Week 15 in the NFL finally came to a close on Tuesday night, but there is no lack of good NFL football to look forward to, as the Christmas week slate features a Thursday Night Football matchup, two Saturday games, and the penultimate Monday Night Football game of the 2021 NFL season. This article will cover the Thursday Night Football game between San Francisco and Tennessee, the Saturday matchups between Indianapolis and Arizona and Cleveland and Green Bay, and Sunday’s game between Baltimore and Cincinnati, while Part Two of The Professor’s NFL Games of the Week will break down Buffalo at New England, the Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota, Pittsburgh at Kansas City, and the Monday Night game between Miami and New Orleans. All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
San Francisco 49ers at Tennessee Titans (SF -3.5, Total 44.5)
Remember when the 49ers were 3-5 and head coach Kyle Shannahan’s job security became a discussion point? If you don’t, you’re not the only NFL fan in that boat; after going 5-1 in their last six, it’s hard to remember San Francisco’s early struggles.
Tennessee’s struggles are far easier to recall, as the Titans reverted to the inept offensive play that has plagued them since they lost Derrick Henry, fumbling five times and losing three in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers. Vegas was evidently so impressed by Tennessee’s shutout of the Jaguars that the Titans were -1 on the DraftKings look-ahead line against the 49ers, but the spread promptly flipped to San Francisco’s side of the three after the weekend’s developments, settling at San Francisco -3.5
It is hard to imagine a scenario where the 49ers lose this game without beating themselves; Tennessee’s defense has been surprisingly resilient amidst the offensive turmoil, but the offense that Shannahan has schemed up around a pair of NFL All-Pro candidates in tight end George Kittle and receiver Deebo Samuel does not appear to be slowing down. The gap in talent between the skill position players on these teams is massive, the quarterbacks and defenses cancel each other out, and San Francisco has the better offensive line, led by freakshow left tackle Trent Williams. Williams was already revitalized by his trade to San Francisco, but the news that defenders would not be able to cut offensive linemen on screens in the 2021 NFL season must have been a dream come true for Williams, who ran a 4.81 forty yard dash at 6’5, 315 pounds in his combine year. Tennessee defenders need to have their heads on a swivel on screens and tosses to the left; if they don’t, Williams may add injury to an insult in a game that the 49ers should win.
Indianapolis Colts at Arizona Cardinals (KC -1, Total 50)
Last Saturday, DraftKings simultaneously had Indianapolis as a 2.5 point favorite against New England at home and as a four-point underdog on the look-ahead line for their trip to Arizona, an odd juxtaposition that corrected more than most NFL bettors would have anticipated when the Lions beat the Cardinals a day after the Colts beat the Patriots.
There are many factors to consider when an offense struggles the way quarterback Kyler Murray and the Cardinals did against the Lions, but one that may not be gaining enough attention in both Arizona and Dallas is how important it is for an offensive (or defensive) unit to continue to grow and evolve throughout the NFL season. When a unit has continuity, the focus is on perfecting base concepts and layering on fresh ideas, but when injuries start to set in, particularly at the quarterback position, the unit stops evolving and focuses on survival. Coaches are forced to focus on “getting through this week”, which makes sense in the short-term, but might cause an offense to lose its sense of rhythm and identity when it goes on too long. There are myriad factors to consider in this type of situation, but whatever the reason, Murray is not playing at the MVP-level he established early in the season, and that could be a problem against running back Jonathan Taylor and the Colts.
Arizona could get a boost if Indianapolis quarterback Carson Wentz continues to turn the ball over, but Cardinals fans would prefer to see their team rebound on the back of a strong performance from Murray rather than the charitable contributions of the opposing quarterback. Wentz has another opportunity for redemption in a spotlight matchup, but the more mistakes Wentz makes in these games, the more far-fetched it seems that he is suddenly going to figure out an issue that stretches back years, and a game against an Arizona defense that features elite players such as defensive end Chandler Jones and safety Budda Baker is not the ideal matchup for Wentz to flip the switch. The Colts are set to make the NFL Playoffs, but they might need to win with the type of approach the 49ers used two years ago when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempted eight passes in the NFC Championship game. With the way Taylor is running, that could be a viable formula.
Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers (GB -7, Total 44)
Cleveland Browns fans are used to having their hearts ripped out, so last week’s loss to the Raiders is nothing new, but it was a remarkable end-of-game sequence nonetheless. When cornerback Greedy Williams intercepted Raiders quarterback Derek Carr with a 14-13 lead and less than three minutes to play, Cleveland’s victory seemed assured, but the team (if not the franchise) that once allowed John Elway and the Broncos to go on “The Drive” had another collapse in store.
The Browns’ NFL playoff hopes would not be completely extinguished by a loss this week but they are in the unenviable position of going on the road in desperate need of a win against quarterback Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. Green Bay has clinched the NFC North but the Packers need to continue to win to secure the NFC’s number one seed, a position that has taken on added significance in light of the injuries suffered by the Buccaneers last weekend. Home-field advantage is one thing, but the first-round bye is arguably the bigger prize for two teams with multiple elite players who could return in the weeks to come.
Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley was able to put up points against Green Bay last week, but Huntley played at a far higher level in that game than Baker Mayfield has at any point in his NFL career and has the physical skill set to do a variety of things that Mayfield should never attempt, both as a passer and a runner. Mayfield could shift the narrative around his future in Cleveland with a road win over Rodgers and the Packers, but as good as Huntley was last week, Rodgers was even better. The reigning MVP is as locked-in as any player in the NFL and continues to thrive despite some of the pass protection issues the Packers have had in the dropback game with two backups starting at offensive tackle. Green Bay will need to have an effective plan to neutralize defensive end Myles Garrett, but if they keep him in check, it could be a long Christmas Day for Browns fans.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (CIN -2.5, Total 44.5)
The Ravens would never say it publicly, but there has to be some level of angst about the possibility that starting quarterback Lamar Jackson will be available for this pivotal AFC North matchup and force Tyler Huntley to the bench. Jackson is a former NFL MVP who was a dynamic player in the context of Baltimore’s overwhelming rushing attack in 2019 and 2020, but that aspect of the Ravens’ offense never materialized in 2021 and Jackson has struggled to adjust. Baltimore was once able to answer any defensive tactic by mauling the opponent on the ground, but Jackson’s deficiencies mentally processing the game in certain situations, most notably against blitz looks, has been a glaring issue now that the run game has dried up, which may make Huntley the better option this week.
Some NFL analysts have suggested Huntley’s performance against Green Bay was due in part to the fact that Huntley could “play like a backup”, whereas Jackson has played with the weight of doing the spectacular on his shoulders. If “playing like a backup” means decisively eliminating and isolating in multiple-read passing concepts, delivering precisely placed balls with authority and velocity from tight platforms, keeping your eyes downfield while actively evading pressure, and adding a dynamic element in the run game, then yes, Huntley is playing like a backup, and most NFL teams would happily sign up for that. There are times when an NFL defense allows an unheralded quarterback to put up big numbers, but that was not the story for Huntley last week; Green Bay put him into difficult situations and forced him to deliver off-platform throws into tight windows on multiple occasions, but Huntley answered the bell time and time again.
Cincinnati pulled out a road win against Denver, which means that the winner of this game will have sole control of the AFC North. Before last week, the spotlight would have been on quarterback Joe Burrow as the first overall pick from the 2020 NFL Draft attempts to lead the Bengals back into the NFL Playoffs, but even in a loss, Huntley’s performance stole the headlines. If Lamar Jackson is ready to go, he needs to bring his A-game, because the second-guessing will be endless if Jackson turns in the type of subpar performance that has been his standard in the second half of the 2021 NFL season.
This article previewed four prominent NFL matchups for the coming week. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor on BeerLife Sports!