NFL Week 15 picks: How to play losing teams as massive favorites, teaser of the week and more tips

Week 15 brings us some incredibly compelling matchups, like the Patriots making another trip to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, or the Chiefs hosting the Chargers on Thursday with a chance to put away the AFC West and for all intents and purposes the No. 1 seed.

And then we have the other side of the coin, with three matchups between teams where neither is better than 5-8. Two of those feature small lines, with the home team understandably favored by 2.5 or 3 points. And then there's Cardinals-Falcons.

This has been an awful year in Atlanta, where a team that many predicted would go to the Super Bowl has lost five straight to drop to 4-9. That losing streak didn't include many squeakers either, as four of those five losses were by double digits. By all accounts, the Falcons are a bad team.

So what are they doing favored by nine points? While they are facing the worst offensive team in the league in the Cardinals, it seems a little nuts to make the Falcons nine-point favorites when they have only four wins on the year and just one win of more than seven points.

At 4-9, we know the Falcons will finish with a losing record. So I dug down to find out what happened this late in the season when losing teams are favored by huge numbers. When a team that finishes the season with a losing record is at least eight-point favorites on the closing number in their 14th or 15th game of the year (throwing out Week 17 when things can get weird), they are 11-23-1 ATS since 1981. However, they've fared a little better in recent years, going 4-2 since 2010. Unless that smaller sample size in recent years is indicative of a systemic change in how supposed good teams with bad records approach these games, the Falcons look like a smart bet to fade.

If we widen our search to teams that are at least seven-point favorites in Game 14-15 but finish with a losing record, we can loop in Jacksonville's matchup with Washington this week as well, as the 4-9 Jaguars are seven-point favorites. That trend is a bit better for the favorites, who are 27-40-1 ATS since 1978, and even better if you just go back to 2011, with favorites going 6-1 ATS in their last seven games in this situation.

What does it mean? Well, it seems like you should either take the points with Arizona and Washington or stay away from the game entirely.

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Each week in this space, I'm going to go behind the lines and picks to bring you a bit of a deeper dive into what you should know before locking in your plays. Let's get to it.

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My picks

Over at SportsLine, I'm 38-14-1 over my last 53 picks, good for a +2244 mark over that stretch. Join now and use promo code WHITE for $1 on your first month and you can get mine and every SportsLine expert's picks throughout the year, as well as my SuperContest picks each Saturday.

However, you can get one free pick with my teaser of the week, which has hit more than 70 percent of the time to date, at the end of this article. Enjoy!

Chargers at Chiefs (-3.5)

Home-field advantage: 3 points
Power rating line: Chiefs -6
Lookahead line: Chiefs -4

Record vs. spread 7-68-4-1
Yards per play differential 1.21.0
Points per drive offense rank 42
Points per drive defense rank 928
Weighted DVOA 27.430.4
Pass offense DVOA rank 21
Pass defense DVOA rank 915
Run offense DVOA rank 75
Run defense DVOA rank 1632

What a matchup. These are the top two teams in DVOA, weighted DVOA and pass DVOA on offense, and they're two of only three teams with a yards-per-play differential above 0.6 (the Steelers, like the Chiefs, own a 1.0 YPP). The stats say these teams are even, or close to it?

So why am I making this line Chiefs -6 based on power rating? The Chiefs are currently my No. 1 team, and I have the Chargers three points worse despite checking in at No. 4 overall. They've had the 28th-toughest schedule to date, per Football Outsiders, and now have the toughest slate of three games remaining. Their games against winning teams include losses to the Chiefs and Rams, a 20-19 win against the Titans that should have went to overtime had Tennessee just kicked instead of going for two with 31 seconds left, a 25-17 win over Seattle off a bye where they needed a goal-line stop on the final play, and the second-half comeback in a 33-30 win over the Steelers two weeks ago. They also lost to the Broncos and had trouble putting away teams led by Jeff Driskel and C.J. Beathard, with all three of those games coming at home.

I'm not saying the Chargers are a bad team, but they may not be quite as good as we think.

