Friday, December 12, 2014

NFL Week 15 Primer (With Picks): The Playoff Picture Emerges

It's finally Johnny Football time in Cleveland, but can Manziel keep the Browns alive in the AFC playoff race?
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

For all intents and purposes, three divisions have been decided (the AFC East, AFC South, and AFC West). The other five divisions will, in all likelihood, be decided by a single game at some point over the next three weeks. One of them is this week, when the Eagles host the Cowboys. If the Eagles win, they'll hold a one-game lead over the Cowboys, but also the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a 2-0 record over Dallas, which would all but clinch the division in their favor.

Next week, Atlanta will travel to New Orleans for a game that, in all likelihood, will determine the NFC South champion. That evening, Seattle will travel to Arizona in a matchup that should decide the NFC West, and will probably give the winner the inside track towards a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

The final two divisions won't be completely decided until Week 17, when Detroit travels to Green Bay and Cincinnati travels to Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, the NFC West's runner up will almost certainly take the first Wild Card spot in the NFC, leaving the final spot up for grabs between Philadelphia/Dallas (whichever doesn't take the division) and Detroit (assuming the Packers win the NFC North). There's no head-to-head matchup to speak of, but the Lions hold the inside track thanks to a 7-2 conference record (compared to 6-3 for Dallas and 5-4 for Philadelphia, who have both had the good fortune of beating up on the AFC South in non-conference play). In order for Detroit to miss the playoffs, they would need to lose two of their next three games. An 11-5 Detroit team automatically wins the conference record tie-break over an 11-5 Dallas or an 11-5 Philadelphia team.

The AFC Wild Card is far more muddled. San Diego holds a tie-break over Baltimore, but faces the toughest schedule of any team still realistically alive (they host Denver, then play at San Francisco and at Kansas City). Cincinnati is in an interesting position - if they get to 10-5-1, they only way they don't get in is if Baltimore, San Diego AND Pittsburgh all get to 11-5 (which is exceedingly unlikely).

Miami, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Houston need to win out to have any hope of surviving (the odds aren't great - Miami still has New England, Cleveland has Cincinnati and Baltimore, Kansas City has Pittsburgh and San Diego, and Houston has Baltimore). The most likely scenario, based on my judgment of the upcoming three weeks, is that Pittsburgh and Baltimore both finish 11-5 (Pittsburgh would take the division, Baltimore the No. 5 seed), and San Diego would take the last spot at 10-6.


Underdog Update:
Last Week: 8-7-1
Season: 101-104-3
Home Dogs, Last Week: 2-4
Home Dogs, Season: 28-32-1

Game(s) of The Week:

Pittsburgh @ Atlanta (1:00 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Pittsburgh takes the inside track for the AFC North with a win, Atlanta takes the inside track for the NFC South with a win. 

Houston @ Indianapolis (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

With a win, Houston remains mathematically alive, both in the wild-card hunt, but also in the AFC South race. They would need Indianapolis to also lose to Tennessee in Week 17, but still.

Miami @ New England (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Miami shocked New England in Week 1. The Patriots are a different team now, but Miami could throw a giant monkey wrench into the AFC playoff picture with another upset. 

Denver @ San Diego (4:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

San Diego turned their season around last year with an upset win over Denver in Week 15. They don't quite need to turn their season around (they're currently sitting in playoff position as it is), but they could certainly turn the odds even more in their favor with a similar result. 

San Francisco @ Seattle (4:25 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

San Francisco needs a win to stay alive. They have to get it on the road against perhaps the hottest team in the conference. 

Dallas @ Philadelphia (8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

The battle for the NFC East.

New Orleans @ Chicago (8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN)

Chicago is dead in the water, but if Atlanta pulls out a win against Pittsburgh, New Orleans will need a win to keep pace.

Here Are The Picks We Agree On (Home Teams In CAPS)

Arizona (+5.5) over ST. LOUIS

Both Joe and Jeremy sniffed out the Cardinals getting more points than they should, and they turned out to be right.

Oakland (+10) over KANSAS CITY

JC: Oakland continues to be my gambling darling. They're 7-6 against the spread. And after starting the season an unreal 9-1 against the spread, the Chiefs have fallen back to Earth, dropping their last three (two in ugly fashion).

JP: I mean, Oakland did beat KC the last time these teams played, so I think a double-digit spread is a little much.

BALTIMORE (-14) over Jacksonville

JC: Baltimore beats up on bad teams. It's what they do. They haven't let one off the hook yet this year.

JP: The Ravens should smother the Jacksonville running game which is now without it's only real threat, Denard Robinson, and gash the crumbling Jaguar run defense. Basically, Jacksonville is beaten, bloodied and out of reasons to care, while the Ravens are at home in the thick of a playoff race. Should be a route. 

Pittsburgh (-2.5) over ATLANTA

JC: Two weeks ago, I bet against the NFC South and they burned me. Last week, I went 3-1 picking the division (granted, two of those "wins" came from the same game when I took Carolina over New Orleans, but still). I think I'm going back to just betting against them. Give me the surging Steelers.

