NFL WEEK 15: With only three weeks remaining in the NFL’s regular season, let’s take a detailed look at the playoff picture as it stands today:
— In the AFC, Pittsburgh would be the 1-seed, locking up a Wildcard Weekend bye and home-field advantage throughout, while New England, after a surprise loss to Miami last week, would be the 2-seed, also earning a first-round bye.
Jacksonville would be the AFC South champion and the 3-seed, which means the Jags would host a Wildcard Weekend game against the Buffalo Bills, who would sneak in as the 6-seed. The other Wildcard game would feature Kansas City, winners of the West, against 5-seed Tennessee.
But the Bills and Chiefs are both 7-6, and there are two other teams with the same record— Baltimore and the red-hot L.A. Chargers. The Chiefs host the Chargers this weekend in what has become the season’s biggest game for both teams.
One other team that we may not want to forget about, at least for one more week, is Oakland– despite their underwhelming play of late, the Raiders are 6-7 and just a game back of the Chargers and Chiefs in the West. And they face the Chargers in Week 17, so if they can pull out a win over Dallas on Sunday they’re still very much alive.
—In the NFC it’s going to come down to Week 17, and there’s a chance that a 10-6 team could get left out in the cold. As it stands now, Philadelphia (11-2) would be the 1-seed and Minnesota (10-3) would be seeded second. After that it gets a little crowded, as the Saints, Panthers and Rams are all 9-4, while the Seahawks and Falcons are both 8-5. One of those teams won’t get in, and if the season ended today it would be Seattle.
And we haven’t even factored in the 7-6 teams— Detroit, Green Bay, and Dallas— any of whom could win out to finish at 10-6, a record that’s almost always good enough for a Wild Card berth but may not be this year. The Packers in particular are a team to watch now that Aaron Rodgers is healthy again.
Games like Sunday’s Rams/Seahawks tilt and next week’s Falcons/Saints showdown will go a long way towards shaping the NFC playoff race, obviously. But unexpected landmines are sure to shake things up— crazy things tend to happen in the season’s final few weeks, and none of the teams on the bubble are good enough to overlook anybody. Expect a major upset or two.
Here are a few Week 15 games that caught my eye:
L.A. CHARGERS @ KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (Sat.) (LA -1, 46)
Recommendation: Los Angeles moneyline at 1.9
These teams are tied atop the AFC West at 7-6, so this game is sure to have a playoff-like atmosphere, and the Chiefs are notoriously tough to beat at Arrowhead Stadium in situations like this. But after starting 5-0 they had been in the midst of a full-blown collapse, losing 6 of 7 and four straight, prior to pulling out a win over Oakland last week. The victory was nice and badly-needed, but it wasn’t quite enough to mask the stench that has been emanating from Kansas City lately— the offense has stalled out, producing 17 points or fewer four times in the team’s recent slide, and the defense has been abysmal, ranking 28th in the NFL in total yards allowed and also 28th against the pass. The secondary is a sieve.
The Chargers, meanwhile, have been playing as well as anyone in the league over the past month. After throwing away a game in Jacksonville that they should’ve won, the Bolts have now ripped off four straight wins, each one coming by 9 points or more. The offense has really improved since the beginning of the season and is now one of the NFL’s most potent attacks, ranking 5th in the league in yards per game and producing 131 combined points over the team’s past four contests. And the defense might be the most underrated unit in the entire NFL— led by pass-rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and a quality secondary, the Chargers now rank 2nd in the league in points allowed, surrendering just 17.2 per game, and 10th in yards allowed.
When these teams met back in Week 3 the Chiefs were able to cruise to a 24-10 victory, but the Chargers actually outgained them on that day, only to be undone by three turnovers. Since then, Kansas City has regressed while Los Angeles has improved. Arrowhead be damned— the road team is 5-0 against the number in the last five meetings between these teams, and I expect the Chargers to keep that trend going with a fairly comfortable win here.
GREEN BAY PACKERS @ CAROLINA PANTHERS (Car -3, 47)
Recommendation: Carolina -3 at 1.91
It looks juicy, doesn’t it? The opportunity to back the Packers as underdogs in Aaron Rodgers’ return will be too tempting for some to pass up, and there’s no question that Rodgers— even a rusty Rodgers— totally transforms the Green Bay offense. With him, the Packers are a playoff team and possibly a Super Bowl contender. Without him… well, it was ugly. But A-Rod hasn’t exactly parachuted into the friendliest of spots: the Panthers have been playing great football lately, winning 5 of 6 to improve to 9-4 on the season, and their defense is once again among the NFL’s best, ranking 5th in the league in yards allowed.
