Week 15 NFL Picks
Week 15 kicked off with Brock Osweiler coming on in relief of the injured Trevor Siemian to smoke the Indianapolis Colts who led 10-0 when #17 entered. If the rest of the games have that kind of surprise waiting for us, we’re in for a helluva week! A few marquee match ups are dominating the headlines, but the SportsIntel analysts are picking every game with meaningful playoff implications.
Picks by Brad
Miami Dolphins (6-7) @ Buffalo Bills (7-6); Line: Bills by 3
These division rivals meet for the first time in 2017 meaning that they’ll play again just two weeks from now on the final day of the regular season. Miami comes in off a stunning upset of the Patriots as double-digit home underdogs, while the Bills moved ahead of the Ravens into a playoff spot by eking out an OT win against the Colts in a Western NY blizzard. While the game on the field is critical for both teams to remain in the playoff hunt, there will be some scoreboard watching as well as neither team controls its playoff fate. The tiebreakers are a tangled mess as the Bills beat the Chiefs and lost to the Chargers while the Dolphins beat the Chargers, lost to the Ravens, and still have the Chiefs on their schedule.
Miami has been bad on the road and, while no blizzard is in the forecast, it’s going to be very cold. Buffalo has been a solid home team and welcomes back QB Tyrod Taylor. Jay Cutler has shown flashes in recent weeks, but I don’t see the Dolphins catching lightning in a bottle again just six days removed from the shocker against the Patriots. Bills 20, Dolphins 17
Los Angeles Rams (9-4) @ Seattle Seahawks (8-5); Line: ‘Hawks by 2.5
Despite the home loss to Philly last week, the Rams remain #1 in DVOA by Football Outsiders, 10 spots ahead of the Seahawks. Coupled with the extensive injuries to the Seattle defense, I find this line somewhat surprising. A December trip to the Pacific northwest is no picnic, but the Rams may be football’s most balanced team and possess a significant edge on special teams in this match up to boot. With an athletic defense they have demonstrated an ability to limit the damage that Russell Wilson does with his legs and have made a habit of beating the Seahawks. So if Philly was favored by a few points in Seattle, shouldn’t the Rams be favored too? To explain the line I would say that the gambling public realized that they counted out the proud Seahawks too quickly and underestimated the power of home field advantage.
It’s hard to imagine either team losing for the second straight week at this critical juncture, but Seattle seems due for more of a bounce back after a sloppy loss last week in Jacksonville. All season long their struggles have come against unfamiliar foes, as evidenced by a 4-0 record in division and 4-5 clip in other games. The way the remaining schedule sets up, this looks like a de facto division championship game and I think you have to roll with the home team in that spot even if the numbers attempt to persuade you otherwise. Seahawks 31, Rams 28
Atlanta Falcons (8-5) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9); Line: Falcons by 7
Atlanta is well rested after a strange win 10 days ago against New Orleans at home. Despite three INTs from Matty Ice, the Falcons won a tight game to keep their playoff dreams squarely in play. Tampa finds itself in a very different place with three straight losses and only the spoiler’s role to play in three remaining games against division foes. I know the Falcons are dead to Chris, but I believe they have regained something lost since the Super Bowl collapse and that experience will play well in prime time on the road against a floundering Tampa team.
A quick aside on the Buccaneer QB while we’re here: The degree to which Jameis’ shoulder has healed remains unclear, but he’s out there playing for a team that has an adequate backup and nothing to play for. To me, this indicates that he’s doing just fine physically, which means that something else is leading to the bevy of mistakes he makes week in and week out. Since his days at Florida State, it has been my opinion that a lack of maturity was causing Winston to prepare poorly, but that bad habit never caught up to him until he rose to the highest level of football. Here in year three, right before our eyes, Jameis has regressed and I believe his best play is already behind him.
