Week 15 of the NFL season is about to be the most unpredictable yet. The latest strain of Covid may have completely turned everything we thought we knew about this season upside down. Over 62 players tested positives earlier this week after just 110 positives over 14 weeks.
The NFL is reevaluating their policies, but it's unknown if any changes will take effect prior to this week's action. A few teams in particular are in big trouble if their stars are out. We'll bake the outbreak into our list of picks and storylines for each game.
This storyline will determine the matchup's outcome. I'll also provide a pick for each game, with odds courtesy of DraftKings.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns
Storyline: Who plays for the Browns?
No team has been hit harder by Covid than the Browns this week. It's a miracle backup quarterback Case Keenum didn't end up on the Covid list, but the rest of the roster is looking bare for this critical matchup with Vegas. The Browns need this game to keep ahead in the playoff race, but the only way they can win is for the Raiders to completely fall over themselves.
Count me as skeptical the Raiders, even with their own internal battle as to whether to integrate Marcus Mariota over Derek Carr, will blow this opportunity to stay relevant in the playoff chase. If playmakers Darren Waller and Carl Nassib play, the Raiders have absolutely zero excuses to not win this game on the road.
Pick: Raiders -1.5 (-105)
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts
Storyline: Which run game prevails?
These two teams are similar in build and overall quality. The Patriots are overachieving thanks to a tough-nosed approach that closely resembles their early years with Tom Brady. Run the ball and win with elite, disciplined defense. This can work wonderfully in the regular season and thus far it has in 2021.
The Colts, behind MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor and a solid year from Carson Wentz, aren't too different. They lack the receiving playmakers to really trust in this game, and I think Bill Belichick will rattle Wentz with pressure. I don't like this line for either team, though, so I'll take the under in a competitive, important AFC game.
Pick: Under 46 (-110)
New York Jets at Miami Dolphins
Between a flurry of injuries, poor performance, and uninspired coaching efforts thus far, the New York Jets appear as hopeless as ever. Zach Wilson has been shockingly bad, losing even the most valuable traits that propelled him to be the No. 2 pick in the draft. The biggest saving grace to this team at times has been Mike White's breakout debut, and Michael Carter's occasional production.
Miami is being given a ton of points here despite not having a backfield or leading receiver Jaylen Waddle. It shouldn't matter, as the Dolphins' defense has stepped up in a major way since October. I expect Miami to put the clamps on Wilson and allow the offense to just barely cover this spread.
Pick: Dolphins -9.5 (-110)
Washington Football Team at Philadelphia Eagles
Storyline: Can Washington overcome Covid absences?
At least 17 Washington players have tested positive for Covid amidst this breakout, making the Football Team the most affected team in the NFL so far. It's a shame, because both of these 6-7 teams are entertaining on their own when playing their best. This game is now more a matter of whether the Eagles can cover this large spread, not if they'll win.
The Football Team simply cannot overcome missing the majority of their defensive front seven and some offensive talent. For example, if quarterback Taylor Heinicke returns but gets dinged up again, Kyle Allen will be unavailable to relieve him again. I like the Eagles to cover this spread.
Pick: Eagles -10 (-110)
Carolina Panthers at Buffalo Bills
Storyline: Can Josh Allen get some help?
Time and time again we've seen teams that rely too much on their quarterback fall apart at inopportune moments. The Bills have been that team the last two years despite a great set of receivers and offensive coordinator. The offensive line and lack of star talent at running back have made it difficult to be more, and the Bills are on the slide now that opposing teams have keyed in on trends.
The Panthers are certainly not the most dangerous team right now, but an 11-point spread is crazy considering where the Bills are. Instead of the spread, I like both teams to engage in a defensive battle. I like the under as both offenses feel each other out.
Pick: Under 44.5 (-105)
Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
Storyline: Does Kellen Moore get this offense straightened out?
Despite having so much offensive talent, the Cowboys' offense is simply not functioning as it could be. The running game has been more effective, but Dak Prescott is not playing at a Super Bowl level. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is surely most concerned about this, and needs to correct it.
The Giants are trending downward again thanks to a lackluster offense and worsening defense. I like the Cowboys to get things right this week, and to pulverize the Giants. 11 points is a lot, but I'll take the road favorites.
Pick: Dallas -11 (-110)
Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars
Storyline: How do the Jags respond without Urban Meyer?
The Jags did the right thing by firing Urban Meyer, and some books have responded by raising the spread by two points. That's rich for me since Jacksonville is still a bad team that doesn't have a lot going for them. Trevor Lawrence has stunk, and the roster simply doesn't offer many solutions to help him.
Still, the Texans are worse. Davis Mills might come out and throw four picks, or a bunch of completions in a row, and it doesn't matter. They've lost by seven points or more in all but one game since October 10.
Pick: Jaguars -3.5 (-125)
Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers
Storyline: Can either QB push the ball downfield?
