I only realized around 7:00 p.m. last night that Thursday Night Football is wrapped for the season. That was a slight disappointment because I’ll always watch an NFL game over anything else, including “Christmas Vacation,” barring a blowout game. Also the TNF game has served as the starting point for the TPS Report and the NFL sports betting slate. Instead, we’ve got two Saturday games and a pair of Monday night games, which is pretty good, too.
Week 16 means that the NFL grind — the tireless consumption of reading, film and podcasts — is about over. But it’s a labor of love and I will miss it come May once March Madness and the the first month of MLB has passed. But enough about 2018: We’ve got lots of playoff implications at this point in the season, a load of double-digit road underdogs this week and… maybe some regression after favorites went an astounding 14-0-2 straight up last week?! Week 16 and 16 games to cover now, let’s go! (Lines below are current as of 2:00 pm ET on Friday.)
NFL Week 16 Picks, Cowboys-Seahawks Battle for Survival; Surging Jaguars Visit Streaking 49ers; Vikings Looks to Lock Up a Bye; Can Nick Foles Roll?; And Double-Digit Road Dogs Abound
Minnesota Vikings (-9) at Green Bay Packers: Welp, Aaron Rodgers couldn’t save the Packers, partly due to rust and some inaccuracy and in large part due to a Packers defense that can’t stop passing games. After Carolina eliminated Green Bay from playoff contention last week, Rodgers went on the injured reserve and it’s back to Brett Hundley under center. It’s a huge letdown and begs the question, are the Packers packing it in for the season? These type of questions and uncertainty are abound this time of year, making handicapping tougher work. Clearly the NFC North champion Vikings are the superior team here, have guaranteed one home playoffs game, and have a slim opportunity for home field advantage throughout depending on how the Eagles finish. The Packers’ offense is pretty terrible sans-Rodgers, and Hundley won’t have his favorite WR Davante Adams (concussion). Nine is a lot of points to lay on the road in the division, but I do lean Vikings for pool play. Score projection: Vikings 27, Packers 17
Indianapolis Colts (+13.5) at Baltimore Ravens: I have worn thin betting on the Colts. Chuck Pagano is a lame duck who cannot make halftime adjustments. Jacoby Brissett takes way too many drive-ruining sacks when he should throw the ball away and Indy is dead last in the league in yards per play with just 4.6, and only 4.0 over their last three games. The Ravens have had plenty of offensive struggles of their own this season but Joe Flacco’s play has improved and they’ve scored a touchdown on 32.4 percent of their drives over their past three weeks (against Lions, Steelers, Browns; good for fourth in league), per Rotoworld’s Rich Hribar. The Colts’ defense is a total sieve that’s been getting shredded for big plays and lost their best defender for the season last week, linebacker Jon Bostic (knee). That’s a huge 13.5 spread and I’d love to take the points but just can’t bring myself to do it on this horror show Colts team. Score projection: Ravens 31, Colts 13
Week 16 #NFL Poll: Which double-digit road underdog is most likely to cover this week?
— Sports Handle (@sports_handle) December 21, 2017
Sunday games (Christmas Eve):
Detroit Lions (-4) at Cincinnati Bengals: Do the Bengals rally for longtime, outgoing head coach Marvin Lewis’ final home game? Does it matter if they don’t have defensive lynchpin Vontaze Burfict? I don’t know. The star linebacker is practicing again (concussion) but is questionable. The Bengals are total mess and the hapless offense has scored just seven points in each of their past two blowout losses while getting ripped for an average 33.5 points. I’m seriously thinking of starting Steelers wideout Juju Smith-Schuster in fantasy football championship this week over A.J. Green. Running back Joe Mixon is back to face a bottom-feeding Lions rushing defense, which is nice. I know the sharps will be on the home dog Bengals but I can’t get there and will lay off. Score projection: Lions 27, Bengals 20
Los Angeles Chargers (-6.5) at New York Jets: The Chargers (7-7) got flattened last week at Kansas after four straight wins, but can still make the playoffs with W’s at New York and Oakland, plus a Chiefs loss to both the Dolphins and Broncos (among various other avenues). They will be missing a couple key defensive parts in LB Denzel Perryman (hamstring) and big DT Corey Liuget (knee), plus their rising tight end Hunter Henry (lacerated kidney). But Phillip Rivers still has weapons in WR Keenan Allen and RB Melvin Gordon against a reeling Jets defense. The Jets’ best defense this week might be L.A.’s jet lag. New York’s QB Bryce Petty has been unimposing since taking over for Josh McCown to put it mildly, and faces one of the league’s best secondaries here. No thanks. Score projection: Chargers 28, Jets 20
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Los Angeles Rams (-6.5) at Tennessee Titans: We’ve got another 6.5-point road favorite but this game is certainly much more interesting as the Rams are yet to officially lock up the NFC West (or a playoffs spot) after dismantling the Seahawks 42-7 last week. So I don’t think we see a letdown or let up while the Titans ought to be in full-desperation mode as they contend for a January game in a crowded (as ever) AFC Wild Card race. Can anyone block Rams’ star DT Aaron Donald?! The beast just tallied a 3-sack, four-tackle game with a forced fumble. Titans QB Marcus Mariota will continue to chuck it to tight end Delanie Walker (leading team with 101 targets; Rishard Matthews is next with 81), however the Rams have largely done a good job of containing tight ends this season (10th in that department on the Football Outsiders’ ranking).
