Beauty of pro football reflected in short 16 games

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The beauty of pro football is what separates it from the other major sports. That beauty is reflected in the short 16 game schedule that makes every game very meaningful.

Whereas a close loss or two in major league baseball or in the NBA over the course of a long season may have minimal impact on a team’s chances to make the playoffs, such games have huge impacts in the NFL.

A team that is otherwise 8-8 but can mount a couple of fourth quarter comebacks to turn losses into wins becomes 10-6 and makes the playoffs. That same 8-8 team that surrenders a pair of late fourth quarter leads becomes 6-10 and earns a high draft choice the following April.

Although there is much about which the NFL can be criticized, one area in which the league has excelled is in scheduling all division games for the final week of the season. That all but ensures that several division races, and a resulting berth in the playoffs, won’t be decided until the final day of the season.

Sure, some division races will be decided a few weeks before the final games are played. However, given the parity that has defined the NFL for decades much will not be decided until that final weekend.

That’s why we love the game and continue to watch in record numbers as every Sunday becomes a holiday.

As we reach the Thanksgiving Day weekend each teams has played 10 games and there are no more bye weeks. Just six games remain for teams to make a run at the playoffs or, in the case of the top clubs, improve playoff seedings.

With five eighths of the schedule complete Atlanta continues to lead the NFC at 9-1. The second and third spots were up for grabs on Monday night as 6-2-1 San Francisco was favored to defeat 7-2 Chicago in a battle of backup quarterbacks and division leaders. 

The New York Giants lead the NFC East but with just a 6-4 record, one game worse than Green Bay, the team the Giants host this coming Sunday night. The 7-3 Packers could be tied with the Bears for the NFC North lead if the Bears lost to the 49ers. Even if Chicago pulled the upset the Pack would control the first NFC Wild Card.

Minnesota, Seattle and Tampa Bay are in a three way tie for the second NFC Wild Card with 6-4 records.

Houston leads the AFC at 9-1 with Baltimore sitting second at 8-2. Houston’s lead over the Ravens is effectively a two game lead as the Texans defeated Baltimore earlier this season.

Both Denver and New England are tied with 7-3 records, leading their respective divisions. New England defeated Denver earlier this season and that could have implications come playoff time.

Only two other AFC teams have winning records. Indianapolis and Pittsburgh are both 6-4 and in control of their own destinies with six games remaining.

The only AFC team within a game of the Steelers and Colts is 5-5 Cincinnati. The Bengals made the playoffs last season and have turned things around with a pair of impressive wins over the Giants and Kansas City.

As Thanksgiving comes and goes the level of play picks up with the importance of the games.

Here’s a look at this week’s games beginning with the three games on Thanksgiving Day.

Thursday

Texans -3 at Lions (49): Perhaps Houston was caught looking ahead to this game when, as more than a two touchdown favorite, the Texans needed overtime to get by Jacksonville. Detroit blew a late lead on this field and again lost to division rival Green Bay. 

Turkey day has not been kind to the Lions lately as they are 0-8 both SU and ATS since 2004. But they were underdogs in all eight games. They are dogs again here and are facing a team that has itself had difficulty closing out games. LIONS.

Redskins +3½ at Cowboys (47): The latest renewal in one of the NFL’s best rivalries finds 5-5 Dallas a game ahead of Washington and on the periphery of the Wild Card race. The Redskins continue to show progress under the leadership of rookie QB Robert Griffin III. Dallas continues to underperform at home with 0-4 ATS home mark this season. 

Overall the Cowboys have won 3 straight and 6 of 7 against the ‘Skins but are just 2-5 ATS in those games including 3 straight ATS losses in games decided by 3, 2 and 3 points. REDSKINS.

Patriots -6 at Jets (49½): The Jets surprised many with their strong effort last week, winning 27-13 at the Rams. A month ago the Jets lost at New England in overtime. The 7-3 Patriots are 4 points away from being unbeaten. Four of the 7 wins have been by at least 21 points. Coach Bill Belichick has always had a disdain for the Jets. 

The Pats have now won 4 straight regular season meetings and 8 of 13. The Jets will finally have some confidence following the win over the Rams but have lost both times they hosted elite teams this season. PATRIOTS.

Sunday

Raiders +8 at Bengals (49): Oakland QB Carson Palmer returns to where he began his NFL career and enjoyed modest success for several seasons with the Bengals. Today’s Bengals, quarterbacked by Andy Dalton, have won two straight following a four game losing streak and have gotten back into the playoff hunt. The Raiders have lost 3 straight, all by double digits, and have 5 such lopsided losses this season. 

This is the first time that Cincy has been favored by more than a TD since 2008. The Bengals have lost to the spread in each of their last 6 spots as more than a TD favorite. RAIDERS.

Steelers (NL) at Browns: Pittsburgh may be down to third string QB 37 year old Charlie Batch after Byron Leftwich was injured in Sunday’s loss to Baltimore after filling in for injured Ben Roethlisberger. Cleveland was extremely competitive in the overtime loss at Dallas. 

The Steelers lead the league in total defense and their offense again figures to be limited. Both are ingredients for a low scoring game against a similarly limited Browns offense and a Cleveland defense that is improving. UNDER.

Bills +3 at Colts (5½): Buffalo has extra rest following last Thursday’s win over Miami in which the Bills did not score an offensive touchdown. Indianapolis was torched by 25 points in a loss at New England, their third road blowout loss this season. But the improved Colts have played well at home, winning 4 of 5. Three of the wins have been by exactly a FG and the fourth by just 4 points. 

