Four weeks remain of the regular season. Carolina (12-0) is the lone unbeaten team and they are the first team to make the playoffs, having won the NFC South.
Entering 2015, eight teams started a season 12-0 during the Super Bowl era. Of those eight clubs, all eight made the playoffs, six advanced to the Super Bowl and four of those teams won the Super Bowl.
MyClubBetting handicapper and Lindy’s Sports UK Editor Simon Milham takes a look at the betting trends and some of the best bets ahead of Week 14 of the 2015/16 NFL season. The odds are correct at the time of writing and are industry average.
(Handicap is denoted by +/- for the home team)
MINNESOTA at ARIZONA
(-7.5, Total Points 46.5)
Fresh from their humbling 38-7 home defeat by Seattle, Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer told us something regular readers to this column would already have known, when he said: “We are not quite as good as we think we are.”
Zimmer handed the ball to Adrian Peterson juts eight times, which, even in third and long situations, would be the most obvious play-call with such an elite running back on the team. It is dumbfounding when your quarterback has turned into nothing more than a game-manager: Teddy Bridgewater has only three touchdown passes against four interceptions over the last six games, with just six completions longer than 25 yards in that span.
The Vikings (8-4) visit Arizona (10-2) before finishing the season with home games against the New York Giants and Chicago Bears, before what could be the NFC North title decider at Green Bay.
The Cardinals are playing for homefield advantage in the playoffs and Minnesota’s scalp looks ripe for the taking, with linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith, safety Robert Blanton and defensive tackle Linval Joseph all likely to miss out.
The Vikings have a decent record against the Cardinals, winning 10 of the last 12 meetings (including 3-2 on the road) and 12 of the last 15.
The injury woes point us towards the Cardinals, who have a quarterback in Carson Palmer playing at an MVP level, with 29 TD passes and approaching his fifth 4,000-yard season. The historical trends say it is a game to swerve, however.
VERDICT: MINNESOTA 17 ARIZONA 27
BEST BET: ARIZONA -7.5 @ 1.91
ATLANTA at CAROLINA
(-7.5, Total Points 46)
Carolina are gunning for history. The Miami Dolphins are the only team to have gone unbeaten throughout the season. Led by legendary coach Don Shula, the 1972 Dolphins were perfect.
The Panthers, whose offensive coordinator is Shula’s son, Mike, are 12-0 after sneaking past New Orleans and have already won the NFC South title.
Mike has a long way to go before matching “Shoes’” career tally of 347 career wins as a head coach – the most in history – but it won’t be too long before he is a head coach himself. Miami may well be the place where the 50-year-old will end up.
Trying to make a success of that dysfunctional franchise and follow in his father’s footsteps might be beyond him and, in any case, being sacked as head coach after three years at Alabama may have soured his enthusiasm for a head-coaching role. We digress.
Shula has created an offense around QB Cam Newton that is putting up 31 points per game – with no standout receivers – and the Panthers have every chance of going 16-0 in the regular season.
Atlanta, who have to face the Panthers twice in three weeks, are still very much in the NFC wildcard hunt at 6-6, chasing Tampa Bay (6-6), Seattle (7-5) and Minnesota (8-4).
The Falcons are in the midst of their worst run in series history, having lost four of the last five meetings with the Panthers, although they have won three of the last five meetings in Charlotte.
Carolina’s read-option attack will give the Falcons fits, but there is plenty on the line for the visitors and the pressure to remain unbeaten, coupled with an emotional let-down after winning the NFC South could see the victory margin closer than expected.
VERDICT: ATLANTA 23 CAROLINA 27
BEST BET: ATLANTA +7.5 @ 1.91
BUFFALO at PHILADELPHIA
(-1.5, Total Points 47)
With four games remaining, both teams are in a dog-fight to make the playoffs.
Last weekend, Buffalo (6-6) out-lasted Houston 30-21, while Philadelphia (5-7) snapped a four-game losing streak with a stunning 35-28 upset of New England.
The Bills have won five of the last seven meetings, including two of the last three meetings in Philadelphia. The Eagles have won just two of their last five home games.
One of the biggest side-shows is running back LeSean McCoy’s return to Philadelphia. In a magazine interview published in May, McCoy voiced his opinion that Eagles head coach Chip Kelly had “got rid of all the black players” – and there will no doubt be a hint of revenge in the air as far as he is concerned.
