Saturday, December 9, 2017

NFL Week 14 Primer (With Picks): The Wild NFC

Even Case Keenum can't believe that Case Keenum is, like, good this year. What is going on in the NFC?

 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

So, uh, the NFC is kind of interesting.

We have two 10-win teams in Philadelphia and Minnesota. We have two 9-win teams in New Orleans and Los Angeles. And we have three 8-win teams in Atlanta, Carolina, and Seattle. Also, Dallas, Detroit, and Green Bay still have a reasonable outside chance to sneak in as the 6-seed.

(Technically, Washington and Arizona are also still alive, but they would need to (a) win out, and (b) see pretty much every team listed above lose in every game that wasn't against each other, so let's ignore them for now.)

Have we been here before? It seems like every year the NFC just becomes an all-out fustercluck in the final month of the season. Atlanta took a huge step forward with their win over New Orleans last night, but they might end up with the short stick in the NFC South because of their schedule (they have to play both Carolina and New Orleans in the final two weeks, whereas Carolina and New Orleans play each other but then each also play the 4-8 Bucs).

Seattle also took a huge step forward on Sunday night, not only posting a statement win against the conference's best team, but also clawing their way a game closer to the Rams, and giving themselves what could end up being a valuable tiebreaker, seeding-wise, if some weird stuff happens between now and Christmas.

Football Outsiders each week simulates the remainder of the season 50,000 times, using their statistical models to rate each team. Entering this week (so, not including Thursday's result), their projections were as follows:

1. Minnesota
2. Philadelphia
3. New Orleans
4. Los Angeles
5. Carolina
6. Seattle

ESPN also has a Playoff Machine, a wonderful tool that allows you to input results for every game for the rest of the season to see how the playoff seedings would shake out. And, let me tell you, there are some games that can throw an absolute monkey wrench into the proceedings. Here are some key games to watch for

Week 14:
Minnesota at Carolina
Seattle at Jacksonville
Philadelphia at Los Angeles

Week 15:
Los Angeles at Seattle

Week 16:
Atlanta at New Orleans
Los Angeles at Tennessee

Week 17:
Carolina at Atlanta

All seven of those games will likely have a huge impact on how teams are seeded. The path for Philadelphia and Minnesota to get to 13-3 is pretty reasonable (especially if Green Bay gets eliminated and has no reason to bring Aaron Rodgers back for their Week 16 game against the Vikings). After them, though, there's a very real possibility that there's a five-way tie at 11-5, and we could enter Week 17 with Carolina and Atlanta battling for either (a) the NFC South crown and the third seed, or (b) watching the playoffs on the couch, with no third option.

The AFC is slightly less exciting. The Patriots and Steelers seem to be on a collision course towards their Week 15 game in Pittsburgh (which, in all likelihood, will determine the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs), but everything after that is pretty clear. The Jaguars are a near-lock to make the playoffs, and the Titans and Ravens are pretty strong favorites to pick up playoff spots of their own. The only real mystery is in the AFC West, but based on recent performance, the Chiefs are going down the tubes and it could be the Chargers that emerge.

But let's not look too far down the road, let's get to the picks.

Thursday night's game went pretty much according to script. The Falcons won, ushering in a whole new wave of uncertainty in the NFC South. If the Saints win, it's pretty academic - the Saints become the overwhelming favorite to win the division and leave themselves open for a bye if the Vikings or Eagles slip.

Now, nobody knows what's going on. Jeremy, always eager for some December chaos, had the Falcons, and he covered by a measly half-point (but a win's a win). Joe thought everything was going according to plan, but, well, them's the breaks.

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

[Editor's Note: This post was updated early Sunday morning with picks for the Detroit-Tampa Bay and Indianapolis-Buffalo games, as lines for each game weren't available when this was first published]

Chicago (+6.5) over CINCINNATI

JC: Joe Mixon has a head injury, Vontaze Burfict has a head injury, and the Bengals have performed well enough to cover a spread of this size exactly twice this year, and both times were against the Browns. I'm not exactly drinking the Bears Kool-Aid, but they compete on defense and tend to not get blown out.

JP: Chicago is the scrappy but bad team that covers more often than you think, while Cincy is the walking wounded, and the Bengals pretty much have nothing to play for after blowing another game against Pittsburgh that they totally had in the bag. I'd take the Bears to win this one straight up.

