A Thursday matchup that needed overtime to be decided. A pair of entertaining games on Saturday. A potential Super Bowl preview on Sunday. This is shaping up to be an excellent week of football, and we dug in on each team’s playoff chances using The Upshot’s playoff simulator.
Here is a look at N.F.L. Week 15, with all picks made against the spread.
Last week’s record: 8-8
Overall record: 102-101-5
A look ahead at Week 15:
Sunday’s Best Games
Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints, 4:25 p.m., CBS
Line: Chiefs -3 | Total: 51.5
New Orleans should be extremely happy with the job Taysom Hill has done filling in for the injured Drew Brees, but last week’s loss to Philadelphia — which knocked New Orleans out of the top spot in the N.F.C. playoff seedings — illustrated how much the team needs Brees back if it wants to compete for a championship.
The Saints (10-3) are hopeful that Brees, who hasn’t played since Week 10, can make his triumphant return this week so he can lead them in a potential Super Bowl preview against the Chiefs (12-1). The Upshot gives the Chiefs a 23 percent chance of repeating as champions, while the Saints, at 16 percent, are considered the most likely winner out of the N.F.C.
At their best, both teams have explosive offenses and opportunistic defenses. If the Chiefs have a fatal flaw, it is their boredom, but a road game against a top competitor should keep their attention.
So where does that leave this game? It depends on Brees’s health. If he plays, and is close to 100 percent, you have to give the Saints a decent chance of an upset. Anything less than that, and a motivated Chiefs team could romp. Pick: Chiefs -3
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Seahawks -6 | Total: 44.5
If you were to go back to Week 6 and explain to the 5-0 Seahawks and the 1-5 Footballers that they’d be meeting in Week 15 with Washington (62 percent) having a better chance of winning its division than Seattle (39 percent), few would believe you. But the Seahawks (9-4) have leveled out, and were caught from behind by the Rams in the N.F.C. West, while the Footballers (6-7) have improved by leaps and bounds since installing Alex Smith at quarterback and are alone in first atop the N.F.C. East.
Seattle has a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs, regardless of whether it wins the division, and on the Seahawks’ best days — such as last Sunday, when they throttled the Jets — it’s easy to envision them as Super Bowl contenders. But Washington’s defense is on the way up, and if Smith is able to play through a calf injury, he could keep things close or engineer an upset. Pick: Footballers +6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Buccaneers -6 | Total: 50.5
In a convincing win over Minnesota last week, the Buccaneers (8-5) showed how effective their pass rush can be in creating the disruptions necessary to win tough games. Kirk Cousins was under pressure all game, and even though the Vikings moved the ball well, they couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone. A similar script could play out against the Falcons (4-9), who are a threat in any game in which Julio Jones is active — particularly if that game is in Atlanta — but are prone to problems against Tampa Bay’s pass rush because of quarterback Matt Ryan’s lack of mobility.
The Buccaneers are up to a 94 percent chance of ending their 12-season playoff drought, but the line may be too aggressive this week. Pick: Falcons +6
Cleveland Browns at Giants, 8:20 p.m., NBC
Line: Browns -4 | Total: 45.5
Even with last week’s heartbreaking loss to Baltimore, the Browns (9-4) have matched the franchise’s best 13-game start since 1994, when Coach Bill Belichick led them to an 11-5 record and a trip to the divisional round of the playoffs. On the strength of its record, Cleveland has an 84 percent chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2007. While the Giants (5-8) have made a remarkable turnaround from earlier this season, and have a 25 percent chance of winning the N.F.C. East, they are overmatched in this one. Pick: Browns -4
Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers, 8:15 p.m., NFL Network
Line: Packers -8.5 | Total: 51.5
Carolina’s defense just got shredded by Denver’s Drew Lock, so it’s hard to imagine the pain Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (10-3) could inflict on the Panthers (4-9) if they were to go all-out. After New Orleans’s loss last week, Green Bay, which had already clinched the N.F.C. North, is in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye. This game has the potential to be a trap, with the Packers looking ahead to a tougher matchup in Week 16 against Tennessee, but Rodgers has been locked in and may trail only Patrick Mahomes in the race for league most valuable player. Pick: Packers -8.5
Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos, 4:30 p.m., NFL Network
Line: Bills -6.5 | Total: 50
It’s hard to know how the Broncos (5-8) will play from week to week, but a road game in Denver is tough for any opponent, even one as good as the Bills (10-3). Add that the Bills can relax a little considering their 98 percent chance of winning the A.F.C. East (but just a 1 percent chance at a first-round bye), and this game could be closer than oddsmakers are predicting. Pick: Broncos +6.5
Sunday’s Other Games
Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Ravens -14 | Total: 47.5
There were so many jokes. Lamar Jackson engineered one of the wildest wins in recent N.F.L. history, completing a 44-yard touchdown to Marquise Brown on fourth-and-5 with less than two minutes left in the game, then watching Cleveland tie the score, and then taking the Ravens far enough for Justin Tucker to kick a game-winning, 55-yard field goal. But all anyone wanted to talk about was Jackson’s brief absence and how it looked as if he might have taken a bathroom break.
