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Cullen: Week 14 NFL Preview

Scott Cullen
12/6/2012 4:38:51 PM
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Time is running out on this NFL season -- the fantasy playoffs start this week, in most cases -- and the proximity to the end of the season is providing a clearer delineation between those teams that have something to play for and those that do not.

This week, there are five spreads of a touchdown or more, with two more lines lingering at 6.5, so it won't come as a shock if some of these perceived mismatches end up in Blowoutsville.

However, let's not write off the week based on seven games with an expected spread of (around) a touchdown or more, because there are also seven games with a spread of a field goal or less, which suggests that there will be several close games, whether that's because of hotly-contested games between playoff contenders (say, Baltimore at Washington) or simply an inept pairing (say, the Jets in Jacksonville).

Check out this week's Power Rankings for more of my takes on all 32 teams.

A look at the Week 14 matchups in the NFL:

DENVER (-10) at OAKLAND
The Broncos have won seven straight, scoring at least 30 points in six of those wins. Knowshon Moreno has provided enough in the ground game for the passing attack to remain prolific, particularly against an Oakland defence that allows 7.8 yards per pass attempt and a touchdown every 17.17 passes, which ranks 30th in the league.

Oakland is expected to have RB Darren McFadden back in the lineup, finally, and using McFadden and Marcel Reece to keep the ball away from the Broncos would make sense. No matter what gameplan makes sense, though, the Raiders have lost five straight, by an average margin of 18.6 points.

BALTIMORE (+2.5) at WASHINGTON
The Ravens have scored 49 points over the last three weeks, though two of those games have been against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a decidedly stronger defence than what Baltimore will face in D.C. this week. The Redskins have allowed 24 touchdown passes, tied with two other teams for the second-worst mark in the league, which corresponds with the 299.0 passing yards per game that also ranks 31st in the league. Not only that, but CB DeAngelo Hall could be slowed by an ankle injury, which would tend to additionally favour Ravens wideouts Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin.

Washington has won three straight, and take their league-best rushing offence up against a Ravens defence that ranks 23rd against the run. The Ravens D has been depleted by injuries, the latest to OLB Terrell Suggs, who may try to play despite a torn bicep, so they are likely to have a hard time keeping up with Redskins QB Robert Griffin III, who is much more dangerous now that WR Pierre Garcon (12 catches, 192 YDS, 2 TD in the last two games) is in the lineup and producing.

KANSAS CITY (+6.5) at CLEVELAND
After last week's emotional win against Carolina, Chiefs QB Brady Quinn leads his current team into Cleveland, where he washed out, passing for 1957 yards, 10 TD and 9 INT in 14 games from 2007-2009. Quinn was exceptionally accurate against Carolina, completing 19 of 23 passes and he'll need to be sharp against Cleveland's secondary, where corners Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown provide quality coverage.

Quinn may need to deliver because the Browns run defence has also been decent, as defensive tackles Atyhba Rubin and Philip Taylor are a challenging tandem to deal with in the middle of the line.

The Chiefs have surrendered a league-high 25 touchdown passes (a league-worst one per 13.40 pass attempts), so that presents a favourable matchup for QB Brandon Weeden and wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little. Of course, the Chiefs also surrender 4.7 yards per carry, and 129.3 rushing yards per game, so RB Trent Richardson is a candidate for a big game too. That's how it rolls against the Chiefs -- it's not easy keeping a fever pitch for more than a week, particularly when the team is effectively playing out the string.

SAN DIEGO (+7) at PITTSBURGH
Ben Roethlisberger returns for the Steelers, giving them a much different dynamic than the last three weeks with Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. With Roethlisberger, the Steelers have a dangerous passing game. WR Mike Wallace has 10 catches for 77 yards and no touchdowns over the last three weeks, with no Roethlisberger, and WR Antonio Brown just returned to action last week, so Pittsburgh can take advantage of a Chargers defence that has allowed 21 touchdown passes.

With a relatively healthy Rashard Mendenhall being put on the sidelines, bruisers Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman get the task of carrying the ball for the Steelers.

San Diego's miserable offence faces a Steelers defence that ranks first against the pass, allowing 166.7 passing yards per game. However, with Steelers CB Ike Taylor out, that might help the matchups on the perimeter somewhat and if the Chargers are going to get the ball downfield, WR Danario Alexander would seem to be the target -- he has 23 catches for 406 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games.

TENNESSEE (+5) at INDIANAPOLIS
Tennessee's defence doesn't really have a strong suit, ranking 27th against the run and 26th against the pass, but since the Colts' strength has clearly been QB Andrew Luck throwing to his trio of wide receivers -- Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery -- that figures to be the Colts' plan of attack. Well, that and Indy runs at a 3.9 yards per carry clip, making Vick Ballard and Donald Brown far less enticing.

