It always feels nice to get a pick right, but it somehow feels better when it’s a big contrarian pick. The models thought that the Chargers could cover against the Broncos a few weeks ago, and they missed by a point; on Thursday they thought they would cover and this time the Chargers came through with the outright win. In terms of picking against the spread a win is a win, but for the moneyline picks the models already have a +435 win booked, which basically means they can afford to be wrong on four other games and still be up a little. Assuming you can pick the right ones out, that’s why going with the underdog can be nice.
As for the actual football consequences of the game, Bill Barnwell covered most of them already. While I don’t think that the Broncos’ loss opens up the AFC playoff picture quite as much as he says, it certainly leaves more options than a win would have. It’s true that the Patriots now have more of a shot at the 1 seed, but they still have to actually win to get there. They have to end up at least tied with Denver (and ahead of Cincinnati) for that to happen, and they have two road games left: Miami and Baltimore. They then finish at home against Buffalo, which seems much more winnable. To be fair, Denver has two road games left as well, but they’re against Oakland and Houston as opposed to potential playoff teams. The Bengals, who Barnwell didn’t mention, have Minnesota and Baltimore at home; if they get through the Steelers this weekend and the Broncos manage to lose one more game, they could end up the 1 seed at 12-4. Let’s get to the model predictions and look at a few more key games.
Dolphins-Pats, as mentioned, is an important one. It would require them to win out and the Patriots losing out, but Miami can still win the division. That’s obviously unlikely, but it makes a New England win important. More reasonably, the Pats want to maintain their first-round bye while Miami just wants to make the playoffs at any spot. The Dolphins are about field goal underdogs (at least earlier in the week), but all three models have them as at least slight favorites; the Pats, despite their record, have only been modestly ranked by the models because their passing efficiency has been uncharacteristically low. I don’t have tons of confidence in Miami, but if they pull this off it would have a much bigger impact than the Chargers’ win.
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Cowboys-Packers is critical for two teams who pretty much have to win their divisions to make the playoffs. Dallas is a game behind Philly but has the tiebreaker (so far) and hosts them in week 17. They need to win to stay at least that one game behind so that they can try to take advantage of home field in a couple weeks; if they manage to win both games in the meantime while the Eagles lose both of theirs, I believe the week 17 game becomes irrelevant. So Dallas’ only option really is to win as much as possible. Green Bay, on the other hand, needs to jump two teams to win the NFC North. They can only get to 9-6-1 while Chicago and Detroit are both already 7-6; they have to win one more game than either of them to take the division. The Packers have a modicum of control on that front as they play the Bears in week 17, but that game is on the road and so their chances aren’t great regardless. But any hope they have starts this weekend by getting a win over Dallas. The Cowboys are big favorites, but even with Rodgers out I think the line is too high. I don’t know if the Packers will win, but they should at least cover.
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Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are up next. As mentioned above, the Bengals have a shot at the 1 seed if things go their way; they have the tiebreaker over the Colts, so they should end up 2nd or 3rd in any event. Obviously 1st or 2nd and a bye is preferable though, so the Bengals will want to win as much as possible. The Steelers, on the other hand, can only get to 8-8 and are on playoff life support. If they win out and get to 8-8, they still need Baltimore to end up no better than 8-8 (the Steelers have that tiebreaker), the Dolphins to lose out (Miami has that tiebreaker), the Titans to not also win out (Tennessee has that tiebreaker), the Chargers to end up no better than 8-8 (the Steelers have that tiebreaker), and the Jets to not win out. That’s a whole lot of needs, but it isn’t impossible. The Jets and Titans will probably not win out (the Jets will likely lose this weekend to Carolina, and while the Titans’ games are winnable they’re likely to drop one). Baltimore plays Detroit, New England, and the Bengals and could plausibly lose all three. The Chargers finish with the Chiefs, which is a losable game. Miami losing out is potentially the least possible item on the list (along with the Steelers winning all three in the first place), but it could happen.
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Finally we have Detroit and Baltimore. I talk about the Lions plenty, so we know what they’re playing for. As mentioned above with the Packers, the Lions would have to get one fewer win than Green Bay to fall behind them. The Packers are at Dallas, at Chicago, and have Pittsburgh at home, which smells like no better than 2-1 to me. Detroit has Baltimore at home on Monday night, the Giants at home, and finishes at Minnesota. Obviously an easier road; if you think the Packers can go 2-1, you have to assume the Lions would do at least that well. The Bears are in Cleveland for a game listed as pick ’em this weekend then go to Philly before hosting Green Bay. The good news for the Lions is that since they play each other in that week 17 game, there’s at least one guaranteed loss for the Bears or Packers. It would probably be better if the Bears managed to lose that one, since Detroit is relying on a tiebreaker there, but the next two Bears games are not freebies. Like Detroit, Baltimore is in the playoffs right now but they might not be favorites to stay there. You got a taste of all the possibilities when I talked about the Steelers, but for the Ravens the main goal is to at least stay even with Miami, who they have beat on the tiebreaker. They’re also ahead of the Jets and Chargers. The Jets and Miami play each other in week 17, so that’s good for Baltimore, but otherwise they have by far the most difficult set of games remaining out of those teams. They need a win to take a little pressure off against New England and Cincinnati. I sure hope they don’t.
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Finally, there are obviously a lot of ‘one-sided’ games this weekend in that one team is in the playoff hunt but their opponent is not. There are a couple of pseudo-important games in that group, like Carolina-Jets (technically both in the hunt, but the Jets don’t have much of a shot at all) and Tennessee-Arizona (both in the hunt, but the Titans are pretty much dead). Things should clear up a bit after this week, so keep an eye on as many games as you can!