It finally happened. And we missed it.
After weeks of preparing for underdogs to take over, Week 16 delivered. 11-5 against the spread, underdogs regained their edge over favorites, owning the week. Unfortunately, the right underdogs — at least, the ones we picked — were not as successful.
Week 17 not brings two problems to the table. In addition to not knowing which teams will rest their players — even if a coach makes a public statement about this, it should not necessarily be trusted completely — there is the wrench that is the underdog explosion of last week. Will it continue?
Over the past three seasons, favorites have performed as well or slightly better than underdogs in the final game of the season. Simply put, those teams giving points needed a win in the last week to advance into the playoffs. Most of the time, they got it.
That is not the case in 2015. The entire NFC playoff field is set, and the AFC race basically comes down to two teams — the Steelers and Jets. With that, favorites do not have the same drive as they have in the past. Instead, the underdogs, again, have the advantage.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team. An asterisk denotes a confidence pick.
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 65-43-2 (Last Week: 3-4)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 128-107-5 (Last Week: 6-10)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (-4)
What are the Atlanta Falcons? 5-0? 0-6? Giant-killers? A giant disappointment? Over the course of 2015, they have been all of the above.
The New Orleans Saints, however, are flat-out bad.
Stripping out the avenues by which each team has reached Week 17, the Falcons remain two games better than the Saints in the standings because they are truly the better team. Now, considering their recent history, both teams have defeated the Jaguars in consecutive weeks, while the Saints have a loss to the Lions and a win against the Buccaneers. All the Falcons were doing in Week 16 is toppling the previously undefeated Panthers.
When the Falcons started the season 5-0, few people should have been surprised. The team has featured a top-notch offense for years — including 2015, they have ranked in the top-ten in yards four out of the last five seasons — and new head coach Dan Quinn was expected to solidify the franchise’s weak defense. Through a string of low-scoring affairs, the Falcons turned their lead in the playoff race into an exit from the conversation, but most of the games remained competitive, regardless.
If the Falcons had neither won nor lost as many consecutive games as they did, they would enter Week 17 with an uninteresting 8-7 record. They are still ahead of the pack in most aspects, and they will unleash their sixth-ranked passing attack — in yards gained — against a Saints secondary that has allowed the second-most yards through the air in the league.
As an added bonus, the Falcons have vengeance to seek, as the Saints were the team to stop their winning streak in the beginning of the season, thus beginning their downward spiral. Atlanta responds with a ten-point win, covering the spread.
Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys (-3)
For a season that moves into its final week with the entire NFC playoff field set, only one team is locked in its position — the Washington Redskins. Regardless of the outcomes of Sunday’s games, the Redskins will be the fourth seed in the NFC.
In what will be a prevalent theme throughout the week, the only team that can rest its players without repercussion is the Redskins. Will they?
If the usual starters were to play all sixty minutes on Sunday, the Redskins would be prohibitive favorites. Without any definitive decision by Washington’s front office, the game could have remained without a spread later into the week. Instead, the Cowboys opened up as the favorites.
There are imbalances between the spread and reality, and then there is downright impossibilities — it is basically impossible for the Cowboys to win this specific game by more than three points if the Redskins planned on playing everyone through the duration and needed to win.
The fact that the number is so tilted as early in the week as it is — with no games until Sunday, there is no real reason for the spread to be released yet — indicates that Dallas should get the better end of the deal. In addition, running back Darren McFadden is three yards short of 1,000 on the season, and will be facing a rush defense that allows the second-most yards-per-carry.
Dallas wins by six and covers.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-10) at Cleveland Browns
Hide your eyes, Cleveland. What’s about to happen will not be pretty.
For the better part of the past two months, the Steelers’ offense was operating at a ridiculous, unsustainable rate. Finally, they slowed downed in Baltimore, and, actually suffered a loss. Entering Sunday without control of their playoff destiny — that is, Pittsburgh needs a win and a Jets loss to slip back into a Wild Card spot — the Steelers travel to Cleveland to face a Browns team that just lost to the Seahawks and Chiefs in consecutive weeks.
