The final four. This week sees the league enter the 4th quarter of the 2020 season. However, we only have one team, the New Orleans Saints, who have booked a playoff spot. Week 13 saw other division leaders (Tennessee, Seattle and Pittsburgh) brought back towards the pack. In the race for the wildcard spots some sides are in the last chance saloon which usually makes them dangerous opposition. Who is going to boost their chances in week 14?
New England Patriots (6-6) @ LA Rams (8-4)
Two teams with a spring in their step meet on Thursday night when the Patriots travel to the SoFi stadium in Los Angeles to square up against the Rams. This will be their first meeting since Super Bowl LIII and an opportunity for Jared Goff and Sean McVay to exorcise some demons from that encounter. The Rams bounced back from their disappointing defeat to the 49ers in week 12 with an impressive performance in an all important 38-28 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. That win gave them a 2-game cushion over the Cardinals which, coupled with Seattle’s somewhat unexpected loss to the Giants, put the LA Rams back on top of the NFC West. Can McVay mastermind an offensive gameplan to beat Belichick this time around?
For the Patriots, they are 4-1 over the last five games. If they can run, they can win (averaging just over 150 yards rushing in those four recent wins). The blueprint is simple, run and run it some more on offense, throw when you have to, and rely on efficient situational football on defense and special teams. In those recent wins Belichick and his staff have cooked up game plans for the likes of Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray and now Justin Herbert (previously touted as a cert for offensive rookie of the year). Who is to say they cannot do the same for Goff (again)?
Unfortunately for New England they really need to win out to try to sneak into the playoffs and the Rams may put pay to their hopes this week. The Patriots may have exposed the weaknesses of the Chargers, Cardinals and Ravens in recent weeks, but I expect the Rams to be focussed on pushing for that division title. They need to beat the Patriots and then Jets in week 15 to keep pace with the Seahawks (Jets then Washington) in order to reach their week 16 divisional showdown level pegging. The Patriots have done well to make it to 6-6 but, for me, the Rams will take this by 8.
Indianapolis Colts (8-4) @ Las Vegas Raiders (7-5)
Both of these sides are one play away from their record having taken a severe dent last week. The Colts defense came up with a takeaway when Deshaun Watson had the Texans on the brink of an upset, and the Raiders had to rely on an unfathomable defensive play from the Jets to allow Henry Ruggs for their last gasp comeback. Defeats last week would have hampered their ambitions but instead they remain in good shape.
The Raiders will be keen to get Josh Jacobs back into the lineup as they were forced to move away from their power running game against the Jets. Darren Waller had a huge day (200 yards, 2 TDs) and it could be that Henry Ruggs can take that last-play TD to kick on for the last four games. They need their offense to function, as the defense, and particularly pass rush, continues to struggle to contain opponents.
The worry for the Colts is it has been confirmed that Philip Rivers requires foot surgery in the off-season, making an already immobile QB even more statuesque (perhaps a chance for the Raiders pass rush to zero in?). They have the return fixture with the Texans next week, followed by the Steelers before a more straightforward week 17 fixture versus the Jaguars. This 3-game stretch, starting with the Raiders, will dictate what their plans are for January. If Jacobs is back for Las Vegas then there may be too much even for the Colts defense. I’m concerned that an injured Rivers is going to decline over these last 4 games. I’m taking the Raiders by 4.
Minnesota Vikings (6-6) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)
This is an intriguing fixture for both teams for different reasons. The Buccaneers are coming off their bye week and will have taken the time to try and work out why their first twelve games were “Jekyll and Hyde” (4 of their 7 wins by 18 points or more). They have been able to blow teams out of the water but of their five defeats four have come against teams they need to beat in order to make it to that level of a true contender (Saints twice, Rams, Chiefs). It will be interesting to see who has won out in the battle of their offensive philosophy. Tom Brady, understandably, appears to perform better in a Patriots-style set-up (balance with the run, play-action, short to intermediate throws) whereas Bruce Arians wants to push the ball downfield to take advantage of the talented wide receiver group. Trust the guy with 6 rings perhaps?
When the Minnesota Vikings reached their week 7 bye they were 1-5. Since then they have flipped that script, winning close games albeit against weaker opposition – their win against the Packers in week 8 the only victory against a team with a winning record. Their offense functions in a similar way to how Brady likes to play, power running (primarily through Dalvin Cook) and play-action where Kirk Cousins’ form has picked up in the last month. However, this week looks infinitely more difficult against the Buccaneers defense.
The Buccaneers are at the start of a four game run (Vikings, Falcons twice, Lions) which should give them an opportunity to reassert their credentials. Their ceiling looks like a wildcard spot as the Saints should now secure the division with their 3-game advantage. The Vikings have the Cardinals and 49ers hot on their heels for that final wildcard spot but I cannot see them getting anything here. Tampa Bay will be too hot for Minnesota and I expect the Bucs to have used the bye week wisely to get healthy and to get right on offense. Buccaneers by 10.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) @ Buffalo Bills (9-3)
How much will the Steelers’ faith have been shaken by their first defeat of the season to the Washington Football Team? The Pittsburgh Steelers have been impacted by the recent COVID-related schedule changes; the game against Washington was their third in 12 days and it showed. Washington had enjoyed 11 days without a game following their Thanksgiving win over Dallas.
Pittsburgh have enjoyed success this year based around a quick passing game to a talented group of young receivers, looking to maximise yards after catch, and one of the best defenses in the league. Their offensive line keeps Big Ben upright, whilst their defence terrorises opposing quarterbacks, giving them one of the best sack differentials this season. They benefit when they can also get the running game going but this is one inconsistency in an otherwise highly impressive season thus far.
The Buffalo Bills continue to pass tests of their credentials as a true contender, dispatching the defending NFC Champion 49ers 34-24. Josh Allen continues to impress, already having more passing yards and touchdowns than 2019 with a 10% improvement in completions and a passer rating over 100 (105.9). Both the Bills and their nearest rivals the Dolphins have tough assignments this week (Miami are home to Kansas City). However, Buffalo will sense Pittsburgh are their for the taking, giving them every possibility of going into the last three weeks with a 2-game cushion over the Dolphins. The momentum is with Buffalo and I think they win this one by 4.
The playoff picture may crystallise further after the week 14 results but I have a feeling there will be more upsets this week and plenty left to play for when week 15 rolls around.