NFL Week 15 picks: An upset brewing in Indy?

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Cold Hard Facts

There are times when the noise must be blocked out, and the games must be allowed to stand on their own. Even through analysis, however, preconceived notions are ever-present.

"The 49ers are better than the Raiders." They are. It's a valid thought. If the two teams played a seven-game series, San Francisco would quickly be resting its players for the next round. But just because a team should win, doesn't mean they will. Just because they need to win to keep pace in a playoff race, doesn't mean they won't stumble.

Just because the favorites have earned that title, does not mean they will collectively remain unscathed.

Evidence of this is not just found in the 10-6 record for underdogs against the spread last week. Instead, it is noteworthy because the breakdown of the games, themselves, proved to indicate upsets in the making - at least, against the spread. This recognition countered our intuition that the time had come for favorites to pull away. Once we accepted that bias had driven analysis, the objective numbers stood alone, telling the true story.

We have long believed that a push in one direction was coming before season's end. As the trend has now leaned largely toward underdogs, the spreads for some teams - Denver, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, to name a few - have shrunk enough to make them more than manageable. Furthermore, upsets from the week prior puts everyone on high alert. The Raiders won't catch the Chiefs napping now that they have poked a sleeping bear.

Nor will most of the underdogs, this week.

Now, it's the favorites' turn to deliver the knockout punch.

Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team and an asterisk denotes one of the week's most confident picks.

NFL Week 15 Picks
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NFL Week 15 picks: An upset brewing in Indy?

Pittsburgh Steelers at Atlanta Falcons (+2.5)

Whichever one is real, the other had us fooled. Either the 2-6 Falcons were one of the worst teams in football, or the 3-2 Falcons, fresh off a 37-point performance and a six-point heartbreaking loss are a valid contender. Only one of these teams could exist.

It’s painfully clear that Atlanta’s defense — last in yards allowed — is unable to stop a nosebleed, and it’s no surprise that wide receiver Julio Jones is a monster — we all would have drafted him higher for our fantasy football teams, had it not been for a potentially lingering injury — but the Falcons’ offense may just be good enough to keep a 5-8 team afloat. In reality, the flotation device used is made in New Orleans, Carolina, and Tampa Bay, but give credit to the Falcons for learning how to operate it when needed.

The irony of Atlanta’s matchup is that it features another team that has not only been more maddening to understand than the Falcons, but has done so on a weekly basis. At least, the Falcons’ transition has been relatively sustained. Therein lies the problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Pittsburgh rises to the occasion. It has done so all year, beating teams like the Colts, Ravens, and now Bengals at key points of the year. Winning in Cincinnati was likely a season-saver for the Steelers, but only because the season needed saving. Against Atlanta, it doesn’t.

After beating the Colts and Ravens in consecutive weeks, the Steelers promptly imploded against the Jets. With two weeks to prepare for a non-conference opponent from New Orleans, the Steelers showed up late to the game, trailing by 19 points with minutes remaining in a game they would eventually lose. After winning a crucial game in Cincinnati, what leads anyone to believe the Steelers will be able to match their intensity in a place where the home team generally thrives and has a slim divisional lead to protect?

Atlanta, in its newest form, unleashes its top-ten offense against Pittsburgh’s average defense and wins by a touchdown, beating the spread.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Green Bay Packers at Buffalo Bills (+5.5)*

Don’t let Buffalo’s 14-point fourth quarter in Denver fool you. The Bills were largely over-matched and outplayed by the Broncos for three full quarters on Sunday. Had Denver needed to extend its lead, it is hard to imagine it would have been met with any resistance.

What makes anyone confident that the Bills will have any more success against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, a quarterback and team arguably hotter than the one Buffalo just faced?

Quite frankly, that. Exactly.

In Green Bay’s current five-game winning streak, the Packers have eclipsed the 40-point barrier three times. The team’s offense now ranks at the top of the list for scoring and fewest turnovers, and the Packers look like a thoroughly unstoppable team. In addition to the streak, Green Bay has also won nine of its last ten games, and just enjoyed four of its last five games in the confines of Lambeau Field.

