Archive for December, 2016

There were a number of things that could have made Week 17 more interesting. Denver could have beaten Kansas City, Baltimore could have beaten Pittsburgh, Tennessee could have beaten Jacksonville, Buffalo could have beaten Miami, Minnesota could have beaten Green Bay, etc. NONE of those things happened, setting up one of the least consequential final weeks I can remember. There are only two playoff spots up for grabs and three teams with the chance to nab those two spots. Four teams are 100% locked into their spots: Pittsburgh will be the #3 seed in the AFC, Houston will be the #4 seed in the AFC, Dallas will be #1 in the NFC, and the Giants will be #5 in the NFC. But even most of the teams that have a bit to play for seeding-wise — New England, Atlanta, Seattle — have relatively easy games (against Miami, New Orleans, and San Francisco). Really, the only thing that matters besides the final two NFC playoff spots is the AFC West race. If Oakland can beat Denver without Derek Carr, they’ll clinch a BYE and get a home playoff game (likely a loss against a lucky Pittsburgh team). If they lose and Kansas City wins, the Chiefs get the BYE and thus the leg up on the rest of New England’s (paltry) competition in the AFC. But I can’t get excited about these relatively trivial seeding moves. Even if KC misses out on a BYE, they’ll likely play Houston in the first round. Forgive me for not feeling too bad for them. There’s no longer a need to document the top tier and eliminated teams this close to the playoffs. For a second straight year, I eliminated one team too early. Last year it was the Chiefs, this year it’s Miami. But I maintain that the Dolphins have no business making the playoffs and will lose in the first round — unless they’re playing Houston.

  • I touched on this before, but in the aftermath of the Derek Carr injury it’s incredible how weak the AFC is outside of the Patriots. The other AFC playoff teams are quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger (good, but quietly not great this season), Alex Smith, Tom Savage, Matt McGloin, and Matt Moore. Seriously??? Guess the Pats basically have a three round BYE.
  • The good thing for Patriots haters is that there are a bunch of NFC teams that could easily beat them. If Green Bay beats Detroit, which I expect to happen, all four division champs in the NFC will be super dangerous. Dallas’s 13-2 record speaks for itself. Seattle has the pedigree, the quarterback, and the defense to cause trouble (although their porous offensive line and the losses of Earl Thomas, C.J. Prosise and Tyler Lockett will probably keep them from doing much in the playoffs). The Packers are riding a five game winning streak, with Aaron Rodgers turning himself into an MVP candidate. Their offense is tough to stop. But the team that’s getting most overlooked is the one with the best offense in the NFL: the Atlanta Falcons. If they beat the Saints this week, the Falcons will get a BYE and an assurance that their entire playoff slate will be played indoors. There’s no team that’s better-suited to play inside. Matt Ryan would be my pick for MVP, the Falcons have two explosive running backs, and Julio Jones is healthy again. This team can outscore anybody.
  • The Carr, Marcus Mariota, and Tyler Lockett leg-breaks were all devastating. Carr and Mariota are young up-and-comers on good teams, and both Oakland and Tennessee now have to look ahead to 2017. Hopefully the quarterbacks don’t lose any mobility. And Lockett was just starting to break out for a Seattle team in need of explosive players. He put up 7-130-1 last week against the Rams and was on his way to another big game against the Cardinals before getting injured.
  • I’m happy that the Browns got a win, because they’re heading in the right direction and I don’t want them to make any panic moves. I’m also happy that the Niners won their second game, because that will allow the Browns to pick first barring a Cleveland win over a Pittsburgh team that’s resting Big Ben, Le’Veon, and Antonio Brown (uh oh).
  • Rex Ryan was fired, and I understand why. His management of the game last Sunday was horrific. The Bills really should have beaten the Dolphins, but Rex decided to punt with 4:09 left in overtime and the Bills facing fourth-and-two from their own 41 yard line. This is monumentally stupid under any condition, but especially so given that the Bills needed to win and given that they had already set their single-game yardage record (589). Then, on Miami’s first play after the punt, Buffalo employed a unique defensive strategy… using only 10 defenders. Jay Ajayi promptly rushed for 57 yards. This Buffalo team had a lot of talent. They should have been the second AFC East playoff team, not Miami. Goodbye, Rex.

8-8 straight up… 143-95-2 for the season
8-8 against the spread… 122-110-8
7-7-2 over/under… 123-112-5

1-3 on upset picks… 23-32-1
1-0 on lock… 11-5

Best picks of the week:
Eagles 19, Giants 17… Actual result: Eagles 24, Giants 19
Saints 33, Bucs 24… Actual result: Saints 31, Bucs 24
Patriots 31, Jets 10… Actual result: Patriots 41, Jets 3

Worst picks of the week:
Broncos 20, Chiefs 17… Actual result: Chiefs 33, Broncos 10
Titans 27, Jags 13… Actual result: Jags 38, Titans 17
Bears 30, Redskins 23… Actual result: Redskins 41, Bears 21


