I’m refraining from calling this a “prediction” piece this season. Predictions indicate one firmly believes something will happen and isn’t afraid to stand behind that judgment. In the NFL, nothing is certain except Roger Goodell’s poor judgment. That said, I’ll offer some form of prognostication, even if it’s lighthearted and not entirely backed up by evidence, but I really have no interest in how “correct” I’ll be.
As usual, these picks are for fun and should in no way be used for actual wagering purposes. That is, unless you want to make a ton of money in a legal forum, because we know more stuff and things about football than you do or something.
On to the games!
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) @ Cleveland Browns (3-6)
Thursday, November 14, 8:20 pm, Fox/NFLN
This matchup surely looked more exciting in August, before injuries, poor scheming and bloated expectations set in. The Steelers have clawed their way back into the playoff discussion on the heels of their opportunistic defense, while the Browns have to be maturing into a more cohesive team…right? Tonight’s game will be a fair barometer of where both teams are and will be for the remainder of the season. Embattled Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens will need to establish something offensively at the game’s outset and employ some semblance of a consistent game plan; one would reasonably expect to see the Browns run sizable RB Nick Chubb into the Steelers’ defensive line frequently to create space in the passing game and tire out a good-if-depleted defensive front seven, but as we’ve seen, Kitchens’ decisions and playcalls have been routinely suspect. While blame can be shared with underperforming players, route-running confusion and poor blocking is also a direct reflection on team preparation, which is mostly an indictment of the coaching staff at large. Given the make-or-break nature of this game, the Browns should – should – be ready to perform. The Steelers will again reduce the offensive game plan for backup QB Mason Rudolph and limit him to high-percentage rollouts and quick-hitting passing plays; the Browns’ secondary will have to counter by playing as physically as possible at the snap to disrupt Rudolph’s timing and quick reads. I’ll predict no shortage of penalties on both sides of the ball if the Browns employ this approach, as Rudolph will have to actually progress through more than one read and force his line to block/hold a second or two longer while the Browns will probably incur a few defensive holding penalties trying to stymie wideouts at the line of scrimmage. I realize I use the phrase “low-scoring ugly affair” almost every week to describe various AFCN games, but this one will be no different.
Steelers 20, Browns 24
Houston Texans (6-3) @ Baltimore Ravens (7-2)
Sunday, November 17, 1:00 pm, CBS
One wonders if Houston starting quarterback Deshaun Watson holds a grudge against Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson for winning a Heisman Trophy in Watson’s best, most complete year at Clemson, during which he won a National Title (not a bad consolation prize, really). As both QBs have comported themselves quietly and professionally as NFL stars, it’s hard to tell, but their head-to-head matchup surely ought to be entertaining. The Ravens will stick with their varied and unpredictable run/pass mix, allowing Jackson to adjust the offense to match the Texans’ defensive alignments, while the Texans will invariably use their traditional, effective running game and workhorse RB Carlos Hyde to open passing lanes for Watson and all-world wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Neither defense has been particularly effective this season, so this should be an exciting, down-to-the-finish game featuring plenty of varied offense…in other words, it’s exactly what the NFL wants to see.
Texans 28, Ravens 33
Cincinnati Bengals (0-9) @ Oakland Raiders (5-4)
Sunday, November 17, 4:25 pm, CBS
Sympathy for the Bengals? It’s tough to generate any, even in a winless season that’s likely to remain that way, because one can’t shake the feeling they’ve done this to themselves. This season, two other AFCN teams (Steelers and Ravens) have had marked roster flaws and have scrambled to repair them, even on a temporary basis, while the Bengals have done nothing to address their own substantial problems beyond inserting middling rookie QB Ryan Finley into the starting lineup. Notoriously cheap Bengals owner Mike Brown has offered no explanations or excuses for his team’s horrid performance, and none will be forthcoming if history is any indication. Proving there’s life after troubled wideout Antonio Brown’s preseason roster sabotage, the 5-4 Vegas-bound Raiders seem to be enjoying their last season in Oakland, using excellent rookie RB Josh Jacobs to maximum advantage and relying on a solid overall defensive roster to win games. Those tactics should produce an easy home win for the dwindling Oakland faithful, who still hold an outside hope that their team will provide them one last home playoff game.
Bengals 16, Raiders 28
Eat, drink, watch. Enjoy!