NFL Predictions Week 12: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Projections
It's Thanksgiving week—that wonderful time of year when we stop, take a break, gather together with family, friends and food, and watch football.
In a sense, it's a national holiday for the NFL. We all watch the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys and other teams from early until late. Generations have bonded over great (and not so great) Thanksgiving Day performances and games since the NFL's inception in 1920.
NFL football is already appointment viewing four days a week, seventeen weeks a year, plus playoff weekends and the Super Bowl, but there's something special about Thanksgiving—one of the few remaining ties the NFL has to its days of leather helmets.
Of course, our eight experts are more concerned with the NFL's immediate future than its distant past. As they do every week, they've joined forces to bring you the week's sleepers, upsets, overs, unders, breakout performances and flops by majority vote.
Bleacher Report's top NFL analysts have emptied their their minds of daily drudgery and worldly concerns and focused on football to give you the best possible projections for the weekend—so you can spend Thanksgiving filling your belly free of worry.
Expert Consensus Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers (+3.5) over Seattle Seahawks—five votes
Our NFL analysts soundly picked an upset that will have Seahawks fans pulling out their hair. The Steelers—yes those Steelers, who as a No. 6 seed in 2005 upset the top-seeded Seahawks in Super Bowl XL—were tabbed by five of our experts to upset Seattle again.
This time around, it's a regular-season game. But with the Steelers barely fending off a horde of AFC teams one and two games back and the Seahawks one game out of the NFC's last wild-card spot, a loss could end up meaning elimination.
NFL Lead Writer Mike Tanier explained why he voted for the Minnesota Vikings to upset the Atlanta Falcons rather than going with his first instinct: "Normally, Rams over Bengals would be my million-star upset of the week because the Rams are such dedicated spoilers. After Sunday's Case Keenum debacle, however, I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the Rams veterans scheduling tee times in the huddle."
Others receiving votes: Minnesota Vikings (+1) over Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3) over Indianapolis Colts
Expert Consensus Pick: Arizona Cardinals over San Francisco 49ers—eight votes
For the first time this season, the biggest blowout was unanimous , and it's not hard to see why. The 8-2 Cardinals, 11.5-point favorites, are not only one of the best, hottest teams in football—they're also going on the road to take on a divisional rival that has held them back year after year.
The 3-7 49ers, one of the NFL's worst teams, got blasted 47-7 when they played the Cardinals in Arizona in Week 3. If anything, the 49ers have gotten worse since then, while the Cardinals are playing their best football of the season.
Anytime there's a unanimous vote, an obvious sweep, a resounding "Well, duh," an expert is motivated to look for some contrary position, but there isn't a viable alternative. You never discount any possibility in the crazy NFL, but this is as close to a lock as football ever gets.
Higher Total: J.J. Watt Sacks or New Orleans Saints Sacks?
Expert Consensus Pick: New Orleans Saints—five votes
After a slow-by-his-standards start, J.J. Watt is once again playing like the superhuman monster he's been for the last three seasons. His Houston Texans are also rounding into form, as the quarterback position seems more settled than it's been since former starter Ryan Fitzpatrick left for New York in the spring.
With a whopping 7.5 sacks in the last four games, Watt is again leading the NFL in bringing down the quarterback, with 11.5 official sacks to his credit. The Texans, not coincidentally, are riding a three-game win streak—suddenly back to .500 (and tied for the division lead) after a disastrous start.
The Saints are going in the opposite direction; they've cratered after a promising October. Back-to-back defensive embarrassments cost defensive coordinator Rob Ryan his job. They're averaging just 2.2 sacks per game.
Five of our experts still liked Cam Jordan, rookie Hau'oli Kikaha and Co. to out-sack Watt, but two of our experts thought Watt would get to aging quarterback Drew Brees more often than the Saints would get to Brian Hoyer. One, NFL Analyst Ty Schalter, called it a draw.
Others receiving votes: J.J. Watt—two votes, push
Expert Consensus Pick: Cardinals pass offense vs. 49ers pass defense—four votes
Oh, our cheeky NFL experts.
NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman said the biggest mismatch would be "refs vs. getting a call right," and NFL Analysts Gary Davenport and Ty Schalter agreed.
The Week 11 Monday Night Football debacle was exactly that: a defensive struggle turned into an unwatchable mess by one officiating mistake, huddle, conference or review after another. In what must have been one of the longest third quarters ever played, all pretense of entertainment or sport was thrown out the window as the officials repeatedly tried to figure out what on earth they were doing.
