Consistency is paramount in the world of sports. When a proven track record of success exists, any deviation is dangerous. Certainly, nothing is foolproof, and losses are inevitable, but altering a gameplan on the fly is a recipe for disaster on all fronts.
As evidence, this column deviated from set plans and strategies in Week 12, and suffered its worst loss of the season. One week later, we refocused, followed our rules, and turned in the best performance of 2015, re-entering the top-two in the expert standings for picks against the spread. The mistake, therefore, was in the desire to circumvent the system, not in the gameplan, itself.
The same is true for teams in the National Football League.
At this point of the season, those franchises worthy of a playoff berth will begin to separate themselves from those about to enter another offseason. With that, it is no surprise that favorites went 10-6 against the spread in Week 13.
While those teams that are playing apparent ‘meaningful’ games will obviously have more at stake for the current season, it should not be forgotten that many franchises are about to enter a tryout period. For teams that are virtually eliminated from playoff contention, almost every player will begin to play for his individual job, next year.
As Week 14 tends to feature an abnormal amount of games with teams heading in opposite directions, the actual state of each squad may not nearly be as separated as the records and spreads suggest. As usual, this — coupled with the success of favorites in Week 13 — pushes us towards the underdogs.
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: 52-34-1 (Last Week: 4-3)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 106-82-4 (Last Week: 12-4)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Minnesota Vikings (+7.5)* at Arizona Cardinals
Week 14 kicks off with the perfect example of one franchise rising while the other falls. Arizona’s hot streak has the team soaring up the NFC standings, while Minnesota — losers of two of its last three games — is struggling to hold its slim division lead. Naturally, it is always worth looking into the circumstances surrounding these streaks rather than taking anything at face value.
Arizona enters Thursday Night Football on a six-game winning streak — which is, in itself, likely getting too long — however, their last six wins include games against the Ravens, Browns, 49ers, and Rams. Most importantly, the Cardinals’ top-ranked offense — in both points and yards — managed an average of 23 points-per-game in their last two contests — against San Francisco and St. Louis. The Cardinals are obvious winning, but not with the same level of dominance as in the early portion of the season.
Minnesota has slipped from its perch alone atop the NFC North at an inopportune time, but the level of its opponents has as much to do with their recent 1-2 stretch than the play of the Vikings, themselves. Their two losses have come against the Packers and Seahawks in games where the Vikings were either the favorites or the game had an even spread. Simply put, Minnesota struggles most when it has something to lose.
In addition to both team’s likely regression to their means, the Vikings will actually have their most favorable matchup in weeks. Minnesota’s offense relies heavily on its running game — the seventh-most attempts and fifth-most touchdowns in the league — but it had previously faced the Falcons and Seahawks, who rank eighth and fourth in defensive rushing-yards-per-attempt, respectively. Arizona allows the sixteenth-most rushing-yards-per-attempt.
The Vikings — an 8-4 team that hit a recent speedbump — upset the Cardinals in Arizona on Thursday Night Football, ending their prolonged winning streak. The Vikings win by six and beat the spread.
Washington Redskins (+3.5)* at Chicago Bears
It is somewhat curious that the 5-7 Chicago Bears — losers of two of their last three games, including a home defeat at the hands of the 49ers — are giving any points to a Redskins team that just suffered a nationally-televised loss against a division rival. Then again, the fact that Washington’s most recent defeat was broadcast for all to see likely gives a stronger impression than the reality.
This is exactly what we want in the spread.
Previously opening at two-and-a-half points, the Redskins apparently lost another point simply by looking so inept on Monday Night Football in Week 13. What the number does not capture is that Washington has been an average team, all season, yet has played its best football when needing a win to stay afloat in the pathetic NFC East. Despite seven losses on the year, only once have the Redskins lost back-to-back games.
Even with a 3-3 record in their last six games, the Bears have scored more than 22 points only one time. While Washington is hardly the example of a ‘prolific offense’ — the Redskins have actually failed to break the 20-point barrier in all but one of their last five games — it still outranks Chicago in scoring offense, despite its recent slide. In addition, Washington has reached 100 rushing yards in five games, this season, winning four times. Chicago allows the second-most rushing-yards-per-attempt in the league.