Indianapolis (+3) over BUFFALO

JC: We all saw what happened the last time Nathan Peterman started at quarterback for the Bills. As of early Sunday morning, Tyrod Taylor was listed as doubtful, which means it's doubtful that I'll be trusting the Bills to cover any spread against any team in the league. 

JP: Without Tyrod, the Bills go from average to bad, and the Colts are sneakily decent against teams that aren't stacked with defensive talent across the board.

Oakland (+4) over KANSAS CITY

JC: I think I'm going to have a very swell time gambling against the Chiefs for the rest of this regular season. I might even pay for some extra [insert apolitical reference to a winter holiday of your choice here] gifts this way. I think the Chiefs are hot garbage and deserve to be treated as such. Like, congratulations, they beat the Patriots and Eagles in their first two games of the season. They're 4-6 since. I'm aggressively selling.

JP: I'm actually with you on this strategy. Andy Reid emptied the clip in the first quarter of the season, and Kansas City is really struggling to generate offense now that all its wrinkles are on film. That wouldn't be so bad, if the defense hadn't been quietly deteriorating for the past three years.

Green Bay (-3) over CLEVELAND

JC: I really don't want to lay points on the road with Brett Hundley, especially after he mustered just 84 passing yards last week (I still have no idea how Green Bay won that game), but if you want me to wager on the Browns, I'm gonna need more than a field goal.

JP: I'm tempted to pull the trigger on this one, but yeah, it's hard to take Cleveland getting less than a touchdown. I got no guts.

San Francisco 49ers (+3) over HOUSTON


JP: I don't want to sound hyperbolic, but Jimmy G looked like Brady-light in the pocket last week. He won't be Tom Terrific any time soon, but you can see why so many teams like him, and why Belichick wanted to keep him as long as possible. San Fran is suddenly an interesting late season team with no playoff hopes whatsoever. 

Dallas (-3.5) over NEW YORK GIANTS

JC: I'm staying far, far away from the New York dumpster fire. The Cowboys seemed to find a bit of a groove last week running the ball, so I'd expect that to continue.


On a serious note, can we all just appreciate that New York allowed its lame duck coach to bench its two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, who hadn't missed a start since 2004, and then fired him the next week. Couldn't they just fire him a week earlier, especially if they were going to put Eli back under center with the interim coach? What was the point of letting that all happen last week?

New York Jets (-1) over DENVER

JC: Normally I would dismiss such a crappy game with a simple [fart noise], but I want to take a minute to recognize the truly rare incompetence that's been seen from Denver's quarterbacks this season. They've combined to throw 18 interceptions so far this season, 31st in the league, and have a passer rating AS A TEAM of 69.7. Obviously, the Browns are worse, but nobody expected the Browns to even be a real NFL team this year. People thought the Broncos might win the AFC West three months ago. Now, a well-dressed mannequin would probably be an upgrade under center.

JP: I want to say something nice about Denver's quarterbacks, so I will point out that they are all tall, and probably look cool in formal wear.

Seattle (+2.5) over JACKSONVILLE

JC: Blake Bortles? Against the Seahawks? Oh lord. Hose me down.

JP: That, and man is Seattle's offense getting tuned up. Russell Wilson is making a late MVP push and, as great as Jacksonville's defense has been, I don't think they can completely shut him down. On the other side, Seattle's still somewhat healthy linebacking corps, led by Bobby Wagner, should be able to contain Jacksonville's ground game and short pass offense. 

Philadelphia (+2) over LOS ANGELES RAMS

JC: I'm not totally sure here. I think both teams are good, but I also think both teams aren't quite as good as their resume might suggest. I think LA's defense can be exposed, and I think Philadelphia's success has been propped up a bit by a high interception rate that may not be sustainable. I really wish I could buy a point to give myself a field goal, but that's not how these picks work, so I'll just take (what I assess to be) the better team getting points.

JP: I'm gonna bet on Philly being in bounce-back mode, and on the Eagles' front seven to contain LA's ground game, and get after Jared Goff.

