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My NFL Picks: Conference Championships — Young quarterbacks battle Super Bowl-winning vets

Three of the four underdogs won on the road in the wild card round, but things were different in the divisional round when all four home favorites won. That means that the top two seeds in each conference will be playing each other for the right to head to Atlanta to play in Super Bowl LIII on February 3. In addition to both conference championship games pitting the No. 1 and 2 seeds against each other, both feature an all-time great veteran quarterback with at least one Super Bowl ring facing off with a young quarterback with a bright future in the NFL.

The Sunday doubleheader kicks off in New Orleans, with QB Drew Brees and the top-seeded Saints hosting the No. 2 seed Rams, led by QB Jared Goff. When these teams played each other back in Week 9, the Saints won 45-35. The Rams are looking to make the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season, while the Saints are looking to return to the title game for the first time since they won it in the 2009 season. In the nightcap, QB Tom Brady leads the Patriots — who are in the AFC championship game for the eighth straight season — into Kansas City to take on QB Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, who hope to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Last week, I went 3-1 picking games, but 0-4 against the spread and 2-2 on over/unders. Through the first two weeks of the postseason, that puts me at 4-4 straight up, 1-7 against the spread and 4-4 on over/unders.

No. 2 seed Los Angeles Rams at No. 1 seed New Orleans Saints (-3, over/under 56.5)

When these teams played each other in Week 9, the Saints won 45-35 at home. Both quarterbacks put up big numbers in that one, with Goff throwing for 391 yards and three touchdowns and Brees tossing four touchdowns on 346 passing yards. Saints RB Alvin Kamara ran for a couple of touchdowns in that game, but the player of the game was Saints WR Michael Thomas. He caught 12 of his 15 targets for 211 yards and a touchdown. But Rams WR Brandin Cooks also had a good game, securing six receptions for 114 yards and a score. The Rams had WR Cooper Kupp in that game, but they’ll be without him in the conference title game as he has been out since the middle of the season with a season-ending injury. 

The Superdome is a tough place for opponents to play; the Saints are 6-3 at home this season, including last week’s win over the Eagles. And this should be another shootout, as it was when these teams met during the regular season. They combined for 80 points in that contest, and they probably won’t reach that total again, but both teams certainly have the ability to score in the 30s. The Saints were middle-of-the-pack in points allowed during the regular season, and the Rams were 20th in the category. When it comes down to it, I think the Saints have the overall advantage in the passing attack. I’ll take Brees and his experience over Goff — even though Brees didn’t play as well in the second half of the season — and Thomas was one of the best receivers in the league this year. I’ll take him over Cooks or Robert Woods. The Rams may have a slight advantage at the running back position, though. Kamara is good, but Rams RB Todd Gurley — when healthy — is probably better than him. That “when healthy” qualifier is key because Gurley has been dealing with a knee injury that kept him out of the Rams’ last two regular season games, but he played through it last week against the Cowboys to carry the ball 16 times for 115 yards and a touchdown. Backup RB C.J. Anderson has played surprisingly well in his three games with the Rams, totaling at least 20 rushes, 123 yards and a touchdown in all of those contests. That is a good insurance policy to have in case Gurley can’t carry the full workload in the running game. Although neither team has a great defense, the Rams have the best defenders in the game with DTs Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, although CB Eli Apple has played well for the Saints since they acquired him from the Giants before the trade deadline.

These teams are pretty evenly matched, and I would normally pick the Saints at home, but the Rams were my preseason Super Bowl pick and I’m going to stick with them. I’m going to count on the Gurley-Anderson combo to lead the offense. Plus, I expect the Rams to focus on stopping the run to try to make Brees beat them because he hasn’t played that well recently. I’m expecting a close game, but not as high-scoring as their first meeting. I’ll go with the Rams 35-30.

Rams (+3), over 56.5

No. 2 seed New England Patriots at No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs (-3, over/under 56)

Getting home-field advantage could be big for the Chiefs because the Patriots were 9-0 at home this season — including last week’s victory over the Chargers — but just 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium. One of the Patriots’ home games was a Week 6 tilt in which they edged the Chiefs 43-40. Mahomes threw for 352 yards and four touchdowns in the loss, with Brady going for 340 yards with just one touchdown. Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt had nearly 200 all-purpose yards for the team, but he is no longer with the Chiefs after being released late in the regular season. WR Tyreek Hill had a big game, catching seven balls for 142 yards and three scores. TE Travis Kelce had 61 receiving yards on five catches. For the Patriots, RB Sony Michel carried the ball 24 times for 106T yards and two touchdowns. The Pats’ leading receiver was TE Rob Gronkowski, who had three receptions for 97 yards. WR Julian Edelman had the home team’s only touchdown through the air as one of his four catches that totaled 54 yards. WR Chris Hogan caught all four of his targets for 78 yards.

Earlier in the week, it looked like there could be bitter cold and/or snowy conditions for the game on Sunday evening, but more recent forecasts have bumped the temperatures up into the 20s and done away with the calls for snow. So it doesn’t look like the weather will play as much of a factor in the game as it appeared earlier, but Brady and the Patriots are used to playing in cold and snow anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have negatively affected them much. The Patriots theoretically have the defensive advantage in this game, having given up nearly 100 fewer points during the season than the Chiefs did, but it’s hard for defenses to keep the Chiefs from scoring a lot and they scored more points against the Patriots than any other team this season.  So I’m not sure how much of an advantage that will be. The Chiefs’ offensive weakness is in the running game, but RB Damien Williams did run for 129 yards and a touchdown last week against the Colts. That was one of four rushing touchdowns in the game as the Colts held Mahomes without a passing touchdown. But Kelce had a big receiving game with 108 yards on seven receptions. The running backs were also a big part of the Patriots’ win over the Chargers last week. Michel had 129 rushing yards with three touchdowns, and RB James White caught 15 of his 17 targets for 97 yards. But Edelman had an even better receiving game, with 151 yards on nine receptions.

 I expect the Patriots to go with a similar game plan as last week, relying on Michel to run the ball and short passes to White to move downfield. The Chiefs, meanwhile, should rely on Mahomes’ arm to get the job done, mixing in Williams’ work on the ground. I think the Chiefs get the win at home, 35-27, to advance to Atlanta.

Chiefs (-3), over 56

By the end of the night Sunday, we’ll know which teams will be playing in Super Bowl LIII. If my picks end up being correct, it’ll be the two young guns in Goff and Mahomes each playing in their first title game.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks: Divisional Playoffs — Rivers battles Brady for spot in AFC Championship

With the Wild Card round in the rear-view mirror, there are four games left to determine which teams make it to the conference championship games. QB Nick Foles led the Eagles to an upset over the Bears last week to keep alive the Eagles’ hopes for repeating as Super Bowl champs, but they’ll have to beat QB Drew Brees and the Saints in the weekend’s final game to advance to the conference final. In the earlier game on Sunday, Chargers QB Philip Rivers looks to slay his postseason demons when he heads to Massachusetts to take on QB Tom Brady and a Patriots team that seems like it could be easier to beat than it has been during much of the Brady-Belichick dynasty. The weekend begins with resurgent QB Andrew Luck leading the Colts into Kansas City to take on the Chiefs, with likely MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. In the late Saturday game, the Cowboys look to get back to the NFC title game for the first time since the 1994 season with QB Dak Prescott battling QB Jared Goff and the Rams.

I didn’t get off to a good start with my picks last week, going 1-3 both against the spread and straight-up, but I was 2-2 on over/unders. Let’s see if I can do better with the four divisional games.

Saturday

No. 6 seed Indianapolis Colts at No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, AFC West champions) (-5.5, over/under 57)

In his first full season as a starting quarterback, Mahomes exceeded all expectations by throwing 50 touchdown passes, and in his first career playoff game he faces another surprising quarterback in Luck, who many people weren’t sure if he could return from his shoulder injury and play at a high level. Mahomes’ top targets on the season were WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce, who combined for 190 catches and 22 touchdowns. For the Colts, WR T.Y. Hilton is coming off a Wild Card game in which he had five receptions for 85 yards, while TE Eric Ebron continued to find the end zone, securing one of his three receptions against the Texans for a touchdown.

