Today's Free Picks for
Posted Friday, December 21 at 11:00 AM EST
What you see below is our Friday or early leans. Many of the selections below will stay the same and some will be moved into official plays with wagers on Sunday. However, there is also the possibility that we see, read or get a sense that something is not right with one of our selections and change our pick. There are several different criterion we use to grade a game and make it an official play and a lot of things can happen or change between Friday and Sunday.
We’re intent on providing our readers with the best possible selections and doing so on Sunday instead of Friday just makes more sense. Again, we’ll have all write-ups (except Monday Night Football) posted on Friday but our actual wagers won’t be posted until Sunday morning between 10 AM and 12:00 PM EST.
NFL WEEK 16
Cleveland +6 -105 over BALTIMORE
4:25 PM EST. One thing is simple and is of the utmost priority: if the Ravens (9-6) win over the Browns (7-7-1), they are in the postseason. Everything after that is secondary. At the same time, if the Pittsburgh Steelers lose (8-6-1), the Ravens are also in the postseason. If the Ravens lose and the Pittsburgh Steelers win, Baltimore will not be in the playoffs no matter what happens in any other result, including the Colts and Titans on Sunday night. That’s the setup.
The Ravens' stock is soaring after a dominant 22-10 road victory over the Chargers that actually flatters the home side, as Baltimore outgained L.A. by 163 yards, won the time of possession and had more first downs. Lamar Jackson outgunned Philip Rivers. That the Ravens went on the road and won by double digits against a “contender” will resonate in this market, as it was in a feature spot last Saturday night. Again, Baltimore is in a classic "must win" spot here and there is also a scenario where Baltimore finishes as high as second or as low as sixth, but at the end of the day it's a "win and you're in" situation for the Ravens. That’s a selling point that you are going to hear a lot about before this game kicks off. It also means you’ll pay more to get behind these must wins teams, which is an angle we’ll be trying to exploit this week. The market is often enticed or influenced to get behind these must win squads but the truth is, we’re getting inflated points against them.
For all the hype Baltimore is getting, there is a major problem with that team and it's Lamar Jackson. He can run like the wind, but he can't throw the ball, which will eventually catch up to him at some point. Teams’ will eventually force Jackson to beat them with his arm, which he simply cannot do. Furthermore, there is a massive difference between spotting significant points like the Ravens are here and taking back significant points like they were last week in L.A. against the Chargers. Lamar Jackson is not the kind of QB one wants to spot points with.
The Browns have won five of six and are pushing to end Gregg Williams' tenure this season to 6-1. Baker Mayfield is playing at an All-Pro level, and the Browns are playing as well as any team in the league. Mayfield threw for 342 yards when the Ravens visited Cleveland way back in Week 5 and that’s when the team was playing under Hue Jackson’s conservative approach and losing. The motivation to win is high for the Browns, as they can knock the Ravens out completely and end this season with a winning record to record the greatest turnaround in NFL history after going 0-17 last year. This is without question one of the best value bets of the season, as we get one of the hottest teams in the league at an inflated price because the team they’re playing just won in prime time against a contender by double digits and are in a “must win” situation. Recommendation: Cleveland +6 -105
New York +13½ -103 over NEW ENGLAND
1:00 PM EST. There are three things you can count on, death, taxes and the Patriots winning the AFC East. However, this year's New England team isn't perceived to be as strong as year's past. It says something when going 10-5 through 16 weeks is a down year, but the emergence of the Chiefs and Chargers has the Pats looking up at both teams when it comes to locking up a first-round bye. Tom Brady put any chatter to rest about his future when he confirmed he was going to play next season, but that he has to answer that kind of question does highlight that the G.O.A.T. hasn't been at his best this season. Brady's stat line last week was below average in a game the Pats needed to win, but had no interest in covering as a double-digit home favorite against the Bills and that is a very similar scenario New England is in this week with the Jets coming to Foxboro.