MNF Prediction — Cowboys vs. Lions

Posted: 12/26/2016 by levcohen in Football

For those of us who were rooting for extra intrigue in Week 17, yesterday’s results weren’t exactly ideal. Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore, clinching the AFC North and knocking out their rivals while also sending the Chiefs to the playoffs. Later, Kansas City did its part, knocking out the Broncos and sending the Dolphins to the playoffs. As a result, the AFC playoff teams have been determined, and all that’s left to determine is who wins the AFC West and a BYE between the Raiders and Chiefs. So what should fans of Week 17 drama be rooting for tonight? Luckily, the winner of the Detroit-Green Bay game next week will take the NFC North, regardless of what happens tonight. But while the game is totally meaningless for the Cowboys, who clinched the #1 seed with New York’s lost on Thursday, it may still mean something for the Lions, Redskins, and Packers, who are fighting for the only two playoff spots that have not yet been determined. Here are the clinching scenarios for those three:

Detroit Lions:

  • Beat Dallas tonight OR
  • Beat Green Bay next week OR
  • Lose both games and have New York beat Washington

Washington Redskins:

  • Beat New York AND
  • Detroit loses tonight OR Detroit beats Green Bay

Green Bay Packers:

  • Beat Detroit next week OR
  • New York beats Washington

So this game means nothing for Green Bay, but a Detroit win would lock things up for the Lions while a Detroit loss coupled with a Washington win next week would lock things up for the Redskins.

This game also has some slight #2 seed implications. The Falcons will all-but lock up the #2 with a win over the Saints next week, even if the Lions win out. It would take a weird sequence of events to happen for the 11-5 Lions to pass the 11-5 Falcons on strength of victory. If you’re interested, here is that sequence:

Probably not going to happen. But things really get interesting if the Saints knock off the Falcons. The Seahawks should be rooting for Dallas tonight, because an Atlanta loss along with a Detroit loss and a Seattle win over San Francisco next week would give the Seahawks a BYE. And if the Falcons lose and the Lions win out, Detroit would get a BYE. But let’s worry about the rest of that next week. For now, it’s time to focus on tonight’s game.

Detroit Lions (9-5, 8-5-1) at Dallas Cowboys (12-2, 10-4):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 6
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: Jerry Jones says that the Cowboys will not be resting their starters despite having clinched everything on Thursday when the Giants fell to the Eagles. If he’s telling the truth, and I think he is (the Cowboys haven’t rested starters in the past), this should be an entertaining game between a team fighting for a playoff berth and one of the most talented squads in the NFL. The Lions can’t get dominated in the trenches. The team that wins the battle at the line of scrimmage generally wins, which is why the Cowboys, who have invested a huge amount of draft capital into the offensive line and have continued to develop their defensive line, are 12-2. While the Lions have been a bit better defensively of late, they still haven’t shown an ability to slow down elite offenses, with the exception of a win in New Orleans that I think was more fluky than anything else. They’re going to be without top cornerback Darius Slay, so I don’t know if they’ll be able to guard Dez Bryant with single coverage. And if they have to leave a safety over the top for security against Dez, it’ll be that much harder to stop Ezekiel Elliott and the run game. If I were the Lions, I’d sell out to stop the run and hope that my pass rush can get to Dak Prescott. Ziggy Ansah, one of the breakout stars of 2015, finally got his first sack of the week last year. He’ll need to have another big week. The Lions aren’t going to out-talent Dallas’s offense, so they’ll have to unveil some new defensive plays and formations in order to try to confuse Prescott. The problem is that it’s not been easy to confuse Prescott this season, and there’s no reason to think that Detroit, a team without a dominant pass rush or secondary, can mirror the Giants and slow Prescott down. New York’s the team that has handed the Cowboys both of their losses, so the Lions would be smart to study the tape from those two games and from the Giants’ 17-6 win over the Lions last week in order to figure out how exactly the Giants’ defense has managed to flummox the Cowboys twice.

Matthew Stafford has been in a bit of a rut of late. He’ll need to snap out of that rut in what will could be a high scoring game. The Lions haven’t been able to run the ball all season, and that won’t change against a top run defense. So the question is: can Stafford do what Jameis Winston couldn’t last week and single-handedly lead his team to victory in Dallas? I don’t think he can. I actually think this game might be similar to the Tampa-Dallas game last week, which the Cowboys won 26-20. I like Dallas to win 27-17.
Cowboys cover

In a lot of ways, this game is similar to the Pittsburgh-Baltimore one. Just like in that one, the home team can clinch a playoff berth with a win, while the road team will be eliminated with a loss. And while this rivalry doesn’t have the same oomph as Steelers-Ravens, you may remember that the first game this year between these two was one of the games of the season. The Chiefs won that one 30-27 in overtime after the Broncos made a questionable decision to try a 62 yard field goal with a minute to go in the extra session. The win probability chart in that game looked like this:


Let’s hope the game tonight will be as entertaining and back-and-forth. It will definitely be as intense, as the Broncos need a win to stay alive while the Chiefs might fancy their chances to win the AFC West and a first round BYE with wins in their final two games and an Oakland loss — especially after the injury to Derek Carr. Other playoff implications:

