Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:55 AM

Sunday's Essentials - Week 14

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Ravens (-6/44) at Bills, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Buffalo legitimately has one of the NFL’s most impressive defenses, ranking third in the league in yards allowed. They’re up next to step up to try and contain Lamar Jackson and a Ravens’ offense that comes off their least-productive offensive performance of the season, beating the 49ers 20-17 at the gun in rainy Baltimore on Sunday. The weather should be a little more cooperative this time around since precipitation is expected to stay away until the evening, but Jackson and counterpart Josh Allen will have to deal with significant 20-plus degree winds that will make temperatures feel like they’re below freezing as a backdrop.

Buffalo has allowed more than 21 points at home only once this season and has seen the ‘under’ prevail in four of its last five games. They’ll look to execute a defensive game plan likely to copy some of San Francisco’s strategies last week since they held the Ravens to just 125 second-half yards last week. Baltimore was able to pull off the win by milking the clock and moving the chains on their final possession, setting up Justin Tucker’s winning 49-yard kick. The Bills will similarly be looking to keep the ball on the ground in a game like this, so if you find a prop on which of the 1 p.m. starts ends first, this would be a prime candidate given the weather conditions. Big plays in the passing game could come via the element of surprise with speedy guys like Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and John Brown on opposite sides. With road games at Pittsburgh and New England on deck, the Bills would love to wrap up a playoff berth with an upset here. The number has held steady around at most shops after opening at 6.5. Backup Bills tackle Ty Nsekhe is the only player ruled out due to injury in this matchup, a rarity this time of year given how physical these teams are.

Broncos at Texans (-9/42.5), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Drew Lock picked up a win in his first pro start thanks to a well-thrown ball drawing a last-second pass interference penalty, but he’ll be hitting the road for the first time here. He’s shown off a great connection with second-year WR Courtland Sutton, so Houston will have to be wary of deep balls as they try to build off a strong performance in shutting down Tom Brady and the Patriots despite an ugly season stopping opposing aerial attacks. Meanwhile, the Texans’ offense has produced 20 or more points in seven of eight. Deshaun Watson’s receiving corps was fully-stocked and producing but will now again have to deal with Will Fuller V’s absence due to a hamstring issue. This total could potentially close as the lowest we’ve seen in a Houston game all season if it doesn’t hit 43.

Vic Fangio’s defensive scheming and his propensity for keeping games close are reasons to like the ‘under’ and take the points since Denver has only been blown out twice this season. Broncos LB Von Miller hopes to return from a sprained left MCL but will be a game-time decision. He was limited on Friday and reported feeling better but it doesn’t make much sense for him to risk a return if he can’t be himself out there. Even running the table would only get them to .500, so there will be no playoff run to be had. That’s not the case for Houston, which is now in great shape to at least host a playoff game as a division-winner and owns tiebreakers over Kansas City and New England. Corners Gareon Conley and Bradley Roby, both listed as questionable, are expected to play to try and keep Lock and Sutton from making inroads on the road. The Texans are 5-1 SU at home but have only covered in two of those games and are saddled with their largest spread of the season.

49ers at Saints (-2/44.5), 1 p.m. ET, FOX: This battle of 10-2 teams will certainly test the visiting Niners since they’re coming off their first road defeat and chose to pick themselves up in Florida at Bradenton’s IMG Academy, practicing there before leaving for New Orleans. They won’t have safety Jaquiski Tartt available but should get back tackle Joe Staley and have tight end George Kittle feeling healthier. DE Dee Ford is also likely due back, so you can count on San Francisco aggressively coming after Drew Brees, who will have to be at his best as he looks to post another solid offensive performance. The Saints have averaged 31.3 points in four wins since his return from a thumb injury but were held to a season-low nine points by an aggressive Falcons defense on Nov. 10. With guard Andrus Peat already out, it’s important that the Saints have tackle Terron Armstead out there to protect against the Nick Bosa-led pass rush.

The Saints will also have to figure out a way to contain San Francisco’s physical run blocking without linebackers Kiko Alonso and A.J. Klein, which has led to the signing of veteran Manti Te’o, who has been out all season after being dumped and going unsigned. Jimmy Garoppolo will have Emanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel available to punish the Saints defense if they shadow too much coverage Kittle’s way or double-team the All-Pro tight end, so this is going to be one terrific chess match. Marcell Harris, who forced a key fumble last week – one of Jackson’s rare mistakes this season – is expected to be Tartt’s replacement. Michael Thomas became the fastest to 400 career receptions ever on Thanksgiving night in helping beat the Falcons and finished 37 catches for 415 yards in November, earning him Player of the Month honors. It’s on him and Alvin Kamara to punish the 49ers if they’re too aggressive, but Brees will have to be decisive and quick with his reads. Holding the ball here wouldn’t go well.

