With only three weeks left in the regular season, this is a good time to zero in on favorable matchups. Look for those “Playing for a Ring vs. Playing out the String” contests. There are a number of such games this week: Eagles-Giants, Saints-Jets, Vikings-Bengals, Jaguars-Texans, Falcons-Bucs and Ravens-Browns.
Favorites went 7-8 against the spread (ATS) last week, but should have a big showing in Week 15. Favorites and underdogs are tied at 97-97-9 for the season.
My most confident picks ATS this week: Chargers, Vikings, Panthers, Falcons and Patriots. Two tricky games to avoid: Cardinals-Redskins and Cowboys-Raiders.
PATRIOTS (10-3) AT STEELERS (11-2)
TV: Ch. 2, 4:25 p.m.
Patriots by 3; O/U: 53.5
Not only is this the best game of Week 15, it’s the marquee match of the 2017 season. The winner will all but lock up home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs, and there’s a good chance we’ll see a rematch in five weeks with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The Steelers have been living on the edge the last three weeks, needing last-second field goals to beat Brett Hundley’s Packers, Andy Dalton’s Bengals and Joe Flacco’s Ravens. That kind of high-wire act won’t cut it against Tom Brady’s Patriots. That the Pats are coming off a bad loss at Miami on Monday night only adds to why New England is the play here. After two previous losses this season, the Pats responded the next week with road wins. The Steelers have the offensive weapons to keep this close, but their defense won’t contain Brady & Co. The return of Rob Gronkowski will be huge, and just look at Brady’s numbers against the Steelers: 7-2 with 24 touchdowns to only three interceptions while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. Brady is also Mr. December: 55-11 for his career. And then there’s this eye-opening stat courtesy of Wagertalk.com: The Pats are 19-0 ATS off a loss with Brady when laying three points or less. The Pats have won four in a row against the Steelers, including two last season: one at Heinz Field (27-16) and then the AFC Championship Game at home (36-17). This should be closer, but expect Brady to bounce back from Monday night’s flop with a signature performance. Call it Pats 34, Steelers 27.
The pick: Patriots
BEARS (4-9) AT LIONS (7-6)
TV: NFL, 4:30 p.m.
Lions by 5.5; O/U: 44
Chicago played Detroit tightly in Week 11, losing, 27-24. The Bears have been a pesky underdog. The Lions should pull out a win at home, but expect Chicago to build off last week’s big road win, play with confidence and embrace the spoiler role as it earns a cover.
The pick: Bears
LOCK OF THE WEEK
CHARGERS (7-6) AT CHIEFS (7-6)
TV: NFL, 8 p.m.
Pick ’em; O/U: 46
It’s been the wild, wild AFC West, and this prime-time matchup is essentially for the division crown. The Chargers started 0-4 but have won seven of nine, while the Chiefs followed up a 5-0 start by dropping six of eight. Kansas City won the first meeting, 24-10, in Week 3, but this is a different Chargers team. Philip Rivers (8 TDs, 0 INTs), Keenan Allen (39 catches, 547 yards, 4 TDs) and the Bolts are playing lights out during a four-game win streak: 54-24, 28-6, 19-10 and 30-13 results. The Chiefs stopped a four-game skid with a big win over the Raiders last week, but the Chargers’ offense and defense should give KC trouble all night. L.A. has the pass rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to go with an opportunistic secondary that will give Alex Smith fits. In order for KC to win, it needs to hit on its big plays, and L.A. can take that away. On the other side, the Chiefs won’t be able to slow down Rivers, Allen and L.A.’s other offensive weapons. The Chargers snap a seven-game skid against the Chiefs with an all-around impressive win, completing the trek from 0-4 to the AFC’s “4” seed.
The pick: Chargers
SUNDAY’S 1 P.M. GAMES
EAGLES (11-2) AT GIANTS (2-11)
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Eagles by 7.5; O/U: 40.5
It’s not often that an 11-2 team has something to prove against a 2-11 opponent, but that’s the situation Philly finds itself in after losing Carson Wentz for the season. Nick Foles is arguably the best backup quarterback in the NFL, and while the Eagles will miss Wentz, they are still a legitimate contender to make the Super Bowl if they can wrap up home-field advantage. Philly has a number of speedy playmakers on offense, and as we saw last week in the Cowboys game, the Giants’ defense has issues containing big plays. The Eagles have a ton of depth on defense and a big-time pass rush, so it’s hard to see the Giants producing many points. Foles plays well and Philly makes a statement without Wentz. Bet the Eagles with conPHIdence.
The pick: Eagles
JETS (5-8) AT SAINTS (9-4)
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: ESPN (98.7)
Saints by 16; O/U: 47.5
If you’re of the mind where you can never pass up this many points, we understand. But hear us out. This is about as tough a spot as you can get for backup Bryce Petty, playing a solid defense that’s had extra rest after a tough loss to a rival in prime time. What’s the Jets’ ceiling for points? Maybe 17 if a bounce goes their way? The Jets are 1-5 on the road and just lost 23-0 at Denver. Drew Brees and his offensive weapons can run up the score in the dome and then the defense can tee off on Petty. Lay the points. This will be a rout.
