Sometimes it seems coach Bruce Arians can work miracles with the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL’s biggest surprise team. He might need to work another one today.
The Cardinals are 11-3 and perched atop the NFC West, but their position is precarious because of a questionable quarterback situation and the sight of the Seattle Seahawks (10-4) on their tail.
Arians plans to start his No. 3 quarterback, Ryan Lindley, after a rash of injuries. Drew Stanton is a game-time decision with a knee issue, but it appears more likely Lindley will get the nod. Logan Thomas, another inexperienced passer, is waiting on deck if needed.
Arizona is 7½-point underdog to Seattle, and handicapper Brian Blessing (Sportsbookradio.com) is looking for the favorite to roll on the road.
“This is a nightmare situation for the Cardinals, an 11-win team catching a lot of points at home,” said Blessing, an analyst for “The Linemakers” on SportingNews.com. “Arians has been a magician all season, but it’s hard to imagine him manufacturing a magic act that can pull this game out of the hat. Lindley and Thomas could see duty, but neither will have the answers to solve the Seahawks defense.”
Arizona, 7-0 at home, has clinched a playoff berth.
Seattle is 5-1 against the spread in its past six games. Russell Wilson has been a steadying influence at quarterback, passing for 18 touchdowns with six interceptions and making plays on the run.
“It would be easy to say the mismatch is Wilson against the Cardinals’ quarterbacks, but the biggest difference will be the Seahawks’ ability to run the football,” Blessing said. “Arizona’s defense has struggled to stop the ground attack and will have to create turnovers and short fields to have any shot in this game.
“The Seahawks are peaking at the right time and can envision home-field advantage and another Super Bowl run. All signs point to a Seattle boat race. If the Cardinals win, Arians should keep the game ball and be handed the award for Coach of the Year in the locker room.”
Blessing (@BrianBlessing on Twitter) breaks down the rest of today’s Week 16 lineup:
■ Minnesota at Miami (-6): The Dolphins, who got smoked by New England in the second half last week, have to be deflated. I always contend what a horrible home-field edge it is in Miami. First-year coach Mike Zimmer is trying to change the culture in Minnesota, and all signs indicate this team plays extremely hard for him. The Vikings took a motivated Detroit team to the wire in a defensive battle last week. Look for Minnesota to make some noise again in a relatively high-scoring affair. I hope this line gets to the key number of 7. I’ll be taking the points.
■ Green Bay (-12) at Tampa Bay: Packers receivers took a ton of grief for dropped passes and an overall poor performance at Buffalo. Here’s a news flash: The Bills defense had something to say in the matter. Green Bay might have squandered home field throughout the playoffs, but its first order of business is to win the NFC North. The Packers can’t be looking ahead to the Lions and should show up in Tampa Bay with a stone in their shoe. Rookie wideout Mike Evans has been a nice red-zone weapon for the Buccaneers, but they don’t have the horses to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in this spot. Seven of Tampa Bay’s past eight games stayed under the total. The leans are Green Bay and under 49.
■ Detroit (-8½) at Chicago: The Bears have given every indication they are running for the bus. Chicago has been hammered by the Lions, Cowboys and Saints in the past three games. Why would anyone saddle up to the Bears in this spot? The only reason is the Lions have a monster game next week with Green Bay. Detroit’s defense remains stout, but the offense has a Jekyll and Hyde persona. Jimmy Clausen is starting at quarterback in place of Jay Cutler, and the number has ballooned. Could it be a motivator for the entire team to show some late-season pride? It’s probably best to steer clear of this game, but there’s something telling me the Lions might play down to the Bears’ level and fail to cover.
■ Atlanta at New Orleans (-6½): The NFC South is an embarrassment, but it wouldn’t shock me if the ultimate division winner pulled off an upset in the postseason. It is tough to decipher which team to trust in this spot. The safer play might be to watch Matt Ryan and Drew Brees go up and down the field. The Saints played well against a disinterested Bears team on Monday. In Week 1, Atlanta beat New Orleans 37-34, which may have been the tip-off that both defenses were going to struggle throughout the season. It is a high total, but play this over 56.