This column has always made it a point to not take a spread this large on the road, and, in somewhat keeping with the rules, the ‘confidence pick’ tag will not be applied. However, with the Browns completely over-matched for much of the season and with continued uncertainty at the quarterback position, this game is the exception. In addition, dating back to 2011 — by our records — favorites with double-digit spreads are 8-4 against the spread in the final game of the season, including 1-1 when the spread is at least seven points favoring the road team.
Pittsburgh wins by twenty and covers.
Detroit Lions (PK)* at Chicago Bears
Remove the past sixteen weeks from the equation and start from scratch. The Lions — fresh off an 11-5 season — are traveling to Chicago. Slowly adding the pieces from the first fifteen games and combining it with the state of each franchise since the start of last year, the Bears enter Sunday with an 11-20 record, losers of three of their last four games, but coming off a much needed losing-streak-ending win.
The Lions have won five of their last seven games, One of their two losses in that stretch was via a Hail Mary touchdown by the Packers.
The only anchor still tied to the feet of the 2015 Lions is the terrible start the team endured. The 1-7 record continues to weigh down the expectations of the Lions, but six of the seven losses came against teams that eventually clinched the playoffs.
While the Lions may not be the 11-5 team from last year, they are certainly better than their 6-9 record, and will close the season out in style.
Detroit wins by two touchdowns and beats the spread.
Baltimore Ravens (+7.5)* at Cincinnati Bengals
When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, this column could basically copy-and-paste the same story, every week. The Bengals, with a ridiculous 12-2-1 record against the spread, cannot continue at this pace, especially without Andy Dalton under center.
Cincinnati survived the first of backup-turned-starting quarterback A.J. McCarron‘s starts by beating the lowly 49ers in Week 15. Then, the team exploded to a 14-0 lead in Denver, only to give it back and lose in overtime. Still, the Bengals managed to keep it close, beating the spread, yet again.
If Cincinnati’s recent field-goal loss had an impact on anything other than the playoff picture, it is that the spread for its next game subsequently ballooned to more than a touchdown worth of points. Didn’t we just see a public exhibition of what happens when too much is placed on McCarron’s plate? Indeed, the Ravens’ defense is nothing like Denver’s, but Baltimore just shut down a Steelers’ offense that had arguably been the hottest in the game.
Baltimore is incapable of putting together back-to-back divisional upsets against better opponents, but it will stay in the game against an offense that showed glaring signs of weakness on Monday Night Football. The Bengals win by a field goal, but Baltimore beats the spread.
New York Jets at Buffalo Bills (+3)
It could not have played out any better for dramatic purposes. After beating their bitter rivals from New England to regain control of their playoff destiny, the Jets will travel to Buffalo to face their former head coach in hopes of clinching the team’s first postseason berth since 2010. Of course, it would come down to this.
The effect of head coach Rex Ryan on the game — and his team — is undeniable. Players frequently rave about playing for Ryan, and his excitement was uncontrollable after his Bills knocked off the Jets at MetLife Stadium in Week 10. Ordinarily, such an emotional victory would be difficult to match weeks later — especially when one team is mathematically out of the playoff picture — but Ryan has proven to motivate teams in an extraordinary way.
Months ago, when the season began, Buffalo was electric. After beating the Colts on Opening Day, the Bills hosted the Patriots in a game that many expected Buffalo to win. Eventually, the weaknesses of the team began to appear, and, at 7-8, the Bills clearly never materialized as Ryan would have liked. But the drive remains intact, and the team is one win away from ousting their rivals from the playoff picture — at least, momentarily — as well as clinching a non-losing season. In Ryan’s six years as a head coach, he has only two losing seasons, a 4-2 record on the final game of the year — indicating that he still pushes his team, regardless of situation — with only one of the losses by more than two points.
The Jets — top-ten in most major statistical categories — head into the season finale on a five-game winning streak, and at risk for being over-extended. They have clawed their way back into the sixth seed, temporarily, but it will likely take an 11-5 record to solidify it. With only two wins against teams with a winning record, New York is not an 11-5 squad.
