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!
New York Jets (4-7) @ Cincinnati Bengals (0-11)
Sunday, December 1, 1:00 pm, CBS
In football as in life, things rise, and things fall. Currently rising: Jets QB Sam Darnold, who has quietly put together an impressive three-game stretch and is poised to attack a feeble Cincinnati secondary. Falling: The Bengals in general, although at #32 in every “power” ranking, there’s nowhere else to go as they slog through the worst seasonal record (so far) in franchise history. One gets the sense the Bengals are simply maintaining their composure in advance of a brutal offseason, where as many as 24 free agents could effectively depart, and who could blame them? The Bengals will have plenty of money to spend, but if the expected purge occurs, success for this franchise will be wholly dependent on shrewd spending and 2-3 successful drafts. Given the reluctance of the Bengals and their notoriously cheap ownership to extend any of the current players or even consider trading them before the current season’s trade deadline, it appears that’s exactly the route they plan to navigate. Even with the return of deposed starting QB Andy Dalton. this game will be one of several more designed to contribute to that goal.
Jets 31, Bengals 17
Cleveland Browns (5-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)
Sunday, December 1, 1:00 pm, CBS
The quarterback follies continue in Pittsburgh with the benching of backup Mason Rudolph and the ascension of UDFA rookie Devlin “Duck” Hodges to the starting QB role. While some might question the wisdom of starting a rookie with little pedigree at the game’s most important position in a crucial game, Hodges’ demeanor appears more suited for “big games” and fewer mistakes than Rudolph, whose recent performances and emotional acumen were, bluntly stated, unworthy of this occasion – a must-win scenario for both teams in the middle of a playoff chase. Hodges will bring a calmer, more-detached attitude to the offense, as the Pittsburgh game plan will undoubtedly be streamlined to accommodate his lack of experience. The Browns, winners of three straight, should defensively recognize there’s a rookie QB in front of them and attack the pocket relentlessly; expect defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to employ multiple blitz packages and angles to fluster Hodges and limit his sightlines. Offensively, the Browns will most likely use a traditional approach – run, a lot, with their very good backfield rotation of RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to draw in a good Steelers defense and open up some passing routes. Given the emotional underpinnings of this game, expect a chippy affair with plenty of penalties. This one will be unsightly, long and brutal.
Browns 27, Steelers 17
San Francisco 49ers (10-1) @ Baltimore Ravens (9-2)
Sunday, December 1, 1:00 pm, Fox
Let’s dispense with the “Super Bowl preview” storyline now, shall we? The playoffs represent a very intense style of football, and neither of these teams has established themselves as playoff successes, let alone Super Bowl favorites. They’re both young and at or near the top of their respective conferences and getting better, but let’s keep our perspective in check for now. After Monday’s demolition of the Rams in Los Angeles, the Ravens are considered by many to be the most complete team in the NFL, with Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson leading an unconventional (and thus far, wildly successful) offense that has left defensive coordinators old and young scratching their heads for solutions. Jackson’s gifts aren’t limited to his speed and elusiveness; his play-action ability has proven excellent, and he’s proven to be a far better passer than most would’ve anticipated, including yours truly. Enter the 49ers’ #1 ranked defense and rookie DE/pass-rushing terror Nick Bosa, whose lone limitation may be that he overpursues plays at times; a foible that he needs to control if he hopes to contain Jackson. The 49ers’ defense is exceptionally balanced and thrives on turnovers, giving QB Jimmy Garoppolo many short fields to work with. Look for a determined effort from DT DeForest Buckner and his rotation mates to lock down the middle of the defensive line and force the running game outside. Defensively, the Ravens will attempt to counter situationally with their excellent secondary leading the way in forcing coverage pressure and will depend on their improving LB corps to handle run-stuffing duties. Few games ever measure up to the “chess match” scenario often applied by the media, but this one might, as each teams’ strength appears to be the others’ weakness. I don’t suggest eating Thanksgiving leftovers during this one; you’ll want to stay awake for all four quarters.
49ers 26, Ravens 31
Eat, drink, watch. Enjoy!