The National Football League is in the middle of a reversal.
The early part of 2015 featured an odd, but distinct set of outcomes. As a whole, favorites were cruising to victories at an unsustainable rate. Games that would normally be classified as ‘traps’ proved to be anything but, and people walked in with ease, and out as winners. That was, until Weeks 6 and 7.
As the underdogs began to recover, ‘traps’ were more prevalent and dangerous. Teams like the Falcons, Patriots, and Broncos, despite winning their games, failed to cover their respective spreads. In Week 8, it appears as if underdogs are in store for yet another week of good fortune, although it is somewhat surprising that the majority of the spreads remain small. Most likely, the ‘correction’ of the league is still not complete.
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.
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 30-17 (Last Week: 6-1)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 58-45-2 (Last Week: 10-4)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (-8)
The New England Patriots have a tendency of breaking the rules; although not in the way commonly debated on radio stations and among friends. Usually, there are parameters in place regarding how NFL teams perform over a specific set of time. Franchises aren’t supposed to win double-digit games for a double-digit amount of years. Teams aren’t supposed to win road games by an average of thirteen points per game. And teams certainly aren’t supposed to continually perform at such a dominant level as the New England Patriots, especially in the year following a Super Bowl win.
Indeed, New England is an exception to every rule. Their smallest margin of victory in any single game in 2015 is seven points, and all three games featured last-minute scores to bring their opponents as close as they ended. Without the ‘garbage points,’ the Patriots would not only be undefeated, but 6-0 against the spread, as well.
The best thing that could have happened for the Patriots is that Miami found itself not once, but twice, since firing head coach Joe Philbin. The Dolphins are rejuvenated, playing their best football in years, and confident.
Unfortunately for Miami, they are approaching an ‘over-confident’ level. The Patriots feast on teams of all kinds, but have an uncanny knack for focusing their attention on those with flaws currently being masked. The Dolphins were, after all, a 1-3 franchise no more than a few weeks ago.
New England hasn’t lost a home, primetime, regular season game since December of 2012, and is 10-1 in its last eleven such matchups. The last time the Patriots lost a night game in Foxborough against a division opponent was against the Jets in 2008, in overtime.
The spread is large enough to cause concern for a team that has a tendency to give up late scores, but New England is on a mission to beat teams without mercy. Their next explosion is on the horizon, and the new-and-improved Dolphins will be the victim.
The Patriots win by two touchdowns and cover the large spread.
Detroit Lions (+5) at Kansas City Chiefs – London
What did London do to deserve such punishment? One week after hosting the Jaguars and Bills — a combined five wins between the two teams — Wembley Stadium will be filled with unfortunate captives forced to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play the Detroit Lions. In a football game. And not the kind played with one’s feet.
Neither the Chiefs nor Lions have enjoyed much success in the first half of 2015, but only one will go into their bye week — and long flight home — on a high note. Like the Dolphins and Jaguars in previous weeks, the Lions are the team more experienced with trans-Atlantic travel, having played in London, last season. As the Jaguars proved with their hot start in Week 7, their familiarity with an odd routine played to their advantage. Granted, the Dolphins were not able to assimilate smoothly, but there were underlying issues that ran far deeper than simple wins and losses.
Outside of the Lions’ experience in London, the two teams share some noteworthy parallels. The Lions — 1-5 against the spread — and Chiefs — 2-4 against the spread — have performed well below even the expectations of the lines on their respective games, although they have lost by one possession in five of their combined eleven losses.
To consider either team a favorite by more than a field goal worth of points on neutral ground is purely reactionary from the teams’ most recent games. It is worth considering that the Lions lost to a solid Vikings team while the Chiefs beat up an injured Steelers squad in Week 7. In fact, the spread moved two points in favor of the Chiefs since its open — the same happened for the Giants in the opposite direction in Week 7, and New York won by a touchdown.
Detroit still has offensive firepower and a quarterback that knows how to get wide receiver Calvin Johnson the football, while the Chiefs still do not have a formidable plan of attack. When the game is on the line, the Lions have been the team better suited to drive the length of the football field. They just haven’t been able to seal the deal.
They do on Sunday. The Lions win by four points in London, beating the spread.
Arizona Cardinals at Cleveland Browns (+4.5)*
It seems as if, every week, the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals are playing in ‘trap games.’ For Cleveland, the potential trap is for its opponent, as the Browns are often overlooked. For Arizona, the reverse is true, as it enters games with such a high margin of victory — the Cardinals’ point differential of 96 points leads the league — that it is often the prohibitive favorite.
