This week’s schedule can be viewed in one of two ways:
- Amazing Week of Football! Out of 16 games, only two of them don’t have any playoff implications whatsoever (Washington/NY Giants and NY Jets/Tennessee).
- Terrible Week of Football! Other than Dallas @ Philadelphia on Sunday night, there are absolutely no matchups where both teams are realistically fighting for the same playoff spot.
Last week, the Dolphins, Bills, Browns, Chargers and 49ers all lost. Wins for each of those teams would have made this week WILDLY entertaining.
While I’m more in the camp of wanting to see two playoff teams facing each other to officially make that game exciting, there is some other excitement launching on the perfect week where our attention won’t be tough to grab. IT’S THE START OF THE JOHNNY MANZIEL ERA!
Last week would have been a tough week to debut Jonathan Football because there was just so much intrigue across so many games. This week? Not so much. Count me among the football fans who will be paying extra attention to that Cleveland/Cincinnati game even though the Browns are almost definitely out of the playoff picture.
Here are all the games that can be appreciated for football reasons this week (except I’m having trouble appreciating a lot of them):
- Miami (7-6) @ New England (10-3) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Pittsburgh (8-5) @ Atlanta (5-8) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Houston (7-6) @ Indianapolis (9-4) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Green Bay (10-3) @ Buffalo (7-6) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Cincinnati (8-4-1) @ Cleveland (7-6) – Sunday 1pm ET
- Denver (10-3) @ San Diego (8-5) – Sunday 4pm ET
- San Francisco (7-6) @ Seattle (9-4) – Sunday 4:25pm ET
- Dallas (9-4) @ Philadelphia (9-4) – Sunday Night 8:30pm ET
Before we jump into the picks, I want to expand on my quick take from the week 14 recap article where I mentioned how Jay Gruden should not be fired. By my count, there are 13(!) teams that could be looking for a new head coach as soon as December 29th. While many of those teams will ultimately choose not to fire the incumbent, it’s fun to think about which coach is most likely to be seeking other employment.
Could you imagine an offseason with 13 head coaching vacancies? That would call for a special website where someone tracks all the movements, interviews and press conferences of the candidates and the teams. And I can only think that an organized, practical and calm person like Mike Smith would be the best person to run that website and keep up with all the coaching carousel complexities. It’s fun to dream.
Here is my list of 13 coaches that could be fired, starting with the least likely and moving towards the most likely:
13. Joe Philbin – It’s not that the Dolphins shouldn’t make a change from a coach whose tenure will be most remembered for mediocrity and a bullying scandal among his offensive linemen. It’s just that they won’t. With so many years of failure in Miami, Philbin’s current record of 22-23 must feel like the start of a Hall of Fame career. Philbin can also point to his team’s record improving each of the three years he’s been there, so long as they win two more games this season.
12. Sean Payton – Why is he even on here? Well, I just think any coach who leads a team that was supposed to have the talent of a Super Bowl contender to a likely under .500 record deserves to have his bosses reconsider his job. And the once-vaunted home field advantage of the Saints has disappeared as they’ve now lost four straight in New Orleans. As his team’s defense continues to struggle every single year, eventually Payton will run out of defensive coordinators to blame and the axe will fall on him. Not this year, and probably not until after the 2017 season at earliest as he’s making $8 million per year through then. But for the first time, we have our skeptical eye on you, Sean Payton.
11. Lovie Smith – He might be the most deserving of all the head coaches to get fired considering he runs the worst team in the worst division in football. And even without an answer at QB, this team has the talent to win at least six or seven games. But since he has the coaching pedigree and history, and he’s only in year one of a four-year contract, Smith’s probably going to get some chances to make this team competitive.
10. Ron Rivera – Our third consecutive NFC South coach! All is quiet on the Rivera/Panthers coaching front. That’s odd because he’s in the last year of his contract and is marching his team towards its third sub-.500 season in his four years as head coach. Maybe the awful salary cap situation and the lack of receivers is going to bail him out and get him a contract extension. Maybe Cam Newton missing this weekend’s game with a broken back is another lucky break (get it?) for Rivera as he can point to injuries and a depleted roster as reasons for a 10-loss season. If I were a Carolina fan, I would have certainly seen enough in these four years to feel comfortable moving away from Rivera.
9. Ken Whisenhunt – Here’s another guy who won’t get fired because of his name. Sure, Whisenhunt isn’t even through the first year of trying to fix the Titans, but what about the fact that he might have made them worse? In fact, the Titans are almost guaranteed to have their worst season since they moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997. I know he’s had to deal with a revolving door at quarterback, but that’s partly his doing. The best coaches come into a bad situation and immediately make it better. Whisenhunt took over a team that finished 7-9 in 2013 and promptly turned it into a 2-14 team.