Laugh all you want — Jackson swears he was receiving fluids to alleviate cramping — but the win was a welcome change in what had been a difficult period for the Ravens (8-5). Jackson finally looked like himself, and the Ravens, with a 74 percent chance of making the playoffs, no longer seemed like a team in peril.
This game does not figure to be nearly as entertaining. The Jaguars (1-12) haven’t won a game since Week 1, and struggle on both sides of the ball. Having Baltimore as a two-touchdown favorite when you consider the team’s recent defensive struggles seems like a bit too much. Pick: Jaguars +14
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Colts -7 | Total: 52.5
In most years, this would be a key A.F.C. South matchup, but the Texans (4-9) have been eliminated from playoff contention and the Colts (9-4) have an 82 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 36 percent chance of winning their division. Houston’s Deshaun Watson will be the best player on the field, but the Texans have done a shameful job of keeping talent around him. Indianapolis, on the other hand, made crucial personnel moves in the off-season that have taken the team from mediocre to top 10 in offense and defense. Pick: Colts -7
Detroit Lions at Tennessee Titans, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Titans -10.5 | Total: 51.5
There are situations in which the Lions (5-8) could hold their own against the Titans (9-4), but most of them involve locking Tennessee’s Derrick Henry in a well-guarded room and insisting nobody knows where he is. Barring high jinks, Detroit seems remarkably overmatched, especially if Matthew Stafford misses the game with the rib injury he sustained last week. Tennessee is in a tough fight with Indianapolis for the A.F.C. South crown, and has a 64 percent chance of holding off the Colts, so the Titans certainly have motivation to keep winning. Pick: Titans -10.5
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Vikings -3 | Total: 46
Both teams are on the outside looking in, but the Bears (6-7) and the Vikings (6-7) are still alive, and both have at least a 20 percent chance of a playoff spot despite Chicago’s recent struggles and Minnesota’s rough start. Assuming the Bears’ offensive resurgence last week was more than a blip would probably be generous, but they certainly have looked their best with Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback. Even accounting for that, Minnesota should be fine, provided the team gives quarterback Kirk Cousins more time to work than he had in a loss to Tampa Bay. Pick: Vikings -3
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: Dolphins -2.5 | Total: 41.5
The Patriots (6-7) have missed the playoffs just twice since 2001, but even with a recent hot streak they are down to a 4 percent chance at qualifying this year, and that number will drop to zero with a loss to the Dolphins (8-5), who have a 43 percent chance at a wild card. The tables appear to have turned in this rivalry, with New England being the scrappy underdog that could spoil things for the seemingly superior team. Miami’s style of play doesn’t lead to many mistakes, so unless Coach Bill Belichick has something up his sleeve, the Patriots can start making vacation plans for early January. Pick: Dolphins -2.5
Jets at Los Angeles Rams, 4:05 p.m., Fox
Line: Rams -17 | Total: 44
Sam Darnold feels like the Darkest Timeline version of Jared Goff. Instead of developing under the tutelage of an era-defining offensive genius like Coach Sean McVay, Darnold has been saddled with Coach Adam Gase, and the Jets (0-13) seem to have little chance of avoiding a winless season. The talent imbalance in this game — reflected accurately in the point spread — is extreme, and a win for Los Angeles (9-4) should help the team increase its 60 percent chance of winning the competitive N.F.C. West. A 17-point spread is absurd, but so are the Jets. Pick: Rams -17
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys, 1 p.m., CBS
Line: 49ers -2.5 | Total: 45