  • The Dolphins would clinch a playoff spot with a Denver loss
  • The Raiders would clinch the AFC West and a BYE with a Denver win
  • Even with a loss, the Chiefs would need a lot to happen for them to miss the playoffs:
    • A loss in Week 17 to the Chargers
    • Baltimore wins this week (against Pittsburgh) and next week (against Cincinnati)
    • Pittsburgh wins in Week 17 (against Cleveland)

Denver Broncos (8-6, 8-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-4, 7-7):*
Spread: Chiefs favored by 3.5
Over/under: 37.5
My prediction: We know what we’re going to get with the Chiefs’ offense. They’ve scored exactly two offensive touchdowns in five consecutive games. The team’s point totals in those five games? 17, 30, 29, 21, 17. The difference between the wins (the middle three) and the losses has been defensive and special teams touchdowns. Kansas City has seven D/ST touchdowns this year and are 6-0 in games with a non-offensive TD and 4-4 in other games. I know that they have perhaps the top return man in the NFL (the insanely fast Tyreke Hill) and the second-most opportunistic defense, but I refuse to believe that this is a way the Chiefs can continue to win. Remember two years ago when the Eagles jumped out to a 9-3 start thanks largely to a bunch of defensive and special teams touchdowns? Well, they got just one D/ST TD in their last four games and finished 10-6 and out of the playoffs. That should serve as a warning for the Chiefs, who have what might be the most predictable offense in the NFL (certainly among playoff contenders).

On the other side of the ball, maybe we’ll see some urgency from Denver’s offense. I’ve been impressed by Trevor Siemian, but the run game has been dreadful since C.J. Anderson went down. They’ll have a chance this week against Kansas City’s #25 DVOA run defense. There were reports of locker room strife between the offense and defense last week, but the truth is that both units need to step up this week after they were outplayed by the Patriots. And Denver, please don’t let Tyreke Hill score three touchdowns again. He’s Kansas City’s only explosive offensive threat. If you can shut him down, you can shut them down. I trust Wade Phillips and his defense to limit Hill and the Chiefs’ offense and I trust Denver’s offense enough to score enough to win. Broncos win 20-17.
Broncos cover

I think Pittsburgh-Baltimore has been the best NFL rivalry of the 21st century. No other rivalry so frequently meant so much for both teams both in terms of pride and actual playoff implications. This year is no exception. The Steelers sit atop the AFC North at 9-5; they can clinch the division with a win. The Ravens are a game back but still control their own destiny thanks to a win over Pittsburgh in the first matchup between these teams. They’d be eliminated with a loss but have a 52% chance to win the division with a win (per FiveThirtyEight). This is going to be a really fun game to watch, with super high intensity given the stakes and history between the two teams.

Baltimore Ravens (8-6, 5-9) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5, 9-5):
Spread: Steelers favored by 6
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: The Steelers are undoubtedly the more talented team. That’s almost always a case when you have Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. Bell and Brown give them an offensive floor that should ensure 20+ points. Bell had hands-down his worst game of the season against the Ravens in Week 9, with just 32 yards on 14 carries, but it’s worth noting that Baltimore’s stingy run defense has been a lot softer of late. They gave up a season-high 156 yards on the ground to the Eagles last week and have allowed 4+ yards per carry in two of the last three weeks after doing it twice in their first 11 games.

I like the Ravens to keep it close. They need to establish the run against a solid Pittsburgh defense, but if they do they should be able to move the ball between the 20s. In the end, the difference will be the Steelers’ ability to punch the ball into the end zone one more time than the Ravens. I know they kicked six field goals last week, but they’re just too talented to settle for so many field goals again. Steelers win 24-20.
Ravens cover

NFL Week 16 Picks — Christmas Eve Games

Posted: 12/23/2016 by levcohen in Football

There are 12 games on Christmas Eve, which means that Saturday is the Sunday of this week. The games might not be super high quality, though, since what may be the three best and most important games of the week (Pittsburgh-Baltimore, Denver-Kansas City, Detroit-Dallas) are on Christmas or Monday Night Football. There are definitely some crappy games coming tomorrow since all of the bad teams are playing. But I’m excited about Miami-Buffalo, Atlanta-Carolina, Indy-Oakland, and Tampa-New Orleans. This is also Cleveland’s second-to-last chance to win a game, and they’re only a four point underdog. Exciting! Tom Savage will make the first start of his career after leading the Texans to a comeback win over the Jaguars. His first start comes in a night game against the Bengals that the Texans need to win. Only two of the 12 games have spreads of greater than five points, so Vegas is expecting a bunch of close games. It’s not the best slate of games, but there are still things to get excited about.