Sam Darnold has six touchdown passes to just one interception since his return from and injury and getting a different look at the game seems to have served the young pivot well. Sure, the Jets are out of it, but Darnold isn't going to take this Week 17 game off and neither will Todd Bowles and the coaching staff. Bowles has been on the hot seat all season, but with the improvement of his young quarterback during the second half of the season, there is a slim chance he'll get to keep his job. If you bet the Jets last week as we did in that game against the Packers, it's not going to be easy to come back on them here after a spectacular second-half meltdown, but winning and covering are two different things here and the Jets are now taking back double digits against the Pats, while they were taking back just a field goal v the Pack. The Packers are not the Patriots, but the gap in price here is not reflective of the discrepancy in talent or even the change in venue. This price is inflated and while New England will likely get the W, the Jets won't go down without a fight. Recommendation: N.Y. Jets +13½ -103
WASHINGTON +6½ -105 over Philadelphia
4:25 PM EST. The Eagles need a victory and help, via a Vikings loss, to clinch a playoff spot. That is the only way they get in. The Redskins are eliminated from the playoffs. That’s the setup.
The dream start to the Redskins season has easily turned into a nightmare, as they are now 7-8 and on the outside looking in after being the odds-on favorite to win the division before Alex Smith broke his leg the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Including Turkey Day, Washington has started Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson at the league's most important position and it has managed just one win since November 11th and that lone victory did come with Johnson at the helm. The Redskins figure to highly motivated with the chance to drag a division rival down to their level. A win over Philadelphia to knock them out is as satisfying was a playoff win only this one comes without pressure.
Two weeks ago, the Eagles were left for dead after their starting quarterback was ruled out of an already tough enough Sunday night matchup with the Rams. The market's opinion of Nick Foles was clear when that line moved from Philadelphia taking back nine points to nearly two converted touchdowns. The Eagles, of course, won that game in Los Angeles outright and then followed that W up with another victory in what was one of the most entertaining games of the season in that back and forth battle with the Texans last week that ended with a 32-30 Eagles win. Nick Foles, who couldn't put his shoes on the right feet before the Rams game would go one and set the Eagles franchise record for passing yards with 471. With two straight wins under his belt and Super Bowl ring on his finger, Foles' stock is soaring. Because of his play, Philly has life and now the market will pay a serious premium to get behind another team that has to win and whose stock is soaring. That’s why Week 17 is one of our favorite weeks of the year because there are so many inflated prices due to the “must win” angle and we’re the beneficiaries again here. R+6½ +100
PITTSBURGH -14½ -106 over Cincinnati
4:25 PM EST. The Steelers win the AFC North title with a victory and a Ravens loss. If the Ravens win, the only way the Steelers can make the playoffs is if they win and the Colts and Titans tie. The Bengals are eliminated from the playoffs.
The Steelers made life much more difficult for themselves after failing to make a big play when they needed it most in an error-filled loss in New Orleans last Sunday. The most famous of course was the fake punt flub by fullback Roosevelt Nix, but the dagger was a fumble by JuJu Smith-Schuster who lost the ball after making a catch that would have put the Steelers in field goal range.
This game has been dubbed the Bengals "Super Bowl" and while it might be, asking them to hang in here is a lot to ask. Yes, Cincinnati did cover last week in Cleveland, but it went right through the backdoor after the Browns took their foot off the gas, that is not a luxury the Bengals are likely to receive here. Cinci was outgained by 284 yards last Sunday, which was not the first time it has been destroyed on the stat sheet, as losses to the Steelers (206), Kansas City (312), New Orleans (225) and Baltimore (148) were all lopsided, as was a fluke win over Tampa Bay (312). The Bengals have been in a freefall since a promising first month of the season, as they've dropped eight of their last 10 after starting the year 4-1. It's one thing to want to play the role of spoiler and quite another to actually have the horses to pull it off. Don't be tempted by the "hook" oddsmakers have dangled here on the Bengals, as this is a game where the Steelers can name the score. Recommendation: Pittsburgh -14½ -106
Jacksonville +6½ -103 over HOUSTON
1:00 PM EST. The Texans can clinch the AFC South with a win or a tie between the Colts and Titans. They would secure a first-round bye with a win and a Patriots loss, or a win combined with losses by the Chiefs and Chargers and a tie in the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Chiefs. They also have an outside chance at AFC home-field advantage. They would need a win and losses by the Patriots, Chiefs and Chargers. In other words, the Texans are in the postseason, but their seeding is still very much up in the air.