JP: The Steelers have been the most unpredictable team in football this year. At first, it was fun getting surprised, like when you watched "The Sixth Sense," but now it's getting to the point where you'd just like to see them play a normal football game. Like when you saw "The Village" and wished there wasn't some stupid twist, and that those monsters were real.

There you have it ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers, your M. Night Shyamalan of the NFL.

All that being said, I guess I'll take them this week, coming off a big win (not like that's ever bitten me in the butt before).

Cincinnati (+1.5) over CLEVELAND

JC: I continue to maintain that Cleveland stinks and continue to be the beneficiaries of the league's easiest schedule (they played the AFC South, NFC South, PLUS the Raiders).

JP: It's Johnny Football time!... But the Bengals are still better. Gimme the points.

NEW ENGLAND (-7.5) over Miami

JC: After two kind of ugly games on the road against Green Bay and San Diego, the Patriots should be due for one of those "in case you forgot, we're really [expletive deleted]ing good" games at home.

JP: This is a rough time to catch New England, and I think it ultimately leads to the Dolphins becoming the AFC's best team out of the playoff hunt by Monday.

Tampa Bay (+3.5) over CAROLINA

JC: Two garbage teams, just give me the points if Cam Newton is out.

JP: I've been betting on the crappy Bucs all year, so now that they're facing another crappy team (without its starting quarterback) and getting points, I guess I should stick with it.

Green Bay (-6) over BUFFALO

JC: Buffalo's pass rush slowed down Denver's offense and they were able to get a backdoor cover out of it. But even at home, I need a touchdown before I take the Bills against an elite team.

JP: I'll give Buffalo the credit they deserve for slowing down Peyton Manning, but Aaron Rodgers is just on another level right now. Buffalo could keep it close and still end up losing by 10.

New York Jets (-3) over TENNESSEE

JC: *fart noises*

JP: I guess the Jets have been more impressive than the Titans recently, though that doesn't say much.

Denver (-4.5) over SAN DIEGO

JC: San Diego isn't sneaking up on the Broncos like they did last year. And now that Denver has a running game, the Chargers won't be able to dominate time of possession to a staggering degree. It won't be a blowout, but Denver should take care of business.

JP: No way Manning lays two stinkers in a row, especially in this critical division game.

SEATTLE (-10) over San Francisco

JC: This line seems high until you realize that Seattle probably only needs two touchdowns to cover it. With Colin Kaepernick basically a section eight, I don't see how San Francisco can score on Seattle's defense. Unless the 49ers score on defense or special teams, this has 20-3 written all over it.

JP: Agreed. If the Niners could only score 3 on the Seahawks at home, they're in for a long day in Seattle.

Dallas (+3.5) over PHILADELPHIA

JC: They aren't going to get blown out again, I'm pretty sure of that. I'll take the extra half-point.

JP: Dallas needs to run the ball better this time around against the Eagles, and a healthy Tony Romo should be able to make enough throws to open things up for the Dallas ground game. I actually like the Boys to get a little revenge and win this one outright on the road.

CHICAGO (+3) over New Orleans


JP: An odd line indeed, but Chicago hasn't exactly been great this year...

Here Are The Picks We Don't (Home Teams Still In CAPS)

JC: Houston (+7) over INDIANAPOLIS

Give me J.J. Watt against the maybe-not-so-secretly-not-good Indianapolis offensive line. And give me Arian Foster or whoever Houston starts at running back against the definitely-not-secretly-bad Indianapolis run defense.

JP: INDIANAPOLIS (-7) over Houston

Last week was the first time Indy won a game without covering the spread (beating Cleveland by 1 on a -3 line). Prior to that, the only games the Colts hadn't covered came in losses to teams that appear to simply be better than them (DEN, PHI, PIT, NE). I don't think Houston is better, so I'll take the Colts at home to cover.

JC: DETROIT (-8) over Minnesota

Detroit is better than you think they are and Minnesota is worse than you think they are.

JP: Minnesota (+8) over DETROIT

The Vikings aren't exactly world beaters, but they aren't the Bucs or Bears either. The Vikings have secretly been great against the pass (6th in the league) and have an offensive line that is getting better every week. If they can contain Matthew Stafford and the Lions' passing game, they should be able to find balance against the stout Detroit defensive front.

JC: NEW YORK GIANTS (-7) over Washington

I'm not sure which Giants team is going to show up - the one who lost to Jacksonville or the one who blew out Tennessee. Granted, against this Washington team, I'm not sure it matters.

JP: Washington (+7) over NEW YORK GIANTS

I'm not sure why I'm making this pick- either because I want to believe that Washington can be somewhat decent with Colt McCoy at quarterback, or because I think the Giants are hot garbage this year outside of Odell Beckham Jr. Granted, since there is no money on the line for these picks, I'm not sure it matters.

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 11-4-1
Season: 102-103-3
Last Week's Disagreements: 4-1
Season's Disagreements: 27-32

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 8-7-1
Season: 107-98-3
Last Week's Disagreements: 1-4
Season's Disagreements: 32-27

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