Back to Monday Night Football: Every metric, every trend, every statistic screams victory for Atlanta. In fact, the only thing keeping this betting line in single digits is the venue, but home field advantage won’t be enough to keep the Bucs within shouting distance of the Dirty Birds. Falcons 31, Buccaneers 9
Picks by Chris
Chicago Bears (4-9) @ Detroit Lions (7-6); Line: Lions by 5
Looking at this game solely on the strength of their records obfuscates the importance of this match-up in the grander scheme of things. The Chicago Bears (4-9) have the ability to influence the NFC playoff picture with a win over the Detroit Lions (7-6) and that’s why this is an exciting look for fans around the league. Advancing to 8-6 means drawing another breath and climbing closer to the playoffs, while dropping one to the Bears means losing any hope of advancing into the post-season. The NFC race is so tight even a 10-6 team might not see the light at the end of the tunnel depending on how a tiebreaker scenario might shake out, so the Lions need this win badly.
At this point in the season, the Bears have nothing to lose and are playing for divisional and professional pride, and, of course, future contract considerations. Outside of their top-10 running game, the Bears have an abysmal offense so they’ll have to rely on their defense to create takeaways and possibly some points. Rookie starter Mitch Trubisky has done little to impress this season and it would take a complete turnaround for him to influence the outcome of this game. Meanwhile, the Lions boast a high-scoring offense, largely because of their quarterback Matthew Stafford and the fourth best passing attack in the league. Similar to previous years, the Lions have opted to put all the marbles on their quarterback’s arm, because their rushing offense is the worst in the league by a sizable margin.
Still, I don’t see the Bears upsetting the Lions on their home turf with the playoffs hanging in the balance. Lions 35, Bears 17.
Los Angeles Chargers (7-6) @ Kansas City Chiefs (7-6); Line: Bolts by 1
All season you’ve read columns from Brad and Danny discussing the importance of home field advantage and for the most part I’ve avoided mentioning such things. I think there are a lot of superstitious beliefs surrounding playing at home versus on the road, and while I recognize things like crowd noise might have some slight influence on a game, I believe those are just factors that can be mitigated by being a disciplined, well-coached team. Case in point, the Los Angeles Chargers are entering Arrowhead Stadium and I think they’ll be just fine playing this one on the road. They’re riding a red-hot four game winning streak into Sunday’s contest and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it five in Kansas City.
The Chargers are ranked fifth in the league with 372 yards-per-game of total offense of which their 273 passing yards-per-game average is good for the third best mark in the NFL. Conversely, they’re equally talented at shutting down opposing passers with a top three passing defense allowing only 200 yards-per-game on average, though it’s important to keep an eye on the Casey Hayward (former Packer by the way) injury situation as the loss of the No. 1 overall cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, would be a major blow to this defense.
Luckily for the Chargers, the Chiefs have been struggling to find themselves after an electrifying start to the season. They’ve only managed one win in their last five contests and I believe they’ve been a team without an offensive identity for several weeks now. The eternal game manager, Alex Smith, appeared a different man to open the season taking risks for great reward as he found himself throwing the long ball effectively to start the year. Their recent drought appeared to coincide with Smith relying more on his usual, highly efficient, but predictable short yardage passes from seasons past. I speculated a few weeks ago this was probably more Andy Reid’s play calling, and with Andy passing those duties off to the offensive coordinator, the Chiefs saw success against the Raiders and in a heart breaker of a loss against the Jets the week before that. Moving forward, I think Andy is prepared to let Alex Smith be more aggressive as their playoff hopes live or die in the waning weeks of the season and if they can get a little help from rookie Kareem Hunt this offense is very capable of exploding beyond their already high averages.
I don’t believe the Chiefs are going to allow the Chargers to walk all over them, though Philip Rivers should definitely have an advantage against a secondary that’s given up a whopping 248.5 yards-per-game for a league ranking of 28 out of 32. On paper this match up appears to be favorable to the Chargers, but previous experience with this Charger team means they are very capable of laying an egg when things are looking the best for them. They’ve burned me before and I’m not sure I can trust them to meet expectations even when the money is right.
I picked this Charger team once before in a game on the road and while I try to go by the numbers, I’m taking the Chiefs because they’re the home team and I have a feeling they’re coming to play. Chiefs 28, Chargers 24.
And because Eric Berry has me ALL FIRED UP for the weekend.
