We have rambled on and on about the poor quarterback play this season, but part of that has to be laid at the feet of some genuine freaky defensive linemen. They are huge, fast, bendy, mean and never stop coming.
Maxx Crosby came off the hospital bed like a zombie last week and still sacked Patrick Mahomes. Myles Garrett has led the Browns to a 7-4 record, Aaron Donald is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and then there are T.J. Watt, Nick Bosa, Micah Parsons and Chris Jones coming at helpless quarterbacks in waves.
Watt had two sacks and a forced fumble in last week’s 16-10 win over the Bengals and is pretty much the only reason besides Mike Tomlin that I ever pick the Steelers to win. (They do again this week, but they won’t cover the spread.)
Watt has 91 sacks in 98 career games and joined Hall of Famer Reggie White as the only player since 1982 (when the sack became an official stat) to reach 90 sacks in fewer than 100 games. That’s pretty ridiculous company to keep.
Speaking of ridiculous — hey, transition police, ease up — this week’s point spreads are absurd. Who in their right mind wants to lay 5.5 points with the Chargers on the road? Or take the Falcons or Colts as road favorites? I love Trevor Lawrence’s hair as much as the next person, but 8.5-point favorites over the Bengals? And going against the 10-1 Eagles as underdogs at home sounds dumb.
But the evil linemakers know some of the alternatives are dreadful.
I think I would rather get hit by Watt than pick these games.
Last week: 6-9-1 against the spread, 3-2 on best bets.
Season record: 92-84-4 ATS, 34-26 on best bets.
All odds are from BetMGM and are locked when the pick was made. Click here for live odds.
Last week, I picked against the Cowboys only because I knew all three big favorites weren’t going to cover on Thanksgiving. I just picked the wrong underdog. The Cowboys have been rolling, and now they are starting to get Tony Pollard going. The Seahawks do not cover running backs out of the backfield well. They do get pressure on the quarterback, but they don’t wrap up. Despite ranking eighth in QB pressure rate since Week 9 (39.3 percent of dropbacks), Seattle’s defense ranks 28th in sack rate over the same span (4.1 percent). And Dak Prescott laughs at pressure. Since Week 6, Prescott leads the NFL in yards per attempt (10.5) and passer rating (121.8) and ranks second in EPA per dropback (0.18) when pressured. Everyone is betting the Cowboys. Everyone is not blind.
The pick: Cowboys
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The Colts have won three straight games thanks to a really soft spot in their schedule and a stingy defense. They have allowed a league-low 22.2 percent of red-zone drives to end in touchdowns since Week 9 (2 of 9), down from 64.0 percent in Weeks 1 through 8 (24th). The Titans, meanwhile, held on to beat a terrible Panthers team last week and improved to 4-0 at home (they are 0-7 on the road). Their secondary stinks. If my crystal ball told me whether Gardner Minshew or Will Levis would turn the ball over more, we would be golden, but we’ll side with the Titans because Colts RB Jonathan Taylor is out and their wins over the Panthers, Patriots and Buccaneers aren’t super exciting.
The pick: Titans
People give Bill Belichick a hard time because he again won’t announce a starting quarterback. But I don’t think he is trying to be clever. He is just putting it off as long as possible. It’s like choosing to down a pint of prune juice or watch a Hallmark movie. There is no rush, though word came late Wednesday from The Athletic’s Jeff Howe that it’ll likely be Bailey Zappe. With Mac Jones at QB, the Patriots have produced explosive plays (12-yard rushes, 16-yard completions) on 7.4 percent of their snaps, 30th in the NFL. With Zappe, they’ve recorded explosive plays on 7.1 percent of snaps, which would rank 31st. The Chargers should have at least covered for us last week against the Ravens but they turned the ball over four times. Justin Herbert had two of those turnovers, and when pressured, he ranks 16th in turnover rate (3.6 percent). Thankfully, the Patriots rank last in the NFL in defensive pressure rate (29.3 percent) since Matthew Judon went down in Week 4.
The pick: Chargers
The public is picking the Lions to bounce back from their Thanksgiving loss, despite some real leaks on defense the last month. The Saints would be in a desperate spot at home, which I would like, but their division is so bad there is no need to be desperate at 5-6. Plus, there is a good chance Derek Carr will be without top receivers Chris Olave, Rashid Shaheed and Michael Thomas this week. And Carr wasn’t exactly thriving with them. The Saints rank 30th in points per drive on red-zone possessions in 2023 (4.1) and they’ve failed to score any points on nine such drives, tied with the Giants for most in the NFL. The Lions do have a solid run defense and should win comfortably unless Jared Goff’s funk continues (six turnovers the last two weeks after five in the first nine games).
The pick: Lions
I don’t know if you missed it, but Aaron Rodgers returned to the practice field on Wednesday. It was a total shock, as Rodgers did not give us almost daily updates on his Achilles rehab or warm up before every game the last month wearing sweats, a beanie and a smirk. The Jets are 4-7 and their offensive line is offensive, but maybe Rodgers will come back for no reason this season. The Jets benched QB Zach Wilson and Tim Boyle was even worse last week. Imagine that. They won’t be able to run the ball against the Falcons, while a mediocre Jets run defense will be tested. A season-high 61.3 percent of Atlanta’s plays were designed run plays last week, the second-highest share by any team this season. It may be too late for Bijan Robinson fantasy owners, but this is real life, so who cares about that?