The Titans will probably look more to pound the rock against a susceptible Rams rushing defense, but can the Titans secondary deal with Rams WRs Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp in the slot and oh yeah, Todd Gurley out of the backfield? It’ll be interesting to see if the downgrade from Pro Bowl kicker Greg Zuerlein (herniated disc in back) to former Penn State kicker Sam Ficken, who’s first field goal attempt this week will be the first of his NFL career. It will be a fun one to watch but I won’t be betting either side. Score projection: Rams 28, Titans 21
Denver Broncos (+3.5) at Washington Redskins: I love the Broncos here. Washington’s offense has steadily decomposed in recent weeks like fast food french fries underneath the passenger’s seat. Injuries have decimated every positional group and the bug has struck again as RB Samaje Perine is very questionable with a groin injury, leaving even less experienced and effective rushers Kapri Bibbs and LeShun Daniels to carry the load. The Broncos defense has rebounded recently after an extremely rocky stretch. I am slightly terrified (if there is such a thing) that Denver is 1-6 straight up on the road (and 0-3 as a road dog), plus we’re unsure at this point whether Paxton Lynch (ankle) or Brock Osweiler will start at QB; I’d rather see Osweiler, although it will be a heavy dose of C.J. Anderson against a porous Redskins rush defense no matter who’s under center. Score projection: Broncos 20, Redskins 17
Buffalo Bills (+11.5) at New England Patriots: Here we go again with a Costco-sized spread. Remember we’re only two weeks removed from the Patriots’ face-plant at Miami in a 27-20 loss as an 11-point favorite. We’re also just three weeks removed from the Patriots’ 23-3 win over Buffalo in which rookie QB Nathan Peterman entered for Tyrod Taylor in the fourth quarter after Taylor suffered a head injury. That final score looks ugly but the Bills did carve the Pats defense for 183 rushing yards on 26 carries (7 average) and can do the same here, in a close game, if their own secondary continues to play at high level.
Of course, the Bills defense got bled for 191 rushing yards (5.5 average) in that game, too. But we have a Bills (8-6) squad fighting to make the playoffs for the first time since my die-hard, 37 year-old friend Matt was… a senior in high school. That’s 1999 (technically January 8, 2000) and the finish for the Wade Philips-led squad was the Music City Miracle — a soul-crushing, exhilarating or shocking finish, depending where you live. Back to 2017: This line is just a bit too bloated and if it’s not a close game we still have good backdoor cover potential. Go Bills. Score projection: Patriots 28, Bills 24 (Sorry, Matt.)
Chicago Bears (-6.5) at Cleveland Browns: Nope. Not gonna do it. Score projection: Bears 24, Browns 14
Miami Dolphins (+10.5) at Kansas City Chiefs: After a pretty startling midseason swoon followed by Andy Reid’s play-calling handoff to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, it’s back to the Kareem Hunt and the Explosive Plays Show. Chiefs all-purpose speed freak Tyreek Hill threatens to reach the end zone on every touch, while TE Travis Kelce has proven matchup-proof and may torch this Dolphins defense for 100-plus yards. Good times for fantasy owners invested in KC. The Fins will need to grind clock against the Chiefs’ 31st ranked rushing defense with RB Kenyan Drake, and fortunately they get may back committee-mate Damien Williams (shoulder) to carry some of the load. Overall I don’t feel very good about Jay Cutler’s chances on a partly cloudy, freezing Christmas Eve game at Arrowhead with a chance of the Chiefs burying Miami 21-0 in the second quarter. Score projection: Chiefs 30, Dolphins 13
Atlanta Falcons (+5.5) at New Orleans Saints: Currently in “no man’s land” at 5.5, this appears headed for Saints favored by 6. Falcons QB Matt Ryan, reigning NFL MVP, has not been impressive this season and his accuracy was off last week against the Bucs on Monday Night Football in a 27-24 win (failing to cover the 6.5). Now it’s a short week and a trip to the Superdome, with star WR Julio Jones looking like a go as he works through ankle and thumb injuries.
