NFL Predictions Week 16: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Projections
It's the penultimate week of the NFL's regular season—but as cool as the word penultimate sounds, it deeply undersells just how massive this week really is; it just means "second to last."
Week 16's matchups have enormous implications. There's even a scenario in which all five divisions up for grabs are clinched over the weekend, leaving Week 17 all but meaningless (though it involves a Cincinnati Bengals/Denver Broncos tie, so fans of the AFC should still plan to plant themselves on the couch for the season-finale slate).
With so much at stake, it's "win or go home" for many of the teams that are still alive, and others have a chance to play spoiler in their division. Other teams are trying out the young guys, giving all-but-fired head coaches a chance to save their job or just sleepwalking to the finish.
As with every week, our panel of eight top NFL writers have put their heads together to project the week's biggest blowouts, upsets, flops, sleepers, heroes and goats.
Whether you're playing for your fantasy league's championship or just watching your favorite team play for draft position, you won't want to miss our experts' projections for this enormous Week 16.
All betting lines sourced through Odds Shark and represent the best available consensus line at time of writing.
Expert Consensus Selection: Green Bay Packers (+4.5) over Arizona Cardinals—three votes
For a showdown between two NFC division favorites who began the season in the conference-title discussion, this game doesn't have quite the epic feel it should.
That's partially because the 12-2 Cardinals are on an eight-win tear, dispatching contenders like the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks and blowing out mid-tier teams like the St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles in the process. Meanwhile, the Packers might be the most disappointing 10-4 team in recent history, failing to waste all comers with a pinball-numbers offense.
Yet, without playmaking defensive back Tyrann Mathieu (torn ACL, LCL), the Cardinals will be vulnerable in the secondary—and since head coach Mike McCarthy has resumed calling plays, the Packers have shown more pep on offense. The time could be right for Arizona to falter and the seasoned Packers to put it into playoff gear.
Two of our experts voted for the Atlanta Falcons to upset the 14-0 Carolina Panthers, if for no other reason than beating the same team twice in three weeks is hard.
Others receiving votes: Atlanta Falcons (+7.5) over Carolina Panthers—two votes, Chicago Bears (+3) over Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans over Tennessee Titans, Washington (+3) over Philadelphia Eagles
Expert Consensus Selection: Pittsburgh Steelers over Baltimore Ravens—four votes
It's depressing: An end-of-season iteration of one of the best rivalries of the last decade-plus of NFL football is our consensus pick for biggest blowout of the week. But there's just no getting around it: Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers are arguably the hottest team in football, and the decimated Baltimore Ravens are, well, decimated.
At the time of this writing, it was unclear whether Matt Schaub, Jimmy Clausen or Ryan Mallett would get the start at quarterback for the Ravens this week; that might be the saddest thing I've written all year.
The Ravens are a great franchise, but they have nothing on the high-flying Steelers offense—and Pittsburgh desperately needs a win to keep its well-deserved playoff spot.
Others receiving votes: Seattle Seahawks over St. Louis Rams—three votes, Carolina Panthers over Atlanta Falcons
Higher Total: Jaguars Offensive Yardage or Saints Offensive Yardage?
Expert Consensus Selection: Jacksonville Jaguars—six votes
If you'd have asked our experts what the highest-scoring game of the year might be, few would have picked this one. But while the Jaguars and New Orleans Saints offenses have been irresistible forces lately, their defenses are easily movable objects.
Quarterback Blake Bortles and receiver Allen Robinson have been incredible recently, each complementing what the other does well. Bortles has thrown for 1,440 yards and 12 touchdowns in the last five games alone—a 4,600-yard, 38-touchdown pace if he could keep it up for a whole season.
Despite some early-season struggles, the Saints have still averaged 25.0 points per game, good enough to rank ninth in the NFL. But while the Jaguars' scoring defense is ranked third-worst in the NFL, it is actually ranked 20th in yardage allowed. Meanwhile, the Saints defense is dead last in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed.
Chalk it up to the offense whose defense is the slightly less movable force.
