LAS VEGAS — After a month of playing second fiddle to an exciting college football season, the NFL finally reclaims center stage this weekend.
There is no shortage of good games, but in my opinion the best matchup takes place in Minneapolis, where the Vikings are 2½-point favorites hosting the Los Angeles Rams. Both teams are 7-2 straight up and 6-3 ATS. The most obvious statistical difference between these teams is their average point differential. The Rams are an impressive plus-14.9 while the Vikings are plus-5.8.
Both teams are enjoying a rebirth because of coaching hires. Sean McVay, 31, the youngest head coach in NFL history, has taken a comatose Rams franchise – the same roster that finished 4-12 last year – and re-energized it. The Rams were the weakest offense in the NFL a year ago, scoring only 224 points. In nine games this season they have already scored 296 and rank first in the league. McVay also coached up Jared Goff to where he is now considered one of the most feared, young guns in football.
But do not overlook the job that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has done in the Twin Cities. In his first season in 2014, Zimmer improved the Vikings defense from 31st in the league to 14th in average yards allowed per game. Now they have climbed all the way up to fifth in that category.
Both coaches have teamed up with outstanding veteran coordinators. McVay hired Wade Phillips to run the defense, and that unit gets better every week. Zimmer made Pat Shurmur his offensive coordinator. Before Sam Bradford got hurt this fall, Shurmur led him to the best passer rating in the NFL. Now he has elevated Case Keenum to solid-starter status. It’s true that Shurmur failed as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, but hasn’t everybody?
The only area where I would criticize Zimmer is his ineffectiveness in dealing with the media. That little brouhaha this week about Teddy Bridgewater potentially replacing Keenum as the Vikings starter is a case in point. Instead of saying that Keenum was clearly his quarterback – and that it’s great just to have Bridgewater back to active status – Zimmer said, “I haven’t sat down and talked to everybody yet. I’m going to wait until Wednesday.” In the end nothing changed except the unnecessary distraction from the media.
I’m recommending the Vikings on Sunday for two reasons. First, Goff has not experienced indoor noise like this during his remarkable run this year. He didn’t play horribly in his dome debut as a rookie last year in New Orleans, but he and that offense went only 2-for-10 on third down in the din of a 49-21 loss. The Vikings crowd will be fierce, because they have a defense. And quoting VSiN’s Point Spread Weekly, “the Rams are 5-20 ATS on the road against defensive teams allowing fewer than 18.5 points per game. The Vikings are allowing 18.3.”
The other stat that stands out is the Vikings at home are 11-2 ATS the past five years against an opponent traveling more than 1,000 miles. In case you don’t have your odometer running, it is 1,528 miles by air between L.A. and Minneapolis.
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Speaking of travel distance, the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots will be in México City for a Sunday afternoon game. The sunset weather will be fair and mild, but this is not a good spot for Derek Carr and the Raiders, who are 7-point underdogs. Coming off a bye it is always more comfortable when you have a home game. Technically the Raiders will be the home team, but Azteca Stadium is more than 1.3 miles higher in elevation than the sea level of the Oakland Coliseum.
The Patriots are flying high after demolishing the Broncos last Sunday night. They stayed at altitude all week, training at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs before heading south of the border.
I continue to ask myself why we would ever bet against Tom Brady. Let’s look again at what this 40-year-old quarterback did in a 41-16 road win at Denver. He completed 25 of 34 passes to nine different receivers for 266 yards and three touchdowns, he was sacked only once for a loss of just six yards, and he wound up with a passer rating of 125.4.
As the NFL was heading into Week 11, Brady had thrown for nearly 300 yards more than any quarterback in the NFL. He has 2,807 yards with an average of 8.2 per attempt, 19 touchdowns, only two interceptions and a passer rating of 108.3. The only starting quarterback with a higher rating is Kansas City’s Alex Smith, and he is enjoying a banner season with 18 touchdowns, one interception and an average of 8.3 yards per throw. The only quarterback with more TD passes – 23 – is Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, who was in the third grade in North Dakota when Brady started his pro career.
If the line moves to Patriots minus 6½, I would lay it. At seven I will just sit back and enjoy the game. And at 7½ or eight, I might buy back on the ’dog.
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Sunday Night Football game features the high-flying Philadelphia Eagles visiting the battered Dallas Cowboys, who are 4½-point underdogs without Ezekiel Elliott and, maybe more important, left tackle Tyron Smith. It may be an awful lot to ask a less-protected Dak Prescott to carry the Cowboys with his right arm.
The Eagles lead the league at 8-1 straight up with their only loss coming at Kansas City – 27-20 on Sept. 17. They are also 7-2 ATS, thanks also to a last-second, three-point home win over the Giants when they were favored by five the week after losing to the Chiefs. The Eagles have since won another six straight up and ATS.
I do give the Cowboys the slightest of edges in strength of schedule, but I lean to the Philadelphia Eagles if the number comes down from 4½. I still think they will take care of business, especially since the Cowboys will be without Elliott and Smith.
No matter how you bet them, it is great having so many important NFL games this weekend, and it will be fun watching Wentz and Goff and Carr – and of course the grand, old man Tom Brady.
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I have to say that I loved NBC’s coverage of the Steelers’ victory over the Titans last night. My buddy, director Drew Esocoff, kept SkyCam focused on what I needed to see – and that meant tight shots that did not look like game film. Since I’m not coaching, I could care less where the safeties are. His close-ups of people and their facial expressions were also well placed, and that sort of telecast will attract more women who are interested in personalities and not X’s and O’s.
While we’re speaking of the media, I have to admit Tony Romo is an improved analyst – mostly because he’s not stepping on Jim Nantz as much as he was. They will call the Patriots-Raiders game from México City. I can’t wait to hear them greet us Sunday with Jim saying “Hola, amigos."