Week 15 of the NFL season is special for several reasons: it is the first weekend the NFL has games on Saturday, the byes are over and all 32 teams play, and the Prime Time games on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday Night Football all carry significant playoff implications. This first article in The Professor’s Games of the Week series covered the Thursday Night matchup between the Chiefs and Chargers, the Saturday Night game between the Patriots and Colts, and Sunday afternoon games between the Packers and Ravens and the Bengals at the Broncos, while this article will analyze the Football Team at the Eagles, the Titans at the Steelers, the Seahawks and Rams, and the Saints at the Buccaneers. All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
Washington Football Team at Philadelphia Eagles (PHI -9.5, Total 44)
The Football Team’s midseason rally came to a screeching halt when quarterback Taylor Heinicke and company ran into the Micah Parsons-led Dallas defense. While the Football Team did rally in the second half, they were outclassed in this game, and to make matters worse, Heinicke had to leave the game at times due to multiple injuries. His backup, Kyle Allen is one of many Washington players currently on the COVID list, a development that has had a significant impact on the line: the spread on this game opened at Eagles -3, but is up to Eagles -9.5 after the COVID outbreak for the Football Team. With the NFL shifting the testing rules for a player to return to action and the potential for more COVID outbreaks, there could be brief windows of opportunities for bettors to jump on value in the days and weeks to come; it will be interesting to see what happens to the line if some/all of Washington’s players are available by Sunday.
Philadelphia has roster questions of its own as quarterback Jalen Hurts was limited in practice after missing the game before their bye. Backup Gardner Minshew put together a terrific performance against the Jets, which could have some Philadelphia fans hoping for Minshew Mania 2.0 with Hurts coming off the worst performance of his career in a loss to the Giants, but Hurts had trended upward for a month before the Giants game and should rebound. Hurts is not the NFL’s most polished quarterback, but he continues to steadily improve and round out his game around his dynamic ability as a runner. He also allows the Eagles to run a more diverse offense; Minshew was able to play to his strengths as a quick processor and accurate passer against the Jets, but competent NFL defenses tend to take that away from him.
Both teams are 6-7 and have similar remaining schedules: they play each other twice and the Giants and Cowboys once in their final four games. To get to the 9-8 record they would likely need for an NFL playoff berth, either the Football Team or the Eagles would likely need to sweep their series or upset Dallas, a daunting task based on the way Dallas beat both teams earlier in the NFL season. It is slated to be a watered-down version of the Football Team, but with a rematch two weeks away, it will be interesting to see how the Washington defense approaches Philadelphia’s offense schematically if Hurts is available.
Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers (TEN -1, Total 43)
Tennessee will forever be known as the last NFL team to get a victory over former Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer, whose ineptitude set the Titans up with a much-need get-right game last weekend after losses to the Texans and Patriots. The Steelers had their own feel-good moment two weeks ago against the Ravens but came crashing back to Earth last week when the Vikings blew them out in the first half coughed up the lead before they thwarted Pittsburgh’s comeback attempt with some help from Steelers receiver Chase Claypool and his unusual decision to stop to celebrate a first down during a two-minute drill.
This game is close to a ‘pick-em, as DraftKings had Tennessee -1 at +100 and Pittsburgh +1 at +120 on Thursday evening, but while the teams are fairly even at this point in the NFL season, the Steelers are far more desperate. They likely need to win three of four to make the playoffs and their schedule only gets harder; they follow up this game up with a trip to Kansas City, a home game against the Browns, and a trip to Baltimore, while the Titans are secure in the playoff race with a two-game lead on the Colts in the AFC South with four games to play.
That desperation could be the difference in Pittsburgh’s favor given how these teams match up, though Titans running back D’Onta Foreman could play a significant factor in changing that narrative. The 6’1, 235 pound back has never played more than ten games or carried the ball more than 78 times in an NFL season, but he has averaged 4.1 yards per carry and brings some of the physical presence that Tennessee has missed with Henry sidelined. Pittsburgh’s defense has been bad against the run for months but was particularly atrocious against the Vikings last week; there were many candidates to include as an example, but the following play stuck out.
The Vikings start this play with receiver Justin Jefferson and running back Dalvin Cook flanking quarterback Kirk Cousins. Jefferson will go in an “orbit” motion behind Cousins and the Pittsburgh defender playing at linebacker depth will follow him across the formation.