*- upset pick

Miami Dolphins (9-5, 8-5-1) at Buffalo Bills (7-7, 7-7):
Spread: Bills favored by 4.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: This game obviously has huge playoff implications for the Dolphins, who would be pretty close to clinching a playoff spot with a win but would be favored to miss out with a loss. But it also has implications for a bunch of other AFC teams. The Broncos, Ravens, and Steelers, for example, will all be rooting hard for the Bills. And, as crazy as it seems given all the talk we’ve heard about Rex Ryan getting hired, Buffalo actually still has a very slim chance of making the playoffs. They need wins in their last two games accompanied by a Miami loss to the Patriots in Week 17, a Denver loss to the Raiders in Week 17, consecutive losses by Baltimore (against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati), consecutive losses by Houston (against Cincinnati and Tennessee), and an Oakland win over Indianapolis. None of those results would surprise me, but all of them happening together is extremely unlikely. I think it’s important that the Bills still have a shot, though, because it’ll ensure that they go all out in this game. They definitely have the talent advantage against a Miami team with Matt Moore at quarterback. I know Moore looked great last week against the Jets, but that was against what’s been a horrific New York secondary this season. The Bills don’t have a great secondary, but it’s better than the Jets’. I also think Buffalo should be able to move the ball on the ground against a Miami defense that has really revved things up against the pass (thanks largely to Cameron Wake) but has continued to struggle against the run. About a month ago, Colin Kaepernick ran 10 times for 113 yards against the Dolphins. Tyrod Taylor could have a similar type of game tomorrow. I like the Bills here. Bills win 26-20.
Bills cover

New York Jets (4-10, 6-8) at New England Patriots (12-2, 11-3):- Lock
Spread: Patriots favored by 17
Over/under: 44
My prediction: I think this is the biggest spread of the season. The Jets just got destroyed by Matt Moore… at home. Now, they get to face Tom Brady and an efficient New England offense (albeit not one of the most explosive offenses of the Brady era). If the Jets show up ready to play, they’ll cover the spread, just like they did in the first matchup between these teams. But they haven’t been showing up much of late. Patriots win 31-10.
Patriots cover

Tennessee Titans (8-6, 6-7-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12, 6-8):
Spread: Titans favored by 5
Over/under: 44
My prediction: The Titans have given themselves a great chance to win the AFC South. They’ve won four of five, with victories against Green Bay, Denver, and Kansas City in that time. They place Houston in Week 17 in what may be a playoff play-in game. First, they need to beat Jacksonville, a team that always manages to beat itself. The Jaguars are talented enough to keep this close, but Tennessee’s offense is much more reliable and should do enough to win in convincing fashion against a team playing its first game without coach Gus Bradley. Titans win 27-13.
Titans cover

Minnesota Vikings (7-7, 8-6) at Green Bay Packers (8-6, 7-6-1):
Spread: Packers favored by 7
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: The Vikings just got smoked at home by the Colts. They’re playing without Harrison Smith, their most important defensive player, so it’s somewhat understandable. But still, it’s pretty shocking that a team that was once 5-0 and had the best defense in the league is now 7-7 and ranked eighth in defensive DVOA (and 17th in weighted DVOA, which makes the most recent games worth more than games at the start of the season). Now they get to play against the resurgent Packers (sixth in DVOA) at Lambeau. Minnesota should be able to move the ball, but they always struggle to punch the ball into the end zone. Racking up a bunch of field goals isn’t going to work against Green Bay. Packers win 28-17.
Packers cover

San Diego Chargers (5-9, 7-7) at Cleveland Browns (0-14, 3-11):
Spread: Chargers favored by 4
Over/under: 44
My prediction: San Diego’s bereft of skill-position talent at this point. They lost top receiver Keenan Allen in Week 1. Then they lost Danny Woodhead. Now they’re also without Melvin Gordon. Poor Philip Rivers. The Chargers have lost three games in a row, although they kept things close against the Raiders. At the beginning of the season, they were a good team losing a lot of close games. Now, they’re an average team losing close games. I don’t think they’re going to lose this game. Thanks to Joey Bosa (who is the most polished rookie pass-rusher Browns’ All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas has ever seen) and his 7.5 sacks in 10 games, the Chargers have the #5 ranked weighted defensive DVOA. Remember, this is a defense that lost top cornerback Jason Verrett early in the season. Anyway, Rivers and the defense will be enough to defeat the Browns. Chargers win 23-13.
Chargers cover

Washington Redskins (7-6-1, 9-5) at Chicago Bears (3-11, 6-7-1):*
Spread: Redskins favored by 3
Over/under: 47
My prediction: This is going to be a tough one for the Redskins. They just got beaten both physically and mentally by the Panthers on Monday Night Football. How are they going to get up for a game less than five days later against a 3-11 Chicago team? The Bears might be 3-11, but they aren’t the Niners or Rams or Browns or Jets. They haven’t lost by more than six points in any of their last five games. They’ve been especially good against the pass recently. Now that Alshon Jeffery is back, their offense should be good enough to put up points against Washington’s struggling defense. If the Redskins stick Josh Norman on Jeffery, the Bears will be able to get production out of guys like Cameron Meredith and Deonte Thompson, both of whom had big games last week. Matt Barkley isn’t a great quarterback, but he’s been very competent. Bears win 30-23.
Bears cover

