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Week Fifteen Picks

December 13th, 2018

Week fourteen could have gone worse.

I mean, given that I went in fully expecting to do horribly, 9-7 straight up and 8-8 against the spread doesn’t seem so awful.

Of course, in reality, 9-7 straight up is pretty unforgivably awful. There’s really no getting around that.

For the season, I’m rocking a pretty damned unimpressive 130-76-2 (.630) record straight up, and a wholly pedestrian 102-97-9 (.512) with the points.

Let’s see what I can get wrong this week. Here’s what not to expect.

LA Chargers (+3) at Kansas City
It’s sort of criminal, to my mind, that this game is being played on a Thursday night. The Chiefs clinch the AFC West title (and a first round bye) with a win. If the Chargers can manage an upset, however, they retain a solid shot at grabbing the division title (not to mention a first round bye and quite possibly home field throughout the postseason). Los Angeles is making the playoffs regardless of the outcome of this game (and Kansas City is probably winning the division no matter what), but there’s a huge difference between the one seed and the five. All of which is to say that there’s an awful lot riding on a game that skews even more heavily than usual toward the home team given the difficulties of traveling on short rest (particularly when the short weeks effectively upends your running attack for a game against a team with a terrible run D). But this is what you get sometimes. I think the Chargers will still find a way to make a game of it. But I expect them to come up just short. Chiefs by a field goal.

Houston (-6) at NY Jets
In Houston, this one would be downright ugly. In New Jersey? Eh, let’s say Texans by seven.

Cleveland (+3) at Denver
The Browns have another win coming to them before the season’s out. But not this weekend. Not quite. Denver by a point.

Green Bay (+6) at Chicago
The Bears gave the Packers a pretty good scare in Green Bay back in week one only to get tripped up by costly errors late. The two teams’ seasons have gone in entirely different directions over the 13 weeks since, however. And the difference should be very much in evidence here as the Bears clinch their first NFC North championship since 2010. Chicago by six.

Detroit (+2) at Buffalo
Are the Bills worse than the Lions by enough to suffer an upset at home? Damned if I know. Which, yeah, means I’m just totally guessing when I say Detroit by three.

Tampa Bay (+7) at Baltimore
In which the Ravens take another step toward their inevitable AFC North championship. Baltimore by 10.

Arizona (+9) at Atlanta
The Falcons are awful. The Cardinals are awfuler. But not nine points awfuler. Atlanta by six.

Oakland (+3) at Cincinnati
One of these teams has to not lose this game. Right? Bengals by two.

Tennessee (+3) at NY Giants
With their chances of making the postseason still alive, I think the Titans grind out a win here. Tennessee by three.

Miami (+7) at Minnesota
I don’t think this is an easy win for the Vikings. But it’s a win. Minnesota by four.

Washington (+7) at Jacksonville
The not having a quarterback thing continues to pose a problem for the Racists. Jaguars by a field goal.

Dallas (+3) at Indianapolis
I suspect the Cowboys have a better shot at limiting the Colts’ passing attack than the Colts have at limiting the Cowboys’ ground game. Dallas by three.

Seattle (-5) at San Francisco
Maybe this one won’t be quite as ugly as the meeting in Seattle two weeks ago. Maybe. Seahawks by 16.

New England (-2) at Pittsburgh
This is an odd matchup for a New England team that typically succeeds by figuring out how to take away what an opponent does best. Because you don’t beat the Steelers by taking away the thing they do best; you beat the Steelers by making them do more of the thing they do best. The Pittsburgh offense is the most pass heavy in the league. The Steelers go to the air on 67 percent of all plays from scrimmage. That’s roughly eight points above the median, nine above the mean (which is more than two standard deviations). Over their last three games, the Steelers have thrown on close to 74 percent of their offensive snaps. (This, of course, is in no small part the result of James Conner‘s ankle injury.) That’s just insane. And here’s the thing: Pittsburgh lost all three of those games. Indeed, if there’s a pattern to the Steelers’ losses this season, it’s been that they’ve gone pass heavy. And only in one of those games (the home loss to Kansas City way back in week two) can that be attributed even in part to a need to climb out of a deep hole. When the Steelers have put up 100-plus yards running, which they’ve mostly done against weak opposition, they’ve tended to win. Under 100 yards on the ground and they mostly lose. So while much discussion about this game has centered on whether the Patriots can stop the Steelers’ passing attack, what’s actually critical to assess is whether New England can limit the run and spur Pittsburgh to keep the ball in the air. If the Patriots can make that happen, you can count on Ben Roethlisberger to make some big plays, but also to make some big mistakes. The bad news for New England is that the Patriots give up an awful lot of rushing yards, 113 a game (right in the middle of the pack, 15th fewest in the league), 4.9 per carry (sixth most in the league). The good news for New England is that the Patriots have allowed only seven rushing TDs this season, which is tied with the Cowboys and Texans for second fewest), and the Steelers really rely on the run to finish their drives. One suspects that the Patriot could get away with giving up 80 or 90 yards (though that won’t be easy for Pittsburgh to achieve if Conner is missing or limited), but surrender no rushing TDs and still accomplish the goal of putting the game on Roethlisberger’s arm. Oh, BTW, the big three predictive stats point to a narrow win for New England: scoring differential, Patriots +0.4; passer rating differential, Patriots +5.5; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +14. That last bit is the one to watch. The Patriots D averages an interception a game, and so does Roethlisberger. Patriots by a field goal.

Philadelphia (+11) at LA Rams
I’m confident the Eagles won’t let uncertainty at quarterback get in the way of getting their asses kicked by the Rams. Los Angeles by 14.

New Orleans (-6) at Carolina
The Rams really don’t have a tough game left on their schedule. That means the Saints need to beat the Panthers twice and the Steelers once over the next three weeks in order to clinch home field. If they win this one, they probably have it. So, yeah, they probably have it. Saints by nine.

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