By Emmanuel Morgan
New York Times
A bit more than a month before the start of the NFL playoffs, little is certain other than the Jan. 15 start date of the wild-card round.
The star-studded Los Angeles Rams are reeling. Despite losing three of their past four games, the Dallas Cowboys’ grip on the NFC East is steady, though the Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles could add some intrigue in December.
Is Kansas City’s defense really fixed? Can the Baltimore Ravens overcome Lamar Jackson’s interceptions in the playoffs if they continue?
This season’s tight games have provided fun, but not much clarity. That should start to change this week with a pivotal matchup between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills for the AFC East lead, while the sliding Los Angeles Chargers and ascendant Cincinnati Bengals shape the rest of the conference’s playoff outlook. Against the Chicago Bears, the Arizona Cardinals will try to maintain their grip on the NFC’s top seed.
Below is a look at NFL Week 13, with all picks made against the spread.
Last week’s record: 8-7
All Times are Pacific
Byes: Packers, Titans, Panthers, Browns
THURSDAY NIGHT’S MATCHUP
New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys
5:20 p.m., Fox and NFL Network
Line: Cowboys -5.5 Total: 47.5
Both the Cowboys (7-4) and the Saints (5-6) are on losing streaks — Dallas has lost back-to-back games and New Orleans has not won since Oct. 31. A fifth consecutive loss would drop the Saints’ slim chances of reaching the postseason to 20%, according to the Playoff Predictor.
Running back Alvin Kamara returned to practice this week after missing three games with a knee injury, but his status for Thursday is still unclear as is the team’s starting quarterback. Taysom Hill has reportedly taken first-team reps this week ahead of Trevor Siemian, who has completed just 57.2% of his passes. Dallas, meanwhile, is expecting to have receivers CeeDee Lamb (concussion) and Amari Cooper (COVID-19) and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (foot) available.
The Saints are too unstable at key positions so Dallas should cover, though coach Mike McCarthy and several of his coaches worked remotely this week after testing positive for the coronavirus. Pick: Cowboys -5.5
SUNDAY’S BEST GAMES
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
1:25 p.m., CBS
Line: 49ers -3.5 Total: 45.5
The NFL flexed this from the Sunday night slot because no one wants to watch the current iteration of the Seahawks (3-8). Every aspect of Seattle’s offense is broken: They’ve averaged only 65 rushing yards per game during this three-game losing streak, and their best receiver, D.K. Metcalf, has had only 23 yards per game in that span. Defensively, the Seahawks allow a league-high 274.1 yards per game.
The 49ers (6-5), meanwhile, would be the NFC’s sixth seed after going on a three-game win streak. Even with do-it-all receiver Deebo Samuel and linebacker Fred Warner both out with hamstring injuries, San Francisco is the safer bet than the crumbling Seahawks. Pick: 49ers -3.5
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
1:25 p.m., CBS
Line: Ravens -4 Total: 46
After throwing four interceptions last week and having missed his Week 11 start with an illness, Lamar Jackson remarked that he was “getting back in the lab.” That should concern the Steelers (5-5-1), whose defense remains exploitable in the continued absence of T.J. Watt (COVID-19). Pittsburgh’s offense has been unbalanced in the past two weeks, rushing for just 55 yards and 52 yards, and asking Ben Roethlisberger, their 39-year-old quarterback, to make up the slack.
Baltimore’s defense could rush freely against Roethlisberger and any improvement to the Ravens’ (8-3) passing game should spotlight the age and skill gaps between the two quarterbacks. Pick: Ravens -4
Denver Broncos at Kansas City
5:20 p.m., NBC
Line: Kansas City -10 Total: 47
The result of this game will either separate Kansas City (7-4) as the leader of the division or further complicate the competitive AFC West.
The Broncos (6-5) have rushed for more than 140 yards in two of their past three games, and could test the newly “revived” Kansas City defense, which was one of the league’s worst earlier in the season. Denver’s defense is also on the upswing, creating at least one turnover in each of its past four games. Kansas City is the better team, but Denver could pounce on a Patrick Mahomes interception (he’s tied for third-most in the league with 11) to keep the score within the spread. Pick: Denver +10
Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
10 a.m., Fox
Line: Bengals -3.5 Total: 50.5
Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon should win a lot of his fantasy football owners’ games this week. The Chargers (6-5) are still the worst defense in the league against the run, allowing more than 140 rushing yards in seven (!) games, and Mixon should be able to keep up the pace that’s made him third in the league in rushing yards (924) and touchdowns (11).
A typically prolific performance from the Bengals’ (7-4) quarterback and receiver combo of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase may not be necessary. Justin Herbert can only do so much to keep Los Angeles competitive, and even a herculean effort won’t help the Chargers keep the score within the spread. Pick: Bengals -3.5
Washington Footballers at Las Vegas Raiders
1:05 p.m., Fox
Line: Raiders -2.5 Total: 49.5
Washington (5-6) has won three straight games and can make the NFC East race interesting with Dallas experiencing a rough patch. The Raiders (6-5), though, are built to exploit Washington’s key weakness: Washington allows the third-most passing yards per game (266.6), while the Raiders pass for the second-most yards per game (295.6).