8. Marc Trestman – What happened to the Quarterback Whisperer that Trestman was supposed to be to Jay Cutler? Trestman’s inclusion on this list is pretty obvious. The Bears are about to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year (though only two of those years will be under Trestman’s leadership), and they appear to have one of the more-talented offenses in all of football. Fans are impatient and so is upper management. Sure, you can blame a rebuilding defense, but that overlooks the fact that the Bears are 25th in offensive DVOA according to FootballOutsiders.com. Teams like the Vikings, Texans and Browns are marching out better offenses than the Bears. That falls directly on Trestman. It sounds like he might be sweating out those first few days after week 17 concludes.
7. Doug Marrone – With a 7-6 record this year, it feels like the Buffalo coach is safe, but the problem for Marrone might come from the change in ownership. This team is under new management, and that new management could want to hire its own guy to kick off 2015 and the New Era Bills. Getting this team to .500 or better with EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton sharing quarterback duties should be looked at as a marvelous feat. Marrone certainly deserves more time, but the situation above him may not allow for it.
6. Jay Gruden – It doesn’t feel right that he’s on this list given how awful this team is across the board. But here’s what I’m not sure of: What if Gruden’s pitch to Dan Snyder that led to him getting the job was that he could “fix” RG3. I’m not saying that happened, but what if it did? Or what if he had all these grand plans for the star-crossed quarterback and none of that is panning out. Then, couldn’t Snyder justify firing Gruden and keeping RG3? My money’s on RG3 getting traded or cut and Gruden sticking around, but with such a batshit crazy owner, you should never feel safe.
5. Gus Bradley – The Jaguars have been saying and doing all the right things in terms of taking the long approach to rebuilding. But billionaires get just as impatient as you and I. Bradley led the Jags to a 4-12 record last year, and it looks like it might take a Herculean effort in their final three games for Jacksonville to match that mark this year. Small chunks of progress are OK, but what happens when a bad team takes a step back? Does the Blake Bortles development project save Bradley for one or two more years? Probably, but I’d never want to be the guy who just led a football team to a 7-25 record over two years.
4. Mike Smith – How this guy’s not at the top of my list is beyond me. He’s easily the worst in-game coach of this entire group. Imagine if an NFL team stuck you at the head coach position randomly with no advanced warning. Sure, you theoretically know what a coach is supposed to do, but you’d have no idea how to work your headset, what any of the play calls mean, which players play on special teams, what the proper way is to call a timeout or challenge a play…you’d be so overwhelmed even the coin flip would confuse you. And that, ladies & gentlemen, is Mike Smith in a nutshell. I don’t need to go on and on about the many reasons this man should be fired. My only concern is that Arthur Blank gets hoodwinked into extending Smith once again if he somehow gets the Falcons into the playoffs. For that reason, and because these next three coaches seem like locks to be leaving their teams, I’ve got the worst coach in football as only the fourth most likely to be fired after the season.
3. Rex Ryan – Let me go on record saying I don’t think the Jets should fire Rex Ryan. Painful as it is to admit, he’s a good coach. Even if he’s only OK from an offensive standpoint and outstanding defensively, that’s still better than a lot of the other head coaches around the league. He’s been saddled with terrible QBs his entire time in New York, and recently the roster has become a dumpster fire. Get rid of the General Manager, resign Rex for three more years, and start over. But it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be out after week 17.
3a. Jim Harbaugh – Confession time. In the original version of this column, I completely forgot about Harbaugh all together. That’s a huge oversight because much like Rex Ryan, it feels like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be leaving. And just like with Ryan in New York, I think it’s a huge mistake for the 49ers to get rid of Harbaugh unless he wants to be let out of his contract really really badly. He’s just too good of a coach to give up on.
2. Tom Coughlin – Times they are a-changin’ in New York. The speculation for New York’s other team is that Coughlin will step down rather than officially be fired. This is one I’m not sure about because you always need to ask, “Oh yeah, who are you gonna replace him with that’ll be any better?” And I’m not sure anyone will be immediately better than Tom Coughlin.
1. Oakland Raiders – Needless to say, they have an interim head coach in Tony Sparano right now and it’s highly unlikely he keeps the job. It sounds like the Raiders are going big after Jim Harbaugh, Jon Gruden and probably a bunch of other high-profile guys who will ultimately say no and then laugh to themselves about how crazy they were to even consider Oakland.
And now for the week 14 picks.
Arizona @ St. Louis (-4.5)
- The Pick: Arizona
- The Score: Arizona 26, St. Louis 13
From the most simplistic point of view, we have a 10-3 team getting 4.5 points against a 6-7 team. That doesn’t make sense. But the Cardinals aren’t being treated like a normal 10-win team because of their Drew Stanton situation and a rash of injuries across the roster.
