With three weeks remaining in the 2015 National Football League season, there is a distinct split between the hunters and the hunted — those who are chasing and those who are trying to hold off the pack. From division leaders to people picking games against the spread to those who set the lines, everyone either has a lead to protect or a comeback to attempt.
It is during this final stretch where movement can be found everywhere. Gameplans and strategies are frequently abandoned while an ongoing game of chess sorts itself out. On the football field, this often materializes in the form of coaches with little to lose playing a more aggressive game — this benefits underdogs, as there are unorthodox methods to keeping a game close. On paper, those who make the spreads are trying to protect their gains, and do so by moving the number more than usual.
After the middle portion of the season provided a bevy of wins for the underdogs, the favorites started to regain their edge. As always, with this column generally leaning on underdogs, it is actually a positive when favorites outperform underdogs and we still find relative success — in essence, when the underdogs explode, so will we.
It has now been three weeks since underdogs last outperformed favorites — and it was with a weak 7-6 performance, at that — yet the pressure continues to build. We saw a small glimpse as to what happens when these trends get too one-sided over the past two weeks as Carolina — in New Orleans — and Cincinnati — in Pittsburgh — finally lost against the spread, but the wholesale shift has not yet occurred.
When it does, we will be ready.
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: 58-36-1 (Last Week: 6-2)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 116-88-4 (Last Week: 10-6)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams (-1.5)*
In easily one of the most lackluster primetime matchups of the past few years, the Rams will host the Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football in a game that has almost no playoff implications. While both teams are mathematically alive, only the Buccaneers have an outside shot at sneaking into a Wild Card spot, but it would take a combination of somewhat unlikely events.
The first of which would be a primetime road win.
In what has become the norm for Week 15, the spread on the game currently looks vastly different from the one that opened. In the beginning, the Buccaneers were the team giving points — one point, to be exact — only to have the line shift towards St. Louis. If this had been done in an effort to balance out the overwhelming amount of people picking the Rams — basically, if a premium was added to St. Louis because of overwhelming support — it would make sense. Instead, neither the public perception nor any outside influence has moved the number.
The simplicity of the game, itself, is covered in the spread. Namely, at this stage of the season, the Rams are approximately a field goal better than the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay actually features both a phenomenal rushing offense and defense — both rank second in the league in yards-per-attempt — which should counter St. Louis’ top-ranked rushing attack — also in yards-per-attempt. But St. Louis — specifically head coach Jeff Fisher — has a history of playing unconventional football, as evident by dynamic wide receiver Tavon Austin ranking third on the team in carries with a whopping 39. With the national spotlight in what some are speculating might be the last game for the Rams in St. Louis, the franchise will not go out a loser.
The Rams win by four and cover.
New York Jets at Dallas Cowboys (+3)*
Sometimes, there is no logical explanation. While it wasn’t a nationally televised game in the typical format of Sunday, Monday, or Thursday Night Football, the Dallas Cowboys were highlighted as one of two late games in Week 14. When they lost in Green Bay, most of the country took notice. Especially since the team managed a total of seven points in sixty minutes of uninspired football.
As the Cowboys head into an actual standalone game — again, not necessarily in the traditional sense, but in the form of a Saturday night matchup — how is it possible that they are only receiving three points from a Jets team that just destroyed the Titans for its third consecutive win?
Whenever the spread appears to be so unbalanced, a ‘trap game’ is in the works. The trap is intensified when the team giving points is on a winning streak and will be facing a division rival — in New England — the following week. Basically, the Jets are in the perfect position to overlook the Cowboys.
For all the struggles that the Cowboys have endured over the course of the season, their defense still ranks ninth in the league in yards allowed. While the Jets’ offense coincidentally ranks ninth in the league in offensive yards gained, Dallas’ only strength — coupled with the spread — suggest that New York will not pull away easily.
The Jets win by a single point, but the Cowboys beat the spread.