The Bills win by a field goal and beat the spread.
Tennessee Titans (+6) at Indianapolis Colts
There is no team entering Sunday in a more nebulous state than the Colts. Playing without quarterback Andrew Luck again, and with backup Matt Hasselbeck unlikely to contribute, the Colts will basically throw a dart at the wall and choose someone on their roster — even if said person was just added — to try to forward the team’s already thin chances of winning the division.
To consider this a ‘meaningful’ game for the Colts is somewhat ridiculous. Indeed, they need a win to stay alive, but they will be eliminated from playoff contention shortly afterwards — if not during — anyway. Combining the reality that Indianapolis is about to play an exhibition game with the disaster that is the quarterback position, and an opportunity for success appears to decreasing by the second.
With or without their own quarterback — Marcus Mariota is reportedly out for Sunday’s game — the Titans have been a disaster, all year. In games in which Mariota has not played, however, their offense has been downright anemic, punctuated by a six-point outing against the Texans in Week 16. Then again, Houston’s defense — third in the league in yards allowed is nothing like Indianapolis’ — the Colts allow the fourth-most yards-per-game and sixth-most points-per-game.
The Colts — not the Titans — enter Sunday’s game with an offense that is in a more difficult position. Without Luck and Hasselbeck, Indianapolis will need to find a way to move the football against a Titans’ defense that modestly ranks thirteenth in yards allowed. It won’t happen.
The Titans win a pillow fight by two points and beat the spread.
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins (+10)*
While the Patriots tend to be the squad most likely to break the trends, they enter Week 17 with a red flag — an expected outcome. After losing to the Jets, but still in control of home field advantage, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the Patriots will win and, more importantly, blow out the Dolphins.
Not so fast.
Miami continues to crumble as the season draws to a close, and, with no discernable strength, cannot beat a Patriots team with something on the line. While New England eventually finds a path by which it cruises to victory, the Dolphins are in position to score enough points to sneak in under the large spread.
Miami has scored more than 24 points only twice, all season, but, with three games of 15 or fewer points, the Dolphins are reaching a low point from which they will rebound. In addition, the Dolphins’ worst offensive output — seven points — came against these Patriots. With jobs on the line for nearly every member of the Dolphins, they will contribute more on offense than usual and stay within striking distance.
The Patriots win by a touchdown, but Miami beats the spread.
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants (-3)
The end of one era might preview the end of another. As the Eagles enter the season finale after firing their head coach, the Giants may be playing their final game with their current coaching regime, as well.
Philadelphia’s head coaching change comes at a curious time, as the team had only one more game for which to prepare when the news broke. With Chip Kelly out and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur graduating for Week 17, will the same style of offense remain in place? Or will running back DeMarco Murray see an enhanced role?
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the Giants’ defense is worse against the pass than the run — albeit, slightly — begging the Eagles to put the ball in the air. Despite the sixth-most attempts, however, the Eagles rank 21st in net-yards-per-pass-attempt, thus negating how poor the Giants’ secondary is. In addition, the Giants will be getting back their top wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. after a one-game suspension.
The Giants were noticeably flat in their Sunday night disaster in Week 16, but the franchise had just been eliminated from playoff contention less than twenty four hours prior to kickoff. New York played poorly with little on the line and, while Sunday’s game has no actual implications, the consistency of head coach Tom Coughlin will be rewarded in what might be his last game with the team, especially when opposed by Shurmur’s 9-23 record as a head coach.
The Giants win by a touchdown and cover.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+6.5)* at Houston Texans
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Granted, the Jaguars’ offense is not necessarily in the class of the elite, but it is arguably the best that Houston’s top-notch defense has faced in weeks. To that point, is there a bigger anomaly in the league than the Texans?
In a sport where quarterbacks reign supreme, the Texans, at one point in the season, were one of the most pass-heavy squads. Yet, due to injuries and poor play, Houston has started five different quarterbacks over the course of the year.
