You know that part of a tight horse race when it seems like all the horses are all conglomerated together in a pack, and you’re not quite sure who’s going to emerge out of it and cross the finish line first? That’s a lot like what Week 16 of the NFL season feels like. There are lots of teams that are in the thick of the playoff race, or right on the outside looking in, and several of the matchups this weekend will help determine what their final positioning in the playoff race will look like. Here are some of the big games and NFL picks of teams jockeying for Playoff Positioning in Week 16.
Washington at Tennessee (-10)
By virtue of mathematics, both of these teams are still eligible for the playoffs. Whether they’ll actually make the playoffs, or if anyone really wants to see them make the playoffs, is an entirely different matter.
As bad as the Washington Redskins have looked recently, thanks to some spectacularly miserable efforts and because they’re starting their fourth quarterback this season, they can still make the playoffs if they win out, thanks to an ugly win against the floundering Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday. Now, with two wins to close the season, plus some help from the Minnesota Vikings (who would need to lose at least one game) or the Seattle Seahawks (who would need to lose both their remaining games), Washington would be assured a playoff spot. If you want to torture yourself, imagine a world where the Redskins win out and Dallas loses one game, translating into Washington winning the NFC East.
But again, all of that supposes that Washington wins their last two games, which would include this Saturday’s game against Tennessee, in which they’re 10-point underdogs. If anyone on Washington’s coaching staff is even the slightest bit confused about what Tennessee’s game plan will be this weekend, they should be fired immediately, because it’s painfully obvious: the Titans will be trying to run the ball right down Washington’s throat.
Over the last three weeks, Titans running back Derrick Henry has run for 448 yards and seven touchdowns. After looking like a player primed to get traded during this year’s trade deadline you could argue that there isn’t a hotter player in the NFL today than Henry. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Henry is not only ranked #2 in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) measurement, which measures the overall value of a running back compared to a replacement-level player at the position but is ranked #1 in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), which measures the -in-game value of a running back compared to a replacement-level player at the position.
The Titans have won their last three in a row (albeit against teams who are already making postseason vacation plans) by handing the ball repeatedly to Henry and letting quarterback Marcus Mariota basically “manage” the game (he’s thrown less than 25 passes in Tennessee’s last two games).
Washington has the fourth-worst rushing defense DVOA in the NFL this season and is coming off a week in which they allowed 172 rushing yards to the Jaguars. Even if you try and spin said fact with the rationale that half of those yards came from runs by quarterbacks and running backs, it’s not like Tennessee lacks in athletic playmakers at those two positions.
With Mariota currently ranked as the 4th-worst quarterback in the NFL in terms of his passer rating on first down, expect another week of Henry getting a full workload. Assuming the Titans can continue their success on the ground, that might shorten the game such that the 10-point margin by which they’re favored might be too much of a spread to cover. Tennessee very likely wins this game, but take the points.
Pick: Washington (+10)
Baltimore at LA Chargers (-4.5)
This matchup features two teams who could very well be the two Wild Card entrants into the AFC Playoffs, as well as the two teams that none of the division winners who’ll still have to play in the opening weekend of the postseason will want to play.
Last Thursday evening, if America wasn’t fully keyed in on the fact that the Los Angeles Chargers had won nine of their last ten games entering their key divisional matchup against Kansas City, with their scintillating come-from-behind win against the Chiefs, everyone is now paying attention to them.
Now, the Chargers go from playing the porous Kansas City defense in their opponent’s house to the hosting the air-tight Baltimore defense in their own house. The Ravens have the second-best passing defense DVOA in the NFL, and the 82.9 passer rating they’ve allowed to opposing quarterbacks this season is the third-lowest in the league.
While they’re certainly very stout against the run (they allow the third-fewest rushing yards per game to opponents this year), they’re highly capable of stopping opposing offenses from moving the ball through the air. The Ravens bring pressure (five or more rushers) on 36.5% of their defensive snaps, which is the highest such percentage in the NFL. When they do so, the passer rating of opposing quarterbacks drops to 81.3% (the 6th-lowest passer rating allowed in the NFL when blitzing).
How Baltimore’s passing defense stops – or simply limits – Phillip Rivers will be the biggest subplot of this game. While most people handicapping the 2018 NFL MVP race have Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and New Orleans’ Drew Brees as the top two contenders, there’s a growing contingent of people who believe Rivers is the darkhorse in said race.