Atlanta Falcons (9-5, 9-5) at Carolina Panthers (6-8, 5-8-1):
Spread: Falcons favored by 3
Over/under: 51.5
My prediction: Neither team should have any trouble moving the ball in this one. The Falcons just demolished two of the worst teams in the NFL (LA and San Francisco), so it’s easy to forget that they were without Julio Jones for both of those games. They’ll need Jones this week, and they’ll have him. The Panthers’ struggles against the pass have been well documented. I think Cam Newton got some of his mojo back last week against the Redskins, and he should be able to continue to put up numbers against a bad Atlanta defense. This will be one of the closer and more exciting games of the day, but I like the Falcons to win on a late field goal from stud kicker Matt Bryant. Falcons win 31-30.
Panthers cover

Indianapolis Colts (7-7, 7-6-1) at Oakland Raiders (11-3, 9-5):
Spread: Raiders favored by 3.5
Over/under: 53
My prediction: The Colts aren’t good, but it’s always dangerous to underrate them because they have a quarterback who can make a lot of things happen. Andrew Luck was very efficient in Minnesota last week, and there’s a good chance he’ll have more success whenever Khalil Mack is not breathing down his neck. Mack will obviously be a problem for Indy’s maligned offensive line. The likely DPOY saw his sack streak end last week, but he was still a factor in Oakland’s win over the Chargers. I’d bet on a new streak beginning against Indianapolis. With that being said, it’s worth noting that the Raiders haven’t exactly been dominant of late. They’ve won by more than a field goal just once in the past four games and have six wins this season by between one and three points. I think that streak of close wins will continue against a desperate Colts team. Raiders win 24-21.
Colts cover

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6, 9-5) at New Orleans Saints (6-8, 8-6):
Spread: Saints favored by 3
Over/under: 52.5
My prediction: The Saints got a needed offensive explosion in their win in Arizona after consecutive down weeks. That’s probably why they’re being favored by three points here even though the Bucs were playing much better in the previous month. These teams played each other two weeks ago, and it went a lot differently than I expected. I predicted a Saints win in a shootout, and the Buccaneers ended up winning 16-11. Guess what I’m going to do this week? I’m going to pick the Saints to win in a shootout. I just trust their offense more than Tampa’s, as I still have a lot of confidence in Drew Brees and New Orleans’s passing game. I don’t put a lot of stock into the Saints-at-home thing anymore, since the Bucs are actually better on the road (5-2) than the Saints are at home (3-4). This is simply a vote of confidence in Brees and an acknowledgement that the Bucs sorely miss tackle Demar Dotson, who will miss another game with a concussion. With a healthy Dotson, I might consider picking the Bucs. But maybe now the Saints’ pass-rush will be able to get home, much like Dallas’s did against Tampa last week. Saints win 33-24.
Saints cover

Arizona Cardinals (5-8-1, 4-10) at Seattle Seahawks (9-4-1, 7-7):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 8
Over/under: 43
My prediction: The Seahawks are obviously the better team, but I like the Cardinals to cover this spread in what is basically their Super Bowl. Both defenses are playing without significant playmakers, with the Seahawks missing Earl Thomas and the Cardinals being without Deone Bucannon, Tyvon Branch, and Tyrann Mathieu. But Arizona still has Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, and Patrick Peterson. The first two should harass Russell Wilson, while Peterson can shut down Doug Baldwin. It’s worth mentioning that these two tied in their first matchup and often play close games against each other. I think another close one is coming. Seahawks win 24-23.
Cardinals cover

San Francisco 49ers (1-13, 2-11-1) at Los Angeles Rams (4-10, 4-9-1):
Spread: Rams favored by 5
Over/under: 40
My prediction: The less I write/think about this game, the better. Please don’t watch it. Rams win 17-10.
Rams cover

Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1, 4-10) at Houston Texans (8-6, 6-7-1):*
Spread: Texans favored by 1
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: There are two types of people in this world: those who believe in Tom Savage, and those who don’t. I’m in the second group for now, but I’m eager to join the first group because I want there to be more good — or even passable — quarterbacks. Bengals win 21-17.
Bengals cover

Upset picks:
Bengals over Texans
Redskins over Bears

Patriots over Jets

Week 15 Review, TNF Preivew

Posted: 12/22/2016 by levcohen in Football

If you picked a road team last week to cover the spread, you’re probably sitting pretty right now. Road teams went 9-7 straight up and 12-4 against the spread in Week 15, with only Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Detroit (you’re in great company there, Lions) failing to cover the spread as the road team. It’s a further reminder that home teams don’t have as much of an advantage as they used to. There was a lot of bad weather last week, and that would normally be a good time to pick the team that is more acclimated to the weather — the home team. The success of road teams is just something to keep in mind going forward, especially with two giant divisional battles coming on Christmas.

I’m keeping the same five teams in the top tier. We’re at the point of the season that a loss, even the home loss the Chiefs just suffered against the Titans, shouldn’t really change that much for the top teams. I considered restoring Atlanta, but I don’t know how much credit they should get for blowing out the Rams and Niners in consecutive weeks. And maybe I should think about putting the 10-4 Giants in the top tier. It’s time to eliminate the Vikings, who need two straight wins to close the season and a whole lot more to make the playoffs. Even after the Colts demolished the Vikings last week, they still saw their playoff hopes nearly evaporate when both Tennessee and Houston came back to win. We’re left with 15 teams for 12 spots, although both Miami and Tampa have legitimate chances to make the playoffs after I eliminated them very early in the season. So there are really 17 teams fighting for the 12 playoff spots, which kind of feels like a lot given that there are only two weeks left. Per DVOA, seven teams have at least a 94.8% chance of making the playoffs, but only one additional team has better than a 71.1% chance. So a lot of things can still change before the playoffs start.