Others receiving votes: New Orleans Saints—two votes
Expert Consensus Selection: Kellen Moore vs. "NFL defenders"/"anyone"/"fully grown adults"/Buffalo Bills defense—four votes
There is a strong faction of Moore believers—mostly people who saw him win a slew of games at Boise State University. But the undersized (6'0", 200 lbs), underwhelming, undrafted coach's son has champions inside the game, too—one of whom is Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who worked extensively with Moore in Detroit.
When Tony Romo went down, when the Cowboys brought in Matt Cassel, when Cassel failed to be the answer, the Moore believers came out of the woodwork, thinking he'd finally get a chance. And when, in Week 15, Moore's chance to play meaningful NFL football finally came, he went 15-of-25 for 158 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
Now he'll face Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills in his first career start, and our experts don't think it'll go any better for him this time around.
Others receiving votes: Johnny Manziel vs. Chiefs defense—three votes, Seahawks defensive line vs. Rams offensive line
Sleeper QB Performance
Expert Consensus Selection: Blake Bortles—five votes
Given the rationale on the More Offensive Yardage slide—that the Jaguars and Saints are likely to get caught up in a shootout—it's no wonder five of our experts got down with Bortles as their top sleeper quarterback.
Over the last five games, Bortles has completed 62.3 percent of his passes, averaged 7.87 yards per attempt and posted a 6.6 percent touchdown rate and 1.6 percent interception rate. His passer-efficiency rating over that stretch is 101.8—which would tie him for fifth-best in the NFL, were it a season-long total.
Oh, and again: The Saints are the NFL's worst scoring defense and second-worst yardage defense—so Bortles has a good chance to have a massive day.
Others receiving votes: Derek Anderson, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford
More Passing Yards: AJ McCarron or Brock Osweiler?
Expert Consensus Selection: Brock Osweiler—seven votes
OK, I admit it: I'm the guy who picked AJ McCarron.
The poor Cincinnati Bengals quarterback seemed so lonely with no votes, and as much as I'm a fan of what Osweiler has done with the almost-impossible charge of replacing Peyton Manning, I just couldn't let poor AJ take a unanimous loss.
That said, McCarron's only start so far came in Week 15, against a flailing San Francisco 49ers team. He didn't play poorly, per se; he completed 71.4 percent of his passes but only attempted 21, and though he averaged 9.14 yards gained with each, he only threw one touchdown. McCarron is going to have a much tougher go of it against the Broncos secondary.
Osweiler, meanwhile, has been moving the ball quite well against some of the best defenses in the game. While both have great weapons to work with, and neither has been dominant, our experts are overwhelmingly more comfortable with Osweiler.
Others receiving votes: McCarron
More Turnovers: Jay Cutler or Jameis Winston?
Expert Consensus Selection: Jay Cutler—six votes
"C'mon," said NFL Analyst Gary Davenport. "Like I can not pick Jay Cutler in a turnovers category." This compulsion—nay, duty—was felt strongly by our NFL experts, with five others joining Davenport in naming Cutler likelier to cough it up.
Yet, Cutler's interception rate has been a career-low 1.8 percent, seventh-best in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference. That's far lower than Jameis Winston's so far; his 2.6 percent interception rate is tied for 24th.
Then again, Cutler has fumbled eight times, two more than Winston, despite Cutler having 45 fewer dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, the Bears defense ranks 28th in the NFL in turnovers, with just 7.2 percent of opponent drives ending in a turnover, per Pro Football Reference. Winston's Bucs rank 13th; their 13.3 percent turnover rate is nearly twice as high as the Bears'.
History aside, Cutler likely gives the Bucs more belated Christmas presents than Winston gives the Bears.
Others receiving votes: Winston—two votes
Sleeper RB Performance
Expert Consensus Selection: Ameer Abdullah—three votes
Our experts were all riding Abdullah last week, and he came up big for them, gaining 77 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries; plus, he added 12 yards receiving on two targets. Oh, and he racked up a whopping 123 yards returning kicks.
Three of our experts like Abdullah to stay hot against the San Francisco 49ers and their 27th-ranked rushing yardage defense, while two preferred Chiefs tailback Charcandrick West. He had 16 carries for 76 yards and a score against the Ravens in Week 15; this weekend he'll get plenty of carries against the Cleveland Browns and their wretched run D.