McCoy, the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher – tops the Bills in rushing with 792 yards, but the offense has been ticking over largely because of the play of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who has accumulated 176 completions for 2,171 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso, who is coming back from an ACL injury after being traded from Buffalo to Philadelphia as part of the McCoy trade, faces his former colleagues with plenty on the line.
The Eagles are in a tie for first place in the turgid NFC East with a 5-7 record along with Washington and the New York Giants, while Dallas is only a game back at 4-8.
The Eagles get to play both the Redskins and Giants again after home games with Buffalo and Arizona next week.
We side with the Eagles to cover a 1.5-point handicap at 1.91 and expect plenty of points; the line, currently set at 47, may well be eclipsed.
VERDICT: BUFFALO 24 PHILADELPHIA 31
BEST BET: PHILADELPHIA -1.5 @ 1.91
NEW ORLEANS at TAMPA BAY
(-3.5, Total Points 50.5)
The Saints have won seven of the last eight meetings with Tampa, although the Buccaneers will be shooting for their first season sweep over New Orleans since 2007, having beaten them 26-19 in September.
A Tampa loss will see the Arizona Cardinals clinch a play-off spot, regardless if they win or lose at home to Minnesota on Thursday, but the Bucs (6-6) are shooting for the play-offs themselves.
New Orleans (4-8) is playing the role of spoiler in the last four weeks, even though still mathematically still alive for post-season play.
Saints have lost their last four games and are an uninspiring 1-5 on the road. Tampa has to go on the road next week at St Louis before hosting Chicago at home.
Their final regular-season game comes against Carolina, who could rest starters in the final game of the season. Equally, they may still be shooting for an unbeaten season.
Consequently, we see this as a must-win game for Tampa and a ‘who-cares’ game for the ‘who-dat’ Saints. That can only mean one thing: We go for a home win with plenty of points and the reality will be the Saints will blow our bet, somehow, some way. Still…
VERDICT: NEW ORLEANS 28 TAMPA BAY 37
BEST BET: TAMPA BAY -3.5 @ 1.92
SAN FRANCISCO at CLEVELAND
(-1.5, Total Points 41)
This is not on everyone’s punting radar. Why would it be? These two teams are both heading in the wrong direction with a combined 6-18 record and each props up its respective division.
Cleveland, who have lost their last seven games, are one of the better bets of the week in our opinion… and we haven’t even touched the Christmas brandy yet.
The 49ers have won two of their last four games and are coming off a gritty win at Chicago. Blaine Gabbert, in for the benched and injured Colin Kaepernick, has thrown five touchdown passes and three interceptions in his four games. Back-up passer Dylan Thompson has not thrown a pass in his career, however.
The Niners’ starting running back Carlos Hyde has now missed five games through injury and back-up Reggie Bush is ruled out for the season.
Former Browns RB Shaun Draughn handles most of the rushing duties but he is far from an elite back. The key is the Niners’ offensive line. They rank 20th in rushing yards and have given up the fifth-most sacks.
Yet while they are better than the Browns’ unit (instability at left guard is a major issue), the defensive line is woeful and the Browns should be able to run the ball at will. That should open up the passing lanes for Johnny Manziel, who will look for top tight end Gary Barnidge (a fair price to score a TD at any time).
How bad are the 49ers? Look at the line. The Browns are favourites, having lost their last seven, and have won one of their last four trips to Cleveland. We take the hosts to… gulp… cover.
VERDICT: SAN FRANCISCO 14 CLEVELAND 23
BEST BET: CLEVELAND -1.5 @ 1.92
PITTSBURGH at CINCINNATI
(+3, Total Points 49.5)
Expect a barnstormer with plenty of offensive fireworks when these two AFC North rivals clash.
The Cincinnati Bengals (10-2) won the last meeting in Pittsburgh 16-10 and are looking for their first season sweep of the Steelers since 2009. They can clinch the division with a win and clinch a playoff sport with should either the New York Jets or Kansas City lose.
Since entering the NFL in 2011, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and can clinch a fifth consecutive postseason berth this weekend. Dalton would join Joe Flacco (five) as the only starting quarterbacks to lead a team to the playoffs in each of his first five NFL seasons.
With a win against Pittsburgh (7-5), Dalton (50) would also tie Ben Roethlisberger (51) for the third-most wins by a starting quarterback in his first five seasons during the Super Bowl era.
The Steelers have won four of the last five trips to the Queen City, and eight of the last 11 meetings overall.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin has an 89-51 regular-season record since taking the reins in 2007.
