There’s two weeks to go in the regular season, as we get set for NFL Week 16 there are a lot of decisions–from play-calling to officiating to personnel–that are going to be debated. A few decisions for this week already qualify as late-season choke jobs, and it’s the ones made by the TV networks. For example…
Why did New England-Baltimore get flexed out of the Sunday Night spot? Last I checked, these are two ferocious rivals who have played in the last two AFC Championship Games. New England is fighting for a first-round bye, Baltimore could go anywhere from division champ to out of the playoffs.
The Chicago-Philadelphia game that replaces it is good, but just how good depends on what happens early on Sunday. If Dallas and Green Bay both win, the impact of Bears-Eagles is sharply reduced. This would have been fine as a 1 PM EST kickoff shown anywhere in the country that doesn’t have a local game going, but Sunday night?
What’s worse is that Chicago-Philly isn’t even the second-best game on the board for Sunday. That honor belongs to New Orleans-Carolina. The only explanation I can think of is that since NBC has already shown New England-Denver and the previous New Orleans-Carolina game, that they felt a little pressure to spread the wealth. I have no idea if that’s the case, but it’s the only explanation that makes sense.
Let’s now run through the games of NFL Week 16. And speaking of decisions that make little sense, I’ll again make predictions for each one based on the moneyline, the odds for an outright win expressed in $100 increments.
The main national games…
New England (+115) Baltimore (-135) (4:25 PM ET, CBS): I’m not feeling really confident about either offense right now. Tom Brady will find a way to move the ball, but there’s a difference between moving the ball and sticking it in the end zone. That was a problem for the Patriots last week against the Miami Dolphins, and you may recall it was a big problem in last year’s AFC Championship battle against these Ravens. The common thread? No Rob Gronkowski in the lineup.
Baltimore didn’t score a touchdown in Monday’s win over Detroit, so saying I lack confidence in their offense shouldn’t be seen as an earth-shattering statement. The only thing we can say is that return of Dennis Pitta at tight end can at least allow them to move from being atrocious to simply being mediocre.
Big plays on the defensive side are what’s going to decide this game, and you can make a good argument either way. Flacco is by far the more mistake-prone quarterback, but the Ravens’ defense has far more players who can force errors than do the Patriots. It’s a toss-up game as far as I’m concerned and that means I’m picking the home team–Baltimore.
Chicago (+135) Philadelphia (-160) (8:30 PM ET, NBC): As long as there’s no snow or heavy wind in Philly on Sunday night, we should see a lot of points scored. The Bears’ defense has been a sieve all season, and I have to think LeSean McCoy is going to want to bounce back strong after a terribly disappointing showing in Minnesota last week. And even with McCoy playing perhaps his worst game of the year, the Eagles still scored 30 points.
The Philadelphia pass defense is 30th in the league in yardage allowed per game, and the only real way they can get pressure on Jay Cutler is if they bring a variety of blitz packages out of their 3-4. None of the linebackers are very good at getting to the quarterback. There was a time when Connor Barwin or Trent Cole might have, but that day is past.
Matt Forte is having a great year of his own running the ball, so even if Philly does blitz, they have to be alert to the run and possible cutbacks by Forte. The Eagles’ best hope is to bend and hope Cutler will give them a couple key interceptions.
That’s not an unreasonable hope and I’m again going homefield here and taking Philadelphia.
Games in the 1 PM ET window seen by wider national audiences…
New Orleans (+140) Carolina (-165) (1 PM ET, Fox): The winner of this game takes first place in the NFC South and the inside track to the #2 seed and first-round bye in the playoffs. The loser is looking at three road games to reach the Super Bowl.
I’ve been a Saints’ believer this season, but the failure of this team to show any progress on the road is more than a little discouraging. They’re going to have a tough time stopping Carolina’s good running game, and the Panther defense isn’t going to let Drew Brees go crazy with a big game.
The only way the Panthers’ lose is if Cam Newton tightens up in the biggest game of his career to date and makes some mistakes. That is possible, but playing at home, I think Cam plays efficient football and the Panthers’ complete team gets this win.
Denver (-500) Houston (+390) (1 PM ET, CBS): I understand why CBS made this its main game of the early TV window–Peyton Manning brings eyeballs to the sets. But who’s kidding who about the competitiveness of this game. Houston is a bad team and banged up on top of it. Denver is a good team and now has to be mad after losing to San Diego last Thursday and keeping the AFC West up for grabs. Easy win for the Broncos.
Indianapolis (+225) Kansas City (-270): This game isn’t being shown outside the Midwest pockets that cover both teams’ local markets. I was going to question why CBS didn’t make it their main early game, but this is really not as a big a game as it might appear. Indy is locked into the AFC South title and they aren’t getting a first-round bye. It only matters for Kansas City if Denver loses, so it makes sense for CBS to just show the popular Broncos.