The Packers also happen to be a pedestrian 3-3 on the road this season, with only one win by a margin of victory greater than a field goal. Traveling has, indeed, caused the Packers to look human — at least, human enough — and Buffalo, featuring a top-five defense and a home field advantage to the tune of only two losses by five or more points, returns home for the team’s final game in Ralph Wilson Stadium this year.

Green Bay edges the Bills by a field goal in the end, but Buffalo beats the spread.

(AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

Cincinnati Bengals (PK)* at Cleveland Browns

We always look at the numbers. Last week, with the state of the Cleveland quarterback situation largely in flux, we detached any analysis of the two teams, themselves, from the pick. Instead, we focused only on the spread and its reaction to the eventual announcement that Brian Hoyer would start against the Colts.

This week, we do it again.

The opening spread for this game was a modest one-and-a-half points given from the Bengals to the Browns. By Tuesday afternoon, the game had moved to a ‘Pick-‘em,’ where there were no points being given from either team. What changed?

Only the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. The same quarterback that is arguably one of the most divisive players in professional sports, today. That’s all.

The story told by the numbers is blatantly obvious. Last week, with the belief – and, eventual confirmation – that Hoyer would start, people poured in to back the Colts. The perception, as we love to point out, was that Hoyer was ill-suited to lead his team to victory. Maybe that was true, but he led them to beat the spread.

The perception, therefore, is that Johnny Manziel, the former backup quarterback — don’t overlook the commonly used phrase that the ‘backup quarterback is everyone’s favorite player’ — will now lead the Browns to victory. When perception and reality are misaligned, we always oppose the popular belief.

Cincinnati wins by two touchdowns and covers.

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Houston Texans (+6.5)* at Indianapolis Colts

While it obviously wasn’t the game plan, the Houston Texans’ quarterback change back to Ryan Fitzpatrick appears to have provided the spark the team needed. 2-0 since Fitzpatrick regained the reigns, the 7-6 Texans’ only chance to remain in the AFC South race depends on Sunday’s game in Indianapolis. A Houston loss would clinch the division for Indianapolis, as well as virtually eliminate the Texans from playoff contention.

With the roller coaster ride that has been the Texans’ season — both in terms of consistency and starting quarterbacks — Houston has admirably put together an impressive campaign of late, albeit against relatively weak teams. Indianapolis remains one of the best, but has failed to solidify itself in the upper echelon of teams, if for no other reason than the absence of impressive victories.

All five of the Colts’ wins against teams with losing records have been by double-digits, but only one of the four games against teams with winning records have featured a margin of victory more than one touchdown. They destroy bad teams, but simply can’t pull away from good ones.

In the same vein, Houston’s seventh-best scoring defense, leading the league in turnovers, hardly allows teams to put them away early. In their last ten games, the Texans’ worst loss was by ten points. Most importantly, Houston fell behind early in its Week 6 loss to the Colts, only to come roaring back and eventually lose by five. For all intents and purposes, the Texans outplayed the Colts for a vast majority of the game, and likely left the field with the belief that they were the better team. Over the course of the season, that has proved to be false. But, for one game, it is absolutely possible.

Indianapolis’ hiccup in Cleveland — it eventually resulted in a one-point victory — was the blueprint for a device that could take down the Colts. If the Texans could pressure Andrew Luck in the same vein that the Browns did — this hardly seems a stretch considering how defensive end J.J. Watt is playing at an incredibly high level — they could replicate Cleveland’s result.

Houston takes it one step further. The Texans’ dream of a division title stays alive with a field goal win, beating the spread.

(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs (-10)*

Players may deny it, but the results speak for themselves — certain games mean more than others. The Oakland Raiders, unable to beat any of the other eleven teams they faced this year, somehow were able to outscore the Chiefs and 49ers over the past few weeks. Do we really need to look further than the pride associated with these rivalries — locational and divisional?

The same can now be said from the other side of the equation. Kansas City has dropped three straight games, falling out of the divisional — if not Wild Card — race. The catalyst for this recent skid? The Oakland Raiders in Week 12.

Kansas City is poised to dismantle Oakland on Sunday. Normally, a large spread in a division game leads us to take the points. That’s not the case when the favorite is due to rebound against a team significantly worse, playing at home, and holding on to the last hope of a playoff push.

The Chiefs win by three touchdowns and cover.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Miami Dolphins (+7.5)* at New England Patriots

Is that it? Is Miami done?

