Valued Reader, I regret to inform you that the New England Patriots are indeed at it again. The Pats look like they just might be the best team in the AFC, having stifled the Falcons 25-0 last week for their fifth-straight win. Bill Belichick’s defense has given up 13 points in the last three games, and only the Chargers have topped 20 during New England’s streak. This week’s game against the Titans starts a four-game stretch – at Buffalo, at Indianapolis, home against Buffalo – that will define the Patriots’ season. Speaking of the AFC and great defenses – wait, sorry, is this right? – the Chiefs stifled the Cowboys, 19-9, to win their fourth-straight contest. Kansas City has allowed just 47 points in its winning streak, and if the offense can ever get fully out of its turnover-fueled funk, Andy Reid’s team will be scary. “But Chris, what about the NFC,” you ask. Well, every team except the Lions is within two games of a playoff spot, so your guess is as good as mine. This week is filled with crucial matchups in both conferences, and in the Thanksgiving spirit, instead of looking at players on the spot, we’ll identify each team’s biggest turkey so far this season. Onto Week 12.
Point spreads are from DraftKings.com, and are current as of 11 a.m. ET Thursday.
BYE: Chiefs, Cardinals
NOTE: Pick with spread is in bold.
Last week: 10-5 (Season: 76-89)
TV: FOX Line: Chicago -3
What you need to know: Andy Dalton! Thanksgiving! Catch the excitement! Kidding aside, Dalton was excellent in relief of an injured Justin Fields against Baltimore, and his all-or-nothing touchdown pass on fourth down should have won the game for the Bears. Alas, Chicago’s defense completely collapsed and deprived the team of what would have been a major win. Oh, and no one seems to know whether Matt Nagy is getting fired after this game or not. Fun times in the Windy City. It was close but no cigar for the Lions for the second straight week, as they nearly knocked off Cleveland one week after tying the Steelers. Tim Boyle was horrible, throwing for 77 yards, but he might start this one unless Jared Goff is healthy. Luckily, the Lions will have D’Andre Swift regardless of who starts under center; Swift has 266 yards on 47 carries over his last two games, numbers that are particularly shocking considering he had just 289 on 90 carries in Detroit’s first eight contests.
2021 Turkey: Bears HC Matt Nagy. He’s been a complete mess this year; the communication has been poor, the schemes ill-tailored to Justin Fields, and the on-field results underwhelming, to say the least. Breaking in a rookie quarterback is hard; at times, Nagy has made it look impossible.
Lions QB Jared Goff: Not that anyone thought it would be different, but Goff has struggled immensely. Among quarterbacks who have started nine or more games, only Trevor Lawrence and Sam Darnold have worse passer ratings than Goff’s 84.
The pick: Lions 20 Bears 16
TV: CBS Line: Dallas -7.5
What you need to know: The Raiders' defense got worn down by Cincinnati, as well as their own sloppiness, committing multiple personal fouls that sustained Bengals' drives. Joe Mixon had his way, particularly in the second half, and Tyler Boyd had multiple catches to keep drives going. Las Vegas has weathered plenty of storms this season, but it’s looking like the combination of a tough schedule and a porous defense is going to be too tough to overcome. Dallas isn’t as bad as they looked on offense against Kansas City; far from it, in fact. That said, CeeDee Lamb is still questionable for this game, as he’s working his way back from a concussion, and while Amari Cooper should be back, the Cowboys still might not be at full strength. That said, even a depleted version of Dallas should be plenty good enough to give the Raiders’ defense problems and get a win, something that is more important than it would seem, given that the Philadelphia Eagles are suddenly 5-6 and getting more interesting by the week.
2021 Turkey: Raiders DC Gus Bradley. Bradley’s defense isn’t terrible when it comes to yards given up – the Raiders are 15th in the NFL – but Las Vegas hemorrhages points. The Raiders have given up 262, which puts them 25th in the league.
Cowboys S Damontae Kazee: Kazee might be the weakest link in Dallas’ secondary. He’s allowed a 100.9 passer rating when targeted this year, per Pro Football Focus, and has an overall PFF grade of just 59.6 on the season.