Tennessee has a more proven runner, Chris Johnson, though Johnson was held under 100 yards from scrimmage last week for the first time since Week Five at Minnesota. Indy's defence is similarly shaky and the Titans have some receivers worth considering, whether it's Nate Washington, Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright or Jared Cook, but since Jake Locker isn't as effective as Andrew Luck, none of those receivers is as appealing as Indy's pass-catchers.

N.Y. JETS (-3) at JACKSONVILLE
There may not be a less appealing game on the docket, particularly if Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts -- a feel-good story of the productive underdog -- can't return from the concussion he suffered last week at Buffalo. If Shorts doesn't play, Justin Blackmon will have to rebound from last week's one-catch performance.

Jacksonville is also down to their fourth-string running back, Montell Owens, a 28-year-old who has 112 rushing yards on 21 carries in his career. He may have a decent workload, against the Jets' 29th-ranked run defence, but he's unproven and is only getting the chance because Maurice Jones-Drew, Jalen Parmele and Rashad Jennings are injured.

It's not as though the Jets have great options either, though RB Shonn Greene has a decent matchup against Jacksonville's 31st-ranked run D. Of course, if the Jets are going to appear remotely competent, they need QB Mark Sanchez to perform much better than he has recently (in the last six games, for example, he has four touchdown passes and seven interceptions). Jets TE Dustin Keller suffered an ankle injury, that could keep him out, but it's tough to like anyone in the Jets' passing game as long as Sanchez is involved. Jeremy Kerley is the best of a bad lot.

CHICAGO (-3) at MINNESOTA
Having lost three of four, the Bears aren't quite so fearsome and injuries are ravaging what was a dominant defence in the first half of the season. MLB Brian Urlacher is out with a strained hamstring and cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman are hurting too. Jennings dislocated his shoulder last week and Tillman has a chipped bone in his foot that he's playing through. Fortunately for the Bears, the Vikings, with no Percy Harvin, don't have wide receiver threats (to say nothing of QB Christian Ponder's poor play) to take advantage of corners that are less than 100%.

That means Adrian Peterson will be the difference-maker for Minnesota. Same old, same old.

The Vikings have lost four of the last five and will need a strong defensive performance. If CB Antoine Winfield could limit the effectiveness of Bears WR Brandon Marshall, that could keep the score close because Marshall has been the Bears' most consistent threat and if Minnesota can win the battle at the line, they could throw a wrench into the Bears' playoff plans.

ATLANTA (-3) at CAROLINA
What makes this matchup interesting is that the Falcons bring their high-octane passing attack to Carolina, where the Panthers actually have been pretty effective against the pass this season. Although the Panthers allow a league-high 67.3% of passes to be completed, it still only yields 7.0 yards per attempt and 218.9 yards per game, both of which rank in the better half of the league. If the Panthers can slow down Falcons wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, they probably have a chance; that just hasn't been so easy for most teams this season.

As for the Panthers' passing game, Brandon LaFell could be done for the year, with turf toe, providing Louis Murphy with a decent opportunity across from Steve Smith. While QB Cam Newton has been maligned in his sophomore season, he does have nine touchdowns and two interceptions over the last five games, a stretch during which the Panthers are 2-3 with an overtime loss included.

PHILADELPHIA (+7.5) at TAMPA BAY
The Eagles have lost eight straight, allowing more than 30 points in five of the last six, but they still bring an intriguing matchup into this game. RB Bryce Brown, who has run for an astounding 347 yards and four touchdowns in his first two starts, goes up against Tampa Bay's No. 1 rush defence, which allows 3.4 yards per carry and 82.3 yards per game.

If the Eagles are going to take advantage of the Tampa Bay defence, it should be through the air, since Tampa Bay allows a league-high 309.4 passing yards per game and it missing starting CB Eric Wright, who is serving his PED suspension. Does that mean QB Nick Foles could have some success throwing down the field to wide receivers Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper? Probably, but rookie Foles hasn't shown enough to bank on that.

Since the Eagles' defence has faded, they are still more vulnerable to the pass, allowing opposing quarterbacks a 98.8 QB Rating, which ranks 29th in the league. Having cut pass-rushing DE Jason Babin recently, that doesn't appear to be getting any better, so expect continued productivity from Bucs wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.

ST. LOUIS (+3) at BUFFALO
The Rams are 2-1-1 in their last four games, with RB Steven Jackson breaking through for 369 rushing yards over those four games and he should be the Rams' focal point against the Bills' 30th-ranked run defence.

When they take to the air, expect QB Sam Bradford to keep throwing to WR Chris Givens. With Danny Amendola hurting, Givens had 16 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown.

Buffalo's ground game was very successful last week, against Jacksonville, though Fred Jackson ended up with a greater portion of the carries than C.J. Spiller. Sticking with the running game and safe passing is the Bills' best approach against the Rams, whose corners, Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, have been playmakers, making it risky to test them.