Chicago Bears (+5.5)* at Minnesota Vikings
The same question that can be asked of the Bears pertains to the Vikings, as well — which version of the team is real? Chicago completely reversed course on an 0-3 start to improve to 4-5 before losing three of their last four games. Minnesota took a similar path — albeit, with a hotter start — moving from 2-2 to 7-2 in an instant, only to also lose three of its last four games.
What has carried Minnesota to this point — a rushing attack that ranks fifth in yards and touchdowns — will be utilized against a Chicago team that allows the third-most rushing-yards-per-attempt. In fact, it will be the same gameplan that the Vikings employed during their Week 8 victory over the Bears — although Chicago led late into the fourth quarter, only to allow ten points in two minutes of game time.
Despite a non-existent passing attack, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater‘s protection of the football — coupled with a top-ten scoring defense and the aforementioned rushing offense — has been paramount in the team’s eight wins. The downside of this strategy is that Minnesota is not known to light up the scoreboard — the Vikings have scored 30 points only twice, all season, and have not broken the 20-point barrier in four games.
The lack of a passing attack has resulted in two blowout losses in the last four weeks, as the Vikings are simply unable to recover. With that, Chicago only needs to take the lead to secure it — the Bears have allowed the second-fewest passing yards in the league.
Chicago avenges its loss from earlier in the season, winning by six and beating the spread.
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts (PK)
Everything about the AFC South is a disaster. While a Week 15 matchup between two teams sharing a division lead is usually the perfect setup for a dramatic football game, neither team will have its Opening Day starting quarterback on the field. In fact, at the time of this writing, the best-case scenario is that the Colts’ second string quarterback will face the Texans’ third string quarterback.
Don’t bother making popcorn.
While T.J. Yates was able to hold down the fort in his one start for Houston, this season, the offensively-challenged Texans — scoring the eighth-fewest points in the league — cannot afford to rely on Yates again. Considering how poorly the Texans run the football — they average the second-fewest rushing-yards-per-carry in the league — the Texans’ offense is in trouble.
It would appear as if the Colts are in a similar situation if Matt Hasselbeck is inactive on Sunday, but backup-to-the-backup Charlie Whitehurst is a formidable option for a single game. Like Houston, turning to a third-string quarterback may work once, but the Colts would be pushing their luck beyond Sunday. Whitehurst is not entirely removed from NFL action, as he finished last season with five starts, seven games played, and a rather impressive 7-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Obviously, if Hasselbeck can play, the Colts get an even bigger bump.
Indianapolis has dominated the division for years, and, after getting embarrassed by the Jaguars for their first AFC South loss since the 2012 season, will rebound at home with first place on the line. The Colts win by six and cover.
Tennessee Titans (+14) at New England Patriots
One week after getting dismantled by the Jets, the Tennessee Titans might be walking right back into the slaughterhouse. Then again, wouldn’t the team be a little more prepared this time around?
While a squad cannot simply grow talent or cover weaknesses at this point of the season, there is innate value in what happens on a week-by-week basis. In the case of the Titans, their recent blowout loss is nothing short of a learning experience for an interim head coach and a rookie quarterback. To think that Tennessee will limp into New England without better protection is to assume that the franchise left MetLife Stadium satisfied. In addition, the 3-10 Titans have nothing to lose and will likely not hesitate to take extra chances with an aggressive gameplan.
The Patriots are as close to a guarantee as it gets as the calendar shrinks and the stakes are highest. Currently in control of their own destiny as the top seed in the AFC, the Patriots will not allow the Titans to steal a win in their building. They just won’t blow them out, either.
New England continues to suffer an unnatural number of injuries, the most latest of which is the loss of running back LeGarrette Blount for the remainder of the year. The Patriots have been able to survive these losses at an impressive rate, but a natural slowdown in performance is expected.
The Patriots win by a touchdown but the Titans beat the spread.
Carolina Panthers at New York Giants (+5)
In the middle of a three-team race for a terrible division, a matchup against the 13-0 Panthers is the game that New York is ‘expected’ to lose. The same was true for the Eagles in New England. The same was true for countless teams that defy the odds and win games that they ‘shouldn’t.’
