This should be an exciting week in the NFL, as by our count all but two matchups on the 16-game slate have playoff implications (Miami-San Diego, Detroit-New Orleans). This week's look at the NFL's biggest mismatches features a couple of road underdogs with a significant advantage in a particular area as well as a team that is going on the road and laying points.
Tampa Bay will receive points in St. Louis Thursday, which seems an enticing proposition when you consider the significant edge it holds with its running game. The other road 'dawg is Atlanta, which has been dumpster fire the last two months but are getting points from a team whose defense can't get off the field. Let's get started.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams (-2.5)
Doug Martin vs. Rams Rush Defense
The Buccaneers have the NFL's fourth-best rushing attack at 141.2 yards per game yet got away from the run last week against the Saints. The result was a stinging straight up home loss as a 6-point favorite that all but ended their faint playoff hopes. The Bucs abandoned the run, despite averaging 6.1 yards per carry in a close game against New Orleans. Martin, who is the league's second-leading rusher, carried just 11 times for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Expect Tampa Bay to return to the ground game this week for multiple reasons. For starters, the Rams rank 21st in the league in run defense with 115.9 yards allowed per game. Additionally, a big blow was delivered this week when reports revealed star defensive end Robert Quinn would need hip surgery and is done for the season. Finally, rookie quarterback Jamies Winston and the Bucs will be without the services of No. 2 wide receiver Vincent Jackson because of a knee strain. Such a recipe would seem to call for extra Martin.
Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars (-3)
Falcons Third-Down Offense vs. Jaguars Third-Down Defense
First downs are critical, but third-down efficiency can be the different in winning or losing. Teams speak of "staying on schedule" on offense, but even that philosophy leaves a critical third-down to convert. This is exactly the area where the Jaguars defense has struggled as opponents have converted 44.8 percent of their third-down attempts. That's the third-worst rate in the NFL.
By contrast, the Falcons offense has done well on third downs. It ranks third in the league with a 44.6 percent conversion rate. Perhaps Matt Ryan and company will be able to extend enough drives against a suspect third-down defense to at least keep this one close.
Buffalo Bills (-1) at Washington Redskins
LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams vs. Redskins Rush Defense
The Redskins at 6-7 are locked in a somewhat embarrassing battle for the NFC East title, while the Bills (6-7) are trying to keep their faint playoff hopes alive. The Redskins have been better against the run of late, but they're still giving up 121.3 yards per game to rank 24th in the league against the rush. The Bills come to town with the league's third-best ground game at 141.8 yards per game. McCoy has racked up 866 yards per game on the ground while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Additionally, the Bills could get a boost with the return of Karlos Williams. The rookie from Florida State has been a nice complement to McCoy as he's averaged 5.7 yards per carry this year with a team-high five rushing touchdowns.
This could prove a deciding factor in what figures to be a tight and physical game.
Arizona Cardinals (-3.5) at Philadelphia Eagles
Cardinals Third-Down Offense vs. Eagles Third-Down Defense
The streaking Cardinals have won seven consecutive games straight up and remain with an outside shot at securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Eagles are tied with the Redskins atop the NFC East. Philadelphia is obviously desperate for a win here, but they face at least one glaring disadvantage: third-down efficiency. Arizona has converted an excellent 46.3 percent of its third-downs, which ranks second in the NFL. Conversely, the Eagles rank No. 24 in third-down defense with a 42 percent conversion rate. Philadelphia's defense has struggled to get off the field all season long, which has provided the opposition with sustained drives that keeps Chip Kelly's offense off the field.
The decision-making by Carson Palmer on third down has been fabulous this season, and that figures to be a big advantage against this mediocre defense.
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