After the Dolphins’ home loss to the Ravens, Miami has likely fallen behind too many teams — really, too many tiebreakers — to regain a foothold in the AFC playoff race. While they remain far more capable of earning a Wild Card berth than a division title — the Dolphins would need to win out while the Patriots lose the rest of their games — the biggest roadblock on the path to a 10-6 record remains their rivals from New England.

Miami set the world ablaze when the season opened 15 long weeks ago and the Dolphins pulled off the Opening Day upset of the Patriots. From this loss stemmed the belief that the Patriots may be reaching ‘the end,’ a popular, yet confounded thought. Certainly, New England has shown the propensity to take such opportunities for revenge and enact them mercilessly. But, despite their recent struggles — two losses and a field goal win against the Jets – the Dolphins are no pushover.

Even when facing some of the league’s elite — Green Bay, Denver, and an early version of New England — Miami refused to bow out without a fight. Excluding Week 14, Miami had not lost any game by more than a touchdown since Week 3. The Dolphins’ 15-point defeat at the hands of the Ravens was, therefore, a long time in the making.

Now, it is behind them. As is any opportunity to stumble. Miami’s road to the playoffs must go through Foxborough, and, anchored by a top-ten defense, will take the Patriots to the wire in the Dolphins’ final push.

In the end, it won’t be enough to win. Miami loses by a field goal, but beats the spread.

(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Washington Redskins (+6.5)* at New York Giants

The perfect storm is brewing. The Giants just snapped a seven-game losing streak with a win in Tennessee, and now head home to face an absolutely awful Redskins team without a quarterback. Not a bad quarterback. Currently, no quarterback.

At the time of this writing, any of the three quarterbacks Washington has started this year are potentially playing this week – Robert Griffin III, Colt McCoy, and Kirk Cousins. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter who plays. At least, not when picking the game against the spread. In fact, Washington will beat the spread, regardless.

Take into account everything that defines the number of points given from the Giants. They are probably a touchdown better than the Redskins on a given week. But, on this week, one week after the Giants finally stopped their skid — the pressure had been mounting and has since been released — taking on a team with an extended losing streak, in itself, amid controversy, the number continues to tilt in the Giants’ favor.

Therefore, we lean towards the Redskins.

If the Giants’ victory against the Titans was so inspiring, shouldn’t Washington’s Week 7 win against the same lowly Titans be equally valid? The fact remains, both the Giants and Redskins are terrible teams, and considering one explosive output enough to change course is overlooking the real impact of New York’s win – the Giants now look like a good team. But they’re not.

Washington has critics to silence and a Week 4 blowlout loss to avenge. The Giants are still a turnover-prone mess with one win since mid-October. Their only edge comes from the consistency they have shown in recent years — New York hasn’t finished with more than nine losses since 2004.

The Giants win by a field goal, but Washington beats the spread.

(AP Photo/James Kenney)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers (-3.5)

All week, the Buccaneers looked like a sneaky pick to upset the suddenly awoken Panthers. That was, until quarterback Cam Newton was involved in a car crash, rendering him unavailable for Sunday’s game. Why should this news shift the pick towards the Panthers instead of away from them? How is Cam Newton missing a game a benefit to the team?

With a 3-8-1 record in games in which Newton has started, how is it not?

Cam Newton burst on the scene in 2011 with a prolific 4,000 yard season. His team promptly won six games. His sophomore year was a bit more human — 3,869 yards and 19 touchdowns, but a nice improvement in ball security — still, the team won only seven games. Finally, in 2013, the Panthers broke through for twelve wins. Again, in Newton’s twelve starts, this season, Carolina has three wins and a tie.

Maybe Cam Newton will return to the electric form we saw a few years ago. Maybe he is the best man to lead a team over the course of a season. But Derek Anderson — with as many double-digit win seasons as Newton — has already proven he is a viable option to lead the Panthers in a given game. Especially, against the Buccaneers.

Anderson’s only start, this season, came as a last-minute public announcement on Opening Day. At the time, the Panthers had entered the week as a slight underdog. Immediately after the news hit, people jumped ship to Tampa Bay almost instantly. Carolina won by six.

Don’t get fooled again.

