Steve O'Rourke: Chargers, Falcons and Seahawks still offer some value in divisional races.

16 min

As someone who spends a huge portion of my week thinking about football, I sometimes wonder if I overthink it? I’m always looking for an edge, checking the weather forecast, scanning injury reports, even going so far as checking what a team’s record is on different types of surfaces.

Sometimes it’s a good thing to have second thoughts.

For four games in a row, I’ve made compelling arguments to myself — mostly Myles Garrett and suspect offensive lines — for why Cleveland could cover the spread only to talk myself out of backing the Browns with the points at the last minute.

And for four games in succession, they’ve failed to cover including, it must be said, a quite spectacular effort against the Jags in week 11 when they were driving late on with a chance to win the game.

This week, with the AFC East, AFC North, NFC East, and NFC North all wrapped up, I’ve spent most of my time wondering about the value in picking the winners in the other four divisions.

The most interesting division to me is the AFC West where three teams — the Chiefs, Chargers, and Raiders — are all within a game of the division lead.

The Chargers (3.1) are the hot pick as they’ve won four of their last six but I’m actually more intrigued by Oakland (8.6) — and not just because I’m a fan of the Silver and Black.

They are a team with their destiny in their own hands and already hold a tie-breaker over Kansas City. They get to play a Geno Smith-led Giants this week for a chance to move to 6-6. After that, they face the seemingly free-falling Chiefs and Cowboys back-to-back, before their penultimate game of the season comes against a Philly team that may already have secured the number one seed in the NFC. Their final game is against the Chargers in what could be a winner takes all encounter.

Following Jacksonville’s loss to Arizona, the AFC South is suddenly interesting again too. Because they hold the tie-breaker over the Jags — and maybe because of Blake Bortles — Tennessee are now the divisional favourites (1.79). However, Jacksonville has a Super Bowl caliber defense and 2.14 will look a steal when they seal the division before they even play the Titans again in week 17.

Over in the NFC, it is difficult to look past the Rams for the NFC West at 1.609 but don’t sleep on Seattle (2.5). Sure, the Legion of Boom looks more like the Legion of Bust these days and face a tough match-up this week — more on this later — but there’s a lot of value in having been there and done that. As per ELO ratings, the Seahawks still have a 44% chance of winning the division and hold a tie-breaker over the Rams.

Finally, the NFC South. Nope, no matter how much I think about it, I’ve no idea how that division is going to play out but I do know the three contenders are part of two of the three best games of the week.

Game 1 – Minnesota Vikings (9-2) @ Atlanta Falcons (7-4) – Sunday, 6pm

It’s a weird season for Minnesota. Starting Case Keenum — who is essentially their third choice quarterback — they are just one game back from the Eagles in the race for the number one seed in the NFC. While a huge part of that is down to a dominant defense — the Vikings are allowing just 17.7 points and 290 yards per game — the offense should get a lot of credit too.

Keenum is completing nearly two-thirds of his passes and has 2,476 yards, 14 scores and just five picks with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs combining for eight of those touchdowns and over 1,600 yards. The ground game has been surprisingly effective too — especially with the loss of Dalvin Cook earlier this season — averaging 124.5 yards per game.

Vikings QB Case Keenum has been a revelation in recent weeks.

My boldest pick before the season was that the Falcons would fail to make the playoffs and, after they went 1-4 during a five-game stretch earlier this year, I felt pretty confident. However, the Falcons are riding a three-game win streak that has them back in contention in the competitive NFC South.

But before everyone starts getting carried away with themselves, it’s worth noting that those wins came against Dallas Cowboy team missing three of its four best players, a Seahawks outfit missing two of the best defenders in the league and they just scraped by a Tampa Bay team playing Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Forgive me if I don’t get my ‘Falcons Super Bowl LII Winners’ tattoo just yet.

Atlanta are three-point favourites in this game but I’ll be taking the Vikings all day. And tomorrow too. Honestly, this is the most confident I’ve been about a selection all season.

I also think the game will go under the 47 points with Minnesota’s defense keeping Julio Jones in check.

Game 2 – Carolina Panthers (8-3) @ New Orleans Saints (8-3) – Sunday, 9.25pm

After a cracking 6pm game to get us going, things only get better at 9.25pm when the Saints host the Panthers for first place in the aforementioned NFC South. After stuttering to 4-3, Carolina have now won four on the spin but, the truth is, were it not for the NFL’s bogus catch rules, they really should have lost to the Jets in New York last week.

One of the most frustrating things about watching Carolina this season has been Christian McCaffrey. Given how well the Panthers gameplan suited him, he was my lock for offensive rookie of the year before the season started. However, Carolina have moved away from the power and counter concepts that made the former Stanford back such a threat in college and are now a predominantly zone run team. This explains why he averaged over six yards per carry in college and just 3.5 per carry in the NFL.

The Panthers have struggled to work first round pick Christian McCaffrey into their Offense this year.

This game will completely depend on the availability of New Orleans’ cornerbacks Ken Crawley and Marshon Lattimore who were badly missed in Sunday’s loss to the LA Rams with abdomen and ankle injuries respectively.

If they play, the Saints have a clear edge as Alvin Kamara can kill the clock on the ground to complement two of the league’s stingiest defenders.

While form tends to be of little relevance in divisional match-ups, the Saints are dominating the Panthers lately, putting up 33.3 points per game on Carolina in their last four match-ups. And here’s a weird stat for you. All eight of the Saints wins this season have come when their games have been shown on Fox, while all three losses have come on the other broadcasters. This game is on Fox.

If neither Lattimore or Crawley plays, I can see the Panthers having enough firepower — even on the road — to cover the four-point spread. If either play, the Saints will cover. The same applies to the 48 point total. Without both, it could be a shootout.

Game 3 – Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) @ Seattle Seahawks (7-4) – Monday, 1.30am

This might be the first time since week two that all three games in our selection have had two teams with winning records. Actually, scrap that, it might be the first time all season but it just goes to show how exciting week 13 has the potential to be.

I’m going to preface this by saying I’m a massive Carson Wentz and Eagles fan. Back in September 2016, just after his first NFL touchdown, I wrote about just how good I thought he could be. This September, I tipped Philadelphia for the postseason while everyone else had Dallas and Washington penciled in. However, we’ve really no idea of how good they are — or how good they could be — as just two of their 11 games this season have come against teams with a winning record. They’ve split those games 1-1.

Eagles QB Carson Wentz has been sensational this year leading his team to a 10-1 start.

Not that Seattle have faced a murderers’ row of opponents either mind, with just three of their 11 games being against teams currently above .500. But that’s what makes this week’s clash so compelling. We get to see how good these teams really are.

For the Seahawks, while they can’t replace the Legion of Boom, their defensive front has stepped up of late but this is a brutal match-up as they face possibly the best offensive line in football.

How good are they? Wentz hasn’t thrown an interception while being blitzed this season, despite being the most blitzed quarterback in the league. On the other side of the ball, it’s an equally horrendous match-up for the Seattle offensive line against one of the best front sevens in football.

This is just the second time in five years that the Seahawks will go into a game as a home underdog (they lost to the Falcons earlier this season) but I still think the Eagles are good value, even at -5. I’ll also be taking the under (47) in this one.

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