The pick: Cowboys 31 Raiders 21
TV: NBC Line: Buffalo -6.5
What you need to know: Something strange is happening with the Bills, who are 2-3 in their last five games, including a blowout loss to the Colts last week, one that saw Jonathan Taylor run all over a defense that had been largely stingy against the run this year. Buffalo is getting beaten physically at the line of scrimmage, which is affecting them on both sides of the ball, and what seemed like a foregone conclusion – a division title – now seems like it might be slipping away, given New England’s rise. The Saints still have questions at quarterback and have now lost three straight games after a triumphant Week 8 win over Tampa Bay. If losses to the Falcons and a depleted Titans team were head-scratching, the way New Orleans’ league-best rush defense got shredded by the Eagles – 242 yards last week – was deeply concerning. Josh Allen doesn’t run like Jalen Hurts, but he’s more than enough of a threat to give New Orleans similar issues.
2021 Turkey: Bills HC Sean McDermott. McDermott quickly established himself as one of the league’s better coaches, but the Bills’ inability to get on a major roll and flex their muscles this year reflects more on him than anyone else.
Saints WR Tre’Quan Smith: With Michael Thomas out for the year, the Saints badly needed another wide receiver to step up. Smith might have had the best credentials to do it. He has not.
The pick: Bills 27 Saints 20
TV: CBS Line: Cincinnati -4.5
What you need to know: The Steelers nearly pulled off an all-time rally and even took the lead over the Chargers after erasing a 27-10 deficit, but Justin Herbert was too much, and Pittsburgh dropped to 5-4-1. T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Joe Haden should all be back for a defense that gave up 533 yards to Herbert and company, the second-highest total of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, but will their return alone be enough to turn the tide against a team that thoroughly outplayed them a few months ago? Cincinnati took advantage of a sloppy performance by Las Vegas, overcame an early fumble, and imposed their will on their way to an impressive road win. It was a nice rebound for Zac Taylor’s team after a two-game losing streak, and Cincinnati’s plethora of offensive weapons makes them tough to keep down for an entire game, so long as Joe Burrow is kept upright. A win here would give the Bengals a golden opportunity to take control of the AFC North.
2021 Turkey: Steelers LB Devin Bush. The 10th pick in the 2019 draft has struggled mightily in his return from an ACL injury last year. Bush looks like a liability against the pass and the run and has failed to provide Pittsburgh with a defensive anchor in the middle.
Bengals HC Zac Taylor: We’ve all seen how good the Bengals look when they’re firing on all cylinders, so the fact that they inexplicably lost two straight games after starting 5-2 is on the coach. Sorry, Zac, with great talent comes great responsibility.
The pick: Bengals 26 Steelers 20
TV: FOX Line: Tampa Bay -3
What you need to know: The Buccaneers got themselves back on track with a relatively comfortable win over the Giants on Monday night. Their task gets much tougher against the Colts, who have ridden Jonathan Taylor’s spectacular play to wins in five of their last six games, as well as three straight. Tampa Bay has allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league this season and the second-fewest yards per carry. Taylor and the Colts will be a stern test, however. While much of the credit for Indianapolis’ resurgence is rightfully being given to Taylor, Carson Wentz is still quietly having a solid season, even if his play has tailed off in the last two weeks. With Tampa Bay likely to key on Taylor, the Colts’ ability to win this game might come down to whether or not Wentz can make Todd Bowles’ defense pay through the air. Regardless of what happens, this has the potential to be one of the most entertaining games of the entire season.
2021 Turkey: Buccaneers LB Devin White. Good thing for White that he managed to play the best football of his career during Tampa Bay’s playoff run last year. Otherwise, he has graded out miserably at Pro Football Focus and is struggling in much the same way that Devin Bush is for the Steelers.
Colts QB Carson Wentz: Wentz was very bad for two of Indianapolis’ three season-opening losses, then threw away a chance to beat Tennessee in Week 8. He’s been more good than bad, but the bad has been ugly.
The pick: Buccaneers 33 Colts 27
TV: FOX Line: Carolina -2
What you need to know: Cam Newton’s first start back in Charlotte was exciting and got off to a good start, but that didn’t last, and the Panthers’ normally sturdy defense struggled to stop the Football Team, particularly on the ground. In that sense, the Dolphins, who claimed Phillip Lindsay on waivers this week, are the perfect opponent. Miami has been unable to run the ball all season, so if Carolina is able to continue that trend, Tua Tagovailoa’s day could be quite unpleasant. Miami is a bizarre team; the Dolphins have won three straight and are 4-7, but feel like a much worse team than that. Having said that, if they can find a way to squeak out a win in this game, winnable matchups with the Giants and Jets loom, with a bye week sandwiched in between. Could the Dolphins really be 7-7 and battling for a playoff spot? As someone who has watched too many of their games start to finish this year, I certainly hope not.
