Eleven down and six to go. All 32 teams have had their Bye weeks and each team has played 10 of their 16 game schedule. Every team will be in action in each of the final six weeks of the regular season, beginning with the three games to be played this Thursday, Thanksgiving Day.
As the final third of the season unfolds Divisional and Wild Card races are beginning to have clarity and the list of teams vying for opening round Byes and those vying for Wild Cards are getting shorter.
Based on their first 10 games combined with their current form Philadelphia appears to be the class of the NFC while defending Super Bowl champion New England holds that same position in the AFC.
The 9-1 Eagles hold a one game lead over both Minnesota and New Orleans for the top NFC seed. Of the NFL’s 8 Divisions, the leaders in 5 of them have at least 2 games leads over the second place teams.
Philadelphia has a whopping 4 game lead over Dallas in the East and Minnesota is up 2 over Detroit in the North. The Vikings and Lions meet in the traditional Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit.
New Orleans has a one game lead over Carolina in the South and a win by Seattle over Atlanta on Monday night would have tied the Seahawks with the LA Rams atop the West at 7-3.
In the AFC, New England has a 3 game lead over Buffalo in the East and Pittsburgh is 3 ahead of Baltimore in the North. The Patriots and Steelers are tied for the top AFC seed with 8-2 records and will meet in Pittsburgh for Week 15 with the top seed likely on the line.
Despite losing 4 of its last 5, Kansas City has a 2 game lead over both the Chargers and Raiders in the West. But the Chiefs look nothing like the team that started the season 5-0 with a defense that has struggled and an offense that has sputtered over the last month. Jacksonville (7-3) has a 1 game lead over Tennessee in the South.
Carolina, also at 7-3, controls one of the two Wild Cards in the NFC with Seattle tied with the Panthers after Monday night if they defeated Atlanta. A loss to the Falcons would have Atlanta, Seattle and Detroit all at 6-4.
In the AFC Tennessee (6-4) controls the first Wild Card with a pair of 5-5 teams, Buffalo and Baltimore, tied for the second slot. That means the 6 teams with 4-6 records are only one game out of the second AFC Wild Card.
Baltimore is an interesting team to watch. The Ravens have shut out three opponents this season – Cincinnati, Green Bay and Miami – with two of them on the road. They have a coach (John Harbaugh) and QB (Joe Flacco) who have been together for a decade and have won a Super Bowl together. Their upcoming schedule is extremely favorable with home games against Houston and Detroit followed by road games at Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Baltimore closes the season with home games against Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Ravens are likely to be favored in 5 of those 6 games and at odds of 100-1 to win the Super Bowl and 50-1 to win the AFC they might be worth taking a flyer with hedging possibilities should they make the Playoffs, most likely as a Wild Card.
I am often asked what I look for in handicapping and betting NFL games and over the years I have become more convinced that three factors continue to point to success even as the nature of the game changes.
The ability to run the football, avoid turning it over and playing tough defense all point to success both on the scoreboard and at the betting windows. I often refer to these factors in my writeups and appearances on the radio, looking to isolate those teams that have significant edges in one or more of those categories. In the current NFL environment flashy passing attacks get most of the attention but defense, turnover avoidance and running the football still are the key ingredients of success.
These factors bear watching over the final month and a half of the regular season and into the Playoffs as the weather turns chilly and the elements come into play, more often than not hindering the chances of teams that rely on the passing game at the expense of a solid running game.
Here are previews of the 16 games to be played over the Thanksgiving Day weekend.