Others receiving votes: West—two votes, DeAngelo Williams, Denard Robinson, Matt Jones
Sleeper WR Performance
Expert Consensus Selection: Kenny Stills—two votes
Our experts were staunchly divided, with seven of the eight naming their own candidate. That's when I broke the tie: I stepped in to double up on Stills, who's had several big catches over the past two weeks and a respectable six targets against the Chargers last week.
This week, Stills and the Dolphins face the Indianapolis Colts, for whom nearly everything has fallen off the rails. Though the division title is still technically in their reach, the Colts were blown out by the Steelers and Jaguars and couldn't get anything going against the far-from-fearsome Houston Texans—the team they're chasing for that playoff bid.
If Miami interim head coach Dan Campbell wants to make a bid to keep his job by playing spoiler in that race, getting the ball to Stills deep will be key.
Others receiving votes: Martavis Bryant, Jermaine Kearse, Marc Mariani, Rueben Randle, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace
Sleeper TE Performance
Expert Consensus Selection: Ben Watson—four votes
People have been sleeping on Watson all season long—but not our experts, who love the former New England Patriots first-rounder's matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
With 17 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the last three games, Watson is on his second-biggest hot streak of the season. If our experts are right, and he goes off for something like the nine catches, 147 yards and a touchdown he registered in the Saints' shootout win over the New York Giants, he'll have completed his second huge four-game run of the year.
In the runners-up category, make note of Packers tight end Andrew Quarless; he'll be going against a Cardinals secondary that's without the down-the-seam coverage ability of injured Tyrann Mathieu.
Others receiving votes: Vance McDonald, Quarless, Mychal Rivera, Clive Walford
Best Defensive Performance
Expert Consensus Selection: Marcus Peters—three votes
Peters is making a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year; tying for second in the NFL in interceptions will do that for you. Going up against Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns? Well, the headlines write themselves.
It's hard to see how Manziel or the Browns will have any kind of success against Peters and the Chiefs pass rush—yet Manziel and Co. will be going all out to try to save their jobs, as well as the job of head coach Mike Pettine.
Aggression combined with a talent mismatch makes this one easy.
Then again, the two most dominant defensive linemen in the game, Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt, garnered two votes each. It's hard to go wrong with either, ever, but with both playing in divisional rivalry games, they'll be especially dangerous.
Others receiving votes: Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt—two votes each, Richard Sherman
Over/Under: 3 Combined Brandon Marshall/Rob Gronkowski Touchdowns
Expert Consensus Selection: Over—four votes
How has it taken us this long to get to this game? The Patriots going to New Jersey to take on the Jets?
Back at the beginning of the year, I circled this matchup as the one that could decide the AFC East. Though the Jets have done exactly what I expected them to do, as they sit within striking distance of an 11-5 season, the Darrelle Revis-less Patriots have far surpassed my expectations.
Jets receiver Brandon Marshall is one of the best stories of the year, racking up 93 catches, 1,261 yards and 11 touchdowns at age 31 (and in his fourth NFL stop). Gronk is Gronk, Gronking his way to 66 catches for 1,072 yards and 11 Gronk Spikes.
With the same number of touchdowns on the season, the rivalry factor and both teams needing a win (the Pats to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Jets to stay alive in the wild-card race), these two studs are bound to go off.
That's why half of our experts expect these two to combine for a whopping four (or more!) touchdowns this Sunday.
Others receiving votes: Under, Push—two votes each
Flop of the Week
Expert Consensus Selection: Kellen Moore—three votes
Kellen Moore: We want so badly to believe! As reporters and analysts, there's nothing Bleacher Report's NFL experts love more than a great story—and Moore playing professional football well would be a great story.
But for all the weapons and money in Dallas, Moore didn't show enough magical spark to prove himself a clear and present upgrade over the likes of Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. Moreover, his Cowboys are going up against a spectacularly talented Bills defense that's playing under a lot of pressure to prove itself.
If there's a shortcut to improving your defensive stats, it's playing against a career practice-squadder/third-stringer who's short on talent and long on stick-to-itiveness.
Others receiving votes: Browns/"All things Browns," Broncos QB/Emmanuel Sanders connection—two votes each, Jameis Winston