Dallas Cowboys @ New York Giants
11-1 Dallas are already in the playoffs. Their next job is to clinch the NFC East title, which they can do by beating the only side to have defeated them this season, the 8-4 New York Giants. That sole loss for the Cowboys seems such long time ago. And that's because it was. The 20-19 defeat came in Week One and was a pretty freakish affair. I mean, can you believe Rashard Jennings having more rushing yards than Ezekiel Elliot? Madness right? But that's what happened.
Things can be strange in opening games though. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott still had his training wheels on for example. The rookie was playing his first ever game in the NFL and so of course head coach Jason Garrett wasn't going to let him throw the ball all over the place. Prescott has had time to get comfortable with his role now though, and is a very different creature from then.
And let's not forget that star receiver Dez Bryant was missing for the Cowboys in the season opener. His absence, combined with a rookie QB playing his first game, allowed New York's defense to put all its focus on stopping the run. As a result, Ezekiel Elliot, who was also making his debut, managed just 51 yards rushing. That was by far Elliot's worst game of the season. But he's doubled those numbers in almost every game since, so you can expect him to do so again here.
The Giants expensive new defense isn't too shabby against the run - it's one of the best in the league in fact. They won't stop Elliot. But they might make it hard for him to get into the end zone. Zeke has 13 touchdowns so far, which is impressive. But it's only a third of the Cowboys' 39 offensive scores for the season, and so the value would seem to lie elsewhere when looking for someone to make the opening score.
The Giants defense has been awful against the pass. And so I'm looking at Dallas receivers Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley to get the first touchdown. They've bagged over half the Dallas passing TDs between them. Dak Prescott had 227 passing yards against the Giants in their first meeting. But he's blossomed since then and should be trusted to make more plays this time round, especially to Dez Bryant in the deep. I think Bryant can bust open the Giants secondary and put up big numbers in this game, plus a touchdown to boot.
The Giants running game is poor. Rashard Jennings looks such a plodder. And his numbers prove it. That's why he's gradually ceding carries to the bigger-bodied Paul Perkins. And so New York will live or die by their passing game. Odell Beckham Jr is a superstar, we know that. And Sterling Shepard has impressed in his rookie season in the slot. He's not going to put up Beckham type numbers, but he does get a lot of looks in the end zone, while Beckham's drawing all the attention, so he's a sneaky call to hit pay dirt again here.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning may spread the ball around, so there could be action for many of New York's less celebrated receivers. The only one you can back with confidence to see a lot of targets though is Beckham. And he could destroy the Dallas secondary, which ranks near the bottom of the league. Both Ben Roethlisberger and Kirk Cousins put up more than 400 yards against the Cowboys recently. Manning may be inconsistent, and he might throw some picks, but he's also very capable of putting up some big yardage, especially if the Giants have to chase the game.
Ultimately though, the Cowboys ave improved since last these teams met and they look the stronger team. The Giants can keep it close though with home advantage. So a less than seven point margin looks likely. Meanwhile the points total should be a lot higher than in their first meeting, with both offenses having improved since then.
3pts Dallas to win by 1-13 points @ 11/10
3pts Bryant to score anytime touchdown @ 10/11
2pts Shepard to score anytime touchdown @ 17/10
3pts Total Points over 45.5 @ 4/6
4pts Prescott passing yards Over 238.5 @ 5/6
3pts Bryant receiving yards Over 69.5 @ 5/6
4pts Manning passing yards Over 271.5 @ 5/6
3pts Jennings rushing yards Under 49.5 @ 5/6
5pts Beckham receiving yards Over 101.5 @ 5/6
2pts Beasley to score first touchdown @ 11/1
1pt Bryant to score first touchdown @ 17/2
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
Historically, Baltimore seem to like December. Their 64% win record for the month is the third best in the NFL. They certainly began it in style this year, trouncing Miami 38-6 last week. Interestingly, Joe Flacco threw for almost 400 yards against a Dolphins secondary that ranks mid table, one place above the Patriots, at stopping the pass. And the truth is, that the days of the Ravens being a running team are over. They do much more damage through the air now, and we should place our bets accordingly.
Something that hasn't changed is that Baltimore still have an awesome defense. It will be fascinating to see how much pressure they can put on New England's offensive line and to what extent they can harass the Patriots' quarterback. And Tom Brady may well have to be at his magical best here, because New England's running game could just hit a brick wall. LeGarrette Blount is having a fantastic season and leads the league with 13 rushing TDs. But Baltimore have the best run defense in the NFL and have allowed only four rushing TDs in 12 games.
New England's leading runner bagged 88 yards and one score from 18 carries against the Rams last week. But it's interesting to note that, for all his touchdowns, Blount rarely goes over 100 yards. His quote for this game is 78 yards, a mark he's failed to achieve in eight of 12 outings. So there's no reason to expect him to play big against the NFL's premiere run defense.
The points quote here is 44, but for me that's too high, as is the 6.5 point handicap. Take away the running game, and the Patriots still have their formidable passing offense. But then take away their top receiver too, the injured Rob Gronkowski, and that changes everything. New England still have an array of good receivers and Tom Brady to throw it to them. But there's a lack of a deep threat. And if there battering ram tactic, of throwing Blount at the opposition to soften them up, fails - then the Pats could be in trouble.
I can see New England taking a while to adapt to life without Gronk. They'll probably throw in a healthy dose of Dion Lewis catching the ball in the backfield and trying to jink his way through. Malcolm Mitchell has come in and made a strong impression, including several scores, so he offers value all round. But I believe their punter will have one of his busier days on the field. Indeed the kickers could be busy all round, with field goals likely to be crucial if this turns out to be as tight a game as I think it could.
Baltimore will run the ball through Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon. But I'm not expecting anything spectacular from either, especially Dixon who plays the supporting role. As I mentioned earlier, Baltimore are now a passing team, and so it will be down to Flacco to connect with the likes of Mike Wallace, who offers a genuine deep ball threat. I wouldn't be surprised to see Flacco take a few shots downfield right at the start. Hence, I like the idea of Baltimore making the better start, and that offers a big price on the half time/full time result if you fancy New England to still win.
3pts Baltimore (+6.5) to beat New England @ 10/11
3pts New England points Under 26.5 @ 4/5
4pts Baltimore to score 1st @6/5
1pt Baltimore/New England - HT/FT @ 13/2
5pts Blount rushing yards Under 78.5 @ 5/6
3pts Dixon passing and receiving yards to be Under 52.5
3pts first quarter field goal @ 5/6
1pt Wallace to score 1st touchdown @ 10/1
1pt Wallace to score anytime touchdown @ 6/4
1pt Mitchell to score 1st touchdown @ 11/1
3pts Mitchell receiving yards Over 58.5 @ 5/6