2021 Turkey: Panthers QB Sam Darnold. Darnold is hurt now, of course, but he was atrocious as a starter; the memory of his and the team’s 3-0 start seems particularly distant at this point. Darnold doesn’t seem likely to get another chance to be the man in Carolina, and he’s done nothing to deserve one.
Dolphins Owner Stephen Ross: Let’s give this label to Ross primarily because he greenlit a ham-fisted, ridiculous effort to trade for Deshaun Watson, something that was not only doomed to fail but also undermined Tagovailoa’s confidence in the process.
The pick: Panthers 23 Dolphins 16
TV: CBS Line: New England -6
What you need to know: You sort of had to expect a letdown was coming for the Titans, what with the way they had managed to weather the loss of Derrick Henry and rack up wins against quality teams. You just may not have expected it to come against the moribund Texans, or for Ryan Tannehill (4 interceptions) to look so bad. The Adrian Peterson experiment didn’t work out, so now the Titans will have to figure out how to generate offense against the hottest defense in the NFL. The Patriots bullied the Falcons last Thursday, intercepting all three quarterbacks that played for Atlanta. Bill Belichick’s team is very obviously playoff-caliber, as their offense is now up to sixth in the league in scoring, and their defense is number one. The next four weeks, featuring this game, plus two against the Bills and one against the Colts, should do a good job of telling the rest of the NFL just how scared they should be.
2021 Turkey: Titans QB Ryan Tannehill. I loved pointing out to anyone who would listen that while Derrick Henry was brilliant, Tannehill’s play-action greatness really made the Titans deadly on offense. Well, uh, he’s dragging around an 86.1 passer rating this year, so let’s pretend I didn’t give him props.
Patriots RB Damien Harris: This is, admittedly, a nitpick, but what else are you supposed to do with a team that looks as good as New England does right now? If Harris hadn’t fumbled late in the season opener against Miami, the Pats would be 8-3 and in full control of the AFC East. Maybe call Harris “Tofurkey,” because it’s not like the real thing.
The pick: Patriots 24 Titans 13
TV: FOX Line: Philadelphia -3.5
What you need to know: Well this is strange. I had written the Eagles off as a lost cause not that long ago, but lo and behold, Philly has figured some things out. Namely, they’ve allowed Jalen Hurts to do what he does best – make plays with his legs – while he gets more comfortable making them with his arm. Wouldn’t you know it, this approach is working, and the Eagles look like one of the best running teams in the league, and a bona fide playoff contender. Look for an uptick from the Giants’ offense now that Jason Garrett has been fired and Freddie Kitchens is taking over the play-calling duties. No, this is not a joke. Kitchens knows what he’s doing when his role is very defined and he doesn’t have to address the media as head coaches do, and he’ll probably unlock a little more of Daniel Jones’ athletic ability, and coax some higher-scoring performances out of a group that has yet to score 30 points in a game this season.
2021 Turkey: Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon. Philadelphia’s offense struggled to find its identity early in the season, but Gannon’s passive defense was even worse. Philly could easily have one and possibly two more wins if they had better defense early on.
Giants OC Jason Garrett: Say this for Joe Judge, he realized who the turkey on his staff was, and didn’t waste any time in “cooking” him, so to speak. Garrett’s tenure in New York was a disaster, to put it kindly.
The pick: Eagles 27 Giants 24
TV: CBS Line: Atlanta -1
What you need to know: Because they play in the NFC, the Falcons aren’t circling the drain just yet. In fact, they’re barely out of a playoff spot. But Atlanta’s overall numbers – 27th in scoring offense, 31st in scoring defense – suggest that they’re nowhere near playoff-caliber, and belong closer to the top of next year’s draft. After an encouraging, surprising win over the Saints, the Falcons have been outscored 68-3 in losses to the Cowboys and Patriots. Speaking of teams that will be at the top of next year’s draft, we have the Jacksonville Jaguars, who followed up perhaps the year’s most stunning win – a 9-6 triumph over Buffalo – with two run-of-the-mill losses to the Colts and 49ers. The real problem with the Jaguars isn’t that they’re losing, it’s that Trevor Lawrence is struggling mightily, even by rookie quarterback standards. Maybe that’s to be expected, though, when the big shot head coach equates the NFL to “playing Alabama every week.” Life without built-in recruiting advantages stinks, doesn’t it, Urban?