Counting last week’s win over the Texans, the Colts have won 10 of their last 11 games, but I think the success ends this week. While the Chiefs’ defense isn’t good, I think Mahomes and the rest of the offense will be able to put enough points on the board to win the game. I do, however, think the Colts keep it close enough to cover. And both of these teams have good offenses, so I’m going over the 57.

Colts (+5.5), over 57

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No. 4 seed Dallas Cowboys at No. 2 seed Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC West champions) (-7, over/under 49.5)

The Rams begin their playoff run at home against a Cowboys team that beat the Seahawks by two points last week. Goff threw for nearly 4700 yards and 32 touchdowns during the regular season, despite losing one of his top receivers WR Cooper Kupp about midway through the season. He still has WRs Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, who each surpassed 1200 yards on 80-plus receptions during the year. RB Todd Gurley sat out the team’s last two games with a knee injury, but he is expected to start on Saturday. For the Cowboys, RB Ezekiel Elliott is coming off a 137-yard game on 26 carries with a touchdown, and WR Amari Cooper had seven catches for 106 yards, nearly half of Prescott’s 226 passing yards.

I think the keys to victory for the Cowboys will be another good game from Elliott and a strong defensive performance. I think the Cowboys will keep it close, but I expect the Rams to win the game, and I think both teams can reach the mid 20s, so I’ll go over 49.5.

Cowboys (+7), over 49.5

Sunday

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No. 5 seed Los Angeles Chargers at No. 2 seed New England Patriots (11-5, AFC East champions) (-4, over/under 47.5)

The Chargers beat the Ravens on the road a week ago, now they have to head back east again, this time to try to topple Brady and the Patriots. Brady threw just 29 touchdown passes, his fewest in a full season since 2013. Part of the reason for that is because TE Rob Gronkowski only played in 13 games and WR Josh Gordon played in 11 before leaving the team to deal with personal issues. Brady’s leading receiver was RB James White, with 87 catches, followed by WR Julian Edelman, who caught 74 balls in 12 games. Those two players accounted for 13 of Brady’s 29 touchdowns. Rookie RB Sony Michel led the team with 209 rushes for 931 yards and six scores. Last week, the Chargers only had 243 total yards of offense, but the defense held the Ravens to 229 yards and caused the Ravens to turn the ball over three times.

Despite the Patriots’ struggles this season, the Chargers’ defense will probably have a harder time than it did last week against rookie QB Lamar Jackson. On offense, the Chargers are expected to get back TE Hunter Henry, who missed the entire regular season and last week’s Wild Card game with a torn ACL. His return should give the Chargers’ passing attack a boost. On the other side of the field, Gronkowski hasn’t had more than two receptions in a game since Week 14. Even though the Patriots traditionally do well in home playoff games, this isn’t the same Patriot team as in the past and I think they are vulnerable. I think Rivers leads the Chargers to another win on the road to advance to the conference championship game for the second time in his career. Chargers cover and win outright, and I’ll take the over. 

 Chargers (+4), under 47.5

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No. 6 seed Philadelphia Eagles at No. 1 seed New Orleans Saints (1-3, NFC South champions) (-8, over/under 51)

When these teams met during the regular season, the Saints won 48-7 in Week 11. Like that game, this one is at the Superdome, where the Saints traditionally play better than they do on the road. Saints WR Michael Thomas had 125 receptions for 1405 yards and nine touchdowns during the season. RB Alvin Kamara added another 81 catches for 709 yards, despite the fact that Brees didn’t put up the kinds of numbers we have come to expect from the future Hall of Famer. In the Eagles’ upset of the Bears last week, Foles continued his impressive play, throwing for 266 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The running game was virtually nonexistent, though, with just 42 yards on 23 carries. That is where the Eagles’ biggest weakness lies with a committee made up of RBs Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams.

Counting last week, the Eagles are on a four-game winning streak, but I think that ends in New Orleans. The game won’t be as much of a blowout as it was last time, but I still think the Saints can win by a double-digit margin, so I’ll pick them to cover, and I’ll go slightly under the 51. 

 Saints (-8), under 51

So this outcomes would set up a NFC Championship between the Rams and Saints, the top two seeds in the conference, in New Orleans, while the AFC title game would feature the fifth-seeded Chargers heading to Kansas City to take on the top-seed Chiefs on the road to Super Bowl LIII and an NFL championship for one of the remaining teams.

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks: Wild Card and Playoff Predictions — The Eagles look to repeat in a stacked NFC

The 2018 NFL regular season is now in the books, and it’s time for the playoffs to get under way. Only five of this year’s 12 playoff teams were in the postseason last year, meaning seven teams are returning to the tournament after at least one season out of the playoffs. The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles needed some help in Week 17, but they ultimately snuck into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed to look to successfully defend their title. The other holdovers from last year are the Rams and Saints in the NFC and the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC. The teams returning to the postseason after an absence are the Colts, Texans, Chargers and Ravens in the AFC, and the Bears, Seahawks and Cowboys in the NFC. The Eagles are the only team returning from last year’s postseason that did not earn a first-round bye. The Chiefs hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC, with the Patriots behind them at No. 2, and the top two spots in the NFC went to the Saints and Rams, respectively. The 12 teams entering the postseason are all hoping to make it all the way to Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

I didn’t have a good year picking games against the spread during the regular season, going 129-127 — although I went 14-2 in Week 17 — but I was better picking straight up, with a 156-98-2 record.

Now we’ll get to my detailed Wild Card picks, followed by how I think the whole postseason will go.

Saturday

No. 6 seed Indianapolis Colts (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Houston Texans (11-5, AFC South champions) (-1.5, over/under 48.5)

This is one of the most unlikely playoff matchups we could have expected to see early in the season after the Texans began the season 0-3 and the Colts were 1-5 in their first six games. Both teams also had nice bounce-back seasons after finishing with identical 4-12 records a year ago to get to double-digit wins this year. A big piece of the improvement for both teams was the return to health for their quarterbacks, with Colts QB Andrew Luck returning to the field after missing all of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury and Texans QB Deshaun Watson playing his first full season after missing more than half of his rookie campaign with a knee injury.

Neither team should be worried about the performance they’ll get out of the quarterback position. Luck is the likely Comeback Player of the Year award winner after throwing for 4,539 yards and 39 touchdowns in a season in which people weren’t sure how he’d do after missing more than a year since he last played. Watson also had a good season, throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions. He is also a threat on the ground, with 551 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

The running game is where the Colts have their biggest question mark on offense, with their 1,718 rushing yards good for just 20th in the league, with their 13 rushing touchdowns ranking middle-of-the-pack. RB Marlon Mack did have two of his best games late in the season, running for a season-high 139 yards and two touchdowns in Week 15, and putting up a 119-yard performance in Week 17. Backup RB Nyheim Hines started four games, but never ran for more than 78 yards in a contest. The Texans were eighth in the league with 2,021 yards, but they only had 12 touchdowns on the ground. Their workhorse was veteran RB Lamar Miller, who had four games in which he ran for more than 100 yards in his 14 starts, including a season-best 162 yards in Week 12. Backup RB Alfred Blue started two games but didn’t have much success, with a total of 499 rushing yards on the season.

The Colts’ receiving corps was top-heavy this season, led by WR T.Y. Hilton, who had 76 catches for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns. TE Eric Ebron was the other significant part of the passing game, totaling 66 receptions for 750 yards and an impressive 13 touchdowns, which were not only a career-high but more than his total number of scores in his four seasons with the Lions combined. The Texans have been hit hard by injuries in the receiving game. WR DeAndre Hopkins, who is the team’s top receiver, is pretty much the last  man standing. He had 115 receptions this season for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns. WR Keke Coutee, who has missed the past five games with a hamstring injury, has 28 catches for 287 yards and a touchdown in six games, including two starts. Miller and TE Ryan Griffin added 26 and 25 receptions, respectively. WRs Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas are both out after suffering season-ending injuries. 

