December 27, 2018 - by Seth Trachtman
With NFL Week 17 kicking off on Sunday, here’s a stats-driven preview of three of this week’s biggest games.
Chicago has already won the NFC North but could move up to the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a win and Rams loss. Chicago barely escaped with a 14-9 win at San Francisco last week, improving to 4-3 away from Soldier Field this season. The team has missed S Eddie Jackson, who is expected to sit again on Sunday, and LB Aaron Lynch could also miss another game. The defense, allowing just 18.2 points this season (third best), still held their own against the 49ers, but the Vikings represent a more difficult matchup.
As for the Bears offense, they rank ninth in points (26.5) but have leaned more on their defense since Mitchell Trubisky’s return in Week 14, averaging just 17.7 points over the last three games. They’ve had difficulty moving the ball on the ground, averaging only 4.1 yards per carry overall this season and only 3.2 yards last week at San Fran. Minnesota’s defense has the eighth best rushing yards-per-carry average and fourth best yards-per-pass average. They also held the Bears offense to only 18 points in the teams’ previous matchup.
The Vikings will earn a Wild Card spot with a win, but that won’t be an easy task considering the Bears are expected to play their starters. The Vikings do have huge back-to-back wins vs. Miami and at Detroit, averaging 34 points in those games since firing OC John DeFilippo. Minnesota was supposed to lean more on the run after turning to Kevin Stefanski, and they’ve taken that to heart over the last two weeks. They’ll still have a tough time against a Bears defense allowing only 3.8 yards per carry. Chicago allowed only 22 rushing yards on 14 carries in the previous matchup against Minnesota. The Vikings hope playing at home will help, along with the absence of Jackson, who had a critical pick-six late in the first matchup.
Head to Head: Chicago won the first matchup this season 25-20, breaking a streak of three straight head-to-head wins by the Vikings.
Point Spread on Thursday: Vikings -4.5 (opened at -6.5)
Cleveland has exceeded most expectations this season by picking up their seventh win last week, and are hoping to be playoff spoilers at Baltimore this week. Since firing head coach Hue Jackson at the halfway point of the season, the Browns are 5-2, with their only losses coming vs. Kansas City and at Houston. Key rookies QB Baker Mayfield and RB Nick Chubb have been clear difference makers, and give fans reason to be optimistic about the future. The running game remains Cleveland’s strength, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, with Chubb averaging 5.3 yards and likely to break the 1,000-yard rushing mark this week, as he needs only 28 more yards. They face a Baltimore team that still features the top defense in football in both points allowed (17.5) and total yards allowed (284.0), and the Browns scored only 12 points in a 12-9 overtime win in this year’s first head-to-head matchup.
Baltimore will win the AFC North with a win, but could fall out of the playoffs if they lose and the Steelers win vs. Cincinnati. It’s the Lamar Jackson show for the Ravens on offense, who are 5-1 with Jackson starting under center. Their offense continues to be the most run-heavy in football with Jackson starting, though it’s worth noting the team hasn’t scored more than 26 points in a game over the last four weeks, and three of those games were against mediocre defenses (Atlanta, Kansas City, Tampa Bay). That said, Cleveland’s defense is allowing 4.5 yards per carry this year, so on paper this doesn’t seem to be a great matchup for the Browns. Jackson also got his first 200-yard passing game last week with the help of a beautiful 68-yard touchdown pass to TE Mark Andrews, but there’s no reason to believe the Ravens will turn away from the run with their season on the line.
Head to Head: Cleveland won the first matchup of the year 12-9, which halted a streak of five straight head-to-head wins by the Ravens.
Point Spread on Thursday: Ravens -6
The Colts/Titans matchup was flexed to Sunday night, as the winner will earn a playoff spot in the AFC. Indianapolis barely escaped with a 28-27 win vs. the Giants last week and are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Colts have won eight of their last nine games, including a 38-10 win vs. Tennessee at home, but the team is just 3-4 on the road this season. Andrew Luck seems likely to win Comeback Player of the Year with 36 touchdown passes. It’s notable that TE Eric Ebron (12 TD catches) is questionable for the matchup with a concussion. The Colts rebuilt offensive line has done an outstanding job protecting Luck, with a league-best 2.72% sack rate. Luck tore up the Titans defense with 297 yards passing and three scores in the first matchup, and this time around the Titans defense will be without DT Jurrell Casey and CB Logan Ryan due to injuries.
QB Marcus Mariota’s status is very much up in the air due to an elbow injury that also caused him to miss much of the previous matchup vs. the Colts. Tennessee has leaned on the run lately, and will be forced to do that even more if QB Blaine Gabbert starts the game. RB Derrick Henry has a whopping 492 rushing yards and seven scores over his last three games, nearly doubling his rushing yardage for the season over that timeframe. The Colts have allowed only 3.8 yards per carry this season with a stout run defense led by rookie LB Darius Leonard, but the pass defense has been shaky this year, allowing 7.1 yards per pass attempt and a 71.3% completion rate. The Colts’ defensive stats provide even more reason for Titans fans to hope and pray that Mariota heals enough to play.
Head to Head: Indianapolis won the first matchup this season 38-10. Tennessee won both games last year, ending a streak of 11 straight wins by the Colts.
Point Spread on Thursday: Colts -3.5 (opened at -2.5)
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