If the Giants have a reputation for anything over the years, it is not their propensity to blow late leads, but rather to rise to the occasion and play to the level of their superior opponents. In fact, the Giants already played this game — and lost — when they went toe-to-toe with the then-undefeated Patriots in Week 10.
As it often is, perhaps the spread for Sunday’s game is the best indicator for the contest. In a week where movement in the numbers is commonplace, the spread for this particular matchup has shifted only one point since its open. While this is not normally a reason to act, on its own, it is especially noteworthy when following a nationally-televised win.
When the Giants beat the Dolphins on Monday Night Football, it should have sent a ripple effect into Week 15. It should have made the Giants look better than their opening spread, thus bringing the number down. Instead, the spread increased. In short, the fact that the number was ‘too small’ in the beginning is an indication that the Giants were initially expected to beat the spread, only to get another point due to Carolina’s support.
The Panthers have been breaking the trend of prolonged winning streaks to begin a season for months, and they remain overdue for a loss. While this narrative has been a constant for this column on a weekly basis, the statistics are still outrageous. Most notably, the Panthers have not scored fewer than 33 points in a game since Week 10, and, while New York’s defense is suspect, at best, a regression by Carolina will help keep the Giants in the game. As New York scores the seventh-most points in the league, such a regression is all the Giants need to complete the upset.
The Giants win by a field goal and hand the Panthers their first loss of the season.
Washington Redskins at Buffalo Bills (-1)
In a somewhat odd scheduling twist, the Bills are about to play their second of three consecutive games against NFC East opponents. After failing to beat the Eagles on the road — and, in all likelihood, getting eliminated from postseason contention — the Bills will travel to Washington to face a continually underrated Redskins team.
While Washington constantly suffers from public ire, the final three weeks of the season afford the Redskins the perfect opportunity to make a statement. Unfortunately, the Bills are arguably the worst possible matchup for Washington.
Like most of head coach Rex Ryan’s teams, Buffalo relies heavily on its rushing attack. On a normal week, the scales are tilted towards the run — the Bills have the third-most rushing attempts, but third-fewest passing attempts in the league — but it is especially pronounced after a loss. Since Week 4, the Bills managed more rushing yards in every single game following a loss than in the actual loss, itself. In essence, when the Bills prepare as if they need to win, they settle into their comfort zone — running the football.
The Redskins allow the fourth-most rushing-yards-per-attempt in the league.
Buffalo wins by six and covers.
Atlanta Falcons (+3)* at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Atlanta Falcons are in the middle of the perfect storm. After getting obliterated and shutout by their rivals in Carolina, they will take their six-game losing streak even further south to Jacksonville. While the Jaguars actually have a somewhat realistic chance at the dismal AFC South title, they are still a 5-8 team about to head into a horrible matchup.
Everything about the Falcons suggests a rebound is coming in Week 15. With another showdown against the Panthers looming the following week, Atlanta will find solace in facing the Jaguars’ porous defense — allowing the third-most points in the league. As always, the length of the team’s losing streak is also a contributing factor for a return to the mean, as is the unprecedented disparity in both team’s most recent games — the Jaguars are coming off a 51-16 win while the Falcons just lost 38-0.
In addition to the Falcons’ offense expecting to thrive, the team’s defense enters the game with the sixth most interceptions in the league. While Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has been compiling impressive touchdown totals, he has also thrown the third-most interceptions in the league.
The Falcons end their losing streak with a two touchdown win, beating the spread.
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens (+7.5)
If the National Football League has taught us anything over the years, it is that nothing is as easy as it looks. After the Kansas City Chiefs began their unprecedented comeback from a 1-5 record, it was almost impossible to not hand the team ten wins out of their final ten games. A perfect 7-0 since the recovery began, there appears, at first glance, to be no conceivable way that the 4-9 Baltimore Ravens can end the Chiefs’ streak.
As always, such a forgone conclusion is worth reassessing. Like the matchup between the Seahawks and Ravens, last week, the extended winning streak and relative lack of offensive explosiveness for Baltimore’s opponent actually limits the probability of a blowout. Naturally, the Seahawks did not abide by this rule, but to expect the same outcome for two consecutive weeks is dangerous, especially when the second opponent — Kansas City — statistically has a worse offense than the first — Seattle.
