Week 15 features an NFC West showdown on Thursday night between the Seahawks and 49ers, three Saturday games, and a Sunday nighter between Daniel Jones and Taylor Heinicke. Get your popcorn ready!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Wednesday night. Stats are from TruMedia/Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted. Now, on to the picks.
Week 14 record: 7-6
Season record: 109-93-6
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks (+3)
The 49ers are coming off of a dominant 35-7 win over the Bucs, in which Brock Purdy looked more than capable of steering the ship and Christian McCaffrey totaled 153 yards from scrimmage. But Purdy is questionable for this game with an oblique injury, and the Niners will be without Deebo Samuel.
That might not end up mattering. The Seahawks in recent weeks have looked like a defense incapable of stopping anyone. Panthers QB Sam Darnold threw for just 120 yards against Seattle last week, and the Panthers still scored 30 points as they ran for 223 yards.
The Seahawks offense hasn’t looked quite as crisp in recent weeks, and in Week 2 Seattle managed just 216 yards and 14 first downs in a loss to San Francisco. Having said that, I like this spot for Pete Carroll. The Seahawks are 18-9 against the spread as home underdogs under Carroll, and they really need this game. I think their offense finds a way to keep it close.
The pick: Seahawks (+3)
Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings (-4.5)
Vikings fans, I’m not trying to be mean, but:
Since 2000, there have been 103 NFL teams with 10+ wins through 14 weeks.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 12, 2022
Among those 103, there's been only one with a negative point differential: the 2022 Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings went down against the Lions last week, but I thought Kirk Cousins played one of his best games of the season. But Minnesota had two turnovers, including one inside Detroit’s 5, and they were also stuffed on a 4th-and-1 attempt. Otherwise, that offense was cooking for much of the afternoon (416 total yards), and Justin Jefferson looked unstoppable, piling up 223 receiving yards.
The Vikings defense is another story. They got lit up last week for 464 yards and rank 27th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Unfortunately for Colts fans, I don’t think Indianapolis is capable of taking advantage of Minnesota’s vulnerable defense. Regardless of coach or quarterback—aside from a couple exceptions—Indianapolis has looked like one of the worst teams in the NFL for most of the season. I like the Vikings to rebound here.
The pick: Vikings (-4.5)
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns (-2.5)
The Browns’ worst offensive performance of the season, in terms of expected points added (EPA) per drive, came in Week 13 during Deshaun Watson’s first start. The Browns’ third-worst offensive performance of the season came in Week 14 during Watson’s second start.
The Ravens left Pittsburgh with a 16-14 win, despite Tyler Huntley and Anthony Brown combining to complete just 11 passes for 94 yards. Huntley, who suffered a concussion last week, was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice and looks like he has a good chance to start for Baltimore on Saturday.
I like the Ravens in an underdog role. Their defense is eighth in DVOA—10th against the pass and seventh against the run. Plus, they have an edge on special teams most weeks. I think they can create some turnovers here, run the ball, and leave Cleveland with an upset win.
The pick: Ravens (+2.5)
Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills (-7)
The NFL is better when it has characters, and Mike McDaniel is a character.
Mike McDaniel strutting around with his pants rolled up wearing a “i wish it were colder” t-shirt is priceless pic.twitter.com/McFeUT7NDf— Smoke (@nickysmokess) December 14, 2022
The Dolphins are the most interesting team in the league going into the final month of the season. Their loss to the 49ers a couple weeks ago was explainable. San Francisco has a great defense and makes a lot of opponents look bad. But last week? The Chargers don’t have a great defense, yet their game plan for slowing the Dolphins’ offense worked brilliantly. They pressed and disrupted Tyreek Hill within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and they took away the middle of the field from QB Tua Tagovailoa. If the Bills are able to do the same, we’ll have officially reached “blueprint” territory on how to stop Miami.
It feels like the Bills are getting slept on a bit. They’ve looked somewhat disjointed at times, but this is a 10-3 team that would be the one seed in the AFC if the regular season ended today. Buffalo’s +132 point differential ranks second league-wide to only the Eagles.
This could go one of two ways for Miami. The Dolphins could go in the tank and be the team that got figured out. Or, they figure it out and the previous two weeks could be viewed as a rough stretch that forced them to find a Plan B. I’m betting on the latter but am not that confident about it. Miami scores enough to keep it close here.
The pick: Dolphins (+7)
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (-4.5)
Strange situation with Marcus Mariota in Atlanta. Per The Athletic’s reporting, it sounds like Mariota opted to have a surgical procedure on his knee after coach Arthur Smith decided to replace him with rookie Desmond Ridder. Smith said the knee issue was “nothing that has been an issue this season.” So for the rest of the way, Atlanta will go with Ridder backed up by Logan Woodside.
