NFL WEEK 15: Week 15 kicked off with a bang on Thursday night, as the Chargers erased a 14-point 4th-quarter deficit to overcome the Chiefs 29-28 after head coach Anthony Lynn made the gutsy decision to attempt a 2-point conversion following Philip Rivers’ touchdown pass to Mike Williams with 4 seconds remaining in the game. Rivers found Williams again for the winning 2 points, and L.A. moved into a tie with Kansas City atop the AFC West at 11-3. And though both Houston and New England will be dangerous come playoff time, it’s looking more and more like the two best teams in the AFC reside in the West.
The outlook in the NFC is less clear, partly because the Chicago Bears muddied the waters last week with their dominating win over a Rams team that was 11-1 heading into the game. The Saints certainly look like a team with Super Bowl potential, but they were manhandled in Dallas just two weeks ago, so maybe it’s the Cowboys that everyone should be worried about. It will all sort itself out in due time of course, but between the Saints, Rams, Bears, and Cowboys, the NFC feels more wide-open right now than it has in quite awhile.
This week features several meaningful games, but also some of the unwatchable slop that surfaces in the dying weeks of every season, when teams have nothing left to play for and have been decimated by injuries. But some of those lemons can be turned into lemonade, and there are only three of these full-slate Sundays left this season, so I’m certainly not above backing some basement-dwellers, as you see below. After all, we’ve been sipping some of that sweet lemonade lately, going 10-2 with the picks over the past three weeks to brighten up the cash flow situation as the holidays approach. Let’s see if we can keep it rolling with these four:
Detroit Lions @ Buffalo Bills (Buf -2.5, 39.5)
Recommendation: Buffalo -2.5 at 1.93
Though they blew a 4th-quarter lead in a 27-23 loss to the Jets last week, the Bills have quietly turned their season around over the past month, going 2-2 in their last four games and outscoring the opposition 105-79 in that stretch. While that might not sound overly impressive, it represents a huge step forward for a team that went 2-7 over their first nine games and suffered six double-digit losses. The defense has been stout, holding the opposition to just 238.7 total yards per game in the team’s past four contests, and rookie quarterback Josh Allen has begun to use his legs to great effect and has now logged back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, a first for a Buffalo QB. As a matter of fact, Saquon Barkley is the only NFL player to have rushed for more yards than Allen in Weeks 12-14, and the young signal-caller should find plenty of running lanes this week against a Lions defense that has struggled up front this season, surrendering 4.6 yards per rush and over 115 rushing yards per game.
But the defense is a secondary concern in Detroit, as the Matt Stafford-led offense, once a reliably productive unit, has been stuck in the mud for most of the season and has almost completely ground to a halt since the team traded away leading receiver Golden Tate and lost the other starting wideout, Marvin Jones, to a season-ending injury. The Lions have now scored 22 points or fewer in seven consecutive games, averaging the third-fewest yards per game in the NFL in that stretch. I expect them to have a really difficult time moving the ball on what should be a frigid Sunday in Buffalo, while the run-first Bills offense should be able to do what it does best. This one may be ugly, but the home team will prevail.
Miami Dolphins @ Minnesota Vikings (Min -7.5, 44.5)
Recommendation: Miami +7.5 at 1.93
It’s backs-to-the-wall time for both of these teams, as they each have 6 losses and are desperately clinging to Wild Card hopes. The general consensus seems to be that the Dolphins have overachieved and are somewhat of an imposter at this point– after all, it took a miracle to save them against New England last week (and what a miracle it was!)– but I think it may be long past time to reconsider our opinion of the other team involved here, the Vikings, who have been treated like the proverbial “good team that just doesn’t quite have it together” all season despite some performances and statistics that suggest that they simply might not be very good. The offense has been unwatchably bad lately, failing to produce 300 total yards in 4 of the team’s past 5 games, and the defense has been unable to maintain last season’s lofty standards. The results speaks for themselves: the Vikes have a negative point differential this season and have not beaten a single team that currently has a winning record. They’ve lost their last two games by 28 combined points.