Barring an incredibly unlikely, nearly impossible series of evens, the Texans will clinch the AFC South on Sunday. But, after blowing out a horrible Titans team, the pressure — and ability — to win will be greatly lessened. After all, the Jaguars have a relentless offense that has kept the team in every game since their Week 8 bye. Even their most recent loss — last week in New Orleans — featured multiple attempts at a comeback that was only thwarted by their defense’s inability to stop the Saints’ offense.
Houston does not have the Saints’ offense.
Jacksonville wins by six and beats the spread.
San Diego Chargers (+8.5)* at Denver Broncos
Little has changed over the course of 2015 for the Chargers. Long eliminated from playoff contention, the Chargers enter virtually every game with the opportunity to play ‘spoiler,’ but continue to fail. One-game out of the race for the worst record in the league, everything has gone wrong for San Diego.
Sunday affords the team one final opportunity to make a statement. That is, if it can find a way to move the ball against a Denver defense that allows the fewest yards-per-game in the league.
The Broncos finally experienced a slight hiccup with Brock Osweiler under center when they dropped back-to-back games, but recovered with an overtime win against the Bengals that clinched a playoff berth. Regardless of the 4-2 record, the Broncos still are not the same team as years past, specifically with an offense that ranks 20th in the league in points.
Osweiler’s Broncos have only one win by more than a touchdown — Week 13 against these Chargers. However, even that game featured a less-than-stellar offensive attack, as the Broncos’ defense turned an interception into a touchdown, accounting for seven of the team’s 17 total points. Simply put, the Broncos’ offense has not scored more than 27 points in regulation since the team turned to Osweiler.
Denver wins by four, but San Diego beats the spread.
Oakland Raiders (+6.5) at Kansas City Chiefs
The Oakland Raiders have one final goal to achieve. Although a winning season has been out of reach for weeks, the Raiders have slowly and quietly turned 2015 into a relative success. With a win on Sunday, Oakland would secure its first non-losing season since 2011.
In ranking accomplishments, the Raiders’ potential 8-8 record falls far below what Kansas City achieved in 2015 — recovering from a 1-5 start to win nine consecutive games and clinch a playoff berth. For all intents and purposes, the Chiefs have already succeeded for their part of the regular season, and they can — and might — take a break in Week 17.
The Raiders will not.
In the last five weeks, Oakland has three wins, a loss against the Packers, and a loss against the Chiefs. Surprisingly — considering how Okland has not been its usual pushover self — both of the losses were by double-digits. Conversely, the Chiefs’ dominance has slowed recently, as two of their last three wins have been by seven points or fewer.
While the Chiefs rank ninth in the league in points scored, they also have the eighth-fewest yards-per-game. They capitalize on drives, but don’t necessarily feature a prolific offense. Instead, they hold teams down with a stout defense. Oakland, not an offensive powerhouse, themselves, has still managed at least twenty points in four of its last five games — including against the Chiefs in Week 13. While this type of output won’t be enough to beat Kansas City, it is enough to stay in the game.
The Chiefs win by four, but Oakland beats the spread.
Seattle Seahawks (+6.5) at Arizona Cardinals
Which should impact the spread of a game more: a spotlight win or reports that a team will likely not be resting its starters? The reality is that, unless a major injury is influencing a spread’s move, the fact that it moved, at all, is noteworthy.
The spread for the game opened with Seattle receiving only three-and-a-half points, only to move a whopping three points since the beginning of the week. A swing this violent should be driven by something more than reports. It isn’t. Instead, it is likely due to how hot the Cardinals are entering Week 17, winners of nine consecutive games, the last four by a combined eighty points.
The Cardinals are suffering from multiple marks against them — a ridiculously-long winning streak and a public beating of another playoff team. Therefore, it was almost impossible to keep the spread small, even though it opened at the right number, all along.
The result of the game will likely not matter for the Seahawks, but the Cardinals may also be playing a meaningless final quarter. Regardless, the aforementioned report about the Cardinals’ starters remaining in the game should give the team the slight edge, in the end.
