Romilly Evans previews some huge live match-ups over the festive period, where he expects the Denver Broncos to bolster their play-off position despite the continued absence of Peyton Manning...
"Denver's defense should shut down the Bengals, allied to a hometown Colorado cacophony"
New York Giants @ Minnesota Vikings
Start-time: Monday, 01:30
TV: Live on SS1
Well, this is the week if we find out if the New York Giants really are a one-man team, as they bid to keep their slim postseason chances alive on the road at in-form Minnesota. Rapier receiver Odell Beckham Jnr lost his appeal midweek to overturn a one-game suspension (for some unacceptable antics against Carolina corner Josh Norman), leaving a depleted crew of wideouts for Eli Manning to aim at here in the primetime spotlight.
Manning's arm strength and big-game poise are not to be doubted, of course, especially when you least expect it. The harsh reality, though, is that Big Blue's lack of offensive weapons means that matches increasingly rest on his right shoulder.
True, Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen have moved the chains a little better with their one-two rush in latter weeks. However, as a credible threat, the Giants' running game simply isn't there, allowing rival corners to press coverage and focus their attentions almost exclusively on the passing game. Now take away Manning's favourite target in OBJ, and Eli looks out of options.
Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater, though, is a youngster currently scaling the heights of his powers. He's posted the highest QB rating of any Minny signal-caller since 2003, and only missed with three incomplete passes during last week victory over Chicago. Mike Wallace has been asleep at the receiving wheel this term (at a career nadir for yards and TDs) but in finally coming to life in spurts and splutters, almost is recognition of Bridgewater's booming game.
Watch for that dynamic duo to spark the Vikes to life on offense, while superstar running man Adrian Peterson should also be back for the hard-yard gains. AP sprained his left ankle in the second quarter against the Bears, but didn't miss a beat in Friday practice. Factor in Minny's tough defense, and they can punch their NFC sixth-sixth card here to the play-offs, unwrapping a few handicap gifts along the way. They could even give the Packers of Green Bay something to think about in their divisional duel next Sunday.
Back Minnesota Vikings (-5.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 1.84/5 or better
Back Back Minnesota Vikings (-3.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Under 45.5 Total Points @ 1.84/5 or better
Back M. Wallace to score First / Anytime Touchdown 10.09/1 or better
Cincinnati Bengals @ Denver Broncos
Start-time: Tuesday, 01:30
TV: Live on SS1
This is a crunch clash for play-off seeding. Win out and the Denver Broncos will hold a pivotal head-to-head tie-breaker over Cincinnati, no matter what the Bengals do in the final week of the season. In all likelihood, the AFC second seeding and a helpful bye week to rest their aching limbs will be the reward.
Lose, however, and suddenly the Kansas City Chiefs (riding an eight-game winning streak before the weekend) could bring the Mile High fraternity crashing down to earth by nicking the AFC West division, perhaps even knocking them out of the play-off picture altogether.
Granted, it's a rock-bottom scenario (Denver will likely make the play-offs regardless) but either way postseason progress is looking as undecided as their dallying over their number-one quarterback. Storied starter, Peyton Manning, has been out for the past few weeks with his left foot in a cast, and has been replaced by up-and-comer Brock Osweiler. However, the man of tomorrow isn't there today. For Osweiler has looked increasingly limited against some so-so defenses since a promising start.
Manning could yet return to the helm for one last hurrah (he is set to undergo a "big workout" to determine the future of his season, even entire career, at the weekend) yet Osweiler will start. Fortunately, although Manning was once the fulcrum of this side, their pivoting point now rests on a dominant D.
Despite their recent capitulation to Pittsburgh (perhaps the wildcard no-one wants to draw in play-off country) they should be at ease at home, and against another back-up QB in Cincy's AJ McCarron. AJ filled in effortlessly for Andy Dalton against the Niners. However, this Broncos pass rush could stampede his dawdling in the pocket, especially since McCarron likes to wait for a deep ball.
All of which leaves Osweiler to try and do what he was brought in to do: manage a serviceable, no-mistakes receiving corps (Demaryius Thomas can get anyone out of trouble) and focus instead on a rising run-game. Achieve those small goals, and the defense should shut down the Bengals, allied to a hometown Colorado cacophony.
Back Denver Broncos (-3.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.111/10 or better
Back Denver Broncos to win on the Match Moneyline @ 1.68/13 or better
Back Back Denver Broncos (-2.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 1.9110/11 or better
Back Under 40.5 Total Points @ 1.824/5 or better