This is the toughest game of the week. Neither team is healthy or reliable based on the last month of play. Tennessee has had the better defense, and I think that's what matters most in terms of predicting how this plays out.
Both Ryan Tannehill and Ben Roethlisberger have struggled to push the ball downfield and find big plays, but both offenses are solely reliant on their veteran passer. With the Titans' rush defense sure to shut down Najee Harris, the pressure will get to Roethlisberger, and he's shown incapable of producing when necessary in too many instances this year.
Pick: Titans -1 (-110)
Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions
Storyline: Is there anything Detroit can do to cover?
My avoidance of this spread has less to do with anything Detroit can do besides play hard, and more to do with Arizona's injuries and motivations. Arizona shockingly got hammered last week against the Rams, and must quickly rebound despite missing DeAndre Hopkins, and possibly both Chase Edmonds and James Conner.
The under looks much more appealing than a 12-point spread. Detroit has pushed the under in eight of their 11 games, and both T.J. Hockenson and D'Andre Swift are doubtful to play this week. Arizona will cruise to a win but this final will be nowhere near the total.
Pick: Under 47 (-105)
Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers
Storyline: Can the Falcons run D stay stout?
This is a lot of points to lay even if the 49ers have the more well-rounded team and are playing better. San Francisco's run game will be key. Atlanta allowed 57 and 91 rushing yards in their last two games, and if they replicate that success, they will cover.
I don't see that happening though, and the Falcons' lack of receiving options will show against San Francisco's great pass defense. A 49ers win will put them in the driver's seat to land a playoff seat, and essentially eliminate the Falcons. That extra motivation will show on San Francisco's side.
Pick: 49ers -9.5 (-110)
Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos
Storyline: Does either run game prove effective?
Betting on either of these teams has been a nightmare due to their wild weekly results. The Bengals were in great position to secure a playoff spot before two straight losses, and the Broncos are vulnerable to a poor outing any week. Both run defenses have been stout, but each offense has shown major upside when they can get their own backs the ball often.
Cincinnati has the fourth-ranked run defense and the Broncos sit 10th. If Joe Mixon or Javonte Williams go off, things get much easier for their respective quarterback. Cincinnati has been slumping lately, so I'll take the home favorite to continue their higher level of play as the Bengals fade in the playoff race.
Pick: Broncos -2.5 (-125)
Green Bay Packers at Baltimore Ravens
Storyline: How can Ravens break their December skid?
The line has swelled almost four points on this game already as everyone has noticed how the Ravens are free-falling. The offense is broken and Lamar Jackson is hobbled. The defense has endured a ton of injuries, and it's clear they've passed their breaking point and will not survive the carnage.
Green Bay, with their terrific defense and reliable offense, is simply too oiled of a machine to slow without impact players all over. Baltimore will lose their third straight game and open the window for one of their AFC North peers to take over. I don't see Baltimore hanging particularly close, either.
Pick: Packers -5.5 (-110)
Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams
Storyline: Can the Rams repeat last week's showing?
A whopping nine Rams players have entered Covid protocols thus far, clearly impacting the line here. But the situation isn't dire since the majority of affected players are not starters. Odell Beckham and Jordan Fuller are the notable absences.
I believe the drop in spread is a perfect opportunity to jump on the Rams. Seattle has lost three of their last 10 matchups by an average of 6.6 points. As nice as the Seahawks' last two games have been, this is a big step up in competition. Can they put on a dominant showing like they did against San Francisco two weeks ago?
I don't think so. The Rams are frustratingly inconsistent, but 5.5 points is a bargain price. I'm attacking this line with full confidence.
Pick: Rams -5.5 (-110)
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Storyline: Does New Orleans have one last stand in them?
The total has gone under in six of the last nine games between these teams. However, these games have featured a combination of Drew Brees, Jameis Winston (on both teams), and Tom Brady for the majority of those games. Taysom Hill's presence changes the formula on how to bet it, though.
The Saints will aggressively look to establish the run, dominate the clock, and limit turnovers. Tampa's third-ranked run defense will be tested by New Orleans' quality blocking and smart play-calling. I'm taking the under as the Saints do just enough to keep this a low-scoring and close-ish game.
Pick: Under 46.5 (-110)
Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Storyline: Can Justin Fields overcome OL injuries?
The Bears, already lacking impact talent, are hobbled again entering this game. Their offensive tackle situation is a mess and they could rely on practice squad-level talent. Sure, the Vikings' defensive end rotation lacks zest, but Bears head coach Matt Nagy has given zero reason to be confident the Bears can be creative enough to overcome the issues.
The Vikings are fighting for a playoff seed and afford to drop this one. I'm looking at Kirk Cousins and the Vikings' receivers to find a lot of success against a bad Bears' cornerback room in a big road win.
Pick: Vikings -4.5 (-110)
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