Rivers has the highest yards per attempt among quarterbacks who have started at least eight games this season, and is tied with Brees for having thrown the third-most touchdown passes (31) this season; in LA’s 14 games this year, Rivers has thrown at least two touchdown passes in 13 of them. He’s currently third in overall passer rating this year, which includes ranking fourth in passer rating when throwing from inside the pocket, but actually ranking even higher (third in the league) when throwing from outside the pocket.
Even if Baltimore can execute a game plan which limits the amount of time that Rivers has the ball in his hands, it’s not like things will be much easier when the Ravens are on offense. The Chargers are very stout defensively, evidenced by their two Pro Bowl selections (edge rusher Melvin Ingram and stud rookie safety Derwin James), and two other guys who could’ve – or should’ve – been selected as well (Desmond king has been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, and defensive end Joey Bosa is still among the best at his position but missed too much time due to injury).
With Chargers’ head coach Anthony Lynn getting serious Coach of the Year considerations, this game will go a long way in telling just how deserving he is. It’s not hard to get your team up to play against a division rival whom everyone is saying is better than you, but it’s an entirely different matter to keep your team as motivated after such an emotional win.
Pick: Los Angeles (-4.5)
Houston at Philadelphia (-1)
What seemed like a ho-hum type of game only a few weeks ago suddenly has a lot more intrigue, especially when you consider that a team that’s one loss away from playoff elimination is favored against the team that was considered to be the hottest in the NFL at the beginning of this month.
As ridiculous as it might sound to the more pragmatic fans of the NFL anywhere outside of the eastern Pennsylvania area, there are a group of “bleed green” Philadelphia Eagles fans who believe that the reinsertion of Nick Foles as the team’s starting quarterback – even at the cost of yet another injury to Carson Wentz – represents some type of serendipitous circumstances. In their minds, this was right about the time when Wentz went down with his season-ending knee injury, only have to have Foles lead the franchise to its first-ever Super Bowl win. So, why can’t history repeat itself?
While talk of the Super Bowl is way too premature, the energy that Foles provided in the game against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday was palpable. The Eagles’ offense looked like it got a major jump-start, scoring 30 points for only the second time this season. The guys around Foles just seemed to play with that extra bit of energy when they know that something good is taking place.
Regardless of whether you think what’s going on in Philadelphia is coincidence or providence, all the attention is clearly on them. Why else would the money have swung so decisively in Philadelphia’s direction, with the line opening at a pick‘em, with some sports books now having the Eagles laying as much as 2.5 points?
For some reason, people seem to have forgotten that Houston has the 5th-most wins of any NFL team, and has only one loss since the last weekend of September.
Foles and the Eagles won’t have the same comfort on offense as they did against the Rams, considering Foles was able to rely on an Eagles’ ground game that got 106 yards and three touchdowns; the Texans allow the fourth-fewest rushing yards per game, and are tied for the third-fewest touchdown runs allowed this year.
For all the talk about the Philadelphia quarterback situation, this game will actually be a huge litmus test for Houston’s Deshaun Watson. The Texans have played “old school football” this season, balancing their passing game with their running game, playing good defense, and forcing opponents into mistakes for which they’ll have to pay. The Texans have the highest variance between points scored ‘organically’ versus points scored off turnovers of any team in the league.
If Philadelphia plays a “clean” football game, Watson will have to overcome the inconsistency in moving the ball and converting third down situations, which plagued them in their loss to the Colts two weeks ago. The Texans aren’t a play-from-behind team either, considering Watson has faced the most pressure of any NFL quarterback this season, having some pressure registered on him on 41.7% of his dropbacks this year.
One of the great maxims in football is to be wary of the team that’s at the center of the preceding week’s hype train. Philadelphia was the main engineer of said train this week, so go with Houston.
Pick: Houston (+1)
Pittsburgh at New Orleans (-6)
With the recent faltering by the Los Angeles Rams, the road is now completely clear for the New Orleans Saints to put their foot on the proverbial gas pedal, and zoom away with the top overall seed in the NFC.
Whether you win by three points or win by thirty-three points, it makes no difference in the standings. That’s a good thing for New Orleans because while they still have an NFC-high 12 wins at the moment, their last couple of wins were a bit harder to come by. The Saints trailed at the end of the third quarter a couple of weeks ago against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and only mustered one touchdown against the Carolina Panthers this past Monday evening. Even with Drew Brees having an absolute vintage season, there are some people who are inching their hands closer to the proverbial panic button, when it comes to the Saints offense; December is not the time this team wants to be slumping.