Naturally, when the Browns host the Cardinals in Week 8, the spread will tell a similar story. Despite the vast difference in talent and records — that is, the 5-2 Cardinals are a far superior team in nearly all aspects to the 2-5 Browns — the spread is a mere four-and-a-half points. For an Arizona team coming off a nationally televised home victory and traveling to Cleveland before a bye week, this is a trap. In addition, Cleveland had played as well as a 2-4 team could have prior to Week 7, only to get crushed by the Rams on the road.
The Browns’ best game is still in the future, and the team’s offense that tallied less than 20 points for the first time in six weeks — with a whopping six points against the Rams — is due for a rebound. Even with the slow week, Cleveland still ranks twelfth in the league in yards gained.
Like Arizona’s most recent opponent — Baltimore — the Browns don’t have the defense to stop the Cardinals when it matters most. But they have the offense to keep pace, surprising many. Arizona wins by a field goal, but Cleveland beats the spread.
Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears (+2)*
If the Minnesota Vikings played in almost any other division, they would be recognized as legitimate threats to host a playoff game. Instead, two games behind the undefeated Packers, the Vikings are largely overlooked; even with four wins and a three-point loss in their last five games.
Amazingly enough, as quiet as the Vikings have been in their 4-1 stretch, the Bears appear to have flipped a switch overnight and turned a previously dismal season into a respectable campaign. At this point, Chicago has no realistic chance to threaten the Packers atop the NFC North — especially with an Opening Day loss to Green Bay on the resume — but the Lions are 2-1 in their last three games with an overtime loss in Detroit.
The Bears are still a struggling franchise, but the transitional state of the team might finally be over. After losing their first three games under new head coach John Fox by an average of nearly 20 points per game, the Bears have improved across the board, and have actually allowed the ninth-fewest yards per game over the course of the entire season. Their Week 7 bye should only enhance the team’s newly discovered success, as John Fox is 10-3 as a head coach following a bye week.
The Vikings are an up-and-coming franchise in the midst of a productive season. They are, however, new to having a target on their back. The unsuspecting Bears take advantage, winning by six and beating the spread.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+7)* at Atlanta Falcons
For every team that wins close games on a consistent basis, the same conclusion can be drawn: their nail-biting wins are equally a function of winning the tough games and failing to separate themselves from weaker opponents with ease. In the case of the 6-1 Atlanta Falcons — winners of four games by six points or less — their top-five offense has helped prevent ‘trap game’ disasters altogether, but only by the slimmest of margins.
Logic would suggest that the Falcons will have their best opportunity to put away a team early when they host the 2-4 Buccaneers on Sunday. However, the Buccaneers are excellent defending the pass, allowing the fifth-fewest yards per game through the air. Without Atlanta piling on points, the Buccaneers — with a surprisingly quick-strike ability of their own — should never be too far behind.
The Falcons’ rushing attack — fifth-best in yards gained, and leading the league in touchdowns — will ultimately be the catalyst for another Falcons’ win, but in another relatively close game. Atlanta wins by four, while Tampa Bay beats the spread.
San Francisco 49ers (+9) at St. Louis Rams
Over the past decade, it is nearly impossible to imagine that the St. Louis Rams — without a winning season since 2003 — would ever give nine points to the San Francisco 49ers — with three double-digit win seasons in the past five years. Clearly, 2015 has caused a reversal of fate, as the Rams are mathematically the biggest favorite of the week.
Naturally, St. Louis’ 2-5 opponent with a league worst -77 point differential has as much to do with the abnormally large spread as the recent victory by the Rams. This is, however, the reason why St. Louis has not yet earned the right to be giving so many points.
As the 49ers sit at the bottom of the league in points scored, the Rams are only five points ahead — second-worst in the NFL. San Francisco allows the second-most passing yards per game, but the Rams throw the ball less often than any other team, and have accumulated the lowest total of yards through the air. With San Francisco getting a few extra days to prepare, and given the dismal three point showing in Week 7 — the second time the team has scored only three points, and third game with single-digit points — the 49ers will play a much more complete game against a franchise new to being such a heavy favorite.
The Rams edge the 49ers in the end by a single point, but San Francisco beats the spread.