Top tier: New England, Dallas, Seattle, Kansas City, Oakland
Eliminated teams: Cleveland, Chicago, Buffalo, New Orleans, San Francisco, Miami, New York Jets, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, San Diego, Cincinnati, Carolina, Arizona, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Indianapolis

  • This is kind of obvious, but I still feel that it needs to be said: there are four teams who, at this point in the season, are just so bad that it’s stupid to expect them to do anything. Those teams are Cleveland, the Jets, San Francisco, and the Rams, four of the five teams to lose by 20+ last week. Of course, I picked the Jets to upset the Dolphins and the Browns and Niners to cover, so what do I know. I don’t think I’ll be making that mistake again. The four are a combined 15-39-2 against the spread this year and have been even worse recently.
  • The Buccaneers are good. I don’t know if they’re going to make the playoffs, because they have two difficult divisional games to close the season and might need to win both to make it, but their last six games have given me enough evidence to say that they’re good. They pretty much fought Dallas to a draw last week. If Jameis Winston had had a couple of more ticks to throw the ball down the field, we could be talking about a 27-26 win right now after a long Mike Evans touchdown. They ended up losing 26-20, but they acquitted themselves well, just as they had done in their previous five games, all wins.
  • Brock Osweiler got benched, and everybody should be happy (besides the front office). The $72 million man is just really bad at football, or at least has been this season. You know you’re bad when you make DeAndre Hopkins, the guy who might be best at making bad quarterbacks look good, look bad. Tom Savage isn’t the second coming, but is it a coincidence that Hopkins had his best game since Week 2 despite catching zero passes from Osweiler, who played the first third of the game? Of course not. It’s also no coincidence that the Texans were down 13-0 when Osweiler got benched (against Jacksonville!) and ended up winning 21-20. Might this be what they need to win out and make the playoffs? I wouldn’t be shocked.

12-4 straight up… 135-87-2 for the season
9-7 against the spread… 114-102-8
10-6 over/under… 116-105-3

2-2 on upset picks… 22-29-1
1-0 on lock… 10-5

Best picks of the week:
Cowboys 23, Buccaneers 20… Actual result: Cowboys 26, Buccaneers 20
Seahawks 26, Rams 9… Actual result: Seahawks 24, Rams 3
Raiders 24, Chargers 20… Actual result: Raiders 19, Chargers 16

Worst picks of the week:
Jets 17, Dolphins 14… Actual result: Dolphins 34, Jets 13
Redskins 34, Panthers 24… Actual result: Panthers 26, Redskins 15
Bills 26, Browns 21… Actual result: Bills 33, Browns 13

New York Giants (10-4, 8-5-1 against the spread) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-9, 6-8):*
Spread: Giants favored by 1
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: It’s kind of gone unnoticed, but the Eagles have been kind of frisky these past two weeks. Playing against playoff contenders, they lost by a combined six points against the Redskins and Ravens and had legitimate chances to win both games. They’ve now lost nine of their last 11 games, but I think Vegas is right to give them a little credit and respect. They’re also getting Lane Johnson back from suspension and Alan Barbre healthy, so the offensive line that powered their surprising 3-0 start is back. Darren Sproles also returns, which should give the Eagles the opportunity to move the ball at least a little against the now-mighty Giants defense. Unfortunately, Carson Wentz has a 6:12 TD:INT ratio since Week 7 and has been under five yards per attempt four times in that span. The Giants just held the Lions and Cowboys to a combined 13 points while constantly harassing Matthew Stafford and Dak Prescott, so this isn’t a great matchup for the Eagles.

On the other side of the ball, it’s worth mentioning again that the Giants are not very good offensively. It’s also worth mentioning again that, however obvious it is that Odell Beckham is their only weapon, it seems impossible to shut OBJ down. He’s fourth in the NFL with 1,173 receiving yards and tied for third with 10 scores. This week, he gets a plum matchup against the same secondary he torched for two touchdowns in the first matchup between these teams. This game really comes down to how much the Eagles give up to Odell. I’m pretty confident that Philly will get its 13-20 points now that the line is back, so the question is whether the Giants can top that. My gut feeling is that the Eagles will play all-out on defense and that New York will have a tough time moving the ball. This is going to be another ugly TNF game. I know that the better team usually wins on TNF, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Giants are far worse than people think and that all of these close games are going to come back to haunt them sooner rather than later. It might not be this week, but I’d be mad at myself if it is and I miss it. I’m not going to let that happen. Do we even know that the Giants are better? Give me the Eagles 19-17.
Eagles cover

