There are three weeks in the NFL season where picking games against the spread reaches new level of difficulty - Week 1, when no one knows what to expect; Week 17, when good teams need wins but bad ones occasionally show up for the upset; and Week 16, where the playoff picture is gaining clarity, but not quickly enough.
It is also at this point in the season when a shift in the strategy must occur. For weeks, we poured over the numbers and trends, discovering which teams were most likely to stumble, not necessarily which team looked better. This method served us well, and carried this column's picks to the top of the standings against the spread, according to NFLPickwatch.com. Unfortunately, we can no longer rely on such rules and guidelines.
We operate largely based off the perception of two teams in the eye of the viewing public - think the Steelers are that much better than the Jets? They are, but we saw where Pittsburgh might trip. Now, perceptions are no longer as skewed as they had been. Everyone knows the Patriots are dominant and that the Jets are, indeed, terrible. The spread, no longer beholden to the risk of traps, is an incredible ten points. From a road team.
Even that rule will be put to the test. We almost always take the points when they are worth at least a touchdown at home. This week, an unprecedented five such instances occur. Neither underdogs nor favorites will go 5-0 against the spread in these games, so we have to attack these games carefully.
In the end, an entire year's worth of preparation for each team has come down to these final two weeks. There is no such thing as a 'letdown,' now. Both the better teams with playoff hopes and the weaker teams trying to save face will come out firing as the year draws to a close. We should see violent swings from blowouts to duds, a wide array of upsets and laughers.
At least, with the spreads being so varied, the numbers tend to agree.
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: 56-38-1)
All Picks Against Spread: 7-8-1 (Season: 126-95-3)
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Mario Mergola is a writer, avid sports fan, former ESPN Radio producer, husband, and father who specializes in finding the hidden gems of the less-explored option. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioMergola