There is a fairly common belief that Week 1 of any given season is the most difficult to predict.
While it is true that we don’t entirely know what to expect from a team before we have seen it in meaningful action we do, at least, know the intention. We know every single team wants to win on Opening Day, and we know they will put their best effort into the weekend. We cannot say the same for Week 17.
We have little proof that playoff-bound teams will care enough about the final regular season game to compete for 60 minutes and, worse, we cannot guarantee that another game won’t influence how the remainder of the first will be managed. For example, if the Saints start pulling away from the Buccaneers, will the Panthers hold back some players in Atlanta?
Thankfully, we actually do not have as many teams in direct competition as it might appear, given the overlap of games. Most teams are jockeying for position, and only a select few have a realistic chance to improve their standing. And, we can always look back to years past and find some interesting commonalities to what we have in front of us, especially with how the spreads foresee the closing of a given season.
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 – 2017 Season: 47-44-4 (Last Week: 3-3)
(2016 Season: 53-67-3) (2015 Season: 69-45-2) (2014 Season: 61-46-2) (3-Year Total: 183-158-7)
All Picks Against Spread – 2017 Season: 123-107-9 (Last Week: 9-6-1)
(2016 Season: 123-136-8) (2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4) (3-Year Total: 415-367-19)
For the final week of the season, I decided to put my pick after each write-up for dramatic purposes. Let me know if you like this change and I’ll implement it for next year’s column. Either email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at me @MarioMergola. As always, thanks for reading!
Week 17 Picks Against the Point Spread
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
I’ve written about it often over the past few weeks, but the Carolina Panthers are the epitome of a team with high highs and lower lows. When the Panthers are winning, they enjoy embarrassing opponents. But when it loses, it is generally noncompetitive. Such has been the case in 2017 as, of Carolina’s four losses, three were by a double-digit margin-of-victory.
Playing into the Panthers’ mind games is the fact that the team’s fate will likely already be decided before kickoff. Unlike most of the games that have been scheduled in the same timeslot as others who need help, the Panthers’ only hope to advance to a top-two seed – and secure a bye – would come from a Vikings loss. Minnesota is playing at home against the Bears and, as stated already, a loss is unlikely. But, Minnesota is also playing this game before Carolina’s. If – and, really, when – the Vikings win, the Panthers will be out of the race for the second seed. But, they do still have a reason to win.
A win for Carolina and a loss for New Orleans would clinch the NFC South for the Panthers. Really, the latter is going to be a more difficult task because the Saints would have to lose in Tampa Bay, but the point is that Carolina’s push for improving its standing is not without its merits.
Of course, Atlanta’s desire to win is arguably the most valuable of all, as the Falcons would be eliminated with a loss and advance with a win.
This constant game of “Which team wants it more?” helps hammer down why the spread has sat an even four points and not budged, all week. It is one of the only spreads to have not moved, and it is because there is pressure from both sides. The home team giving points in a true must-win gives the Falcons the edge in the spread. This, coupled with the Panthers’ nature to fall out of a game and not recover gives the Falcons the edge against-the-spread, as well.
The Panthers were fortunate to survive an attack from the Buccaneers at home in Week 16, but they won’t be able to topple a Falcons team with unfinished business after last year’s epic collapse in the Super Bowl. Atlanta wins by six points and covers the spread.
Prediction: Atlanta Falcons (-4)
New York Jets at New England Patriots
I am never one to take the obvious route, but let’s consider a few possibilities and facts regarding Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Truly anything can happen in a division game. This is one my most commonly argued beliefs, but, while it holds water, it doesn’t entirely come into play on Sunday. By design, every game is a division game. Still, it is possible for the Jets to win. We need to remember that. It is, of course, much more possible for the incredibly superior team from New England to come out ahead.
Listing the facts, we can actually prove how legitimate the “possibilities” are for Sunday. That is, despite the Patriots winning seven-of-their-last-nine matchups with the Jets, a whopping eight have been decided by seven points or fewer. A percentage of frequency that high bears repeating and rephrasing. Eight-of-the-last-nine final scores between the Patriots and Jets were separated by no more than a touchdown. Had New England been a heavy favorite in all nine of these games, they would have failed to cover in all but one.
By combining the potential for Sunday’s matchup and history between the two teams at play, we can see that the Jets beating a massive spread is well within reason. And, we can even throw in the fact that New York has the fourth-best against-the-spread record in the league at 9-5-1, this year. But, what does it mean? How does any of this apply to Sunday’s game?
It doesn’t. At least, not directly. That’s the beauty of it.
New York’s teams of the past have little to do with Sunday’s matchup for a variety of reasons. Two of these reasons stand above the rest: New England’s goals and New York’s trends. Specifically, the Patriots find themselves in the rare situation of needing a win in order to clinch something in Week 17.
By now, New England is usually in the debate for resting players. Not in 2017. The drive is there for a big win by the Patriots. And, it plays into the latter point about the Jets’ recent success. Playing well against New England is great for the mid-season contests in which the Jets are thoroughly over-matched by the Patriots, yet still deliver against-the-spread. But, it also leaves New York over-extended. The Jets have reached the end of a surprising season, but one that will still result in only a 5-11 record. The push has been admirable, as well as the 88.9 percent rate at which the Jets have played close games against the Patriots. Both are about to end.
New York heads into another offseason of turmoil while New England closes another regular season with a first-place finish in the conference. The Patriots end the year in style with a vintage 27-point beatdown of the Jets, easily covering the massive spread.
Confidence Pick: New England Patriots (-15.5)*
Click here to sign up for Sporfolio to see the rest of Mario Mergola’s NFL picks against the point spread. Mergola finished with the highest total of correct NFL picks against the spread for 2015 and 2016 – tracked by NFLPickwatch – and finished 2015 with an accuracy of 60.53% for his confidence picks.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr CC 2.0