Week 14 of the NFL season is in the books, and it produced a series of outstanding contests going right to the wire in some cases.
Monday Night Football arguably produced the best game of the lot as the New England Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
Elsewhere there were big wins for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and all three of those sides will be determined to make a push for the post-season.
Without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots were expected to struggle against the statistically-ranked best defense in the NFL. However, Tom Brady and his team-mates put 496 yards of offense on John Harbaugh’s men to claim a vital win towards securing a first-round bye in the playoffs. The 39-year-old quarterback was at the peak of his powers, ensuring that he disseminated the ball equally to his receivers and was rewarded with fine performances from all of his offensive players, including an outstanding game from wideout Chris Hogan – who caught a 79-yard touchdown to secure the victory in the fourth quarter.
The better news for Bill Belichick’s men came on the defensive side of the ball. For the majority of the contest the Patriots limited the Ravens’ offense and quarterback Joe Flacco, who had produced only three points midway through the third quarter. Only gaffes on special teams from Cyrus Jones and Matthew Slater brought the visitors into the match, but the AFC East outfit went on to make a crucial hold late in the game to stifle Flacco’s game-winning attempt. Their defense could still be their Achilles heel in the playoffs, although if they continue to play like they did on Monday they will be a good complement for Brady and the offense in January.
New England’s win leaves them alone in the number one seed at the top of the AFC, and winning their final three games of the season will secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Belichick’s men were undone when they were forced to travel to face the Denver Broncos last term, but given that they are within sight of notching pole position, backing them at +130 to win the AFC with Bovada sportsbook makes a lot of sense.
As a result of the Ravens’ defeat on Monday, the Steelers are now in pole position in the AFC North. However, the sides face off again on Christmas Day, leaving the division wide open heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
Pittsburgh produced a fine performance to overcome the Buffalo Bills in their clash on Sunday, battling the elements to secure a seven-point win at New Era Stadium. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an uncharacteristically poor outing, throwing three interceptions, including two in the endzone. His struggles were offset by a brilliant display from Le’Veon Bell, who recorded three touchdowns and 298 yards from scrimmage to drive his side to the victory.
The Steelers’ defense has been up and down, but with a potent offense led by Roethlisberger and Bell, Mike Tomlin’s men could be the danger side in the post-season should they secure their spot. You never know what you are going to get from the club week-to-week, which does not make them an overly appealing option to go all the way, while the health of their key players has also been an issue at times down the stretch. They should have enough to beat out the Ravens and claim the AFC North crown backed at -450 with TopBet sportsbook.
The Packers put themselves back in the NFC contention with an outstanding performance against the Seattle Seahawks. Aaron Rodgers and his offense were maligned for the first half of the campaign as they struggled immensely for rhythm, while on the other side of the ball their defense was being carved apart with regularity, shipping points aplenty.
However, since their hammering at the hands of the Washington Redskins, the Packers have been in sync on both sides of the ball. Rodgers has returned to the form that saw him crowned MVP for a second time in 2014, connecting with his receivers Jordy Nelson and a revitalised Devante Adams. With the 33-year-old operating at the peak of his powers they put 38 points on one of the best defenses in the NFL, albeit without the presence of All-Pro safety Earl Thomas.
Green Bay’s defense – that was under so much scrutiny after their heavy to the defeat to the Redskins – has come to play over the past three weeks, conceding just 36 points in their last three contests. They dominated the Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson, intercepting five of his passes to put their side in contention for a playoff berth. Mike McCarthy’s men may have to win out to secure their place in the post-season, but at odds of +850 for the NFC Championship they could produce a run reminiscent of teams like the New York Giants in 2011 to reach the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers have quietly put themselves in contention for a home playoff game, battling to an 8-5 record leaving them tied with the Atlanta Falcons, although the Falcons’ are ahead in the NFC South due to the NFL’s tie-breaking system. However, there are few hotter teams in the league right now then Dirk Koetter’s men, who have won their last five matches on the bounce and are playing fine complementary football to get their positive results.
Tampa Bay’s defense was the driving force behind their victories over the Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints. Against Seattle they limited Wilson’s offense to just five points, just one week removed from the club putting 31 on the board against the Patriots. They’ve been able to put pressure on the quarterback with their front four, while also being opportunistic in the secondary, intercepting Drew Brees three times in their win over the Saints. The more impressive feat in their victory against New Orleans was the fact they prevented Brees from throwing a touchdown, producing at clutch moments to preserve their four-point lead late in the game.
On offense quarterback Jameis Winston has slowed in recent weeks, but has still produced plays when needed to put enough points on the board. His connection with Mike Evans has been a key factor this season and should they continue to be a formidable partnership down the stretch then it might be enough to guide the Bucs into the post-season for the first time since 2007. Backing them at +200 with TopBet to win the NFC South might be a solid option to take given their form on both sides of the ball.
New England Patriots to win AFC Conference
Pittsburgh Steelers to win AFC North Division
Green Bay Packers to win NFC Conference
Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win NFC South Division