It’s worth wondering how much the Colts’ will show strategically. This game is very likely to be played again up in Indy two weeks from now for the first round of the playoffs as the 4 vs. 5 game. The Chiefs are still in the AFC West race if the Broncos stumble, so Kansas City can’t mail it in. I’m going to pick Indy just because I don’t want to risk this much on the moneyline when I think both teams are closely matched, but it’s like a college football bowl game in that we’re having to guess how much the Colts will care.
Other games will playoff implications…
Miami (-140) Buffalo (+120): The Dolphins are a team hitting on all cylinders right now and they absolutely must win to keep the pressure on the Ravens as the two teams fight for the last AFC playoff spot. There must be skepticism in Las Vegas about Miami playing in cold weather that they’re a fairly cheap favorite, but the Fish did just win a snow game in Pittsburgh two weeks ago. I’m on the favorite here.
Oakland (+350) San Diego (-440): This moneyline is completely out of whack. Yes, San Diego is the better team, playing at home and has more to play for, as they need to win and hope for collapses in Miami and Baltimore. But they’re priced at a level reserved for the league’s upper crust. I don’t like it, but I simply have to take the Raiders at these prices.
Minnesota (+295) Cincinnati (-360): I love what the Vikings have going right now, both their effort and the improved offensive play. It’s looking like Adrian Peterson will be good to go on his injured ankle, and I’m riding with Minnesota as an upset play. Unlike other upsets I’ve picked, where the moneyline has forced me into it, I really like the Vikes to get this done.
Pittsburgh–Green Bay: No moneyline posted on this game because Aaron Rodgers is still not cleared to play and his status again remains a last-minute decision. If there’s any way for Rodgers to play, the organization needs to get him on the field. If the Packers win, they at least guarantee themselves a chance to play for the division next week in Chicago. If Green Bay loses this game, they could be eliminated by a Bears win.
Matt Flynn won’t eat up the Steeler pass defense the way he did the Cowboys’ last week. Pass coverage is the one strength of a Pittsburgh D that has otherwise grown old and unable to force turnovers like they used to. Green Bay should be able to get Eddie Lacy room running the ball and Pittsburgh’s too heavily dependent on Ben Roethlisberger.
This game won’t be calculated into the final moneyline results either way, but I’ll lean Green Bay’s way if Rodgers is out and go decisively for the Packers if he’s in.
NY Giants (+340) Detroit (-430): I should know better than to pick the Lions at this price, and this organization’s track record doesn’t inspire confidence that Monday Night’s disaster will mean a strong bounceback effort. But the Giants are an absolute train wreck and for all of Detroit’s problems, getting to the quarterback is not one of them.
Eli Manning is one of the few quarterbacks going who can match Matthew Stafford interception-for-interception, and that’s enough for the Lions to grab a survival victory.
Dallas (-140) Washington (+120): We’ve got Mike Shanahan throwing RG3 under the bus, and Jason Garrett doing the same to Tony Romo. It’s fitting that both of these scapegoat-seeking leaders get together in Washington D.C. in front of a bunch of politicians. It speaks volumes to the Cowboy mess that they’re such a modest favorite against a 3-11 train wreck. I’m a ‘Skins fan and exercising my right not to pick this game.
Arizona (+390) Seattle (-500): Going for an upset bid is enticing at these numbers. Arizona plays good defense and is the kind of physical team that’s as suited as you can be to win a game up in Seattle. But there are injuries going on with Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. I expect all three to play, but having your entire passing game beat up isn’t the way you want to go into a game like this.
Arizona needs the game more–if they lose, they’re eliminated, but Seattle still has reason to play, with one more win enough to lock up the NFC West and the #1 seed. I’ll risk the big moneyline and play the favorite.
And the three games that matter only to diehard fans, Fantasy league players and hard-core gambling degenerates…
Tampa Bay (+185) St. Louis (-220): Both are non-contenders worthy of respect for the way they’ve competed down the stretch. The Rams have one of the best defensive lines in the league and are playing at home. I’ll go with them in this rematch of the 1999 NFC Championship Game.
Cleveland (+115) NY Jets (-135): The Browns have been right there with contending teams the last two weeks, with close losses to New England and Chicago. Norv Turner is showing why, for all his faults as a head coach, he can coordinate on offense, as Jason Campbell continues to play well. The Jets are out of the picture and probably set to mail it in and get a new coach. I’ll take the Browns.
Tennessee (-245) Jacksonville (+205): The Jags have been good to me as a substantial underdog of late and even with last week’s loss to Buffalo, I’m still well ahead of the game. Jacksonville beat Tennessee earlier in the year and they complete a sweep here, something that almost certainly gets Mike Munchak canned in Nashville.