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Week 15 NFL Picks: Embrace the Unconventional MVP

Forget the quarterbacks. Defenders, receivers, and even a kicker can make a case for glory this week.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

One of the products of this season’s league-wide mediocrity is the absence of a no-brainer MVP candidate. The NFL’s MVP award has morphed into a trophy mindlessly handed out to great players on great teams, but when there are no truly great teams, it’s a good time to get weird.

The current MVP odds feature a bunch of obvious, unimaginative names. Sure, Zeke Elliott and Tom Brady are good, but when Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan are the next names on the list, it’s time to start thinking outside of the box. A quarterback has won eight of the last nine MVP awards, and it’s been 30 years since a nonquarterback or running back won. This is a failure of imagination, and the wide-open 2016 season is the perfect time to loosen those positions’ stranglehold on top honors. If any voters want to get bold, here are the candidates who could begin seriously swaying them this week:

The Defensive Linemen: Oakland’s Khalil Mack and Denver’s Von Miller

Since Lawrence Taylor won the award 30 years ago, only a few pass rushers have made a serious run. J.J. Watt received 13 of 50 votes for his 2014 season, during which he recorded 20.5 sacks, nearly an NFL record. Neither Miller nor Mack will approach that total this year, but Watt had to compete with an untouchable Aaron Rodgers campaign that year while these pass rushers do not. Life isn’t fair.

Anyway, despite Miller’s league-leading 13.5 sacks, Mack may have the edge here: He’s forced five fumbles, recovering three, and has a pick-six. And unlike Miller, Mack isn’t playing in front of one of the league’s best secondaries. Both players have huge impacts on the field, but Miller is surrounded by other great players; Mack is surrounded by a bunch of guys who seem like they would otherwise routinely give up 30 points. Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, who also has 13.5 sacks, should also be in this discussion if he closes strong and the Falcons make the playoffs.

The Defensive Backs: Kansas City’s Eric Berry and Seattle’s Earl Thomas

The Chiefs rank 18th in pass defense and 27th in rush defense, but they’re winning because they somehow make the most important play at the right time. And much of that is due to Berry, who’s not the best defensive player in the NFL, but is the most important player on perhaps the most perplexing defense. A vote for Berry would be a vote for the opportunistic Chiefs defense, which is tied for the league lead in turnovers forced. Berry, a cancer survivor, has nearly single-handedly won two games for his team this season, and made an impact in many more instances. I still can’t figure out how he scored here:

Thomas, who will not play again this season, was not an MVP candidate in my mind until I saw what happened when his defense played Green Bay without him last week. Good lord. Voters should probably give him this MVP and retroactively give him two or three more awards now that his value is so apparent. The Seahawks held the Rams to three points on Thursday, but Thomas’s absence will rear its ugly head again when they play a team without Jared Goff.

The Receivers: Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and New York’s Odell Beckham Jr.

There are so many great receivers in this high-offense era, but Evans and Beckham hold the distinction of accounting for nearly the entirety of their offense’s output. Evans has been targeted 146 times, Beckham 134. Both are the main reason that their teams are in contention.

The Offensive Lineman: Dallas’s Tyron Smith

Sometimes the MVP is the leader of the best individual unit. That’s usually the quarterback, but it could be a lineman who has been the clear engine of his offense. Smith is the face of the incredible line that has opened the way for Elliott and kept Dak Prescott mostly off the ground. Smith makes the hard look terrifyingly easy.

The Kicker: Baltimore’s Justin Tucker

This has been a weird season. Let’s make it even weirder.

And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)

Miami (-3) over NY JETS

Earlier this season, I took an in-depth look at the NFL’s ratings dip. One of the conclusions: The league suffered most in single-game windows featuring an uncompelling matchup. A Saturday night Dolphins-Jets game in which Matt Moore is starting definitely meets that description. Not even Miami offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen’s bizarre Moore-as-battle-commander metaphor will get people excited: “This is exactly the situation why you want a quality backup who can go in and win games, lead the charge, lead the troops into New York City,” Christensen said, adding that the longtime backup is better than a lot of NFL starters. Now, there are likely worse movies out there than Collateral Beauty, which is rocking a 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but that doesn’t make the new Will Smith movie good.

