Week 15 in the NFL has provided tremendous entertainment value since it kicked off last Thursday, and in a throwback to 2020, it isn’t close to over, with a pair of games on Monday and Tuesday that ensure employers across America will get zero productivity from the NFL fans in their workforce during Christmas Week.
Sunday had its own implications, including Green Bay narrowly defeating Baltimore to pull into first place in the NFC, but any discussion of Week 15 in the NFL has to start with how the Thursday Night game set Kansas City up to win the AFC. All odds are provided by DraftKings.
Kansas City is the Favorite for the 1 Seed but AFC Title race remains open
The math behind Chargers head coach Brandon Staley’s aggressive decision-making may be valid, but the more the Chargers trend toward exclusively going for touchdowns over field goals, the more questionable the strategy becomes, particularly in the context of the NFL’s condensed schedule.
In theory, this strategy yields value on the margins over time, but unlike the MLB, where teams play 162 games, the NFL only plays 17, and the bad stretch the Chargers went through this week, when they passed up three field-goal attempts and failed to convert any of the fourth down attempts, ended their hopes of winning the AFC West in a game where they generally outplayed Kansas City. It is an advantage to understand the different projected expected values on decisions throughout an NFL game, but perhaps aggressive gambles should be made on a situational basis, rather than with the rigid approach Staley has employed; after all, people probably started calling this “situational football” for a reason. That Thursday Night game essentially sealed the AFC West for Kansas City and the Chiefs continued to get favorable breaks after the win, as the Colts and Steelers defeated the Patriots and Titans to help Kansas City’s cause.
Quarterback Carson Wentz’s performance in the Colts’ 27-17 win over the Patriots must have left many Colts fans with mixed emotions; it should have been a night to celebrate, as the Colts beat a New England team as hot as any in the NFL, got critical interceptions from their star linebacker tandem of Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke, and saw running back Jonathan Taylor extend his NFL-leading rushing total with a 170-yard performance capped by a game-sealing 67-yard score.
Then there’s Wentz. The quarterback went 5 of 12 for 57 yards in the game and threw utterly inexplicable passes into packs of defenders throughout the game despite his team holding a two-score lead after a blocked punt touchdown. It is difficult to make multiple bad decisions on 12 pass attempts, but Wentz did just that, and the pick he threw to Patriots safety Devin McCourty played a critical role in New England’s second-half rally to get this game from 20-0 to 20-17 before Taylor’s run put the game away.
It is difficult to take the Colts seriously as one of the NFL’s Super Bowl contenders when Wentz continues to produce these types of moments on the stages. Indianapolis heads to Arizona on Christmas Day before finishing with the Raiders and Jaguars, a schedule that should allow them to reach the NFL Playoffs, but unless Wentz gets it together, it is hard to imagine the Colts making noise once they get there.
The same is true of the Titans, who will have to consider cutting ties with receiver Julio Jones this offseason after the veteran receiver’s latest early exit. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee offense desperately needed a spark, but Jones was unable to provide it, as a bad hamstring forced him from the game before halftime. Without Jones, Tannehill was unable to get much going on offense as the Titans let a lead slip away to the Steelers. Tannehill threw his 14th interception of the NFL season, which puts him at 14 touchdowns and 14 picks, a brutal ratio for a supposed franchise quarterback pick. With San Francisco, Miami, and Houston left on the schedule, the once far-fetched possibility of the Titans letting the Colts come back in the AFC South race will look very real if the Colts knock off the reeling Cardinals and the Titans lose to a hot 49ers team, which would put Indianapolis and Tennessee both at 9-6.
The standings broke their way, but it isn’t all sunshine and gumdrops in Kansas City either; for all the things that went right for the Chiefs this week, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the offense are still struggling to find a consistent rhythm. Kansas City got the win, but if they meet Los Angeles in the playoffs, some bettors would likely back the Chargers, who have already won in Kansas City this season, albeit under different weather conditions than they would face in January.
The Chiefs are now -300 on DraftKings to be the AFC’s number one seed, with the Patriots in second at +350, but the odds for the AFC Winner remain more open, with Kansas City at +200 and Buffalo and New England tied at +400. Indianapolis has jumped up to +800, which makes the Chargers an interesting long-shot at +1600. The Chargers finish with the Texans, Broncos, and Raiders, which should allow them to make the NFL Playoffs as a Wild Card, and based on what NFL fans have seen from Justin Herbert at his best, it is hard to count the Chargers out of any game, with the possible exception of Herbert’s nemesis in New England.