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Texans (-6) at Jets

Home-field advantage: 3 points
Power rating line: Texans -3.5
Lookahead line: Texans -7

Record vs. spread 6-75-8
Yards per play differential 0.1-0.7
Points per drive offense rank 1729
Points per drive defense rank 312
Weighted DVOA 3.7-21.4
Pass offense DVOA rank 1230
Pass defense DVOA rank 16 11
Run offense DVOA rank 2628
Run defense DVOA rank 223

The Texans finally saw their winning streak end, so now they can focus on winning the division and maybe even getting a first-round bye. Their defense has allowed 400 yards in back-to-back games, but they get a bit of a respite with a matchup against a poor Jets offense on deck.

The Jets were outgained 368-248 in yardage last week but gutted out a win thanks to turnovers and outstanding special teams play. But that formula isn't going to work against every team, and they're facing a Texans offense that hasn't turned the ball over in five of its last six games. And the Jets don't have the pass rush (28th in adjusted sack rate) to take advantage of a poor blocking unit in the Texans (31st in adjusted sack rate). Even though my power ratings say this line should be closer to Texans -3, I hate the matchup for the Jets and am probably staying away on the point spread.

Browns at Broncos (-3)

Home-field advantage: 4 points
Power rating line: Broncos -4
Lookahead line: Broncos -6

Record vs. spread 8-56-6-1
Yards per play differential -0.1-0.1
Points per drive offense rank 2522
Points per drive defense rank 1110
Weighted DVOA -4.619.6
Pass offense DVOA rank 2621
Pass defense DVOA rank 52
Run offense DVOA rank 203
Run defense DVOA rank 2611

If you look at yards per play and points per drive, you can see why the market considers these teams even, as both have similar statistical profiles. But DVOA thinks Denver is the far superior team, and they should certainly be getting more than three points for their unique homefield advantage. While they're just 3-3 at home this year, the three losses were by four or less points to the Chiefs, Rams and Texans. Can't knock them too much for that.

The other concern for Cleveland is that their one true strength (pass defense) doesn't make as much of an impact against a team that doesn't pass the ball well anyway and will likely be heavily leaning on the run. This is also Cleveland's first primetime game with Baker Mayfield starting. We'll see how he responds in a tough road spot against a team with a good pass rush (third in adjusted sack rate) on the big stage.

Dolphins at Vikings (-7)

Home-field advantage: 4 points
Power rating line: Vikings -7
Lookahead line: Vikings -7.5

Record vs. spread 8-56-6-1
Yards per play differential -0.60.4
Points per drive offense rank 2426
Points per drive defense rank 254
Weighted DVOA -10.02.9
Pass offense DVOA rank 2015
Pass defense DVOA rank 268
Run offense DVOA rank 1131
Run defense DVOA rank 1712

The stats absolutely hate the Dolphins, who have been outgained in five of their seven wins this season. They have a solid running game but not much else to recommend them. However, they have the fourth-best turnover rate in the league on defense, though that didn't come into play against the Patriots so much as they were able to win thanks to some rare mental errors and missed kicks by New England and a once-in-a-blue-moon set of laterals at the end of the game.

The Vikings have played four of their last six games on primetime, winning just once under the bright lights this season. They're 4-1-1 in 1 p.m. start times and this is the first such game since before their Week 10 bye. Despite their recent stretch, this is still a good defense at home, where they've given up 19.3 points per game this year. Their only two poor defensive efforts at home were against the Saints (understandable) and that fluky Bills game where the offense couldn't stop turning the ball over.

Raiders at Bengals (-2.5)

Home-field advantage: 2.5 points
Power rating line: Bengals -1.5
Lookahead line: Bengals -4.5

Record vs. spread 5-86-7
Yards per play differential -1.0-0.6
Points per drive offense rank 28 13
Points per drive defense rank 3032
Weighted DVOA -23.7-27.1
Pass offense DVOA rank 11 17
Pass defense DVOA rank 3227
Run offense DVOA rank 2712
Run defense DVOA rank 27 28

Good luck trying to find a reason to watch this game unless you're a diehard fan of either team. It makes sense to just set this game at -3 for the home team and expect not much action on the game either way. The Bengals don't get the full three points for home-field advantage though, and I also think Oakland is the slightly better team in a Derek Carr vs. Jeff Driskel matchup.

