For football fanatics, the best part about Christmas Eve falling on a Saturday is that a full slate of NFL games arrives a day earlier than usual. While two of the week’s best games are saved for Christmas Day (and night) — Ravens at Steelers and Broncos at Chiefs — there’s plenty of games on Saturday that could wrap up some teams’ playoff trips before kids unwrap their presents Sunday morning.
There are a number of intriguing matchups this week, with a lot of tough point spreads, too. Division rivals are in position to play spoiler, something to keep an eye on the final two weeks.
Underdogs went 8-7-1 against the spread (ATS) last week, meaning that through 15 weeks, it’s a split: Favorites and underdogs are both 106-106-11 ATS. Look for underdogs to be in a lot of games this week.
JETS (4-10) AT PATRIOTS (12-2), 1 p.m. Saturday
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: ESPN (98.7)
Patriots by 16.5; O/U: 44
The Jets are in last place, and the Patriots clinched another AFC East title, but this spread feels too high. The Pats will be more than happy to win 20-7 or 24-10, won’t they? If New England wins by three touchdowns, it wouldn’t be a shocker, but the guess here is that the Jets will show up enough to earn the cover. They outplayed the Pats in the teams’ first meeting this season before faltering late and falling, 22-17. Seven of the teams’ last meetings have been decided by a touchdown or fewer, and while this game won’t be that close, the safe play is to take the points. If the Jets can score 10-14 points, that should be enough to put them in position for a cover. Is that too much to ask, Bryce Petty?
The pick: Jets
SATURDAY’s 1 p.m. GAMES
FALCONS (9-5) AT PANTHERS (6-8)
Falcons by 3; O/U: 52
Rewind to last season’s Week 16: The 14-0 Panthers’ perfect season ended in Atlanta. Now, Carolina would love to help stop the Falcons’ pursuit of the NFC South title. Only problem: Atlanta is really, really good. Its defense has picked up its play, and the offense averages an NFL-best 33.5 points per game. Julio Jones is ready to play and he lit up the Panthers for 300 receiving yards in the Falcons’ 48-33 win in Week 4. The defending NFC champs showed they haven’t packed it in, beating Washington on Monday night. They’ll bring it against a division rival and keep it close, but the Falcons’ high-flying offense will make enough plays to earn the cover.
The pick: Falcons
VIKINGS (7-7) AT PACKERS (8-6)
Packers by 6.5; O/U: 43
TV: Ch. 5
The Packers, currently the NFC’s sixth seed, won their fourth straight last week while the Vikings were crushed at home by 28 points. Green Bay will win this one going away, right? Well, you see, if picking NFL games ATS were that easy, the books would be closed in Vegas. For starters, this is a division rivalry, and those games tend to be close. Also, Green Bay allowed Chicago to tie it at 27 after trailing 27-10 last week, and its defense has holes. Minnesota will show up after an embarrassing home loss and keep this division battle within the number.
The pick: Vikings
TITANS (8-6) AT JAGUARS (2-12)
Titans by 4.5; O/U: 44
Before the season, Tennessee and Jacksonville were popular picks to compete for a division title. Entering Week 16, the Titans are doing just that while the Jaguars just fired their coach. The Titans will be AFC South champs if they win their final two games. They could have a letdown after a thrilling win at Kansas City, but it’s hard to bet against them right now.
The pick: Titans
LOCK OF THE WEEK
REDSKINS (7-6-1) AT BEARS (3-11)
Redskins by 3; O/U: 47
The Redskins entered Monday night’s game against the Panthers controlling their own destiny: Win the final three games and they’d be in the playoffs. And, as is often the case in the unpredictable NFL, the team with nothing to play for outplayed the team with everything to play for. So ask yourself this: Do you think Washington, on a short week, is going to be pumped up to play a 3-11 Bears team on the road? Chicago plays hard every week, and if you’ve followed their games the last five weeks (thanks, NFL RedZone), you’ll know that they had a realistic chance to go 5-0 instead of 1-4. That includes back-to-back three-point losses to the NFC North’s top two teams, the Lions and Packers. The Redskins’ defense can’t stop anyone, so look for Matt Barkley and Alshon Jeffery to have a big day in the passing game. In a lost season, the Bears will give their fans a gift on Christmas Eve with a win in their home finale.
The pick: Bears
DOLPHINS (9-5) AT BILLS (7-7)
Bills by 4.5; O/U: 42
The Dolphins will make the playoffs if they win their final two games while the Bills are a long, long, long shot to make it. You gotta go with Miami getting the points, right? Not so fast. If you don’t think the Bills like playing spoiler, just ask the Jets, who were KO’d from playoff contention in Week 17 at Buffalo last season. Speaking of the Jets, they made Matt Moore look like a starter and not a backup, but he won’t have the same kind of success this week. Don’t just take the Dolphins because they have more to play for, and remember that they were crushed, 38-6, in Baltimore three weeks ago. Miami has lost four straight at Buffalo, and that trend will continue.
The pick: Bills
CHARGERS (5-9) AT BROWNS (0-14)
Chargers by 5.5; O/U: 43.5
At 0-14, you’d probably think the Browns are the unluckiest team in the NFL. Not. Even. Close. It’s the Chargers, who are 5-9 but if not for so many bad breaks in the first-plus month of the season easily could’ve started 5-0. Philip Rivers won’t lose against a Cleveland team that has lost its last four home games by an average of nearly 17 points.
The pick: Chargers
SATURDAY’s 4 p.m. GAMES
BUCS (8-6) AT SAINTS (6-8)
Saints by 3; O/U: 52.5
TV: Ch. 5
The best part about playing a division foe twice in two weeks is that you don’t have to wait long for payback. New Orleans lost a tough one, 16-11, at Tampa Bay in Week 14. Expect a lot more points in this one as Drew Brees & Co., who last week scored 48 points at Arizona, look for revenge. The Bucs’ playoff push took a hit in Dallas on Sunday night, and the feeling here is that the extreme low after a five-game win streak will carry over to New Orleans.
