It happens one time, every year. After eleven weeks of following a set of rules and riding it to the top of the standings for experts picking games against the spread — according to NFLPickwatch — a cacophony of mistakes were made. Most notably, in an effort to over-think the validity of the rules that carried us here, we began to stray.
Rather than accept the story the spreads were telling — namely, the Packers and Patriots were about to walk into traps — we tried to rewrite our own. For this, a humble apology is offered. Games are inherently risky and missing on a handful, every week, is a guarantee, but there is no justification in simply combating the guidelines.
When this same issue arose last season, it actually became the catalyst for an extended winning streak that concluded with a first-place finish for the combination of regular season and postseason against the spread picks. Of course, as the saying goes, “past history is no guarantee of future success,” but the important takeaway is that the system, as a whole, works. When we stray, we fail.
In addition to ignoring the rules, Week 12 also coincidentally featured a smaller number of opportunities, anyway. With nine favorites covering their spreads, and the Panthers — largely considered one of the ‘easiest picks’ of last week — cruising in Dallas, the overall state of the week was more conducive to those who lean towards favorites.
Naturally, this sets the stage for underdogs to recover. With that, five games now have spreads of a touchdown worth of points or more. Not surprisingly, we are taking the points in almost all of them.
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: 48-31-1 (Last Week: 2-5)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 94-78-4 (Last Week: 5-11)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Green Bay Packers (-3) at Detroit Lions
As Thanksgiving drew to a close, the Packers’ bandwagon emptied quicker than a houseful of guests. With the Lions cruising to a 31-point victory before turkey was served, Green Bay completed the night with a four-point loss to the Bears, ruining dessert for Packers fans.
With the aftermath being so widespread, the leftovers might actually be better than the meal. In the case of the Packers and Lions, it is the suddenly-common belief that Green Bay is in serious trouble, while the Lions are charging back into the NFC playoff picture.
There is validity in believing that Detroit is better than its record — after all, the team started the year 1-7 with a handful of tough losses one year after an 11-5 campaign. However, its recent victories against reeling teams like the Raiders, Eagles, and, at the time, the Packers — coming off back-to-back road losses in Denver and Carolina — is the result of good timing for a team that had drawn an unusually difficult set of opponents in the beginning of the year. Asking the Lions to win four consecutive games, including two against the Packers in a four-week span, is too much for a team with a .364 winning percentage.
Green Bay has taken a hit for its surprisingly mediocre offense — averaging just under twenty-points-per-game since its Week 7 bye — but is often forgotten in the discussion of ‘best defenses.’ Ranked sixth in points allowed, Green Bay’s defense should have no issue stopping a Detroit offense that ranks in the bottom-third in both points and yards gained, and has a non-existent rushing attack.
The Packers avenge their Week 10 loss by beating the Lions by a touchdown and covering the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns (+7)*
Is there a game, this week, that could possibly look more one-sided than a matchup between the 9-2 Bengals — coming off a blowout victory — facing the 2-9 Browns with a backup quarterback and less than one week removed from a heart-breaking loss? In fact, has there been a game, all season, with such an ‘obvious’ outcome?
Whenever a conclusion appears to be prematurely written, we tend to go against it. In addition to how ‘easy’ the Bengals look, on paper, they fit the bill as the division road team simply giving too many points to a franchise that has clearly hit rock bottom. In fact, is this not a nearly identical setup as last week’s game between the Cardinals and 49ers?
Like the Panthers and Vikings, the Bengals have reached rarefied air in 2015. According to TeamRankings, Cincinnati is an unprecedented 9-1-1 against the spread, good for a success rate of 90 percent. Dating back to 2004 — the last year TeamRankings has listed for against the spread statistics — no team has finished a season at 90 percent or better against the spread.
Cleveland, outscored by a total score of 61-10 in its last two meetings with Cincinnati, is simply getting too many points at home for a division team. The Bengals win by a field goal as Cleveland plays an inspired game, beating the spread.
Houston Texans at Buffalo Bills (-3)
As the Houston Texans continue to tear through AFC opponents on their current four-game winning streak, one question must be asked: How is it possible that a 2-5 team continues to win one game after another?