The Toronto Raptors have been a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference for three straight years. Last season, they won 56 games — more than everyone besides Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland — and finished a game out of first place in the conference. Unlike the two previous years, they didn’t crash out of the playoffs in the first round. In fact, they made the Eastern Conference Finals and were locked 2-2 with the Cavaliers through four games. This offseason, they lost just one of their top nine scorers — and that was Luis Scola, who can now barely get off the bench for the mighty Brooklyn Nets. In other words, they were very good last year and kept almost their entire team, so one would expect them to be good again this year, right? Well, I remember hearing a lot about the Cavs before the season, naturally. I also remember hearing a lot about the Celtics and the Pacers and the Hawks and the Pistons. But how often were the Raptors spoken about when the Eastern Conference title odds were bandied about? Almost never. Now, on some level that’s understandable. The same continuity that was sure to make them good did them no favors headline-wise. All of the teams I mentioned above definitely seemed more exciting. The Celtics added Al Horford and #3 pick Jaylen Brown to their already-expansive group of young talent. The Pacers changed coaches (Vogel out, McMillan in) and styles (in two years, they’ve gone from averaging 95.5 possessions per game to 100.2) and added Jeff Teague. The Hawks now have Dwight Howard, and the Pistons have what should be the perfect Stan Van Gundy roster. So I can understand why the same-old Raptors weren’t talked about before the season.

Now, though, there’s no excuse. Because while the Raptors might not win 56 games again, they’re a heck of a lot better when they were last year. One reason that Raptors were getting overlooked both last season and before this year is that they were winning a lot of close games and had a point differential of “just”+4.5. That’s good, but it’s not eye-opening. This year, they’re winning at a better clip than last year. They’re 20-8 and on pace to win 58 or 59 games. More importantly, this seems sustainable. They have a +9.3 point differential, which would be best in the NBA if the Warriors were declared unfairly good and disqualified.

Yes, the Toronto Raptors have the second-best point differential in the NBA. You probably didn’t know that. That’s why we need to talk about the Toronto Raptors.

They’ve been powered by an offense that is playing much better than last year’s already-good offense. Last year’s Warriors probably had the best offense of the first 16 years of this century. They aren’t as this year’s Warriors, who are putting up 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Guess who, right now, is better than both last year’s Warriors and this year’s Warriors?? That’s right: the Toronto Raptors, who are scoring 115.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s the highest output since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Not too shabby.

It’s definitely easy to miss, because the Raptors aren’t the beautiful passing team that the Warriors are. They make the second-fewest passes per game and rank 26th in assists per contest; to put that in perspective, the Warriors are averaging 40 more passes and 11 more assists per game. As you might expect, Toronto makes up for it by leading the league in field goal percentage on both drives (52.2%) and pull-ups (43.5%).

That brings us to guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the two engines of the offense. They are Toronto’s answer to the Splash Bros in that they are averaging a combined 49.2 points per game. But while Kyle Lowry is channeling his inner Steph Curry this year (3.3 made threes per game on 45% shooting; previous career highs of 2.8 and 39% last season), he still can’t rival Curry’s 2015-16 shooting (5.1 made threes per game on 45.4% shooting). And DeRozan hits threes less often than almost any other guard. Last year, 50.8% of Curry’s 30.1 points per game came from threes. This year, 4.99% of DeRozan’s 27.9 points per game come from threes. So how does he score? Two ways: pull-ups and free throws. There are 42 players who have played in at least five games and are averaging at least five pull-up jumpers per game. DeRozan is one of only two players attempting at least 10 a game (Russell Westbrook is the other) and one of three shooting at least 45% on his pull-ups. He’s shooting 46.1% on pull-ups; Westbrook is shooting 38.2%. DeRozan is also tied for sixth in free throw attempts per game (8.8) and is alone in seventh in makes per game (7.4).

DeRozan and Lowry have both been shooting a lot better this season than they did last year, with DeRozan going from 45% to 48% and Lowry improving from 43% to 46%. I guarantee you that they were both super eager to work on their shots after shooting sub-40% in the playoffs last year. We’re more than a third of way into the season now, so this is something we need to take seriously. The Raptors are scoring 117 points per 100 possessions when they’re on the court together, which is often. Last year, that number was 108.2.

I’ve focused on DeRozan and Lowry, but there are obviously other players on this team who have contributed to the incredible offensive start to the season. Ironically, young center Jonas Valanciunas, who might be the player I’d have most expected to make a jump going into the season, hasn’t had much to do with the team’s improvement. He’s averaging better than 12 points per game and nearly 10 rebounds, but his stats and minutes played numbers are almost exactly the same as they were last season. He’s actually been slightly less efficient this year, down from 57% to 54%. His offensive rating has still gone up, but by just 4.8 points per 100 possessions, a lower jump than for anyone other than Bruno Caboclo, who has played a grand total of 18 minutes this season. And first round pick Jakob Poeltl, another center, has an impossibly-low 97 offensive rating. The Raptors are actually getting outscored with Poeltl on the court. We have to look elsewhere for answers.

