We’re almost at the finish line of what’s been a highly entertaining season of football, even while being a major drain to my bank account. Of the many years I’ve been following the NFL, this might be the most depressing in terms of all the side competitions I participate in. It’s the first time I didn’t even sniff the playoffs in any of my fantasy leagues. It’s the first time I really bottomed out in my Pick ‘Em Leagues, and it’s my second straight year of ending the regular season well under .500 when picking against the spread.
From my depression to most of the NFL’s depression…let’s talk quarterbacks.
Yes, it’s true that the highest paid player in football, Jay Cutler, was benched this week for Jimmy Clausen. The Carolina Panthers chose Clausen in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, he played 13 games for them his rookie season, and then didn’t get a single snap in an NFL game until 2014, where he’s thrown nine passes for Chicago so far.
So the quarterback with the largest contract in the league is backing up a colossal draft bust who has completed 160 passes in his entire career.
And this is why coaches, scouts and personnel people go crazy over quarterbacks. Because success in the NFL is tied to that position. Whether your team has a franchise quarterback, is paying the wrong guy as if he’s a franchise quarterback, or waiting on that long-term solution and just biding its time with underwhelming castoffs…you live and die in the current NFL by how that person performs.
There may be no better illustration of how a team’s success is tied to its quarterback than the quarterbacks page of FootballOutsiders.com.
It’s not perfect, but almost every team that’s going to the playoffs or still fighting for the playoffs has its quarterback in the top 15 of that list. The middle tier, spots 16-30, is for players like Eli Manning, Brian Hoyer and Colin Kaepernick. And the bottom rung of that ladder is a who’s who among the worst teams in the league. Most of the rookies like Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles occupy that section of the list, along with usual suspects EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, Josh McCown and every single quarterback the Washington franchise has tried out this year.
Every year I try to do a count of how many teams are feeling great about their quarterback situation and how many teams are kind of screwed going forward. Currently I’ve got 17 teams that are OK on their QBs. There are nine from the NFC and eight from the AFC. (This assumes that after the Bengals lose their first playoff game they don’t decide they’ve had enough of Andy Dalton.)
So we’re left with 15 teams that’ll go into the offseason either actively shopping for a QB or secretly shopping for a QB while telling the incumbent that his job is safe. This is why Brian Hoyer will get a good-paying job in 2015. This is why Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will probably go 1st and 2nd overall in the draft even if there are major red flags in their games or with off the field stuff.
Quarterbacks rule the world.
Now let’s dive into what’s going to rule my Sunday. Good football, hopefully.
By my count there are only 11 games remaining across these final two weeks that we can appreciate from a pure football standpoint. These are games that obviously have a lot of playoff meaning. In week 16 I see six such games:
- Baltimore (9-5) @ Houston (7-7) – Sunday 1pm ET: This game is interesting because a Baltimore loss ends their division title hopes and hurts their Wildcard chances. Also, Houston is playing with a slim chance at making the playoffs, and more importantly, a 9-7 record might allow some more voters to think J.J. Watt worthy for MVP.
- Atlanta (5-9) @ New Orleans (6-8) – Sunday 1pm ET: The winner of this game will control its own fate for the NFC South title.
- Kansas City (8-6) @ Pittsburgh (9-5) Sunday 1pm ET: Crazy important game for both teams. The winner has a great chance of getting the AFC’s #6 seed.
- Indianapolis (10-4) @ Dallas (10-4) – Sunday 4:25pm ET: Ya know, this game should almost be meaningless for Indy. If it was meaningless, they’d probably rest guys and Dallas could coast to a playoff spot. But the week 16 schedule causes Indy to need this game. While the Patriots could lock up a bye with a win in the early game Sunday, the Broncos don’t play until Monday. So the Colts have that glimmer of hope of catching Denver when Indy plays Sunday afternoon.
- Seattle (10-4) @ Arizona (11-3) – Sunday 8:30pm ET: Doesn’t get much bigger than this. The NFC West and a 1st round bye are on the line. [Insert one of many jokes here about Ryan Lindley, Logan Thomas, the fact that Carson Palmer can make or break a team’s Super Bowl chances, Bruce Arians’ overconfidence that anybody with a heartbeat can get his team to a Championship. They’re all applicable.]
