The big story this weekend will be, one way or another, Johnny Manziel in Cleveland as the Browns take on the Colts. Manziel played, ran for a touchdown, and lost a fumble last week, and the media call was heard around the land, START HIM NOW. But Mike Pettine elected to stay with Brian Hoyer, who is 10-5 career as a starter with the Browns, and you can see the logic.
First off, their game plan has to be to control possession, keep the ball out of Andrew Luck's hands as much as possible, and despite a bad run of interceptions, Hoyer is probably more likely to do that than Manziel. He's also more likely to execute the play-action that will be the key to their success. But thinking another step forward, if Hoyer plays badly, or even if the Browns trail and need a shot of instant offense, that is the perfect time to turn to Manziel, who does have the potential to make things happen quickly. If the situation were reversed, turning to Hoyer would not seem as great a plan. So Cleveland plus 3.5 points might be a too clever bet, but a combo of Manziel and the over would tempt some bookie to offer!
BEST BET: HOUSTON (-4 at 1.85) at Jacksonville: The Jags lost one of their starting tackles this week, which is not what you want to hear when you're going into a game against JJ Watt. Watt has been on fire this season, forcing turnovers, picking up turnovers and even scoring touchdowns on offense as a tight end or, last week, an H-back motioning out as a wide receiver. The key is really whether Ryan Fitzpatrick can light up the scoreboard like he did last week; DeAndre Hopkins is blossoming into an A list receiver, Andre Johnson makes a pretty good number two, and Arian Foster is relaxed enough to give his interviews this week with an English accent only slightly better than Don Cheadle's.
VALUE BET: NEW ENGLAND (-3.5 at 2.00) at San Diego: The odds seemed to be tilting towards the Pats all week, even though some of the team went to a basketball game in San Diego with Justin Bieber, which was enough to jinx the Steelers a few weeks ago on Sunday Night Football. But the Pats went straight to San Diego from Green Bay after losing to the Packers, and have had a week to adjust. Their defensive backs will have their hands full with San Diego's big wideouts, but the real battle could be between the tight ends, Antonio Gates for the Chargers and Rob Gronkowsi for the Pats. Getting the mismatches to exploit will be crucial, and you might look at Mike McCoy against Pats' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as the real key match up.
OUTSIDE BET: SEATTLE (+2 at 1.92) at Philadelphia: After holding Arizona and San Francisco to a total of two field goals in the past two weeks, the Seahawks' defense is back to its Super Bowl form, and it will get a stern test on the road against Chip Kelly's innovative Eagles attack. I like Kelly a lot, and note that he beat Pete Carroll the only time the two coached head to head in College (at Oregon and USC respectively). But I note too that Carroll coached Mark Sanchez, now the Eagles' QB, at USC, and if anyone may hold the key to unlocking the inner Jet in Sanchez it may be Carroll. The key to slowing down the Eagles is stopping the run, and Kevin Williams has stepped up while Bobby Wagner is back in the middle for Seattle. But on the other side of the field, the Seattle offense is challenged, and the big match-up to watch will be whether Casey Matthews can hold his own against Marshawn Lynch. The best game of the weekend, and an upset wouldn't be a surprise. The UNDER (49.5 at 1.94) in New Orleans and the UNDER (40.5 at 1.92) in Minnesota are also tempting.
ONE TO AVOID: On the surface I liked Baltimore +2.5 at 2.00 at Miami, because the Ravens' greatest weakness, the back of their secondary, is the bit least likely to be threatened by the Dolphin offense. But when Haloti Ngata was suspended for the last four games of the season by the NFL (for Adderall, he says) the core of the Ravens' run defense went with him; Ngata's combination of size and mobility would make the option tougher to run, without him the Ravens have guys who can absorb blockers and guys who can pursue, but not guys who can do both.