Speaking of strange, Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com tossed out the idea that Sean Payton should return to the Saints in 2023. That would be an interesting domino to fall. I wonder how Tom Brady would feel about staying in the division, but joining Payton in New Orleans?
As for this game, it’s entirely possible that the Saints’ veteran defense stymies Ridder in his first career start. But it’s not like Mariota was lighting it up, and Smith has been able to produce a solid offense for most of the year. When this mediocre version of the Saints with Dennis Allen is favored, I’m pretty much always going to take the points.
The pick: Falcons (+4.5)
Detroit Lions at New York Jets (+1)
QB Mike White was limited in practice Wednesday with a rib injury, but the Jets sound hopeful that he’ll be able to start for them in this game. They need him: At 7-6, the Jets are +172 to make the playoffs, which implies about a 36.8 percent chance.
As for the Lions, they’ve morphed into a fun team with an explosive offense. Jared Goff is playing well, but Lions brass needs to guard against recency bias. Goff had been a mediocre or below-average starter in three of the previous four seasons. Detroit is trying to achieve sustained success. If there’s a quarterback they like in the draft—right now, the Rams’ pick they have is no. 4 overall—they need to take him. Ben Solak and I talked more about that on Extra Point Taken this week.
As for this game, it’ll probably be decided by who wins the matchup between the Jets defensive line and the Lions offensive line—both are very good units. It’d be fun to have both these teams make the playoffs. I see a coin-flip game, but give me the Jets.
The pick: Jets (+1)
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans (+14)
Patrick Mahomes threw three interceptions last week in a win over the Broncos, but he also made some incredible plays. On the season, Mahomes ranks first among all starting quarterbacks in EPA per pass play. Following an offseason in which they traded away Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs still have the best offense in the NFL.
The Texans were feisty last week against the Cowboys but couldn’t close the deal. I didn’t see much there that was sustainable. I don’t trust Kansas City’s defense, but Mahomes and company should go up and down the field in this game.
The pick: Chiefs (-14)
Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears (+9)
One big reason why the Eagles are 12-1: Jalen Hurts has managed to produce explosive plays without turning the ball over. His 50 completions of 20+ yards are tied for second in the NFL to only Mahomes, and his five turnovers are the fewest among the 28 quarterbacks who have logged at least 300 offensive plays. The last two weeks have been Hurts’s best film of his career as a passer.
Jalen Hurts' willingness to throw with anticipation has really stood out in recent weeks.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) December 13, 2022
3rd down, empty vs. Cover-1. Ball is out quickly before DeVonta Smith is out of his break.
Hurts out of empty this year: 0.45 EPA/play. 2nd in NFL behind only Josh Allen. pic.twitter.com/VUZvLUugPC
As for the Bears, they are coming off their bye looking to see more flashes from Justin Fields. It wouldn’t surprise me if Fields made some plays in this game, but asking the Bears’ 32nd-ranked defense to slow Hurts down is a big ask.
The pick: Eagles (-9)
Pittsburgh Steelers at Carolina Panthers (-2.5)
Somehow, during a season in which they lost five of their first six and fired their head coach, the Carolina Panthers are still alive for a playoff spot. They’ve won three of four, including an impressive 30-24 victory over Seattle last week. Football Outsiders gives the Panthers a 15.2 percent chance to win the NFC South.
As for the Steelers, Kenny Pickett suffered a concussion last week against the Ravens, and his status for this game is unclear. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you know I generally like to ride with Mike Tomlin as an underdog. The Panthers will try to win with their defense and run game. They’ve looked competent under Steve Wilks, but I don’t trust Darnold enough to take them as favorites here.
The pick: Steelers (+2.5)
Dallas Cowboys at Jacksonville Jaguars (+4.5)
The Cowboys were 17-point favorites last week but needed a 98-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter to get by the Texans. And the victory came with a cost, as they lost right tackle Terence Steele to a season-ending injury.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, got another great performance from Trevor Lawrence in their win over the Titans. At times earlier this season, I felt like Lawrence was a little too robotic and structured. But in recent weeks, we’ve seen his physical talent and creativity shine.
I could see the Jaguars pulling off the upset here, but their defense has—for the most part—really struggled. And last week’s scare should help refocus the Cowboys. I think Dallas wins by a touchdown.
