Bills and Browns have played one another. Consider it the anti-Patriots vs. Colts game. Cleveland has won all three meetings, taking it down the last two years as an underdog. The Browns are now 13-5 ATS in their last 18 conference games and an exceptional 15-2 ATS on the road against a team with a losing home record.
17. Miami Dolphins (6-6) – The party is over for the Dolphins. Just as I predicted, this team has not had the depth to handle the most difficult schedule in the NFL. Injuries have ravaged this team and they look like a club that is going to be limping to the finish line. They are just 7-21-2 ATS in their last 30 games against the Jets but they are also an exceptional 16-5 ATS in their last 21 on the road. Good news out of practice this week is that Brandon Marshall and Channing Crowder both practiced and both are expected to play this weekend.
18. St. Louis Rams (6-6) – Man, if I have a regret about this season (and oh, I do) it is not following my early hunch on this team and getting on board. This team is 8-2 ATS in its last 10 games and 6-1 ATS in its last seven. But they are in the tricky spot of having to play a third straight game on the road – after winning the last two outright. Also, they have a big in-state rivalry game with Kansas City next week. When the schedule came out in April not a soul on this planet circled that game next week as one that could have a dramatic impact on not one, but two divisional races.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) – Last week the Jaguars put on one of the most dominating rushing displays I’ve seen all year. I know that MJD is getting all the love, but the Jaguars young offensive line has really come into its own. This team is playing great football right now on both sides of the ball and they look very confident. What they need to worry about this week is looking past Oakland to a critical road clash at Indianapolis next week. Since 2004 the Jaguars are a stellar 9-2 ATS in the week before they face the Colts. Jacksonville is on a 6-0 ATS run though and they are 3-0 ATS this year as a favorite.
20. Minnesota Vikings (5-7) – I’m sorry, but put me in the camp that thinks that last week’s injury is the perfect excuse to close the book on the Brett Favre Experience. This team has to find out what it is getting from Tavaris Jackson. He needs to get reps and he definitely seemed to give the offense some pep. Sure, he had several turnovers last week – but is that much different from what Favre has done? This team is allegedly No. 6 in the NFL in defense. But last week was just the second time in nine weeks that they allowed less than 24 points. The Vikings are 8-3-1 ATS at home but just 3-9 ATS in their last 12 in December.
21. Oakland Raiders (6-6) – Last week’s win over San Diego had to be the biggest win for this franchise in nearly a decade. And they are playing meaningful games in December for the first time since their Super Bowl run back in 2002. But they are in a tremendous letdown spot here, having to travel cross-country and play in a 10 a.m. PST start out on the East Coast. Oakland is just 19-39 ATS in December, but most of those games were mailed in by teams heading for Top 10 picks in the draft. We’ll find out a ton about this Raiders team – for this year and moving forward – by how they handle this week. They are 4-1 ATS in their last five road games.
22. Tennessee Titans (5-7) – I have never seen a Titans defense look that soft. They had absolutely no chance at stopping Jacksonville last week and – for the first time in as long as I could remember – they looked like an Accidental Defense. That’s what I call teams that accidentally get stops mainly because the other team makes a mistake. Offensively they are even worse. They haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in 12 quarters and last week dropped at least two passes that would have led to scores. If you can’t score against Jacksonville there is no hope for you. By the way, Randy Moss is now on a 2-7 ATS run with three different teams dating back to Week 2. He has just five catches in four games with the Titans – all losses – and looks like 2006 Oakland Randy right now. First-ballot my ass.
23. Houston Texans (5-7) – Stop someone. Anyone. If you discount the Tennessee shutout, Houston has allowed an average of 31.2 points per game in their last seven games. They actually have a nice situational edge this week. They have had extra time to prepare and they are catching the Ravens off a Sunday night heartbreaker against their hated rival. And playing on national television is motivation for a team that is one loss away from checking out on this season. I know the Texans think they are still in the AFC South race; they aren’t.
24. Dallas Cowboys (4-8) – Yeah, I’m still sick of talking about these guys. I’ll leave that to the bobbleheads. But I will say this: I don’t see Jason Garrett changing the culture of this team. If they think that he will wash away the stench of Wade Phillips I think that they are wrong. Dallas has played ‘over’ in nine straight games. That is one of the longest NFL ‘over’ streaks in the last decade, surpassing the longest streaks of even the 2007 Patriots (5), 2003 Colts (7) and 2000 Rams (7).
