NFL Week 15 picks: An upset brewing in Indy?

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)

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)

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)

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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