Even if Rodgers were fully healthy and in midseason form, a road game against the Carolina defense would be a tough challenge. But the bigger concern for the Packers is on the other side of the ball, where their defense, which ranks 26th in yards allowed and has surrendered 20 points or more in 8 of the team’s past 9 games, will try to contain the Cam Newton-led Carolina attack. Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell ran all over the Green Bay defense last week, totaling 121 yards on 19 carries, and the Panthers have one of the league’s premier rushing attacks, averaging 134.5 ypg on the ground. The Packers will not be able to stop Newton and Co. from doing exactly what they want to do— run the ball right at you, grind you into submission, and then hit big-play opportunities down the field. I just feel like this is a really tough matchup for the Pack, Rodgers or no Rodgers. A Carolina win and cover seems like the most likely outcome.
TENNESSEE TITANS @ SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (SF -2.5, 44)
Recommendation: San Francisco moneyline at 1.84
The Niners have now won back-to-back games and 3 of 4, and that’s pretty remarkable when you consider that they lost their first nine games of the season, many in blowout fashion. First-year coach Kyle Shanahan deserves plenty of credit for the late-season turnaround, but the guy that has really given San Francisco fans hope is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who arrived from New England via a trade a few weeks ago and has been playing like a seasoned vet. He was the difference in San Francisco’s 26-16 win over Houston last week, throwing for 334 yards and converting several big third downs. He’s already developed a nice rapport with big-play wideout Marquise Goodwin, and he seems to have a good handle on Shanahan’s offense despite being new to the system. It certainly looks like the best is yet to come for Garoppolo and the Niners.
The Titans, meanwhile, have been struggling badly, particularly on offense. They could scratch out only 204 total yards in an ugly 12-7 loss to Arizona last week, as Marcus Mariota continued his recent stretch of poor play, throwing 2 interceptions to give him a total of 8 in his past four games. To make matters worse, Mariota sprained his knee in the first half of the game and was clearly hobbled in the second half— Titans coach Mike Mularkey has said that Mariota will play this week, but admitted that he was concerned about the injury limiting his QB’s mobility. But the problems on the Tennessee offense really start up front with an o-line that has been tremendously disappointing. They’ve battled injuries, like most teams, but that doesn’t fully explain the struggles in both run-blocking and pass protection from a unit that was among the NFL’s best last season. This Tennessee offense is truly rotten from the core.
Facing the San Francisco defense was once seen as a “get well” opportunity for a sputtering offense, but the Niners D has improved over the course of the season and now approximates a league-average unit (if not slightly better), limiting the opposition to 18.8 ppg in the team’s last four contests. I just don’t have much confidence at all in the Titans getting things kick-started on the road against a surging 49ers team that has finally figured out how to win… I feel like the disparity in the records (TEN is 8-5, SF is 3-10) has kept the line from ballooning in the San Francisco direction, making the Niners a great value at the current price.
L.A. RAMS @ SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (Sea -2.5, 47.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles moneyline at 2.12
With first place in the NFC West on the line, you can bet that CenturyLink Field will be rocking for this one. The Rams have led the division for most of the season but they’re just 2-2 in their past four games, and when these teams met back in Week 5 it was Seattle who came away with a 16-10 victory. The final score doesn’t tell the whole story of that game, however: the Seahawks produced just 241 total yards to LA’s 375, but five Rams turnovers proved to be the difference. It was one of only two times this season that LA has been held below 20 points, and the Rams will see a much different Seattle defense this week than the one they faced back in October— both Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are injured and out, effectively gutting the Legion of Boom, and the ‘Hawks might also be without Pro Bowl linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright on Sunday after both players suffered injuries in last week’s loss to Jacksonville.
Even with Wagner and Wright on the field, the Seahawks defense just hasn’t been the same lately— they surrendered 30 points and 424 total yards to a bad Jacksonville offense last week, their fourth time allowing 30+ points this season. LA is terrific offensively, ranking second in the league with 30.5 points per game, and the Sean McVay/Jared Goff mind-meld has gotten to the point where tailback Todd Gurley, the NFC’s leading rusher, is almost an afterthought. The Rams are pretty good on defense as well, especially in the secondary, where they surrender just 219 passing yards per game and were able to hold Russell Wilson to 198 yards on 38 attempts back in Week 5. I know the Seahawks are a battle-hardened, veteran team that is notoriously tough at home, but I just feel like the Rams are better on both sides of the ball right now. The wrong team is favored here.