After a disappointing first two games with Las Vegas, DeSean Jackson on Thanksgiving showed he can replace Henry Ruggs III as the Raiders’ deep threat by catching three passes for 102 yards and a touchdown. Derek Carr will need him to keep that up, especially because star tight end Darren Waller (knee) could miss this game. Still, even without Waller, Las Vegas’ passing attack is too much for Washington to defend. Pick: Raiders -2.5
SUNDAY’S OTHER GAMES
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons
10 a.m., Fox
Line: Buccaneers -10.5 Total: 50.5
The Falcons (5-6) lost to the Buccaneers (8-3) by double digits in Week 2, and there’s been little evidence suggesting it won’t happen again. Atlanta barely beat the lowly Jaguars last week and needed 135 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns from Cordarrelle Patterson to do so. Tampa Bay’s defense could focus on battering Matt Ryan, who plays behind a suboptimal offensive line, while he tries to find Kyle Pitts or another non-Patterson target.
The Falcons’ defense has allowed more than 30 points four times this season. Tom Brady should easily carve through the unit. Pick: Buccaneers -10.5
Arizona Cardinals at Chicago Bears
10 a.m., Fox
Line: Cardinals -7.5 Total: 45.5
A bye last week should allow the Cardinals (9-2) to return with a healthier roster. Coach Kliff Kingsbury said Monday he was “hopeful” that quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle) and receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) could play Sunday against the Bears (4-7). Chicago’s paltry offense averages fewer than two touchdowns per game and regardless of if Justin Fields (knee) or Andy Dalton starts, neither is likely to keep pace with Arizona. Pick: Cardinals -7.5
Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
10 a.m., CBS
Line: Vikings -7 Total: 47
It’s hard to feel bad for the Lions (0-10-1) and their winless record when the team’s clock management issues and disorganization caused them to lose a winnable game against the Bears on Thanksgiving (not to mention all the other instances). Making matters worse, Detroit lost running back D’Andre Swift to a shoulder injury, and coach Dan Campbell said it was unlikely he would play against the Vikings (5-6).
Minnesota expects to be without Dalvin Cook, its starting running back, who was carted off the field against San Francisco with a shoulder injury. An astounding 10 games for the Vikings have been decided by one score. With Cook’s injury, Minnesota’s history of late-game drama and Detroit’s tendency to play up to its competition for 3 1/2 quarters, take the over. Pick: Lions +7
New York Giants at Miami Dolphins
10 a.m., Fox
Line: Dolphins -3 Total: 41.5
Four straight wins for the Dolphins (5-7) has the team nominally still in the wild-card race, but realistically playing for pride. Even if Miami wins its five remaining games, its chances of reaching the playoffs are less than 90%, according to the Playoff Predictor. Beating the Giants (4-7), though, is doable. Daniel Jones’ status is uncertain because of a neck injury, meaning backup Mike Glennon could make his first start this season.
The Dolphins’ defense has created 10 turnovers during the team’s winning streak and could add more against a backup quarterback. If the offense takes care of the ball, Miami should win. Pick: Dolphins -3
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Jets
10 a.m., CBS
Line: Eagles -7 Total: 45.5
Three interceptions by Jalen Hurts doomed the Eagles (5-7) last week against the Giants and ended an otherwise strong month for Philadelphia’s offense. The Eagles should rebound against the Jets (3-8), who allow the sixth-most rushing yards per game (128.7). That should benefit an Eagles team that discovered just weeks ago it could run effectively: Until that loss to the Giants, Hurts had not attempted more than 30 passes since Week 7. It’s hard picturing the Jets covering in this one if Hurts can limit his turnovers. Pick: Eagles -7
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans
10 a.m., CBS
Line: Colts -9.5 Total: 46.5
The Colts (6-6) struggled to run last week in a close defeat to the Buccaneers, a problem they likely won’t have against the Texans (2-9). Houston allows the second-most rushing yards per game (135.6), a promising statistic for Indianapolis running back Jonathan Taylor, who leads the league in yards (1,205) and touchdowns (14). The Texans don’t have anyone close to Tampa Bay’s run stoppers, making this an easy bet. Pick: Colts -9.5
Jacksonville Jaguars at Los Angeles Rams
1:05 p.m., Fox
Line: Rams -13 Total: 48
A “get-right” game for the Rams (7-4) comes at the perfect time. They have lost three straight games, and a flashy roster that now includes Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. is trending in the wrong direction. Matthew Stafford has thrown three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns during the losing streak, and their opponents — the Titans, 49ers and Packers — all played more physical, scheming their offenses away from Los Angeles’s defensive playmakers Miller, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
The Jaguars (2-9), though, lack the players and the coaching experience to mimic that template. Trevor Lawrence is tied for fourth in the league in interceptions (10) and the offense has accounted for at least one turnover in all but one game. Extra possessions for the Rams means more chances to run up the score after a frustrating few weeks. Pick: Rams -13
MONDAY NIGHT’S GAME
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
5:15 p.m., ESPN
Line: Bills -2.5 Total: 43.5
The schedule-makers blessed NFL fans with potentially the best game of the week Monday night. The Bills (7-4) will attempt to pry the AFC East lead away from the Patriots (8-4), who stole it from them after winning six straight games. Buffalo will be short-handed, though, because Tre’Davious White, one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, tore an anterior cruciate ligament against the Saints on Thanksgiving.
That’s a brutal blow for a Bills team game-planning against Mac Jones, the Patriots’ rookie quarterback who has completed an impressive 70.3% of his passes this year. Defenses have yet to stop the Patriots’ risk-averse, efficient play behind Jones, and until proven otherwise, it’d be safer to not bet against them. Pick: Patriots +2.5
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.