Minnesota -1.5 at Detroit (45): After years of futility playing on Thanksgiving Day the Lions have won 4 in a row, following 9 straight losses, including a 16-13 win over the Vikings last season. A Detroit win here narrows the gap between the teams to just one game in the NFC North but gives the Lions a season sweep of the Vikings. The preference is to back the Vikes and their tangible edges versus the intangible edges held by the hosts. MINNESOTA
LA Chargers PK at Dallas (48): Dallas has lost 3 of its last 4 home games and despite being at home here the short week leaves little time to fully address the issues that have plagued their offense the past two weeks. Chargers veteran QB Philip Rivers has the skills to succeed against a Dallas defense that suffered additional injuries in the loss to the Eagles. LA CHARGERS
NY Giants +7 at Washington (44): These NFC East rivals have a history of competitive games and the Giants have covered 6 of their last 8 meetings. At 4-6 the pressure is all on the hosts if they are to make a run at a Wild Card. The 2-8 Giants have no such pressure and as such can be aggressive and take chances. And there’s plenty of room to stay within the pointspread even if they come up short on the scoreboard. NY GIANTS
Cleveland +8.5 at Cincinnati (38): The so-called “sharps” continue to back the Browns based on numbers that suggest their opponents are laying too many points. But they might collect here. Cleveland can run the football and the Bengals have averaged allowing 142 rushing yards per game over their last 5 games, holding none of those foes to under 112. CLEVELAND
Chicago +13.5 at Philadelphia (44): Chicago is playing for next season, looking for further development from rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky. The Eagles are playing for this season and with their next three games on the road cannot afford to lose focus with the Saints and Vikings just one game behind them for the top seed. PHILADELPHIA
Miami +17 at New England (48): Miami has allowed between 28 and 45 points in 5 straight games. Miami’s offense ranks number 30 in gaining just 4.9 yards per play. While it is tempting to take the generous points with Miami the Patriots are functioning on too high a level to buck and the Dolphins have shown little to even suggest they can stop or even contain all that momentum. NEW ENGLAND
Buffalo +9.5 at Kansas City (45): Both teams have played 6 OVERs and 4 UNDERs to date and when teams can run the football effectively the passing game tends to flourish. A month ago a case could be made for both teams to back on the pointspread. Now it’s tough to make a case for either. So the Total becomes the preferred approach. OVER
Tampa Bay +8.5 at Atlanta (48.5): Tampa has won 3 of the last 4 meetings with Atlanta and would have covered this line in 3 of their 6 losses this season. Still, their inability to run the football is a concern. Overall Atlanta has the better statistical profile but without knowing Monday’s result makes it tough to make a call on the side. The better call may be to look for a high scoring game. OVER
Carolina -4.5 at N Y Jets (40): The key to defeating Carolina is in containing QB Cam Newton and the extra time to prepare will benefit the Jets. Carolina is 4-1 both SU and ATS on the road while the Jets are 3-2 SU but 5-0 ATS at home. At more than a FG the home dog is attractive. NY JETS
Tennessee -4.5 at Indianapolis (44): Tennessee’s play has been below expectations and the Colts have not shown signs of a lack of effort. Playing with need it may be hard to justify laying more than a FG with the Titans. The Colts have shown signs of progress this season and they do have a pair of wide receivers that can have had some success against the Tennessee secondary. INDIANAPOLIS
Seattle -8 at San Francisco (42): There is the chance that Jimmy Garoppolo might get his first start. Barring an explosion Monday night against the Falcons, which would cause this line to rise, the preference is to go against the Seahawks considering their road woes and back the hosts who may take the field with just a bit more confidence following their first win and the Bye week that followed. SAN FRANCISCO
New Orleans +3 at LA Rams (53.5): The Saints are an experienced team with coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees. Finally with both a play making defense and a very strong running game the Saints present a formidable threat to win the NFC. Going up against a rookie head coach (Sean McVay) and second season QB (Jared Goff) the Saints’ experience could loom large if the game winds up close late. NEW ORLEANS
Jacksonville -4.5 at Arizona (38): Jacksonville’s defense has been its main strength as despite the strong ground game the passing game has been below average. Laying more than a FG may be asking too much from the Jags at this point in the season but expecting a low scoring game is not. The Jags have held 6 of 10 foes to 7 points or less. UNDER
Denver +5 at Oakland (43): The Raiders’ problems have largely been on defense with 4 of their last 6 foes scoring at least 30 points. Denver promoted QB coach Bill Musgrave to OC. Musgrave was Oakland’s OC the past two seasons. That gives the Broncos an edge on both sides of the football given Musgrave’s intimate knowledge of both team’s offensive personnel. That makes getting more than a FG attractive. DENVER
Green Bay +14 at Pittsburgh (41): The Packers may try to run the football more to slow down the Steelers offense and that could depress scoring. Green Bay is averaging just 13.4 points per game in Rodgers’ absence and rather than lay the big number with the Steelers, the more appealing option is to play the Total. UNDER
Houston +7 at Baltimore (38): The Ravens have held 6 straight foes to under 200 net passing yards and that is the weakness of the Texans’ offense with Savage. Baltimore’s rush defense has also improved over the past few weeks, holding three straight foes to under 76 yards after allowing 4 of the previous 5 teams to rush for over 165. These teams are heading in opposite directions as the season’s second half unfolds. BALTIMORE
Last week: 9-4