The NFL may never achieve parity in the true sense of the word because a couple teams will always find a way to lap the field and get to 12 or 13 wins in a season. Just like there will probably always be a couple teams that can’t muster up enough competence to win more than three games across a 16-game schedule. But 2015 looks to be a showcase of the closest possible thing to the entire league scratching and clawing just to reach that key nine or 10 win benchmark.
As it stands right now, only four teams fall into the “no chance in hell” category for reaching the postseason That means 88% of the NFL still thinks it has a chance. (I actually think there are five teams with no shot because I’m including the Cowboys, who aren’t mathematically eliminated yet but have to rely on Matt Cassel guiding them to a 5-0 record in December.)
This could play out one of two ways. Either it stays extremely bunched up among a dozen or so teams through week 17, or a couple teams rattle off some wins over the next 21 days that make the final two weeks anticlimactic. With the way things have gone so far and the apparent lack of talent across the league, I’m guessing things stay really tight in this final month.
What’s nice is that we can all daydream about the perfect combination of 12 teams in the playoffs. And we have 28 options to choose from!
For my money, I like a nice balance in the postseason. I need a handful of solid teams with great offenses and good coaching, and I need teams with awful coaching and/or laughable QB situations. I don’t want all 12 teams to have a ton of flaws because then the playoffs would become an unwatchable circus act. I always want a chance that two well-coached teams with actual talent matchup and we get a “game for the ages.” But of course I still require plenty of unintentional comedy.
I’m beyond happy to report that it looks like we’re heading for an amazing playoff bracket if we’re basing things on my criteria.
Consider the following:
- New England (#1 in the AFC) and Arizona (#2 in the NFC) are both heading for 1st round byes. Both teams have great head coaches and top-of-the-league offenses led by Pro Bowl quarterbacks. That right there makes a solid dent in our “competent and exciting teams” quota. There’s not a more exciting possible Super Bowl matchup out there (assuming Gronk, Edelman, etc return for the Patriots’ offense in time).
- The AFC is looking to spoil us this year because we could get these teams in the playoffs: Cincinnati (awesome offense, but a terrible head coach and meltdown machine QB), Kansas City (good offense, but a clock management disaster at head coach), Houston (some J.J. Watt excitement but more importantly Brian Hoyer at QB!), Pittsburgh (tantalizing offense, but a sneaky awful head coach).
- Was that not enough for you? Well, we’re probably getting the Broncos in January, and that’s going to feature either Brock Osweiler making his first career playoff start or the corpse of Peyton Manning breaking Twitter for the second straight year.
- And we have a very low chance of seeing teams like the Jets (Ryan Fitzpatrick in the playoffs!), Jacksonville (Blake Bortles!) and Baltimore (Matt effing Schaub!!) in the postseason.
- The NFC just can’t match up with the AFC in terms of comedy, but there are some decent options. While Carolina and Seattle are both probably too competent to do anything but provide us with solid football, Green Bay fills the role of potentially good offense and definitely pathetic coaching.
- Whatever dumpster fire comes out of the NFC East is almost guaranteed to feature the bad coaching & bad QB combo platter. Imagine Sam Bradford & Chip Kelly in the playoffs? Please let this happen!
- And if we dig deep in the NFC, there’s still a chance that the Rams (bad QB/coach combo), the Bears (Jay Cutler!) and the Lions (Jim Caldwell’s wax figure on the sidelines!) break into the playoffs.
I may be getting a little ahead of myself since a lot of these teams will almost certainly drop some games in the coming weeks and see themselves out of the playoff picture. But this clusterfuck of mediocrity is really making my imagination run wild.
Let’s dive into week 13 and see if anyone can start to create some separation.
Green Bay (-3) at Detroit
The Pick: Detroit
The Score: Detroit 20, Green Bay 13
As if the Thursday night games aren’t enigmatic enough to begin with, the NFL gives us two teams this week that we simply have no clue about anymore. Consider this: The Packers won their first five games of the season and have gone 2-4 since. The Lions lost their first five games of the season and have gone 4-2 since. Sure, the Packers still have the contender pedigree mostly due to Aaron Rodgers, but Detroit beat this team in Green Bay just three weeks ago. What the hell are we supposed to do here?