The Texans have the advantage defensively. They allowed 316 points, the fourth-fewest in the league, and were 12th in yards allowed. The Colts were just ahead of the Texans in the latter category, ranking 11th, but they were 10th with 344 points given up to opponents. Texans DE J.J. Watt played in his first full season since 2015, and put up good numbers coming off injuries in recent years. He forced seven fumbles and recorded 16 sacks. DE Jadeveon Clowney added nine sacks — .5 off his career high — in 15 games. DE Denico Autry led Colts defenders with nine sacks in 12 games. Both teams accounted for 15 interceptions, which was tied for ninth-most in the league.

Both teams have a good offense, but the Colts are healthier — especially among their receivers. The Texans will be relying on rookies like WRs DeAndre Carter and Vyncint Smith and TEs Jordan Thomas and Jordan Akins to catch passes from Watson. Watt also suffered a hand injury in Week 17’s win over the Jaguars. The severity is unknown, but it would be surprising if it is bad enough to keep him out of a playoff game. If he isn’t able to play at his full potential, the Texans’ defense may have to rely more on CB Tyrann Mathieu and S Justin Reid, who had a good rookie season. The teams split their season series, with the Texans winning an overtime thriller, 37-34, in Indianapolis in Week 4, and the Colts won the return contest in Week 14 by a 24-21 margin. The offensive line is a concern for the Texans, as Watson was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league this season, but I think they’ll be able to overcome it against the Colts. These teams are pretty evenly matched, and I’d expect another close game. I think the Texans’ defense may end up being the difference, stopping the Colts late in the game to solidify the victory. I’ll go with the Texans to win, 27-24, to barely cover the spread and make the over. 

Texans (-1.5), over 48.5

No. 5 seed Seattle Seahawks (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Dallas Cowboys (10-6, NFC East champions) (-1.5, over/under 43)

Both teams are returning to the postseason after a one-year absence, with each improving from 9-7 last season to 10-6 this year. Like the Colts and Texans, the Seahawks got off to a slow start in 2018, losing their first two games and being just 3-3 going into their Week 7 bye. But a late push — going 6-1 in their last seven games — earned them a Wild Card and the fifth seed in the NFC. The Cowboys were 3-4 going into their bye in Week 8, but they went 7-2 after the bye to ultimately win the NFC East, helped in large part by the acquisition of WR Amari Cooper, who the Cowboys traded for from the Raiders before the trade deadline.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw for 3,448 yards and 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions — both career highs. He also ran for 376 yards on 67 carries. For the Cowboys, QB Dak Prescott threw for a career high with 3,885 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran the ball 75 times, going for 305 yards and six scores. Like with the AFC game earlier in the day, there should be a good quarterback matchup in this one.

The Seahawks led the league in rushing with 2,560 yards, and their 15 touchdowns were tied for the 11th most in the league. The Cowboys ranked 10th in the category with 1,963 yards, and their 13 touchdowns on the ground ranked them in the middle of the league. RB Chris Carson led the Seahawks’ ground game, running for 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games. RB Mike Davis started the two games Carson didn’t and played in 15 total contests, gaining 514 rushing yards and four touchdowns. RB Rashaad Penny added another 419 yards and two scores. On the other side of the field, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 304 times in 15 games, gaining 1,434 yards and running for six touchdowns. Prescott was the next most productive rusher, and the only other Cowboy to get double-digit carries was RB Rod Smith, who started in Week 17, and had 127 rushing yards and a touchdown on 44 runs during the season.

The Cowboys didn’t have a true No. 1 receiver in the first half of the season, but then they traded for Cooper. In nine games with the Cowboys, he caught 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns — leading the team in the latter two categories. Elliott led the team with 77 catches, going for 567 yards and three touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley had 65 catches for 672 yards and three scores. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett led the team with 57 receptions, for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 13 games, WR Doug Baldwin added 50 catches for 618 yards and five scores. Davis also had 34 receptions, in addition to his workload in the running game.

The Cowboys had a surprisingly strong defense this season, ranking sixth with 324 points allowed and seventh in yards allowed. The Seahawks weren’t far behind, placing 11th with 347 points and 16th in yardage. The Seahawks had two players with at least 10 sacks, DE Frank Clark led the team with 14 and DT Jarran Reed totaled 10.5 sacks. DE Demarcus Lawrence racked up 10.5 sacks to lead the team, with DE Randy Gregory next on the list with six sacks in 14 games. Both teams were in the bottom half of the league in interceptions; the Seahawks had 12 — which tied them for 18th in the league — and the Cowboys were tied for 26th with just nine interceptions on the season.

These teams both have pretty balanced offenses, though the Cowboys may rely too much on Cooper in the passing game, and good defenses so this should be a close game. The teams met in Seattle in Week 3 with the Seahawks winning 24-14, but the Dallas offense is different now than it was then. The Cowboys also have the benefit of home-field advantage this weekend. I think the Cowboys get the victory 27-24, to cover and hit the over/under number.

Cowboys (-1.5), over 43

Sunday

No. 5 seed Los Angeles Chargers (12-4, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens (10-6, AFC North champions) (-2.5, over/under 41.5)

The Chargers have made it to the postseason for the time since the 2013 season as veteran QB Philip Rivers continues to vie for his first Super Bowl appearance. The Ravens last played in the postseason in the 2014 season. Perhaps the best thing to happen for the Ravens this year was veteran QB Joe Flacco — the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII — getting injured, giving them a chance to give rookie QB Lamar Jackson a chance at the starting job, which he has not relinquished despite Flacco’s health improving. That sets up a quarterback matchup of old school vs. new school, with Rivers facing off with Jackson.

The two quarterbacks in this game have wildly different styles. Rivers had a typically strong season for him, throwing for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. But he had just 18 rushes on the season for seven yards. Jackson, on the other hand, is known for his running ability and actually led the Ravens with 147 attempts in which he totaled 695 yards and five touchdowns in his seven starts and sporadic snaps taken in the other nine games. In terms of passing, Jackson was 99-for-170 for 1,201 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.

The Chargers’ 1,873 rushing yards placed them 15th in the league, while the Ravens were second — helped by Jackson’s numbers — with 2,441 ground yards. Chargers RB Melvin Gordon was limited to 12 games this season, running for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup RBs Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson started the four games Gordon missed; Ekeler made three of the starts, and played in 14 games overall, rushing or 554 yards and three touchdowns. In 13 games — one start — Jackson totaled 206 yards and two scores. Ravens RB Gus Jackson had 137 rushes for a team-high 718 yards with two touchdowns in 11 games, including six starts. RB Alex Collins made 10 starts, compiling 411 yards on 114 carries and found the end zone seven times.

WR Keenan Allen led the Chargers in the receiving game, with 97 catches for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns. Gordon added 50 receptions for 490 yards and four touchdowns. WRs Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams put up similar numbers; MIke had 43 catches for 664 yards and 10 scores, while Tyrell caught 41 balls for 653 yards but just five touchdowns. Veteran TE Antonio Gates, who contemplated retirement before TE Hunter Henry suffered a season-ending injury before the season, had 28 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns. WR Willie Snead was the Ravens’ top pass-catcher, recording 62 receptions for 651 yards and a touchdown. WR Michael Crabtree had 54 catches for 607 yards and three touchdowns, with WR John Brown adding 42 catches for 715 yards and five scores. Rookie TE Mark Andrews had 34 receptions for for 552 yards and three touchdowns despite getting the start in just three of his 16 games.

The Ravens have the clear advantage on defense. They allowed the second-fewest points in the league at 287 and they led the NFL in yards allowed with 4,687. The Chargers ranked eighth with 329 points, and they were ninth in opponents’ yardage, so they were good but still at a level below the Ravens. DE Melvin Ingram was Los Angeles’ sack leader with seven. Ravens DE Za’Darius Smith led his team with 8.5 sacks. Both teams were tied for 15th in the league with 13 interceptions.