The Redskins rebound in Chicago, winning by a field goal and beating the spread.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+3) at Cincinnati Bengals
What happens when two powerful forces are pulling in opposite directions? For starters, the spread typically sits at the generic ‘three point home favorite,’ making it nearly impossible to get a true read on the story the numbers are telling.
The spread is, of course, only one piece of the puzzle. The bigger picture is how the teams have performed in such situations, to date.
As noted in last week’s column, the Bengals are covering games at an unsustainable, astronomical rate. According to Teamrankings, Cincinnati is now 10-1-1 against the spread after dismantling the lowly Browns in Week 13. At this point, the Bengals will receive no further support from us until they lose against the spread — and even then, the percentage will likely still be too high.
What counters Cincinnati’s impending doom is the seemingly foregone conclusion that the Steelers will be able to prevent the Bengals from clinching the division on Sunday. Because the numbers align so that Pittsburgh — winners of three of their last four games — can actually catch Cincinnati, it is almost too easy to expect this to happen.
At 10-2 and currently holding their own destiny as the top seed in the AFC, the Bengals are, not surprisingly, ranked in the top-four for both scoring offense and scoring defense. Naturally, both teams match up well against one another, and the AFC North rivals are almost guaranteed to enter another slugfest.
While the spread is a non-factor in the sense of providing any hints for the game, it is likely the best representation of the outcome. The Bengals, arguably the best team in the league, clinch the division with a home win. However, Cincinnati wins by two, while Pittsburgh beats the spread.
San Francisco 49ers at Cleveland Browns (-1)*
As amazing as it is for a team with a seven-game losing streak that failed to reach ten point in two of its last three games, the Cleveland Browns are actually favored in a game. It may seem like the spread is driven by the announcement that backup quarterback Johnny Manziel will get the start under center, but his presence in the game is inconsequential. The matchup is simply tilted in Cleveland’s favor.
The Browns have played some of the worst football that the league has seen in years, but they have reached rock bottom on multiple occasions. After losing to the Ravens via a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown, Cleveland responded with a three-point showing at home against the Bengals. The last three times the Browns scored ten points or fewer — that’s right, it has happened three times — they responded in each subsequent game by reaching 20 points.
San Francisco actually enters the contest in the impossible position of having an offense that is worse than Cleveland’s. Ranked dead last in both points and yards, the 49ers are the one team that cannot take advantage of Cleveland’s ineptitude. In addition, asking the 49ers to play an early game in the eastern time zone after they just won in Chicago the week before is too tall of a task for a 4-8 squad.
Cleveland ends its seven-game losing streak with a touchdown win, covering the spread.
San Diego Chargers (+10) at Kansas City Chiefs
What appeared to be impossible as of Week 6 is now looking like the more likely scenario — that is, the Kansas City Chiefs might actually recover from a 1-5 start and make the playoffs. However, while it could happen, it won’t happen easily.
Kansas City avoided a letdown in Week 13 largely because it suffered from a slow start in its Week 12 contest against the Bills. As the Chiefs were able to rebound for a win, they would then carry the momentum over to a road victory in Oakland the following week. As the winning streak extends to a ridiculous six games, there is only so long that the Chiefs can continue to win with such relative ease.
Even with the league’s sixth-best offense in yards gained, the Chargers have managed three points twice in their last three games. They simply aren’t converting yards into points, and one should look no further as to why the team has a 1-7 record in its last eight games. It is worth noting that one of the teams that held the Chargers to only three points is none other than the Chiefs.
Kansas City is simply playing too good a brand of football to lose, right now, but the Chargers have been thoroughly embarrassed by division opponents in recent weeks. Going from Denver’s defense to that of any other team will be a welcomed change for San Diego’s struggling offense, and it will, at least put forth a better showing.
The Chiefs win by a touchdown, but San Diego stays in the game and beats the spread.
Detroit Lions at St. Louis Rams (-1)*
While the Browns are making their own case, is it possible for a team to look worse than the Rams in the last few weeks? Amazingly, since Week 8, the Rams have managed to score as many points or fewer than the week before, capped off by offensive totals of 13 points, 7 points, and 3 points in their last three games, respectively.