The Dolphins think there’s hope for Moore, but there’s not much hope coming from the Jets. The story of the week was Todd Bowles admitting the team might talk about moving Darrelle Revis to safety in the offseason. Cornerbacks who lose their speed can be effective when they move to safety, but Revis may not benefit from the shift because he’s lost his speed and, like, 50 other skills this year.

BALTIMORE (-6) over Philadelphia

Carson Wentz threw an interception in his fourth straight game last week, also the Eagles’ fourth straight loss. His numbers … his numbers … since …. hold on.

Puppies! Look at Carson Wentz’s puppies!

I’m sorry, I forgot what I was going to say.

I remember what I was going to say about the Ravens, though: There’s growing concern that Baltimore can’t stop anyone without cornerback Jimmy Smith, who has struggled with injuries and left last week’s game in the first quarter. That’s particularly problematic with a crucial game against Antonio Brown and the Steelers looming next week. The Smith-less numbers are ugly:

But that glaring weakness won’t matter this week, because the Eagles don’t really have any receivers. The Ravens will win this one, possibly by a lot. But who cares? Puppies!

BUFFALO (-10.5) over Cleveland

It’s bad that Marcell Dareus had to guarantee that the Bills would not be the first team to lose to the Browns this season. It’s bad that Buffalo columnists feel so sorry for Rex Ryan that they’re asking the Bills to just fire him already. It’s bad that the Bills called plays last week that they hadn’t practiced, leading to predictably bad results. One group of Bills fans, rightfully bummed about the team’s about-to-be 17-year playoff drought, had the genius idea to draft the bad moments; the exploits are detailed here, and it’s the most exciting thing to happen in Buffalo in December in years.

Here’s the great thing, though: Despite all of that, the Bills are a double-digit favorite against a team universally considered to be bad. One of the worst parts about the Browns’ season, aside from the fact that they seem destined to go 0–16, is that they aren’t even covering. Despite facing ludicrously high lines like this week’s, the Browns have covered just twice this season, and zero times in their last seven games. Bad.

CHICAGO (+6) over Green Bay

The Bears are, in fact, playing their best football of the year. That still means that they’ve lost four of five, but they’ll take it. This “best football” thing is brought to you by Matt Barkley, who, despite not being very good, has posted a 90-plus passer rating in each of his last two games and kept the Bears within one score in all of his three starts (winning one of them). This has led to oddsmakers to declare that Barkley is tied as the favorite to start for the Bears next year — tied with “any other QB”:

Sensing a trolling opportunity, I passed this along to my colleague, Robert Mays:

Speaking of quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, since a catastrophic performance in Tennessee a month ago, has thrown 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last four games. The Packers, like the Bears, are playing their best football of the season, but that means something very different for them. Even their defense is picking it up:

Detroit (+4) over NY GIANTS

Chris Christie threw shade at Ben McAdoo’s terrific haircut, saying to WFAN: “So, do you think Ben McAdoo will actually get a real haircut if they make the playoffs?” Unfortunately, we’re not getting a feud, because McAdoo responded thusly:

Both guys have points: Christie is right that McAdoo may need to make a change and McAdoo is right that Matthew Stafford is dangerous. But just how dangerous? He’s going the Derek Carr route of wearing a glove on his hand (though Carr and Stafford have different injuries) to cover up a dislocated middle finger, and it looks like this:

Stafford’s bum hand could undermine his awesome season, in which he’s delivered eight fourth-quarter comebacks, the most ever in a single season. In setting that record, Stafford passed Peyton Manning’s 2009 mark, which, as noted, also came on a Jim Caldwell–led team. Now we know why Caldwell famously doesn’t show much emotion late in games: He’s busy tearing out the heart of the other team. Stafford and the Lions will do so again this week, glove and all.

