Friday, December 18, 2015

NFL Week 15 Primer (With Picks): Well, Another AFC Shakeup

The Pittsburgh offense has been on a tear, but can they score on Denver's top-ranked defense?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Just when we thought the AFC couldn't get any weirder, it goes and does something like this.

One week after a shocking New England loss at home to Philadelphia sent the Patriots tumbling all the way down to the No. 3 seed, the Bengals and Broncos both suffered shocking home losses of their own (you could argue that Cincinnati's was slightly less shocking, but getting blown out and losing your starting quarterback to injury certainly qualifies as shocking).

And so, New England is back in the driver's seat in the AFC. Cincinnati's offense is thrown into a great deal of havoc without Andy Dalton, and Denver's offense is back to appearing eminently stoppable. Meanwhile, the two hottest teams in the conference are Kansas City and Pittsburgh, who have combined to win 11 of their last 12 games (four of five for Pittsburgh, seven straight for the Chiefs) and suddenly present two semi-realistic scenarios for an AFC team to win three straight road games and advance to the Super Bowl, an idea that seemed ludicrous a month ago. And somehow, the Jets are still in the mix (and entering this week, hold the No. 6 seed in the AFC).

And holy mother of god, does the entire AFC South need to be banished to the Arena League. The Colts sit at 6-7, with a scoring margin of -81 on the season, and STILL somehow hold the division lead. And the Jaguars are still mathematically alive. I need a drink.

Weekly Playoff Machine Nonsense

1. The Jets likely need to win out in order to secure a playoff berth. Assuming Kansas City wins out (with a schedule of at Baltimore, Cleveland, and Oakland, that seems more likely than not, and a 10-6 Kansas City team still holds tiebreakers over any other 10-6 AFC team), they'll take the No. 5 seed. The Jets currently hold the No. 6 seed thanks to their conference winning percentage. But if the Jets finish 10-6 (beating the Cowboys this week and Buffalo in Week 17, losing to New England next week), and the Steelers do also (losing to Denver this week, then beating Baltimore and Cleveland to close the season), the Steelers would leapfrog the New York. The Jets either need an upset over New England or two Pittsburgh losses.

2. Jacksonville can still win the AFC South, under the following scenario:

a) Jacksonville wins out (Atlanta, at New Orleans, at Houston)
b) Houston beats Indianapolis this week, then loses at Tennessee and to Jacksonville Week 17
c) Indianapolis wins no more than one remaining game (either at Miami Week 16 or home for Tennessee Week 17)

Both Houston and Indianapolis hold tiebreakers over Jacksonville if more than one of them finish at 8-8, so the Jaguars need both to finish at 7-9 (as outlined above) to clinch the division. Based on Indianapolis' schedule and injuries, it seems like the AFC South will be decided by Week 17's Jacksonville at Houston matchup.

3. Tampa Bay's loss Thursday all but guarantees a playoff berth for Minnesota. Creating a scenario in which they miss the postseason is way too ludicrous to even entertain. Minnesota just holds too many tiebreakers.

Game(s) of The Week

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


Carolina at New York Giants (1:00 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

Obligatory "Carolina is still undefeated and qualifies for Game of The Week status automatically" inclusion.

Denver at Pittsburgh (4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

The Broncos looked terrible against Oakland last week, and Pittsburgh looked magnificent against Cincinnati. It's the league's hottest offense against the league's best defense, so it should be a good game.

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

Tampa Bay (+2.5) over ST. LOUIS


New York Jets (-3) over DALLAS

JC: The only way Dallas has been able to move the ball with any reliability with Tony Romo out of the lineup is by just pounding the ball straight ahead with Darren McFadden. Luckily, the Jets have the league's No. 1 rush defense.

JP: The Jets are (largely) healthy and fighting for a playoff spot. The Cowboys are neither of those things.

MINNESOTA (-5.5) over Chicago

JC: The Vikings have lost three of their last four, but have played a brutal schedule. Coming off a long week (they played Thursday last week) against a weak opponent, this is the type of game where you need to blow out your opponent to get back on track.

JP: This is one of those late-season home games you HAVE to win if you're a playoff team, and I'm leaning toward Minnesota actually being a playoff team. So yeah, let's go with Adrian Peterson against a bottom-10 run defense.

Houston (+1) over INDIANAPOLIS

JC: This was a tough line to track down with so much in doubt regarding who is starting at quarterback for both teams. When the options are Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst, Brian Hoyer, and Tyler Yates, I'm just going to take the team with the better defense and not even care what the line is.

JP: I'll take the team that has actually played defense this month to grab first place in the pillow fight that is the AFC South.

Kansas City (-7.5) over BALTIMORE

JC: The levy finally broke on Baltimore's close game streak. The Seahawks cleaned them out, and I'd expect Kansas City to do the same.

JP: Baltimore's three current quarterbacks are: Matt Schaub, Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett...