Baltimore is, once again, overmatched, but the team had not played a game with a final score separated by more than eight points until getting steamrolled by the Seahawks in Week 14. The same characteristic that helped the squad stay in every game prior to last week still exists, and, with Baltimore’s point totals decreasing to thirteen, then six, in its last two games, a rebound of sorts is in order.
In the end, the Chiefs will extend their winning streak to eight games with a six-point victory, but Baltimore plays its vintage close game and beats the spread.
Green Bay Packers at Oakland Raiders (+3)*
We have now reached the time of year where teams will suddenly fall off the face of the earth. As the weight of trying to compete against franchises with actual playoff hopes grows too large, many will get crushed.
The Oakland Raiders will not.
Across the board, 2015 has played out differently for the Raiders. Already with more wins than each of their last three seasons, they have the talent and relative success to close out the year on a high note. With the Packers and Chiefs as two of their final three opponents, the task will not be easy. That is, if the Packers are the same team that started the year 6-0.
Despite a 2-1 record, the Packers have slowed down in the past three weeks. After losing to the Bears, Green Bay beat Detroit via a Hail Mary, then led Dallas by only one touchdown late in the fourth quarter before eventually pulling away. In addition, the Packers have reached the 30-point barrier only once since Week 3.
The Raiders take advantage of a Packers team currently playing worse than its record. Oakland wins by a field goal and beats the spread.
Cleveland Browns (+14.5) at Seattle Seahawks
There is unsustainable, and then there is flat-out ridiculous. What the Seahawks have done in the past four weeks is the latter.
With three consecutive games of at least 35 points, Seattle has been downright unbeatable for weeks. As if the offensive explosions weren’t enough, the defense has allowed a total of 13 points in the past two games, combined, and fewer than 13 points in three of its last four games.
The Seahawks are going to slow down.
While Seattle has looked like the version of itself from the past few seasons over the last four weeks, it took more than half the season to reach this point. After all, the Seahawks were 4-5 as of Week 10. While they have clearly steadied their ship for the final stretch of the season, they cannot be expected to dismantle every team along the way, especially without running backs Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls. With that, the Browns won’t threaten the Seahawks on Sunday, but they will stay within the large spread.
Seattle wins by ten, but Cleveland beats the spread.
Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers (-6)
As ridiculous as it might seem, are the 8-5 Steelers actually in better shape than the 10-3 Broncos? Statistically speaking, not unless Pittsburgh wins and Cincinnati loses, but the Steelers are the team currently trending up while the Broncos’ arrow points down.
Denver finally got caught out of position with backup quarterback Brock Osweiler playing over his head. Granted, the Broncos’ defense remains the best in the game — both in points and yards allowed — but what good is an impenetrable defense when the offense can’t score? In three of Osweiler’s four starts, the team has scored 17 points or fewer.
The magic has run its course in Denver. There was only so long that the team could survive without Peyton Manning, and the beginning of the end was on display in Week 14. Pittsburgh furthers Denver’s drop-off while holding serve at home.
The Steelers win by ten and cover.
Miami Dolphins at San Diego Chargers (-1.5)*
When the Chargers and Dolphins square off on Sunday, it will have absolutely no impact on the rest of the league. Whichever team wins the game will be inconsequential to anything besides next season’s draft order. The only positive outcome is that each franchise will be sixty minutes of gametime closer to the end.
While the Dolphins showed flashes of solid play in Week 14’s Monday night loss to the Giants, they quickly went into an offensive shell and never reemerged. As it has been the case all year, Miami continues to give the impression that it wants no part of this season.
Conversely, the Chargers have now put forth back-to-back losing efforts in which their defense allowed only ten points. Their offense, however, was simply unable to do anything against the defenses of Kansas City and Denver. Miami’s defense — ranked 27th in points allowed — is not in the same stratosphere.
Incredibly, San Diego has scored only three points in three of its last four games, and is poised to explode in its final home game of the season — and possibly the final game in San Diego. The Chargers win by seventeen and cover.