At 5-10 with just a game to play it appears the window the that was kicked open last year by the Jags was slammed shut. Blake Bortles had been replaced as the team's starting quarterback, but head coach Doug Marrone is going back to the well one more time after Bortles rallied the team to victory last week in Miami’s “must win” game. Bortles had been benched for Cody Kessler the last four games, but the former hadn't been any worse this season than last, the Jags just had one of the best defenses in the league and a run game that allowed Bortles to be a "game manager." BB's completion percentage (60.4 to 60.2), yards per attempt (7.0 both years), touchdown rate conversion (3.5 to 4.0) and even his interception rate (2.7 to 2.5) are comparable to last season. After last week’s victory, Bortles said, "Everything you need to be a successful team and win a Super Bowl in this league is in this locker room." Sitting and watching for a few week may have done Bortles a world of good and we’re happy to test that hypothesis out here while taking back some points.
On paper, it might look like an easy call to back Houston, as it has something to play for while the Jags appear to be playing out the string, but based on this line, the oddsmakers are suggesting the Texans are going to be in a fight. Just look at some of these other lines between division rivals this weekend. The Patriots, Chiefs, Steelers, Seahawks and Rams are all guaranteed a spot in the playoffs and are double-digit chalk against the basement dwellers of their respective divisions, yet here is Houston spotting a very appealing 6½-points to a Jags team that has no more market standing than the Jets, Raiders, Bengals, Cardinals or 49ers respectively. Oddsmakers likely could have had the Texans spotting closer to double-digits and not swayed a bet, as the market often eats up the "must win" angle, but they didn't. That tells us all we need to know. If the Jags are flat on Sunday, so be it, but all signs point to one last hurrah for "Big Game" Blake. Recommendation Jacksonville +6½ -103
DENVER +6½ -109 over L.A. Chargers
4:25 PM EST. The Chargers have clinched a playoff spot, but could still improve their standing to as high as the number one seed with a win here and some help from the Raiders or they could finish as low as fifth with a stumble against the rival Broncos. It's a matchup that hasn't been kind to head coach Anthony Lynn, as he and the Bolts have dropped two of the three games these teams have played since he took the job. That the Chargers are in line to face another stout defense after getting manhandled by the Ravens last Saturday should be of some concern, as that 22-10 final score flatter Philip Rivers and company. The Chargers were held to a season-low in yards and points and Rivers was outgunned by Lamar Jackson, who can barely throw the ball five yards. Prior to that loss to the Ravens, the Chargers had been riding high after a four-game win streak that culminated in a 29-28 victory in Kansas City when they completed another improbable second-half comeback, just as they had against the Steelers in Week 13. The other two victories L.A. had over that stretch came against the Cardinals and Bengals (not impressive), with lowly Cincinnati actually out-gaining the Bolts. The Chargers were 17-point chalk that day and edged out a 26-21 victory.
The perception in the market is that Denver has very little to play for here, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Sure, L.A. is in no matter what, but there is no way the Broncos want to gift their division rivals a first-round bye with a poor performance here. Can the Chargers win? Of course, but they'll have to deal with a Denver pass rush that has seen Bradley Chubb and Von Miller combine for 26½ sacks this season. That the Broncos will be without stand out rookie runner Philip Lindsay will lessen there appeal here, but this is a "next man up" league and let's not forget that it was Royce Freeman that was getting all the hype out of training camp before losing the starting job early to the undrafted free agent. Freeman, like most of his teammates, has something to prove here. Finally, Denver has been one of the toughest places to play over the years. Spotting points on the road in a division game is not a situation you'll see us step into very often and this is no different. If we're in the business of playing the value and letting the chips fall where they may, then the Broncos are a no-brainer here. Recommendation: Denver +6½ -105
TAMPA BAY -1½ -105 over Atlanta
1:00 PM EST. The NFL’s last week of the regular season brings us many completely meaningless games, it’s difficult to get a read on exactly which teams will show up and which will not so we’re going to very cautious in these meaningless games unless something sticks out.