I see a scenario where the Packers win by three, but I see a more realistic scenario where they lose, and we all feel dumb for not realizing that Vegas inflated this line in favor of Green Bay because the public’s hard-on for them is reaching “consult your doctor” levels of dangerous.
By the way, if Green Bay loses this, they may need to win three of their final four games just to sneak into a Wildcard spot. They finish with: Dallas, at Oakland, at Arizona, Minnesota.
NY Jets (-2) at NY Giants
The Pick: NY Jets
The Score: NY Jets 30, NY Giants 25
Ahh, New Jersey’s finest, doing battle with each other in the stadium they share. How exciting. Neither team has really been any fun to watch this year, but this game is actually important for both the AFC & NFC playoff pictures. In this new, unimproved, crappy NFL, the Jets & Giants represent top 7 teams in their respective conferences. So we’re forced to put this in the “good games” category for week 13.
This is my StayAway Game of the Week because the Jets are starting to look like a shell of their former selves on defense (Darrelle Revis will miss this game), and the Giants are the most impossible team to predict. That might have something to do with their quarterback being the most unpredictable of anyone at his position in the entire league. As soon as you think you’ve got Eli Manning figured out, he throws a handful of awful interceptions against Washington’s 24th-ranked defense. I’m reluctantly taking the Jets because they have faced better competition throughout the year, and assuming they still have a good pass rush, that might give the Giants’ beat up offensive line some problems.
Arizona (-6) at St. Louis
The Pick: Arizona
The Score: Arizona 33, St. Louis 13
Listen, Bruce Arians can take my advice or leave it. I guess you can argue he’s gotten pretty far in life without listening to geniuses like me, but this time he might want to take me seriously. The Edward Jones Dome has already claimed victims in Josh McCown and Reggie Bush this year, and the Rams have repeatedly gotten accused of being a dirty team (every year it seems like they have that title). Why not sit Carson Palmer for this game? The Cardinals aren’t catching the Panthers for the #1 seed, and they get to host Minnesota in week 14. The Vikings are the only team threatening them for the #2 seed. Just forfeit this game, keep your awesome offense healthy, and lock up the 1st round bye next week.
OK so assuming Arians ignores me, what’s going to happen in this game? Initially I wanted to stay far away from the Cardinals because the Rams, for as awful as they’ve been this year, are 3-0 against division opponents. That includes a win in Arizona in week 4. So there’s something to be said about this team playing very tough within the division and then being horrible against the rest of the league. But I’m not biting on that. I trust Arians a million times more than Jeff Fisher, and I think the Cardinals will adjust from that loss back in October. Six points on the road is still a lot for Arizona, but I think the Rams are done and they know it.
Atlanta at Tampa Bay (-1.5)
The Pick: Tampa Bay
The Score: Tampa Bay 23, Atlanta 17
Ummmmm…this line could have been Tampa Bay -6.5 and I probably would have picked them.
Interesting side note: This is already the third rematch in my picks from a game played earlier this year, and in all of them the home team this week won on the road. It’s not a meaningful stat, just an interesting fact.
Seattle at Minnesota (PICK)
The Pick: Minnesota
The Score: Minnesota 21, Seattle 18
The advanced stats (the efficiency rankings on FootballOutsiders.com, for example) say Minnesota is worse than their 8-3 record while Seattle is better than its 6-5 record. But every year it feels like there’s one team that keeps defying the advanced stats, and I always lose money by repeatedly betting against that team, waiting for it to regress. Minnesota is that team in 2015.
The Seahawks have been garbage on the road this year, and don’t forget they lost Jimmy Graham last week. I’m a little nervous that Minnesota’s 23rd-ranked run defense is going to screw this pick up, but the Vikings should be favored by 3 and they’re not. That’s enough for me.
