That time of the season has arrived for the NFL where teams decide whether they are trying wholeheartedly to play spoiler or if they are going to channel their inner-NBA and ostensibly play hard with an eye on improving draft position. As for the teams left clawing, biting, fighting and whatever other verbs their respective mascots do in a act of aggression, the NFL has spread its metaphorical wings to cover 4 days of the week with all but 2 of the 16 games involving at least one team with playoff seeding and potential berthing.
Thursday, December 18th
8:25 PM, NFLN, Jacksonville, FL
Of course, the NFL gets its one dud of the week out of the way early to pave way for the important games. Yet, importance is certainly in the eye of the beholder, as fans of these two teams would like to see a higher draft pick. That thought aside, stats don’t really come into play when looking at who should cover the spread and win. I look at this game much more in terms of performance importance. Blake Bortles has gotten off to a rocky NFL start, but was selected too high in the draft to simply scrap that selection for something else. He has everything to prove in a game such as this and prove the notion that he has shown some growth over this season. Home field doesn’t hurt when the fans can sniff an almost anticipated win, which has been so seldom for them this season.
Winner ATS: Jacksonville
Saturday, December 20th
4:30 PM, NFLN, Landover, MD
Philadelphia has stumbled in the past 2 weeks, but they finally get back to playing teams with losing records, which they’ve managed to pulverize this season. I don’t suspect this game will be any different. RG3 is scheduled to start, which might not be such a good thing for the Redskins. The one true weakness of the Eagles’ defense is their secondary, but RG3 is only averaging 2.4 plays of more than 20 yards per game this season. And with the way the Eagles’ defensive line is racking up sacks and stopping rushers, RG3 will likely be running for his life. RG3 has been sacked 28 times this season in just 7 games; compare that to the 30 sacks he took in 15 games during his rookie season.
Winner ATS: Philadelphia
8:25 PM, NFLN, Santa Clara, CA
Both of these teams have been stagnant compared to various statistics for the respective teams: Philip Rivers is known for his incredible record in the month of December, yet he has 2 straight losses to start this December. The 49ers had Colin Kaepernick looking to be one of the truly elite quarterbacks for years to comes, yet now he is sailing throws and looking borderline incompetent. The Chargers have only put up 24 points in their past 2 games, but the 49ers have only produced 23 points in their past 3 games. I’ll take the better quarterback.
Winner ATS: San Diego
Sunday, December 21st
1:00 PM, CBS, Charlotte, NC
Carolina is miraculously still playing for a first place playoff spot, while the Browns are not mathematically eliminated but much closer to missing the postseason. The Panthers eked out a win over the Buccaneers last week, which means the odds makers are not giving the Browns any respect despite their record. Johnny Manziel was the epitome of awful last week, but it was his first start and Andy Dalton had a game just like it this season, so I don’t think all hope is lost. However, the Panthers still have an average offense and defense with few glaring inefficiencies in either one. Their 12th ranked passing defense should make Manziel struggle like he did last week, while Derek Anderson proved capable last week even with the heavy pass load of 40 attempts.
Winner ATS: Carolina
1:00 PM, FOX, Chicago, IL
Detroit has struggled somewhat on the road, but 2 of those 3 losses came against teams with a collective 22-6 record. The Bears, meanwhile, have been even worse at home: They’re 2-5 at home with both wins coming against teams with losing records. Their average margin of defeat in home losses is less than 1 point under 2 touchdowns.
Winner ATS: Detroit
1:00 PM, CBS, Houston, TX
The Texans are at odds with their quarterback position with neither Thad Lewis nor recently signed Case Keenum seeing live play this regular season. Meanwhile, the Ravens are 3rd best in the league against the rush, which means whoever the Texans place out there will need to throw the ball. I don’t think it’s going to matter who starts, the Ravens defense will likely be the deciding factor in this game.
Winner ATS: Baltimore
1:00 PM, FOX, Miami Gardens
Teddy Bridgewater has proven to be one of the best quarterbacks from this past draft class, but he does a lot of his impressive stuff at home. The Vikings are 1-5 on the road, and the sole win was in overtime against the Buccaneers. None of this bodes well for them heading to Miami where some strange bleep seems to happen year after year. The Dolphins are 4-2 this season at home where they nearly beat the Packers and dominated the Patriots early in the year. That’s also the location where the Dolphins posted a 37-0 beat down of the Chargers. Something about that heat has created an average winning margin of 16.5 for the Dolphins.