“When you come to Arrowhead on Saturday, make sure y’all bring it.”
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 15, 2017
Philadelphia Eagles (11-2) @ New York Giants (2-11); Line: Iggles by 8.5
The contest between these two teams doesn’t carry big post-season implications and with the Eagles having already clinched their division, a loss to the Giants would be more ego-killer than anything else. With that said, there are some intriguing storylines here that make the game worth watching. First, Nick Foles. In a season full of injured star players, Carson Wentz is possibly the most devastating because the Eagles were projected by many to be Super Bowl bound based largely on the MVP-caliber play of their second year signal caller. All that said, they’re by no means a dud without Wentz in the lineup. They rank third in total offense and fourth in total defense. The Eagles are strong at running the ball and defending against the run and they’ve got depth on both sides of the ball. Heading into Week 15, they’re mostly a healthy team, and despite losing their QB1, they have a potential winner in backup QB Nick Foles.
Nick Foles is no stranger to filling in for an injured teammate, his last backup action saw him tally an impressive 8-2 record as a starter, throw for nearly 3,000 yards with a 64 percent completion percentage, with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. That year the Eagles won the NFC East title and Foles nabbed Pro Bowl MVP honors. If he can perform somewhere near his 119.2 passer rating from that stretch, the Eagles definitely have a shot at going the distance. We haven’t seen much from Nick as his time in relief last week was limited to just one quarter. He did make an impressive throw on third and long to keep the ball away from the Rams late in the fourth but we need more recent game time to get a good handle on where he’s at with this offense.
The final games of the regular season for both of these teams will be an exercise in handling adversity. The Eagles get their first real taste of life without Wentz and the Giants will see if they can hold it all together and finish strong after a very disappointing season. Front office and coaching pressure has meant some strange goings on in New York, like the benching of future Hall of Famer Eli Manning for Geno Smith, and now we’ve reports that Eli Apple is at odds with teammate Landon Collins and his future might be in question with the Giants organization though he says he wants to stay. While Manning is the starter again, the situation with Apple is ongoing. Apple is a young, talented cornerback out of Ohio State and his time in the Big Apple looked to be long-term affair at the start of the season. But a season of struggle and losing can take its toll on a team and it’s anyone’s guess as to when Apple gets back on the field after being a healthy scratch for the last four weeks. We’ll continue to monitor this situation with the Giants, but in the meantime, you should expect a win for the Eagles this week. Eagles 28, Giants 14.
A word of caution for Eagles fans… don’t weigh the regular season success too heavily as all are mortal come playoff time. The Cowboys figured that out in brutal fashion last season and I’d hate for Philly to get their hopes too high…
Green Bay Packers (7-6) @ Carolina Panthers (9-4); Line: Panthers by 2.5
The Panthers are a nice football team. They’ve got a solid, top-5 defense giving up only 302 yards-per-game. Cam Newton has risen to the occasion in big moments this season, though his passing numbers leave much to be desired when compared to his peers. Unfortunately, this week they go without Shaq Thompson and Trai Turner but they’re matched up with a bruised and battered Packers team that’s underperformed with backup quarterback Brett Hundley under center.
But in Week 15, Hundley’s back on the bench.
It’s no secret, Aaron Rodgers is the biggest story-line of the weekend with the whole league wondering how he’s going to do at Bank of American Stadium on Sunday. Just eight weeks after breaking his collarbone, on his throwing side, he’s back in uniform and looking to close out the season with three wins to put the Packers in the playoffs. A feat many thought a long-shot just weeks ago and easier said than done despite it being a possibility much closer to actually happening with just two weeks remaining in the regular season.
In Rodgers absence, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have mostly been non-existent but the Packer’s defense has stepped up and forced key turnovers when needed. Blake Martinez, the second-year middle linebacker anchoring their second-level has risen to the occasion and become an on-field leader both in tackles and in terms of communication. The rookie running back tandem in Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones have stepped up and been a source of yards and consistency for a struggling offense in recent weeks. They were 4-1 before Rodgers went down and I don’t believe the team was playing very well at the time. If they can put it all together this weekend and have Rodgers perform at a decent level they have a shot at upsetting the Panthers.