- Denver (11-3) @ Cincinnati (9-4-1) – Monday 8:30pm ET: Of course Denver needs this to keep pace or move ahead of the Patriots for the AFC’s top spot, but Cincy could still finish anywhere from #1 to out of the playoffs. And when this game kicks off on Monday, Cincy could be in position to mathematically lock up the AFC North (though unlikely since Baltimore would need to lose to Case Keenum/Thad Lewis this week).
And now for the picks.
Tennessee @ Jacksonville (-3.5)
- The Pick: Jacksonville
- The Score: Jacksonville 15, Tennessee 2
This is most definitely a critical game for each team’s future. The losing team maintains a stranglehold on the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 Draft and positions itself for the top pick if Tampa Bay accidentally wins one of its last games (hosting Green Bay then New Orleans). The winning team on Thursday could drop to as low as 6th in the draft.
So with that in mind, I looked up the lowest scoring games in the past 30 or so years. It turns out a game ends with the final score of 3-0 about once every decade. The most recent one was a Monday Night game on November 26th 2007, when Pittsburgh beat Miami 3-0. Amazingly it improved the Steelers to 8-3. The Dolphins fell to 0-11 and Ricky Williams made his comeback in this game! The field had been resodded or something and everyone said it was the worst conditions they’ve ever played in.
Both the Titans and the Jaguars should try to make this game worse than that one from seven years ago.
Since Tennessee seems to be rolling over with a lot of commitment and an aggressive lack of shame, I’m taking the Jags. But by rule, no one should be gambling on games this late in the season where neither team has anything to play for, and more importantly, one or more teams could be actively tanking.
Philadelphia (-9) @ Washington
- The Pick: Philadelphia
- The Score: Philadelphia 28, Washington 14
A common thread across everything I’ve read about Dallas’ win in Philly is that Tony Romo was phenomenal. This was one of the few games this year where he really had to carry the offensive load and he was unbelievable.
And I mostly agree.
RG3 has been announced as the starter for Washington. He, nor any other QB on the PotatoSkins’ roster, could make me think twice when picking the Eagles to cruise in this one. If Mark Sanchez does nothing else, I need him to win this game so that we’re guaranteed two more intriguing games in week 17 as both Philly and Dallas would still be in line to win the East.
San Diego @ San Francisco (-1)
- The Pick: San Diego
- The Score: San Diego 26, San Francisco 17
When I initially looked at this line on Monday night and started writing my first draft of this column, it was San Francisco -2.5, and I made a note that my online sportsbook will not be publishing a line for this game where San Francisco is favored. Sure enough, my book still hasn’t posted a line and now I’m seeing on other sites that this has dropped to just a single point. Makes sense. I can’t imagine anyone is really backing the 49ers at this point.
Beyond the internal turmoil going on with San Francisco, there’s this: For the second straight year, teams coming off a game versus Seattle in the previous week have a terrible record in the next game. I think teams that just faced the Seahawks are 0-8 in their eight follow-up games over the past two months.
Plus, the 49ers just experienced the gut punch of being eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in four years. A lot of their players have never experienced that feeling. Hangover, mail-it-in game for San Francisco.
Baltimore (-6) @ Houston
- The Pick: Baltimore
- The Score: Baltimore 27, Houston 15
Another game where I looked at the opening spread (Baltimore by 4.5) and figured it could look significantly different by the time Sunday rolls around. The Texans have to start Case Keenum, Thad Lewis or J.J. Watt at quarterback. And it’s a bad thing for their chances that we’d all pick Watt to start at QB among those three options.
How about that Ravens finishing schedule? Week 15 vs Jacksonville/Blake Bortles, Week 16 @ Houston/Case Keenum/Thad Lewis, Week 17 vs Cleveland/Johnny Manziel.
If Baltimore doesn’t win the division, it better be because Cincy somehow swept Denver and Pittsburgh to hold the Ravens off. No excuse for Baltimore to lose another game.
Green Bay (-11) @ Tampa Bay
- The Pick: Green Bay
- The Score: Green Bay 94, Tampa Bay 6
Here’s a crazy fact: Assuming a Detroit win at Chicago this week (kind of a given if you watched their Monday Night no-show), if the Packers were to somehow lose in Tampa, they’d be unable to win their division. The Lions would be NFC North Champs.
