NFL playoff picture | Week 16 picks

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NFL playoff picture | Week 16 picks

Has the NFL seen a shift back to parity? It’s tough to believe, but with just two games left in the regular season, only four of 12 playoff berths have been secured – including just one (Seattle) in the NFC. Of the remaining eight spots up for grabs, no fewer than 14 teams have a legitimate chance to punch their ticket over the next two weeks.

Let’s begin in the NFC, where the Seahawks have all but sewn up home-field advantage and can make it official with a win over the Cardinals on Sunday. The second Saints-Panthers clash in three weeks – this one in Carolina – is not only the de facto NFC South championship game, but also for the second bye. The Saints can formally clinch both with a win, whereas the Panthers could take a huge step by beating the Saints (only a Saints win over the Bucs coupled with a Panthers loss in Atlanta in Week 17 could thwart Carolina from the 2-seed in that scenario). In the NFC North, the Packers and Bears each control their own destiny, with a Week 17 showdown looming. If both slip up, the door opens back up for the free-falling Lions. The NFC East winner won’t be determined until Week 17 if the Cowboys beat the Redskins on Sunday. If they lose, the Eagles could lock up the division with a win over Chicago on Sunday night. San Francisco has the inside track to a wild-card spot, with the loser of the Panthers-Saints showdown in all likelihood claiming the other one.

Over in the AFC, Denver once again has a firm grip on the No. 1 seed, as it would have to lose to either Houston or Oakland while seeing the Chiefs win out (Colts, at Chargers) for those teams to flip flop. The Colts have clinched the AFC South and could move into the 2-seed by beating the Chiefs and Jaguars while getting help from the Patriots and Bengals (each of whom would need to lose once). New England needs a win in one of its final two games (at Ravens, Bills) or a Dolphins loss to clinch the AFC East. Miami controls its own destiny for a playoff spot, as does Baltimore for the AFC North title (though it will have to beat the Patriots and Bengals in Cincinnati to do so).

One note before moving to the Week 16 picks: The amount of offense being put up recently has been staggering, which has had the effect of a sucker punch straight to the temple of the books. In the last two weeks, overs have gone 21-11 (65.5 percent), while interconference games have continued to fly over the total (6-2 in same span). Bettors should ride the wave until the market starts to correct itself.

Colts vs. Chiefs – over 45

The first rule of an over is to have confidence that the losing team can put up its fair share of points. Whoever drops this game figures to fulfill that parameter. It’s no secret the Chiefs have been piling up the points lately, hanging at least 28 in each of their last four games and an average of nearly 42 per contest. More often than not, they’ve been steamrolling teams on the ground, gaining over 137 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry in five contests since their bye. Thats’s not a good sign for the Colts, who have a bad rush defense (128.9 yards per game, 27th in the NFL; 4.4 yards per carry, tied for 24th) that’s been even worse recently. Moreover, the Colts have been utterly incapable of stopping the bleeding on the road since the end of October, allowing 6.3 yards per play, 415.8 yards per game and over 33 points in their last four away games. Not to be lost in the mix are some poor red zone defenses, as Indy (60.5 percent, 25th in the league) and KC (54.8 percent, 14th) have both allowed opponents to score touchdowns at a high rate in the red zone. Nothing thwarts an over more than long drives stalling, a factor that shouldn’t come into play in this one.

Dolphins (-2.5) at Bills

They haven’t gotten much buzz, but the Dolphins have quietly been playing some of the best football of any team since the Incognito/Martin fiasco culminated with a loss on Monday night to the Bucs in Week 10. Since then, Miami has reeled off four wins in five games, its only defeat coming to the Panthers in a game it led 16-3 and was a 4th-and-10 stop away from sealing late. This line is a reflection of two factors: the weather advantage Buffalo has over warm-weather teams this time of year and the first meeting between the AFC East rivals (a 23-21 Bills win). To the first point, Miami proved it wasn’t fazed by the elements by coming from behind in the fourth quarter to down the Steelers in snowy Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. And in the first meeting vs. Buffalo in Week 7, the Dolphins – and specifically Ryan Tannehill – beat themselves. Tannehill committed three turnovers that day, including a brutal fumble that turned what was shaping up to be a lead-padding field goal into a gift that set the Bills up for the winning field goal. When Miami was winning early in the season, it was doing so in spite of Tannehill, and when it was losing, it was because of him (nine interceptions, eight fumbles through the first seven games). In seven contests since then, Tannehill has thrown a total of five picks and fumbled only once, with Miami going 5-2 during that span. He’s also come up big in key moments against the Steelers and last week vs. the Patriots. Not only should the Dolphins win this game, they are starting to look like a legitimate threat in the playoffs.

Vikings vs. Bengals – over 47.5

Another interconference game pitting two “over” teams, the Bengals (3-1 last four on overs; 6-3 last eight; 8-6 overall) and Vikings (5-1 last six; 10-3-1 overall) have both trended toward points – and lots of them – as the season has hit the stretch run. The Bengals have one of the stronger home/road dichotomies in the league, as they’ve yet to lose in six tries at Paul Brown Stadium while going just 3-5 on the road. Not surprisingly, their offensive output has been venue-correlated as well, as they’re averaging over 33 points per game at home, which has included a run of three straight 40-plus point performances (during which they’ve also allowed 19 points per contest). The Vikings, meanwhile, specialize in points – scoring them as well as giving them up. Minnesota is allowing 30.4 points per game and putting up 25.9. They haven’t endured many offensive troubles on the road, either, scoring at least 20 in six of seven away contests while averaging 22.2. Both the incredible 75-percent clip at which interconference games have gone over this season and the general identities of these teams points to more fireworks in this matchup.

Saints (+3) at Panthers

It’s not easy to beat a good team twice in three weeks, and the Saints haven’t exactly inspired confidence with some of their recent road performances. But as bad as they looked in Seattle on Dec. 2 and last week in St. Louis, both of those losses were in situational spots. The first was a statement game for Seattle under the spotlight of Monday Night Football. And the Rams no-show was a clear sandwich game, as the Saints knew that even if they won it, they still would’ve had to beat the Panthers again to clinch the division and a bye. What’s also easy to overlook is New Orleans has submitted some solid performances on the road this year, beating Tampa Bay in Week 2, Chicago in Week 5 and Atlanta in a rivalry game in primetime late last month. And if it weren’t for a last-second touchdown by Tom Brady in Week 6, they would have knocked off the Patriots in New England. Finally, it can’t be understated how thoroughly the Saints beat Carolina two weeks ago. It’s understood that Drew Brees and the offense perform vastly better at home. No one is expecting the Saints to approach the 31 points they tallied in the first matchup. Defense, however, travels. And the New Orleans D bottled up the Carolina offense in that contest, holding it to 239 yards and a measly 3.9 yards per play while sacking Cam Newton five times. The rematch is going to be a defensive affair through and through. In grind-it-out affairs, it’s always wise to take the points when you’re getting a full field goal.

Overall picks: 26-22

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