DALLAS (+3) at CINCINNATI
The Cowboys have won three of four to keep playoff hopes alive, and have starting RB DeMarco Murray back, which is good because Cincinnati's front seven won't be easy to get the jump on.

Dallas always has the weapons in the passing game, but Dez Bryant's emergence (29 REC, 475 YS, 6 TD in last four games) has made them more dangerous and the Cowboys may need to utilize their secondary options, TE Jason Witten and WR Miles Austin, as well.

The Bengals have won four straight, allowing a total of 42 points and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis has put up three straight 100-yard rushing games, a streak that could continue against a Dallas defence that has lost inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter this season.

While Dallas has had some effective games in pass coverage, they have a tough matchup against Bengals WR A.J. Green and, with rookie Mohamed Sanu out for the year, WR Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham are quality secondary options for Cincinnati.

MIAMI (+10) at SAN FRANCISCO
The Dolphins have lost four of five, scoring 53 points in those four losses, so they could be hard-pressed to beat a 49ers team that has been especially effective after a loss in the last two seasons, allowing 17 points, total, in five games following losses since the start of 2011.

Maybe both teams have the run defence necessary to neutralize the opposition, but the 49ers have more options with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, so they can take advantage of a Dolphins secondary that has struggled against the pass, ranking 27th with 257.7 passing yards allowed per game.

When it comes to Miami's passing offence, rookie QB Ryan Tannehill could be hard-pressed to find the time to throw with LT Jake Long on IR and 49ers OLB Aldon Smith on a pass-rushing tear with 13 sacks in the last six games.

NEW ORLEANS (+4.5) at N.Y. GIANTS
At one point, a few weeks ago, it looked like the Saints could make a run to the playoffs, despite losing their first four games, but back-to-back losses to San Francisco and Atlanta put that in doubt. The Giants are holding onto the NFC East lead, though losing three of the last four has tightened the race considerably.

Both teams seem to have a wide variance in performance, capable of playing at an elite level one week and then laying a proverbial egg the next.

While the Giants' defence has been subpar, the Saints' defence has been the league's worst, which gives the edge to the G-Men, with wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks every bit as dangerous as the Saints' top targets, WR Marques Colston and TE Jimmy Graham. Ultimately, it does seem like a game that should be a high-scoring affair.

ARIZONA (+10) at SEATTLE
The Cardinals have decided to go back to John Skelton at quarterback, which offers them a little more upside, but matching up against Seattle's defence, even without CB Brandon Browner, is a daunting task for Arizona's meagre offence which ranks 27th in passing and 31st in the running game.

Seattle QB Russell Wilson has been increasingly effective, throwing for nine touchdowns (and no interceptions) as the Seahawks have won three of the last four games. Arizona's pass defence has been good this season, but Sidney Rice and Golden Tate have benefitted from Wilson's playmaking ability.

If the passing game gets shut down, though, look to Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch facing Arizona's 24th-ranked run defence which could be missing DE Calais Campbell, a playmaker who missed last week with a calf injury.

DETROIT (+6.5) at GREEN BAY
The Lions are averaging a league-high 312.5 passing yards per game, but are missing their second, third and fourth wideouts behind Calvin Johnson, leaving Mike Thomas and Kassim Osgood (??) next on the depth chart.

Green Bay's passing game is prolific in its own right, despite injuries. The latest is a hamstring problem for Jordy Nelson, which is manageable since Greg Jennings has returned to the lineup, alongside Randall Cobb and James Jones.

Neither team has been particularly strong on the ground, though Green Bay could be worse off with the likely absence of James Starks, who has been a solid contributor over the last month, leaving Alex Green to man the ship.

HOUSTON (+3) at NEW ENGLAND
The game of the week goes Monday night, with the no. 1 (Patriots) and No. 3 (Texans) teams in the latest NFL Power Rankings squaring off.

Arian Foster has been the most-used running back this season, averaging a league-high 26.08 touches per game (Cleveland's Trent Richardson is second at 22.75 per game), but the Patriots run defence has been strong, allowing 3.9 yards per carry and forcing a league-high 13 fumbles.

New England's pass defence has, somewhat notoriously, been poor this year, so WR Andre Johnson and TE Owen Daniels could be prime contributors for the Texans if the ground game isn't working. What the Texans have found, recently, is that QB Matt Schaub can still cut loose when he has to air it out.

The Patriots have a potent passing attack, even without Rob Gronkowski, because Aaron Hernandez is able to handle the primary tight end receiving role in Gronk's absence. What makes these Patriots different from previous seasons, however, is that the Pats can churn out yards on the ground, ranking eighth in the league with 140.8 rushing yards per game. Stevan Ridley gets the lion's share of the work, but Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead contribute too, and will have to be stopped if the Texans expect to get out of Foxborough with a road win.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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