NFL Week 15 Picks: AFC Playoff Race Heats Up With Massive Matchups

The return of Saturday games means the stretch run is truly here

by and

December 16, 2021

Look, at this point, every week in the NFL is big. However, if you’re a team in the AFC playoff picture, this probably is a massive week for you.

Week 15 is here, and with it comes the return of Saturday night games. Starting with Thursday night in Los Angeles, where the Chargers host the Kansas City Chiefs, the first three games of the week feature AFC teams in or near the playoff hunt, with a primetime matchup between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts serving as the finale.

Of course, that just sets the table for Sunday, where a team like the Miami Dolphins has a golden opportunity to keep pace, while the Buffalo Bills hope to get back on track versus the Carolina Panthers. The Tennessee Titans travel to Pittsburgh to face a desperate Steelers team. The Baltimore Ravens get a massive test when the Green Bay Packers come to town, and one of the most important games to the AFC playoff race goes down in Denver, where the Broncos host the Cincinnati Bengals.

Chaos could be on the menu this weekend. NESN.com’s Mike Cole and Ricky Doyle are all over it with their weekly against-the-spread picks, as they make their predictions on not only those games but every NFL contest this week.

First, here’s how they fared last week.

Now, here are their Week 15 picks, with lines from DraftKings Sportsbook.

THURSDAY, DEC. 16

(-3) Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers, 8:20 p.m.
Mike: Chiefs.
LA might be without Austin Ekeler and starting tackle Rashawn Slater is on the COVID list. Both of those things, for different reasons, might affect the Chargers’ ability to keep Justin Herbert upright. I’d expect a game plan similar to what KC threw at Jordan Love and the Packers while finding a way to cover a relatively low-scoring game.
Ricky: Chiefs. Is Kansas City’s offense really back? Maybe not — yet. But how the Chiefs are winning games — grinding it out, with their defense stepping up — could make KC even more dangerous come playoff time. And this week, you can bet Andy Reid’s team has revenge on its mind after losing to the Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 3.

SATURDAY, DEC. 18

Las Vegas Raiders at (-3) Cleveland Browns, 4:30 p.m.
Mike: Raiders.
The COVID thing is just too much to ignore for Cleveland, especially considering how much of a hit the offensive line will take. The Browns’ offense already sputtered for an entire half last week, and that was with a relatively full team. This could be a struggle to score.
Ricky: Raiders. The Browns showed in the playoffs last season what they could accomplish in the face of COVID adversity, handily beating the Steelers in the wild-card round as head coach Kevin Stefanski and others watched from home. This feels different, though. Too many blows to key areas of the roster.

New England Patriots at (-2.5) Indianapolis Colts, 8:30 p.m.
Mike: Patriots.
Few teams, if any, have benefited from penalties on offense and fumble luck like Indy has this season. The Patriots typically don’t make those mistakes, committing the fourth-fewest defensive penalties and seventh-fewest fumbles. New England will play a fundamentally sound game, putting pressure on Carson Wentz to make plays, which could be difficult.
Ricky: Colts. Feels like a weird sandwich spot for the Patriots — coming off that fluky Monday night win over the Bills before their bye, on the road, on Saturday night, against a non-divisional opponent, with some padding in the AFC East standings ahead of another crucial game against Buffalo in Week 16. Indianapolis’ recipe for victory: Jump out early (third in first-half points per game), stay committed to the run (first in rush EPA, third in explosive run rate), sustain drives (fourth in net time of possession per drive) and force Mac Jones to throw.

SUNDAY, DEC. 19

(-13.5) Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions, 1 p.m.
Mike: Cardinals. If Arizona — off a disappointing Monday night loss — doesn’t throttle the Lions, there might be some cause for concern in the desert.
Ricky: Lions. Holding my breath and taking the points. The Cardinals just lost on Monday night, now are without DeAndre Hopkins and have stiffer matchups with the Colts (Christmas Day) and Cowboys looming in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively.

Carolina Panthers at (-10.5) Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m.
Mike: Bills. It’s becoming more apparent by the week that Buffalo might not be the toughest team in the NFL. That being said: What can Carolina do to push the Bills around? Could be (another) long day for Cam Newton, who had a 74.5 passer rating and completed just 57% of his passes versus the Bills last season.
Ricky: Bills. Get-right spot for Buffalo. Sure, Josh Allen’s foot injury is concerning. But so, too, is Carolina’s offense, which turns the ball over too much and lacks explosiveness without Christian McCaffrey. The Bills’ defense will buckle down at home.

(-10.5) Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, 1 p.m.
Mike: Cowboys.
It’s a square play and Dallas is in a tough spot playing back-to-back divisional road games, but it appears the Giants are done with this season. If the Cowboys get out to an early lead, New York doesn’t have the offensive chops to get back into the game like Washington did last week.
Ricky: Giants. Dallas might be the most talented team in the NFL, with ample playmakers on offense and defense. But Dak Prescott is sputtering a bit, and aren’t the Cowboys always susceptible to a letdown just when everyone starts to buy in? Could happen again this week, in Dallas’ third straight road game.

(-1) Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1 p.m.
Mike: Titans. This feels like a trap, but whatever. The Steelers’ run defense has been as bad as we’ve seen in maybe a generation, and while Tennessee doesn’t have Derrick Henry, it is a few weeks removed from running for 270 against the Patriots. I like the Titans as a dark-horse Super Bowl contender, so I have to believe they win this.
Ricky: Steelers. Pittsburgh admittedly looks broken, consistently losing in the trenches (on both sides) and failing to register the big takeaway totals that have been a hallmark of its defense in recent years. But did a win over the Jaguars fix all that ails the Titans? Just can’t shake the idea of snagging a point at home with the Steelers, who basically are in must-win mode from here on out.