NEW ENGLAND (-14) over Tennessee

JC: Yeah.

JP: Sure.

Arizona (-3.5) over PHILADELPHIA

JC: The injuries among Arizona's running backs are starting to pile up, but they should still be able to air it out against a weak Philadelphia secondary, and there are only so many special teams rabbits Philadelphia can pull out of their hat.

JP: The Eagles have at least had a pulse over the past few weeks, but if Arizona is the team I think they are (namely, a Super Bowl contender in the NFC), then they'll take care of business here.

SEATTLE (-14.5) over Cleveland

JC: That half-point would scare me if not for the whole part where the Seahawks have covered that margin four times in their last seven games, including their last two by a combined score of 73-13.

JP: Johnny Football was okay against San Francisco last week (minus a sideline meltdown and first half interception)... That won't cut it against a Seahawks team that is starting to look a lot like the power we expected it to be.

Green Bay (-3) over OAKLAND

JC: Green Bay's ground game is cooking again - they ran for 230 yards last week against Dallas, and lets not forget that Oakland won last week with a grand total of 126 yards of offense.

JP: I'm losing my feel for Oakland (a team I had bet quite well on earlier in the year), but my guess here is that Aaron Rodgers fares slightly better than Brock Osweiler a week ago. After five sacks against the Broncos last week, Oakland's Khalil Mack is now your NFL sack leader, but Oakland is still a bottom-10 defense. Green Bay SHOULD be able to move the ball consistently.

Miami (+2) over SAN DIEGO


JP: Gimme the points and don't make me think about either of these teams until the NFL Scouting Combine... Or until the Chargers move to LA. Whichever comes first.

Denver (+7) over PITTSBURGH

JC: Pittsburgh is hot and Denver appears mortal, but this line is at least three points too high. For as spectacular as Pittsburgh's offense has been, the defense is still hit-or-miss.

JP: Holy overreaction Batman! Pittsburgh looked good against Cincinnati, and Denver looked bad against Oakland, but do we really want to give a touchdown against that Broncos defense? I know I sure don't. All that said, if the Steelers win here, could they be the second-best team in the AFC... and miss the playoffs? If the Jets and Chiefs keep winning, that might just be the case.

Cincinnati (-4.5) over SAN FRANCISCO

JC: The 49ers are dead last in scoring offense and dead last in total yards. Over their last seven games, they've averaged 12.6 points and 262 yards of offense. Cincinnati's defense is a top-10 outfit in pretty much every relevant statistical category. Even with A.J. McCarron under center, the Bengals shouldn't need more than 17 points to cover this spread.

JP: Even without Andy Dalton, the Bengals still have a ton of weapons, a top-10 defense and a world to play for. That should be something backup quarterback A.J. McCarron is used to. After all, he pretty much game-managed Alabama to back-to-back national titles in 2012-2013.

Detroit (+3.5) over NEW ORLEANS

JC: The Saints allowed just 291 yards of offense last week, which allowed them to surge all the way up to 31st in total defense (the Giants now rank dead last). Now that that's over, it's time for them to give up a 600 spot, and Detroit (with a now kinda-okay offense) seems like just the team to do it.

JP: There have been some aberrations, but betting against the Saints has generally been easy money this year. Although they are at home...

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

JC: JACKSONVILLE (-3) over Atlanta

I'm growing very fond of picking against the Falcons. It's been quite lucrative. And don't forget, the Jaguars have put up 90 points in their last two games.

JP: Atlanta (+3) over JACKSONVILLE

Ok, I know Atlanta was a fraud that has been exposed, but are we really willing to give points with the Jaguars? I'm just not there yet.

JC: Buffalo (-1) over WASHINGTON

Honestly, I'm not sure why. Neither team has done much of late that makes me think I should take them. But the AFC East is better than the NFC East, so it would stand to reason that a 6-7 team in the AFC East is probably better than a 6-7 team in the NFC East. Right?

JP: WASHINGTON (+1) over Buffalo

I don't know about this one at all. Both teams are streaky, and this is, essentially, an elimination game for Buffalo... I guess I'll go with the home team fighting for first place in its division.

JC: Carolina (-5.5) over NEW YORK GIANTS

Carolina feasts on bad defenses. The Giants are the league's worst defense.

JP: NEW YORK GIANTS (+5.5) over Carolina

This feels like it could be Carolina's first loss, doesn't it? The Giants aren't great, but they have human cheat code Odell Beckham, and are in the middle of a nice "Good Eli" stretch of play. I'm just going to ignore that this is the worst defense in football trying to slow down Cam Newton...

Jeremy's Record: 
Last Week: 8-8
Season: 111-92-5
Last Week's Disagreements: 1-2
Season's Disagreements: 29-27-2 

Joe's Record: 
Last Week: 9-7
Season: 109-94-5
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-1
Season's Disagreements: 27-29-2

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