San Francisco at Chicago (-7.5)
The Pick: Chicago
The Score: Chicago 54, San Francisco 10
The 49ers are 0-5 on the road and have been outscored by an average of 21 points in those games.
What? You’re still waiting for more info before running to your local bookie? Idiot. Go! Run! Before he changes his mind and makes this 7.5 or 8 points in favor of the Bears. (Damnit! Between Wednesday night when I originally wrote this paragraph and Thursday afternoon when I posted this column, my bookie did indeed bump this line up to 7.5. That makes it a tiny bit less attractive now.)
Yes, it’s true that Chicago’s only 1-4 at home, but those games were against: Green Bay, Arizona, Oakland, Minnesota and Denver. The only thing San Francisco has in common with those teams is that they play in the National Football League. No one will fault you for dumping your life savings on the Bears.
Jacksonville at Tennessee (-2.5)
The Pick: Jacksonville
The Score: Jacksonville 22, Tennessee 16
The Titans are 2-18 in their last 20 home games. I can’t believe that’s a real thing. It’s not like they’ve had to face a rotation of the Patriots, Broncos, Seahawks and Packers at home over the last three years. They regularly get to face shitty teams like Jacksonville, Houston and Indy. Even Browns fans can feel sorry for Titans fans.
Normally I’d be concerned that the Jaguars coaching staff is going to allow Blake Bortles to throw the ball too much, which usually leads to a loss, but the 2nd-year QB’s antics last week when he twice threw a pass after crossing the line of scrimmage probably helped convince Gus Bradley and company to take the ball out of his hands when possible. This is a game where T.J. Yeldon should get 30 carries. I hope the Jags agree with me.
Houston at Buffalo (-3)
The Pick: Buffalo
The Score: Buffalo 20, Houston 14
Flip a coin, I guess? As good as the Texans have been playing, the Bills are lightyears ahead of them on offense and special teams. We all talk about Jeff Fisher being the master of the .500 season, but if that’s true, I think Rex Ryan is the apprentice who’s ready to take over for the aging master. Rex will get his team to seven, eight or nine wins, almost every time. This win will get him back on track.
Baltimore at Miami (-4)
The Pick: Baltimore
The Score: Baltimore 22, Miami 20
Ravens fans were dreaming of the #1 pick in the 2016 Draft as recently as two weeks ago. After Matt Schaub leads them to their 3rd straight win, this time against the useless Dolphins, those same fans will have to at least half-assedly root for an improbable playoff berth. My brain just melted a little from typing the words “Matt Schaub” and “playoff berth” in the same sentence.
Cincinnati (-9.5) at Cleveland
The Pick: Cleveland
The Score: Cleveland 24, Cincinnati 19
The Bengals haven’t looked quite as dominant on the road this year, and this line is ripe for a backdoor cover from the Browns. And there are three more factors at play here that have me picking the Browns to win outright.
- The line moved from 7.5 to 9.5 when it was announced Austin Davis would be Cleveland’s starting QB. Naturally the public is going to be even more against Cleveland when it’s Davis starting and not McCown or Johnny Manziel. But the public is dumb, and Davis could be this team’s best QB. I like the free points.
- The Bengals and Marvin Lewis are your classic “looking ahead to next week” team. Next week features an important showdown with the Steelers. This week screams TRAP GAME to me.
- And this is the most important factor of all. The Browns are closing in on either the 1st or 2nd overall pick in next year’s draft. Wouldn’t it be so Cleveland of them to win some improbable games late in the season to tumble in the draft pick order? Yes, it would.
Kansas City (-3) at Oakland
The Pick: Kansas City
The Score: Kansas City 37, Oakland 27
Of all the preseason predictions I made on this site, the one that’s been haunting me the most is my Super Bowl prediction: Kansas City 30, Dallas 20. Ouch. That has looked bad pretty much from the start. But now the Chiefs are at least semi-vindicating me. I’m not saying they’re even a lock for the playoffs, but they’re on a roll, and even the stat nerds think they’re one of the best teams in the league.