The Chargers will be able to move the ball against a tough Ravens defense if they want to win the game. They had a top 10 scoring offense during the season, so they’re able to put points on the board, but they were able to put up just 10 points in a Week 16 loss to the Ravens at home. The Chargers may get Henry back from his torn ACL, but if he plays he probably won’t be very effective in his first game action of the season. The Chargers have to head across the country and play an early game, which is being played at 1pm Eastern, which will be 10am on their body clocks coming from the West Coast. I think that plays a factor in the end result. I expect the Ravens to win a low-scoring affair, 24-17, to just miss the over/under number.

 Ravens (-2.5), under 41.5

No. 6 seed Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Chicago Bears (12-4, NFC North champions) (-6, over/under 41)

This game has the biggest spread of the four games this weekend, which isn’t surprising because I think this is the biggest mismatch as an Eagles team with a quarterback who is potentially not 100% faces the best scoring defense in the NFL. Eagles QB Nick Foles left last week’s game early with bruised ribs, but he is expected to be ready to play this week. Among the Bears defenders he’ll be opposing is LB Khalil Mack, who they traded for prior to the start of the season. The Eagles are in the postseason for the second straight year, and looking to defend their Super Bowl LII title, while the Bears are playing into January for the first time since the 2010 season, when they made it to the conference championship. They’re looking for their first Super Bowl title since 1985.

For the second straight year, Foles stepped in as the Eagles’ starting quarterback for injured QB Carson Wentz. Foles made five starts this season — in Weeks 1 and 2, then again in Weeks 15-17 — and threw for 1,413 yards and seven touchdowns, with four interceptions. With Wentz not expected back for the postseason, QB Nate Sudfeld will be Foles’ backup if his ribs get worse or he suffers a new injury. The Eagles went 4-1 in his starts. Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky started 14 games and took a step forward from his rookie season. He threw for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. 

The Eagles were 28th in the league this season with 1,570 rushing yards, while the Bears’ 1,938 yards on the ground put them in 11th place. The Eagles’ rushing woes were caused in part by injuries to RBs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. RB Josh Adams, who only started five games, was the Eagles’ leading rusher with 511 yards and three touchdowns on 120 rushes. RB Wendell Smallwood, who started six games, ran the ball 87 times for 364 yards and three touchdowns. RB Jordan Howard was the Bears’ leading rusher, with 250 carries for 935 yards and nine touchdowns. RB Tarik Cohen had 99 rushes for 444 yards and three scores. Trubisky ran for 421 yards and three touchdowns on 68 carries.

Eagles TE Zach Ertz had a career year en route to being the team’s top pass-catcher, recording 116 receptions for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns. Next up was WR Alshon Jeffery, who had 65 catches for 843 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. WR Nelson Agholor added 736 yards and four scores on 64 catches. Rookie TE Dallas Goedert caught 33 balls for 334 yards and four touchdowns. In eight games with the Eagles after being traded by the Lions, WR Golden Tate had 30 catches for 278 yards and a touchdown. Cohen was the Bears’ leading pass-catcher with 71 receptions for 725 yards and five touchdowns. WR Taylor Gabriel wasn’t far behind him, with 67 catches for 688 yards and two touchdowns. WR Allen Robinson had 55 receptions for 754 yards and four scores in 13 games, while TE Trey Burton added 54 catches for 569 yards and six touchdowns. WR Anthony Miller had 33 catches for 423 games and seven touchdowns in 15 games, but just four starts.

The Bears had the NFL’s best scoring defense, allowing opponents to score just 283 points, and they ranked third in yards allowed. The Eagles were 12th with 348 points allowed and 23rd in opponents’ yardage. In addition to having the allowing the fewest points, the Bears had the most takeaways, becoming just the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to lead outright in both categories. Acquiring Mack had a big impact on the team’s strong defensive performance; he forced six fumbles and recorded 12.5 sacks in his first season with the team. DT Fletcher Cox led the Eagles with 10.5 sacks, and DE Michael Bennett wasn’t far behind him with nine. DE Chris Long added another 6.5 sacks.

Foles is 9-2 as a starter over the last two seasons, including last year’s postseason, but this will be one of his biggest challenges in that stretch as he faces the dominant Bears defense. The lack of a bonafide No. 1 running back could hurt the Eagles because the Bears will be able to focus on defending against the passing game. I think the Bears win easily, 28-17, to cover both the spread and the over/under.

 Bears (-6), over 41

Based on the above picks, here is how I see the rest of the postseason playing out:

Divisional Round

Chiefs beat the Ravens
Texans beat the Patriots
Rams beat the Bears
Saints beat the Cowboys

Conference Championships

Chiefs beat the Texans
Rams beat the Saints

Super Bowl LIII

Rams beat the Chiefs

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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My NFL Picks Week 17: Steelers, Ravens, Colts among teams vying for final playoff spots

This is it. It’s Week 17, the final week of the 2018 NFL regular season, giving teams one more chance to make it to the postseason or improve their playoff seeding. All four divisions have been clinched in the NFC, but only the AFC East champ has been decided in the AFC with the Patriots winning that division for a record 10th straight season. The Ravens and Steelers are vying for the AFC North, the AFC West is down to the Chiefs and Chargers, and it’s a three-way race for the AFC South with the Texans, Colts and Titans all still in contention. In all there is one playoff spot still up for grabs in the NFC, with two teams yet to punch their tickets into the postseason on the AFC side of the docket. As is traditionally the case, all 16 games this week are divisional games being played on Sunday, with the Colts visiting the Titans in a winner-take-all game as Game 256 on Sunday night. I went 7-9 last week, giving me an overall record of 115-135 for the season. As always, I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Sunday 1PM games

Falcons at Buccaneers (-1.5) – The Falcons are hosting the Super Bowl this year and since they are not in the postseason, the streak of a team never playing in the Super Bowl in its home stadium continues. Neither of these teams is very good, but I trust Falcons QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones more than the QB Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers offense. I think the Falcons win the game, so I’ll take the points on the road.

Dolphins at Bills (-3.5) – The Dolphins lost to the Jaguars at home last week, and now they have to head to Buffalo to take on the Bills in the cold weather. The Bills have been playing better since QB Josh Allen returned from his injury. Based on that and the Bills being more used to playing in cold weather in upstate New York, I’ll go with the home team to cover.

Cowboys at Giants (-6.5) – This spread is likely based on the assumption that the Cowboys, who are locked into the NFC’s four seed, will rest their starters for at least part of the game. That means QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott will probably play, at most, a quarter or two. That would mean backup QB Cooper Rush and RB Rod Smith would get in some work. But the Giants, who could be without WR Odell Beckham for a fourth straight game, aren’t that good either. Even if the Cowboys’ offense struggles without Dak and Ezekiel, they still have a pretty good defense. Even though the Cowboys may not win the game, I think they’ll stay within a touchdown so I’ll take the points.

Lions at Packers (-7.5) – This seems like a big spread for a Packers team that needed overtime to beat the Jets on Sunday. I don’t think the Packers are that much better than the Lions this season. I think QB Aaron Rodgers will find a way to get the Packers the victory at Lambeau Field in their season finale, but I don’t know if they’ll win by more than a touchdown. I’ll go with the Lions.

Jets at Patriots  (-13.5) – The Patriots ended their two-game losing streak last week by beating the Bills. They need to win this game to ensure they end up the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the first-round bye that comes with it, so they will be playing their starters. But the Patriots’ offense isn’t the same as it once was, with age seeming to finally be catching up with QB Tom Brady and injuries hampering the performance of TE Rob Gronkowski. With that in mind, I’m hard pressed to imagine the Patriots being able to beat the Jets — who scored 38 last week against the Packers — by two touchdowns. Knowing what’s on the line for them, I expect the Patriots to win at home but the Jets cover.