After the latest display of offensive impotence, a 7-point, 274-yard dud against Seattle last week, Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer pushed the panic button this week, firing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and replacing him with QB coach Kevin Stefanski. While Stefanski may be a fine coach, changing offensive coordinators in Week 15 is obviously not a sign of organizational health, and I don’t see any reason to believe that the change will produce immediate results. The Dolphins don’t have a great defense, but the Vikings haven’t topped 24 points in 7 weeks, so relying on them to cover a 7.5 point number here seems a bit risky, to say the least. With Ryan Tannehill at the helm the Miami offense has been competent, and if the Dolphins can strike early and force a couple of Minnesota punts, things could get really interesting at U.S. Bank Stadium– the boo birds may come out for Kirk Cousins. I actually think Miami is a good value on the moneyline here, but it’s tough to pass up a juicy number like 7.5, especially when the favored team has had so much trouble putting points on the board.
Washington Redskins @ Jacksonville Jaguars (Jax -7.5, 36.5)
Recommendation: Jacksonville -7.5 at 1.96
It’s difficult to believe that the Jaguars could be a touchdown favorite over anybody right now after watching them lay down in Tennessee last week, but anyone who has seen the Redskins play lately surely can’t be too surprised. Much of it comes down to bad luck— the Skins lost starting quarterback Alex Smith and backup Colt McCoy to season-ending injuries, and so they were forced to turn to Mark Sanchez, and now, after Sanchez failed more spectacularly than even his detractors anticipated, they’ve moved on to Josh Johnson, who hadn’t thrown a regular season pass since 2011 prior to last week and had been set to play in a glorified beer league called the AAF before getting the call from Washington.
And by “getting the call”, I don’t mean getting called from the bench to the starting lineup— Johnson was literally sitting at home, long forgotten by the NFL, and has admitted to having to play the Madden video game in order to learn the names of his new teammates. Taking a quarterback like that down to Jacksonville to face a defense that shut out Andrew Luck and the Colts just two weeks ago seems less than ideal, to say the least. And don’t hold your breath waiting for the Washington defense to save the day— the Skins have totally disintegrated on that side of the ball, surrendering a mind-numbing 160 combined points in the team’s past five losses. The Giants hung 40 on ‘em last week, so if there was ever a “get well” spot for the dreadful Jacksonville offense, this is it. The Jags are the right side here.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Los Angeles Rams (LA -13, 53.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles -13 at 1.96
Last week in Chicago, for maybe the first time in Sean McVay’s head-coaching tenure, the Rams came across a defense that totally shut them down. Fresh questions are now swirling about quarterback Jared Goff’s toughness, his ability to handle the cold, and his ability to adapt against the league’s better defenses, and those are questions Goff will have to answer– he’lll eventually have to prove that he can get the job done against a great defense.
But that won’t be this week, because the Eagles don’t have a great defense. They don’t even have a good one. The secondary has been ravaged by injuries and has been rendered all but helpless against competent passing attacks, as Philly now ranks last in the NFC in pass defense after allowing Dallas QB Dak Prescott to pass for a career-high 455 yards last week. And they’re almost as bad against the run— opponents are averaging a whopping 4.9 yards per carry against the Eagles this season, so you can be sure that Todd Gurley is licking his chops for this matchup. The same can be said for the entire L.A. offense, really— after what we’ve seen out of this Philly defense over the past few weeks, it’s difficult to imagine them even slowing down the Rams. Remember, prior to last week the Rams had scored 23 points or more in every game this season, and they still rank in the top-3 in both yards per game and points scored (32.7 ppg). In the four games leading up to last week, they had scored 35, 36, 54, and 30 points, so it’s not like there are any deep-seated issues. Something tells me we’ll see them in full bloom on Sunday.
And without Carson Wentz, who is now sidelined indefinitely with a stress fracture in his back, an Eagles offense that has been surprisingly mediocre this season will likely take a step back. Remember, though he’ll never have to buy another drink in Philadelphia on account of his Super Bowl heroics, Nick Foles really struggled when he was pressed into action early this season, and the Rams defensive line can certainly generate pressure, so this is a tough spot for Foles. I find it highly unlikely that the Philly offense will be able to keep pace with the high-scoring Rams… as a matter of fact, I think the much more likely scenario involves the Rams putting about five touchdowns on the board and cruising to an easy double-digit victory.