The Steelers don’t make any additional adjustments to account for the fact that they do not have any players at linebacker depth from the right A gap (between right guard and center) to the left C gap (outside left tackle). That would be fine on 3rd and 10 or against Cousins in an empty set, but it is 2nd down, one of the best running backs in the NFL is lined up next to Cousins, and the defender who is in the best position to fill against the run is the safety standing out near the 50-yard line, ten yards off the ball, several yards outside the tackle box, and rolling out deep over the lone receiver to that side as a half-field defender.
The result is predictable. Cook goes for 30 on the carry.
It is impossible to say from the outside whether this is a coaching/scheme issue or a player/missed assignment issue, but given the dominant level this defense played at with good players under head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler over 2019 and 2020, it seems more likely that the players are overwhelmed mentally. No defensive coordinator wants to line up in relatively static defenses snap-to-snap, but something has to change in Pittsburgh, or opposing offensive coordinators will continue to get them into these disadvantageous alignments and offenses will run the ball on them, which will make it an uphill climb to the NFL playoffs.
Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams (LAR -5.5, Total 45)
The NFC West matchup between the rebounding Seahawks and the suddenly-hot Rams is another game marred by COVID, with 16 Rams in the protocol at the latest count and running back Alex Collins and receiver Tyler Lockett testing positive on Seattle’s side. Quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford are not among that number, however, and as long as that is true this will be a compelling matchup.
The first matchup between these quarterbacks was derailed by Wilson’s hand injury, but after both quarterbacks suffered through midseason slumps, they appear to be on top of their games heading into this matchup. Stafford was 23 of 30 last week and had arguably his best ball placement of the season, both in the short-to-intermediate areas and in the deep game, where Stafford showed off his elite arm on a dime to Van Jefferson on a deep post, one of his three touchdown passes in the game. Stafford almost always brings the spectacular; when he is efficient on top of that, he is an MVP-caliber player and can elevate the Rams into Super Bowl contention.
Another player working at an MVP level is defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who dominated from wire-to-wire against the Cardinals last week, getting to the quarterback on the first and last play of the game in addition to several other game-changing plays, and he will look to put an end to Russell Wilson’s rebound. The news on Tyler Lockett makes Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s status even more important to monitor from Seattle’s perspective; if Ramsey can go, it will be on Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf to step up and win the battle in a marquee matchup, or Wilson will need to rely on the relatively unproven group behind him.
A loss would guarantee that Seattle finishes below .500 and end their improbable second-half comeback story; the narrative could change if the Rams COVID outbreak continues to spread, but it would be a tall order for the Seahawks to go on the road and beat the Rams team that showed up against the Cardinals.
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TB -11, Total 46.5)
The last time these teams met, Trevor Siemian came on in relief of Jameis Winston and led the Saints to a 36-27 victory that pulled the two teams within a game of each other, with Tampa Bay at 6-2 and the Saints at 5-2. A lot has changed in the NFL since then.
Tampa has now essentially clinched the NFC South at 10-3 while the Saints sit at 6-7, but while this game is unlikely to affect the fate of the division, it is an opportunity for Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady to defeat the only NFC South team he has not beaten in the regular season with his new team. As Brady appears primed to dominate the division for another decade or so, he may be looking to serve notice to the Saints that things won’t be as easy moving forward.
NFL bettors aren’t concerned with these teams’ past results given the line of Tampa Bay -11, a reasonable position given the current disparity between the teams and the fact that Brady and the Bucs did beat the Saints in the playoffs last season. Tampa Bay’s defense is by no means impenetrable (it is the 2021 NFL, after all), but few defensive fronts are better equipped to stop the quarterback-centric run game the Saints have employed with Taysom Hill in recent weeks. It doesn’t hurt that the Bucs have several height-weight-speed freaks on defense, including nose tackle Vita Vea, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and linebacker Devin White; given Hill’s insistence on seeking out contact or attempting to hurdle defenders at the end of runs, there’s always a chance he will get blown up in a situation where the quarterback safety rules don’t protect him, and the Bucs have defenders who can generate a tremendous amount of force on their hits.
The Saints would fall to 6-8 with a loss, but desperation aside, it is difficult to see this team beating a Tampa Bay team that should come out focused for a showcase NFL game on Sunday Night Football. The total on this game has dropped from 48 to 46.5; the New Orleans defense is still talented and has given Brady some issues in the past, but Tampa’s defense could do the same against a Saints offense that lacks the receivers to attack the Bucs’ secondary, particularly as Tampa has gotten cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting back, which should improve the area long considered to be their Achilles’ heel.
This article previewed four prominent NFL matchups for the coming week and talked about how to bet them. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor 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.