Most quarterbacks have an impact over a long stretch of time — Carson Palmer’s season-ending injury. Some quarterbacks have an impact over a stretch of a few plays — Tony Romo‘s short absence against the Redskins. Carolina doesn’t need Superman this week. It needs an experienced veteran to fill in against an atrocious opponent.

The Panthers win by a touchdown and cover.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens (-13.5)

Watch out, Jacksonville.

In the early portion of a given season, double-digit spreads are always a cause for concern. Upsets happen on a weekly basis, and the fewer games a team has played, the greater the opportunity for inaccurate assessment. By now, however, everyone knows. Jacksonville is atrocious. Baltimore is not.

Entering the week at 8-5, the Ravens are currently on the outside of the playoff glass, looking in. They have only one game remaining against an AFC North opponent – Week 17 against the Browns – and they have had to make up ground against other AFC teams since falling to their 2-3 divisional record in Week 9.

A loss to the Jaguars may cripple the Ravens beyond repair. Baltimore won’t even let that be a consideration.

The Ravens blow the doors off the Jaguars, winning by four touchdowns and covering the spread.

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

New York Jets (-1)* at Tennessee Titans

It seems as if every single week contains the same comment about the New York Jets: they can’t lose every game, can they? Even when they had the opportunity to knock off the Vikings – no powerhouse, in their own right – in Minnesota, they allowed an 87-yard catch-and-run to beat them in overtime. After a while, rational thinking has to re-enter the equation and remind us that the Jets are, after all, a 2-11 football team.

Then again, so are the Titans.

As bad as the situation looks in New York, it might be even worse in Tennessee. Losers of seven consecutive games – including last week’s drubbing at the hands of the visiting Giants – the Titans will likely view this game with the same level of confidence as the Jets. After all, both teams are abysmal, and someone has to win.

That ‘someone’ is the Jets. Tennessee’s losing streak has far surpassed ‘dangerous rebound territory,’ but the Jets have now dropped three-in-a-row, themselves. Despite every statistic stating otherwise, the players have not yet quit on this team or its head coach. With New England and Miami on the slate, Rex Ryan’s last chance for one final win might come Sunday afternoon in Tennessee.

New York does not let this one slip away. The Jets win by ten and cover.

(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Denver Broncos (-4) at San Diego Chargers

If there’s one thing Denver doesn’t do well, it’s win by a large margin. At least, not enough. And not lately. Favorites in almost every game, the Broncos have a pedestrian 6-6 record against the spread when giving points. In their last four games — two home and two away — only once — Sunday Night Football in Kansas City — did the Broncos cover.

Finally, the number has been adjusted to better reflect the types of games Denver usually plays.

San Diego has lost six of its last seven games against Denver, including the playoffs. To say that the Chargers are poised and ready to correct this is an understatement. The problem, however, is that Denver – the better team, and with a two-game lead in the standings to prove it – is locked in a race for the AFC’s top seed. While a loss would make San Diego’s playoff hopes that much more difficult to realize, the Broncos are a legitimate Super Bowl contender with one potentially giant hurdle ahead – a playoff game in Foxborough. While circumstances may always change, Peyton Manning and the Broncos would obviously rather have Tom Brady and the Patriots travel to Denver. At this current moment, the Broncos have to attack with that plan in mind.

Furthermore, as well-documented as Manning’s struggles against the Patriots have been, the same could be said for his preference to indoor games and good weather. With a potentially perfect football day on the horizon in San Diego on Sunday, Manning an his top-five offense should thrive against a solid, but beatable defense – on average, allowing just over 26 points per game in its last eight games.

Denver wins by a touchdown and covers.

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions (-7.5)

Talk about a ‘Tale of Two Seasons.’ Both the Vikings and Lions have enjoyed a 4-2 record in their last six games, despite coming from opposite starting points. The Vikings recent four-win output helped turn a 2-5 season into respectability. Detroit, enjoying the same record over the same span, saw its division lead and 7-2 record fall. With teams largely unrelated to those who met in Week 6, neither has proven which half of the season should be trusted.