As Hribar notes, Jones has reeled in just 10 passes for an average 58 yards over the past three games since the Week 12 explosion against Tampa Bay (12 catches for 253 yards and two scores). He’ll mainly line up again Saintss (10-4) rising star CB Marshon Lattimore. Jones can beat anyone but overall it’s suboptimal as Atlanta will probably lean on RB Devonta Freeman to carry the offense. New Orleans’ ferocious rushing attack with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara will look to reassert itself against the 9-5 Falcons, while the 10-4 Panthers draw the floundering Buccaneers.
It’s a crowded NFC South and time to move. The Falcons’ rushing defense has hardened while the Saints’ injury situation is a bit concerning with both guards Andrus Peat (groin) and Larry Warford (concussion) limited in practice this week. We’ll need to keep an eye on that, but overall I think this is a better Saints team and a Saints game, and perhaps the end of the ‘17 road for the defending NFC champs. Score projection: Saints 31, Falcons 21
Tampa Bay Bucs (+10) at Carolina Panthers: This Bucs team is really beat up on defense and probably toast on a short week after an all-out effort against Atlanta. The defense has allowed over 30 points a game on the road and between Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield, Greg Olsen in the seam, and Cam Newton on pace for his best rushing season, it’s probably going to be another 30-something burger for Carolina. It’s not ideal here for Carolina missing LB Thomas Davis (suspension for the dirty hit against Davante Adams) and possibly LB Shaq Thompson (foot), but this feels to me like a comfortable Panthers win with a number that looks about right. I’m going to lay off but let’s do a projection. Score projection: Panthers 34, Bucs 23
Jacksonville Jaguars (-4) at San Francisco 49ers: Let’s start here with what would be an incredible feat, which the Jaguars remain on pace to accomplish, as noted on this week’s Bet The Board podcast.
The @Jaguars are on pace to do something that neither the 1985 Bears nor the 2000 Ravens could: lead the NFL in scoring defense, sacks, and takeaways in the same season
No team since 1970 has finished a season leading the league in all 3 categories, as the Jaguars currently do
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 12, 2017
That’s just wild; they’re allowing only 14.9 points per game, tops in the league and about 2.5 better than second (Vikings at 17.3). Also in Jaguars fun facts (sort of), it’s kind of crazy that Blake Bortles’ re-emergence as a competent quarterback is coinciding with the integration of an inexperienced but talented trio of wideouts –Dede Westbrook, Keenan Cole and Jaydon Mickens — while former Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson (out for season), plus starters Allen Hurns (ankle) and Marqise Lee (ankle) are on the mend. Anyhow, the Jaguars might look to go Full Leonard Fournette in this game, although they can certainly exploit a very beatable Niners’ secondary.
If Bortles decides to use his legs, there’s history on the line for him as well:
Blake Bortles needs 16,966 rushing yards on Sunday against the @49ers to become the @NFL's all-time leading rusher (@EmmittSmith22: 18,355). pic.twitter.com/bfB9e5rJ78
— Blake Bortles Facts (@BortlesFacts) December 21, 2017
A bit more on the Jags who are also suffocating opponents in the red zone: allowing only 35% touchdowns, best in league, and zero red zone TDs in in their last three. Which brings us to Jimmy Garoppolo. With limited weapons he’s done an excellent job turning this offense around with accuracy, poise and good decision-making. Straight up winners of three in a row, they’re a totally different team, although last week they repeatedly parked in or just outside the red zone. The result was a 6-for-6 field goal performance by kicker Robbie Gould, including the time-expiring 45-yard game winner (producing a cover at -1.5 or push at -2 for San Fran). It will be tough sledding for Garoppolo against this defense but there’s a chance we see a bit of letdown or mercy from a team that just locked up their first playoff spot since 2007. I think enough that we see a cover. Score projection: Jaguars 21, 49ers 20
Seattle Seahawks (+5) at Dallas Cowboys: This one is a major doozy with two preseason NFC favorites fighting to stay alive in the playoffs hunt, as both will need to win out and get some help. After getting lambasted by the Rams last week we’ve seen Seahawks infighting among its defensive stars. Hugging it out is not going to bring back Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril from the injured reserve.