In the end, though, they were outvoted by four other experts who echoed their Biggest Blowout votes by nominating Carson Palmer and the red-hot Cardinals passing offense over the meek 49ers passing defense—though that's including NFL Lead Writer Mike Tanier, who nominated Arizona's "interest in playing football vs. SF's disinterest in playing football."
Others receiving votes: NFL officials vs. getting a call right—three votes, Justin Houston vs. Seantrel Henderson
Sleeper QB Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Browns QB—three votes
Our top NFL experts are busy bees, working tirelessly to acquire and distribute top-quality NFL knowledge. Of course, even our busiest bees have to sleep sometime, even though the news cycle never does.
By the time our experts had to turn in their picks, the news of Johnny Manziel's benching was just hitting the wires—so three of our experts voted for Manziel and the Browns passing offense to do surprisingly well against the injury-ravaged Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football.
It's fair to say that Josh McCown, who's put up much better single-game numbers this year than Manziel, is likely to blow up as well.
Two of our experts, though, went with Thanksgiving fixture Matthew Stafford, whose Lions have been on what can charitably be termed a tear, against the imploding Philadelphia Eagles.
Others receiving votes: Matthew Stafford—two votes, Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, Matt Schaub
More Passing Yards: Jay Cutler or Aaron Rodgers?
Expert Consensus Pick: Aaron Rodgers—six votes
Every week, we trot out this staple of NFL logic, but there's a reason we do: The NFL isn't a strict meritocracy, so neither are our projections. This slide doesn't directly translate into who our experts think is the better quarterback or even who's playing better right now.
That said, our experts overwhelmingly favored Rodgers, who seemed to get back on track in Week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Cutler—like all opposing quarterbacks this season—struggled against the voracious Denver Broncos defense, and the Green Bay Packers are built similarly (though to a lesser degree of effectiveness). Meanwhile, Rodgers is set up to do well against the Chicago Bears' 22nd-ranked scoring defense.
Then again, the Bears rank fourth in passing yards allowed per game. That's mostly because other teams don't throw against them often, but facts are facts, and two of our experts—NFL Lead Writer Mike Tanier and NFL Analyst Ty Schalter—were leaning on that fact when voting.
Others receiving votes: Jay Cutler—two votes
More Turnovers: Ryan Tannehill or Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Expert Consensus Pick: Ryan Tannehill—four votes
It's the Battle of the Quarterbacks Named Ryan Who Aren't Playing All That Well, and our experts had a difficult time deciding which QB would turn it over more often while playing against the other's stout defense.
In fact, the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets have identical interception rates, per Pro Football Reference, at 2.7 percent, so it comes down to which quarterback is more likely to throw picks.
Fitzpatrick has a higher interception rate on the season at 3.4 percent. In fact, that's third-highest among qualifying NFL passers this season. Tannehill's isn't great; his 2.8 percent interception rate is tied with Kirk Cousins for 21st in the NFL.
Three of our experts voted accordingly, with one push. Our other four experts went with recent history: Week 4, when the Dolphins hosted the Jets and Tannehill threw two picks in a 27-14 loss. Fitzpatrick managed to throw just one pick that day, and our experts, by consensus, like history to repeat itself in New York.
Others receiving votes: Ryan Fitzpatrick—three votes, push
Sleeper RB Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Buck Allen—three votes
It's all hands on deck for the Ravens, who just lost quarterback Joe Flacco and tailback Justin Forsett to season-ending injuries. The hands—or, more correctly, the legs—that will be hitting the deck to replace Forsett belong to Buck Allen, the Ravens' fourth-round rookie pick.
Three of our experts chose Allen as their sleeper running back against the cheesecloth Browns run defense, but NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon went in a different direction.
Here's why he went with Jonathan Grimes, who's been getting more looks for the Texans: "The Saints defense is just so damn bad. Did you see how good it made Antonio Andrews, Matt Jones and Chris Thompson look? Grimes has 70 yards on 12 carries in his last two games, so he could explode at home in Week 12."
Others receiving votes: Lamar Miller—two votes, Tevin Coleman, Jonathan Grimes, Chris Ivory
Sleeper WR Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Brandon LaFell—three votes
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it's the aunt of opportunity. When it comes to sleeper football performances, it's all about who's getting an opportunity—and LaFell, one of just two healthy New England Patriots wide receivers, will be getting a heavy workload in Week 12.