The one constant that has remained is Detroit’s top-ranked scoring defense. Even as Minnesota has put together back-to-back 30 point outputs, their success is largely a function of playing the Panthers and Jets – and needed a fifth period in the latter game to do it. Minnesota still ranks near the bottom of the league in points scored, and has no discernible strengths with which to combat the Lions. Once Detroit goes on top, they won’t be caught. It’s just a matter of whether or not the Lions could keep scoring like they have in recent weeks.

Detroit wins by two touchdowns and covers.

(AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks (-10)

Ten points in a division game against a mathematically alive team who has yet to lose three consecutive games under its current head coach? There is only so much flirting before action is taken. The 49ers have played this game too long.

Remember how the Seahawks looked when they opened the season against the Packers. The wild, hungry beasts from Seattle feasted on a visiting Green Bay team that has since proved to be one of the best in the league. Somewhere along the way, Seattle lost its footing and took a stumble. Quickly, the Seahawks recovered with a 6-1 stretch of football that has pulled them within one game of the Arizona Cardinals. Seattle has the same look in its eyes as it did on Opening Night.

Now with the second-best scoring defense in football, the Seahawks host a 49ers team fluttering on offense. San Francisco has broken the 30-point barrier only once this season – via a last-second interception return for a touchdown – and has reached the 20’s only once since Week 6.

When they beat the 49ers on Thanksgiving night, the Seahawks proved they were getting hot at the right time. When they sweep the season series against the 49ers on Sunday, they will be reminding everyone how dangerous it is to visit Seattle.

The Seahawks win by twenty and cover.

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (-3.5)

The beauty of the National Football League is that, when following the league as a whole, the planets often align to provide gifts to those onlookers. Not only did the Eagles and Cowboys meet on national television with equal records atop the NFC East on Thanksgiving, but they do it again two short weeks later.

With opposite results against opposite teams in Week 14 — the Cowboys beat the lowly Bears while the Eagles lost to the red-hot Seahawks — Dallas and Philadelphia enter Sunday’s game with the NFC East on the line. Again. But what is to say that anything has changed in the seventeen days between games?

The Eagles, now with quarterback Mark Sanchez for their seventh game, exposed the Cowboys’ defense on Thanksgiving. Furthermore, Philadelphia shut down Dallas altogether, holding the Cowboys to their worst scoring performance of the year. In Philadelphia, with a near-division clinching opportunity for the Eagles, nothing suggests that the Cowboys have solved their Philadelphia-induced problems. In fact, even when the Cowboys were thrashing the Bears on Thursday Night Football, Chicago put together a 21-point fourth quarter. Clearly, Dallas is prone to giving up points in bunches.

Philadelphia is prone to score in bunches.

The Eagles win by ten and cover.

(AP Photo/Tim Sharp)

New Orleans Saints (-3) at Chicago Bears

If it were not for the collective struggles of the NFC South, this game would be virtually unwatchable. The Bears, a devastated mess — now moreover with the injury to wide receiver Brandon Marshall — are playing their third straight nationally televised game. Poor America. Thankfully, the visitors, despite their paltry five wins, are locked in a division battle and bring some intrigue to an otherwise lackluster matchup.

Speaking of the road team, wasn’t it always common knowledge that the Saints struggle away from the Superdome? It appears that, even when the Saints took their home field in Week 14 with a 5-7 record, they were expected to dominate the Panthers, giving ten points in a game they would ultimately lose by 31. Now, on the road, against a Bears team arguably in the same class of disaster as Carolina, the Saints are only giving a field goal. This looks suspiciously like the spread is being beaten down by nothing more than outdated theories of a team that has actually proven to be bad everywhere.

Even so, Chicago is worse. Still with opportunities to salvage their season earlier in the year, the Bears hardly put up a fight — in their eight losses, only one had been by a margin of less than a touchdown. When Chicago loses, they lose big.

When New Orleans wins, they win big. Especially on national television. Of the Saints’ four primetime games, their two wins have been by an average of 19 points. Of their five wins throughout the year, only one was by a field goal margin.

The Saints win by ten and cover.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

*Confidence Picks: 5-2-1 (Season: 52-35-1)

All Picks Against Spread: 11-4-1 (Season: 119-87-2)

Related links:
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New York, Orlando continue building toward 2015 MLS season
After modest start, Blackhawks flying high again

For more sports coverage, please visit and follow Mario Mergola on Twitter: @MarioMergola
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