NFL Predictions Week 15: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Projections
This is it: do or die.
The NFL's Week 15 is already upon us, and eight teams have a chance to clinch a playoff something: a berth, a bye, home-field advantage. The scenarios and permutations are up on NFL.com for everyone to see; the Minnesota Vikings have some especially wild paths to the postseason.
But for plenty of other teams, this is the week the door will slam shut—practically, if not mathematically. Not only are games being won or lost, but crucial head-to-head, division- and conference-record tiebreakers are also being decided.
These will be the last meaningful games many NFL teams play.
For all of it, Bleacher Report's panel of eight top NFL experts has once again convened to project the week's winners, losers, upsets, blowouts, sleepers, flops, overs and unders. Through the wisdom of this particular crowd, you'll get the best insight about what will happen to your favorite (or most hated) teams and players—not to mention your fantasy squad's championship chances.
Read on to find out our experts' takes on whether you'll be cheering or weeping over your Monday morning coffee.
Expert Consensus Pick (tie, two votes each): New York Giants (+5.5) over Carolina Panthers, Baltimore Ravens (+8.51) over Kansas City Chiefs
Once the Carolina Panthers shredded the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving to climb to 11-0, anyone who looked at their remaining slate of games circled this road game against Eli Manning, Odell Beckham and the dangerous New York Giants.
As if it weren't already the most dangerous game between the Carolina Panthers and 16-0, Manning and Beckham are coming off their most explosive game ever. Beckham gained 166 yards and two touchdowns off just seven catches, and Manning completed a silly 87.1 percent of his passes for 337 yards, four touchdowns and no picks.
The Panthers are dealing with a host of injuries suffered in Week 14, including losing defensive back Bene Benwikere for the rest of year. No wonder two of our experts like the Giants to pull the upset.
But NFL Lead Writer Mike Tanier explains why he and fellow Lead Writer Mike Freeman chose the Baltimore Ravens over the Kansas City Chiefs:
The Ravens are clearing their practice squad and sticking those players on the active roster. The Chiefs are trying to win the AFC West, but they are holding their offense together with bailing wire. This just feels like one of those games where a bunch of Bad News Bears spark a few big plays at home and trap a contender with obvious, exploitable flaws.
Others receiving votes: Denver Broncos (+7) over Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions (+3) over New Orleans Saints, Oakland Raiders (N/A) over Green Bay Packers
Expert Consensus Pick: Seattle Seahawks over Cleveland Browns—seven votes
The math on this one is easy: The Seattle Seahawks are arguably the hottest team in the NFL, having won four straight games, outscoring opponents 141-56 in the process. The Cleveland Browns are one of the NFL's worst teams, having just dropped out of No. 1 overall draft position last week with their first win since October 11.
The Seahawks have the NFL's sixth-best scoring offense, and the rejuvenated defense is now ranked third in points allowed. Meanwhile, the Browns rank 29th in points scored and 30th in points allowed. On paper, this is an absolute no-hoper.
However, the NFL has a funny way of working out, and there are an awful lot of jobs in Cleveland riding on this not being a complete disaster. While I don't see much hope for a Cleveland victory, this fully operational New England Patriots Death Star will blow out the Tennessee Titans more thoroughly than the Seahawks blow out the Browns.
Others receiving votes: New England Patriots over Tennessee Titans
Higher Total: Pittsburgh Steelers' or Denver Broncos' Offensive Yardage
Expert Consensus Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers—seven votes
There's no question which of these two teams has the more explosive offense. The Steelers rank fifth in scoring and second in yardage—despite a slate of early-season injuries and suspensions that affected every offensive unit, including star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Averaging a whopping 35.2 points and 498.2 yards over the last five games, the Steelers are far outstripping the Brock Osweiler-led Broncos. In his four starts since taking over for Peyton Manning, the Broncos are averaging 19 points and 356.3 yards per game. Case closed, as far as seven of our experts are concerned.
Once again, your humble columnist takes exception.
The Steelers are doing a fine job of holding down points; they're ranked 11th with an average of 20 points allowed per game. But they're doing an awful lot of bending before they don't break, allowing 367.3 yards per game—ranked just 23rd in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Broncos are holding teams to a league-lowest 272.5 yards per game. It's a crushing majority rules, but there's at least a shadow of a doubt.
