Pittsburgh and Dallas are on the outside looking-in as far as the play-offs are concerned. But both can thrust themselves back into contention with much-needed wins, according to our analyst Neil Harvey...
"The Redskins' victories at FedExField have been somewhat deceptive though, given three out of five were achieved by a margin of three points of less. Throw in that Dallas have yet to lose a road game by more than seven points, and there's good reason to think this contest will be close."
Indianapolis Colts @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Both Indianapolis and Pittsburgh have 6-5 records at the moment. But that's about all they do have in common. Because I rate this Steelers team light years ahead of where the Colts are at present.
Pittsburgh's offense is starting to purr. Last week they put 30 points past the vaunted Seahawks defense, albeit in defeat. Ben Roethlisberger looks almost certain to play. So no worries there. And that should mean monster games for wideouts Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, who can feast upon Indy's 27th-ranked secondary.
The Colts' run-defense is little better. Ranking 24th in the NFL, it looks set for a torrid time trying to stop born-again DeAngelo Williams and the league's eighth best running attack. Williams' versatility as both runner and receiver should make him especially dangerous in this game, and a good thing to hit paydirt.
Pittsburgh's achilles heel is it's secondary, which gave up big yardage to Russell Wilson's Seahawks last week. They should have less to fear though from Matt Hasselbeck. And not because he isn't good. Far from it, the veteran's been playing sublimely as Andrew Luck's stand-in. But he's simply not a deep ball threat.
The reason the Colts are faring better under Hasselbeck is because they've been forced to adopt a more conservative offensive approach. They've been beating teams with an array of short to intermediate throws, with a sprinkle of runs thrown in. That ground game is weak though. And lead running back Frank Gore only looks one good tackle away from being out for the season, such is his health.
The Colts will try to run the ball early, but fail, against Pittsburgh's solid rush-defense. And then they'll turn to their QB to hurt the Steelers with a hundred short lashes. It's unlikely to be enough though, against a Steelers side that should be able to score almost at will, both on the ground and through the air.
The Colts will start in grind mode, but will have no choice but to abandon that game plan once they fall behind. And so for me, that makes the second half highly-likely to contain more points than the first. Once Hasselbeck starts having to go deep, anything could happen. Meanwhile the Steelers are not the sort of team to sit on a lead. On the contrary, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is one of the NFL's few Head Coaches who dares to go for the kill.
Even without Big Ben, Pittsburgh would look good enough to win this with room to spare. The Steelers sit just outside the play-off positions and are highly motivated to win. The Colts meanwhile sit top of a hugely weak NFC South and will know they'll have other chances to make the postseason, whatever happens here.
3pts Second Half to be Highest scoring Half @ 2.001/1
3pts Pittsburgh (-7) to beat Indianapolis @2.001/1
2pts Pittsburgh (-4) to win 1st Half @ 2.001/1
Pittsburgh Total Points Over 29.5 @ 2.001/1
1pt DeAngelo Williams to score 1st/anytime Touchdown @ 7.006/1
Dallas Cowboys @ Washington Redskins
The stats for the season really don't support what we're seeing in reality. According to match results, the improving 5-6 Redskins are the better team and heading in the opposite direction to the slumping 3-8 Cowboys. And yet it's Dallas who, according to the year's team statistics, have clearly the better defense and arguably the better offense.
The reason for that could lie in a couple of things. For starters, Washington's home form has been faultless, with them winning five from five. The Redskins' victories at FedExField have been somewhat deceptive though, given three out of five were achieved by a margin of three points of less. Throw in that Dallas have yet to lose a road game by more than seven points, and there's good reason to think this contest will be close.
It's also worth considering that Dallas have been hamstrung for most of the season by injuries to key players. But Des Bryant has a few games under his belt now and professes to be feeling the best he has all season. So just maybe we'll see the Cowboys most talented player start to show his true colours.
At quarterback, Dallas have been chopping and changing their play-caller all season. With Tony Romo back on the treatment table though, it means another game for Matt Cassel. And while Cassel isn't the NFL's greatest quarterback by a long chalk, what he can boast now is momentum. The stand-in QB started four games in a row prior to Romo's return. And while he didn't win any of those, he never lost by a margin of more than seven points. Taking over a team from scratch is a notoriously tough thing to do. But that run of games will have given him a much better feel for the offense in front of him and his performances should only get better from here on in.
For Washington, the return of DeSean Jackson has been a major boost. He's slotted straight in to the role of being their number one receiver and I expect him to lead their charge. But the Redskins running game is too confused and too inconsistent to trouble Dallas's stout run-defense. And that means the Cowboys should once again be able to keep their opponents close.
Everyone but Cowboys fans will probably be looking at Washington's home form and backing the Redskins here. But I doubt things will be so straight-forward. This game has got 'trap' written all over it. And with a field-goal headstart, the Cowboys look well worth taking a chance on. Let's not forget that victory for Dallas here would pull them within just one win of Washington in the NFC East and so keep their play-off hopes alive.
At the start of the season, Dallas were ranked as play-off contenders, while the Redskins were being written-off. And as bizarre as it might sound, it's still possible things could end up that way. But that mission-impossible would need to start with a win for Dallas here. So that's what I'm going for, by backing the Cowboys to keep the dream alive.
3pts Dallas (+4) to beat Washington @ 2.001/1
2pts Dallas to beat Washington @ 2.829/5
2pts Dallas to win at half time @ 2.506/4
1pt Dez Bryant to score 1st/anytime touchdown @ 9.008/1