NFL Week 16 predictions: Our picks against the spread
By Emmanuel Morgan
Amid an outbreak of positive coronavirus tests fueled by the omicron variant, the NFL reformatted its testing strategy, doing away with daily checks and testing only players who are symptomatic or are deemed to have had a close contact to a positive case.
But players have still tested positive, ending up on the COVID-19 reserve list, making it clear that the pandemic will likely affect the competitive balance as teams make their playoff pushes.
This week’s games have important postseason ramifications. The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals will meet in a crucial AFC North game, the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots will have a rematch of their frigid chess match and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a must-win game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Here is a look at NFL Week 16, with all picks made against the spread.
Last week’s record: 8-8
All times are Eastern.
Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers
4:30 p.m., Fox and NFL Network
Line: Packers -7.5 | Total: 45
The Browns (7-7), with a roster decimated by coronavirus-related absences, nearly beat the Raiders on Monday, but find themselves in last place in the AFC North. A loss to the Packers (11-3) this week would drop Cleveland’s postseason hopes to 13%, according to the New York Times’ playoff simulator. That’s a tough scenario considering Green Bay has shown few weaknesses on either side of the ball.
The Packers’ defense allows 21.6 points a game, the 10th-best mark in the league, and is even more effective at home, with an average of 17 points allowed at Lambeau Field. Regardless of which starters return from the COVID-19 list, it is hard to picture the Packers not covering the spread. Pick: Packers -7.5
Indianapolis Colts at Arizona Cardinals
8:15 p.m., NFL Network
Line: Cardinals -2 | Total: 49.5
The Cardinals (10-4) botched a chance at clinching the NFC West when they lost to the lowly Detroit Lions last week. Now they face the Colts (8-6), a considerably tougher opponent.
After starting 3-5, the Colts have won five of their past six games, mostly because of outstanding play from the league’s leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of his team’s 14 games, and as he showed against the Patriots, he can succeed even when defenses load up the box.
Arizona has lost two straight games after bursting to a 10-2 start. In both games, Kyler Murray threw errant passes, and his team will find it difficult to get home-field advantage in the playoffs without DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring), whom the Cardinals placed on injured reserve with the hope that he can return for the playoffs. Indianapolis is ascending while Arizona is falling, making the road underdog appealing. Pick: Colts +2
SUNDAY’S BEST GAMES
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
1 p.m., CBS
Line: Patriots -2.5 | Total: 43.5
The weather forecast in Foxborough, Massachusetts, calls for a similar game plan to the one the Patriots (9-5) used earlier this season against the Bills (8-6). The National Weather Service calls for it to be around 40 degrees and windy, with gusts as high as 22 mph, with a 20% chance of snow. Mac Jones threw only three passes in Week 13 and the Patriots rushed for 222 yards, exploiting the Bills’ weakness in run defense.
That unit is better suited against the pass, allowing a league-best mark of 175.6 yards per game. There’s no reason for New England to deviate from the run, even with Damien Harris (hamstring) potentially unavailable. Pick: Patriots -2.5
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
1 p.m., CBS
Line: Bengals -2.5 | Total: 44.5
This is essentially a must-win for both teams. A loss drops the Ravens’ (8-6) chances of making the playoffs to around 30% and the Bengals’ (8-6) to around 25%, according to the Times’ simulator. Baltimore has had the most injuries in the league this season, but has still played competitively and kept games close.
Coach John Harbaugh said he “anticipates” Lamar Jackson (foot) returning this week. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list, could play as well. In narrow defeats to the Steelers and Packers, the Ravens tried and failed at two-point conversions rather than playing for overtime. With more starters returning and with a realistic shot at the playoffs on the line, they may take a more conservative approach. Either way, it is likely this game will be close, making the over a good betting choice. Pick: Ravens +2.5
Los Angeles Rams at Minnesota Vikings
1 p.m., Fox
Line: Rams -3 | Total: 49
After two embarrassing prime time losses, the Rams (10-4) have won their past two games and are beginning to rise. Against the Vikings (7-7), who finally put together a complete game devoid of any drama last week, the Rams’ pass rush should carry them.