Panthers at Saints (-10.5) – When the Rams lost to the Eagles last week, it clinched the top seed in the NFC for the Saints, who know they have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. With that in mind, QB Drew Brees is unlikely to play all 60 minutes in this game since the Saints have nothing to play for. The Panthers will have their third different starting quarterback in as many games after QB Taylor Heinicke, who got the start on Sunday, injured his elbow in the game. The team has placed him on IR and announced that QB Kyle Allen will get the start as the team continues sitting QB Cam Newton rather than risk further injury in a meaningless game. That, combined with the Superdome being a tough place for opponents to play, would seem to indicate that the Saints should win the game easily. But if Brees doesn’t play the whole game, that may not be the case. I’m counting on Brees only playing a quarter or so, so I’m going to go with the Panthers to cover.

Jaguars at Texans (-7.5) – After making it to the AFC Championship last year, the Jaguars are just 5-10 entering Week 17 and won’t make a return trip to the postseason. The Texans, on the other hand, clinched a playoff spot when the Steelers lost the Saints last week and they control their own destiny for the AFC South title. If the Texans win this game, they win the division. They would also get a first-round bye with a win and a Patriots loss, or a win and other results going their way. After starting QB Cody Kessler for the last four games, the Jaguars have announced that they’re going back to QB Blake Bortles as the starter for Sunday’s game. Regardless of who’s starting for the Jags, their offense isn’t very good and the Texans should easily win behind the offense led by QB Deshaun Watson and WR DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans will, however, be without WR Demaryius Thomas, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles against the Eagles on Sunday. I’m giving the points. 

Sunday 4PM games

Bears at Vikings (-5.5) – This game is meaningful for both teams, but especially the Vikings, who control their own destiny for the final playoff spot in the NFC. If the Vikings beat the Bears — or if the Eagles lose to the Redskins — they get the remaining wild card in the conference. For the Bears, they have a chance to earn a first-round bye. They’ll get that bye if they win and the Rams lose to the 49ers. Given the fact that the bears can earn that bye with a win, I’m surprised the Vikings are such big favorites. I think the Bears win the game outright, so I’ll take the points.

Bengals at Steelers (-14.5) – Last week’s loss to the Saints proved costly for the Steelers, who now need help to make it to the postseason. Simply beating the Bengals won’t be enough to secure a playoff spot. The Steelers would also need the Ravens to lose to the Browns to earn the AFC North crown. The Steelers also have an outside chance at a wild card, but in order for them to get that they would need to win and have the Colts-Titans primetime game end in a tie.The Steelers should definitely win the game because the Bengals’ offense isn’t nearly at the same level as the Steelers with QB Ben Roethlisberger and WRs Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Steelers win the game, but I think the Bengals cover the spread.

Browns at Ravens (-6.5) – Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens control their own destiny. If they beat the Browns, they win the AFC North. They also have an outside chance at earning a first-round bye if a lot goes their way, or getting a wild card if they tie and the Colts-Titans game ends in a tie. Since the double-tie scenario is unlikely to happen, the only realistic scenario for the Ravens is getting the division by winning their game. That will be easier said than done, though, because the Browns aren’t the pushovers they have been in the past thanks to the emergence of rookie QB Baker Mayfield. With QB Lamar Jackson continuing to start for the Ravens, I think they win the game and earn the division title, but I think the Browns keep it close so I’ll take the points on the road.

Chargers at Broncos (+6.5) – The Broncos seem to have given up on the season, having lost their last three games without scoring more than 16 points in any of those contests. The Chargers have already clinched a playoff spot, but they can still win the AFC West and earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win and a Chiefs loss. So they definitely have something to play for, which means they won’t be resting QB Philip Rivers or RB Melvin Gordon in this one. Given the talent discrepancy between these teams, I think the Chargers cover the spread, and could win by double digits.

Raiders at Chiefs (-13.5) – The Chiefs simply need to win this game to ensure they win the AFC West and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference. That shouldn’t be hard to do with QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek HIll and TE Travis Kelce leading the offense against a subpar Raiders defense. I don’t typically like picking the favorite with a double-digit spread, but I think the Chiefs have enough firepower on offense to win by a couple touchdowns. I’ll give the points.

49ers at Rams (-9.5) – The Rams need a win or a Bears loss to get the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. Despite this game meaning something, the Rams may hold out RB Todd Gurley for a second straight game to rest him for the postseason as he continues to deal with inflammation in his left knee. RB C.J. Anderson performed well in Gurley’s absence last week, running for 167 yards and a touchdown in his first game with the team after being released by both the Panthers and Raiders earlier in the season. Regardless of who starts at running back, QB Jared Goff and WR Brandin Cooks will be out there for the Rams, which should be enough to beat the 49ers, who are relying on TE George Kittle and WR Dante Pettis to make up the bulk of their offense. While the margin of victory could be close to the 9.5-point spread, I think the Rams barely cover it.

Eagles at Redskins (+6.5) – The Eagles need to win this game and have the Vikings lose to earn the final playoff spot in the conference. If QB Nick Foles plays like he did last week — throwing for 471 yards and four touchdowns — winning the game shouldn’t be much of a challenge. I don’t expect another game like that for Foles, but I do think the Eagles beat the Redskins team that doesn’t have much of an offense apart from RB Adrian Peterson, who had his first 100-yard performance since Week 8 on Sunday. Eagles cover.

Cardinals at Seahawks (-12.5) – Both The Cardinals have clinched a wild card and are locked into their seed. With nothing to play for, QB Russell Wilson may not play the whole game, so backup QB Brett Hundley may see some action under center. Given that, I’m hesitant to go with the Seahawks to cover, even though the Cardinals are a bad team. I’ll give the points.

Sunday Night Football – Game 256

Colts at Titans (+1.5) – The final game of the regular season is a winner-take-all contest. If the Texans lose in the afternoon, the winner of this game is the AFC South champion. If the Texans win, the team that wins this game gets a wild card. The Titans got a scare last week when QB Marcus Mariota had to leave their game against the Redskins with a stinger. He is, however, saying he’s optimistic he will be able to play on Sunday. And with the importance of this game, he will do whatever he can to take the field. If he can’t go, backup QB Blaine Gabbert would get the start. Even if Mariota plays, I don’t think the Titans have much of a chance to win the game. Their offense isn’t very good, unless RB Derrick Henry has a big game. The Colts have QB Andrew Luck and WR T.Y. Hilton, although TE Eric Ebron — who has a career-high 12 touchdowns in his first season with the team — left last week’s game against the Giants with a concussion, and his status for Sunday night is unknown at this time. Even with the players who are questionable with injuries, I think the Colts are the better team and I think they can cover the minimal 1.5-point spread on the road to officially clinch their first postseason berth since the 2014 season.

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My NFL Picks Week 16: Teams making a final push for the playoffs

It’s the penultimate week of the regular season in the NFL, which means teams have just two games left in which to secure playoff spots or improve seeding. After losing two in a row, the Patriots return home to host the Bills as they hope to get back into one of the AFC’s top two seeds to earn a first-round bye. The second seed is currently held by the Texans, who are coming off a Saturday win against the Jets, and this week they head to Philadelphia to take on an Eagles team that is still in the postseason hunt in the NFC. Other games with playoff implications include Steelers at Saints and the Sunday night contest, featuring the Chiefs visiting the Seahawks. Thursday night games are done for the season, but we have another Saturday doubleheader this week. I went 7-9 last week, giving me an overall record of 108-126 for the season. As always, I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Saturday games

Redskins at Titans (-10.5) – The Redskins beat the Jaguars last week — with QB Josh Johnson picking up his first career win as a starter in the process — to keep alive their slim hopes of winning the NFC East. This week, they face a tougher opponent, although the Titans have been inconsistent this season. Titans RB Derrick Henry will likely be able to run on the Redskins, and lead Tennessee to a win, but i think 10.5 is a lot of points to give, so I’ll take the Redskins to cover.