The pick: Cowboys (-4.5)
Arizona Cardinals at Denver Broncos (-2.5)
A wild 2022 season continues for the Cardinals. They lost Kyler Murray for the season with a torn ACL Monday night. And now the team announced that GM Steve Keim is taking a health-related, indefinite leave of absence. This feels like a team that will likely blow it up this offseason, just months after giving Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury contract extensions.
Speaking of blowing it up, the Broncos would have the No. 2 overall pick in the draft if the season ended today. The only problem? They traded that pick to the Seahawks in the Russell Wilson trade. Wilson is in the concussion protocol, and his status for this game is in question.
Denver’s defense ranks fifth in DVOA and is by far the best unit for either team in this game. I’ll bank on the defense to lead the way to a Broncos victory.
The pick: Broncos (-2.5)
New England Patriots at Las Vegas Raiders (-1)
It seems like we only talk about analytics when decisions don’t work out. But last week against the Rams, the Raiders had a 4th-and-1 in the third quarter from Los Angeles’s 49. Las Vegas has one of the best run games in the NFL. Yet Josh McDaniels, who has been one of the NFL’s most conservative coaches all season, decided to punt. The Raiders ended up losing 17-16. That decision obviously wasn’t the main reason why the Raiders lost, but points there definitely could’ve helped.
As for the Patriots, they took care of business against Colt McCoy and the Cardinals on Monday night. I didn’t see anything in that game to suggest that New England is turning a corner. But you better believe I’m trusting Bill Belichick over his former protege, McDaniels, in a toss-up game.
The pick: Patriots (+1)
Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers (-3)
Solak and I had a spirited conversation about both these teams on Extra Point Taken. He thinks the Titans are going to regret firing GM Jon Robinson. I’m fine with them handing the keys to Mike Vrabel (as long as he doesn’t turn into Bill O’Brien).
As for the Chargers, let’s give them credit where it’s due. I’ve called them a joyless team in the past. But Brandon Staley put together a great game plan to stop the Dolphins last week, and Justin Herbert put the offense on his back.
On paper, this should be the Chargers all the way. They’re a different team when they have WRs Mike Williams and Keenan Allen healthy. The Titans, meanwhile, are trending in the wrong direction, having lost three in a row. It’s entirely possible that they collapse down the stretch and get blown out here. But I’m not doubting Vrabel in an underdog role, and I’m certainly not trusting the Chargers as a favorite.
The pick: Titans (+3)
Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3.5)
This Bucs team might be the toughest watch in the NFL right now. Tampa is poorly coached, Tom Brady is playing his worst football of the season, and they are so banged up. My plan is to fade them the rest of the season unless I see a reason not to.
The Bengals, meanwhile, are one of the most fun teams in the NFL. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are a joy to watch. The Bengals have evolved their offensive scheme to maximize the personnel they have. And the defense comes up with creative game plans every week. The Bengals are sixth in overall DVOA. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This group is better than the 2021 team that got to the Super Bowl.
Needless to say, I like them here.
The pick: Bengals (-3.5)
New York Giants at Washington Commanders (-4.5)
Even though this one will be played on Sunday night, expect it to have the feel of a Saturday afternoon game on wild-card weekend (that’s not a compliment!). The winner will have a great chance of sneaking into the playoffs. The two teams met a couple weeks ago in an extremely forgettable 20-20 tie.
The battle up front on both sides of the ball could determine the outcome. The Giants’ offensive line looked bad in a blowout loss to the Eagles last week, but their defensive front with Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, and Dexter Lawrence can be disruptive.
The Commanders had a bye last week. Their defense ranks ninth in DVOA, and it sounds like Chase Young could make his season debut this week.
I think Washington is the better team, but if you think I’m trusting Heinicke to cover 4.5 in a high-leverage game like this, well, you’d be mistaken. Feels like a field-goal game either way.
The pick: Giants (+4.5)
Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers (-6.5)
The Baker Mayfield comeback last Thursday night was legitimately fun and exciting. It might not lead to anything, but if nothing else, it was a memorable moment in what’s been a forgettable season for Rams fans.
The Packers are 5-8 coming off their bye. They haven’t officially been eliminated from the playoffs but have just a 4.3 percent chance of getting in, according to Football Outsiders. If they lose here, the discussion will turn to whether they should give Jordan Love a chance and whether Aaron Rodgers will be playing elsewhere in 2023 (okay, let’s be honest, that’s already the discussion).
The Packers are playing at home in this one and are the more talented team. Even after last week’s win, the Rams have a minus-78 point differential, which ranks 30th. I don’t think Mayfield is saving them.
The pick: Packers (-6.5)