Colts at Bucs (-3/47), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Indianapolis is forced to run the table if it is going to reach the playoffs and will have to do so on the road since three of its final four games will be played in opposing stadiums. Considering how resilient they Colts have already been forced to be given Andrew Luck’s preseason retirement and a myriad of injuries that left Jacoby Brissett with limited options in the passing game, it’s worth wondering just how much they have left given the daunting task ahead. Frank Reich has to keep his group together. RB Marlon Mack will return to the mix and the Sarasota native will be performing in front of family and friends in a stadium he knows well considering he played there throughout his career at USF, but Brissett again won’t be able to count on top WR T.Y. Hilton. Brissett, also a Floridian from West Palm Beach, will square off with a vulnerable Bucs secondary hoping to get M.J. Stewart back from a knee injury. Jamel Dean, who left last week’s win over the Jags with a shoulder injury, should also be expected out there.

Tampa Bay has a chance to put together another big offensive game as Jameis Winston has produced four games where they’ve scored at least 28 points despite his turnover woes. CB Rock Ya-Sin and safety Malik Hooker are getting the nod to play in this game, which is a big deal since CB Kenny Moore had already been ruled out. If you’re up for the shootout angle, Mother Nature won’t get in the way. Temperatures will be in the high 70’s and the sun will be in attendance to see how Winston’s latest rollercoaster ride turns out. Top targets Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are each already atop the 1,000-yard mark.

Chiefs at Patriots (-3/49), 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Most eyes will be on this game in the late window as the Chiefs look to make one last push to see if they’ll be able to overcome this season’s hiccups and secure a much coveted first-round bye. Let’s face it, they’ll likely be looking at hosting likely No. 5 seed Buffalo on Wild Card weekend if they can’t pull off this upset. If they can? Well, you’ll surely again here that the Patriots are done if they go down here since that would also place an increased importance on its Dec. 22 home date with the Bills if the AFC East is suddenly in play.

After a listless Sunday night effort against Houston, Brady and the offense will look to keep pace with the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs, who may be forced to throw it around more than usual since RBs Damien Williams and Darrel Williams have been ruled out. LeSean McCoy will split carries with rookie Darwin Thompson and newly resigned Spencer Ware, so it will be interesting to see what the workload for the trio ends up being and whether pass protection suffers or if tight end Travis Kelce is forced to be more of a blocker than receiver.

Even all those variables put together don’t equal the uncertainty facing a Pats’ offense that has Brady nursing a toe injury and the unit glaringly lacking a No. 1 threat after the offseason retirement of Rob Gronkowski and the failed Antonio Brown experiment. Brady has thrown six picks and 18 touchdowns while Mahomes has 20 TD passes against just two interceptions and is by far leading the more dynamic offense. New England’s defense will only be able to rely on its vocal fan base for a homefield edge here since the nasty weather that is so often a part of its success at home in December won’t be an issue here. Temperatures will be just above freezing but wind won’t be a factor. The Patriots’ defense has been tremendous all season but has taken their production up even a few more notches at Gillette Stadium, giving up no more than 14 points in any of their five wins this season. New England tackle Marcus Cannon and Kansas City DE Frank Clark were both listed on the injury report due to illness but will likely play.

Steelers (-2/43.5) at Cardinals, 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Kyler Murray comes off his team’s lowest-scoring game of his rookie season, a 34-7 rout at the hands of the Rams at home in which his offense was decisively shut down. He certainly hasn’t been the problem despite the 22-year-old top pick currently being mired in a five-game losing streak that represents the most losing he’s ever done in his career, so we’ll see how resilient he can be considering he’ll face a number of motivated, talented defenses to close out the final month of his first pro year. Monitor whether center A.Q. Shipley will play since he’s expected to be a game-time decision and would further complicate matters for Arizona.

Devlin Hodges beat the Chargers in his lone road start and got into a win in Cincinnati, so he’s proven capable on the road. After helping defeat the Browns last season, the task of helping fuel Pittsburgh’s unlikely playoff push. After being cut at the end of training camp and replaced by Mason Rudolph once he was ready to fill back in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, Hodges, an undrafted rookie from Samford whose nicknamed is tied to being a champion duck caller, is thrust in the spotlight looking to pick up a win over the top QB of his rookie class, doing so on the road no less. The heavy lifting will likely be done by the Steelers’ defense since RB James Conner and WR Juju Smith-Schuster remain sidelined, so expect a conservative game plan from Pittsburgh. It will help a ton to get center Maurkice Pouncey back from suspension. Corner Artie Burns should return too. The ‘under’ is 9-3 in Steelers games this season, prevailing in each of the last four contests.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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