Week 15 of the NFL season brings us a full weekend of action, with a trio of games Saturday and our regularly scheduled programming Sunday. Saturday night features an AFC East tilt between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills (-7, 44) from Orchard Park, New York, and Sunday gives us intriguing games with playoff implications between the Detroit Lions and New York Jets (-1, 44.5), the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Chargers (-3, 446.5) and the Cincinnati Bengals (-3.5, 44) at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
What is worth looking at from a betting perspective? And what are the best plays to help you make smart wagering decisions?
Betting analysts Doug Kezirian, Tyler Fulghum, Joe Fortenbaugh, Anita Marks and Erin Dolan, fantasy and sports betting analysts Eric Moody and Andre Snellings, ESPN Stats & Information's Seth Walder, and Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz offer their insights into the games with tips and picks.
Note: Lines from Caesars Sportsbook unless otherwise indicated.
The Minnesota Vikings (-4, 47.5) kick off the weekend hosting the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday. The Vikings, despite losing two of their past four, can clinch the NFC North with a win. Do you see them covering vs. the Colts, who have lost six of their past seven?
Schatz: I've led the parade of analysts recognizing that the Vikings are overrated based on their win-loss record, but they are in a good spot here because the Colts are really bad. Indianapolis is currently dead last in offensive DVOA, and the Colts are far worse than the rest of the league, with a huge gap between them (and the Texans) and everyone else. The gap between the Colts and Texans and the other 30 teams is roughly equal to the gap between No. 20 Pittsburgh and No. 30 Denver. So even though the Colts have an average defense and the Vikings have been pretty average all around, I think it's easy to take Vikings -4 at home here.
Kezirian: I am with Aaron on this and am on Minnesota. While the Vikings have their issues, particularly on defense, Indy should not keep this competitive. I do have slight concern with the Colts off a bye, but that's it. Indy still has weak quarterback play, and while Matt Ryan has found success on deep throws, any drive can crumble because of the poor offensive line. If the Vikings have any serious playoff aspirations, they need to handle their business.
The Buffalo Bills (-7, 44) look to clinch a playoff spot and move closer to the AFC East title when they host the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night. Miami won the first match of these teams back in Week 3 and had the division lead before losing out west the past two weeks. Do you see this as a bounce-back spot for Miami to cover and/or win, or do you think the Bills repeat what the Niners and Chargers did to Miami the past two weeks?
Fortenbaugh: Buffalo makes for an excellent 6-point teaser option at -1, perhaps with Philadelphia teased down to -3 at Chicago. I know that isn't your classic Wong 6-point teaser play, but Chicago's defense won't be able to keep it within a field goal on Sunday. Despite the concerns about Buffalo's recent production, the Bills have still won four straight games by an average of eight points per game. As for Miami, this is its third road game in as many weeks and its QB has looked brutal during the first two matchups of this current stretch (28-of-63, which is just 45.9% completions!). The weather on Sunday won't favor Miami's offense in any way at all.
Fulghum: I really like the Bills to move the Dolphins' losing streak to three games and do so in convincing fashion. One of my favorite bets of the weekend is Bills -7. This is a terrible situational spot for Miami. This is a third straight road game in an environment that is going to be extremely difficult. Not only will Tua Tagovailoa and coach Mike McDaniel be dealing with the raucous Buffalo crowd, sub-freezing temps, wind and potential precipitation, but also a Buffalo defense that is more than capable in terms of coaching and personnel of mimicking what the 49ers' and Chargers' defenses did to muzzle the Miami offense. Tagovailoa has never won a game played below 50 degrees. In fact, those three losses also represent the three worst games he has played in the NFL measured by QBR. Advantage, Bills.
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The red-hot Detroit Lions are in New Jersey to face the New York Jets (-1, 44.5) on Sunday. Both teams are firmly in their respective conference playoff races. Which team do you like here?
Fulghum: As long as Mike White is under center, I like the Jets. The Lions have to win football games right now with an efficient passing game, and this sets up as a bad spot for Jared Goff to achieve ceiling efficiency. First off, this game is in East Rutherford, where Goff will be exposed to the elements. Secondly, Robert Saleh's pass defense is legitimately one of the elite units in the league. The Jets are adept at both pressuring the quarterback and covering the pass-catchers. Meanwhile, the Lions' pass defense continues to hemorrhage production to opposing QBs and WRs (see: Kirk Cousins + Justin Jefferson last week). As long as White is healthy enough to play, he has proved he is more than capable of accessing a Jets passing game ceiling with weapons like Garrett Wilson against substandard passing defenses. Advantage, Jets.
Schatz: My worry here is about the Lions on the road in the cold weather of the Northeast. The passing game has very strong home/road splits this year. At home, the Lions rank seventh in passing DVOA. On the road, they rank 20th. It's certainly true that the efficiency of the Lions' attack might be a lot stronger indoors. I will also note that Goff's QBR this year drops from 62 to 52 when opponents send just four pass-rushers, and the Jets have a strong front four and therefore need to blitz less than almost any other defense. It's a very even matchup, but for those reasons I lean toward Jets -1.
Kezirian: I too like the Jets, assuming Mike White plays. First off, the Lions have to run out of steam at some point. But most importantly, this is about Goff's struggles in cold weather. In nine career games with the temperature below 40 degrees, Goff owns a 30 QBR with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Snellings: I like the Lions +1 here. The Jets have the stronger defense and the elements, but the Lions have the more complete offense from top to bottom. They have a plethora of receiving options, but they also have the stronger ground game, particularly near the goal line. Plus, despite their well-earned reputation from earlier in the season, the Lions' defense has been solid enough of late. I like the Lions to keep the momentum going.
