During this series I am looking at four games each week which I think will go a long way to deciding the playoffs. This week the key fixtures include three teams in both the AFC South and the NFC West, with some sides looking to maintain their momentum whereas others need to get back to winning ways.
Cleveland Browns (8-3) @ Tennessee Titans (8-3)
The Tennessee Titans are rolling. They come into this week 13 match-up after two huge wins which saw them back to their physical, dominating best. Derrick Henry looks like he is focused on replicating last season’s late bulldozing form. If they can take care of the Browns then they face the Jaguars and Lions, giving them an excellent chance of sewing up the division ahead of nearest rival the Colts before we even get to week 17.
The Cleveland Browns have stolen a march on the other AFC wildcard contenders maintaining their consistency with three hard fought wins since coming off their bye. Their methodology is built around the dominant run game of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and a solid defense (which has of late missed edge rusher Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward). Hopefully they get Garrett back for this game or else it could be a long night for the Browns when the Titans have the ball.
For me the Titans look completely in the zone, their first half beat-down of the Colts last week demonstrated their credentials as a true contender this season. The Browns only just squeezed past the Jaguars last week and I think the Titans will prove too much for Cleveland to contend with, so it is Titans by 6. The Browns still have matches against both the Giants and Jets so there is plenty of scope for them to reach ten wins and a wildcard spot.
LA Rams (7-4) @ Arizona Cardinals (6-5)
These two NFC West divisional rivals meet in week 13 with both coming off disappointing losses. The Rams offense (and Jared Goff in particular) had one of their poorer performances, and they do rely on the Aaron Donald-led defense to put them in the best position to win games. There is an inconsistency about their offense which is proving to be a hinderance in their push to the playoffs. Three of their last five games are within the division so they do, to an extent, control their destiny.
The Cardinals suffered at the hands of Bill Belichick and the Cam Newton-led Patriots. They have stuttered since their week 8 bye (3 defeats in 4 games with the only win on the last second ‘Hail Murray’ pass). Kyler Murray is working through a shoulder injury which does appear to have impacted him the last two weeks, and the dynamic running aspect of his game has also dried up. On defense they are struggling to stop teams right now, and a match up against Sean McVay’s innovative playacting with mis-direction and pre-snap movement may not give them the opportunity to get right.
Both sides have one eye over their shoulder as the 49ers are not done yet in the wildcard playoff race, particularly as their aspirations to win the NFC West have diminished somewhat with the Seahawks now at 8-3 (who now have games against teams with records less than .500 all the way to week 16). I think I trust the Rams defense more than the Cardinals unit and I’m backing the LA Rams to win by 4.
Buffalo Bills (8-3) @ San Francisco 49ers (5-6)
How astonishing a story would it be for the injury-ravaged 49ers to make the 2020 playoffs? It looked impossible weeks ago as the rest of the NFC West looked to make the division a three horse race. However, after the divisional win over the Rams last week, the 49ers have a chance. They may need to run the table all the way to week 17 but following this clash against the Bills they play Washington and the Cowboys, both definitely winnable. They have key players coming back, particularly on offense with Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel, and this should help to keep the Bills defense occupied.
For the Buffalo Bills they continue to play from ahead in the AFC East as they have been the pacesetters from the outset. They could do with getting wide receiver John Brown back to give them a full complement on offense, but the defense has stepped up of late and looked a little more like the 2019 outfit. The pressure on them is maintained in the division this week as the Dolphins are home to the Bengals and the Patriots could still put a late run together, starting at the Chargers.
This game could put a real stamp of authority on Bills credentials as a contender but a defeat could raise questions, as they then host the Steelers in week 14. I think the 49ers will run it close but I expect the Bills to have enough on offense to win by 3.
Indianapolis Colts (7-4) @ Houston Texans (4-7)
The resurgent Houston Texans probably hold the key to the Colts progression to January football with 2 meetings in the next 3 weeks. The Texans have won 3 of their last 4 games and still harbour very slim hopes of that final AFC wildcard spot. The Colts, meanwhile are coming off their crushing defeat to the Tennessee Titans. They will be hopeful of getting key defensive pieces back from the Reserve/COVID-19 list in DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry. They will both be needed against the Texans in order to put the necessary pressure on opposition QB Deshaun Watson. If not, Watson will bring his excellent 2020 form (24TDs, 5INT, 112.5 rating) and make life extremely difficult for the Colts. On offense, the Colts should be able to take advantage of a generous Texans defense to get back to winning ways.
Sweeping the Texans over the next three weeks would go a long way to securing the Colts playoff berth, particularly with games against the Raiders and Steelers before closing out with a week 17 game against the Jaguars. They also need the win this week as there are other AFC playoff contenders with what, on paper, look like probable wins (Raiders at Jets, Dolphins home to Bengals, Patriots at Chargers, and Ravens home to Cowboys). If the Colts get dragged back to 7-5 they may need to rely on other teams slipping up in the last month of the season.
Before the breaking news of the Texans Will Fuller and Bradley Roby suspensions for PED violations I would have given Houston every chance, particularly if Buckner and Autry are still out for Indianapolis. However, taking this into account and presuming the Colts get their players back I think they will get right to manoeuvre back to 8-4 with a win over Texans by 7.
After this weekend we get to the home stretch of the final four weeks, which will see the playoff picture come into sharper focus. Can’t wait to preview next week!