Houston’s strength is clearly its defense, allowing a total of 35 points and two touchdowns in its last four games. A matchup with the Bills appears to suggest another low-scoring affair, but, in addition to the natural regression for the defense — the Texans allowed an average of 28.4 points-per-game in their first seven games — the specific strength of the Bills offense is the biggest weakness for Houston.
The Buffalo Bills favor their rushing attack — with the fourth-most rushing attempts, but the fourth-fewest passing attempts — and they have the fifth-most rushing yards and second-most rushing touchdowns in the league. Houston, although allowing the sixth-fewest total yards in the league, ranks 23rd in defensive rush-yards-per-attempt. On offense, although Houston does not hesitate to put the ball in the air — the second-most passing attempts in the league — the Texans are the seventh-worst offense in net-passing-yards-per-attempt.
Buffalo controls the action on Sunday, winning by six and covering the spread.
San Francisco 49ers (+7)* at Chicago Bears
It is undeniable that the Chicago Bears have played much better in the past eight games — 5-3 with no loss by more than a field goal — than in the first three — 0-3 by an average margin of victory of 19.7 points-per-game. However, it is also undeniable that the 49ers have played their best football in their last three games — highlighted by the change at the quarterback position from Colin Kaepernick to Blaine Gabbert.
If the Bears are being rewarded for their recent 3-1 stretch — punctuated by a win in Green Bay — with a large spread, why are the 49ers being punished? Have the Bears — still with a losing record — ascended to the level where a touchdown worth of points is enough to give, especially against a team that is also coming into its own?
Despite the success the team has had, Chicago has failed to reach the 20-point barrier in each of its last four games. While San Francisco has the league’s worst offense — in both yards and points — it won’t take much to outpace the Bears.
San Francisco wins by a single point and beats the spread.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans (-2.5)
In the sequel to what was one of the most unwatchable football games of the season, the Titans and Jaguars will meet for the second time in three weeks. This, on the heels of both AFC South bottom-dwellers losing in Week 12.
With both matchups being so close chronologically, little has changed besides the venue and sixty short minutes of football against their respective opponents. What is different — albeit, slightly — is that Tennessee has finally figured out a method to put some points on the scoreboard. Granted, with the league’s third-worst offense in both points and yards, the Titans won’t be lighting up too many teams, but they broke the thirteen-point barrier for the second time in eight weeks with what could only be considered an ‘outburst’ of 21 points in Week 12.
While both teams have shown complete ineptitude, at times, the franchise two games worse in the standings — Tennessee — arguably played a better game than the Jaguars in Week 11, only to implode at the end. The same could be said for the team’s Week 12 loss to the Raiders, where Tennessee had a win locked up, only to have a questionable defensive penalty extend Oakland’s chances. In addition to the recipe for success that almost worked, the Titans have a top-ten defense — in yards allowed — while Jacksonville gives up the third-most points-per-game.
Tennessee avenges its loss from two weeks ago with a six-point victory, covering the spread.
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams (+5.5)*
The Arizona Cardinals are beginning to perform exactly as their numbers suggested they would. That is, the 9-2 Cardinals — every bit as good as their record — are slowing down.
A few short weeks ago, Arizona led the league in point differential, suggesting that it was flying too high. Naturally, the team regressed and, while it has now won five consecutive games, the last three have all been by a touchdown or less. In Week 13, against a Rams team that looks completely lost, the trend of close games will continue.
St. Louis shocked the Cardinals in Week 4 with a win in Arizona, and the odds of a repeat performance are incredibly low. However, the Rams play some of their closest games against division opponents — despite a 4-7 overall record, St. Louis is 3-0 against NFC West rivals.
The Cardinals feature an absolutely deadly passing attack — despite the thirteenth-fewest attempts, they have the most net-yards-per-pass-attempts in the league — but, unfortunately for Arizona, this plays into one of St. Louis’ few strengths. The Rams actually tout a quietly successful defense, allowing the eighth-fewest passing yards, while sitting in the top-half for both total points and yards allowed.
With each team moving so violently in the opposite direction — the Rams are riding a four-game losing streak while Arizona has a five-game winning streak — a quick return to the norm should be in the works. The Cardinals win by four, but St. Louis beats the spread in a surprisingly competitive game.