25. San Francisco 49ers (4-8) – Mike Singletary will be one of the next head coaches fired. And the main reason will be that he wasn’t decisive about his quarterback. Do you think there is really a difference between Troy Smith and Alex Smith? There isn’t. But just pick one and go with them, come hell or high water. That allows your team to get into a flow. He should be staying with Troy. Troy Smith is 3-2 with this wreck of a team (compared to 1-6 for Alex) and last week’s loss in Green Bay had nothing to do with him.
26. Seattle Seahawks (6-6) – Once again for the cheap seats: if this team doesn’t score via special teams or defense they don’t score. Last week 14 of their 31 points were directly from special teams (Leon Washington had an 84-yard return and was knocked out at the 1-yard line) and defense (a pick-six). The Seahawks scored 28 points during a 7:35 span at the end of the first half and start of the second in their first meeting with San Fran (Week 1). Two of the scores were direct results of – you guessed it – a turnover and a special teams meltdown. Seattle is 3-12 ATS on the road and 2-8 ATS on grass.
27. Denver Broncos (3-9) – Wait, so you’re telling me that a former Patriots assistant was a complete and utter failure as a head coach? I can’t believe it. I wouldn’t expect a huge bump in play from this team similar to what we’ve seen from Dallas and Minnesota once they fired their headmen and brought in an interim coach. The Cowboys and Vikings have talent. That is the biggest problem with Denver: they have one of the lowest talent levels in the NFL. They are 8-25-1 ATS as a favorite and 16-33-3 ATS against a team with a losing record.
28. Buffalo Bills (2-10) – I understand that the general consensus is that the Bills are actually a pretty good team that has just been shackled with some bad luck and an insanely tough schedule. Maybe. But I still just see losers when I look at this bunch and I don’t know how they are laying points. They did win their last game as a favorite (a 14-12 win over Detroit). But they barely held on in that one and they were catching Detroit in a tough letdown spot. This team is 5-1-1 ATS in its last seven games and they are 26-11-1 ATS against a team with a losing record. But they are also 5-13-1 ATS at home and this team always finds a way to blow it. They are 11-8-1 ATS as a favorite dating back to 2006.
29. Detroit Lions (2-10) – Yes, I’m a Bears fan. But my non-biased opinion is that N.D. Suh definitely should have been flagged for his hit on Jay Cutler last week. Regardless, this team is going to have legit revenge when they face the Bears next year. The Lions and one of the worst secondaries I’ve ever seen are not surprisingly 8-3 against the total in their last 11 games. If you enjoyed the Drew Stanton experience you’re in luck: he’s starting again this week. However, Kyle Vanden Bosch is reportedly out.
30. Cincinnati Bengals (2-10) – The last 0 seconds of last week’s game was just vintage Bungles and the perfect example of why Marvin Lewis should be let go immediately. I have been saying in this spot for years that he is one of the worst in the business. And if it wasn’t the consistently undisciplined play of his team (yeah you, Pat Sims), it was his amazingly poor clock management (go back and watch those last 30 seconds again). This team made three trips into the red zone in the first half and mustered just six points. Are they going to mail it in the rest of the year? Probably. But they may at least wait until after they lose to the Steelers.
31. Arizona Cardinals (3-9) – The ‘over’ is now 47-21 when the Cardinals are an underdog and this week’s game with Denver looks like another matchup between teams that can’t stop anyone. That is now seven straight losses and a 1-6 ATS slide, and five of the seven losses have come by double digits.
32. Carolina Panthers (1-11) – You can bet that I will have money down on Atlanta this week. I don’t understand how the Panthers aren’t catching at least two touchdowns in every game they play right now. They are just 1-5 ATS in their last six games and their average scoring differential is 13 points per game. Also, their last seven losses have come by an average of 16.4 points per game. Bet them hard these last four games.
Robert Ferringo is a writer and a professional sports handicapper for Doc’s Sports. He has banked profit for his clients after five of seven winning football weeks and is rolling out more predictions this week. You can sign up for his college football and NFL picks and get more information here.