Baltimore (+5) over PITTSBURGH

JC: I don't know what to tell you. The Steelers don't blow teams out. They beat Tennessee by 20+, but they forced four turnovers in that game, and that's not really their M.O. Sure, the Ravens just kinda durdle around and never seem like they're playing that well and then all of a sudden the game is over and they won, but those are the teams that Pittsburgh has struggled against this year. In fact, the Ravens just have a straight-up better scoring margin than the Steelers this year (barely, but they do). I hate the Ravens as much as any American with their heart in the right place should, but I think they're a lot better than they've gotten credit for this year, and, as a Patriots fan, they're 100 percent the team that I want the absolute least to do with come playoff time. For now, I'll take them getting more than a field goal against a Pittsburgh team that hasn't impressed me much of late.

JP: I'll continue to bet against the Steelers, as is tradition. Plus, these dudes are clearly going to be looking ahead to the New England game next week, and without JuJu Smith-Schuster on offense or Ryan Shazier on defense, this has Ravens upset, or late Antonio Brown God-mode Steelers steal written all over it. Either way, Pittsburgh ain't covering. 

New England (-11.5) over MIAMI

JC: This is a team that puts away bad teams. They've won eight straight, and their last four have been by three possessions or more. These two teams met two weeks ago, and the Patriots really laid it on thick, sacking Matt Moore seven times, forcing three turnovers, and holding Miami to 2-for-11 on third down. Miami will be without Moore this week, so it will be back to Jay Cutler, which, frankly, might not be an upgrade. At this point, I'm willing to ride New England until I see a reason not to, and I haven't seen one yet.

JP: Remember that whole thing I said about Pittsburgh looking ahead to its game against New England? Yeah, the Patriots don't do that kind of thing.

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

JC: CAROLINA (+3) over Minnesota

Every year I root for all-out chaos in the NFC and let it inform my picks. Usually it turns out for the worst. This has Vikings 17, Panthers 13 written all over it, and yet I can't stay away. I think Carolina wins the game outright and, coupled with New Orleans' loss, creates a juicy race for the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

JP: Minnesota (-3) over CAROLINA

Haha, I too have little confidence in my pick, which I think bodes well for this game, featuring two killer defenses and strangely effective offenses. At the end of the day, I just trust Minnesota's defense a little more, and Case Keenum hasn't let me down yet (famous last words, I know).

JC: TAMPA BAY (+3) over Detroit

Both of these teams lie somewhere on the spectrum between "average" and "bad." We're three full months into the season and I still haven't figured out why Tampa Bay is so much worse than they were last year. The line on this game wasn't available for most of the week, ostensibly because of Matthew Stafford's hand injury, so I'll assume that might be relevant information and take the Bucs here.

JP: Detroit (-3) over TAMPA BAY

You hit the nail on the head: I have no idea why Tampa Bay is so bad this year. But, hey, you could pretty much say that every one of the past dozens seasons and feel the same way. While Stafford may not be 100 percent, it looks like he's gonna go, and I just can't see the Lions dropping one this Bucs team, especially since a loss would essentially eliminate them from playoff contention.

JC: LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (-6) over Washington

The Chargers are, well, Charging? They're 6-2 in their last eight games, with their only losses coming on the road against the Jaguars and Patriots (only two of the best five teams in the league by virtually any measure). They might just be legit. They've looked good everywhere except defending the run, but Washington really hasn't punished teams in that way this year (and besides, they have injuries at literally every position). The Chargers should keep on rolling, keeping the dream of an all-LA Super Bowl alive, if the city doesn't burn down first.

JP: Washington (+6) over LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

This is the week Washington puts it together, right? Call me crazy, but I'm just not buying this Chargers defense. Outside of a great pass rush duo, there are a lot of holes, and Washington, as maddeningly inconsistent as it has been, still has a ton of talent offensively. 

JC: ARIZONA (+3) over Tennessee

I really don't want to place any trust whatsoever into the Titans, especially on the road. I don't think they're a good team. I really want to think they are, because I adore Marcus Mariota and somehow they have a nearly pristine injury report, but I think they aren't that much better than the Bengals or Jets (and their scoring margin seems to support that). Now, the Cardinals suck also, but at least I'm getting points with the home team.

JP: Tennessee (-3) over ARIZONA

I think you hit the nail on the head: The Cardinals suck. Say what you want about scoring margin, Tennessee does not suck, and the Titans are playing with the playoffs very much in sight. Plus, it's Mariota vs Gabbert. Come on, mane. 

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 7-9
Season: 92-92-8
Last Week's Disagreements: 1-3
Season's Disagreements: 25-31

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 9-7
Season: 99-85-8
Last Week's Disagreements: 3-1
Season's Disagreements: 31-25

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