Getting a healthy DeMarre Carroll back has definitely helped, but the Raptors are actually better on both sides of the court when Carroll sits. He’s a good piece to have, especially when the playoffs come around and he has to deal with LeBron, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George, but there’s a reason he’s down to 25.7 minutes per game from 30.2. He’s dangerous when he can hit threes, but there’s only so much a 36%-from-three wing who is hesitant to drive to the basket and doesn’t pass very well can do.

I want to talk about three less-heralded players: Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Lucas Nogueira. With apologies to Cory Joseph, a good backup point guard, and Pascal Siakam, who actually starts, I think these three are most worth talking about. In Patterson’s case, nothing’s really changed from last year. He’s averaging 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, both of which are marginally better than last season, but he’s down to 37% from the field (from 41%) as he’s transitioned to being almost entirely a spot-up three point shooter. But therein lies the beauty of Patrick Patterson. When he’s on the court, the Raptors have a floor-spacing big who can open up the court for Lowry and DeRozan. They also have a good defensive player and sneaky-good passer. That’s why he plays 28.7 minutes per game. Last year, Patterson’s net rating was +9.3. That was the highest mark on the team among regulars… by far. It also ranked 40th in the NBA… but second among players not playing for the OKC-GSW-SAS-CLE-LAC quintet. This year, his net rating is +15.7. Because the rest of the team is so good, that actually ranks just third among regulars behind Nogueira and Ross. The offense is especially good when Patterson on the court, although he also helps the defense.

Terrence Ross was taken eighth in the 2012 draft. Through four years, it seemed like he’d settled into a role as a somewhat useful but somewhat inefficient role player. It remains to be seen whether he can keep this up, but so far this year Ross has transformed himself into a very efficient role player. His minutes are down from 23.9 to 20.1, but his points are up from 9.9 to 10.7. He’s become instant offense off the bench. His true shooting percentage, which takes into account three pointers and free throws, has risen from 55.1% to 61.4%. To put that in perspective, he ranks 45th in the NBA in TS% this year and 10th among guards (as you might expect, Lowry has also seen a huge rise in his TS%). A 55.1% mark would rank 163rd among 359 qualifiers. His traditional stats: 48/43/91, up from 43/39/79.

Then there’s Bebe Nogueira. He’s been the prime recipient of the departed Bismack Biyombo’s minutes, seeing a jump from 7.8 to 18.7 minutes per game. I wanted to mention him for a few reasons. First of all, he does cool stuff like this. And this. Second of all, he has cool hair. Third of all, he’s shooting 74% from the field. 74%! He’s 42-57 on the season. Fourth of all, he’s averaging 1.8 blocks per game. That’s in 18.7 minutes. Fifth of all, his wingspan is 7’6″. Sixth of all, he and Kyle Lowry are awesome together. I knew they played great together, but just to make sure I checked the numbers. I wasn’t disappointed. In 265 minutes on the court together, the Raptors have scored 128.5 points per 100 possessions and given up 95.1. That’s by far the best mark on the team and in the league among duos who have played at least 100 minutes together. If you don’t like per-100 numbers, here it is in absolute terms: 12.6 minutes per game together, 32.4 points for, 23.5 points allowed. Pretty amazing. And the final reason that I wanted to talk about Nogueira: he ranks first in the NBA in net rating at +22.6. Luc Mbah a Moute is #2 at +19.8. Not too shabby.

There are two more things I want to talk about. The first is that it seems like the Raptors have found two five-man lineups that work extremely well for them. Both of these lineups have played at least 100 minutes together, and they’re the second and third most played lineups. The first is the starting lineup with Patterson in for Siakam (Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas). This is a lineup that has always worked for Toronto. They’re playing six minutes per game together and outscoring opponents 15.6-10.7, which translates to a +39.2 point differential over a full game. That will be the go-to lineup. The second is Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Patterson-Nogueira. Seems weird, but it’s actually something we saw a lot of in last year’s playoffs (especially when DeRozan was struggling), except with Biyombo in for Nogueira. That lineup is lethal mainly because it has four threats to hit it from deep and also the defensive ability to shut teams down. It really works. In 7.2 minutes per game together, they’re outscoring opponents 18.2-13.9, which translates to a +28.7 point differential over a full game. I really like a rotation of Lowry-Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Carroll-Patterson-Nogueira-Valanciunas come playoffs. Those eight can give you a bit of everything and, I think, can challenge the Cavs if they aren’t hitting on all cylinders.

The second thing I wanted to mention was the fact that the Raptors signed someone to a $6 million deal this offseason who I haven’t even mentioned yet. That’s Jared Sullinger, the injury-prone big man who has long had back problems and is now nursing a foot injury. Sullinger hasn’t played yet for the Raptors, and there’s certainly no rush. But he will be ready eventually, which will make things tricky. Do the Raptors risk ruining the clear chemistry they’ve built, or do they keep Sully on the bench? One thing’s for sure: when he’s healthy, Sullinger can be a force in the paint and on the boards, especially if he’s coming off the bench. But that might mean taking some of Bebe’s minutes, which I’m really not happy about. For now, this is the best possible problem the Raptors could have asked for. But it’s something to look out for going forward, as Sullinger could conceivably swing a playoff series in either direction based on the impact he makes on the rest of the team.