Tampa Bay (5-10), which hosts the Falcons (6-9) in the regular-season finale at Raymond James Stadium, need a victory not to finish in last place in the NFC South for the third consecutive season. Does that matter to them? Probably not, as another roster shakeup is expected. The Buccaneers have lost their past three games and seven of their past nine. After six games, the Bucs fired former defensive coordinator Mike Smith and turned things over to Mark Duffner, who was the linebackers coach but there is something at least interesting. The Bucs had backup quarterback Ryan Griffin as the No. 2 quarterback against Dallas and plan to get him some action against the Falcons. Griffin has been with the Bucs over the past three seasons.
“I think Ryan Griffin is a really good quarterback,” Dirk Koetter said. “He tears it up in practice everyday, but he's never had the chance to prove it in a real game.”
Obviously if Griffin plays he’ll be motivated but who knows if he’s good or not. Other side notes to this game is that Bucs first-round draft pick defensive tackle Vita Vea, who was slowed by a calf injury, played 42 percent of the snaps in the previous meeting. He is coming on strong late in the season. He had six pressures, a sack and a quarterback hit against the Cowboys. Also, cornerback Brent Grimes could be playing his last NFL game. The former Falcons player, who made it in the NFL after being undrafted out of Shippensburg is showing signs of slippage. He got beat on a fade and missed a big tackle against the Cowboys. Quarterbacks have a passer rating of more than 117 when throwing against Grimes this season, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2017 and 2016, quarterbacks’ passing ratings were in the 70s when throwing in his direction. If it’s his last game, the coach will likely play him and that’s not good for the team. These are just some of the intangibles that go with the final game of the year and why one must proceed with caution unless there is a strong sign of one team having an edge for one reason or another.
We don’t see any signs that suggest the Falcons are going to come in here and turn up the volume in another road game, thus we’re siding with the host. Recommendation: Tampa Bay -1½ -105
TENNESSEE +3½ -105 over Indianapolis
8:20 PM EST. The winner of this game will make the playoffs as a wild-card team if the Texans win and as the AFC South champion if the Texans lose. Big stakes here and one should also note the late start time.
We could make a big case for getting behind the Colts here. You see, QB Andrew Luck is a perfect 10-0 in his career against the Titans. He and the Colts could be facing the Titans without starting quarterback Marcus Mariota (stinger), and Tennessee will be without its best defensive player in Jurrell Casey (knee). Furthermore, the Colts aren't in a position to take the Titans lightly in this win-and-make-the-playoffs game because the last time they faced a backup quarterback, Cody Kessler and the Jags blanked them 6-0 just three weeks ago. Had the colts showed up then, they wouldn’t have needed this one so badly. Regardless, everything has lined up perfectly for the Colts to ruin the Titans. Thing is, the above info is not privileged.
The entire market has all of the same information we do. It’s no secret that the Titans are up against it here and have their backs to the wall but that stuff is for the talking heads to discuss. The line opened as a pick-em and the market has been hammering away at the Colts since. We understand why but that’s not our business. Our business is playing inflated points and reacting to over and under reactions by a fickle market and in that sense, we have to recommend playing the Titans. By game time, you will be paying more to get behind the Colts so if you want them, bet them now. We’re not playing this game because I personally have a wager on the Colts to win the division at 10-1 so we’ll be rooting Colts.
NEW ORLEANS -7½ over Carolina
1:00 PM EST. The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC will go through New Orleans, the same formula that led the Saints to Super Bowl XLIV. Sunday's comeback victory over the Steelers locked the Saints into the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They would win the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Rams if it came to that, thus, this game means absolutely zilch for the Saints. Ironically, back in 2009, the year they locked up the #1 seed, they also played the Panthers in the final game of the regular season and lost, 23-10.