Baltimore Ravens (+4) at Miami Dolphins
The Baltimore Ravens are having a completely absurd 2015. From season-ending injuries to quarterback Joe Flacco, wide receiver Steve Smith, Sr., and running back Justin Forsett to last-second losses to walk-off blocked field goals returned for touchdowns, the fact that every one of Baltimore’s games have been decided by no more than one score should not be a surprise. The way this season has gone, if Baltimore wins its last five games in blowout fashion, it would be par for the ‘ridiculous’ course.
In reality, Baltimore’s persistence and ability to stay in each of its games is impressive, especially as the calendar turns to December. Most teams that start the year 2-7 eventually cave in, but the Ravens — even following a completely improbable loss that featured a penalty-aided game-winning field goal drive by the Jaguars — refused to quit.
Miami, on the other hand, has looked like a team ready to move onto 2016 since 2015 began.
The Dolphins have consistently been such an utter disappointment that labeling any of their games as ‘rebound opportunities’ is a waste of time. To date, the only two games that Miami has won following a loss were aided by a bye week and an injured quarterback in Philadelphia in a game the Dolphins basically lost, had it not been for a late interception.
Baltimore isn’t going anywhere in 2015, but it appears determined to prevent the season from being a complete loss. The Ravens grab their third consecutive game, winning by a touchdown and beating the spread.
Seattle Seahawks (PK) at Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings and Seahawks enter Sunday’s contest as the perfect pair of teams suffering from constantly shifting perceptions. For Seattle, its constant struggle to return to the form of its counterparts from 2012-2014 has left the team as, technically, a disappointment. Conversely, Minnesota continues to impress on a weekly basis, with its only recent blemish coming from a divisional showdown with the Packers.
What’s lost in the overview of the two teams’ records is how each has played in games that are largely considered ‘high-leverage.’ While it took the Seahawks twelve weeks before it earned a winning record for the first time, this season, the level of play is undeniably excellent. Seattle has only one loss by more than a touchdown, and the combined winning percentage for the five teams that beat the Seahawks is an incredible .727.
Minnesota has been thoroughly impressive through its first eleven games, losing only once since its Week 5 bye. The loss, however, is telling for a team on the rise but without the success and experience that comes from being at the top. When Minnesota had something to lose — that is, sole possession of first place in the NFC North — it did.
Seattle’s record gives the suggestion that the team is barely above average, but it just completed one of the most difficult victories of the season, has won back-to-back games, and is heating up to the tune of a 4-1 stretch. In addition, Seattle has a top-five rushing defense, providing the perfect antidote for a Vikings team that survives by running the football, but has the second-worst passing attack when forced to put the ball in the air.
Seattle secures another clutch victory, winning by ten and beating the spread.
New York Jets (-2) at New York Giants
Although they share MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Jets and Giants enter Sunday’s matchup with less fanfare than expected for two geographical rivals. Instead, the only focus remains on the team’s respective playoff races, where each franchise is a tiebreaker outside of a playoff spot.
While the Giants let their NFC East lead slip in a Week 12 loss in Washington, the Jets were desperately trying to stop a string of poor play that resulted in four losses in five games. The Jets rebounded with an 18-point home victory against Miami, finally reestablishing a running game that had reached 100 total yards only once since Week 6.
When the Jets enter MetLife Stadium as the ‘visiting team,’ they likely won’t be utilizing the same offensive gameplan against their in-house rivals. The Giants’ defense has allowed the most passing yards in the league, and the Jets — although not known to be a pass-heavy team — feature wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker with a combined 17 touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, the Giants will almost certainly abandon the running game from the start, as their rushing attack is the sixth-worst in yards-per-attempt — and the Jets’ rushing defense is downright impenetrable. When the Giants turn to the air — probably out of necessity between the lack of a run game and the Jets ability to move the ball on offense — they will face a Jets defense that allows the third-fewest net-yards-per-pass-attempt.
The Jets — featuring a top-ten scoring offense and defense — have the right matchups in place to win an orthodox ‘road’ game. They beat the Giants by a touchdown and cover.
Atlanta Falcons (+2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While this column tends to focus on ‘traps’ and games that feature misaligned spreads, there are always the occasional matchups where the numbers are irrelevant. Such is the case in the divisional showdown between the Buccaneers and the Falcons.
Simply put, are the Falcons really about to squander starts of 5-0 and 6-1 and fall back to .500?
