NFL Week 16 picks: Can the Bengals get past the Broncos?

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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 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)

NFL Week 16 Picks
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NFL Week 16 picks: Can the Bengals get past the Broncos?

Tennessee Titans (+3)* at Jacksonville Jaguars

What has to happen to make the 2-12 Jaguars the favorite in any game? Probably, the opponent must shuffle through a minimum of three quarterbacks throughout the season, also have a record of 2-12, and, most importantly, lose to the Jets. Talk about rock bottom.

The Jaguars find themselves in the extremely rare and uncomfortable position of giving points to an opponent. In fact, this is the first time Jacksonville has been listed as the favorite all season. The logic is justified, however, as the Titans are as bad as described above, and enter this game on an eight-game losing streak. In fact, the Jaguars have wontwo games since the last time the Titans won one.

The problem, however, is that the Jaguars are the same team they’ve been for years: awful.

In what is the most unwatchable way to conclude Thursday Night Football — technically, this week’s Saturday games are listed as ‘Thursday Night Football specials,’ but this pillow fight is the last actual game on a Thursday, this season — both teams bring their own noteworthy storylines.

How does Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt play out the team’s last two games? Most coaches don’t survive 2-14 seasons, but Tennessee has committed to Whisenhunt, and he will have the opportunity to rebuild the team with an extremely high draft pick next season. Normally, as in the case with the Jets, the current head coach has every incentive to keep adding wins. This is not the case for the Titans, and, while the team will certainly give a full effort, it adds a wrinkle into how important a third win is.

Instead, Jacksonville, already believing it has its quarterback for the foreseeable future, enters the game with actual expectations. Some might even call it ‘pressure.’ As noted throughout the season, favorites on Thursday Night Football had enjoyed an incredible 7-2 run against the spread to start the year. Since that point, including the Thanksgiving games, underdogs have recovered to the tune of 5-3. Excluding Thanksgiving, it’s a more modest 3-2 edge for the underdogs.

As we believed in the first half of the year, the underdogs should pave the way back to a more balanced .500 winning percentage by the end. They have come close, but the record for favorites on true Thursday Night Football games — that is, standalone night games to open the week — remains an impressive 9-5.

What’s more likely, the Jacksonville Jaguars pushing this to a 10-5 record and .667 winning percentage or the underdogs stabilizing the trend at 6-9?

In a rare case of Jacksonville expecting to win, they actually do. But, the slapfest that will ensue should be relatively devoid of touchdowns, keeping the score low and close. Tennessee loses by two, but beats the spread.

Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins (+9)*

Every game appears to be worse for the Redskins. Losers of six straight games — four of which by double-digits — Washington will, once again, turn to Robert Griffin III to replace the injured Colt McCoy. It is worth nothing that McCoy replaced Kirk Cousinsdue to ineffectiveness, who was filling in for Griffin, due to injury. However it’s laid out, the fact that Washington will have three quarterbacks start at least four games this year is a direct factor in the team’s 3-11 record.

Philadelphia, starting a former backup quarterback of its own, has dropped back-to-back games and lost its lead in the NFC East. At least, they get to face the lowly Redskins to get back on track, right?

Not so fast.

Just because it appears as if Robert Griffin III has completely lost the ability to play quarterback in the National Football League, doesn’t mean that he can’t for one more game. In fact, this might be his audition for a new team next year. With ten career touchdown passes against the Eagles — his highest total against any team – Griffin’s best chance to prove his worth against a defense allowing the fourth-most touchdown passes and fifth-most yards through the air.

In the end, Philadelphia wins out, beating the Redskins by six, but Washington beats the spread.

Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff, Getty Images

San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers (-1)

It comes down to one difference between these two teams: recent history. The Chargers are a notoriously streaky team — in fact, we have written about San Diego’s tendency to go on runs, both good and bad, many times throughout the year — while San Francisco has typically been an excellent rebound team. That is, until this year.

In an incredibly precipitous fall from grace, it appears as if 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh will be coaching his final two games with the team in the coming weeks. Hosting the Chargers on a rare nationally televised Saturday game is one of his last opportunities to try to salvage the season and avoid his first losing record as head coach of the 49ers. To boot, San Francisco had not lost three consecutive games under Harbaugh until last week. Four would be completely unprecedented.

San Diego has failed to solidify itself as a team truly worthy of a playoff spot, largely living off its 5-1 start. Unfortunately, the Chargers of the past eight weeks — 3-5 over that span — might be the real team from San Diego this year. Furthermore, as much as San Francisco has struggled — its offense has yet to score 30 points in any game this season – the Chargers have hit a speed-bump as well. San Diego has broken the 30-point barrier only once in the aforementioned eight-game span.

San Francisco, finally getting relief from having to face Seattle twice in three weeks, wins at home by a touchdown and covers the spread.

Photo Credit: Otto Greule Jr, Getty Images

Minnesota Vikings at Miami Dolphins (-6.5)

It’s almost as if the Dolphins would rather fly under the radar. All season, people refused to buy into Miami, and it took a 37-0 beating of the Chargers to grab everyone’s attention. Immediately after gaining said recognition, the Dolphins promptly dropped four of their next six games, and fell virtually out of a playoff spot.