Ravens at Chargers (-4.5) – The Chargers upset the Chiefs last Thursday and will have had nine days to prepare for a Ravens team that is still in the playoff hunt. The Chargers should get RB Melvin Gordon back this week, after he has missed the last few games with a sprained MCL. While that will be a boon to the 11-3 Chargers, who are looking to win the AFC West and earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, they may be without WR Keenan Allen, who bruised his ribs in last Thursday’s win over the Chiefs. I don’t think Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is a good enough passer yet to have much success through the air, so I expect the Chargers to win and cover.

Sunday 1PM games

Falcons at Panthers (-3.5) – The Panthers have lost six straight and now they face Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Falcons in a battle of teams that have disappointed this season. RB Christian McCaffrey has been by far the Panthers’ best player of late, and he will likely have to carry the team in the final two games as the Panthers have shut down QB Cam Newton for the season, which means QB Taylor Heinicke will make his first career start this week. I think the Falcons win the game, so I’ll take the points,

Bills at Patriots (-12.5) – These Patriots are not the Patriots of old, in the midst of a rare two-game losing streak in December. Age my finally be starting to get the best of QB Tom Brady, and TE Rob Gronkowski isn’t himself and likely isn’t fully healthy. WR Julian Edelman is probably Brady’s best pass-catcher right now. For the Bills, rookie QB Josh Allen can get things done on the ground. The Patriots need to win this game if they want to stay alive for the No. 2 seed and a potential first-round bye. I expect them to win the game, but I think the Bills keep it close and could even pull off the upset. Give me the points.

Bengals at Browns  (-6.5) – The Browns have won two straight and are surprisingly still in the hunt for a playoff spot entering Week 16, though they need to win and get quite a bit of help from other teams to get the chance to play in January. But Browns QB Baker Mayfield seems to be the real deal, and RB Nick Chubb has been performing well since the team traded RB Carlos Hyde to the Jaguars earlier in the season. The Bengals basically have RB Joe Mixon and not much else. The Browns should win the game, but I think the Bengals can keep it within a field goal or so, so I’ll take the points on the road in the divisional battle.

Buccaneers at Cowboys (-7.5) – The Cowboys were shut out on Sunday for the first time since 2003, leaving the NFC East up for grabs. Now they look to bounce-back from that bad loss against the Buccaneers. I think QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliott and WR Amari Cooper will play better than they did last week and should pick up an important win, but I’m hard pressed to give more than a touchdown with a team that couldn’t score a week ago, so I’ll take the points.

Vikings at Lions (+5.5) – This looks like it should be a low-scoring game between two teams that have been struggling offensively in recent weeks, save for the Vikings’ 41-point output last week against the Dolphins. Still, I don’t trust QB Kirk Cousins right now, so I don’t think the Vikings will score more than about 21-24 points. Given that expectation, I think the Lions cover the spread although Minnesota likely wins the game.

Packers at Jets (-0.5) – At the beginning of the season, I don’t think many people expected the Jets to be favored over the Packers in this game, even if it is just by half-a-point. Part of that could be uncertainty over the status of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Now that the Packers have officially been eliminated from playoff contention, there has been speculation that they could sit Rodgers for the final two games and go with backup QB DeShone Kizer. If KIzer does get the start, I think the Jets win the game, and even if Rodgers does start, there’s no guarantee he’ll play the whole game and the Jets may still win. Jets QB Sam Darnold is playing well, as is RB Elijah McGuire so I’m going to go with the home team.

Giants at Colts (-9.5) – A week ago, the Giants were shut out by the Titans, while the Colts handed the Cowboys their first shutout loss in 15 years, so it would appear that the Colts have the advantage in this game. The Colts definitely have the advantage under center, with Andrew Luck vs. Eli Manning, and the Giants may be without top WR Odell Beckham Jr., who has sat out the last two games with a quad injury. The Giants say they are “hopeful” for his return on Sunday, but it is not yet official. If Beckham doesn’t play, I think the Colts could cover the 9.5. But I expect Beckham to take the field, so I think the Giants may barely cover.

Jaguars at Dolphins (-4.5) – The  Jaguars are not playing well with QB Cody Kessler starting in place of Blake Bortles, and it seems like they may be playing to get a better draft pick rather than playing to win games. Even RB Leonard Fournette didn’t have a great game in Sunday’s loss to the Redskins. The Dolphins aren’t a great team, but I think they can win by a touchdown or so, so I’ll give the points. 

Texans at Eagles (-0.5) – Both teams need to win this game. For the Texans it would clinch the AFC South and keep them in the No. 2 seed in the conference. For the Eagles, it could keep them alive in the NFC East race. The Eagles have already announced QB Nick Foles will start again this week, but he has a tough challenge against the Texans defense led by DE J.J. Watt. Texans RB Lamar Miller injured his right ankle in Saturday’s win over the Jets and may not be able to play. But the Texans still have a strong passing game led by QB Deshaun Watson and WR DeAndre Hopkins. I think the Texans win the game.

Sunday 4PM games

Bears at 49ers (+3.5) – The 49ers pulled off the upset of a potential playoff team in the Seahawks last week, and now they’ll look to do the same against the NFC North champion Bears. I don’t think this is going to be a close game, so I’m surprised it’s just a 3.5-point spread. Bears win easily.

Rams at Cardinals (+14.5) – The Cardinals may be the worst team in the league at this point, and now they have to go up against an 11-3 Rams team looking to stay alive for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. The Rams’ offense hasn’t been as explosive in the last couple of games as it had been earlier in the season, and it may take a hit with RB Todd Gurley not at 100% after tweaking his knee in last week’s game. He should play on Sunday, but he may be limited with backup RB John Kelly getting some of Gurley’s workload. Regardless, the Rams should win the game but I don’t know if they’ll do it by two touchdowns, so I’ll take the points.

Steelers at Saints (-6.5) – The Steelers are coming off a big win at home against the Patriots, but now they have to hit the road to go to the Superdome to take on QB Drew Brees and the Saints. New Orleans’ offense has struggled recently, scoring 12 or fewer points in two of the team’s last three games. With Brees, RB Alvin Kamara and WR Michael Thomas, the Saints are always capable of hanging a big number on the scoreboard, but they haven’t been doing it lately. The Steelers, meanwhile. may see the return of RB James Conner this week, which would likely give the offense a boost and take some of the pressure off of QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown. although RB Jaylen Samuels had a good game in Conner’s absence last week., I think the Saints will win the game, but I think the Steelers keep it close so I’ll take the points here.

Sunday Night Football

Chiefs at Seahawks (+2.5) – Both teams lost last week and are looking to bounce back, with the Seahawks looking to retain their hold on one of the NFC’s wild card slots and the Chiefs hoping to solidify their standing as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes had one of his worst statistical games of the season last week, but he still threw for two touchdowns in the defeat. I expect a bit of a bounce-back game for the Chiefs, and Seattle is a tough place to play for the opposing team, but I think the Chiefs can win and cover the spread.

Monday Night Football

Broncos at Raiders (+2.5) – The week ends on an anticlimactic note with two teams that won’t be playing in January. The Broncos’ offense isn’t great, but neither is the Raiders’. I think the Broncos have the best offensive player on the field with RB Phillip LIndsay, so I think they’ll win the game. I’ll give the points on the road.

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My NFL Picks Week 15: Steelers look to get back to winning ways against Patriots

With the college football season over, other than bowl games, we get the first week of Saturday NFL games in Week 15. But before that, the schedule starts with an AFC West matchup with the Chargers visiting the division-leading Chiefs. The Saturday doubleheader features TexansJets and BrownsBroncos, followed by a Sunday lineup highlighted by Tom Brady and the Patriots visiting Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. The Monday night contest sees the Panthers try to keep their playoff hopes alive when they host the SaintsI went 9-7 last week, giving me an overall record of 101-117 for the season. As always, I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Thursday Night Football

Chargers at Chiefs (-3.5) – Both teams are dealing with injuries, as RB Melvin Gordon is a game-time decision for the Chargers after missing last week’s game, and his backup RB Austin Ekeler is in the concussion protocol and has been ruled out with the Chargers facing the short week. If they’re both out, it would open the door for rookie RB Justin Jackson to make his first starts; he has yet to record more than nine touches in a game this season. For the Chiefs, WR Tyreek Hill played through a foot injury in the team’s win last week, but he is looking like he should be able to take the field for the game in which a win would clinch the division and a first-round bye for Kansas City. I don’t think Gordon or Ekeler play, which would hurt the Chargers’ offense, so I’m going to give the points and go with the home team.