Something has to give. No team can consistently play so horribly on one side of the ball, despite the obvious lack in talent.
With the expectation that the Rams, by virtue of nothing other than the law of averages, will rebound — albeit, slightly — perhaps the most interesting aspect of the matchup is the spread. The Lions had, for all intents and purposes, beaten the Packers, only to lose by a Hail Mary on the final — untimed — play of the game. Obviously, the team’s record says otherwise, but the football-watching world — the focal point of spreads — witness the Lions outplay the Packers for most of the game. With that, how is Detroit not the favorite in the game?
The Rams have obviously tanked in recent weeks, but they still feature a relatively-balanced defense that allows the twelfth-fewest points-per-game. Outside its 45-point Thanksgiving outburst against the Eagles, Detroit has failed to reach 24 points in every other one of its games since Week 6.
As St. Louis returns to the mean offensively, it also holds down the Lions’ underwhelming offense. The Rams win by six and cover the spread.
Tennessee Titans at New York Jets (-7)
Is there a team playing in Week 14 more likely due for a rude awakening than the Tennessee Titans? Seven days after torching the Jaguars’ awful defense for 42 points — tying the high-point of the season — the Titans will travel to MetLife Stadium to face the league’s sixth-best defense in yards allowed. Whatever came so easily, last week, will not be the same, this time.
The Jets were five minutes away from falling back to an even record when trailing the Giants by ten with minutes remaining in their Week 13 contest. Largely thanks to the Giants’ horrible defense at the end of games, the Jets secured another win.
Thankfully for New York, the Titans feature a pass defense almost as poor as that of the Giants.
As the Titans face a step up in competition, the Jets are able to maintain their level of play for another win. After all, Tennessee is still a 3-9 franchise that will be coming off an emotional division victory. The Titans will not be able to repeat such a performance, especially against New York.
The Jets win by two touchdowns and cover the large spread.
Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles (+1.5)
Every year, there are anomalies in the National Football League. In 2014, it was the NFC South, ultimately won by a Panthers team with a losing record. In 2015, it looks like the ‘one of these that’s not like the other’ will be the NFC East, which will almost certainly be claimed by a team with a non-winning record.
While the Philadelphia Eagles have played nowhere near the level accustomed to division winners, their most recent victory in New England leaves them in a virtual tie with the Redskins and Giants for first place in the division. What is especially noteworthy is that the Eagles are currently tied for first place after losing three of their last four games.
The Eagles have been in this position before, and squandered the opportunity. Opening up a stretch of games that included the Cowboys, Dolphins, Buccaneers, and Lions, Philadelphia could only secure one win — an overtime victory in Dallas. At the time, each of the games looked like a surefire win for Philadelphia, but injuries to key Eagles players and an improvement across the board for Tampa Bay and Detroit makes the 1-3 performance more forgivable.
Between the injuries and sporadic play, the Eagles are all over the map, statistically. But, in games that Sam Bradford has started and finished, Philadelphia is a respectable 5-4. In addition, in Bradford’s last five ‘complete games,’ the Eagles have scored at least 27 points four times, at least 33 points three times, and their low of 16 points came against the Panthers’ vaunted defense. Buffalo ranks sixteenth in points allowed.
The Eagles remain atop the NFC East with a touchdown victory, beating the spread.
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3.5)
Although the Saints put together one of their most complete performances in a near-upset of the undefeated Panthers in Week 13, they still suffered the same fate that has become the norm — a loss. Now 4-8 and on the brink of clinching the franchise’s first back-to-back pair losing seasons since 1999, the Saints will travel to Tampa Bay to face a hungry division rival still in the playoff hunt.
If there is one thing that is undeniable in New Orleans, it is that the Saints’ defense is completely atrocious. Last in the league in both points and yards allowed, the Saints are a charity for opposing offenses — whatever they want, they take.
In years past, the Buccaneers would hardly be a threat to such a porous defense, but Tampa Bay’s offense has grown over the course of the 2015 season. Naturally, the development of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston is the catalyst for such an improvement, but a surprisingly effective rushing offense is the key to Tampa Bay’s success. With that, the Buccaneers will be able to control the time of possession and put points on the scoreboard, preventing the Saints from keeping pace.