Kirk Cousins is known to struggle when he faces pressure and takes hits, something that Aaron Donald and Von Miller will surely talk about during film meetings. Miller finally secured his first sack with the Rams last week, while Donald’s 11 sacks for the season have him tied for eighth in the NFL.
It is unclear whether Adam Thielen (ankle) will play, meaning Jalen Ramsey and Justin Jefferson should be matched up together in coverage for most of the game. If the Rams’ defense contains Dalvin Cook and forces Cousins to throw, they should have a lot of success. Pick: Rams -3
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City
4:25 p.m., CBS
Line: Kansas City -10 | Total: 46
During its early-season slump, Kansas City (10-4) spotted other AFC teams some time to cement themselves atop the standings. Instead, the conference collectively allowed Patrick Mahomes and friends to regroup and get to the top spot. The Chiefs’ time as the No. 1 seed could be in jeopardy, though, with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill on the COVID-19 reserve list.
The star receivers could potentially play, which drastically affects this pick. Pittsburgh’s (7-6-1) offense has struggled this season, depending too heavily on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm while failing to pass protect for him. Assuming Hill and Kelce suit up, bet on Kansas City. Pick: Kansas City -10
SUNDAY’S OTHER GAMES
Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons
1 p.m., Fox
Line: Falcons -4 | Total: 42
The Lions (2-11-1) fulfilled coach Dan Campbell’s vision of biting off kneecaps when they upset the Cardinals, which delayed that team’s ability to clinch a division title. There’s nothing to spoil against the Falcons (6-8), who have also been one of the league’s worst teams. Detroit is 9-5 against the spread this season and has played competitively against strong opponents. The Falcons, though, have beat up on mediocre teams while getting blown out by the good ones. There’s nothing in Atlanta’s recent performances to suggest betting on the team. Pick: Lions +4
Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets
1 p.m., CBS
Line: Jets -2.5 | Total: 43.5
The Jaguars (2-12) and the Jets (3-11) are in the same positions they were in last year when their poor records led to them selecting quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson with the first two picks in the NFL draft. Both of those quarterbacks’ rookie seasons have been filled with growing pains, though Lawrence also had to deal with the firing of his team’s head coach, Urban Meyer.
This matchup between the top picks is not really appealing, and certainly is not one to watch at the expense of more important games. The Jaguars have not scored more than 20 points since Week 6, and the Jets’ offense has been only a little better. Realistically, don’t bet on this game, but if you do, take the Jets. Pick: Jets -2.5
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
1 p.m., Fox
Line: Eagles -10 | Total: 42
The Eagles (7-7) are the NFC’s No. 8 seed, which is one spot away from qualifying for the playoffs. A win against the Giants (4-10) would boost their chances to around 40%, while a loss would drop them to around 15%, according to the Times’ playoff simulator. They should win, though, and easily cover.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts delivered one of his best games of the season last week — he completed 77% of his passes for 296 yards, with one touchdown and one interception against the Washington Football Team. The offense, led by Hurts and running backs Miles Sanders and Boston Scott, has rushed for more than 200 yards in five of the past seven games.
The Giants’ season has gone another way. Their offense, which struggled even before Daniel Jones injured his neck, has not eclipsed 200 yards passing in six consecutive games (yuck). It is unclear whether coach Joe Judge will start Jake Fromm or Mike Glennon in Jones’ place. Neither will be able to keep pace with Philadelphia. Pick: Eagles -10
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers
1 p.m., Fox
Line: Buccaneers -11 | Total: 44
In a shutout loss to the Saints — Tom Brady’s first shutout since 2006 — the Buccaneers (10-4) were dealt a huge blow with a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury to wide receiver Chris Godwin as well as concerning injuries to wide receiver Mike Evans (hamstring), running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and linebacker Lavonte David (foot). The severity of the latter three is something to monitor as the playoffs approach, but Tampa Bay’s backups will suffice against the Panthers (5-9).