What are the most important things our analytics say?
Walder: Here are two sides against the spread that our Football Power Index likes.
Baltimore Ravens (-3, 38) at Cleveland Browns
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland
FPI prediction: Ravens by 3.3*
The model is normally down on backup quarterbacks, but Tyler Huntley has proved himself as a capable backup and the model recognizes that. Huntley has a 56 QBR over the course of his career, which isn't bad! Over those same three seasons (obviously in a much larger sample), Lamar Jackson has recorded a 61. There is a huge caveat to our number. As of this writing, the model was splitting the forecast between Jackson and Huntley. It will adjust down once it knows Jackson is out and Huntley is in. But I feel fairly certain as long as you're getting the full three points from the Browns, FPI will be on your side.
It doesn't hurt that Deshaun Watson has played poorly (48 QBR, completion percentage over expectation of -5%) in his two games this year.
Dallas Cowboys (-4, 48) at Jacksonville Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
FPI prediction: Cowboys by 7.9
This disagreement with the market is, I believe, a reflection on the FPI not putting too much extra stock in what happened last week. The Cowboys barely squeaked by the lowly Texans a week ago, and the Jaguars beat the Titans by two touchdowns. It's a nice sign for Jacksonville, to be sure. But the image of the Cowboys obliterating the Vikings and Colts lingers in the FPI's proverbial mind.
What is your favorite bet for this weekend's games?
Fortenbaugh: Call me foolish, but I think Dallas -4 at Jacksonville is cheap. The look-ahead price here was Dallas -5.5, but the Cowboys laid an egg last Sunday against the lowly Texans while Jacksonville beat the Titans, so recency bias is in full effect. Remember something: Dallas didn't lose on Sunday, but that's as close as you can get, so the Cowboys should be on high alert this weekend. The last time we saw Dallas fall was in Week 13 at Green Bay when the Cowboys were off the bye. Big D followed up that disaster with a 37-point annihilation of the Vikings the following week.
Fulghum: Eagles team total over 28 points (-137). This might feel like chasing points with the Philadelphia offense, but it's hard not to like this spot for Jalen Hurts and the Bird Gang O. The Chicago Bears' defense is allowing 33.5 PPG over its past six contests. That coincides with the team trading away LB Roquan Smith and DE Robert Quinn, plus the season-ending injury to S Eddie Jackson. Those were about the only three legit NFL defenders the Bears had on the roster. Meanwhile, Hurts is the odds-on favorite for league MVP. Miles Sanders is already over 1,000 yards rushing this season. A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith might be the best WR duo in the league. Philly just hung 48 on the Giants with ease. The Eagles can play 63% as well as they did in Week 14 against a tougher defense and still win this bet on Sunday.
Schatz: My favorite bet of the week is Cincinnati at Tampa Bay over 44. The Bengals are currently fifth in offensive DVOA. The Buccaneers are 17th but 13th passing the ball. Yes, you read correctly. The Tampa Bay passing game is, in fact, above average -- no matter how slow things have seemed the past couple of weeks. On top of that, the Buccaneers run the fastest-paced offense in the league with one play every 25 seconds of clock time. Even with the Bengals missing Tyler Boyd and possibly Tee Higgins and even with two above-average defenses, I think this game is going to see a lot of points.
Moody: Eagles over 3.5 total touchdowns (+100). The Philadelphia offense has been dominant all season, ranking third with 392.0 total yards per game and first with 29.7 points per game. The Bears' defense has allowed 25.6 points per game. Philadelphia's offensive line ranks second in run-block win rate, and the Eagles' running game should thrive against a Chicago defense that allows the sixth-most rushing yards per game. There is a good chance that the Eagles will surpass 3.5 total touchdowns in this game.
Snellings: Panthers -3 over Steelers. The Panthers have played well since their coaching and quarterback change, while the Steelers have all types of questions at quarterback with Kenny Pickett in the concussion protocol. I don't have much confidence in Mitch Trubisky, and I just read that Diontae Johnson is campaigning for Mason Rudolph, which is a bigger "no" for me. I'll give the points and take the Panthers, who still have a chance to win their division.
What is your favorite player prop for Sunday?
Schatz: Austin Ekeler under 88.5 combined rushing and receiving yards (-117). The Tennessee Titans are No. 1 in run defense DVOA and add on to that by ranking third in DVOA against running backs as receivers. They rank eighth against short passes but dead last against deep passes. Everything about the Titans' defense is built to funnel passes to your wide receivers downfield.
Moody: Adam Thielen over 4.5 receptions (+102). It's been an epic season for Justin Jefferson as the Vikings' No. 1 receiver. As the Vikings' No. 2 receiver, Thielen benefits from playing alongside Jefferson and plays a possession role for the offense. Minnesota ranks fifth with 38.5 pass attempts per game and eighth with 246.4 passing yards per game. Thielen has averaged 7.0 targets and 4.8 receptions per game this season. There is a strong chance he'll rack up receptions against the Colts' secondary, especially when Indianapolis uses single-high coverage.
Walder: Tyus Bowser under 0.75 sacks (-215 at DraftKings). Sure, the payout is limited, but I'm inclined to trust my sack model, which has performed well this season. It puts Bowser's chance to hit the over here at just 21%, meaning it thinks the fair price on the under ought to be -376. Bowser has two sacks in his past three games but has just an 11% pass rush win rate at Edge, which would rank 38th out of 47 players if he qualified. Deshaun Watson has had sack issues in the past -- and that is considered by the model -- but has been sacked on only 4.3% of dropbacks in a limited sample this season.