When the schedule came out, this was supposed to showcase Jimmy Garoppolo leading the defending N.F.C. champions into Dak Prescott’s house to rekindle a classic rivalry. Backup quarterback Nick Mullens facing off against Andy Dalton doesn’t really live up to that advanced billing. Technically, neither team has been eliminated from playoff contention, with the 49ers (5-8) having a 9 percent chance at a wild-card spot and the Cowboys (4-9) having a 1 percent chance of winning the N.F.C. East. With San Francisco running back Raheem Mostert uncertain to play and wide receiver Deebo Samuel expected to be out, the Cowboys have a decent chance at a second straight win. Pick: Cowboys +2.5
Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals, 4:05 p.m., Fox
Line: Cardinals -6.5 | Total: 49.5
Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley will love this one. Kyler Murray of the Cardinals (7-6) transferred to Oklahoma to play for Riley in 2017 and won the Heisman Trophy in 2018. Jalen Hurts of the Eagles (4-8-1) transferred to Oklahoma to play for Riley in 2019 and was a Heisman finalist. Hurts’s promotion to starting quarterback for Philadelphia last week set up this matchup between two of Riley’s star pupils, and while the over-under on this game isn’t particularly high, you can expect plenty of highlight reel plays. Hurts has a chance to keep following in Murray’s formidable footsteps, but right now Murray is a more complete player and the Cardinals are a better team. With Arizona’s chance at a wild card around 50 percent, the team should be motivated to win at home. Pick: Cardinals -6.5
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
Line: Steelers -11.5 | Total: 40.5
Be it injuries, an offensive slump or regression to the mean, the Steelers (11-2) went from 11 straight wins to two consecutive losses. There was a sense, particularly toward the end of the win streak, that Pittsburgh was overrated, but the shift in circumstances has been extreme, especially when you consider it has dropped to the No. 2 seed in the A.F.C., with just an 11 percent chance of overtaking Kansas City for a first-round bye, according to The Upshot.
The Bengals (2-10-1), who have been eliminated from playoff contention, are likely to bear the brunt of Pittsburgh’s frustration. It is not that a blowout win over a bad, injury-riddled team would do much for the Steelers’ fortunes, but it might help them wash away the bad taste in their mouths from the last few weeks.
There should be no surprises in this one, even if the point spread is a bit large for a team that is struggling offensively. Pick: Bengals +11.5
Thursday’s Matchup: Chargers 30, Raiders 27
Things got complicated for Las Vegas when quarterback Derek Carr was removed from the game in the second quarter with a groin injury. But his backup, Marcus Mariota, put on quite a show. The No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft threw for 226 yards and a touchdown while running for 88 yards and another score.
That was good enough to keep pace with Los Angeles throughout regulation — with some help from Chargers kicker Michael Badgley, who missed go-ahead field goal attempts from 47 and 51 yards late in the fourth quarter. But all the Raiders could manage in overtime was a field goal, and that gave Justin Herbert his opening.
Herbert, a rookie quarterback who has tantalized with his arm strength all season, showed off his aggressiveness by throwing deep to Jalen Guyton on the third play of his team’s possession for a 53-yard gain that put Los Angeles on the Raiders’ 2-yard line. It took a few tries, but Herbert eventually pushed the ball over the goal line on a 1-yard keeper to secure the 30-27 win.
We picked Chargers +3.5 based on the team finally having ended a game well last week. This week’s ending was even better.
How Betting Lines Work
A quick primer for those who are not familiar with betting lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number that represents how many points they must win by to cover the spread. Dolphins -2.5, for example, means that Miami must beat New England by at least 3 points for its backers to win their bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, or whether the teams’ combined score in the game is over or under a preselected number of points.
All times are Eastern.