The moves throughout the first three quarters of the season are complete. Now, it's starting to get late.
For the second consecutive week, as we expected, underdogs edged the favorites. With a 10-5 performance against the spread in Week 12, underdogs are now a combined 18-11 over the past two weeks, a perfect executed recovery from the trend that was pushing towards favorites leading into Week 11.
Now, it goes back.
The perfectly timed underdog explosion should now be completed with the success they've had over the last two weeks, but the two biggest reasons to now lean on favorites in Week 13 are the full slate of games - first time since Week 3 - and the official start of the home stretch of the season. Teams like the Jets and Raiders may have caught the Steelers and Chiefs asleep in past weeks, but now is the time when truly good teams make their moves.
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.
*Confidence Picks: 4-3 (Season: 40-32)
All Picks Against Spread: 8-7 (Season: 99-76-1)
Cleveland Browns at Buffalo Bills (-2.5)
As we tend to write on a constant basis when picking Browns' games – admittedly, incorrectly, as Cleveland has stymied us all season – their ability to win games in nearly miraculous, last-second fashion subscribes to two completely opposite schools of thought: either the Browns are so good that they win by any means necessary, or they've been extremely fortunate to get opportunities late in games despite trailing for large chunks of time. Case in point, the previously 4-6 Falcons led the Browns with less than a minute left in the game. If the Browns want to play like the 7-4 team they now are, they should never have even let the Falcons get that close.
That's why the belief that the Browns are playing over their heads remains consistent on a weekly basis. Had Falcons head coach Mike Brown managed the clock properly, or the Titans hold on to a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, or the Saints learn how to play defense in the final minutes of a game, the Browns' record would more closely depict the performance of the team.
The Bills have no more impressive wins on their resume than the Browns – each team has exactly two wins versus opponents with winning records – but they return home after being displaced by several feet of snow to try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. While a 6-5 record probably already places the Bills behind too many teams in the AFC playoff hunt, one they would need to pass along the way is their visitors from Cleveland.
Buffalo wins by a touchdown and covers.
Tennessee Titans (+6.5) at Houston Texans
It was easy to bite and take the Titans getting a boatload of points last week against the Eagles – especially coming off an inspired performance against the Steelers the previous week – but further research and cooler heads prevailed before we remembered how much worse the Titans are than the Eagles. This is not the case for Sunday's matchup in Houston.
For starters, the familiarity between the two division opponents holds the potential for a closer game. But, in reality, the game boils down to the 5-6 Texans representing the weakest team the Titans have faced since, well, the 3-4 Texans.
Tennessee is, in its own right, a terrible team. 2-9, going nowhere, and with a potentially dark future on the horizon, the team's opportunities for tallying another win are clearly running out. That's why they won't let this one slip away.
The Titans win by six and beat the spread.
Oakland Raiders at St. Louis Rams (-7)*
What has to happen for the 4-7 Rams to be favored by a touchdown worth of points? Probably beat the Seahawks, 49ers, and Broncos, and barely lose to the Chargers while the Rams' opponent gathers its first win of the season. Well, when you put it that way, it makes sense.
St. Louis has played at a level much higher than its record of 4-7 would indicate, and it has faced possibly the toughest stretch of games by any team this season. Finally, when the Raiders come to town on Sunday, it will be after Oakland played its best game of the season en route to its first win. As they fall back to reality, the Rams will punish an opponent for the first time all season.
St. Louis wins by three touchdowns and covers easily.
Carolina Panthers at Minnesota Vikings (-2.5)
Herein lies the danger of a 4-7 team hosting anyone from the NFC South: the Carolina Panthers are fully entrenched in the worst playoff race of the season. Somehow, at 3-7-1, a Carolina win would keep them very much alive in the division race while Minnesota is truly playing for nothing except pride.
The problem for the Panthers, however, is that they are a completely horrible team traveling to play a Vikings squad who hasn't lost by more than one score since Week 6. In addition, the Panthers get no extra boost from their bye week, as head coach Ron Rivera has lost all three of his previous games following a week off.
Minnesota breaks through against a struggling Panthers team and wins by ten to cover the spread.
New Orleans Saints at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5)
Whatever is going on in New Orleans has yet to be solved, and the Saints are squandering every single opportunity to grab hold of an NFC South race that no one wants to win. Pittsburgh finds itself in the exact opposite position, three games over .500 yet tied with three other teams in the AFC North, and percentage points behind the Bengals for first place.
