Romilly Evans casts his eye over some big live match-ups to conclude Week 14, where he reckons the Miami Dolphins still have enough to put paid to New York's postseason ambitions...
"Beckham Jnr, the human highlight reel, can make any D look pedestrian with his effortless one-handed snaffles and timely tumbling grabs - maybe it’s those gloves?"
New England Patriots @ Houston Texans
Start-time: Monday, 01:30
TV: Live on SS2
Houston head coach, Bill O'Brien, three years removed from his previous post as New England's offensive co-ordinator, now hosts the organisation that made him. And in a game that could make or break each team's respective seasons, old friendships will be turned to new rivalries if only for a night.
For while the Patriots still stand at a competitive 10-2 in the AFC, they have lost their last two matches and now sit outside the top two conference seedings that ensure a first-round bye in the play-offs. Now consider that such a bye has been a pre-requisite for all their recent Super Bowl victories, and you understand why the sorcerer Bill Belichick will be so keen to arrest his team's slide.
His apprentice in O'Brien, on the other hand, also harbours more grounded postseason prospects of his own. While the Texans are only 6-6, that fifty-fifty record puts them squarely in the mix for the lowly AFC South, where an upcoming divisional decider with Indianapolis could yet save their season. It's important, therefore, that the Texans concede no more ground to the Andrew Luck-less Colts here.
So what are their chances? Pretty good if the Vegas line - which only makes the Pats marginal jollies here - is any guide. After all, it invariably is. New England were overturned by underachieving Philly at home last week. And while a couple of freak special-teams plays ultimately did for them, the alarm bells are finally ringing at fortress Foxborough. They were even booed off at half-time!
True, Tom Brady's boys will enjoy some respite from their demanding crowd on the road. But the familiar faces of that Brady bunch are progressively absent from the call-sheet. Injuries to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson have left Brady's O-line in a constant state of reshuffle, while the recent knock to talismanic tight-end Rob Gronkowski (good for 57 catches, 931 yards and nine touchdowns) has left the great QB exposed and out of options. For even if Gronk returns (he was restricted in midweek practice) he won't be pounding the turf at full pelt.
Denver's dominant defense snapped their winning streak a fortnight ago, and Houston's resurgent D under all-star JJ Watt now threaten to provide similar pressure - Watt may have his own issues dealing with a broken hand but is sure to take the field. Buffalo may have confounded the Texans last Sunday with some creative formations - and one too many Wildcats - but at least they'll be sharper to any such Belichick tricks here.
Although I wouldn't read too much into O'Brien's insider knowledge in countering ol' Bill and Tom (for whom he was also quarterback coach), Houston own offensive line is also stepping up. Better blocking has seen their running game go up a gear (Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes' one-two punch definitely moved the chains against the Bills). Farther down the field, the Pats' secondary is a leaky bucket waiting to explode and maybe even the limited Brian Hoyer (26 passes off 44 attempts for 293 yards and three touchdowns last week) can profit.
Homefield advantage and an important field-goal headstart only strengthens Houston's case on a few handicaps. The Texans are also reported as "banged-up but healthy" (oxymorons 'R' them) which is far better than the Patriots at this bruising stage of the season. They've still got a play-off shot, and are getting their collective act together. Whisper it, but New England could be going the other way.
Back Houston Texans (+3) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.9520/21 or better
Back Houston Texans to win on the Moneyline @ 2.6613/8 or better
Back Houston Texans to win on the First Half Moneyline @ 2.56/4 or better
Back Under 23.5 Total New England Points @ 2.111/10 or better
New York Giants @ Miami Dolphins
Start-time: Tuesday, 01:30
TV: Live on SS1
There's considerably less to say about this match-up between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants. And even less to enthuse over. You may have missed Miami stumbling over the line last weekend and if so you dodged a bullet. A pair of deflected passes, and that was about it for them to fend off the attentions of beleaguered Baltimore 15-13, a team that appears to have no household names on their starting roster for the remainder of the campaign.
On the plus side for the Fins, Olivier Vernon is ramping up (2.5 sacks and six tackles) to scene-stealing heights. However, their lead actor, Ryan Tannehill keeps forgetting his lines - going 9 of 19 for just 86 yards against the Ravens.
The Giants at least have more to crow about, and warmer play-off pretensions, hailing as they do from the abject NFC East (where 5-7 tops the boards). Let's start with withering wideout, Odell Beckham Jr, who has now registered over 100 yards receiving in five straight games. This human highlight reel can make any D look pedestrian with his effortless one-handed snaffles and timely tumbling grabs - maybe it's just those gloves?
However, a one-man show is not enough to recommend a team who have been living down to expectations. Eli Manning keeps thinking he's injured when he's simply being trademark erratic. Whereas, on the other side of the ball, his genuinely incapacitated D are struggling for dignity after somehow allowing the Jets back into the game in their recent Battle of the Big Apple.
With that capitulation in mind (where the mediocre Ryan Fitzpatrick carved out just shy of 400 yards) there is good reason to hope that Miami's Tannehill will fancy his chances of productivity here. The Dolphins have even discovered a little rush of late (note Lamar Miller's 113 yards last time) and this balance, coupled with a staunch defensive backbone, can see them home here over a lopsided Giants outfit.
Back Miami Dolphins (+1.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.910/11 or better
Back Miami Dolphins to win on the First Half Moneyline @ 2.56/4 or better
Back Over 23.5 Miami Dolphins Total Points @ 1.845/6 or better
Back L. Miller to score First/Anytime Touchdown 12.011/1 or better