The Buccaneers win by ten and cover the spread.
Atlanta Falcons (+7.5) at Carolina Panthers
With another week comes another opportunity for a team to knock off the undefeated Panthers. While the Saints gave Carolina its closest game since Week 8, the Panthers entered and exited Week 13 perfect.
In what has become a running narrative for this column, the expectation that the Panthers will lose, eventually, remains intact. Teams simply do not go 16-0 and, while the remainder of the team’s schedule appears reasonably winnable, a twelve-game winning streak is, in itself, an example of a squad playing above its head.
Fortunately for Carolina, Atlanta is not the team best-suited to knock off the Panthers. At least, not yet, as the two teams will meet again in two weeks.
Carolina’s pass defense is virtually impenetrable, negating Atlanta’s pass-happy offense. While the Falcons should find relative success running the football — the Panthers allow the tenth-fewest yards-per-carry, but their run defense is comparatively weaker than their pass defense — it won’t be enough to overcome the difficulties of playing in Carolina.
The Panthers improve to 13-0, but, with a scoring offense that is outpacing its yardage, regresses a bit. Atlanta, in the opposite position, keeps the game close, throughout. Carolina wins by four, but Atlanta beats the spread.
Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars (PK)*
The Indianapolis Colts had survived for far too long in the absence of quarterback Andrew Luck. Entering Week 13, the Colts were a remarkable 4-0 with Matt Hasselbeck under center, only to finally get caught out of position by the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.
Although the historical context between Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Jacksonville’s young signal-caller Blake Bortles are not comparable, the style of play for both offenses remain aligned. That is, both the Steelers and Jaguars find success on offense via an aerial attack. Conveniently, the Colts have allowed the third-most passing yards in the league.
Indianapolis has been due to collapse for weeks, and the beginning of the end was highlighted on national television, last week. The Jaguars continue the trend, putting up points in bunches — especially with the return of wide receiver Allen Hurns to the lineup. While the Jaguars’ defense is also suspect, the Colts’ offense without Andrew Luck is still incapable of carrying the team over a prolonged period of time.
Jacksonville wins by seventeen and covers the spread.
Seattle Seahawks at Baltimore Ravens (+6)*
In one of the most lopsided matchups of the week, how could the Ravens possibly keep pace with the Seahawks, let alone win? As we always ask in games that appear to be as one-sided as this, “Why isn’t the spread larger?”
The Seahawks are as hot as any team in the league, winning their last three games and re-entering the playoff picture. They now rank in the top-eight for offensive points and yards gained, as well as the top-three for defensive points and yards allowed. Simply put, they are returning to the form that has been so dominant in recent years.
This does not necessarily suggest they will dominate every game.
While the Ravens continue to see their season sink week after week, they have yet to play a game decided by more than eight points — win or loss. They have an incredible tendency to remain competitive despite the level of play of their opponents and the incredible amount of injuries they have suffered. With such a tantalizing spread, the obvious choice for the Ravens’ first blowout loss appears to be on the horizon.
The key to the game remaining close is the matchup between Baltimore’s defense and Seattle’s offense. Seattle, not necessarily known to run up the scoreboard, has now reached 29 points in each of its last four games, and 38 in each of its last two. However, from Weeks 2 through 8, Seattle had not scored more than 26 points in any single game. Baltimore has not allowed more than 27 points since Week 5.
The Seahawks win on Sunday, but Baltimore keeps Seattle’s offense in check. The Ravens lose by a field goal, but they beat the spread.
Oakland Raiders (+7.5)* at Denver Broncos
As persistent as this column is about the Panthers’ eventual loss, the same could be said for Brock Osweiler in Denver. The Broncos and their top-two defense — in both points and yards allowed — continue to cruise in the absence of quarterback Peyton Manning, but the same expectation of regression for all teams — and, in this case, players — remains valid for Osweiler.
How long can the Broncos realistically play at this level? After all, not only are the Broncos on another winning streak, but Osweiler will be starting his fourth career game on Sunday. As the Raiders’ defense has proven to be one of the worst in the league, what has the new Broncos’ offense done to prove that it can take advantage?