New York Jets at (-8.5) Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m.
Mike: Dolphins.
The Jets don’t generate a ton of pressure, and they’re not especially great at tackling, so it’s hard to see them doing much to slow down Miami’s offense. Also, I’m sick of picking the Jets and losing.
Ricky: Jets. No idea who the Dolphins are going to have available at running back. The Jets, meanwhile, could welcome back their best RB, Michael Carter, providing a much-needed offensive boost.

Washington Football Team at (-7) Philadelphia Eagles, 1 p.m.
Mike: Football Team.
Both teams have injury issues, especially Washington, which has massive COVID problems, but Ron Rivera has coached up a competitive team all season despite its limitations. WFT is one of the NFL’s slower offenses and ranks sixth in time of possession, so I think they could grind this game down even further to keep it within the number.
Ricky: Eagles. Injuries and scheduling are catching up to Washington. This marks the third straight game that WFT’s opponent will have a rest advantage, with the Eagles coming off a well-timed bye. Perhaps more importantly, Philadelphia ranks first in rush success rate. And that should create favorable down-and-distance situations. The Eagles’ offense ranks fourth in third-down conversion rate, while WFT’s defense ranks 31st.

Houston Texans at (-4) Jacksonville Jaguars, 1 p.m.
Mike: Jaguars
. I made Houston my upset pick on “The Spread” podcast, but I’m doing a 180 after the Jaguars canned Urban Meyer. Firing the head coach in the middle of the week isn’t usually conducive to success, but I’m completely buying into the new coach spark cliché, especially considering how loathed Meyer must have been in that locker room.
Ricky: Texans. I’m also buying into the coaching narrative and believe Jacksonville will win. I just don’t like the number. Feels like a field-goal game between two really bad teams.

Atlanta Falcons at (-9.5) San Francisco 49ers, 4:05 p.m.
Mike: Falcons.
Here’s something that really caught my eye: Per Action Network, the 49ers under Kyle Shanahan are 12-22-1 against the spread at home. And as home favorites, they’re 4-15-1. Technically, that has nothing to do with the actual football game, but it’s enough for me to blindly fade San Fran here.
Ricky: 49ers. Interesting note (via FiveThirtyEight) regarding Atlanta, one of the most difficult teams in the NFL to figure out: The Falcons’ six wins have come against six teams with a collective winning percentage of just 0.333 — by an average margin of 4.8 points. Their average margin of defeat, in seven losses, has been 19.6 points. Niners roll.

Cincinnati Bengals at (-1.5) Denver Broncos, 4:05 p.m.
Mike: Broncos.
The ground game is huge for Denver, with the Broncos going 6-1 when they get at least 28 combined carries for Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. Cincinnati’s advanced run defense numbers are fine, but the Bengals are 21st in missed tackle percentage, so don’t be surprised if the Broncos can control the pace of this game.
Ricky: Bengals. Don’t love this pick. Turnovers have been a problem for Cincinnati, and now Joe Burrow is playing through a finger injury that’s taking a little zip off his fastball. But I like the Bengals, with their overall talent level, much more as a scrappy road underdog than I do when they’re laying points. And Cincy should be on high alert in Denver after a Week 14 loss doomed by sloppy play (two muffed punts) and a lack of discipline (bad taunting penalty on Vonn Bell).

(-5) Green Bay Packers at Baltimore Ravens, 4:25 p.m.
Mike: Packers.
I’m just guessing Lamar Jackson doesn’t play, and if that’s the case, how can Baltimore keep pace? The Ravens’ pass defense has been bad all season and certainly isn’t getting better after losing Marlon Humphrey. So, who stops Davante Adams? The only concern is special teams, where this is a mismatch of epic proportions in favor of Baltimore.
Ricky: Ravens. Let’s get weird and accept the handful of points at home, thinking maybe the Packers get caught looking ahead to their Christmas Day game against the Browns and their ensuing Sunday night showdown with the Vikings. After all, it’s not like the oddsmakers haven’t factored in Jackson’s injury, and backup Tyler Huntley at least provides a similar skill set at the QB position.

Seattle Seahawks at (-4.5) Los Angeles Rams, 4:25 p.m.
Mike: Rams. LA has a COVID mess on its hands right now, but assuming the Rams’ outbreak doesn’t get worse, they still have the talent to cover this relatively short line.
Ricky: Rams. Not putting too much stock into Seattle’s two-game winning streak. This is the second of back-to-back road games for the Seahawks, and they let the Texans hang around for much of Week 14 before pulling away late. The Rams, meanwhile, are coming off a signature victory in Arizona.

New Orleans Saints at (-10) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8:20 p.m.
Mike: Saints. Tampa Bay’s run defense is good but not great like it was a year ago, which could be the key for the Saints to keep this close. They have been a thorn in the Bucs’ side the last two seasons.
Ricky: Saints. New Orleans (fifth) actually ranks ahead of Tampa Bay (seventh) in defensive DVOA, with the personnel to stop both the run and the pass. This is too many points, as the Saints — who are getting healthier, mind you — presumably will look to bleed some clock offensively.

MONDAY, DEC. 20

(-3.5) Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears, 8:15 p.m.
Mike: Bears.
This game opened at -4 and has been bet down to the three and a hook, presumably because everyone is betting on Chicago for the same reason: Minnesota just plays close games. Seven of the Vikings’ games have been decided by four points or fewer.
Ricky: Bears. Minnesota plays to its level of competition, for better or worse, and Chicago’s offense looked as good as it has all season last week in Green Bay. Justin Fields’ ceiling makes the Bears live ‘dogs at Soldier Field, where the Vikings have struggled in recent years. Minnesota is 2-7 ATS in its last nine games as the favorite.

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