Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-7) at Minnesota Vikings (7-6)

Minnesota was dealt a huge blow when they lost safety Harrison Smith for likely the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury. They were impressive in their first game without him last week in Jacksonville, but he’s arguably the best safety in football and the Vikings’ best defensive player, so he’s not an easy player to replace. He’s as important to this defense as Earl Thomas is to the Seahawks, but his injury doesn’t get nearly the attention that Thomas’ did. The good news for the Vikings is they get top offensive lineman Joe Berger back from a 2-game absence with a concussion and Adrian Peterson is expected to return for the first time since week 2 with a torn meniscus, though how effective he’ll be in his first game back is a major question mark.

The Colts, meanwhile, have plenty of injury problems, as has been the case all year. They’re missing 3 starters on the offensive line, including left guard Jack Mewhort, who is probably their best offensive lineman, 2 starters in the secondary (safety Clayton Geathers and cornerback Patrick Robinson), and #2 wide receiver Donte Moncrief. The Vikings have been a little bit better than the Colts all year, entering this game 16th in first down rate differential, while the Colts enter in 23rd, and they are significantly better than them right now given both teams’ injury situations. However, this line is at 5 in favor of the hometown Minnesota Vikings, so there’s not enough for me to be at all confident in Minnesota. This line is right where it should be.

Minnesota Vikings 23 Indianapolis Colts 17

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -5

Confidence: None

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Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-8) at Washington Redskins (7-5-1)

This line has shifted from 4 on the early line to 6.5 in the past week, which I think gives us decent value with the Panthers. The Panthers are 5-8 and incredibly banged up on the offensive line, but 5 of their 8 losses have come by 3 points or fewer and they are expected to get middle linebacker Luke Kuechly back from a 3-game absence after he was cleared to return from his concussion. The Redskins, meanwhile, have just 2 wins by more than a touchdown all year and one was at home against the Browns in a game in which they lost the first down battle 26 to 24. I can’t be confident in the Panthers with Kuechly’s status still somewhat up in the air, but I may revisit this on Monday if it becomes clear that he’s going to play and this line doesn’t move.

Washington Redskins 24 Carolina Panthers 19

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6.5

Confidence: None

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New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (11-2) at Denver Broncos (8-5)

Tom Brady has had a lot of success in his career, but the Denver Broncos have always been his achilles heel. They’re the only team in the league he has a losing record against and he is just 2-7 in his career on the road in Denver, including a loss late last season that cost them homefield advantage in the AFC Championship and the Patriots’ eventual loss in the AFC Championship as well.

Since the AFC Championship, a lot has actually changed with these teams. New England has a healthy LeGarrette Blount and an improved offensive line, two things they didn’t have last year. Denver is also without Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and Brandon Marshall from this defense. The former two left as free agents this off-season, while the latter remains sidelined with an injury. As a result, the Broncos’ run defense is actually pretty weak right now, which the Patriots should be able to take advantage of. It’s going to be a much different gameplan for them than last January when the Patriots had 56 passes to 17 runs.

At the same time, Denver’s pass defense has arguably improved since last season with Chris Harris and Aqib Talib both playing as well as any cornerback in the league. They still rank 2nd in first down rate allowed. Their offense has been a problem as they rank 26th in first down rate, but their offense wasn’t good last season either. If anything, new starting quarterback Trevor Siemian is better than either Brock Osweiler or Peyton Manning were last season and the offensive line is improved, though they’ve had major problems with their running game since losing CJ Anderson for the season with injury a few weeks back.

New England, meanwhile, is without Rob Gronkowski on offense with injury and have traded away defensive stars Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. Despite those losses, the Patriots still rank 1st in first down rate (compared to 13th for Denver), but they’ve also had a very easy schedule, so it’s fair to question how good they really are, even after an impressive victory over Baltimore last week. We’re getting 3.5 points with Denver, a lot considering 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer, so I’m taking the Broncos, but there’s not enough here for me to bet money on them.

New England Patriots 23 Denver Broncos 20

Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5

Confidence: Low

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-2)

The Buccaneers are getting a lot of attention right now thanks to a 5-game winning streak that has improved their record to 8-5 and pushed them into a tie for first place in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons. As a result of their home victory over the Saints last week, as well as the Cowboys’ close loss in New York to the Giants, this line has shifted from 9.5 in favor of Dallas on the early line to 7 this week. I think that’s an overreaction. Both Tampa Bay’s win and Dallas’ loss were close, as have most of the Buccaneers’ wins on their winning streak. Four of 5 victories have come by single digits. On the season, they still have a negative point differential and they rank just 20th in first down rate differential.