■ New England (-10½) at New York Jets: The Patriots are motivated to keep their foot on the pedal to make the road to the Super Bowl go through their home field. New England is playing at a high level on both sides of the ball. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has made all the difference, creating red-zone matchup nightmares for defenses. Early this season, the Jets gave the Patriots all they could handle, utilizing a physical running game to hang around in a 27-25 decision. The Jets showed some fight in Tennessee, but little in the way of offense, and they have stayed under the total in five of their past six games. I’m not enamored with this AFC East contest, but I do lean slightly to the under (47).
■ Kansas City at Pittsburgh (-3): The Chiefs disposed of the Raiders last week to remain in the hunt for an AFC wild-card berth. This is no easy chore, but Kansas City has an opportunity to pile up some points on an inconsistent Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers are in solid form, with running back Le’Veon Bell tearing up the league. The balance the Steelers have struck on offense makes them dangerous with the playoffs approaching. Ben Roethlisberger has put up video game numbers at home. Over the total of 48 seems like the way to go.
■ Cleveland at Carolina (-4): Johnny Manziel came up short in his debut against the Bengals. It stands to reason the Browns’ rookie quarterback will show some improvement in this spot, with a game and another week of first-team reps under his belt. The Panthers have a bounce in their step now that they have a shot to win the NFL’s weakest division. Quarterback Cam Newton is expected to start, but points will be hard to come by for both teams. Nine of the past 10 Cleveland games stayed under the total, and it seems like a trend that will produce the desired result again this afternoon, so look under 41.
■ Baltimore (-5) at Houston: It’s not flashy, but the Ravens know how to win and are in great shape for the playoffs, provided they win one of their remaining games. This may be a sneaky bad spot for Baltimore. The line is inflated because Case Keenum will get the starting nod at quarterback, with Texans coach Bill O’Brien citing Keenum’s knowledge of the system as the determining factor. A big day from running back Arian Foster certainly gives the home ’dog a shot at the win, and Houston’s defense is capable of keeping this game tight. Take the points with the Texans.
■ New York Giants at St. Louis (-6½): For the Giants, the highlight of an otherwise horrible season has been the emergence of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as a rising star. He shredded Washington for 143 yards and three touchdowns last week. The problem here is Eli Manning won’t have the same kind of time to throw against this Rams defense. St. Louis has talent on both sides of the ball, but it gets inconsistent play by quarterback Shaun Hill and suspect play-calling by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Both teams are eliminated from playoff contention, which has me staying away. I have a slight lean over the total of 43½, with the intensity level not high for this matchup.
■ Buffalo (-6½) at Oakland: The Bills have been outstanding on defense all season. The past two weeks, they denied Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers from throwing a touchdown pass. That’s pretty heady stuff. Buffalo’s offense remains a frustrating bunch that flounders in the red zone. There’s a chance running back C.J. Spiller returns to provide a spark. The Raiders scored wins in their past two home games at Kansas City and San Francisco’s expense. This is the definition of a sandwich game for Buffalo, off the huge win over Green Bay and with New England on deck. The Bills are 12-3 under the total. Laying points on the road is a strange deal for the Bills. The total is low, so I have a slight lean to the over (39½).
■ Indianapolis at Dallas (-3½): This should be fun. The Colts have slowed offensively since running back Ahmad Bradshaw was lost to injury. I think they can have some fun against a Dallas defense that takes catnaps during games. Running back DeMarco Murray’s status bears watching, but the Cowboys might put it in Tony Romo’s hands for an aerial attack that should provide fireworks. Indianapolis has clinched the AFC North and could turn this into a track meet in hopes of getting Andrew Luck and the offense back on the beam. The pressure is on Dallas, which is not home and cooled yet in the NFC East. Play this over the total of 55.
COMPILED BY MATT YOUMANS