The pick: Saints
COLTS (7-7) AT RAIDERS (11-3)
Raiders by 3.5; O/U: 53
The Colts had the most impressive win of Week 15, crushing the Vikings by four touchdowns on the road. Oakland’s defense allows the third-most yards in the NFL, a clear step down from Minnesota’s, so Indy could pull off another road upset. Yes, the Raiders are playing for a first-round bye, but there’s a good chance they could face a letdown after celebrating the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2002. Don’t forget: The Raiders needed second-half rallies at home to beat the Panthers and the Bills. Take the points, and don’t be surprised if the Colts win a 34-27 type of game.
The pick: Colts
CARDINALS (5-8-1) AT SEAHAWKS (9-4-1)
Seahawks by 7.5; O/U: 43
Notice the ‘1’ in each team’s record? The NFC West rivals played one of the more bizarre games you’ll ever see in Week 7, a 6-6 tie in which both teams’ kickers missed chip-shot field goals in overtime. Arizona just allowed 48 points at home, so you have to think they’ll play with a purpose on defense after such a poor showing. Also, a division rivalry game like this tends to be close, so this just feels like too many points.
The pick: Cardinals
49ERS (1-13) AT RAMS (4-10)
Rams by 4; O/U: 39
The Rams have scored 10 or fewer points in eight of their games, but only once were they shut out — a 28-0 loss at San Francisco in Week 1. The 49ers haven’t won since. Los Angeles, playing its first home game since Jeff Fisher’s firing and having had more than a week off, will get payback as Jared Goff and Todd Gurley both put up big numbers against the NFL’s worst defense.
The pick: Rams
BENGALS (5-8-1) AT TEXANS (8-6)
Pick’em; O/U: 42
Houston’s win over Jacksonville last week was, in a word: Savage. Texans fans cheered when Brock Osweiler got benched, then cheered some more as backup Tom Savage led a comeback win. Savage looked good, and with Houston most likely needing a win to set up a winner-take-AFC South Week 17 matchup with Tennessee, expect the Texans to give everything against a Cincinnati team that last week gave everything against Pittsburgh, and still lost. DeAndre Hopkins and the Texans’ defense have big nights.
The pick: Texans
RAVENS (8-6) AT STEELERS (9-5), 4:30 p.m.
Steelers by 5; O/U: 44.5
This is the toughest game of the week to pick. A Steelers win gives them the AFC North title, but it won’t be easy against a Ravens defense that allows 18.8 points per game and the second-fewest rushing yards per game (82.1) in the NFL. The Ravens beat the Steelers, 21-14, in Week 9 in a game that wasn’t that close. Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t at 100 percent, though, which played a big factor. The Steelers’ offense is unstoppable when its firing on all cylinders, but last week had to settle for six field goals before a late touchdown completed a rally in Cincinnati. In a rivalry game with the division on the line, getting more than four points feels as if it’s a double-digit spread. The Steelers should have enough at home to pull out a win, but the Ravens are a live underdog. They’ve beaten the Steelers four in a row and six of seven, and with their season on the line, there’s no reason to think they can’t keep this a field-goal game.
The pick: Ravens
BRONCOS (8-6) AT CHIEFS (10-4), 8:30 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4
Chiefs by 3; O/U: 37
Things to do in Denver when your season is slipping away? Fight amongst yourselves, of course. After last week’s 16-3 loss to the Patriots, the Broncos’ secondary and offensive line had a spat in the locker room. The defense has done its job, but the offense has scored a total of just 13 points the last two weeks as the Broncos are on the outside looking in for the playoffs. It’s hard to see Denver’s offense regrouping at Arrowhead Stadium and lighting up a Chiefs team that will be angry after last week’s meltdown against Tennessee. The Chiefs won at Denver in Week 12, an overtime thriller that ended on an off-the-upright-and-through field goal with no time left. This one will be close, too, but there won’t be as much drama: Chiefs win and cover with their signature trio of solid defense, superb special teams and just enough offense.
The pick: Chiefs
LIONS (9-5) AT COWBOYS (12-2), 8:30 p.m.
Cowboys by 7.5; O/U: 44.5
All the Lions do is play close games, and this should be another one with a lot on the line. This will be the Cowboys’ fourth straight prime-time game, and fifth in a row on national TV. They’re 3-1 in those games, but 0-4 ATS. Gut instinct says Matthew Stafford has a big game against a suspect Cowboys secondary, and keeps this close for the cover.
The pick: Lions
Staff picks and standings (best bets in bold)
Record: 118-95-11 overall, 10-5 best bets
Last week: 8-7-1
Jets Falcons Vikings Titans Bears
Bills Chargers Saints Colts Cardinals
Rams Texans Ravens Chiefs Lions
Record: 110-103-11 overall, 8-7 best bets
Last week: 6-9-1
Patriots Panthers Packers Titans Redskins
Bills Browns Saints Raiders Cardinals
Rams Bengals Ravens Chiefs Cowboys
Record: 122-91-11 overall, 6-8-1 best bets
Last week: 9-5-1
Patriots Falcons Packers Titans Redskins
Dolphins Chargers Bucs Raiders Seahawks
Rams Bengals Steelers Chiefs Lions
KIMBERLEY A. MARTIN
Record: 99-114-11 overall, 9-5-1 best bets
Last week: 5-10-1
Jets Falcons Packers Titans Redskins
Dolphins Chargers Bucs Raiders Cardinals
49ers Bengals Steelers Chiefs Cowboys