We’ve recently begun to associate Pittsburgh as an offense-first (if not “offense-only”) team, but Pittsburgh has overcome some of the hiccups they’ve had on offense this year with an underrated stout group on defense.
Sure, Pittsburgh still has Ben Roethlisberger (having a vintage season himself), Antonio Brown (still leads the NFL in touchdown catches), a functional running game, the best red zone offense in the league (scoring touchdowns on over 76% of their red zone trips), and even one of the most underrated offensive weapons in wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who’s recorded 721 yards receiving when lining up in the slot, good for fourth-most in the league.
But Pittsburgh also blitzes opposing quarterbacks the third-most of any team in the NFL when they’re on defense, and even if they do allow passes to be complete, they limit the impact of those; Pittsburgh allows the lowest average yards after catch (YAC) in the league.
The Steelers are coming off as an emotional win as they’ve had since winning the Super Bowl in 2009, after defeating the New England Patriots this week. But Baltimore remains right on the heels of the Steelers in the AFC North race, so if they want to ensure that they keep their postseason hopes alive, winning the division is a priority, lest they want to join the mosh pit for the last playoff spot in the AFC.
This will assuredly be a very telling game, as far as the state of the Saints. When they’ve faced a couple of stout defenses (like Dallas and Carolina), they’ve struggled to move the ball. But the other common denominator in those two games was the fact that they were on the road. This game is at home, where the Saints are 12-2 over their last 14 regular season home games.
Securing wins in their next two home games is of paramount to the Saints. If this team is serious about a deep postseason run, this game has to serve as the showcase for what happens when top opponents come into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Pick: New Orleans (-6)
Kansas City (-2.5) at Seattle
Both teams in the NFL’s marquee primetime matchup this weekend are coming off tough losses that made their respective playoff positions a lot murkier. Another loss by either one of these teams would inflict serious damage to all the good work they’ve done in the weeks and months leading up to the end of the regular season.
The Kansas City Chiefs lost a total of one game through the middle of November this year, yet have now lost two of their last four games. Taking a home loss to a division rival (the Los Angeles Chargers) that was missing their top two running backs, #1 wide receiver, and a slew of defensive starters, was not a good look for the team that was supposed to be the #1 contender to end the AFC supremacy of the New England Patriots.
Kansas City still has better than a 70% chance to win the AFC West division even after the loss (thanks in large part to tiebreakers), but their highly suspect defense continues to be their Achilles’ heel. While the unit had a strong performance in the first half of the Chargers game, they were the main culprit in blowing a 14-point lead with four minutes to go in the game against the Chargers.
The Chiefs’ rushing is dead last in the NFL in rushing defense DVOA, which could work right into the hands of the Seattle Seahawks. With a stink bomb of a performance against the division rival San Francisco 49ers last week, the Seahawks are in a must-win scenario on Sunday, if they want to remain in contention for one of the NFC Wild Card spots.
Despite all their chatter about getting hosed by the referees last weekend (even if they’re right), there’s no excuse for the fact that they committed a season-high 14 penalties against the 49ers, and got caught several times by the 49ers in major coverage busts downfield (which San Francisco wasn’t able to capitalize upon).
If Seattle were smart, they’d stick with what works: running the football right at their opponents. Between Chris Carson (ranked the 6th-best running back in the NFL in DYAR), Mike Davis, possibly Rashad Penny (if he’s cleared to play), and the scrambling ability of Russell Wilson, they can play the ball control game against Kansas City, keeping the Chiefs’ high-octane offense off the field.
Patrick Mahomes is a bona fide wizard with the ball in his hands, but he’ll need to conjure up some serious sorcery to go into CenturyLink Field and beat the Seahawks. The deciding factor is the speed of Kansas City’s skill position guys against the Seattle secondary. While they do a good job limiting damage from opposing tight ends (like holding San Francisco’s George Kittle to only 51 yards on three catches), the Seahawks have been among the worst teams in the NFL against the #1 receiver of their opponents. Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill could be in for a big game on Sunday evening.
Simply put: the Seahawks might have home field advantage, and possibly even a greater urgency factor, but the Chiefs still have the best player on the field.
Pick: Kansas City (-2.5)