LOS ANGELES, December 16, 2015 — Minnesota Vikings Hall of Famer John Randle is famous for saying about December football that, “This is when the big dogs come out.” Yet Randle was on the 1998 Vikings team that went 15-1 but lost at home in the NFC Title Game. They blew a 20-7 lead, but Randle watched helplessly from the sideline. He played most of that game with a broken leg but could not will himself on the field during the fourth quarter and overtime when one defensive stop would have meant a Super Bowl trip.
Retired Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs once said that the team that wins the Super Bowl is not the best team, but the best healthiest team. Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks who stayed healthy.
With the playoffs only three weeks away, several top teams are being decimated by injuries. The Bengals and Broncos are both 10-3 but are relying on A.J. McCarron and Brock Osweiler to fill in for the injured Andy Dalton and Peyton Manning. The 11-2 Patriots have Tom Brady, but most of his receivers are all out injured. Dallas saw their season go down with Tony Romo while Indianapolis is treading water with Matt Hasselbeck. Andrew Luck tried to play injured but has missed several weeks.
Injuries are part of the game, and last year Arizona was cruising toward home field until injuries to Carson Palmer and his backups had the Cardinals trying to win playoff games with their fourth string quarterback. This year Carolina and Arizona are healthy and rolling. One hit on one play on one player can change the entire playoff picture.
In some cases the bizarre can occur. Jets quarterback Geno Smith suffered a preseason broken jaw when he was sucker-punched by a teammate. Ryan Fitzpatrick took over and has the Jets in contention for the playoffs. The ultimate shock came in 1999 when the St. Louis Rams saw Trent Green go down with a season-ending injury in the preseason. Some unknown Arena League player who was stocking grocery shelves a few years earlier took over. Kurt Warner led the Greatest Show on Turf to two NFC Title wins in three years and one Super Bowl title.
The best healthiest team has to get through three more weeks of the regular season. With that, here is the NFL 2015 Week 15 Preview and Bettor’s Guide, with point spread provided by FootballLocks.com and all times Eastern.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams (-2.5) — The Buccaneers at 6-7 are on the verge of playoff elimination while the 5-8 Rams are done. Jeff Fisher is on the hot seat but the Rams win last week shows they have not quit. Trust them at home. Rams cover.
New York Jets (-3) at Dallas Cowboys — The 4-9 Dallas Cowboys are actually still mathematically alive for the NFC Least crown, while the 8-5 Jets are very much alive in the AFC Wild Card race. Even Jerrah knows Dallas is done, and these are not the same old Jets. Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing solid football and whoever quarterbacks Dallas in place of Tony Romo is not. Jets cover.
Kansas City Chiefs (-7.5) at Baltimore Ravens — The Chiefs have won seven straight after a 1-5 start and are rolling toward the playoffs. The Ravens are finished and are playing out the string. They do not have the talent in this lost season to stop the Kansas City express. However, West Coast Offense Game Manager Alex Smith will dink and dunk to a win but not a convincing one. Chiefs win but fail to cover.
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts (Pick ‘em) — Both teams are 6-7 and tied for the AFC South lead. The Texans are down to their third string quarterback T.J. Yates while Old Man Matt Hasselbeck has enough talent to get a win at home. Colts win.
Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars (-3) — After starting 5-0 the Falcons have gone 1-7. The 5-8 Jaguars carpet-bombed Indianapolis last week by 35 points, putting up 48 of their 51 points in the final 31 minutes. Gus Bradley’s team is young and growing, and Blake Bortles could have another big week. Jaguars cover.
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings (-5.5) — Chicago lost a heartbreaker at home last week to fall to 5-8 and the brink of playoff elimination. Minnesota started 7-2 but has since lost three of four to fall one game out of the NFC North lead. The Vikings will pound the ball with Adrian Peterson, but the Bears wins and losses have been close for the most part. In the Black and Blue Division, expect a close one. Vikings win but fail to cover.
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots (-14) — A few years ago the Patriots at home beat the Titans 59-0. That was the score after three quarters. Had the starters played the fourth quarter, the 73-0 record from 1940 would have been broken. This Patriots team maybe better and this Titans team is worse. The spread is high, but Tom Brady is playing like a demon possessed. For those looking for the upset of the year, look elsewhere. Patriots cover.
Carolina Panthers (-5) at New York Giants — In 1998, an average Giants team at home took a 13-0 Denver team and knocked them from the ranks of the unbeaten. Now they face the 13-0 Panthers. The 6-7 Giants are in a three-way tie for the NFC Least lead. Carolina won at home 38-0 last week but barely scraped by a below average New Orleans team in their last road game. For those looking for the upset of the year, this is where to look. Tom Coughlin teams fight to the end. Upset special, Giants win outright.
Buffalo Bills (-1) at Washington Redskins — Both teams are 6-7, but the Bills are on the brink of elimination while Washington is part of that logjam atop the NFC Least. Washington is much better at home than on the road, but they lost their last home game to Dallas. The Bills are not good on the road. Buffalo lost a heartbreaker last week at Philadelphia, and this has all the makings of another heartache defeat for Buffalo. Upset special, Redskins win outright.
Green Bay Packers (-3) at Oakland Raiders — After starting 6-0, Green Bay is only 3-4 since. Oakland is only 6-7 and on life support, but the Raiders got one of their biggest, most emotional wins in years last week at Denver. The Packers are the far better team, and every time it seems the Raiders take the next step, they do not. Last week was their Super Bowl. This will be the hangover after the party. The Packers have a one game lead in the NFC North and looked better last week with Mike McCarthy resuming the play-calling duties. Packers cover.
Cleveland Browns at Seattle Seahawks (-14.5) — Cleveland is only 3-10, but they are 2-1 with Johnny Manziel. Now for the real world. The Legion of Boom is back, as Seattle at 8-5 is steamrolling toward the playoffs. The spread is very high, but Manziel will throw some completions to the Seattle defense. Seahawks cover.
Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers (-6.5) — Denver is 10-3, but they suffered a shocking home loss to Oakland last week. 8-5 Pittsburgh is clicking on all cylinders, and they just beat down 10-3 Cincinnati in Cincinnati. Denver’s defense is playing lights out, but their offense is totally out of sync. The defense will keep the game close. Steelers win but fail to cover.
Miami Dolphins at San Diego Chargers (-1.5) — Both of these teams are dead, but NFL rules require that this game be played. In 1981 and 1984, these teams played a pair of games for the ages. San Diego won both of them. Nobody cares. Chargers cover.
Cincinnati Bengals (-4.5) at San Francisco 49ers — The Bengals are 10-3 but in deep trouble. Last week Red Rifle Andy Dalton went down with a thumb injury that may keep him out for the entire season. Backup A.J. McCarron is married to Miss Alabama, which makes him a very happy guy who may or may not know how to play professional football. The 49ers are awful, but expecting McCarron to just come in and keep the Bengals rolling is too much to ask. Upset special, 49ers win outright.
Arizona Cardinals (-3.5) at Philadelphia Eagles — The Eagles have won two straight for a 6-7 membership in the NFC Least triumvirate atop the division. Yes, they went on the road and shocked New England. That team had injuries. The Cardinals are healthy and dangerous. They are a pinball machine on offense that showed resiliency last week in hanging on against Minnesota. This is a case of the better team winning. Expect Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer to keep the Arizona express rolling. Cardinals cover.
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints (-3) — Both teams are out of the playoff picture. Jim Caldwell may be fired while Sean Payton may just leave and Drew Brees may be traded. With nothing to play for but pride and neither defense playing well, Go with Brees over Matthew Stafford if it comes down to a shootout. Saints cover.