2017 NFL Picks Week 15: Tom Brady Owns the Pittsburgh Steelers
Wil Lutz really let me down last Thursday night, but Sunday night helped us recover. Tilting back a beer and listening to the dulcet tones of Cris Collinsworth, I was feeling pretty good at 5-4 with a Monday night matchup between the Patriots and Dolphins. Naturally, Jay Cutler went out and led his terrible team to an upset victory over Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, so we're heading into Week 15 after two consecutive weeks of .500 picks. We have a chance to turn it around this week, though, with major playoff implications in play. Let's get to it!
Detroit Lions -5.5 vs. Chicago Bears
The Bears were coming off a big win over the Bengals that would be considered impressive if beating Cincinnati could be impressive this year. I'm always going to be skeptical of whoever's playing quarterback for my Bears, and it's hard to expect a rookie to string together the two best games of his young career back-to-back. Add in the need for the Lions to stay in the playoff chase as long as possible in order to truly devastate their fans, and this one started to look easy.
Los Angeles Chargers +1 at Kansas City Chiefs
Don't be fooled by Kansas City's win over the Raiders last week; they may have solved some of their problems on offense by handing play-calling duties off from Andy Reid to the offensive coordinator, but the defense is still in shambles. Losing Eric Berry in Week 1 exposed a secondary now employing Darrelle Revis, the Chiefs' once fearsome pass rush is now ranked 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and the Chargers' defense (10th in DVOA) is far better than the Jets' (23rd) or Oakland's (32nd). The second Los Angeles team, meanwhile, is still trending upward with a dominant victory over Washington last week. The only thing troubling me on this pick is the Chargers' Lions-like tendency to crush their fans and the massive gap in special teams. The Chargers are ranked 31st, while the Chiefs (led by former Bears' special teams coordinator Dave Taub) are 4th. But the Chargers wouldn't let me down with a puzzling lapse in special teams, would they?
Carolina Panthers -2.5 vs. Green Bay Packers
I'm as scared of Aaron Rodgers as anyone, but it's hard to come back from missing 8 weeks with a broken collarbone and lead an otherwise mediocre team to victory over the NFL's 6th-best defense. Cam Newton and the Carolina offense have been maddeningly inconsistent this season, but they seem to make enough plays to win on a regular basis. If they can score a few touchdowns on Green Bay's 16th-ranked defense and use their top-ranked pass rush to prevent Rodgers from settling in during his much-ballyhooed return, the Panthers should come away with their 10th win of the year.
Atlanta Falcons -6 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I can't tell if people were impressed by Tampa hanging with Detroit last week or unimpressed with Atlanta's win over New Orleans. Either way, I'd expect this line to be a little higher. The Falcons beat Tampa Bay by 14 points just a few weeks ago in a game where the Buccaneers seemed content to let Julio Jones run free through all levels of their secondary. It was a bold strategy, and it did not pay off for them. Atlanta's 8th-ranked offense is going up against the second-worst defense in the NFL, Tampa's 15th-ranked offense has continued to turn the ball over at an alarming rate (tied for 7th), and the Falcons even hold an edge on special teams. Throw in the motivation (for Atlanta to move closer to a playoff bid and Tampa to accomplish nothing), and I expect this game to be a blowout.
Dallas Cowboys -3 at Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders are simply not a very good football team this year. With their uninspired loss to Kansas City last week, Oakland fell to 18th in total DVOA, in large part thanks to an anemic defense ranked dead last against the pass and 21st against the run. The Cowboys still haven't regained their 2016 (or early 2017) form, but they still have the league's 2nd-best rushing offense. Sean Lee is still healthy, Dak Prescott is more than good enough to take advantage of the Raiders' defense, and neither coach stands out as an advantage. I think Dallas will get out to an early lead and drain the clock from there.
Baltimore Ravens -7 at Cleveland Browns
Picking against the Browns is a really good idea, y'all. Losing to the Packers in truly Cleveland fashion last week kept the 0-16 dream alive, and dealing with Baltimore's top-ranked defense this week doesn't bode well. Cleveland "leads" the NFL in giveaways, and Baltimore is 2nd in the league in takeaways. Even if Joe Flacco hadn't recently started showing a pulse, I'd expect the Ravens to blow out the Browns (like they did in September). Now it just seems like an unfair opportunity for Baltimore to take out their anger over last week's narrow loss to the Steelers.
Arizona Cardinals +4.5 at Washington Snyders
I had high hopes for the Snyders this year, but injuries made it nearly impossible for them to compete against a tough schedule. The Cardinals still aren't a good team, but their defense (5th in DVOA) is good enough to cause problems for the struggling (19th) Washington offense. Unless the Snyders can force some key turnovers, this should be a low-scoring affair, in which case I like the 4.5 points.
Los Angeles Rams +2 at Seattle Seahawks
I'm a little surprised to see the Rams as underdogs one week after a wildly entertaining battle against the NFC's other top team. The "original" Los Angeles team is ranked 1st in total DVOA, and they're good at everything: 5th on offense, 4th on defense, and 2nd in special teams. They have plenty of experience playing against Russell Wilson, and they narrowly lost their earlier meeting in Week 5. Since then, Seattle has lost Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, every running back on their team and some on other teams (maybe they should have tried out that Alex Collins guy), and potentially Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bobby Wagner and linebacking mate KJ Wright. Every team endures injuries over the course of the season, but eventually you run out of ways to compensate. The Rams should get their revenge this week and nearly seal up the NFC West.
New Orleans Saints -15.5 vs. New York Jets
Josh McCown isn't spectacular, but he's worth a lot of points compared to Bryce Petty and/or Christian Hackenberg. This is another rare game, where New Orleans is better than the Jets in every statistical category. The Saints' 2nd-ranked offense shouldn't meet much resistance against the 23rd-ranked Jets' defense, their defense should easily shut down New York's 23rd-ranked-and-now-on-their-backup-quarterback offense, and the special teams are essentially a draw. New Orleans is at home, with a place atop the NFC South on the line. It won't be pretty.
New England Patriots -3 at Pittsburgh Steelers
And now, seemingly every online analyst's choice for game of the week. Some are even hyping it up as the game of the year, which is interesting given the aforementioned match-up between two statistically superior teams in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, but blah blah something about short memories in modern times. This game will likely determine the top seed in the AFC playoffs, and the Steelers are ranked ahead of the Patriots in total DVOA. Unfortunately, DVOA doesn't account for two important factors in this game. First, recent injuries won't cause swings in DVOA because it covers the entirety of the season, so the issues Pittsburgh's 11th-ranked defense has seen since losing Ryan Shazier and Joe Haden aren't fully reflected. Second, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick own the Steelers. Since 2002, the Patriots and Steelers have met 13 times. New England has won 10 of those meetings, and against a 3-point spread like this one they'd still be 9-3-1. Once again, the Steelers defense will struggle to find their usual big plays, and the Patriots will exploit the predictable schemes of Pittsburgh's defense to move easily up and down the field.
That's all for this week! Kick back, grab a drink, and feel free to blame me if you put money on these picks and come out behind. I won't compensate you, but maybe your significant others will send their wrath in my direction instead of yours.