The records are what the records are, but if you asked a panel of NFL analysts who the best team in the AFC is right now, answers would be all over the place. Given how certain teams match up against each other, the seeding in the AFC is likely to have a significant impact on which team advances to the Super Bowl at the end of this NFL season.
Packers Alone Atop the NFC
It took a stop on a two-point conversion with the game in the balance, but the Packers survived against Baltimore despite an outstanding performance from Ravens backup quarterback Tyler Huntley, who led his team in rushing with 73 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns. Huntley came up one play short, however, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers added to his MVP case with a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance that tied him with Brett Favre for most touchdown passes in Packers history.
Green Bay was already flying high after a division “rival”, the Detroit Lions, gave them a boost by knocking off the Cardinals earlier in the day, and the day got even better when the Saints pulled off an upset victory over the Bucs with a 9-0 win on Sunday Night Football. It all added up to the Packers sitting in first place at 11-3, with the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Cardinals at 10-4 and the Rams at 9-4 with a chance to make it a four-way tie for second with a victory over the Seahawks on Tuesday.
It was a tight game against Baltimore, but Green Bay’s performance throughout the NFL season arguably makes them a more convincing favorite in the NFC than Kansas City is in the AFC. Tampa Bay was neck and neck with Green Bay over the past month, but the Bucs have several critical injury questions coming out of Sunday Night’s loss to the Saints, and an Arizona team that extended their NFC West lead during Kyler Murray’s absence is suddenly on a two-game skid with their star quarterback at the helm.
As some of their competition threatens to fade, Green Bay is set to move in the opposite direction; the Packers have used caution bringing their trio of All-Pro caliber players back from injury, but there is no news of significant setbacks for left tackle David Bakhtiari, defensive end Za’Darius Smith, and cornerback Jaire Alexander as they look to return to the field ahead of the NFL Playoffs. The Packers clinched the NFC North this weekend and will finish the season with the Browns, the Vikings, and the Bears; at -200 on DraftKings, Green Bay still offers some value as the NFC’s Number One Seed and came out of the weekend as the favorite to win the NFC at +200. If the 49ers and Vikings were to round out the NFC Playoffs as the 6th and 7th seed, the Packers would face a deep, talented field, but while they could lose to any of those teams in the NFL’s single-elimination tournament, most would point to them as the conference’s best team on a neutral field.
Bengals and Ravens Play for the AFC North Lead in Week 16
Cincinnati took a long time to get in the endzone on Sunday, but after dropping games to the Chargers and 49ers in devastating fashion, quarterback Joe Burrow took command this week, answering Denver’s go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter with a 56-yard strike to Tyler Boyd that put the Bengals ahead for good. Cincinnati has been inconsistent on defense this season, but the group did its part last week, as they held the Broncos to 10 points and forced a fumble when Broncos quarterback Drew Lock drove the ball inside their 10-yard line after Burrow’s touchdown to Boyd.
It’s a stark contrast to the inept unit the Bengals fielded two years ago, which was the group that allowed Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson to throw a jaw-dropping spin move on the electric 47-yard touchdown run that put Jackson at the top of the 2019 NFL MVP race. Now Jackson enters this game playing for a contract extension; the Ravens have him under contract for 2023 on his fifth-year option, but the situation could become tense if Baltimore elects to allow the former NFL MVP to get into the final year of his contract, particularly as Jackson will only be 25 next year. If Jackson can rally the Ravens to an AFC North Title despite the myriad injuries dragging his team down, that contract extension seems likely, but it may be difficult to come to terms if Baltimore’s best quarterback performance in the second half of the NFL season ends up being Huntely’s performance against Green Bay.
Cincinnati’s win over Denver, combined with Baltimore’s loss to the Packers, made the Bengals the AFC North favorites on DraftKings at +150. If they beat Baltimore, there is a possibility that Cincinnati’s Week 18 game against Cleveland will determine the division if the Browns win two of three against the Raiders, Packers, and Steelers, but things are looking up for a Bengals team that was +2500 to win this division before the NFL season opened, particularly after Monday morning’s news that Cleveland quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum did not clear COVID protocols, which means the Browns will start Nick Mullens at quarterback against the Raiders.
This article recapped developments from around the NFL this weekend. For more of The Professor’s content check him out on BeerLife Sports!
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.
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