Can’t miss picks from our expert panel for every game this week. Critical showdowns between the conference’s top teams have become a regular weekly thing in the NFC lately. And that’s just fine. It’s a like a preview of the playoffs, and it makes it that much harder to really get a sense of which teams have the best chances to go all the way this season.
That starts Thursday night with the Saints at the Falcons , always a winner because of the rivalry, but this time the game means something. Especially for the Falcons. A loss tightens up the Wild Card race. And for the Saints, a loss threatens to put them neck and neck with the Panthers again. Our panel has a heavy lean for New Orleans to win.
The Panthers are home this week, after last week’s road loss to the Saints. But they’re not getting much of a break from the schedule. The new kings of the NFC are coming to town. The Vikings have won their last eight straight, beating the Falcons last week. With the Eagles dethroned by the Seahawks last week, not only is Minnesota officially the hottest team in the NFC, they’re also in first place.
The Vikings are slight favorites on most books, but the game has our panel split. Six picks for Minnesota to win straight up; three for the Panthers.
Over in the AFC, there’s still some debate about who the top team is, the Patriots or the Steelers . The Patriots play in Miami on Monday night, and beating the Dolphins isn’t exactly a tall order for Tom Brady and Co. They won’t have Rob Gronkowski , but that shouldn’t matter much for this one.
The Steelers have another tough divisional matchup this week, against the Ravens . And they’re coming into this one awfully shorthanded thanks to Monday’s brutal hate-fest against the Bengals . No JuJu Smith-Schuster (suspended). No Ryan Shazier (spinal contusion). Despite that, our voters are unanimous in picking Pittsburgh to win that game.
Keep your eye on Kansas City this weekend. The Raiders are in town to play the Chiefs in a game that will probably reshape the standings in the AFC West.
It’s a three-way tie for the top of that division, with both of these teams and the Chargers stuck at 6-6. Kansas City’s hopes are sinking fast, while the other two teams are in the midst of a recovery. The Chiefs have lost six of their last seven, and last week’s loss to the Jets was four in a row. Our panelists, most of them, see the Chiefs shoring things up a little this week against the Raiders.
Meanwhile, the Chargers host Washington this week, another team in the midst of its own struggles. Philip Rivers and the offense have been good at scoring enough to win, but it’s the defense that’s been carrying this team lately. The combo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are terrorizing quarterbacks. They have a combined 20 sacks on the season. Opponents are scoring an average of just 17.7 points per game against the Chargers, the fourth-best mark in the league.
The Russell Wilson MVP tour is on the road this week in Jacksonville. One thing to note about that one is the West Coast team traveling to the other side of the country for a Sunday game. The good news is that it’s a 4:25 p.m. ET start, so it’s not quite as taxing.
As good as Wilson has been, our panel believes it’ll be too tall of a task for him to beat the Jaguars defense this week. That’s a reasonable assumption. But don’t forget one thing here: Blake Bortles. We’ll see if he can keep the ball out of the hands of the Legion of Backups and keep the pressure off from Seattle’s potent front seven.
Joining us this week to make picks is John Butchko from Gang Green Nation , SB Nation’s home for all things Jets.
Be sure to keep checking back throughout the week. We allow our panelists to change up to two picks, based on late-breaking injury news or other situations that might impact the roster for that week’s games.