Carolina has arguably the worst quarterback room in the league, and coach Matt Rhule said both Cam Newton and Sam Darnold, who just returned from a shoulder injury, will play Sunday. Wide receiver Antonio Brown should play after serving a three-game suspension for using a fake vaccine card, and Brady should be able to score at will while the Panthers’ lousy offense continues to struggle. Pick: Buccaneers -11
Los Angeles Chargers at Houston Texans
1 p.m., CBS
Line: Chargers -8 | Total: 46
Coach Brandon Staley has already ruled out edge rusher Joey Bosa, and the Chargers (8-6) could be without running back Austin Ekeler and center Corey Linsley against the Texans (3-11) because of coronavirus issues. Even with those potential absences, Los Angeles is capable of dominating Houston. The Chargers allow the 10th-fewest passing yards per game, and they should easily contain wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Texans’ best offensive weapon. That’s if he even plays, as the team placed him on the COVID-19 reserve list Wednesday afternoon. Bet on the Chargers with confidence, even if they are short-handed. Pick: Chargers -9.5
Denver Broncos at Las Vegas Raiders
4:25 p.m., CBS
Line: Raiders -1.5 | Total: 42.5
The Raiders (7-7) kept their postseason hopes alive Monday by barely beating a Browns team that started a third-string quarterback. The Broncos (7-7) are also technically in the hunt, making this something of a must-win for both teams. Denver is likely to start Drew Lock at quarterback as Teddy Bridgewater recovers from a concussion. That’s not ideal for Denver, as Lock is known to make improper reads and turnovers. Las Vegas beat the Broncos in October in its first game after Jon Gruden’s resignation, and the team is capable of repeating if it leans on its defense to cause pressure and force Lock into mistakes. Pick: Raiders -1.5
Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys
8:20 p.m., NBC
Line: Cowboys -10 | Total: 47.5
The Cowboys (10-4) beat Washington (6-8) two weeks ago and will likely do so again. Because of the coronavirus, Washington started its third-string quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, against Philadelphia last week, and it is unclear whether Taylor Heinicke or Kyle Allen will be available to play at Dallas. The Cowboys have won three straight games, a surge that has surprisingly been led by the team’s defense. Micah Parsons continues to excel as a versatile edge rusher, with 12 sacks, and Trevon Diggs leads the league with 10 interceptions. If quarterback Dak Prescott and the offense take care of the ball, the defense should smother Washington and keep the score within the spread. Pick: Cowboys -10
Chicago Bears at Seattle Seahawks
4:05 p.m., Fox
Line: Seahawks -7 | Total: 44
For the first time since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks (5-9) will finish the season with a losing record. The reasons are plenty, and they include Wilson’s midseason finger injury, the team’s overall offensive ineffectiveness, and an uncharacteristically porous defense. The Bears (4-10), whose offense is fourth-last in points scored per game (17.1), are one of the few teams that has been worse than Seattle.
Chicago averages nearly seven penalties per game, and that is not a good formula for a team led by a rookie quarterback, Justin Fields. This isn’t a game to watch, but if you bet on it, expect Seattle to be inspired to finish the year well. Pick: Seahawks -7
MONDAY NIGHT’S MATCHUP
Miami Dolphins at New Orleans Saints
8:15 p.m., ESPN
Line: Saints -3 | Total: 39
The Dolphins (7-7) have won six straight games behind a blitz-happy defense and efficient, risk-averse play from Tua Tagovailoa. That success may be a result of a weak schedule, as Miami beat only one team with a winning record. The Saints (7-7) are capable of snapping that winning streak. Running back Alvin Kamara should feast on Miami’s defense if it continues to blitz at a high rate. The Saints’ defense is the fifth-best in the league against the run, which will force Tagovailoa to throw. More passes means more opportunities for mistakes. Take the Saints in this one. Pick: Saints -3