Saturday games

Texans at Jets (+6.5) – The Texans’ nine-game win streak came to an end when they lost to the Colts on Sunday, but they’re still in first place in the AFC South. The Jets, on the other hand, are coming off a win against the Bills but not face a tougher test against a Texans offense with QB Deshaun Watson and WR DeAndre Hopkins leading the passing attack. Jets QB Sam Darnold briefly left last week’s game with an injury, but he returned and he should be able to make the start Saturday afternoon. It won’t be easy, though, against DE J.J. Watt and a strong Houston defense. I’ll give the points on the road.

Browns at Broncos (-3.5) – The Broncos need this game to stay on the periphery of the AFC wild card chase, and they’re facing a Browns team coming off an upset of the Panthers. But that game was in Cleveland, and this one is at elevation in Denver.The Browns have been winning games since their coaching change a few weeks ago, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to pull off the victory against the Broncos because I think Broncos RB Phillip LIndsay will have a good game. But I expect a close game, so I’ll take the points.

Sunday 1PM games

Cardinals at Falcons (-8.5) – The Cardinals only managed to get a field goal against the LIons this week and now face a Falcons team with a good offense behind QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones. The Falcons don’t have a great defense, but the Cardinals probably won’t be able to take advantage of it with their subpar offense. The Falcons have been a disappointment this season, but I think they win this one easily.

Lions at Bills (-3.5) – Rookie QB Josh Allen has had some good games for the Bills since his recent return from injury as he has shown an ability to run the ball, making him a dual threat at the position. But RB LeSean McCoy suffered a hamstring injury last week that could keep him out of this contest. If he can’t play, I don’t like the BIlls’ chances to win. Even if he does play, I think the teams are pretty evenly matched, so I’ll take the points with Detroit.

Packers at Bears  (-5.5) – At The Bears’ defense was impressive in Sunday night’s victory over the Rams, holding them to a season-low six points. Now they go up against QB Aaron Rodgers and a struggling Packers offense. QB Mitchell Trubisky returned for the Bears last week and should help them put points on the board this week. Bears cover at home.

Raiders at Bengals (-2.5) – The Raiders upset the Steelers at home in Week 14 and now head to Cincinnati to take on a Bengals team without starting QB Andy Dalton or star WR A.J. Green. Having QB Jeff Driskel under center isn’t an ideal scenario for the Bengals, but they likely have the best offensive player in this game with RB Joe Mixon, who should help lead to the team to a win to end their five-game losing streak..

Cowboys at Colts (-2.5) – The Colts looked good in their win against the Texans last week, but I’m kind of surprised they’re favored against the Cowboys, even with the game being in Indianapolis. The Cowboys’ offense has improved since they traded for WR Amari Cooper in October, as he has become the top target for QB Dak Prescott, giving the Cowboys a good passing game to complement RB Ezekiel Elliott‘s work on the ground. Colts QB Andrew Luck is probably the front-runner to earn Comeback Player of the Year honors, but his receiving corps leaves something to be desired outside of WR T.Y. HIlton. I think the Cowboys’ defense, which has been good this season, ends up being the difference in this game. I think the Cowboys win outright, so I’ll take the points. 

Titans at Giants (-2.5) – The Giants are on a late-season surge, going 4-1 in their last five games to bring their record up to 5-8 and give them a chance to finish with a .500 mark. They’re coming off a demonstrative victory against an injury-riddled Redskins team, and now Giants QB Eli Manning faces off against Titans QB Marcus Mariota. WR Odell Beckham was a surprise inactive for the Giants last week with a bruised quad, but the team has said he’s feeling better so it looks like he could be on track to play this week. The Giants defense has been playing well of late, so I think the defensive unit will be able to limit the number of points the Titans score, so I’ll give the points.

Dolphins at Vikings (-6.5) – The Dolphins’ miracle lateral play at the end of last week’s game led them to a victory at home against the Patriots, while the Vikings scored just seven points in Monday night’s loss to the Seahawks. Now the Vikings have a short week to prepare for Miami. Vikings QB Kirk Cousins has had some disappointing performances lately, and I don’t trust the Vikings offense right now. Both teams are fighting for a wild card in their respective conferences, and I think the Dolphins have a good chance to win the game so I’ll take the points.

Buccaneers at Ravens (-7.5) – Like with Allen and the Bills, QB Lamar Jackson has provided a spark for the Ravens’ offense since he took over as the starter with the injury to QB Joe Flacco. The Ravens sit just half-a-game behind the Steelers in the AFC North and still have a chance to win the division, so they need a win to keep pace in the division race.I think they win the game. I think that’s a big spread, but I think they’ll barely cover it.

Redskins at Jaguars (-6.5) – Like Injuries have really hampered the Redskins in recent weeks. QB Josh Johnson entered last week’s loss to the Giants in relief of QB Mark Sanchez — due to ineffectiveness, not an injury — and has been named the starter this week, which means he’ll be making his first start since Week 13 of the 2011 season, when he was with the Bucs. And that start comes against a good Jaguars defense, which will likely cause trouble for the Redskins. Washington lost 40-16 last week, and I expect another blowout loss this week. Jaguars win big.

Sunday 4PM games

Seahawks at 49ers (+5.5) – The Seahawks had an impressive showing against the Vikings on Monday night, but now they have a short week and have to travel down the coast to Santa Clara to face former Seattle DB Richard Sherman and the 49ers, who upset the Broncos on Sunday. The Seahawks defense has been playing well in the second half of the season, and that should continue against the San Francisco offense this week. I also expect another good game from Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. Seahawks cover.

Patriots at Steelers (+1.5) – Both of these teams suffered losses last week that could hurt their playoff positioning. I expect the Patriots to have a better bounce-back game because the Steelers have lost three straight and likely to be without RB James Conner again, and it’s been a tumultuous week for the team with some people calling for head coach MIke Tomlin to be let go after the season if the Steelers miss the playoffs. I expect Brady to lead the Patriots to a victory on the road.

Sunday Night Football

Eagles at Rams (-9.5) – This matchup pits the defending Super Bowl champion against my pick to win Super Bowl LIII. Given that scenario, a 9.5-point spread seems like a lot, but the Eagles are 6-7 this season and it was announced on Wednesday that QB Carson Wentz will not play this week as he is dealing with back spasms, and if the team falls out of the playoff race Wentz may not play again this season. That means QB Nick Foles, who led the team through the playoffs and was Super Bowl LII MVP last season, will take over as the starter for at least this week. With only about half a week to practice after the news of the Wentz injury, that will probably hurt the Eagles offense. QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, and the rest of the Rams offense struggled against the Bears last Sunday night on the road, and now they’ll get to redeem themselves at home in another Sunday nighter. The Rams should easily win the game, and given the Wentz injury I think they win by at least 10 to cover the spread.

Monday Night Football

Saints at Panthers (+6.5) – QB Cam Newton and the Panthers are coming off a loss to the Browns, and now they have to face off with QB Drew Brees and the NFC South-leading Saints. The Panthers are currently on the outside looking in in the NFC wild card race, while the Saints need a win here to maintain the No. 1 seed in the conference.The Panthers are at home, but aside from RB Christian McCaffrey they haven’t played great of late, so I’ll give the points on the road. 