Others receiving votes: Denver Broncos
Expert Consensus Pick: Russell Wilson/"Seahawks anything" vs. Johnny Manziel/"Browns anything"—eight votes
Sensing a theme yet?
Russell Wilson is on fire; he's Pro Football Focus' best-graded quarterback over the past four weeks. The Seattle defense has allowed just 14 points per game over the same stretch. The Seahawks have been getting better every week.
The Browns have been the NFL's worst team for most of the season; the three-ring-circus at quarterback has only served as a distraction for the horror-show defense. Mike Pettine is coaching for his job against Pete Carroll. Johnny Manziel's freewheeling bid to be Cleveland's quarterback of the future is going to end at a brick wall named The Legion of Boom.
Oh—and it's in Seattle, home of one of the loudest home crowds in football. Sorry, Johnny.
Sleeper QB Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: AJ McCarron—three votes
Oh no! Andy Dalton is hurt! The Cincinnati Bengals are stuck with AJ McCarron! There goes the season!
McCarron quickly made a case for his ability to use all the weapons the Bengals have at their disposal when he hit A.J. Green for a 66-yard touchdown not long after taking over for Dalton. Despite McCarron having no NFL track record, he's been on the roster for nearly three full seasons, working and practicing with all the same weapons he'll be working with down the stretch.
Maybe he won't be able to beat the likes of Tom Brady and the Patriots in the playoffs, but our experts believe he'll be able to put up points on the 49ers this weekend.
Others receiving votes: Alex Smith—two votes, Blake Bortles, Blaine Gabbert
More Passing Yards: Cam Newton or Eli Manning?
Expert Consensus Pick: Eli Manning—five votes
Manning is coming off the statistical performance of his life against the Miami Dolphins, and if there's anyone who knows how to get hot and stay hot at just the right time, it's Manning.
Of course, knocking off the undefeated Panthers wouldn't just be a neat piece of trivia or a feather in the Giants' cap—they desperately need a win to hold on to their share of the NFC East lead. Whatever firepower Manning's got, he, Beckham and the Giants are going to bring it to bear on the Panthers defense. It's no wonder five of our experts went with Manning.
That said, Newton has been caught up in, and won, his fair share of shootouts this season, and as we're careful to note, the team that has more passing yards has often spent the game trying to play catch-up. Three of our experts took Newton, whether or not his team fends off the potential upset.
Others receiving votes: Cam Newton—three votes
More Turnovers: Texans QB or Colts QB?
Expert Consensus Pick: Colts QB—six votes
Trying to assemble the expert opinions of eight busy experts at the peak of the NFL season isn't something one can do in five minutes, so at the time of polling, it wasn't clear who'd be starting at quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.
At the time of writing, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano announced Matt Hasselbeck would continue to start in Andrew Luck's absence (presuming no setbacks for Hasselbeck's ribs). Whether it's Luck, Hasselbeck or third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, though, the Colts have surrendered the ball twice as many times as the Texans have over the last four games.
With Texans starter Brian Hoyer out with his second concussion in a month, backup T.J. Yates is likely to take over, and Yates hasn't thrown a pick in 47 attempts this season. All told, six of our experts expect whoever's playing quarterback for the Colts to be looser with the ball than Yates.
Others receiving votes: Texans QB—two votes
Sleeper RB Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Ameer Abdullah—three votes
In fantasy football, to borrow a phrase from baseball, a player is only as good as his last start. Production in any given week can be as much about momentum, opponent and opportunity as it is about individual ability.
At no position is that more true than running back, where getting a big dose of carries in the modern NFL is as rare as it is important. There's no doubt about Ameer Abdullah's raw, explosive talent, but a combination of early-season ball-control problems and his Detroit Lions failing to be in running situations often has kept a hard cap on his carries.
In Week 15, the Lions play the New Orleans Saints; the Saints defense is last in points allowed, rushing attempts allowed, rushing yardage allowed and rushing yards per attempt. Our experts think Abdullah should have no trouble uncorking one (or two or five) of his signature big runs against the hapless Saints.
Others receiving votes: Bryce Brown, Bilal Powell, Tim Hightower, DeAngelo Williams, Danny Woodhead
Sleeper WR Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Willie Snead—three votes
If you live by the sword, they say, you die by the sword. And if the Lions' skill players are going to run through the sad-sack Saints defense, receiver Willie Snead and the Saints offense will gladly return the favor.