What’s crazier is that Green Bay is just sketchy enough on the road and the NFL is just fucking nuts enough to make me pause and consider predicting the Bucs to get the impossible win. But that’s silly talk. Even if I don’t trust the Packers, I do trust that Lovie Smith feels his job is safe and would like to wrap up that #1 overall draft pick.
Gimme the Packers to ensure a great week 17 finish in the NFC North.
Kansas City @ Pittsburgh (-3)
- The Pick: Pittsburgh
- The Score: Pittsburgh 26, Kansas City 22
Every time I try to bet against Kansas City, I look at their schedule and realize they’ve beaten a shitload of good teams. They have a chance for eight wins over legitimately good football teams.
And yet, the Steelers might be a bad matchup for the Chiefs. Kansas City’s best defensive asset is its pass rush, but Ben Roethlisberger is a master under pressure and has been even better with quick passes and using his running back when under siege this year. On the other side, Pittsburgh’s defensive backs are their weak link, but wait a minute, what’s that? Kansas City cannot complete the uber difficult task of a throw & catch between quarterback and wide receiver. So Pittsburgh has that going for them.
I’m such a sucker for doing this, and it’s likely because I have Pittsburgh in so many preseason bets about win totals and making the playoffs, but I’m taking the Steelers with the most important win of the week.
Cleveland @ Carolina (-3.5)
- The Pick: Carolina
- The Score: Carolina 12, Cleveland 6
What an incredible swing for the Browns! Vegas had Cleveland favored in week 15 by 1.5 or 2 over the 8-4-1 Bengals. And now, that same team, Johnny Manziel and all, is a four point underdog against a 5-8-1 team?!?!
By picking Carolina, I’m banking on Cam Newton playing and being mostly healthy. I’m also counting on the Browns to stay true to form on the road. Two of their three road wins were against NFC South opponents and were decided by less than a field goal. (The other road win was 24-3 at Cincy, but that was a Thursday game and Andy Dalton was in the middle of a drug-and-booze-fueled bender that night.)
Detroit (-8.5) @ Chicago
- The Pick: Detroit
- The Score: Detroit 33, Chicago 4
I mean, come on. This line actually moved from 4.5 to 8.5 when the Bears announced Clausen as the starter. I’m undeterred by that four-point swing.
Meanwhile, after awarding “Coordinator of the Year” to Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in Monday’s column, I’m awarding “Least Valuable Coordinator” to Aaron Kromer. He’s the Bears’ offensive coordinator who’s now infamous for throwing Cutler under the bus to a NFL Network reporter and then tearfully admitting to the team that he did it. He’s not loved right now. Kromer also has another mini-legacy under his belt. In 2012, he was the interim interim Head Coach for the Saints in their first six games. Sean Payton was suspended for the year and interim Head Coach Joe Vitt was suspended for those opening games. Enter Aaron Kromer, who promptly led a team coming off a 13-win season to a 2-4 record to start the year.
Minnesota @ Miami (-7)
- The Pick: Minnesota
- The Score: Minnesota 25, Miami 21
Miami is on the same wavelength as San Francisco here. They too just lost a physical game on the road to their division rival to end their playoff hopes. It just can’t be easy to get up for some of these remaining games.
It also looks like Minnesota hasn’t played a bad game since week 6. They’ve won four games and lost by eight points or less in four other games since then.
Atlanta @ New Orleans (-6)
- The Pick: Atlanta
- The Score: Atlanta 33, New Orleans 27
Two trends going in Atlanta’s favor: The Falcons are 4-0 in division games this year, and the Saints have lost four straight games at home.
Spending more than 13 seconds on this game feels like a waste so I’m looking for any signs. Those two streaks give me what I need.
New England (-11) @ NY Jets
- The Pick: New England
- The Score: New England 36, NY Jets 6
I’m not sure Vegas could set a line high enough that would cause me to back the Jets in this game. I’m always suspicious of Rex Ryan’s ability to keep some games relatively close when his team should have no chance…
…But more likely, this will be a massacre of epic proportions.
“But, Ross, the Jets have played the Patriots extremely tight in four of their past five meetings.”
Sure, a valid concern.
Counterpoint: I will give you $1,000 if you can create a semi-plausible scenario where the Jets score even a single point in this game.
NY Giants @ St. Louis (-5.5)
- The Pick: St. Louis
- The Score: St. Louis 27, NY Giants 20
I’m very comfortable with St. Louis up to and including a seven-point spread. The Giants’ two consecutive wins coming into this game aren’t because of a sudden surge in New York’s talent or execution, but rather because Tennessee and Washington are tanking even harder than them.