This line is a representation of what we’re going to see with St. Louis next season. They will absolutely be a wildly popular “sleeper playoff” pick. But they’ll be so popular they’ll become overrated, which is what I think is going on with this particular point spread. The Rams bandwagon is about to explode under its own weight. Jump off with me if you’re smart.
Pitttsburgh (-2.5) @ Atlanta
- The Pick: Atlanta
- The Score: Atlanta 27, Pittsburgh 24
Hey, if the NFC South is the worst division in NFL history, what does that make the Steelers? A loss to Atlanta on Sunday would give the Steelers a 1-3 record against the league’s worst division this year.
I made a promise to myself after last week to never again bet on games involving an AFC North team, and I plan to stick with that. This is a stayaway game for me. If Julio Jones plays at close to 100%, I like the Falcons outright.
Washington @ NY Giants (-6.5)
- The Pick: Washington
- The Score: Washington 20, NY Giants 19
I joked two weeks ago that the Giants might be officially tanking at this point. With a win last week in Tennessee, they disproved that theory. And sure, they don’t have a shot at the #1 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. But with only a one-game lead over Washington, don’t you think the Giants at least want a shot to draft before their division rival. And aren’t the PotatoSkins thinking the same thing? No team wants another team in its division taking a franchise player just one or two spots before they were going to draft that guy.
With both teams tanking, you gotta take the underdog and assume it’s going to be an atrocious, low-scoring debacle.
Miami @ New England (-8)
- The Pick: New England
- The Score: New England 37, Miami 17
It’s the Patriots at home in December in a year where their defense has become dominant right before our eyes. That should be enough. But in case you need more, remember that the Dolphins are dead men walking this week. Their bad loss at home to Baltimore in week 14 killed their playoff chances, and now they travel to cold New England with not much to play for.
Oakland @ Kansas City (-10.5)
- The Pick: Oakland
- The Score: Kansas City 24, Oakland 18
Other than an incompetent referee ripping a win away from the Chiefs in Arizona last week, the most troubling thing I saw was Alex Smith repeatedly throwing less than 10 yards down the field on the game’s final drive when time was running out. Whether it’s his limitations or the lack of good receivers, this offense doesn’t go unless Jamaal Charles is having a monster day. Either way, this line is higher than I’m willing to go on Kansas City at the moment (and Charles hasn’t practiced this week, in case that helps convince you).
Houston @ Indianapolis (-7)
- The Pick: Houston
- The Score: Indianapolis 34, Houston 30
Cleveland’s choke job against Indy last week ended any realistic scenario where Houston steals the AFC South. The Texans have to end the season with one more win than Indy based on tiebreakers. So if the Texans go 3-0 and Indy goes 0-3…not going to happen.
Can the Texans sneak in as a Wildcard? They’re currently “the best” of the five 7-6 AFC teams, but need to catch and pass two of the 8-5 teams (Pittsburgh, San Diego and Baltimore). It sounds like they can’t afford any more losses this season. I don’t see it. But congrats are in order for Houston for having a solid bounceback season after 2013’s disaster. The scheduled helped, but they still had to go out and win the games. Now there’s just that small matter of finding a quarterback.
As for the point spread…I noticed the Colts have demolished every crappy team (Jacksonville, Tennessee, the Giants and Washington), but haven’t really had any blowouts (except for the Cincy game) against mediocre or good teams. The Texans aren’t crappy. I think this will be similar to Indy’s 33-28 win over Houston two months ago.
Cincinnati @ Cleveland (PICK)
- The Pick: Cleveland
- The Score: Cleveland 16, Cincinnati 6
Remember, games featuring a single AFC North team, let alone two of those teams, are a complete stayaway at this point. Add the Johnny Manziel unknown to the Bengals’ sudden troubles with winning at home and you might as well flip a coin…which is exactly what I did for this pick. My coin said Cleveland.
Jacksonville @ Baltimore (-14)
- The Pick: Baltimore
- The Score: Baltimore 35, Jacksonville 0
The Jaguars are probably rooting for Baltimore as much as any Baltimore player or fan is. They don’t want to fall down the draft board with more wins when the season’s already over. And this year they’ve got some stiff competition at the bottom of the league (the Jets, Oakland, Tennessee, Washington, Tampa Bay).
The Ravens own the bad teams this year, especially at home. A shutout seems almost a given.
Green Bay (-5.5) @ Buffalo
- The Pick: Green Bay
- The Score: Green Bay 31, Buffalo 21
The Packers are 3-3 on the road. In two of their three road wins, they won by only a field goal. So yeah, they’re a very different team away from Lambeau Field. With the Bills having the 2nd best defense in the league according to FootballOutsiders.com, the instinct here is to grab the points and think that defense can slow Aaron Rodgers down. But I worry that at the end of this game we’ll all be kicking ourselves for going against Rodgers in December in a season where he’s putting up some of the greatest numbers in the history of the QB position.