Yes, the Patriots are going on the road against the Broncos and their outstanding pass defense. No, the game doesn't figure to be particularly high-scoring. But Tom Brady has been getting it done regardless of supporting cast or opponent all season long, and LaFell is going to have to be the one he gets it done with in Denver.
Rashad Greene, the Jacksonville Jaguars punt returner who's missed significant time with injury, also got two nods as a sleeper to watch this week.
Others receiving votes: Rashad Greene—two votes, Devin Funchess, Adam Humphries, Cecil Shorts
Sleeper TE Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Jacob Tamme—three votes
The Falcons have been in a tailspin. Having lost four of the last five games, their only victory a 10-7 defeat of the lowly Tennessee Titans, it's hard to remember that the Falcons got off to a 5-0 start.
As they take on the Vikings, though, the Falcons have their backs against the wall. At 6-4, they're barely holding on to the No. 6 seed in the NFC, and seven teams are within two games of them. After the Vikings, four of the Falcons' last five games are divisional, including two against the undefeated Carolina Panthers.
Quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons have to throw early and often against the Vikings if they want to end up in the playoffs. Tamme has been the pivot point for the Falcons pass attack in a number of games this season—including Week 8, when he pulled in 10 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown.
Others receiving votes: Crockett Gillmore, Vernon Davis, Anthony Fasano, Virgil Green
Best Defensive Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: J.J. Watt—four votes
What else is there to say about J.J. Watt? As the halfway point of the season approached, Watt's relatively mortal production had just started to percolate in the national consciousness when he flipped the switch. Though he was no less difficult to block, the Texans' defensive line changes and offensive implosion kept his numbers down.
Over the last four games, Watt's finally getting the numbers that go with his effort. He's leading the NFL in sacks and leading the Texans to win after win.
Three of our experts, though, went with Justin Houston—who has 4.5 sacks in his last five games. His Kansas City Chiefs are resurgent too, winning four in a row after dropping five straight.
Others receiving votes: Justin Houston—three votes, Everson Griffen
Over/Under: 5 Tom Brady-Brock Osweiler Passing TDs
Expert Consensus Pick: under—seven votes
Maybe the wise guys who set the line were a little optimistic. After all, the Patriots and the Broncos are the top two scoring defenses in the NFL right now; nobody's been racking up big passing numbers against either of these units.
Add the expected high-octane matchup of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady being reduced to Brady and Brock Osweiler, and it's no wonder seven of our experts picked this total to come in under.
One of our experts, NFL Analyst Ty Schalter, went against the grain:
Last week's AFC Player of the Week, Brock Osweiler, proved he can more than credibly execute the Broncos offense. The Patriots are actually ranked just 21st in passing defense, and there's no denying the Broncos have plenty of weapons.
I certainly don't expect Osweiler to outduel Brady, but I do expect him to lead the Broncos to enough points to make Brady work for it—and Brandon LaFell, Gronk and Co. to do their share.
Others receiving votes: push—one vote
Flop of the Week
Expert Consensus Pick: Tony Romo—three votes
With one throw—a wildly improbable, almost-in-the-grasp left-handed improvisation that turned a safety into a near-first down—Romo proved he's several cuts above any of the quarterbacks who've tried to keep his seat warm in Dallas. The Cowboys offense is worlds better when he's in the game.
That said, the Cowboys have a massive task set on their Thanksgiving table: the undefeated Panthers and their league-leading 15 interceptions. Three of our experts picked Romo to put up a few ducks while we're all eating turkey.
NFL Analyst Gary Davenport cast his vote to a should-be franchise quarterback who'll only see action if two backups get hurt:
From starting the rest of the season to maybe not starting Monday night. That's the 180 Johnny Manziel just careened through compliments of a TMZ video of Manziel allegedly partying during the bye week.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine has already made it clear he'd rather have a colonoscopy than start the second-year pro, and Manziel just handed him a reason not to on a silver platter.
Per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon, Pettine said, "It's a little easier to handle when it's just a one-time occurrence, but when behavior repeats, not just him but with anybody, it's certainly a cause for concern."
Just when it looked like the light bulb might be coming on for Johnny Football.
Others receiving votes: Johnny Manziel—two votes, Jay Cutler—two votes, Cam Newton