MINNESOTA (-4) over Indianapolis

USA Today asked Colts owner Jim Irsay if he’s planning to make any organizational changes, since coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson are under heavy criticism. Irsay answered the question for a “roughly six-minute response” without providing any specifics, at some points saying he doesn’t anticipate any changes, then at others saying he’s not ruling anything out. He’s not the only one without answers in Indy these days:

Mike Zimmer, the man who will be on the other sideline, is rightly getting praised for being a total badass and coaching while looking like this:

The even bigger news for Minnesota is that Adrian Peterson returned to practice this week and has a chance to play before the season ends. In case you’ve forgotten, he’s really good. Even if he doesn’t play on Sunday, the 6–7 Colts have little hope of slowing their descent in the AFC South. Despite some improvements, Indy’s offensive line remains a liability, and Minnesota will remind everyone of that this weekend.

HOUSTON (-6) over Jacksonville

Pittsburgh (-3.5) over CINCINNATI

The NFL announced this week that it would be including dodgeball in a new Pro Bowl skills competition. This led, predictably, to many different articles wondering which current players would be best at dodgeball. One undercovered angle: Who wants to hit whom in the face with a dodgeball? Thankfully, Mike Florio solved this when he posed the question to Antonio Brown. Brown’s answer? “Vontaze, 100 percent,” he said, referring to Vontaze Burfict, the controversial Bengals linebacker. Where would he hit him? “Definitely in the head.”

This game needs that spice, because in terms of wins and losses, the Bengals-Steelers rivalry is in a sorry state. Cincy is virtually out of contention while Pittsburgh is barely hanging on to its division lead. But these two teams still have the capability to play a thrilling game. It helps that the Bengals, particularly Adam Jones, lost it last week playing the Browns and Terrelle Pryor, meaning a date with Brown and the Steelers will likely be even more heated. The Steelers will win this game, both because Brown wants to hit Burfict with a dodgeball and because the Bengals have been awful against teams with winning records:

Tennessee (+5.5) over KANSAS CITY

Both of these potential playoff teams are sort of boring. The most exciting thing to come from either of side this week is that Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley, the NFL’s biggest Star Wars fanatic, revealed in his review of Rogue One that the first Star Wars movie he ever saw was a prequel and not A New Hope. Scandalous.

Anyway, with the playoff race getting tighter, the Titans relied almost entirely on the run game last week; Marcus Mariota passed for 88 yards, and his passing yardage has decreased in every game since he posted 313 yards in a shootout against the Chargers five games ago. You know what else decreased in each of the last five games? The amount of points the Titans defense surrendered. They’re going to play the ball control game against Kansas City, especially with Mariota playing in by far the coldest game of his life. Kansas City will prevail, but I doubt it’ll be high scoring enough for them to break it open and cover.

Oakland (-3) over SAN DIEGO

It’s possible that all of this losing has broken Philip Rivers. As always, Rivers was the best player on an otherwise mediocre Chargers team early in the season. His passer rating didn’t dip below 90 in the season’s first six weeks, and he put the Chargers in position to win a handful of games that shouldn’t have been close. The Chargers lost those games, of course, because that is their nature, but it was nice to see Rivers shine. He’s no longer shining. Rivers has 10 interceptions in his last four games, and the Chargers have lost three of four. He even lost the “best player on the Chargers” title to Joey Bosa in the latter half of the season. Poor guy.

Meanwhile, the Raiders have caused multiple turnovers in five straight contests. So you can see where this is going. One interesting sideshow here is that both of these teams look poised to abandon their nice cities. It will be harder for the citizens of Oakland to say goodbye to their potential minidynasty than it will for San Diegans to lose … whatever you want to call the Chargers.