Denver has scored exactly 17 points in two of its last three games, and was aided, once again, by the team’s defense shutting down its opponent. Oakland actually features a relatively successful offense, highlighted by a passing attack with the third-most touchdowns in the league. In addition, the Raiders were dangerously close to completing an upset against the Broncos when the two teams first met in Week 5, only to lose by six.
The Raiders put an end to Osweiler’s perfection, winning by four and beating the spread.
Dallas Cowboys (+7.5) at Green Bay Packers
How would this spread look had the Packers not completed an improbable Hail Mary for a victory in Week 13’s Thursday Night Football game in Detroit? If the 7-5 Packers, losers of five of their last six games, were hosting the Cowboys, would they still be asked to cover such a large spread?
In reality, the Packers are playing at a level far below what they showed in the first half of the season. Indeed, Green Bay is still a good team — and, in fairness, much better than the Cowboys — but why should they expected to revert back to their dominant ways now?
Although the Cowboys have a total of four wins — and only one in games that quarterback Tony Romo has not started — Dallas’ defense is often overlooked. While allowing the eighteenth-most points-per-game, they have actually allowed the fifth-fewest yards. This would suggest that teams are scoring at rate unsustainable for the amount of yards the team actually allows, and it is an issue for a Packers offense that ranks 22nd in yards gained.
Dallas’ offense has become a complete weakness without Romo, and it will not be able to best Green Bay’s sixth-ranked scoring defense. It will, however, remain in the game.
Green Bay wins by a field goal, but Dallas beats the spread.
New England Patriots at Houston Texans (+3.5)*
In an eyeblink, the New England Patriots went from the perfect 10-0 team destined to host the AFC Championship Game to an injury-riddled squad simply trying to secure a first-round bye. Are the Patriots bound to extend their losing skid through the end of the season? Probably not. But are they the same team that opened the year with a 10-0 record? Definitely not.
The Patriots are literally not the same team that began the 2015 season. Most importantly, the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski cannot be understated. He is the rare form of a safety net and a playmaker, able to be utilized whenever quarterback Tom Brady needs him. Of course, Gronkowski’s absence does not make it impossible for New England to win games; it just makes it more difficult.
The Houston Texans played their role in the preamble to this week’s Sunday Night Football matchup perfectly, losing in Week 13 and ending their winning streak at four games. Now able to reset before hosting one of the league’s premier teams on national television, the Texans are in prime position to give New England a fight.
In addition to the circumstance, the Texans feature a strength not typically associated with Houston — a stellar passing attack. The Texans have the third-most attempts and sixth-most touchdown passes in the league. When facing a Patriots’ defense that ranks near the middle of the pack for passing yards allowed, Houston should have no problem keeping pace with a hobbled New England squad.
In the end, the Patriots will not allow the Texans to hand them their third consecutive loss, especially on a national television. But the spread plays perfectly into Houston’s hands. New England wins by a field goal, while the Texans beat the spread.
New York Giants at Miami Dolphins (+1.5)
How easy is it to look at the New York Giants’ inability to close out games and retroactively hand them wins? “The Giants could realistically be 10-2” is not only a phrase commonly uttered, but actively utilized as justification for a 5-7 record.
The New York Giants are 5-7 because they have actually only won five games. If they were a 10-2 squad, such fourth quarter leads would not have been squandered.
The Miami Dolphins have looked no better than their opponents on Monday night, carrying their own 5-7 record into the contest. A complete disappointment across the board, Miami has routinely forgotten to show up to games, altogether, tallying six double-digit losses on the season. In addition, their last two wins have been by a combined three points.
It is no secret that the Giants’ secondary is its biggest weakness, allowing more yards than any other team. With that, the Dolphins will need to do little more than attempt a pass in order to complete it. But where Miami will really shine is its under-utilized rushing attack. Despite averaging the fifth-most yards-per-carry, the Dolphins actually have the fewest rushing attempts in the league.
Why? Most likely, Miami is too busy trying to catch up to teams, as the previously noted amount of blowout losses affords the Dolphins fewer opportunities to run the ball. Imagine what they could do it they led a balanced attack.
The Giants are simply not nearly as good as their close losses suggest. As Miami still features much of the same talent that started the year, the players are now fighting for their individual jobs.
The Dolphins win by ten and beat the spread.