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My NFL Picks Week 14: Eagles battle the Cowboys in key NFC East battle

The Week 14 schedule is pretty underwhelming, due in part to teams like the Falcons and Packers — who are playing each other — disappointing and not living up to preseason expectations. The games to watch for this week include the Eagles visiting the Cowboys in an important contest in the NFC East race. Also of note are the prolific Rams offense going up against the strong Bears defense on Sunday night and the Vikings visiting the Seahawks on Monday night as both teams try to keep pace in the NFC Wild Card picture. I went 7-9 last week, giving me an overall record of 92-110 for the season. As always, I’m using the lines from ESPN’s Pigskin Pick ‘Em game. My picks are in bold and my survivor pool pick (straight up, not ATS) is in red

Thursday Night Football

Jaguars at Titans (-3.5) – The Jaguars ended a seven-game losing streak on Sunday when they beat the Colts, but they only scored six points in the process. They’ll need more offense than that if they want to make it two in a row. They’ll have RB Leonard Fournette back this week after he missed that game while serving a one-game suspension. The 6-6 Titans hope QB Marcus Mariota can lead them to victory so they can stay alive in the AFC playoff race. I think the Titans win at home on the short week, and I’ll say they cover.

Sunday 1PM games

Falcons at Packers (-5.5) – The Packers fell to the Cardinals in an upset last week, which led to the ousting of long-time head coach Mike McCarthy, with Joe Philbin taking over on an interim basis. I don’t know how the Packers are favored in this game. The Falcons don’t have a good defense, but the Packers’ offense hasn’t been very good this season save for QB Aaron Rodgers, who doesn’t have much to work with with the players around him. On the other side of the field, the Falcons still have a strong QB-WR combo with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. I think that duo could play well enough to lead the Falcons to victory, so I’m going to take the points.

Jets at Bills (-3.5) – The Bills’ offense has improved since getting rookie QB Josh Allen back from injury, and they have a good defense which should be able to hold down the struggling Jets offense led by fellow rookie QB Sam Darnold. I think the Bills win and cover the spread behind the strength of their defense.

Panthers at Browns  (+1.5) – At the beginning of the season, it would’ve been hard to imagine the Panthers being favored by less than a safety against the Browns, but the Panthers are just .500 heading into this week and fighting to stay alive for the postseason. Having said that, I think they win without much of a problem. The Browns struggled against the Texans last week, and the Panthers still have a good offense with QB Cam Newton and RB Christian McCaffrey. I don’t think Browns rookie QB Baker Mayfield can keep them close in this one. Panthers easily cover.

Colts at Texans (-4.5) – The Colts were shut out by the Jaguars last week, and now QB Andrew Luck and his offense have to face a tough Texans defense led by DE J.J. Watt and LB Jadeveon Clowney. While they won’t get shut out again, it won’t be easy for the Colts to put a big number on the scoreboard against the Texans defense, as Houston looks to win its 10th straight game. I expect the Texans to win the game, and they should cover.

Ravens at Chiefs (-6.5) – The Chiefs faced some adversity late last week when they released RB Kareem Hunt after video surfaced of him attacking a woman. RB Spencer Ware took over for him as the team’s starting running back, and the Chiefs have since signed RB Charcandrick West for some depth at the position. This week, they face a Ravens team that faces a dilemma at the quarterback position over whether to continue starting rookie QB Lamar Jackson or go back to veteran QB Joe Flacco. With his scrambling ability, I think Jackson gives the Ravens a better chance to win, but either quarterback will have a tough time keeping up with the Chiefs’ prolific passing attack with QB Patrick Mahomes and WR Tyreek Hill. I’ll go with the home team.

Patriots at Dolphins (+8.5) – The Patriots are nearly nine-point favorites on the road in Miami. They got TE Rob Gronkowski and RB ReX Burkhead back from their respective injuries last week, but the offense still isn’t what it used to be, so I think that spread could be a bit high. I expect the Patriots to win the game, but I think the Dolphins could keep it to within a touchdown or so, so I am going to take the points.

Saints at Buccaneers (+8.5) – The Saints only managed to put up 10 points against the Cowboys last Thursday, but that isn’t likely to happen again with the good offense that the Saints have with QB Drew Brees, WR Michael Thomas and RB Alvin Kamara. Plus, the Buccaneers’ defense isn’t as good as the Cowboys’, so I expect a bounceback game for Brees and the rest of the New Orleans offense. It’s kind of a big spread, but I think the Saints will cove on the road.

Giants at Redskins (-0.5) – The Redskins lost QB Alex Smith to a season-ending leg injury a few weeks ago, then the same thing happened to backup-turned-starting QB Colt McCoy in Monday night’s loss to the Eagles. That leaves QB Mark Sanchez — who only signed with the team following Smith’s injury — in line to make his first start since 2015 this weekend after having only been in the system for a few weeks. That, combined with injuries to the offensive line, will make it hard for the Washington offense to find much success the rest of the season. The Giants have been playing better in recent weeks and are probably a better team than the Sanchez-led Redskins. I think they win the game outright, so I’m taking the Giants here.

Sunday 4PM games

Bengals at Chargers (-14.5) – The Bengals are starting QB Jeff Driskel with Andy Dalton out for the year and WR A.J. Green suffered a season-ending foot injury last week, leaving the Bengals with a compromised offense. The Chargers were without starting RB Melvin Gordon last week and his status for Sunday is up in the air. If his MCL sprain keeps him out another week, RBs Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson will split the workload in the running game once again. With the Bengals’ injuries the Chargers should easily win the game, but I have a hard time giving more than two touchdowns so I’ll take the Bengals to cover.

Broncos at 49ers (+5.5) – The Broncos lost WR Emmanuel Sanders to a season-ending Achilles tear during practice this week, limiting their receiving corps after trading WR Demaryius Thomas to the Texans earlier in the season. That leaves WR Courtland Sutton as the main pass-catcher for QB Case Keenum, which means rookie RB Phillip Lindsay is likely to be a bigger part of the offense and will have to continue the success he has had in recent weeks. The 49ers are dealing with their own injury as RB Matt Breida will miss this game after injuring his ankle last week. I expect the Broncos to win a close game, but I’ll take the points.

Eagles at Cowboys (-4.5) – The Cowboys’ defense limited Brees and the Saints to 10 points last Thursday and have 10 days to prepare for this game with the Eagles, who are on a short week after beating the Redskins on Monday night. WR Golden Tate is coming off his best game since being traded to the Eagles, while WR Amari Cooper has been the Cowboys’ best receiver since they acquired him in a trade with the Raiders. Cowboys win and cover.

Lions at Cardinals (+2.5) – The Cardinals are coming off an upset victory over the Packers, but I’m not sure if they can make it two in a row against NFC North foes when the Lions come to Arizona. Neither team has a great offense, but the LIons have a better squad on that side of the ball behind QB Matthew Stafford, so I’m going to give the points on the road.

Steelers at Raiders (+11.5) – The Steelers have relied on RB James Conner as their workhouse back all season with RB Le’Veon Bell not playing this year, but they will not have Conner on the field Sunday after he suffered a high ankle sprain last week against the Chargers. So RB Jaylen Samuels is expected to get his first career start alongside QB Ben Roethlisberger and WR Antonio Brown. The Steelers should be able to bounce back from last week’s loss to beat the Raiders, but I’ll take the points.

Sunday Night Football

Rams at Bears (+3.5) – Bears QB MItchell Trubisky has missed the team’s last two games with a shoulder injury, but he appears to be back on track to start this week. It won’t be easy to lead his team to the win, though, against a strong Rams team with QB Jared Goff and RB Todd Gurley leading the way. The Bears will likely have to rely on their defense to win the game, and I’m not sure the defense will be able to stop the Los Angeles offense. I’ll give the points.

Monday Night Football

Vikings at Seahawks (-3.5) – The Vikings head to Seattle to take on the Seahawks in the final game of the weekend. The Seahawks are riding a three-game win streak into this one behind strong play from QB Russell Wilson, and I think they continue their winning ways to maintain their hold on the first Wild Card in the NFC. I’m going with the home team.

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