The Cardinals win by four, but Seattle beats the now-inflated spread.
St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers (+3.5)*
While it has been incredibly easy to pile on both the 49ers and Rams throughout 2015, both franchises deserve credit for putting together a respectable run towards the end of the season. For the Rams, this yielded a three-game winning streak. For San Francisco, it was two wins and a one-possession loss in their last seven games — while it is still a poor overall performance, San Francisco must be graded on a curve.
As evident by the team’s 4-11 record, the 49ers simply don’t win many football games. While the Rams didn’t, they have now turned on the jets for the home stretch and are in position to finish the year with a .500 record. Why, then, is the spread so small? Based on each team’s momentum, the Rams should waltz into and out of San Francisco with an easy win.
The 49ers have the worst offense in the league, ranking last in points scored with only one game in their last nine in which they scored more than 17. As usual, the 49ers won’t be able to win, but they will be able to stay close to the Rams. St. Louis sits just behind San Francisco in the offensive ranks with the third-worst scoring offense — but with the fewest offensive yards — and with an average of just over 16 points-per-game in their last eight games.
The Rams edge the 49ers by a single point, but San Francisco beats the spread.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers (-10.5)
Once upon a time, the Panthers were the toast-of-the-town, cruising to one win after another, undefeated and in a seemingly unstoppable pursuit for perfection. Then, they were stopped. Now, they are chased.
For the better part of the 2015 season, the Panthers have been alone in every race — a division title, a first-round bye, and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. With their loss in Week 16 and Arizona’s never-ending winning streak, the last of the three goals now appears at risk — a loss coupled with an Arizona win would move the Panthers to the second seed.
Throughout their prolonged stretch of dominance, this column continued to pick against the Panthers, waiting for their inevitable demise. Now that it arrived, what happens? More specifically, how do the Panthers respond to their newfound criticism?
Aside from their vulnerability, the Panthers displayed another key feature in their Week 16 loss — a desire to win. The Panthers were going for perfection, and resting players appeared to not be an option. Now that Week 17 has meaning, why would Carolina not be aiming for its fifteenth win?
Failing to cover the spread in three of its last four games has allowed Carolina to regress and reset. Now, the Panthers can explode against the Buccaneers in an effort to regain momentum and allow themselves to rest players — if they choose — by the second half.
The Panthers win by seventeen and cover the spread.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (-3)
Quietly and steadily, the Minnesota Vikings continue to climb. First, it was within the division, streaking to a 7-2 record on a five-game winning streak. Then, it was back into the playoffs, winning back-to-back games after losing to Seattle and Arizona. Finally, it is into the same rarified air as the Bengals, where Minnesota is now 12-3 against the spread.
Minnesota has been deadly when playing games against weaker opponents. The Vikings routinely trounce any team with a losing record, but they still have their struggles against the upper class. Of the team’s five losses, only the 49ers — on Opening Day — have a non-winning record. The other four losses came against the 11-4 Broncos, 10-5 Packers, 9-6 Seahawks, and 13-2 Cardinals.
Green Bay enters Sunday night’s matchup ready to conclude a rather unique season. Over the course of 2015, the Packers have had winning streaks of six and three games, respectively, sandwiching a three-game losing streak — among a win and two losses scattered elsewhere. What’s more unusual for this Packers team is that, after winning twelve consecutive regular season home games, Green Bay lost two-in-a-row, this season.
In the Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers have made it a point to win clutch games when the franchise needs it most. Despite six consecutive postseason appearances and four consecutive division titles, only the 2011 iteration won the NFC North by more than one game. In each of the last two seasons, the Packers needed a win to clinch the division. They won both times. 2015 will be the third consecutive time Green Bay delivers with a win to secure the NFC North.
Minnesota has now cruised to back-to-back victories over horrible defenses — against the Bears and Giants — but will hit a brick wall in Green Bay when facing a Packers team allowing the tenth-fewest points-per-game. The Packers win by six, cover the spread, and host another playoff game in Lambeau Field as division champions.