The pick: Saints
PACKERS (7-6) AT PANTHERS (9-4)
Panthers by 2.5; O/U: 47
Can we stop with the “Aaron Rodgers is going to lead the Packers to the playoffs” talk? To steal a line from Rodgers, R-E-L-A-X. They’d have to win out just to have a shot, and they’re not winning Sunday. Carolina builds off an impressive win over Minnesota and controls this game from start to finish.
The pick: Panthers
BENGALS (5-8) AT VIKINGS (10-3)
Vikings by 11; O/U: 42
The Bengals appear to have packed it in, losing by 26 points to the Bears . . . at home! No one would blame them if they didn’t feel like packing for Minnesota, one of the NFL’s best home teams (5-1 overall and ATS). The Vikings last played at home in Week 11, a 24-7 win over the high-scoring Rams. Fresh off its first loss in two-plus months and with an eye on a first-round bye, the Vikings will dominate.
The pick: Vikings
TEXANS (4-9) AT JAGUARS (9-4)
Jaguars by 12; O/U: 38.5
First place? Check. Smash-mouth defense? Check. A trash-talking Blake Bortles? Check him out! These aren’t your uncle’s Jaguars. This is a big number for a division game, but Jacksonville will get after backup T.J. Yates and the final score should resemble the Jags’ 29-7 win at Houston in Week 1.
The pick: Jaguars
RAVENS (7-6) AT BROWNS (0-13)
Ravens by 7; O/U: 40
Cleveland had its chance at win No. 1 last week, leading 21-7 before a typical Browns meltdown. Baltimore has won four in a row and 17 of 19 against Cleveland, but the last four meetings in Ohio have been decided by six or fewer points. Still, Baltimore — which dominated at times Sunday night at Pittsburgh — should be able to cover and drop the Browns to 0-14.
The pick: Ravens
DOLPHINS (6-7) AT BILLS (7-6)
Bills by 3; O/U: 38.5
The forecast calls for some rain and snow, but as long as it’s not another white-out, you can take a shot with Miami here. Kenyan Drake will have success against a bad Bills’ run defense. Plus, Miami’s defense is coming off two dominant efforts, holding the Broncos and Patriots (0-for-11) to 1-for-24 on third downs.
The pick: Dolphins
CARDINALS (6-7) AT REDSKINS (5-8)
Redskins by 4; O/U: 41.5
Arizona has been hot in the desert lately, but the Cardinals have struggled on the road this season with four double-digit losses. Washington is also inconsistent, so it wouldn’t be a shock if this was close, but the slight edge goes to Kirk Cousins & Co. at home.
The pick: Redskins
4 P.M. GAMES
RAMS (9-4) AT SEAHAWKS (8-5)
Seahawks by 2.5; O/U: 47.5
Picking against Seattle at home is always risky, but going to go with a hunch here and say Jared Goff and Todd Gurley make a statement with the NFC West on the line. The Rams lost the first meeting, 16-10, in L.A. but that was when Seattle’s defense was healthy. This won’t be decided till the final minutes, maybe seconds. Give me the Rams to win it on a late kick.
The pick: Rams
TITANS (8-5) AT 49ERS (3-10)
49ers by 2; O/U: 44.5
There’s a reason why the 3-10 team is favored over the 8-5 team. Jimmy Garoppolo has led San Fran to two wins on the road since he took over, and the 49ers will be pumped for his first home start. Tennessee’s offense is shaky, and its secondary can be beaten. Kyle Shanahan dials up some creative plays as — dare we say it? — the 49ers win their third in a row.
The pick: 49ers
COWBOYS (7-6) AT RAIDERS (6-7)
TV: Ch. 4, 8:30 p.m.
Cowboys by 3; O/U: 45.5
Expect Oakland to show up at home in prime time a week after a no-show in Kansas City. Still, Dallas has more to play for, and with Ezekiel Elliott scheduled to return next week, the Cowboys will continue their playoff push as Dak Prescott exploits a bad defense.
The pick: Cowboys
FALCONS (8-5) AT BUCS (4-9)
TV: ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
Falcons by 6; O/U: 49
Julio Jones had 12 catches for 253 yards and two TDs in the Falcons’ 34-20 win over the Bucs in Week 12. Atlanta needs to win as it fights for a playoff spot, and Tampa Bay looks as if it just wants an underachieving season to be over already. Expect Matt Ryan and Jones to put up big numbers again and win comfortably.
The pick: Falcons
Staff picks and standings
(best bets in bold)
JOE MANNIELLO 94-105-9, 3-11 best bets
Last week: 6-10
Bears Chargers Eagles Saints Panthers
Vikings Jaguars Ravens Dolphins Redskins
Patriots Rams 49ers Cowboys Falcons
BOB GLAUBER 93-106-9, 8-6
Last week: 7-9
Lions Chiefs Eagles Saints Panthers
Vikings Jaguars Ravens Bills Redskins
Steelers Seahawks 49ers Cowboys Falcons
TOM ROCK 101-98-9, 6-7-1
Last week: 8-8
Lions Chargers Eagles Jets Panthers
Vikings Jaguars Ravens Dolphins Cardinals
Steelers Rams 49ers Raiders Falcons
CALVIN WATKINS 92-92-8, 6-7
Last week: 8-8
Lions Chargers Giants Saints Panthers
Vikings Jaguars Ravens Dolphins Redskins
Steelers Seahawks Titans Cowboys Falcons