At least the Giants, in this season of misery, have something a lot of these other laughingstocks don’t have: A highlight machine. A reason to get excited when the Red Zone Channels shows a “NYG @ TEN Update Next” graphic on a Sunday where you’ve already written off the team for the year. Odell Beckham Jr. gives us a solid reason to keep one eye on the Giants as they trudge toward a top 10 draft pick.
Indianapolis @ Dallas (-3)
- The Pick: Dallas
- The Score: Dallas 30, Indianapolis 20
You know, I really like Andrew Luck a lot. And the Colts can’t help their schedule or the fact that they play in the putrid AFC South, but looking at what they’ve done this year…ugh, they’re not a very good football team. The impressive wins have come against the AFC South and the NFC East’s two bad teams. There was the 27-0 win over Cincy. That’s their one claim to being good right now.
There’s a small drumbeat of people wanting the Colts to rest some starters considering they’re unlikely to move up or down in the playoff standings regardless of their final two outcomes. But they do still have an outside shot at a bye, and Chuck Pagano confirmed this week that he doesn’t rest starters, no matter the situation.
But my thinking is that DeMarco Murray is going to play and be effective on Sunday, and the passing attack is coming off a game that saw three Tony Romo to Dez Bryant touchdowns. It feels like the Cowboys are handling this game, setting up a nightmare loss at Washington in week 17 to miss out on the playoffs.
Buffalo (-6) @ Oakland
- The Pick: Oakland
- The Score: Oakland 24, Buffalo 14
Sometimes the schedule can dictate how a game will go. The Bills’ slim playoff hopes rely on several teams losing their final two games, including Baltimore, Kansas City and San Diego. All three of those teams will have completed their week 16 game before the Bills take the field, and almost definitely one or more of those teams will have won. To me that means Buffalo can be excused for coming out deflated, a suddenly meaningless road game against the 2-12 Raiders. If/when the Bills look awful in this game, don’t be too hard on them. It’s a crappy situation to find out you’ve been eliminated from the playoffs less than an hour before you take the field.
Seattle (-9) @ Arizona
- The Pick: Arizona
- The Score: Arizona 26, Seattle 16
What we have here is a case of the least credible 11-3 team in NFL history facing the World Champs who just so happen to be playing their best football of the year over the past month. The line started at seven and clearly no one has faith in Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals.
I’m absolutely wiling to accept a reality that has the Seahawks go into Arizona, where the Cardinals are undefeated this year, and win by double digits.
But what if Seattle, especially their defense, is being overrated right now? In their past eight games, Seattle’s 7-1, but look at who they’ve played: @Carolina (13-9 win for Seattle), vs Oakland (30-24 win), vs the Giants (38-17 win), @Kansas City (24-20 loss), vs Arizona (19-3 win), @San Francisco (19-3 win), @Philadelphia (24-14 win), and vs San Francisco (17-7 win).
I know those last four games look difficult, but in reality it was a home game against Drew Stanton, two wins against a 49ers team that was in the burn part of “crash & burn”, and a 10-point win over Mark Sanchez in Philadelphia.
I’m just proposing that they’re probably not as great as they’ve seemed in their last eight games, that’s all.
On a related note, the Cardinals are such a fun team to root for if you don’t have loyalties to any other NFC team. Go Cards.
Denver (-3.5) @ Cincinnati
- The Pick: Denver
- The Score: Denver 31, Cincinnati 16
Cincinnati needs this game a lot more than Denver. That doesn’t mean a thing in terms of how it’ll play out. This is such a ridiculous mismatch in Denver’s favor that I can’t envision a single scenario where the Bengals win.
The Broncos are assured to be playing for positioning so don’t go thinking they might rest players for part of the game. In fact, if the Bengals win this game, they’d only be a ½ game behind the Broncos for the #2 seed in the AFC.
No offense to the other four teams that qualify for the AFC playoffs this year, but can’t we just use the three weeks of playoffs before the Super Bowl to have a Denver vs New England best-of-three series?
At this stage of the season with me having such a bad against the spread record, I’m gearing my picks more towards what I want the outcomes to be rather than what I’m expecting them to be. Proceed with caution.
And enjoy week 16!