Over the final five weeks of the 2020 NFL regular season I am going to be taking a look at four match-ups each week which I think will go towards shaping the playoff picture come January. It will include divisional rivalries, teams riding high and those in the last chance saloon. In this first part let us take a look at the week 12 games, starting on Thanksgiving Day.
Washington Football Team (3-7) vs Dallas Cowboys (3-7)
Yes, you read that right. We start with a game where both teams have only won three games and are still very much in the running for the division title. Such is life in the 2020 NFC East. Whatever the Dallas Cowboys players and coaching staff did and said during their week 10 bye it worked. From the first quarter they looked different on both sides of the ball, they looked competitive. The defense hustled, forcing two first quarter turnovers and Andy Dalton proved he could do enough leading the offense, which is still talent-laden at the skill positions. Only a month ago the Cowboys were at possibly their lowest ebb, 142 yards of total offense (lowest since 2001) in a 25-3 embarrassment to Washington. This week they welcome Washington to “Jerry World” in much better shape. The Cowboys have 3 games left against NFC opponents and their divisional record (currently 1-2) may be crucial.
For Washington, Alex Smith now has his first win since returning from his career (and life) threatening injury. He has found himself somewhat unexpectedly as the starting QB, through the organisation’s lost faith in Dwayne Haskins, and injury to Kyle Allen. Smith is an efficient game manager and is supported by good options in the backfield (Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic) and a developing group of receivers, led by the pro-bowl calibre Terry McLaurin. Their defense is impressive up front, able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Although they are no doubt a team in transition they have the ability to keep games close, evident that their three losses over the last five weeks have only been by a maximum of three points to teams of a similar 2020 stature.
Washington may need this win more, as they face the Steelers, 49ers and Seahawks across weeks 13-15, but I feel the Cowboys are on the right track to rediscovering form. In the game which usually has the highest TV audience of the regular season, I think the Cowboys will win by 6.
Baltimore Ravens (6-4) vs Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0)
A couple of weeks ago I tweeted out some playoff predictions and forgot to put the Ravens in one of the AFC wildcard spots. Simple as that, forgot. Had always assumed that Lamar and company would make it. Then they lost to the Patriots and the Titans. Now they find themselves up against the undefeated Steelers with the prospect of dropping to 6-5. It has been well documented that it is as though the league have found the antidote to the juggernaut offense the Ravens displayed at will during 2019. The offensive line is patched up and, despite flashes of brilliance at times most weeks, defenses are putting the emphasis on Jackson to beat them with his arm.
The Steelers look all set. They are sauntering towards the playoffs and possibly the #1 seed. A top 10 defines, Big Ben back and commanding an offense with a highly impressive receiving corps and efficient running game. However, they have enjoyed a reasonably soft part of the schedule over the last three weeks (Cowboys, Bengals, Jaguars). Before that they managed to beat the Ravens in their week 8 meeting, but only when Lamar Jackson fumbled at the Pittsburgh 6-yard line with the score 28-24. The Ravens could quite easily have emerged victorious and they outscored the Steelers in a number of statistics normally associated with a win (yards – passing and rushing, average yards per play, 3rd down efficiency, time of possession).
There is an argument that the Ravens do not necessarily need to win this game and they could sweep weeks 13-17 (Cowboys, Browns, Jaguars, Giants, Bengals) and finish 11-5 which should earn a wildcard berth. However, I think the Ravens need a spark, and based on their previous encounter I’m backing them to catch the Steelers cold – but this could now be impacted by reported COVID cases for the Ravens. If they can get players back (particularly Mark Ingram and JK Dobbins) or the game is delayed for a few days, I think the Ravens can win by 4.
Tennessee Titans (7-3) vs Indianapolis Colts (7-3)
The AFC South has some juice this season. For the Colts, the “Philip Rivers Last Stand” is working, even after having to contend with early season injuries to his supporting cast on offense. In Tennessee, the seemingly perennial 9-7 Titans have proved that the re-emergence of Ryan Tannehill was not a one season wonder. The Titans have a formidable 1-2 punch with the Derrick Henry-powered running game, committing defenders, which is then complimented by well-designed play-action passing. After three losses in four games, the Titans looked focused and determined in their win over the Ravens last week. Anyone who watched AJ Brown carrying Ravens defenders with him for the go-ahead touchdown could see this epitomised their approach as one of the most physical teams in the league.
The Colts are probably at the top of their expectations at 7-3 and it was only a remarkable second half turnaround against an imploding Green Bay Packers last week (28-14 down at the half, winning 31-34 in OT) which meant they kept pace with the Titans. Their defense is one of the most impressive units in the league and on offense Rivers is managing to utilise emerging talent (lookout for more from Michael Pittman JR now he is back from injury). But their roadmap for victory is for the defense to lead the way, with the gunslinging Rivers summoning up the effort to get them over the line.
In week 10 the Colts, somewhat surprisingly, blew the Titans away 34-17. However, much of that result hinged on a blocked Titans punt, returned for a touchdown, as the Colts scored 14 points in just over a minute towards the end of the third quarter. If the Titans can keep things tight this time the Derrick Henry effect could kick in (since 2019 – 1st half 4.2yds/rush 6TD, 2nd half 5.7yds/rush 21TD). I think the both teams will come in confident following hard fought wins against quality opposition. It is a quirk of this season’s fixtures that the teams meet again only a fortnight later and the loss will still be fresh for Tennessee, and I’m backing them to make amends, Titans by 7.
LA Chargers (3-7) vs Buffalo Bills (7-3)
The Bills have another test of their credentials as a contender this week, even though the Chargers current record may not suggest it. Buffalo are the heir apparent to the AFC East division title but they have a frisky Miami Dolphins side hot on their heels, only one game back. The Dolphins face the 0-10 Jets so it is reasonably safe to assume the Bills need the W here to stay one step ahead.
Buffalo are coming off a much needed bye week after the last play gut-wrenching defeat to the Cardinals and the “Hail Murray” play. The scales have tipped this year for the Bills with the emphasis being on a pass heavy offense putting up enough points to allow for a defense which has not live up to its high 2019 standards.
The may seem themselves in another shootout this week against a team with a not too dissimilar methodology. The Chargers have found their franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. With Joe Burrow now out for the rest of the season the path is clear for Herbert to be the 2020 offensive rookie of the year. He is easily on pace to far exceed the record for most touchdown passes from a rookie (currently 27 from Baker Mayfield in 2018 – Herbert already has 22). The Chargers lowest number of points scored since week 4 is 21. However, their defense has once again been depleted by injuries and last week they almost allowed the Jets to claw back an 18 point deficit. And let’s not talk about the Chargers special teams play…
Herbert is such a talent I would expect the Chargers will give the Bills a scare and to run them close. It is good timing for the Bills to be coming off a bye week so I would expect them to be rested and to have made adjustments, particularly on shoring the defense up. I’m backing the Bills, but only by 3. If not then the Bills could find themselves in a real scrap with the Dolphins for the AFC East.
Happy Thanksgiving to all NFL fans across both sides of the pond!