Tampa Bay had been heating up for the past few games prior to entering its Week 12 game in Indianapolis. Promptly, the Buccaneers’ meteoric rise was wiped away, and they were, once again, exploited. Concurrently, the Falcons were caught in a battle against the upstart Vikings that Atlanta was not prepared to fight.
Despite their recent trends, the Falcons’ initial winning streak of five games is worth more than Tampa Bay’s back-to-back wins against the Cowboys and Eagles. Furthermore, Atlanta’s rushing defense — allowing the sixth-fewest yards-per-attempt — is the worst possible matchup for the Buccaneers’ run-heavy offense.
The Falcons grab a much-needed division victory, winning by two touchdowns and beating the spread.
Kansas City Chiefs (-2.5) at Oakland Raiders
The Kansas City Chiefs are currently in the middle of a potentially historic comeback. Once 1-5 and dead-to-rights in the AFC, the Chiefs enter Week 13 on a five-game winning streak and currently the fifth seed in the playoff picture — thanks to tiebreakers. While an extended winning streak and a road game against a division opponent usually sends up a red flag, the Chiefs have a few trend-breaking matchups in their favor.
Kansas City has just avoided two potential letdowns when traveling to San Diego, then hosting the Bills. After dismantling the Chargers, a natural regression was expected against Buffalo. It actually happened, as the Chiefs fell early to the Bills, and trailed by nine points with minutes remaining in the first half. To their credit, the Chiefs persisted and won the game.
Now that Kansas City has been thoroughly tested, it will be less likely to sleep on an opponent. This is especially true when facing a Raiders defense that ranks in the bottom-six for allowing points, total yards, and yards-per-attempt. The Chiefs have the sixth-best scoring offense and the seventh-best run game.
Kansas City wins by ten and covers.
Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers (+4)*
The Denver Broncos are already beginning to enter a dangerous territory. With only two starts in his entire career, quarterback Brock Osweiler is not only being thrust into the spotlight by attempting to lead a two-loss Broncos team, but getting publicly praised for his back-to-back victories in relief of Peyton Manning.
Can we wait just a little longer before erecting a statue in Osweiler’s honor?
When Osweiler was named the starting the quarterback, Peyton Manning and the top-notch Denver defense had already spotted him seven wins. With that, all Osweiler needed to do was hold down the proverbial fort as the still-fantastic defense limited opponents, and the rushing attack was finally unleashed — the past two weeks featured Denver’s best total yards in the running game, all season. In addition, the Broncos barely edged a 5-6 Bears team, and beat New England in a contest that featured a game-altering fumbled punt, a driving snowstorm, a few key injuries, and a string of inexplicable moments that still needed overtime to decide a winner.
Brock Osweiler is not ready to cruise through the National Football League on a weekly basis. Playing a division rival on the road is far too much to ask an inexperienced quarterback already placed in a high-leverage situation.
The Broncos return to earth, and the Chargers take advantage. San Diego wins by a field goal and beats the spread.
Philadelphia Eagles (+10)* at New England Patriots
For the sake of the spread, the Patriots and Eagles could not possibly be meeting at a better time. The Eagles, coming off an embarrassing blowout on Thanksgiving are traveling Foxborough to face a Patriots team that just suffered its first loss of the season in a heart-breaker on nationally television. Has there ever been a more perfect setup for a potential rebound blowout?
As always, the apparent one-sided nature of the game forces it to deserve a second look. After all, this is neither the same Eagles nor Patriots team that started their respective Week 12 games.
For the first time since Week 10, the Eagles are expected to start Sam Bradford at quarterback. While Bradford’s injury history is always a cause for concern, Philadelphia clearly struggled in his absence.
As critical as Bradford is to the success of the Eagles, tight end Rob Gronkowski is arguably worth more to the Patriots. Gronkowski was knocked out of Week 12’s matchup late with a knee injury, although reports have indicated that it is not a season-ending ailment. It does, however, leave Gronkowski either ‘questionable’ to start on Sunday, or at least, a slightly lesser version of himself. Either way, Gronkowski at 100 percent is currently the target for the Patriots.
New England is notorious for bouncing back from tough losses, and the 2015 team will follow suit. But the injury-riddled Patriots offense that took the field for the final two drives in Denver is undoubtedly the worst version New England has shown, all year. The Patriots win by a touchdown, but Philadelphia stays in the game to the end and beats the spread.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints (+7)*
It is basically the same story, every week — the Carolina Panthers are bound to lose. At least, they are bound to lose against the spread.