New York Giants at New Orleans Saints (-3.5)
Nearly halfway through the 2015 season, it is still impossible to pinpoint exactly how good or bad both the Giants and the Saints truly are. Each team has played sloppy, ugly games, although the Giants have been fortunate enough to escape more victorious. They have each had their bright spots, as well, but it is still undecided if these shining moments are the exception or the rule.
While both teams have their flaws, the Saints have a decided advantage on both sides of the ball. New Orleans’ defense is clearly the team’s weak link, but the Giants rank in the bottom-third for yards gained, negating the mismatch. Offensively, the Saints — although more than capable of utilizing a solid rushing game — feature their typical pass-heavy attack. New Orleans has already taken advantage of the Falcons and Colts in consecutive weeks — ranked seventh-worst and fourth-worst against the pass, respectively — and squares off with a Giants’ secondary even less likely to slow New Orleans down — ranked third-worst in passing yards allowed.
The Saints keep rolling, beating the Giants by ten and covering.
Cincinnati Bengals (-1.5) at Pittsburgh Steelers
This is not the Cincinnati Bengals of the past few years. Despite four consecutive playoff appearances, the Bengals of 2011-2014 were always exposed to the dangers of playing in a tough division. While the Steelers were able to stay afloat without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Cincinnati has created a canyon between itself and the three-loss Steelers. More importantly, the Bengals are not necessarily destroying teams, but have found ways to win in all circumstances.
Simply put, the Bengals are on a mission to hold the AFC North wire-to-wire in an attempt to carry momentum and a home-field advantage into a potential deep playoff run. With two weeks to prepare for a trip to Pittsburgh, the game is Cincinnati’s to lose. Nothing the team has shown all year hints that they are ready to do so.
The return of Roethlisberger to the Steelers — reports are stating that the Steelers will have their franchise quarterback under center in Week 8 — does little to tilt the scales away from the Bengals, as years of the rivalry provides enough research to fill the bye week. If anything, Roethlisberger’s return helped keep the spread low and the uncertainty high.
Cincinnati wins by four and covers.
San Diego Chargers at Baltimore Ravens (-3)
The fact that the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens are playing each other in a meaningless game in October might surprise most. The reality, however, is that both franchises have been on the verge of a collapse, and 2015 has allowed the bottoms to fall out.
As San Diego attempted a comeback against the rejuvenated Raiders in Week 7, it showed how powerful its offense could be. Despite leading the league in yards gained, however, not one of the Chargers’ five losses was by a margin of defeat fewer than four points. When they lose, they lose big.
Baltimore enters the game on the opposite end of the spectrum. Until Week 7’s eight-point loss in Arizona — that ended with an interception in the Cardinals’ endzone with the Ravens threatening — Baltimore had not lost a single game by more than six points. They may not be much more than a 1-6 squad, but they are more than a field goal better than a Chargers team traveling across the country with two wins by a combined eight points.
The Ravens finally put it all together, beating the Chargers by two touchdowns and covering the spread.
Tennessee Titans (+4.5)* at Houston Texans
While the Tennessee Titans lose one game after another, the narrative begins to solidify. Even though the division is, technically, within reach, too many losses in the first half of the season have forced the story of the Titans in 2015 to focus solely on the development of rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. What often gets overlooked is that Tennessee features an impressively stingy defense, allowing the fifth-fewest yards in the league after holding the Atlanta Falcons to ten points in Week 7.
Houston has been an offensive disaster all season, and the week between its embarrassing loss to the Dolphins and its upcoming divisional matchup with the Titans was likely the final straw. In addition to announcing that star running back Arian Foster would miss the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, the Texans released quarterback Ryan Mallett. When the quarterback carousel finally stopped prior to Mallett’s release, he was listed as the backup, despite leading the team in games started under center.
The flailing Texans will not be able to move the ball against the Titans and Tennessee, with whomever starts at quarterback — the status of Marcus Mariota is unknown, at the time of this writing — will win by ten and beat the spread.
New York Jets at Oakland Raiders (+1.5)*
In the game that validates the adage regarding ‘when’ one specific team plays another, the Jets and Raiders enter their Week 8 matchup immediately following season-defining games. In Week 7, New York lost in New England, falling in what was a tight division race, while Oakland beat up San Diego and officially passed the Chargers in the AFC West’s pecking order.
The natural reaction is that the Jets and Raiders both revert back to their averages, where the previously 4-1 Jets would beat the previously 2-3 Raiders. The error in this assumption is that neither the Jets nor Raiders should have been defined by their respective records. Specifically, the two teams are so evenly matched that the spread has remained small since its open.
In fact, if the Jets — whose only loss in the past month came against the seemingly unstoppable Patriots — were two or three games better than the Raiders, why isn’t the spread larger? One team’s defensive strength perfectly counters the style of offense the opponent wants to run, and the only separation between the Jets and Raiders comes from the scheduling. New York is 1-7 in its last eight Pacific time zone games.
In the rare case with such a small spread is almost perfect, the Raiders, not the Jets, win by a single point and beat the spread.
Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys (+6)*
The Dallas Cowboys simply can’t get a break. After losing wide receiver Dez Bryant on Opening Day, quarterback Tony Romo followed, already missing four consecutive games. The Cowboys haven’t won since Romo started in Week 2. Now, they host the surging Seahawks on extended rest.
To the naked eye, the matchup in Dallas looks like a potential blowout, but such an assessment likely draws too much from past history. Despite their recent win in San Francisco, the Seahawks are not the same team as the past few seasons. After all, they enter Week 8 with a losing record, the latest that the team has been under .500 since 2011.
Throughout the losing streak, Dallas has allowed thirty or more points twice — against the Patriots and Falcons, ranked second and third in the league for points scored, respectively. Seattle’s offense — only 19th in points scored — is far more reasonable to contain, and the Cowboys will stay within the favorable spread throughout the game.
They just don’t have the firepower to pull off the upset.
Seattle wins by a field goal, but Dallas beats the spread.
Green Bay Packers at Denver Broncos (+2.5)*
It is always eye-opening when a Peyton Manning-led team is an underdog. It is even more noteworthy when the game is at home. On national television.
The combination of a declining Manning and a surging Packers team puts Denver in an unusual position — since Manning joined the Broncos in 2012, Denver has been the underdog in a regular season game only eight times, remarkably going 3-5 against the spread. What’s even more interesting is that both teams will be coming off their respective bye weeks, but the edge should be given to the veteran Manning who likely needs every available moment to recover from a previous week’s beating.
Denver has only one victory by more than one touchdown in 2015, while Green Bay hasn’t played a game that finished within six points, yet. Unfortunately for Green Bay, what gets lost in its 6-0 record is that four of the team’s games have already been played at home. Including this season, the Packers are 12-0 in regular season games at Lambeau Field since the start of 2014, but a more manageable 6-4 on the road.
Denver’s defense — allowing the fewest yards and second-fewest points per game in the league — will provide the toughest test that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have seen to date, and the perceived large gap between the two teams will be closed. Denver, like Green Bay, is perfect in regular season home games since the beginning of 2014.
The Broncos hand the Packers their first loss of the season, winning by a touchdown and beating the spread.
Indianapolis Colts (+7) at Carolina Panthers
For two teams seemingly headed in completely opposite directions, the Colts and Panthers are the epitome of, ‘Same song, different chorus.’ With another week brings another opportunity for each team to revert back to its average, yet neither oblige. The Panthers keep winning, while the Colts keep losing.
This cannot happen forever.
Certainly, at this point, Carolina has proven that it is one of the better teams in the conference. But is it really an undefeated, perfect team? Even if the Panthers are as good as advertised, it is asking a lot for a team to host back-to-back primetime games and deliver in both. Granted, the Packers succeeded in this task in Weeks 2 and 3, but this begs a similar question: have the Panthers ascended to the level of the consistently-dominant Green Bay Packers?
At 3-4, Indianapolis hardly does anything particularly well. It does, however, always threaten with an elite passing attack led by one of the league’s best in Andrew Luck. For as stingy as the Panthers have been allowing points defensively, they don’t completely shut down opponents. Only the 2-5 Jaguars on Opening Day failed to reach 16 points, and the Panthers have broken the 27-point mark only once.
Let it not be forgotten that, only a few short weeks ago, Carolina’s wins came from the Jaguars, Texans, Saints, and Buccaneers. When the Panthers won in Seattle, it looked like a ‘statement win,’ but the Seahawks are also under .500. In fact, every one of the teams Carolina has beaten in 2015 currently has a losing record. Two of Indianapolis’ four losses have come from the 4-2 Jets and 6-0 Patriots.
The Colts are being cast aside due to a recent string of poor play, but the Panthers are getting far too much support as each win suddenly looks less impressive. Carolina is predicated on defense, but the Colts have the weapons to take out the Panthers’ strength.
Indianapolis wins by six and beats the spread.