Their defense has led the way over the 5-game winning streak, allowing just 12.8 points per game, but they still rank in the bottom half in first down rate allowed (20th) because their defense was awful to start the season, allowing 37+ points on 3 separate occasions. They’re better now that they’re healthier on the defensive line, I don’t buy that they’re as good as they’ve looked, so I think we’re getting good line value with the Cowboys as 7 point home favorites. Despite a close loss to a good Giants team, they are still arguably the best team in the league and rank 3rd in first down rate differential. This is a no confidence pick though because the Cowboys have no homefield advantage, going 11-27 ATS as home favorites since 2010.

Dallas Cowboys 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Dallas -7

Confidence: None

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New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-8) at Arizona Cardinals (5-7-1)

Both of these teams have losing records, but both have played significantly better than their record would suggest. In fact, the Saints have a +9 offensive touchdown differential, tied for 4th best in the NFL, and the Cardinals have a +8 offensive touchdown differential, 6th in the NFL. The Cardinals have played well this season, with the exception of a few special teams plays that have unfortunately decided games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And last week, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They’ve won the first down rate battle in 11 of 13 games and rank 2nd in first down rate differential on the season, but their season is essentially over at 5-7-1 because of a handful of special teams screw ups.

The Saints, meanwhile, rank 6th in first down rate differential, but their season is essentially over as well at 5-8, because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer. The Cardinals are the better team and are only favored by 2.5 here at home, so I’m taking them, but I can’t be confident in them, especially with a tough Seattle game on deck. The Saints are also in a good spot in their second of two road games. Teams are 141-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 112-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 236-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.97 points per game, as opposed to 338-473 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.98 points per game. The Cardinals are the pick, but I wouldn’t put money on them this week.

Arizona Cardinals 24 New Orleans Saints 20

Pick against the spread: Arizona -2.5

Confidence: Low

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Detroit Lions at New York Giants: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (9-4) at New York Giants (9-4)

At first glance, these teams appear very similar. Both teams are 9-4, but both teams have also won a lot of close games. In fact, between the two teams, 16 of their 18 wins have come by 7 points or fewer. Detroit beat New Orleans by 15, while the Giants won by 14 in Cleveland, and aside from that all their other wins have come by a touchdown or less. The big difference between these two teams: Detroit has a +4 turnover margin, while the Giants have done this despite a -5 turnover margin.

Why does that matter? Well, turnover margins are very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis so I tend to value teams that consistently move the chains above teams that consistently win the turnover battle. The Giants rank 8th in first down rate, while the Lions rank 19th. However, we’ve lost all line value with the Giants following their home victory over the Cowboys last week. This line has shifted from 3.5 to 4.5 in the past week. Considering about 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer, this line is pretty high. The Giants are the significantly better team here, but this is a no confidence pick at 4.5.

New York Giants 23 Detroit Lions 17

Pick against the spread: NY Giants -4.5

Confidence: None

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Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2016 Week 15 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1)

The Steelers are getting a lot of attention and rightfully so. They are red hot right now in a league that lacks top level teams and they are arguably the 3rd scariest team in the league right now behind New England and Dallas. However, they are getting almost all of the public action right now as 3.5 point road favorites in Cincinnati, which I think is too many points. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less and the Bengals are quietly playing very strong football right now too, even without Giovani Bernard and AJ Green, who remain out with injuries.

In 3 games since losing Bernard and Green, the Bengals have narrowly lost in Baltimore and have gotten big blowout victories at home against Philadelphia and on the road in Cleveland. Since they’re pretty much out of the playoff race, as a result of some close early losses, the Bengals aren’t getting a lot of attention, but they’re a dangerous team right now and are still a talented bunch without Green and Bernard. They rank 12th in first down rate differential, which is just a couple of spots behind Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is obviously healthier right now, but I think we’re getting great value with the Bengals as 3.5 point home underdogs.

The Steelers haven’t been quite the same team on the road this season. Like they are here, in their final road game of the season, the Steelers were favored in their first 7 road games, but lost three of them straight up, in Philadelphia, Miami, and Baltimore. None of those games were even that close; the Ravens’ game was the closest one with a final score of 21-14. Cincinnati is just as good as any of those teams and even if they don’t win this game straight up they still have a good chance to cover the spread because they’re getting 3.5 points. They’re worth a bet at that number, especially since the odds makers stand to lose a lot of money if Pittsburgh covers.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3.5

Confidence: Medium

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