Miami’s last hope to stay alive comes in the form of the vastly improved Vikings – 4-3 in their last seven games. Since Week 6, Minnesota has only lost one game by more than a touchdown — in Chicago — but its last four wins came against the Jets, Panthers, Falcons, and Buccaneers.

The Dolphins were busy losing to Patriots, Ravens, Broncos, and Lions.

Miami, with an opportunity to rebound from a crushing defeat in New England, keeps its playoff hopes alive with a two touchdown victory at home, beating the spread.

Photo Credit: Jim Rogash, Getty Images

New England Patriots (-10) at New York Jets

Add the Jets to the list of double-digit home underdogs this week, as well as potential victim for an ensuing beating. Coming off their third win of the season – a painfully ugly 16-11 victory that actually included a halftime score of 5-3 – the Jets return home to what will surely be a hostile environment. For them.

In addition to the outward displeasure voiced by Jets fans across the nation when they won their third game and effectively ended their hopes for a top-three draft pick, the Jets’ faithful are planning to close their season at home in what will be nothing short of a mutiny. Fans will actually be waving towels that urge owner Woody Johnson to ‘Fire Idzik,’the team’s general manager. Quite frankly, the fans will not be in attendance to support the team winning. They will be arriving to protest.

So much for getting double-digit points at home.

Effectively neutralizing the site is all New England needs to blow the Jets out of the water. With their past three meetings having been decided by a field goal or less, the Patriots are due for a laugher by halftime.

New England wins by four touchdowns, covers the spread, and Jets fans boo their team’s performance louder than the opponent.

Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3)

The AFC playoff race is about to get incredibly exciting.

The AFC North, arguably the most hotly contested division in football, could conceivably be decided in a Week 17 showdown between the Bengals and Steelers. The Chiefs, eliminated from AFC West contention, sit outside the bubble of current playoff teams and chase their opponent on Sunday in what may become a Wild Card tiebreaker scenario. This game, therefore, has a ripple effect throughout the conference, regardless of outcome.

Almost everything across the board suggests that Sunday’s matchup should be close from start to finish — in fact, four of the last five games the Steelers have played were decided by one score or less, except their blowout in Cincinnati, and even that was a three-point game until the fourth quarter. But the Steelers’ offense, leading the league in yards, has been able to win games attacking through the air and on the ground. With running backLe’Veon Bell rushing for over 500 yards and scoring six touchdowns in his last four games, the Steelers will find the Chiefs’ biggest weakness, a rush defense allowing the second-most yards in the league.

Pittsburgh wins by six, covers, and clinches a playoff berth, setting up an AFC North title game next Sunday against the Bengals.

Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham, Getty Images

Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+10.5)

Of the five games this week featuring underdogs getting a touchdown worth of points at home, none has a greater disparity in talent — the Patriots and Jets are exempt from this conversation due to division familiarity — than the Packers and Buccaneers. Green Bay is one of the best teams in the National Football League, and just suffered it’s first loss since Halloween, while Tampa Bay is likely beginning negotiations with the potential top pick in next year’s draft.

This wide range of talent suggests that this game shouldn’t be close. But, given the general parameters we tend to follow — ‘obvious picks’ between teams seemingly worlds apart and home underdogs receiving so many points — the Buccaneers are poised to beat the spread.

After all, we have these rules set in place in order to allow the numbers to speak for themselves. Like a team entering the playoffs amid quarterback controversy, we stick with the methods that have proven successful and ‘dance with the one we brought to the party.’

Green Bay wins by ten, but Tampa Bay sneaks under the line and beats the spread.

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images

Cleveland Browns (+4)* at Carolina Panthers

Well, that ended quickly. As fast as everyone piled on the bandwagon to support the Browns in Johnny Manziel‘s first start is as quickly as they jumped off. Opening last week as underdogs by one-and-a-half points — prior to the announcement of Manziel getting the nod — the Browns and Bengals quickly became a ‘Pick ‘em’ game as the ‘Manziel factor’ pushed the spread back to even. 30 points and a shutout later, the Browns are back on the receiving end of points, despite playing a five-win team opening the week without resolution on quarterback Cam Newton‘s status for the game.

As always, perception is not only what drives the spread, but how people react to it. There was a palpable sense of excitement for those who had eagerly awaited Manziel’s debut. Once it was a massive failure, it struck fear in the minds of those expecting greatness, and the immediate ‘knee-jerk reaction’ is now to lose faith in Manziel and the Browns. That’s exactly what we want.

In a week that featured a nationally televised blowout of the Bears, a meeting between the Jets and Titans, and a Thursday night game with no touchdowns, the Browns – the only team to be shutout — arguably looked the worst.

Therefore, they have the most to gain.

They also have a solid defense with the third-most takeaways in the league playing against a careless Panthers offense who has broken the 21-point mark only once since Week 6.

Cleveland wins by a field goal and beats the spread.

Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens (-5.5)* at Houston Texans

This has not been an easy season for the Baltimore Ravens. It seems as if each game is a battle -- even beating the Jaguars, at home, became a much closer game than it should have been. Yet, at the end of the day, they enter Week 16 as the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. In fact, they may actually have caught a break as a karmic reward for winning four of their last five games.

Houston, on the verge of elimination in the AFC playoff race, has lost yet another quarterback to injury. With Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallet, Fitzpatrick again, and Tom Savage all unavailable for Sunday’s game, the Texans – at the time of this writing – are left scrambling for someone to line up under center.

In one of the rare moments where the news of a quarterback change actually impacts one of our picks -- you may notice that we don't move away from the Bears beating the spread despite Jay Cutler getting benched -- there is truly no reason to stick with the Texans anymore. Part of the initial analysis of the game was that Savage was being largely undervalued, thus impacting the spread. Now, with the loss of what could have been considered a 'secret weapon' utilized at game time, there should be no surprises.

With a Ravens team that has the perfect response to the two Texans' strengths – Baltimore ranks third in the league in rushing defense and has allowed the second-fewest sacks this season – Houston won’t be able to keep up with Baltimore's top-ten offense.

The Ravens win by two touchdowns and cover.

Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images

Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys (-3)

Everything about this game — right down to the spread being a generic ‘three points from the home team — breeds uncertainty. Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray has a broken bone in his hand, yet is currently listed as ‘questionable’ for the game. Dallas alsoappears to have cured its late-season woes with a crucial win on national television. But, are they getting too much credit too quickly?

Then there are the Colts. Riding high — winners of four straight games and 10-2 since losing their first two — yet with only two wins against teams currently with a winning record. They play well regardless of venue — 6-2 at home, and 4-2 on the road — while Dallas actually outperforms away from its home stadium — 3-4 at home versus 7-0 on the road.

If anything, all of these factors help deflate a spread that may have otherwise grown. Whenever that happens, we tend to take the favorite — think New Orleans last Monday night with the perception that the Saints can’t win on the road, as well as the ‘

With question marks around DeMarco Murray, concerns that the team will still choke away its division lead, and facing an opponent that is likely locked into its position in the AFC seeding, the Cowboys, despite giving three points, are being largely downplayed. This imbalance is the biggest deciding factor.

Dallas wins by a touchdown and covers.

Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff, Getty Images

Buffalo Bills (-5.5) at Oakland Raiders

Is it really going to happen? Are the Bills really going to clinch their first winning record since 2004? More amazingly, are people going to actually buy in?

The Bills finish their season with two road games — in Oakland and in New England. Of the two, one seems much more likely to yield a win — sorry, Oakland, it’s been true for almost every other team this season. And, if Buffalo can pull off the road victory — 3-3 this season on the road, and 4-3 if the ‘home’ game in Detroit is added to the record — the Bills would remain alive in the AFC playoff picture one more week.

Despite Oakland playing better at home of late — both of the team’s wins have come in its last two home games — the Raiders still have absolutely no offense and, thus, no way to move the ball against a Bills defense that is playing every bit deserving of its top-five ranking.

Buffalo wins by seventeen and covers, clinching a winning season and staying alive in the playoff hunt until the last week of the season.

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images

Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals (+3.5)*

“Prove it. Win when it matters.”

Typically, these words are spoken to the Cincinnati Bengals of the past few years, frequent visitors to the playoffs, but without a postseason win in three games in the past three years — amazingly, the last Bengals’ playoff win was 1990, despite five attempts since then. While Monday Night Football is not actually a playoff game, it might be the next best thing.

A Cincinnati win would give the team it’s fourth straight playoff berth, capping off a season that, excluding a small stretch during which wide receiver A.J. Green was injured, has been relatively solid. Of course, everything could be erased with a loss to the Broncos followed by a visit to Pittsburgh to close out the season.

Denver has already clinched the AFC West division and, while it is still fighting New England for the AFC’s top seed, remains unable to pass the Patriots without help from either the Jets — keep dreaming — or Buffalo. The Broncos have every reason to push for a victory in Cincinnati, but the reality is that they are probably going to end up as the second seed in the AFC. In addition, the ‘push’ the Broncos make may be relatively subdued this week, as future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning left Week 15’s game against the Chargers for a short period of time with conflicting reports of injury. If any team may let its foot off the gas pedal in Week 16, it would be the Broncos.

Regardless, the Bengals have four 20-point losses on their resume this season. They rank statistically average in almost every category, except their stellar pass defense – allowing the fewest passing touchdowns in the league. Luckily for the Bengals, this is the likeliest recipe for an upset of the visiting Broncos. That, and the fact that all three of Denver’s losses have come on the road.

With the national spotlight and a home crowd at their back, the Bengals finally win a clutch game with a playoff-like atmosphere, beating the Broncos by a field goal and beating the spread.

Photo Credit: Jason Miller, Getty Images


Related links:
Brandon Jennings gets a wide-open layup, decides 'Nah'
James Neal becoems first NHL player fined for diving in NHL crackdown
Fantasy football Week 16 worksheet
Has LeBron lost a step?

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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

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