This Seahawks defense is a shell of itself and is about to run into a Cowboys offense getting back star running back Ezekiel Elliott after his six-game suspension. Zeke is getting showered with the staple MLB spring training “the best shape of his life” storyline.
After 6 weeks of training thanks to a NFL-mandated suspension, this is what #Cowboys RB Zeke Elliott looks like now: pic.twitter.com/7upcaegOyo
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 17, 2017
“He looks skinny. He [does] look slimmer” said WR Dez Bryant. “It makes his head look even more bigger. He looks damn good, and I know he’ll be ready to play.”
Teammates are suggesting that the explosive Elliott will carry the ball 80 times, which seems a tad high but you get the idea. Ideally the ‘Boys would have star LT Tyron Smith in there and he seems to be trending in that direction. Zeke will make the play-action more effective and make this offense hum again. As for Seattle, well, their offense won’t do worse than last week and I think we’ll see a game effort from the ‘Hawks against a defense with a flagging pass rush, and overall a less imposing D than the Rams’. No doubt it will be on Russell Wilson and the passing game to keep this game competitive.
Leading rushers in Seahawks games this year:
1) R.Wilson, 521 yards in 14 games
2) C.Carson, 208 in 4
3) T.Gurley, 195 in 2
4) E.Lacy, 179 in 10
5) J.McKissic, 178 in 11
6) C.Hyde, 171 in 2
— Vincent Verhei (@FO_VVerhei) December 18, 2017
I would really like to take the points on a “desperate” team after a crushing loss, but this Seahawks team is such a mess right now against an offense that’s about to recalibrate with its best player, so I’m laying off. Lean Dallas. Score projection: Cowboys 30, Seahawks 23
New York Giants (+3.5) at Arizona Cardinals: Here we go, my beloved New York Giants. If they don’t manage a win here or next week against Washington, they will have failed to beat a single NFC team since the 1970 NFC-AFC merger. I’m no homer at all but think they cover and actually win here after showing some life against the Eagles last week and probably enjoying life after Ben McAdoo. The Cardinals are suffering through a disastrous season as they turn back to QB Drew Stanton as well and probably are shaking their heads about that recent talk of Blaine Gabbert starting in ‘18. Anyhow, this game sucks and I’m ready for the 2018 NFL Draft. Score projection: Giants 23, Cardinals 21
Monday games (Christmas Day)
Pittsburgh Steelers (-9.5) at Houston Texans: Here’s another spot (like Seattle) I’d love to take a team — the Texans — after get blasted from the top rope 45-7 by the Jaguars. But the Texans defense is doing metter name-calling than they are defending and offer little promise that they can stop Pittsburgh’s offense, which is down Antonio Brown for now but still has solid WRs in Martavis Bryant and Juju Smith-Schuster and, of course, Le’Veon Bell. We know the Steelers (11-3) often sleepwalk on the road against lesser foes, but they still have work to do to lock up a first-round playoffs bye with the Jaguars right behind at 10-4. If there was a 10 on the board I’d probably take Houston and this T.J. Yates-led offense, but at 9.5 I’m just not sure or interested. Score projection: Steelers 27, Texans 17
Oakland Raiders (+9) at Philadelphia Eagles: Here’s another late-season uncertainty special because if the Vikings lose on Saturday, Philly will clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Do they let up and coast? Maybe, maybe not because they still need to get Carson Wentz’s replacement Nick Foles up to speed and ready for the playoffs. But it’s unlikely Minnesota loses.
The Khalil Mack-led Raiders gave Oakland a shot at home against Dallas (minus Zeke) last week but is about to run into a more dynamic offense and, if Philly can keep him upright, a competent passer in Foles. And he’s got more weapons than Oakland can manage in Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor, Alshon Jeffery and the Eagles’ capable running back committee. The Raiders don’t inspire any confidence at this point, at all, and they’re making this trip without All-Pro left tackle Donald Penn (foot). That means swingman Marshall Newhouse will probably bump out — a pretty big downgrade from Penn. Assuming the Vikings win, I guess I lean Philly and by this point in the Christmas evening I’ll probably be so loaded with carbohydrates and beer at a large family gathering, I will be half asleep. Score projection: Eagles 27, Raiders 17
Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy weekend to all of you out there.
Before you place any wagers, check the weather and check for any key injuries/inactives on Sunday. Also, check your bias. Hit me up on Twitter with any thoughts, comments, concerns, questions, compliments or dad jokes.