Winner ATS: Miami
1:00 PM, FOX, New Orleans, LA
This game appears to be for all the marbles in the NFC South, which sounded a lot sexier before the season started than we known it is now. I don’t quite understand this spread, as the Saints have been pitiful at home. This game will come down to the health of Julio Jones who leads the league in receiving with 1,428 yards. Drew Brees has still managed to post the 3rd best yards passing this season despite their team’s record. I think the Saints will win, but the Falcons will cover.
Winner ATS: Atlanta
1:00 PM, CBS, East Rutherford, NJ
Amidst the Patriots’ 7-game winning streak that included 5 teams with winning records this season and where the Pats were blowing out opponents by an average of 20 points and scoring an average of 39.57 points there was one pesky team that gave the Patriots a little scare: The New York Jets. The Patriots only won that game by 2 points, as the Jets controlled the ball for over 40 minutes and rushed for 218 yards. In the past 3 seasons, 4 of the games played between these two teams have been decided by an average of 2.75 points.
Winner ATS: New York Jets
1:00 PM, CBS, Pittsburgh, PA
The key to this game for the Steelers will be to get the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger’s hands as quickly as possible. Roethlisberger is no stranger to sacks given his immobility; he’s been in the top 10 in total sacks taken in each of the past 2 seasons. The reason I bring this up is because Justin Houston and the rest of the Chief defensive line will likely make Big Ben have a rough day. Kansas City is 6th in the league in sacks with Justin Houston tied for the most in the league at 17. In the end, the Pittsburgh defense is very strong, but the persistence of Kansas City’s short plays should add up to lots of points.
Winner ATS: Pittsburgh
1:00 PM, FOX, Tampa, FL
The Buccaneers, much like the Giants, are not as bad as their record indicates. Excluding their 1 home beating by the Ravens, the Bucs have lost their other 5 home games by an average of 5 points. Meanwhile, the Packers have lost all 4 of their games this season on the road, and the last time the Packers travelled to the state of Florida they needed the last remaining seconds to pull out a victory over the Dolphins. I like the home team and the heat to cover.
Winner ATS: Tampa Bay
4:05 PM, FOX, St. Louis, MO
These two teams have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to strength of schedule. The Giants’ opponents have a collective winning percentage of .485, and the Rams’ opponents have a winning percentage of .537. In any other season this would be a much more significant game than it is this season. The Rams still have an impressive defense despite playing tough opponents: They’re 10th in the league in yards allowed through the rush and 12th through the pass. The Rams are also 10th in the league in sacks, which will be a huge key against Eli Manning and the 1 factor that should give them the win.
Winner ATS: ST. Louis
4:25, CBS, Arlington, TX
The Cowboys are in the driver’s seat for the playoff spot for the NFC East, but this is the last true test to see how secure that spot is. All 4 of the Cowboys’ losses have come at home this season, and should DeMarco Murray be out after having surgery on his hand for a broken bone, the Cowboys will be put to the ultimate test. Murray has carried the ball or been on the other end of a pass for 45.4% of Dallas’ plays this season. Even if he does play, I think he’ll be limited and the league-leading offense in yards and plays in the Colts should get the win.
Winner ATS: Indianapolis
4:25 PM, CBS, Oakland, CA
The Bills have a very good defense and a so-so offense; the Raiders have a so-so offense and a poor defense. A simple eye tests says the Bills are the better side for this game, but the 5.5 number is somewhat daunting given the Bills’ not-so-convincing road record of 3-3. That being said, the Bills lead the league in sacks, while the Raiders are 7th in the league in interceptions thrown.
Winner ATS: Buffalo
8:30 PM, NBC, Glendale, AZ
The Cardinals continue to refuse to lose, but this is where they hit a bit of a road bump. The Cardinals look like they’ll be turning to Ryan Lindley at quarterback, which I don’t think is going to translate into points. The Seahawks have given up an average of 6.75 points per game in their last 4, one of which was the Cardinals where they surrendered 3. The Seattle offense has not exactly been stellar, but they’ve put up 19.75 points in those last 4 games, which includes 2 games against the 49ers and 1 against the Cardinals who are known for their defense. All of this makes me think the Seahawks will win, but the Cardinals have proven people wrong so many times that it’s hard to pick against them, especially as a heavy home dog.
Winner ATS: Arizona
Monday, December 22nd
8:30 PM, ESPN, Cincinnati, OH
The Bengals are not as good as their record, as they’ve benefitted greatly from an AFC-heavy schedule. They’ve also benefitted from the 1:00 window. The Bengals have played all but 2 of their games in the 1:00 window. The 2 games outside of the 1:00 window were a Thursday and Sunday night game where they were blown out both times by an average of 23.5 points and scored a combined 20 points. The Broncos are still trying to lock up a higher playoff position, so they’ll still be coming with everything they have.
Winner ATS: Denver
Picks courtesy of Officefootballpool.com