NFL Week 12 expert roundtable: A busy Thanksgiving, Bengals-Titans and QBs in need of a win


With a three-game Thanksgiving Thursday serving as a lead-in to the rest of the Week 12 action, we thought we’d get this out a few days early.

Can the Lions stay hot against the Bills? Which quarterback is facing a must-win matchup? And which team is best equipped to take control in the NFC? The Athletic’s Mike Jones, Josh Kendall and Mike Sando dish on what they’ll be watching Thursday, Sunday and Monday.

On Thursday, we have three games between six teams that seem to be trending in opposite directions (the Lions, Cowboys and Patriots are playing well, while the Bills, Giants and Vikings are struggling more of late). How do you see each of these playing out?

Jones: I think the Bills will be OK. Last week’s approach, where offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey lightened Josh Allen’s load and went with a more balanced approach (Devin Singletary and James Cook both rushed for more than 80 yards), was smart. It’ll help Allen get out of the mind trap that he has been in, thinking he has to do it all, and the Bills should be back on track. Meanwhile, the Cowboys also seem to have found the perfect recipe for success. I think they win. I also believe that the Vikings will bounce back after that disastrous performance against Dallas.

Kendall: The Bills will be fine against the Lions as long as they get good Josh Allen, and they usually get good Josh Allen. Allen has to find the right balance between doing almost everything for the Bills and not trying to do too much. Most of the time, he does. He will again this week.

The Cowboys will beat the Giants again because they know how to handle Daniel Jones. That’s a weird sentence, isn’t it? But it’s true. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will have a game ball coming after this one.

Kirk Cousins’ career stats: 259.7 yards per game, 7.62 yards per attempt, 2.39 TD-to-INT ratio, 0.19 EPA per attempt. Cousins’ career stats versus Bill Belichick: 209 yards per game, 4.98 yards per attempt, 0.67 TD-to-INT ratio, negative EPA per attempt. New England wins for the sixth time in seven games.

Sando: The Cowboys should be able to score enough to force the Giants out of their comfort zone as a run-oriented team unless Dallas is emotionally flat after a huge win at Minnesota. I think the Vikings defense should bounce back enough for Minnesota to win at home against a limited Patriots offense, though New England’s special teams could be an X-factor. In the Buffalo-Detroit game, there’s no way I can really pick the Lions to win, but I’m curious to see if they can rise up emotionally enough to make a run at the Bills at home on a short week.



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With quarterback play perhaps more important than ever, there’s a huge amount of pressure on today’s signal callers. Which QB is most in need of a big-time performance this week?

Jones: Nobody needs a bigger rebound performance than Zach Wilson. That’s if he gets an opportunity to do so this week. I think Robert Saleh should roll with him for one more game. See if the kid learned from last week’s poor performance and the criticism he faced afterward and if that motivates him. The Jets have so much invested in him. So patience is necessary — provided he is doing and saying the right things from here on out.

Kendall: The Jets are 5-2 with Zach Wilson as the starter this season. So why is the 2021 No. 2 pick on the hot seat?

Wilson seems to be the only person who doesn’t realize New York is winning despite him. His completion percentage (55.6) is the worst among starters in the league. His passer rating (71.6) tops only Kenny Pickett. His EPA per attempt (-0.06) tops only Baker Mayfield. Wilson’s opponent Sunday, the Chicago Bears, basically waved the white flag on defense when it traded Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith. If the BYU product can’t contribute something positive this week, the Jets might not give him another chance this season.

Sando: The two Wilsons — Zach and Russell — are most in need of strong performances. Zach needs a solid game just to keep his job, which remains in question. Russell needs Denver to exceed its average scoring output of 14.7 points per game, which is last in the NFL.



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In the early Sunday window, the Bengals (6-4) travel to Tennessee to face the Titans (7-3) for a matchup between two of the AFC’s more talented teams. Which team is playing better, and who do you see having the edge?

Jones: Although the Titans do indeed seem to be rolling, I think the Bengals take this one. They’re just so deep and potent on offense, and Tennessee will struggle to keep pace. The Bengals just racked up 37 points without two of their top weapons (Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Mixon). If they can get one or both of those guys back this week, it might not even be close.

Kendall: The Titans’ only loss since Sept. 19 is a three-point defeat at Kansas City. The Bengals are hot, too, but not that hot. The only quarterback to post a passer rating of higher than 80.9 in the last five weeks against Tennessee is Aaron Rodgers. Mike Vrabel versus Joe Cool might be the matchup of the week. The Titans’ hard-boiled head coach probably hung up a picture of Cincy quarterback Joe Burrow decked out in fur in Tennessee’s team meeting room this week just to make sure he stayed at peak anger levels.