I still think they’ll falter if they make it to the postseason, either because Andy Reid will get easily confused, or because some opponent will build a 17-0 lead on them and Alex Smith will struggle to guide that offense to a big comeback. But for the time being, it’s impossible to pick against them
Denver (-4.5) at San Diego
The Pick: San Diego
The Score: San Diego 28, Denver 0
Fuck Denver. The sooner they lose a winnable game (and they will), the sooner the Patriots can lock up the #1 seed in the AFC, ensuring New England gets to host the Broncos in January. We’ll see who’s soft when Brock Osweiler goes to Foxboro for the first time. Did I mention Fuck Denver yet?
Philadelphia at New England (-9.5)
The Pick: New England
The Score: New England 31, Philadelphia 16
With offensive weapons dropping like flies for the Patriots, I was a little gun shy at first to take them as such a large favorite. But what it really comes down to for me is the return of at least one of New England’s star linebackers. With both Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower practicing this week, I think we’re going to be OK there. That means no effective run game from Philly. While I think the Patriots offense gets back on track a little bit (home game + Danny Amendola’s return + Philly’s recent woes against bad offenses), the defense can easily carry this one and ensure we don’t see the dreaded backdoor cover.
Carolina (-7) at New Orleans
The Pick: Carolina
The Score: Carolina 40, New Orleans 16
Eight of Carolina’s 11 wins have come by seven points or more. It doesn’t matter if they’re at home or on the road, facing a good team or a bad team…it’s been blowout after blowout. And we’re talking about the Saints, a team ahead of only San Francisco and Cleveland in terms of overall efficiency. I think seven is also a good number to set the over/under at for how many interceptions Drew Brees will throw in this game. I can’t imagine a situation where this goes well for New Orleans.
Indianapolis at Pittsburgh (-7)
The Pick: Pittsburgh
The Score: Pittsburgh 39, Indianapolis 24
Remember when Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and six touchdowns at home against the Colts in week 8 last year? That probably won’t happen again, if only because Roethlisberger has gone down with a new injury almost every week this season. You figure if the Steelers build a lead, they probably don’t want him dropping back unnecessarily. But it’s easy to picture them building that big lead and then attacking Indy’s one-dimensional offense. Make no mistake about it, the Colts cannot run the ball. Matt Hasselbeck throwing is their only option. Even though the Steelers are suspect against the deep passes, I can’t see this strategy surprising them. They give up some points, but they score an awful lot more.
Dallas at Washington (-4.5)
The Pick: Dallas
The Score: Dallas 15, Washington 11
I was desperately trying to find a reason to take Dallas in this game. I built a decent argument around the fact that they only lost to Tampa Bay by four points in a game Matt Cassel started, and they also lost to Seattle by just one point in another Cassel start. Both of those offenses are better than Washington’s. But this argument just didn’t feel strong enough.
Then one of my friends who’s a Washington fan mentioned the referees’ repeated incompetence on Monday Night Football this year. There it is! If the NFL is WWE-ing up this league like we think they are, wouldn’t they desperately want the Cowboys to remain in the playoff conversation? Dallas is one of their most marketable and polarizing teams. This makes perfect sense in the Goodell Era. Lock it up. Dallas pulls off the upset with some obvious assistance from the refs. Damn, it feels good to be able to see into the future.
One word of caution to everyone out there: There are a lot of “good teams” favored by six points or more in matchups against “bad teams” this week. There’s no way all of them are going to cover. Between Cincinnati, Carolina, Arizona, New England and Pittsburgh, at least one (probably two) aren’t covering. But it’s impossible to feel great about any of the underdogs in those games. I suggest staying away from almost everything this week in terms of straight bets, parlays and teasers.
The weekly tally looks like this:
- 9 Favorites, 6 Underdogs, 1 PICK
- 3 Home Dogs, 3 Road Dogs
- 9 Home Teams, 7 Road Teams
- Season Record: 85-84-1 (6-10 in week 12)
Enjoy week 13.