2021 Turkey: Falcons HC Arthur Smith. Hey, wasn’t Smith, the architect of Tennessee’s dynamic scheme the past few years, supposed to similarly transform the Falcons’ attack? Perhaps Derrick Henry was the reason for all that greatness in Nashville.
Jaguars HC Urban Meyer: Meyer hasn’t been involved in any embarrassing off-field situations of late, but Lawrence’s performance – or lack thereof – is enough of an indictment on a head coach that might have bit off a lot more than he could chew.
The pick: Jaguars 24 Falcons 21
TV: CBS Line: Houston -2.5
What you need to know: The good news (I guess) for the Jets is that Zach Wilson is back. The bad news is that Joe Flacco and Mike White are on the COVID list; White for having COVID, and Flacco for being an unvaccinated close contact. In the big picture, the bad news for the Jets is that it feels like Wilson’s rookie season is a lost cause unless he shows something significant down the stretch. Houston got its second win and had the whiff of competence last week against Tennessee, which shows how much better the team can be – read: still not very good – when Tyrod Taylor is under center. Taylor should make Texans games watchable for the rest of the year, but if you’re a Houston fan, you have to be hoping for lots more losses, and also for the entire front office, including owner Cal McNair, to decide they’d rather not be involved with the NFL anymore, and sell the team to competent people.
2021 Turkey: Jets HC Robert Saleh. Saleh came from the 49ers as a culture-change coach and a defensive guru. Let’s check in on New York’s defense, shall we? Oh, they’re dead last in scoring and total defense? Seems things aren’t off to a very good start.
Texans Owner Cal McNair: The Texans are a dreadful mess in so many ways, and there appears to be no end in sight. That falls on McNair. This is his team, and he’s aiding and abetting its slide to ruin.
The pick: Texans 23 Jets 19
TV: CBS Line: Los Angeles -3
What you need to know: The Chargers got a gut-check win over Pittsburgh, nearly squandering a fourth-quarter lead via various pratfalls, before Justin Herbert picked them up off the mat with a late touchdown drive. Herbert became the first quarterback in league history to notch at least 380 yards passing and 90 yards rushing in a single game, and his greatness is the primary reason that Los Angeles is a real threat to make noise in the AFC. The Broncos, like so many teams, looked like they should be given up for dead a few weeks ago, but here they sit at 5-5, very much alive in the division and conference, particularly if they find a way to hold serve in this game. The rest of the schedule features just one game against a team with a losing record, though, so Denver is going to make the playoffs, they’ll have to earn it.
2021 Turkey: Chargers RT Storm Norton. Rashawn Slater looks like he’ll be the best left tackle in the NFL very soon if he isn’t there already, but Norton is a weak link opposite him. Unless he improves, teams will try to target him to get to Herbert, which might short-circuit Los Angeles.
Broncos T Garett Bolles: This is probably unfair to Bolles, who still grades out at a solid 71.7 overall this season at Pro Football Focus, but seeing as he was one of the league’s best tackles last year, a regression back to above average is a disappointment.
The pick: Chargers 27 Broncos 23
TV: FOX Line: Green Bay -1
What you need to know: I remember when the Rams were a 7-1 juggernaut that looked like the best team in the NFC after a comfortable Halloween win over the Texans. Since then, they’ve lost two games by a combined 33 points, and Matthew Stafford’s play has declined significantly. The Rams certainly aren’t out of the hunt by any stretch, but their schedule, aside from a visit from Jacksonville next week, looks plenty difficult the rest of the way. The Packers now have the saga of Aaron Rodgers’ banged-up toe to deal with, and what’s more, have lost two of their last three games. With Rodgers in the lineup, Green Bay should put up points, in theory at least, but their 31 points against Minnesota last week was the first time the team reached the 30-point mark since Week 3. If anything, Green Bay’s fifth-ranked defense has been its calling card this year.
2021 Turkey: Rams QB Matthew Stafford. Stafford was garnering plenty of MVP attention until he put up consecutive two-interception stinkers against the Titans and 49ers. He can still get his mojo back and get the Rams on track, but he has cost them at least one win this year.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers: Like Stafford, Rodgers has cost his team at least a win so far, though in his case it was because he couldn’t play, and Jordan Love had to. In any event, despite his strong play on the field, Rodgers hasn’t always put his best foot forward off of it.