With a win at Cincinnati, Tomlin would join Pro Football Hall of Famer Chuck Noll (193) and Bill Cowher (149) as the third head coach in franchise history to reach 90 regular-season wins. Pittsburgh would be the first franchise in NFL history to have three different head coaches reach at least 90 career regular-season wins.
The Steelers are in pole position for an AFC wildcard spot, but have a number of teams staking up behind them, including the New York Jets (7-5), Kansas City Chiefs (7-5), Buffalo Bills (6-6) and Houston Texans (6-6). The Jets and Chiefs both have winnable home games this weekend, so this is a pivotal game for the Steelers.
The Steelers are sixth in scoring (25.9 points per game), while the Bengals (27.8ppg) are ranked fourth in the NFL, but the backend of the Steelers’ defense is the biggest concern for them – they rank 29th in the NFL, giving up an average of 275.5 yards per game.
Still, we think there is plenty for the Steelers to play for and a field-goal may be the difference either way. With that in mind, the half-point could be valuable.
VERDICT: PITTSBURGH 28 CINCINATTI 31
BEST BET: PITTSBURGH +3.5 @ 1.92
OTHER HANDICAP PREDICTIONS
BALTIMORE +6.5 over Seattle: Seattle has lost on both previous trips to Baltimore and the Ravens continue to keep things close against almost every opponent they have faced. This selection goes wildly against the form grain, however, so tread warily. Seahawks 23-17
WASHINGTON +3.5 at Chicago: Redskins won 11 of the last 13 meetings (including the last five) and six of the last seven in the Windy City. The Bears are coming off a tough loss to San Francisco and are unbelievably still in the hunt for an NFC wildcard. That’s almost as unbelievable as the 5-7 Redskins topping the NFC East. Redskins 23-21
JACKSONVILLE +6.5 over Indianapolis: Colts have won the last six in the series, but have not come away from Jacksonville having won four consecutive meetings (three currently). The Jaguars’ defense is wafer-thin but their attack continues to hum. Take the points. Colts 28-23
SAN DIEGO +9.5 at Kansas City: Chargers have not lost four consecutive meetings since 1990-92 (six consecutive defeats) and Philip Rivers, who is enjoying a great year despite the team’s record, may well keep this interesting. Chiefs 24-17
NY JETS -7 over Tennessee: Jets have won seven of the last 10 meetings and incredibly are in the frame to make the playoffs. How? We’ve no idea. They are a very ordinary outfit. The Titans are even more vanilla, however. Jets 31-13
ST LOUIS -1 over Detroit: Lions have won the last two meetings but have only once won three consecutive meetings since 1965. Not a game that enthuses us, but we take the Rams to edge a game that has no playoff implications. Rams 19-16
OAKLAND +7 at Denver: Denver can clinch the AFC West division with a win and a Kansas City loss. They earn a playoff berth with a win and either a loss by the Jets or Steelers. Raiders have lost the last eight in the series, their worst run of form against the Broncos in their history. They have lost the last three trips to Denver and have not lost on four consecutive meetings at Mile High since (1997-2000). The Broncos suddenly sniff a chance of the No1 seed in the AFC (they have the same record as New England and Cincinnati), and their stellar defense will ensure another routine home win. Oakland’s wildcard hopes will be extinguished should they lose, but this could be a tight affair. Broncos 34-31
GREEN BAY -6.5 over Dallas: Cowboys have lost four consecutive meetings and have not lost five consecutive in the series since 1960-68 (when dropping six in a row). At 4-8 the Cowboys are just a game out of first place in the NFC East. Ridiculous. Packers take charge at home, although they have several injuries themselves and it is a lofty spread to cover. Still… Packers 34-24
NEW ENGLAND -3 at Houston: Patriots have only ever lost once to Houston (2010) and can clinch the AFC East with a win or a New York Jets loss, while Houston can cement themselves in the wildcard race with a win. Patriots were incredibly sloppy in a home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the injury bug may have finally caught up with them. We can’t see the Patriots putting in such another abject display, though. Patriots 31-27
NEW YORK GIANTS -1.5 at Miami: Giants have won five of the last six meetings and have never lost to the Dolphins in Miami. Ryan Tannehill may actually start looking like a viable NFL QB going against the Giants’ ropey defense, but the Dolphins have little to play for, while the Giants can still win the NFC East. Let’s make this easy: Giants win comfortably and the Christmas shopping will be paid for. One of our best bets of the week. NY Giants 28-21.
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