Tampa Bay @ Carolina (-3)
- The Pick: Tampa Bay
- The Score: Tampa Bay 26, Carolina 6
First of all, the value of Cam Newton to the Carolina Panthers according to Vegas is three points. That’s how much this line changed when Newton was officially announced as out for this game on Wednesday. Just thought you’d like to know.
Second of all, with news coming Wednesday that Newton wasn’t at fault for the accident, why haven’t I heard about Carolina fans hunting down the other driver who was at fault? Shouldn’t this be more of a story? Or at least grant me this: If Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning had been in an accident that caused them to miss at least one game at the end of the year that could have HUGE ramifications on their team’s postseason chances, the person who caused that accident would possibly have to go into hiding for a bit, right?
Either way, leave it to the NFC South, am I right? A team that hadn’t won a game in 62 days, the Panthers, gets a key road win that puts them just a half game out of first place with three winnable games remaining on the schedule but now they’ll have to do at least past of it with Derek Anderson. I’m taking Tampa Bay because I apparently suck as much as this division does.
NY Jets (-3) @ Tennessee
- The Pick: Tennessee
- The Score: Tennessee 6, NY Jets 2
I guessed that Tennessee would be a three-point favorite. Well then.
What about these two teams makes any line other than Tennessee -3 feasible? They’re the same. They both suck. They both have to start from scratch with the quarterback depth chart. They both rank in the bottom five of almost every important statistical category. I just don’t see how the Jets are so much better that they’d be road favorites. I know we make jokes all the time about how we should be able to keep certain games off the Red Zone Channel entirely, but maybe we can finally do it with this game on Sunday. Who even has fantasy players in their starting lineup from either of those two teams?
Denver (-4.5) @ San Diego
- The Pick: Denver
- The Score: Denver 33, San Diego 26
I know the Chargers won three in a row before Sunday night’s loss to New England, but I still don’t see a fully operational team, especially on offense. The Broncos can play a similar defense to New England and potentially execute offensively better than the Patriots did.
Much like the Texans, the Chargers should probably get any idea of winning the West out of their heads right now. Even if they beat Denver on Sunday, they’d almost definitely need the Raiders to beat Denver in week 17. That sounds impossible, and even if that somehow happened, the Chargers would need to win out at San Francisco and at Kansas City.
Minnesota @ Detroit (-8)
- The Pick: Detroit
- The Score: Detroit 38, Minnesota 15
The Vikings are 4-2 in their last six games and they haven’t lost by double digits since week 6 when they faced, who else, Detroit.
But I’m going with the Lions because it seems like there’s a very specific blueprint for beating them this year, and Minnesota doesn’t have the means to follow those instructions. The Detroit defense should swallow up any offense the Vikings throw at them. And a lack of great pass rush on Matt Stafford will make things easy on the Lions offense. This might be my favorite pick of the week.
San Francisco @ Seattle (-10)
- The Pick: San Francisco
- The Score: Seattle 27, San Francisco 23
You’re right that I’m crazy to expect much out of the 49ers after Seattle held them to just three points 17 days prior to this game. All San Francisco did after that game is lose badly in Oakland.
We always do this thing where we mentally eliminate any team that has to win three in a row to close out the season to qualify for the playoffs. But someone’s going to surprise us and go on a run. It shouldn’t even be a surprise since there are dozens of three-game win streaks across all teams over the course of a year. The 49ers themselves have had two separate three-game win streaks this season.
Wouldn’t it be just like the NFL for the team with the hardest remaining schedule to be the one that goes 3-0 to sneak into the playoffs? I’m going with San Francisco to win outright.
Dallas @ Philadelphia (-3.5)
- The pick: Philadelphia
- The Score: Philadelphia 31, Dallas 14
It would be funny to see Dallas win this game but lose in Washington in week 17 to blow their playoff spot to the Eagles. That’s my favorite scenario for this division.
But I think the Cowboys’ defense could make Mark Sanchez look like a keeper, and it just feels like Dallas has a bigger hole in their roster (secondary/pass rush) than the Eagles.
New Orleans (-3) @ Chicago
- The Pick: Chicago
- The Score: Chicago 25, New Orleans 23
This is fucking nuts. How can you make the Saints a full field goal favorite on the road?
Here are the Bears’ five wins in 2014: @San Francisco, @Jets, @Atlanta, home against Minnesota, home against Tampa Bay.
Here are the Saints’ five wins in 2014: home against Minnesota, home against Tampa Bay, home against Green Bay, @Carolina, @Pittsburgh.
The Saints’ victories aren’t noticeably better than the Bears’ wins, are they? I just don’t see how the line swung so far in New Orleans’ direction.
I’d like to tell you there’s no need to watch two 5-8 teams battle on a meaningless Monday Night Football game, but the Saints could enter this game with a chance to take a one-game lead in the NFC South! Must-see TV!
Enjoy week 15!