The pick: Packers 24 Rams 21
TV: FOX Line: San Francisco -3.5
What you need to know: Please welcome the 49ers to the large group of teams written off after poor starts, only to immediately rise back from the dead and get right back into the playoff chase. You’ll notice that these teams are mostly from the NFC, where very literally everyone but Detroit still has a shot. San Francisco has relied on a tried-and-true formula to win three of their last four; run the ball really well, and play stingy defense against the run. Simple, right? The Vikings are a fun team to try and get a handle on unless of course, you feel some compulsion to bet on their games, in which case they’re maddening. Kirk Cousins led Minnesota to a crucial win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last week, one week after outdueling Justin Herbert in Los Angeles. Can he make it three in a row, over Jimmy Garoppolo, who is on paper the least-imposing of the three opposing passers?
2021 Turkey: 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan. Oh sure, things look good now, but you mean to tell me that Shanahan couldn’t find a way to win at least one of his three one-score losses during an early four-game losing streak?
Vikings DCs Andrew Patterson and Adam Zimmer: Minnesota’s defense is 22nd in the NFL in points allowed, and 28th in yards allowed. They’re 31st in yards per carry given up. That porous defense is a big reason the team is only 5-5.
The pick: 49ers 30 Vikings 26
TV: NBC Line: Baltimore -4
What you need to know: Perhaps Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield situation, currently showing signs of volcanic activity, willfully erupt in prime time, and consume the team. Mayfield is physically battered, clearly frustrated, and Browns fans seem like they’re starting to turn on the quarterback who was supposed to end the franchise’s futility at that position. Oh, and Mayfield’s wife is sharing posts on Instagram suggesting that the team’s real problem is that the rest of the players aren’t as tough as her husband. Everything is fine, nothing to see here. Baltimore continues to find ways to pull rabbits out of hats and win football games it has no business winning. Tyler Huntley did his best Lamar Jackson impersonation against the Bears and rallied Baltimore with a late touchdown pass, mere moments after it appeared that the Ravens were going to fall victim to a surprise Andy Daltoning. Jackson should be back for this game, and if the Ravens win, they’ll have very possibly delivered a kill shot to Cleveland’s division hopes, if not their season.
2021 Turkey: Browns HC Kevin Stefanski and QB Baker Mayfield. The quarterback is doing the most ill-advised tough-guy, try-hard routine in history, and the head coach, who has an elite backup quarterback he’s plenty familiar with, is letting him do it. Bad all the way around.
Ravens DC Don Martindale: This is not a vintage Baltimore defense. Not close to it, really. The Ravens have been beset by injuries on both sides of the ball, but the Ravens haven’t delivered a great performance on defense since their Week 6 rout of the Chargers.
The pick: Browns 23 Ravens 20
TV: ESPN Line: Washington -1
What you need to know: Seattle has lost both of Russell Wilson’s starts since his return. The Seahawks are 3-7, and yet, all is not lost. It stands to reason that Wilson will figure things out sooner rather than later, and the Seahawks have the league’s seventh-best scoring defense. Couple that with the fact that the NFC playoff picture is a muddled mess and you have a recipe for a second-half rally, particularly with the Texans, Bears and Lions left on the schedule. That said, this game is a must-have for Pete Carroll’s team. Washington is – wait for it – still very much alive in the NFC after fending off the Panthers and Cam Newton last week. Taylor Heinicke probably isn’t the answer at quarterback, but he’s good enough to make Washington interesting and dangerous, as long as he takes care of the football. Washington has won two of three, and the best sign for this team is that their defense, which hasn’t allowed 300 total yards in a game since Week 7, is finally rounding into form.
2021 Turkey: Seahawks HC Pete Carroll. Look at Seattle’s overall numbers and some of the games they’ve lost, and the whole thing just seems head-scratching. Even with Wilson missing time, they should have a better record. That falls on Carroll.
Washington Football Team QB Taylor Heinicke: I’m only putting Heinicke here because everyone was excited to see what he could do after a promising playoff start against the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs last year, and he’s turned out to be kind of…meh.
The pick: Seahawks 21 Washington Football Team 14
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.