So laying a FG seems to be the right line. The Colts are off of that embarrassing loss and might bring a bit more intensity with rookie QB Andrew Luck showing more poise and talent than Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. And at 6-4 the Colts are in the race for the playoffs. COLTS.

Broncos -10 at Chiefs (44): To describe Kansas City’s offense as inept would be an understatement. The Chiefs have not reached 17 points in any of the last 6 games, averaging just 11 points per game in this stretch. Denver continues to improve weekly on both sides of the football and has built a 3 game lead in the AFC West. 

Laying double digits on the road is generally a risk not worth taking. Perhaps the better way to play Denver’s superiority is to play the total. UNDER.

Titans -3 at Jaguars (43½): Tennessee is rested after its bye and at 4-6 has not yet given up on the season. Jacksonville is 1-9 after what was an outstanding effort in defeat at powerful Houston, losing in OT after both teams scored field goals on their first overtime possessions. 

Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert was injured and backup Chad Henne may be this week’s starter. The Titans have won 3 of 5, including 2 on the road with their game prior to the bye that surprising 37-3 blowout win at Miami. TITANS.

Vikings (NL) at Bears: Chicago played at San Francisco last Monday night and may have backup Jason Campbell at QB in place of injured starter Jay Cutler for a second straight week. The Vikings return from their bye that followed an upset of Detroit to improve to 6-4. 

The Bears have played well with their only losses prior to Monday being to a pair of Super Bowl contenders, Green Bay and Houston. Despite their success to date, Minnesota is not in that class. BEARS.

Falcons PK at Bucs (48): Atlanta overcame 5 interceptions by QB Matt Ryan to rally and defeat Arizona and avoid a second straight loss after an 8-0 start. Tampa Bay continues to play well under first year coach Greg Schiano and at 6-4 is very much in the playoff mix.

Atlanta has controlled this series in recent years, winning 6 of 7 though the teams have split ATS decisions each of the past 3 seasons. Tampa’s offense has been potent in recent weeks but the defense continues to be permissive. OVER.

Seahawks -2½ at Dolphins (37½): Seattle returns from its bye and Miami played last Thursday so both should be fresh. Miami has lost 3 in a row following a 3 game win streak and at 4-6 has all but played itself out of the playoff race. Seattle is 6-4 and very much in playoff contention, but makes the longest possible road trip for an NFL game not played in London. 

Both teams are directed by rookie QBs which often requires managing the game rather than go for the big play. As such we should see both teams employ conservative game plans. UNDER.

Ravens -2 at Chargers (47): At 8-2 Baltimore controls its destiny for the second AFC seed in the playoffs. San Diego is all but out of contention at 4-6 and has not shown much of a spark in recent weeks, losing 5 of 6. Their 4 wins are against teams that are a combined 9-31. 

QB Philip Rivers continues to make poor throws and poor decisions. Baltimore should remember last season’s trip here, a 34-14 December loss that was not that close. The Ravens have won 3 straight and 7 of 8 and are playing much better football. RAVENS.

49ers (NL) at Saints: The 49ers are off Monday night’s home game against Chicago in which Colin Kaepernick started in place of injured Alex Smith at QB. New Orleans is eager to avenge last season’s 36-32 road playoff loss. The Saints have won 5 of 6 following their 0-4 start and are very much back in playoff contention. The 49ers are on a short week and are playing only their second road game since Sept. 30. 

There are many reasons to support the 49ers and their significant edge on defense but the Saints are playing with great intensity and a continued sense of urgency that will be reflected by the energy of the crowd. SAINTS.

Rams +2½ at Cards (37½): Arizona has dropped 6 straight following a 4-0 start to all but fall out of playoff contention. Last week they were unable to hold a double digit lead at Atlanta, falling 23-19 despite intercepting Falcons QB Matt Ryan 5 times. The Cardinals’ own offense has struggled and they made an in game QB change despite leading the Falcons, turning to rookie Ryan Lindley. 

The Rams have also been in a tailspin, with 4 losses and a tie following their 3-2 start. St. Louis dealt the Cardinals their first loss of the season, giving Arizona the added motive of revenge. Realistically, this is their best remaining chance for a victory this season. CARDINALS.

Packers +2½ at Giants (49½): In winning two Super Bowls in the past 5 seasons, the Giants lost to the Packers during the regular season but knocked the Pack out of the playoffs both times. Both of those regular season losses came at home. There’s much to like about Green Bay. They’ve won 5 in a row (4-1 ATS) and could be tied with Chicago atop the NFC North if Chicago lost Monday night in San Francisco.

The Giants are rested after their bye and smarting following back to back losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The importance to the Giants’ collective psyche of this game cannot be understated. NY head coach Tom Coughlin will have his team prepared for its best effort since their blowout victory at San Francisco. GIANTS.

Monday

Panthers (NL) at Eagles: The uncertain status of Eagles RB LeSean McCoy kept this game off the board Monday. Philly is already without starting QB Michael Vick and rookie Nick Foles’ inexperience showed in his debut at Washington. The Eagles are 3-7 and even the baseball Phillies have a more recent win. And recall that their 3 wins have been by a total of just 4 points as they stand 1-8-1 ATS. 

Carolina’s record is even worse at 2-8 but they continue to play hard. All 8 losses have been to teams in playoff contention and only 5-5 Dallas does not have a winning record. We can expect a healthier Carolina team to put forth the greater effort.  PANTHERS.

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]

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About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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