Cincinnati Bengals at San Francisco 49ers (+4.5)
It just cannot be easy for Cincinnati. Ever. After starting the season 8-0, then 10-2, holding first place in the AFC, the Bengals lost the opportunity to clinch their division and their quarterback in a Week 14 loss to the Steelers. With two road games ahead and no Andy Dalton, everything that the Bengals accomplished might come crashing down.
As stated numerous times in the past few weeks, the expectation for the Bengals to regress has been present for a while. Even after their Week 14 loss, Cincinnati is still an astonishing 83.3 percent against the spread. Considering how rarely teams finish above 70 percent against the spread — the 2012 Seahawks were the last team to accomplish this — the Bengals still have room to fall.
For the 49ers and their last-ranked offense — in points and yards — the Bengals had been the most difficult of their remaining opponents. The loss of Dalton brings Cincinnati back to level closer to San Francisco, and it allows the 49ers to play ‘spoiler’ before the season’s end.
Unfortunately for San Francisco, its complete lack of offense will make it virtually impossible to move the football against a Bengals defense that ranks second in points allowed and now carries the burden of the entire team. Cincinnati still wins out in the end, but only by a field goal, as San Francisco beats the spread.
Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles (+3.5)*
Considering how many nationally-televised games each franchise has played in 2015 — four primetime games for each team and one Thanksgiving afternoon game for Philadelphia — it was only a matter of time before the two collided in front of the entire country. As the Eagles have stayed alive in the dismal NFC East race via back-to-back wins, the Cardinals have cruised to another playoff berth thanks to a seven-game winning streak.
Naturally, the spread would only be three-and-a-half.
In addition to the nature of a long winning streak being difficult to maintain, the Cardinals have also remained relatively untested. Only two of the seven games were settled by a field goal, and the level of talent that Arizona beat ranges from the lows of Cleveland and Baltimore to the apex of Cincinnati and Seattle. Basically, the Cardinals have done it all. Including securing a playoff berth.
What gets lost in the shuffle of one win after another is that the Cardinals have been gradually slowing down. After scoring at least 34 points in three consecutive games, the Cardinals have not broken the 27-point barrier in any of their last three contests. The Eagles enter the game with the opposite trend, as they had three consecutive games scoring fewer than 20 points — quarterback Sam Bradford missed at least part of each of these three — before scoring a combined 58 points over their last two.
The Eagles have been cast aside on countless occasions in 2015, but they remain in control of their destiny while hosting two primetime games and playing two division opponents in the final three weeks. They continue to flirt with an all-out explosion, but they are finally healthy at the right time and appear willing to play only the personnel that best fits their system — which may include running back DeMarco Murray continuing to see less playing time.
The Eagles — 6-4 in games that Bradford has started and finished — are ready to take the next step against a Cardinals team that is about to take its foot off the proverbial gas pedal. Philadelphia wins by a touchdown and covers.
Detroit Lions (+3)* at New Orleans Saints
With the way the 2015 season has transpired for Detroit, it has become common knowledge that the Lions aren’t a good football team. The sad reality has been accepted across the football world regarding Detroit. Why hasn’t it reached New Orleans?
It is easy to remember how dangerous quarterback Drew Brees can be. It feels like only yesterday when head coach Sean Payton was calling an onside kick in a Super Bowl — that his team won. With that, it is a bit more difficult to put the Saints in the same category as the Lions.
They should be. The Saints are also a bad football team.
At 5-8, New Orleans features one of the worst defenses in recent history. Even after holding the Buccaneers to 17 points in a Week 14 win, the Saints still rank last in points allowed. While Detroit, on the season, only ranks 23rd in points scored, it has the weapons in place to exploit the Saints.
The Lions have taken strides in erasing the memory of a 1-7 start by winning three consecutive games before losing to the Packers via a Hail Mary, then falling asleep against the Rams. Assuming that Detroit is now closer to the 3-2 team — with one heart-breaking loss — than its 1-7 counterpart, the game should be tilted largely in its favor.
The Lions win by ten and beat the spread.