The Carolina Panthers placed quarterback Taylor Heinicke, their Week 16 starter, on injured reserve on Wednesday morning. Carolina signed quarterback Garrett Gilbert as the corresponding move, in sore need of depth at the position. Heinicke beat out Gilbert for the backup job in training camp this summer. Heinicke injured his left elbow in the second quarter of last Sunday’s loss to Atlanta, but tried to play through the injury. He got an MRI on his elbow on Monday morning. It was his first career NFL start, with Cam Newton inactive with shoulder soreness. Although he was battling Heinicke for the backup job and knows the Panthers’ offense, the team has decided to start rookie Kyle Allen after a brief but solid outing last week as Heinicke was getting medical attention. The Panthers will likely give some other starters rest in the season finale too. Those players could and probably will include running back Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Luke Kuechly, among others. Carolina may not show up here but the Saints backups and some starters may. One would have to be a bit nuts to spot significant points with a Saints team that has no reason to play anyone but the alternative might be worse in this meaningless affair. Recommendation: New Orleans -9 -105
Dallas +6 -105 over NY Giants
1:00 PM EST. The Cowboys are preparing for the Giants as if it is a normal week, but that does not mean they will play it like a normal game, considering a win would not improve their playoff seeding and an injury could ruin their playoff chances. The Giants have been out of it essentially since the midway point of the season but have played better down the stretch, and this could be Eli Manning's final home game. Saquon Barkley was held to a season-low 28 yards when these teams met in September and has been held to 31 and 43 yards the past two weeks. The Giants are favored by this much because the thinking is that Dallas will rest everyone but so what. The Giants don’t figure to be motivated either because they can’t hurt the ‘Boys and therefore they may rest some folks too. The market is eating up that the Cowboys aren’t coming to play but backups want to play hard because they have a chance to get into some playoff action. At the end of the day, the Cowboys are locked in to the No. 4 seed, but the Giants still have their spot in the 2019 draft up in the air. Hell, maybe the G-Men are the more likely to tank. Recommendation: Dallas +6 -105
KANSAS CITY -13½ -110 over Oakland
4:25 PM EST. First and foremost, the Chiefs control their own destiny, as a win over the Raiders here would lock them into the number one seed in the AFC with home field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, even if the Chiefs were to stumble here, they could still win the AFC West with a Chargers loss in Denver.
Kansas City has been raked over the coals the last two weeks after losses to the Charges and Seahawks respectively, but it is the defense that has taken the brunt of that criticism. As the Chiefs appear to stumble towards the finish line, Andy Reid's playoff failures during his tenure in K.C. have been picked apart by the pundits, as it seems this team is setting itself up for failure once again. While Arrowhead Stadium has been called one of the toughest places to play in the league, the Chiefs haven't won a playoff game there since Joe Montana was their quarterback. In the market, the Chiefs have made no friends as of late, as they have not covered a spread in nearly two months. The last time K.C. cashed a ticket was November 4th against the Hue Jackson led Browns. That blowout was the final straw in Cleveland, as the Browns cleaned house and then turned their season around. For some perspective on how far the Chiefs stock has fallen over the last few weeks, they were a 14-point favorite on the road in Oakland to start December and now they are a smaller price on their home field. The Raiders would hang around with the Chiefs that day and that combined with an upset win over the Steelers and a big 27-14 win over the Broncos last week has Oakland stock trading higher than it should be.
Winning fixes everything in the NFL and while picking up two victories over the three weeks might seem modest, it's been enough for the talking heads to suggest that the "marriage" between Jon Gruden and Derek Carr is blooming, as the quarterback is just 136 yards away from a 4000-yard campaign. Carr has been relatively error free as well, as he's posted just eight interceptions to 19 touchdown passes, but the reality is, this is still one of the league's worst offenses (28th). Asking Carr to go throw for throw with Patrick Mahomes is unfair even if the Chiefs defense hasn't been at it's best. Expect that unit to make a statement here. The Raiders two wins both came at home, while they were embarrassed on the road in Cincinnati losing 30-16 just two weeks ago. Finally, Oakland played its “last game” of the year last week in prime time against Denver and went all out in that game. This week is anticlimactic and we don't want to be holding a ticket on Oakland if the Raiders are mentally checked out after that enormously emotional win last week. Recommendation: Kansas City -13½ -110
GREEN BAY -7½ -105 over Detroit