In an interview this week, Rodgers said he’s not coming back to “save this team,” and if that message resonates with the guys in the locker room, it will mean everyone stepping up for a very tough three game stretch in which they play the Panthers, Vikings, and Lions in successive weeks. It all starts on Sunday and I think there is no more dangerous a man in football than Aaron Rodgers with the chips stacked up against him. For the Packers, playoff football starts right now. Packers 31, Panthers 28.
Picks by Danny
New England Patriots (10-3) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2); Line: Pats by 3
There are so many things I don’t like about this line. Despite their improvement since earlier in the season, I’m still not a big believer in New England’s defense. That defense now must find a way to shut down arguably the league’s best tandem of skill players in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and do it on the road. Tom Brady has been great this season, but he is facing a top ten defense. All that being said, we all know that Bill Belichick will have a plan and I have a hard time betting against Brady after a loss. I honestly can’t remember the last time New England lost two games in a row or that Brady had two bad games in row. Despite this, I’m still going with the upset. The are two primary reasons: the Steelers have done a great job this season shutting down opponents tight ends and they are too versatile on offense for New England to shut down.
Let’s dig into this a little deeper. In 2017, the Steelers’ defense has given up just 48 receptions to TEs for 534 yards and 2 TDs. This averages out to about 4 catches a game for a little over 40 yds. Teams are averaging just 58 percent on throws to their TEs. I know that Rob Gronkowski is the best player at that position the Steelers will face this year, but he is also a key to Tom Brady’s success. The absence of Ryan Shazier may prove me wrong, but I think the Steelers will slow down this Patriots team. Pittsburgh 28, New England 25
Tennessee Titans (8-5) @ San Francisco 49ers (3-10); Line: EVEN
Anyone paying attention has probably noticed that the AFC is weak this year. The Titans are one of two teams in the AFC that have winning records but have negative point differentials. Meanwhile in San Fransisco, Jimmy G. may be playing the Niner’s out of a top five draft pick if he continues to win. The 49ers appear to be building something for next season, but this will be Garoppolo’s first game against a winning team since taking reigns of the team. I can really see this game going either way, but I give a slight edge to the Titans since they have something to play for. They also have a top-ten defense which should allow Mariota to play with some caution. Tennessee 21, San Francisco 20
Dallas Cowboys (7-6) @ Oakland Raiders (6-7); Line: ‘Boys by 3
First and foremost, how did this game remain the Sunday Night game? Neither team is likely to make the playoffs and both teams have been rather unimpressive throughout 2017. This game isn’t a rivalry game nor are there any NFL records likely to be broken. There are several Week 15 games more compelling and worthy of being flexed into the Sunday Night Football slot ahead of this. The obvious games include Green Bay at Carolina with the returning Aaron Rogers, the Battle for the NFC West between Seattle and LA, and New England at Pittsburgh. All these games offer top ten units on both sides of the football and playoff berths at stake. Instead we get two middling teams that have underwhelmed and are long odds to playing in January. Why the NFL chose to remain with this match up is beyond me. Perhaps it is a tepid move to pacify the child that is the Cowboys owner, but I digress.
Fifteen weeks ago this was a marquee match up that looked fantastic on paper. Two rising stars at quarterback leading explosive offenses with stars in the backfield. Who wouldn’t want to watch Ezekiel Elliot and Marshawn Lynch battle it out in late December? Due to injuries, suspensions, and under-performance we are watching two offenses that rank in the bottom half in the league. Dallas will be playing its final game without Elliott who returns next week against Seattle. Dallas still has an outside shot at the playoffs but will likely need to win out against Oakland, Seattle, and Philly respectively. That is a tall order for a team that has struggled with consistency much of the season. The Raiders on the other hand may not be mathematically eliminated, but they are pretty much done. The Raiders have been underwhelming all year with the exception of their Week 7 win against the Chiefs. They rank 20th and 22nd respectively in offense and defense and despite playing in the worst division in football this year have only managed six wins to this point. I’m taking a Cowboys team hoping to get hot at the right time. Cowboys 22, Oakland 20