New Orleans (+3) over ARIZONA

I highly recommend looking at the list of quarterbacks who’ve thrown zero touchdowns and three or more interceptions in two consecutive games. The vast majority of passers who’ve suffered the indignity in the modern era are horrifyingly mediocre (Tyler Palko, Josh Freeman, Rex Grossman, Chris Simms), and no one had done it since 2011 … until Drew Brees changed that last week. It’s been such a shockingly bad stretch for Brees that you have to wonder whether it’s an anomaly or whether we’re starting to see the seemingly unstoppable QB fade. I’m betting that Brees rebounds, but if he has another disastrous game, it’ll be time to worry. No one’s ever done this three games in a row. No, not even Rex Grossman.

The Cardinals have been bad more than two times, as they’re in the midst of a lost season. Carson Palmer had to deny that he’s dreading playing behind his offensive line, and comments like that are never good. The year will get slightly worse Sunday when Brees bounces back against them.

ATLANTA (-13.5) over San Francisco

Beasley is so damn good.

The Falcons could already pass. Now, thanks to Beasley, they can also rush the passer, giving them a grand total of two things they do well. That’s one more good thing than most NFL teams can claim. With Beasley rolling, the Falcons have forced a turnover in five straight games, including five last week against the Los Angeles Rams. It’s weird that they could blow out an NFC West team that’s in turmoil, can’t pass, seems to have quit on defense, is playing so poorly that the future of the entire franchise seems up in the air, and may fire its coach and GM. That’s a once-in-a-season break from the scheduling gods. Wait. Wait! They’re playing another team exactly like that on Sunday!

DENVER (+3.5) over New England

I love this list:

It’s true that Denver does weird things to the Patriots. Brock Freaking Osweiler is a very rich man because he was able to put the Pats away last year, and he is a legitimately awful quarterback. Trevor Siemian (334 yards last week!) will make a few big throws on a New England secondary that is still not as good as it should be, and will join this list.

If the Patriots are able to win this game, it will be because of their running game, since Denver has allowed 180 and 154 yards on the ground in its last two weeks, which seems to be the team’s lone defensive weakness. If the opposition doesn’t give Miller the chance to maul the quarterback while he’s passing … he can’t maul the quarterback while he’s passing. There’s other stuff he can do, though:

Tampa Bay (+7) over DALLAS

My position on the Dak vs. Tony Romo debate is clear: (1) I do not think Dallas should bench Dak barring some sort of Chuck Knoblauch can’t-throw-anymore development (rare in football, aside from the last six years of Jets quarterback play). (2) It’s really fun to talk about, so everyone should keep fueling the discussion. Guess who seems to agree with me? Jerry Jones!

Jones opened the door for weeks of Dak/Romo speculation by saying he doesn’t know when Romo will be needed but that he’ll “know it when [he sees] it.” Prescott’s two consecutive just-OK weeks put this idea back into the world, but to be clear, those weeks would be the two greatest passing outings in Cleveland Browns history.

Football Outsiders recently detailed Prescott’s struggles against pressure up the middle, and while that might be nitpicking, anything that keeps the Dak/Romo debate going is worthwhile. Despite Dak’s recent struggles and my thirst for drama, the rookie should have a comeback game here, beating Tampa late. Jones may know the moment for change when he sees it — but he won’t see it Sunday.

WASHINGTON (-6) over Carolina

That is bad. This is also bad:

Well, bad stats lead to bad seasons. That’s how it works. Newton has delivered fewer than 200 yards passing in three of four games, and the Panthers are 5–8 in the most important stat in the sport. They’re clearly not going to turn this thing around.

At least they’ll get a nice reminder of the good vibes that existed last season when they see Josh Norman, the cornerback whose franchise tag they renounced last offseason for reasons that are still not clear. The “revenge game” label is overused, but Norman said he “almost felt like I was stabbed in the back” by the Panthers. As the Charlotte Observer noted, Newton “conceded he’ll likely throw Norman’s way Monday strictly for ego’s sake.” Newton’s ego will get the best of him here, leading him to make a few mistakes. The same Observer story noted that Norman once said that he and Newton had a “sniffing” type of respect for each other. “You know when two dogs sniff and they know what’s good and then they go their different ways? And don’t really play with each other? Like that.”

NFL players really like dogs.

Last week: 8–7

Season: 100–96–9