The pick: Falcons
The Steelers gained 400 yards of offense for the first time in like two decades and everyone rejoiced. Yeah, Matt Canada stinks, woohoo! Anyone notice that they only put up 16 points in their first game since sacking the offensive coordinator? Kenny Pickett is still just a guy with cool mullet, and I still don’t have much faith in Najee Harris and the Steelers’ run attack either, even against the Cardinals. It’s a miracle the Steelers are 7-4 and they could be in for a letdown coming off games against the Browns and Bengals. And this point spread keeps creeping up. If Kyler Murray can run away from Watt, the Cardinals (2-10 overall but 6-6 against the spread) stay close in what is likely a field goal game either way.
The pick: Cardinals
Tua Tagovailoa has been on cruise control the last two weeks, and there shouldn’t be much need to rev anything up soon as the 8-3 Dolphins have the Commanders, Titans and Jets on deck. Washington has a terrible pass defense, and I picture the Commanders’ reaction to coordinator Jack Del Rio being fired as a shrug when they found out that head coach Ron Rivera was taking over the play calling. The Commanders are tied for the NFL lead in 20-yard plays allowed (59), and the Dolphins have the second most 20-yard plays league-wide (57). Miami is 8-1 this season in games it had four or more 20-yard plays, a number Washington has allowed in all but three of its games. Commanders QB Sam Howell is a madman, good and bad, and while that is a big backdoor spread possibility at home, the Dolphins secondary is healthy and great again and should be able to prevent any shenanigans.
The pick: Dolphins
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C.J. Stroud set an NFL rookie record, posting 300-plus passing yards for the fourth straight game last week. He is a franchise changer, unlike the other quarterbacks drafted this year, and he might have led the Texans to another win if not for some coaching mistakes by DeMeco Ryans and his staff. Sean Payton, meanwhile, has hit all the right buttons for the hottest team in the NFL. The Broncos also have 15 takeaways in the last four games and offensively, they gained plus-45 rushing yards over expectation on designed runs. The most likely outcome here might be the Texans only winning by a field goal, but I will hook myself and side with the hot quarterback at home.
The pick: Texans
Frank Reich was the second coach fired this season because, much like Josh McDaniels, he was giving off a sense of helplessness. He gave up play-calling duties and then later took them back. Either way, the Panthers averaged only 11.5 points in the past four games. Bryce Young has been sacked 40 times and then the Panthers lost two linemen to injuries last week. And even when he had protection, Young did not complete any of his six pass attempts with a time to throw of over four seconds. The Buccaneers are not good, but their defense is only giving up 37.8 percent of touchdowns in the red zone (second best in the league) and Baker Mayfield is scrappy and can make plays to beat bad teams — as long as he avoids costly turnovers like the two he had last week.
The pick: Buccaneers
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We’re picking way too many favorites. Let’s stop that as I just saw a clip of Garrett running at practice Wednesday, as his shoulder injury is not as bad as feared. The Browns have a great defense and stayed out west after losing to the Broncos, and that’s going to be enough for me here. Yeah, I know ol’ man Joe Flacco may start at quarterback for Cleveland. The Rams rank 29th in the NFL in opponent average starting field position (own 31-yard line) and the Browns have been at their best when playing on a short field. Cleveland has scored touchdowns on 23.8 percent of drives that started at their own 31-yard line or better, ninth in the NFL. I also realize that I would be going against the great Rams running back, Kyren Williams, who last week became the fourth player in NFL history with at least 140 rushing yards, 60 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions in a game. (Shudders)
The pick: Browns
The 49ers are red hot and want to show that last season’s NFC Championship Game loss to the Eagles was because Brock Purdy got hurt. I would imagine the Eagles are tired of all that whining and have something to prove as well. The Eagles are coming off tough, dramatic wins over the Chiefs and Bills, and even though Jalen Hurts doesn’t look that healthy to me, he is a top-five quarterback because he is so clutch. The defense is also tested — especially against the run (third in the NFL) — and even after Josh Allen gashed them with his scrambling last week and they were gassed, the Eagles defense held up in overtime. Give me the points and the home advantage.
The pick: Eagles
The Chiefs sleep-walked through the first quarter against the Raiders after their Super Bowl rematch with the Eagles and were down 14-0. They then won the rest of the way 31-3, as Rashee Rice became their first rookie receiver with 100-plus receiving yards in a game since Dwayne Bowe in 2007. The Chiefs’ offensive line should be able to contain Rashan Gary this week and give Mahomes time to find Rice and Travis Kelce. Meanwhile, they have playmakers on all three levels on defense and are only giving up 16.5 points per game. Jordan Love was dealing for the Packers on Thanksgiving, but I am going to need to see it from him again before I buy in.
The pick: Chiefs
Tip of the cap to what that the Jaguars have done the last two weeks opening up their offense. Against the Texans, Lawrence completed 7 of 14 passes over 10 air yards for a season-high 180 yards. And he’s getting the time to find receivers, as his offensive line seems to be improving weekly (right tackle Anton Harrison might be a star soon at this rate). But I don’t want to lay that many points. The Bengals have some pride, right? They still have plenty of talent and last I checked, the Jaguars’ home crowd didn’t strike fear into anybody (they are 3-3 at home both straight up and against the spread). Jake Browning wasn’t terrible in his first start for an injured Joe Burrow, and this season especially, I can work with that.
The pick: Bengals
Best bets: A lot of chalk (yuck) with the Cowboys over the Seahawks on Thursday, the Lions over a depleted Saints team and the Buccaneers and Chargers over the two worst teams in the league, the Panthers and Patriots respectively. We round out the five with the Monday underdog, the Bengals over the Jaguars.
Upset special (spread of at least 3 points): Garrett and the Browns beat the Rams in Los Angeles.
— TruMedia research courtesy of NFL editor Jason Starrett.
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(Top photo of T.J. Watt: Joe Sargent / Getty Images)
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