As noted numerous times in this year’s columns, there are a few rules and indicators that almost always result in a specific pick. The Panthers have continued to elude most of the pitfalls that strike a team in their over-extended position, but they are neither perfect nor immune.
The Carolina Panthers will not go 16-0. It simply doesn’t happen — of course, the 2007 Patriots are the exception, but to compare today’s Panthers with one of the best teams to take the field in last twenty years is ludicrous. Much like a hitter in baseball on pace for what is realistically an unobtainable milestone — a .400 batting average or seventy home runs — a regression is a near-guarantee. For Carolina, in addition to a perfect winning percentage, the team is 9-2 against the spread, good for covering 81.8% of its games.
As noted in the breakdown of the matchup between the Bengals and Browns, such a high percentage of accuracy is nearly impossible to maintain. Only one team — the 2012 Seahawks — finished a season above 70 percent against the spread, let alone 80 percent. The last team to beat 80 percent against the spread for an entire season was the 2004 San Diego Chargers.
In addition to the Panthers thriving over the course of the season, they are also reaching a level of unsustainable play over a shorter span. Until Week 12, the Panthers had increased their margin of victory in each game since Week 8, and still thrashed the Cowboys by 19 points. It is worth noting that fourteen of Carolina’s 33 points came directly from interceptions returned for a touchdown — a completely unreliable and circumstantial method of putting points on the scoreboard.
The Saints, recently known to disappoint, are quickly being cast aside as a non-factor. However, New Orleans, coming off back-to-back road losses and only 1-3 in its last four meetings with Carolina, is as due for a return to the mean as the Panthers. New Orleans has a total of 20 combined points in its last two games, yet still ranks thirteenth in the league in points scored. Most notably, the Saints have scored more than 22 points only once in their six road games — with a 1-5 record — but have 26 or more points in four of the five home games — not surprisingly, with a 3-2 record.
New Orleans ends Carolina’s bid for a perfect season, knocking off its division rival with a field goal win, beating the spread.
Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers (-7)
While the state of their quarterback position lies out of their hands, the Colts cannot continue to play with fire and avoid getting burned. Quite frankly, the fact that Matt Hasselbeck has been able to win all four games that he started — despite Indianapolis still featuring the same holes throughout the team — is nothing short of miraculous.
Enter Pittsburgh to right the ship.
Coming off one of their most hard-fought losses, the Steelers will take their high-flying offense home to unleash the league’s sixth-best passing attack against a team that has coincidentally allowed the sixth-most passing yards, this season. Facing a Colts offense that has scored more than 27 points only once, the Steelers will not need to look back as they pull away from Indianapolis.
Pittsburgh wins by three touchdowns and covers.
Dallas Cowboys (+4.5)* at Washington Redskins
Another week, another NFC East leader put to the test. After knocking off the Giants in Week 12 and supplanting them as the top dog in the worst division in football, the Redskins find themselves in the unfamiliar position of ‘favorites’ on a nationally-televised game. Surely, if the Redskins hadn’t already made a statement to the league that they are far better than many realized, there is no better opportunity than closing out Week 13 with a Monday Night Football win.
If the NFC East has taught us anything, this year, it is that nothing will come easy to any of its participants.
The Dallas Cowboys lost quarterback Tony Romo to another injury on Thanksgiving — this one officially ending his season. Amazingly, the Cowboys are only two games out of first place in the division, but they remain a nearly impossible long-shot to make a full recovery. At least, in the long run. They are certainly capable of formulating a dangerous gameplan on extended rest — playing its last game on a Thursday and its next game on a Monday, Dallas basically has a de facto bye week — especially against a division rival suddenly with something to lose.
While Washington’s defense has been a sneaky surprise for the team, it still ranks in the bottom-half of the league in most per-game statistics. Most importantly, it allows the fourth-most rushing-yards-per-attempt, and will be facing a Cowboys team that will likely rely on its running game — averaging the tenth-most rushing-yards-per-attempt. In addition, Dallas allows the seventh-fewest total yards defensively, and it should have no issue stopping a Redskins team that has scored more than 24 points only twice, all season.
The Cowboys throw another wrench into the NFC East playoff picture, winning by six and beating the spread.