1:00 PM EST. Detroit has nothing but pride -- and a few performance and playing-time incentives for some players -- to play for. Green Bay is in a similar situation, but at least publicly some of the Packers' biggest stars are campaigning for their interim coach, Joe Philbin, to be hired full time. In a game like this, that could be enough of a difference to pick one team over another. Plus, Green Bay still has Aaron Rodgers and the Lions' offense hasn't scored more than 20 points since Nov. 11 Furthermore, the Packers showed plenty of fight last week against the Jets, as they could have packed it in when they were down 15 points in the second half. So why wouldn't they show similar resolve in their season finale? They seem to have bought into Joe Philbin's message of "Five years from now you're not probably going to remember the score of the Jets game, but you'll remember the feelings you had in the locker room." Recommendation: Green Bay -7½
SEATTLE -13½ over Arizona
4:25 PM EST. The Seahawks have clinched a playoff berth. They'll be the No. 5 seed if they win and the No. 6 seed if they lose. The Cardinals can clinch the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft with a loss. An upset for the Cardinals as a 13½-point underdog would be plausible if the Seahawks decided to rest some of their starters now that they've secured a playoff spot. However, Pete Carroll made it clear this week that his team is keeping its foot on the gas, opting to try to maintain the momentum it has built while winning five of the last six games. Pete Carroll tries to win exhibition games by 40 points and this one will appear on his career coaching record and again, the Seahawks can improve their seeding too. Recommendation: Seattle -13½ -105
L.A. RAMS -10 over San Francisco
4:25 PM EST. The Rams will clinch a first-round bye with a win or a Bears loss. The 49ers have been eliminated. Kyle Shanahan's second season ends worse than the first (4-11 vs. 6-10) and apparently, he is fated to never end a year with the same quarterback that started. It was a lost year from the start with Jimmy Garoppolo lost in Week 3 and Jerick McKinnon not even making the season opener. The offense hasn't scored more than two touchdowns in a game since midseason. Beating the Seahawks in Week 15 was as good as it ever got. Winding down on the road against the second-best record in the NFL isn't likely to end well.
The Rams ended a two-game losing streak with their big win in Arizona last week but that was their first cover in weeks and it came against such a putrid bunch.The Rams are motivated in Week 17 to secure a first-round bye, to continue to tune-up their offense and to help defensive tackle Aaron Donald break the single-season sack record. Los Angeles likely will play its starters the whole game, which means the Rams should have a clear advantage in this one. We don’t love it but if we had to, we’d play the Rams. Recommendation: L.A. Rams -10 -105
MINNESOTA -4½ -103 over Chicago
4:25 PM EST. This NFC North matchup has playoff implications for both sides, as a Bears win combined with a Rams loss to the 49ers would result in Chicago taking the number two seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. However, in the more likely scenario, that being the Rams beat San Francisco, then the Bears would be locked into the #3 seed.
As for the Vikes, they need a win to get in. The Vikings can also sneak into a Wild Card spot if the Eagles lose to the Redskins. Bears coach Matt Nagy did admit this week that he's going to be scoreboard watching and will manage his players accordingly if things were to get out of hand. That means in the Rams go up big, or the Bears are losing that we may see some of the Chicago starters pulled mid-game.
The NFC North was supposed to be the Vikings for the taking, but a disappointing year has Minnesota in a "win and you're in" situation here in Week 17. Back-to-back wins over the Dolphins and Lions respectively isn't going to garner much respect from the market, but the Vikes are still a dangerous team if they manage to sneak into the playoffs. The Vikes still have a stout defense, as it ranks third but they rank just 18th in takeaway differential. Meanwhile, quarterback Kurt Cousins has been called a bust despite throwing for over 4000 yards for the fourth consecutive year and he helped make receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs the first tandem to rack up 100 catches and 10 touchdowns. When comparing pivots, there is none, as Mitch Trubisky is a system quarterback under Matt Nagy.
The Bears first to worst story is a nice one on paper, but really their success can be boiled down to one thing, turnovers. Chicago leads the league in points off of takeaways and it also just so happens to hold the top spot with 36 turnovers (!) as well. Those stats are great for the talking heads, but takeaways are not a skill and cannot be counted on from game to game. Now, that doesn't mean that the well will run dry here, but there will be a game where the Bears are not going to win that battle and then we'll find out who they really are. Lots of things are in play here, as the Rams figure to run away against the 49ers and if that’s the case, we don’t want to be holding a ticket on the Bears should Nagy start pulling players. Recommendation: Minnesota -4½ -103
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NFL leans for Week 16 (Risking 0 units - To Win: 0.00)