NFL WEEK 16: Week 16 kicks off with a pair of Saturday games, as Washington visits Tennessee in what is sure to be a one-sided affair and Baltimore heads out west to face the L.A. Chargers in a possible playoff preview. But Saturday is really just a light appetizer compared to what we’ll be served on Sunday, when no fewer than 12 games will have playoff implications.
Considering we only have two more of these full-slate Sundays left this season, and Week 17 is always pock-marked by teams resting players in preparation for the playoffs, it’s probably a good idea to clear the schedule, lock the doors, close the blinds, and prepare for a pre-Christmas NFL overload. And, of course, what better way to make the holidays a little brighter than winning fistfuls of cash? We failed in that regard last week, but we’re still riding a nice little run over the past month, so if everything goes as planned on Sunday we’ll have a very merry Christmas indeed. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Cincinnati Bengals @ Cleveland Browns (Cle -9, 44.5)
Recommendation: Cleveland -9 at 1.87
Have you hopped aboard the Browns bandwagon yet? It’s been quite a profitable ride these past few weeks, as the team that went 1-31 over the past two seasons has now won 4 of 5 despite having not been favored in any of the games. The Browns are now 9-5 ATS (against the spread) on the year, and the ride’s not over yet, because this week they host a Bengals team that is terrible on defense, playing backups on offense, and lost 35-20 to these very same Browns in Cincinnati a month ago.
The Bengals seem to be at a low point in the Marvin Lewis era: they rank dead last in the NFL in total defense and 25th in total offense, a figure that has been quickly plummeting since star wideout A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton were placed on Injured Reserve. Even last week’s victory against Oakland was somewhat of a mirage— sure, it must’ve been nice snapping a 5-game losing streak, but the Raiders actually outgained the Bengals, who averaged a feeble 3.9 yards per play. It’s difficult to envision the Jeff Driskel-led Cincinnati offense having much success at all against a rapidly improving Browns defense, and the Bengals simply can’t stop anybody, so Baker Mayfield is surely licking his chops after lighting up this defense for 4 touchdowns a few weeks back. This one won’t be close.
Chicago Bears @ San Francisco 49ers (Chi -4, 43)
Recommendation: San Francisco +4 at 1.99
With seven wins in their last eight games, including a dominating performance against the previously 11-1 Rams two weeks ago, the Bears have certainly made the rest of the NFC sit up and take notice over these past few weeks. The defense has been terrific, and the offense has been… well, good enough. Let’s face it: despite the recent victories, some serious questions have emerged as to whether Mitch Trubisky is capable of leading Chicago to playoff victories. He’s only topped 235 yards passing once in his last six games while throwing six interceptions in that stretch, and his general lack of awareness and pocket presence seems to have shaken Bears coach Matt Nagy’s faith in him, as the play-calling has been much more conservative and close-to-the-vest these past few weeks than it was early in the season.
Considering their offensive issues over the past month and the fact that public enthusiasm seems to be quite high, I think the Bears may be quietly becoming an overvalued team. This week they go on the road, where they’re just 3-3 this season despite a road schedule that has included the likes of Arizona, Buffalo, Detroit, and the N.Y. Giants, and they’re tasked with covering a 4-point number against a 49ers team that is playing its best football of the season. The Niners are coming off back-to-back wins over Denver and Seattle, and all four of their victories have come at home this season, so I view this game as much more of a toss-up than the records and line would indicate. The home ‘dog feels like the right side here.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ New Orleans Saints (NO -6.5, 53)
Recommendation: New Orleans -6.5 at 1.92
The Steelers pulled off a huge home win over New England last week, but now they head to the Superdome, where the Saints haven’t lost since Week 1 and have an average margin of victory of 18.4 points per game in their five victories. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has lost road games to Denver and Oakland in the past month, two teams with a combined record of 9-19. Surprisingly, it’s been the offense that has let the Steelers down lately— the injury to tailback James Connor has hurt the running game and made the offense more one-dimensional, and Ben Roethlisberger has been struggling, throwing eight interceptions over the team’s past five games and finishing with a QB rating below 90 in four of those games. Pittsburgh had lost three straight before beating the Pats, but the offensive issues certainly weren’t resolved in that game, as the final score was 17-10 and the Steelers could only manage a single field goal in the second half.
In years past a trip to New Orleans would be the ideal remedy for a sputtering offense, but this Saints defense has been fierce lately, ranking 1st in the NFL in points allowed, 1st in sacks, and 3rd in yards allowed over the past six weeks. Of course, the Saints have been dealing with some difficulty of their own on offense, but they’re just two weeks removed from putting up 25 second-half points in a win over Tampa Bay and they’ve scored 28 points or more in 6 of their past 8 games, so “difficulty” is relative, I guess. This week, back on the fast track of the Superdome, I have a hunch that Brees & Co. will get it revved up against a Pittsburgh defense that has surrendered 900 passing yards over their past three games. Last week’s win over the Patriots temporarily quieted the talk about Pittsburgh’s season “unraveling”, but nothing about that performance, or any of their other games over the past month, would lead you to believe that the Steelers are ready for a challenge like they’ll face this week. I like the Saints here, and I don’t think it will be particularly close.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Seattle Seahawks (KC -1.5, 55)
Recommendation: Seattle moneyline at 2.1
I would say the time has come to fade the Chiefs, but in reality it’s been that time for several weeks now, as the AFC frontrunners have covered just once in their last seven games despite losing only twice in that stretch. That’s what happens when you light up the scoreboard and rack up a few early-season blowouts: expectations outpace reality, and a team becomes a losing bet. Sure, Patrick Mahomes is still slinging it all over the place and the Chiefs are still able to find the end zone with some regularity, but the offense has been weakened slightly by the loss of versatile tailback Kareem Hunt, and the defense is an absolute sieve that simply hasn’t been able to slow down opposing offenses. Only the Cincinnati Bengals allow more yards per game than Kansas City, and the Chiefs have been especially bad against the run, surrendering a league-worst 5.0 yards per carry.
That’s bad news when you’re about to travel to Seattle to face a hard-nosed Seahawks team that is surely smarting after an overtime loss in San Francisco. The ‘Hawks lead the NFL in rushing by a wide margin, averaging 154.9 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry, so they’ll likely be able to do what they want to do in this game: run it right at the soft Kansas City defense, control time of possession and keep Mahomes and Tyreek Hill on the sidelines as much as possible. And when Mahomes does get out there he’ll be facing a Seattle defense that has improved tremendously over the course of the season and has been downright stingy lately, surrendering just 49 combined points in the team’s past three contests. The Seahawks had won 4 straight games prior to last week’s loss, and at 8-6 they badly need a win here. I think they’ll get it.