Pittsburgh has a few bad losses to its name this season – Jets and Buccaneers – but the Steelers overcame a late deficit to beat the Titans when they last took the field heading into their bye week. In fact, the comeback was strikingly similar to their win over the Texans – albeit at different times of the game – where the Steelers put up points in bunches, then followed it up by blowing out the Colts. Factor in that the Saints are playing at a much worse level than the Colts were when Pittsburgh crushed them, and you have another explosion in the making.
Pittsburgh and head coach Mike Tomlin improve to 7-1 after a bye week with a two touchdown win at home, covering the spread.
Washington Redskins (+9.5)* at Indianapolis Colts
Do the Colts even send their best players to every game? They have received such a favorable schedule – besides playing, rather, beating the AFC South, they also get free wins against the Redskins and Giants – that they might as well rest players for games that actually matter. While they haven't suffered a letdown loss yet – all four losses are against teams with winning records – they also have barely been tested by these powderpuffs – only one victory against a team under .500 has been by less than ten points.
Enter a team playing so poorly that it cannot possibly get any worse and you have an upset in the making. At least, against the spread.
Everything in Washington is currently in disarray. What will the Redskins do with Robert Griffin III going forward? Is he done for the season? One game? His career? All of these question marks help push the spread bigger to a point where Washington will sneak under the line. Don't forget that the Redskins led the 49ers in San Francisco late in the fourth quarter. While the Colts are a better team than the 49ers, we still have yet to see them face and respond to some adversity.
The scuffling Redskins give the Colts a close game on Sunday, losing by four but beating the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals (-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We hate to do it, but we have to take the bait. The horrendous Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fresh off a near victory in Chicago, come home to host a Cincinnati Bengals team that appears to have found its winning ways again. The spread is so small that Cincinnati is begging to be picked, and for once, we agree.
At this point in the season, upsets will continue to happen as frequently as ever, but the losers are the ones most likely to drop out of a playoff race. With three consecutive playoff appearances, including a division title last season, the Bengals have the recent experience to rise to the occasion when needed. We enter the game with more trepidation than we would like, but the Bengals and Steelers are the two AFC North teams playing opponents with losing records. As such, neither can afford a loss.
Cincinnati wins by six and narrowly covers the dangerously small spread.
New York Giants at Jacksonville Jaguars (+2.5)*
Losers of six consecutive games, the New York Giants head to Jacksonville to take a familiar dose of medicine that has cured numerous teams in the past – playing the Jaguars. This is the opportunity. This is the team to play. This is the win.
Except, why shouldn't the Jaguars feel the same way?
Jacksonville is terrible. But really, so are the Giants. Their near victory against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football could largely be attributed to the storied history between the two NFC East rivals, and not necessarily a change in the tide. As much as the Giants likely have this game circled as an 'easy win,' so do the Jaguars. In fact, the small spread sends off the same red flags as that in the Bengals and Buccaneers game. The difference? Cincinnati is a winning team in a playoff hunt while the Giants are simply trying to save face against another opponent trying to do the same.
This game, therefore, is the trap. Jacksonville grabs its second win of the season, by a field goal, and beats the spread.
San Diego Chargers at Baltimore Ravens (-5.5)
There were periods of time in both the Chargers' and Ravens' Week 12 games where each team was in danger of losing to a weaker opponent. Both pulled out their respective victories and moved to 7-4 in what has become an incredibly crowded AFC playoff race. When the two face off on Sunday, the loser will fall behind in any potential tiebreaker down the stretch, as both teams could conceivably be fighting for the same Wild Card spot come season's end.
Despite being tied with basically every other AFC North opponent, the Ravens have done themselves no favors by dropping three of their five division games thus far. They will likely need to pass each team outright to grab the division title, and therefore are most likely fighting to be either the fifth or sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. While neither San Diego nor Baltimore could afford a loss, Baltimore will be playing host to their West Coast counterparts at 1pm on Sunday – while not always a consistent indicator, we do tend to dock the visitors a few points in this condition.
The Chargers look nothing like the 5-1 team that stormed out to an early AFC West lead at the beginning of the season, and they have an absolutely brutal slate of games to finish the season – after Baltimore, San Diego plays the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Chiefs. While they won't survive that gauntlet anyway, their playoff hopes unofficially end on Sunday with a loss in Baltimore. The Ravens and their top-ten offense win by a touchdown and cover.
Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons (+2.5)*
What was once two team heading in completely opposite directions, both appear to be hanging on to their own versions of improbable division leads. Via tiebreakers, the Falcons lead what has become the most unacceptable division race in the league in the NFC South. The Cardinals, once running away with the NFC West, lost their starting quarterback and a firm grip on the division. They still have a two-game lead with five to play, but two of those five are against the Seahawks and 49ers, the two teams chasing Arizona, one of whom will grab another win on Thursday night.
Logic would dictate that the 9-2 Cardinals would have no problems bouncing back from a tough division loss against a 4-7 Falcons team that has looked horrible all season. But the Falcons, despite their record, are looking to recover from an even more painful defeat and have everything to lose if they drop Sunday's game. Arizona still has a two-game cushion where Atlanta has already survived much longer than it should have. After all, if the Cardinals are so decidedly better than the Falcons, why is the spread so small?
Arizona won't survive forever with Drew Stanton at the helm, despite how well he has played in Carson Palmer's absence. The Falcons put together a complete game, avoid another last-second heartbreak, stay ahead of the NFC South, and win by a field goal, beating the spread.
New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers (-3)*
It doesn't happen often, but every time the Patriots are underdogs, it is worth taking note. Remember the game against the Bengals? Or the Colts? Both times, New England was getting points. Both times, they would have covered double digit spreads as favorites in the end. Both times, we rode them to wins.
Now, we go opposite the streak.
Speaking of streaks, the Patriots have now won an unprecedented seven consecutive games. Of these seven, the last four have each been won by a margin of victory of at least 21 points. In games against the Lions, Colts, and Broncos, the Patriots could have given up another three touchdowns in each and still won.
This sounds eerily similar to another team cruising to easy victories – the Green Bay Packers entering Week 12. Promptly, they played a much more competitive game than they should have against the Vikings, winning, but only by a field goal margin.
The Packers saw their 'pullback game.' The Patriots have not. As we preach every week, trends in the National Football League are always due for a reset, and the ridiculous winning streak and dominance as an underdog the Patriots are currently experiencing is due to come to an end. What team is better suited to go toe-to-toe with New England than the 8-3 Packers with a top-ten offense that leads the league with fewest turnovers?
Green Bay hands New England its first loss since Week 4, beating the Patriots by a touchdown and covering the spread.
Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs (+1.5)
When these teams met in Week 2, there appeared to be no conceivable way that the Chiefs could beat the Broncos in Denver, yet we bought in and expected the upset that never came. Now, nearly a dozen weeks later, a Chiefs home victory on Sunday Night Football is every bit a real possibility.
Kansas City clearly got caught napping in Oakland last week; an unacceptable, yet explainable loss. The trap into which the Chiefs fell will help them come out more desperate and prepared for the battle that will ensue on Sunday night.
The Chiefs continue to follow the same formula that led them to success last season – a stout defense and an offense that protects the football. As long as Kansas City can keep the Broncos from exploding – the league's fifth-best offense has had two games at or under 21 points in its last four, and only tallied 24 points against the Chiefs in Week 2 – Kansas City will be able to complete the upset it missed earlier.
The Chiefs, at home in one of the loudest and most advantageous home fields, win by a field goal and beat the spread.
Miami Dolphins at New York Jets (+6)*
Don't be fooled. We all just witnessed yet another disastrous Jets performance. We all are aware that they are one of the worst teams in the league. We all know the Dolphins should tear them apart on Monday Night Football.
We should also be aware of how 'easy' this game looks on the surface.
Monday night's matchup looks strangely similar to that of the Titans and Steelers a few weeks prior. Pittsburgh was clearly the better team, and ultimately the Steelers won outright, but Tennesee made it so difficult in its home building that it eventually beat the spread.
Don't be fooled. It will happen again.
The Jets and Dolphins have split their season series every time for the past four years. In all likelihood, that won't happen again this year, as the Jets are so bad that they shouldn't be able to beat the Dolphins, but the evenness of the series in recent years speaks to level of equal competition that arises when the two meet.
The real key, however, is that the Jets do have one actual strength – they have allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards all season. Miami's offense benefits most from its ninth-ranked rushing offense, but this matchup should yield one output that aids in the Jets' ability to stay in the game – long drives by Miami without quick bursts of scoring. New York has no ability to hang in a dogfight, but a low-scoring game – even one in which Miami dominates the time of possession – helps keep the Dolphins from pulling away.
The Jets stay close enough to make this a game to the end, but lose by a field goal, beating the spread.
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