Sando: The Titans have been better on defense and special teams. The Bengals have been better on offense. Tennessee is the tougher team. Cincinnati is more dangerous. This is a good playoff-preview type of game. I’ll lean toward the Titans coming off the extended break, but I think the Bengals are in good position to peak at the right time, with Chase returning soon and (hopefully) Mixon clearing concussion protocol for the stretch run.

Joe Burrow and the Bengals will face a tough Titans defense that hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in over two months. (Kareem Elgazzar / USA Today / The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Among the NFC’s winning teams, the Buccaneers, Seahawks, 49ers and Eagles are all favored Sunday. Which of those do you see making the biggest push in the season’s second half? 

Jones: The 49ers really seem like they have gotten healthy at the right time, and they have so many weapons. They definitely could go on a run. Their schedule plays out pretty favorably with five of their last seven games at home. Of the teams they face down the stretch, Tampa Bay might be the most dangerous. Miami could be a threat as well, but Kyle Shanahan tends to do well against his former assistants. The Bucs also could go on a run, though they face San Francisco and Cincinnati. Otherwise, the rest of their games appear winnable.

Kendall: The 49ers. Since Week 8 (the first full week of Christian McCaffrey integration), San Francisco is fourth in the league in yards per play (6.38). Pair that with a defense that is second in the league in yards per play allowed (4.67) and you’ve got a Super Bowl contender. In the last three games, the 49ers are gaining more than 2 yards more per play than they are allowing. The cumulative effect of that was on display in Monday night’s 38-10 dismantling of Arizona.



Kawakami: Put the 49ers on the Super Bowl short list

Sando: I feel the 49ers could have the best team, but Tampa Bay might have the edge from a scheduling standpoint, as the Bucs get Cleveland before Deshaun Watson returns, plus three NFC South games and another against Arizona. The 49ers do get Tampa Bay at home and five of their final seven at home, but that’s a pretty tough four-game December stretch with Miami, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Washington.

If you had to pick one upset this week, who would you take? 

Jones: I’m tempted to roll with the Packers on the road against the Eagles. Green Bay is a weird team that hasn’t consistently played up to its potential, but it can run the ball, which is one of Philly’s few weaknesses, and Christian Watson appears to have finally figured things out. But it’s hard to feel confident in picking them. So I’ll go with Pittsburgh. The only reason why the Colts are narrowly favored is that they’re playing at home. But that doesn’t mean anything to me in this case. Steelers for the win.

Kendall: The Bears, who are around 4.5-point underdogs against the Jets, can score if Justin Fields plays. They are averaging 29.6 points per game since centering their offense on Fields’ running ability. Fields left last week’s game against Atlanta on a cart and has a left shoulder injury of some kind, but if he’s able to go against New York, he alone can keep pace with Zach Wilson and the Jets offense.

Sando: Beyond Tennessee, which is only a one-point underdog against Cincinnati, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Steelers beat the Colts on Monday night — with T.J. Watt getting after Matt Ryan. Pickett played pretty well for much of the Steelers’ game against the Bengals, which had to be encouraging for Pittsburgh.

What is the most interesting storyline of Week 12 that we haven’t yet discussed? What are you personally most excited to see? 

Jones: How is Taylor Heinicke going to do now that he knows he’s the starting quarterback in Washington and not merely filling in for Carson Wentz? He’s playing at home against an Atlanta team that is tougher than its record suggests. Can he improve to 5-1 as a starter and nudge Washington two games above .500? Or will he subconsciously lose a little bit of that underdog edge?

Kendall: Are the Buccaneers really back? There’s no reason the NFC South should be competitive. Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans are holding things together on a week-by-week basis with rosters that are limited. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has Tom Brady at quarterback and a loaded defense. And yet it has taken two wins in the last two games just to get the Bucs back to .500. The Buccaneers are coming off a bye that was probably well timed, and they have Cleveland and New Orleans up next. This stretch should put the NFC South title out of reach for everyone else. But will it?

Sando: It’s wild seeing the Super Bowl-champion Rams as 15-point underdogs against Kansas City four years and one week after their epic 54-51 victory over the Chiefs, who remain just as productive offensively now as then.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Wesley Hitt, Adam Glanzman, Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)


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