The Saints are ranked 32nd in points allowed, but the Lions aren't far ahead (27th). Their banged-up secondary will be vulnerable if the Saints can protect Drew Brees long enough to go deep. Snead, who broke out with a couple of big games in October before missing some time in November, caught seven of his eight targets in Week 14, per Pro Football Reference, for 122 yards.
If it's going to be a pinball game in the Superdome, Snead should get plenty of looks. Our experts are so sure about this one getting out of hand that NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller tabbed Lions receiver Golden Tate.
Others receiving votes: Kenny Britt, Stefon Diggs, Devin Funchess, Jermaine Kearse, Golden Tate
Sleeper TE Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Eric Ebron—three votes
And would you look at that? Once again, our experts go to the Lions-Saints well for their consensus sleeper.
It makes all the sense in the world, of course. It's a matchup between two teams that are all but out of it that few people are paying attention to, but it's likely to get crazy as two spread-it-out teams with shaky defenses go head-to-head.
Eric Ebron's talent for getting open is undeniable. Whether he's invisible or a major factor on any given Sunday, though, depends on whether he brought his hands with him to the stadium. Quarterback Matthew Stafford should have plenty of red-zone opportunities against the Saints defense; if Ebron is on, he could have a huge game.
Two of our experts also like Green Bay Packers tight end Richard Rodgers to follow up his heroic Hail Mary catch of Week 14 with a big game against the Oakland Raiders.
Others receiving votes: Richard Rodgers—two votes, Jordan Cameron, Vance McDonald, Jacob Tamme
Best Defensive Performance
Expert Consensus Pick: Seattle Seahawks—four votes
One last time: It's Seahawks-Browns.
The mismatch between the Seahawks defense and the Browns' Johnny Manziel-led offense is so enormous that it compelled NFL Analyst Gary Davenport to set down the torch he's carried all season for Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and get on the Seahawks bandwagon.
Then again, two of our experts like the Broncos to have a surprisingly strong showing against the red-hot Steelers pass defense. For the sake of Brock Osweiler and the Broncos' first-round bye hopes, they'd better be right.
Others receiving votes: Denver Broncos/Chris Harris—two votes, Khalil Mack, Gerald McCoy
Over/Under: Four Total Matthew Stafford/Drew Brees Interceptions
Expert Consensus Pick: under—six votes
Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees are not having good seasons.
Sure, there are statistical bright spots; Brees' rate stats are right in line with his career averages, per Pro Football Reference. In fact, Stafford's are too. But the usually above-average Lions offense is just 23rd in scoring this season, and Brees' perennially high-octane Saints are just outside the top 10.
Worse yet, both teams are far off the playoff pace. The Lions, 11-5 last year, have only four wins to their name with three games left to play. The Saints, who finished just short of winning the NFC South last year (and were 11-5 the year before), are 5-8. Facing each other? One might think a disaster is looming.
But our experts know neither quarterback is throwing many interceptions.
Brees has thrown 11 in 12 games. Stafford, 13 in 13. Moreover, the Lions and the Saints are tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the second-fewest interceptions in the NFL with just six.
No matter how badly things are going for Stafford and Brees this year—and regardless of whether they'll keep their jobs—this game likely won't devolve into an interceptionfest.
Others receiving votes: over, push
Flop of the Week
Expert Consensus Pick: Johnny Manziel—three votes
I said there would be no more Seahawks-Browns breakdowns in this article.
Given their choice of Flop of the Week, three of our experts pegged poor Johnny Manziel as the likely victim. There's just no hope here: the Seahawks pass rush against the Browns protection, the Seahawks secondary against the Browns receivers, Manziel likely having to play catch-up as the Browns' 31st-ranked scoring defense surrenders to Russell Wilson and Co.
But NFL Lead Writer Mike Tanier voted for Odell Beckham as flop of the week. He explains himself thus:
The Panthers are the second-best team in the NFL at stopping No. 1 wide receivers, according to Football Outsiders. (The Seahawks are best.) The Panthers generally excel at taking away what opponents do best. This feels like one of those games where Beckham gets knocked around early and then spends the rest of the afternoon looking for flags instead of footballs.
Others receiving votes: Odell Beckham—two votes, Todd Gurley, Cam Newton