The Raiders are also showing no quit with a coach in place that isn't going anywhere. After beating the Cardinals as big 'dogs on the road, they had the score within three against two potential AFC teams in the Ravens (in Baltimore) and Chiefs (at home) before upsetting the Steelers in a result we all should have seen coming. The Raiders aren't good, but over the past month, they haven't been all that bad either.

Buccaneers at Ravens (-7.5)

Home-field advantage: 3.5 points
Power rating line: Ravens -7.5
Lookahead line: Ravens -7

Record vs. spread 5-7-17-6
Yards per play differential 0.10.5
Points per drive offense rank 1114
Points per drive defense rank 29 2
Weighted DVOA -15.216.1
Pass offense DVOA rank 1019
Pass defense DVOA rank 284
Run offense DVOA rank 2210
Run defense DVOA rank 306

The Bucs have been playing teams tough over the last three weeks, especially on defense, but all of those were in Tampa. On the road, they've given up 40, 48, 34, 37, 42 and 38 points, and only the first two of those games were against teams with winning records. The Ravens defense has allowed just 17 points per game at home this year, with the Saints (24 points) and Steelers (23 points) having the best showing. They're certainly earning that second-ranked points per drive mark on defense, especially when they play in Baltimore.

It's certainly not out of the question that the Bucs find a way to have a big game offensively despite the matchup. They've racked up more than 500 yards of offense five times this season, becoming only the fifth team to do that in the Super Bowl era. But while those other four teams were a combined 20-1 in those games (21 total, because the 2013 Broncos had six 500-yard games), the Bucs are just 1-4 in their five 500-yard games.

Cowboys at Colts (-3)

Home-field advantage: 2.5 points
Power rating line: Colts -1.5
Lookahead line: Colts -2.5

Record vs. spread 8-56-6-1
Yards per play differential 0.10.3
Points per drive offense rank 167
Points per drive defense rank 614
Weighted DVOA -1.713.5
Pass offense DVOA rank 2714
Pass defense DVOA rank 1218
Run offense DVOA rank 1619
Run defense DVOA rank 45

Most people would probably say the Cowboys are the hottest team in football right now, but they aren't getting nearly as much credit in DVOA. Per Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz, that's because they've had just one impressive win during that stretch: the high-profile defensive battle against the Saints. They dominated the yardage battle against the Eagles though, outgaining their division rival 576-256.

Now they have to travel to Indy to face a tough Colts team with a better defense than you probably realize, one that ranks fifth in rush DVOA and sixth in yards per attempt. They've given up more than 100 yards on the ground just once in their last five games, and they've held four straight opponents to 226 passing yards or less. The Colts haven't exactly faced a murderer's row of offenses though; since their loss to the Patriots in Week 5, the best offense they've faced based on current DVOA is the Raiders, who rank 17th, and everyone else is 20th or worse. The Cowboys also have a poor offensive DVOA ranking, but if Amari Cooper truly is the difference-maker he appears to be, this should be the Colts' toughest defensive test in two months.

Lions at Bills (-2.5)

Home-field advantage: 2 points
Power rating line: Bills -2.5
Lookahead line: Bills -2.5

Record vs. spread 7-65-8
Yards per play differential -0.7 -0.2
Points per drive offense rank 2131
Points per drive defense rank 2415
Weighted DVOA -14.0 -20.3
Pass offense DVOA rank 2532
Pass defense DVOA rank 313
Run offense DVOA rank 2124
Run defense DVOA rank 209

The Lions have been a pretty good ATS team this year, but they haven't played particularly well overall. In addition to ranking 20th or worse in just about any category you can find, they've scored only 16.2 points per game over their last seven, gaining no more than 333 yards of offense in a game during that stretch despite surpassing that mark in all but one of their first six games. Golden Tate is gone, Kerryon Johnson has been hurt and their secondary options on offense haven't stayed healthy or stepped up to fill the void.

The Bills have an elite defense that ranks third in DVOA overall, third in passing DVOA, third in net yards per attempt and top 10 against the run as well. They've also found the formula for success by running for 188.2 yards per game in their last four. While they lost each of their last two games, they outgained each of their opponents by more than 100 yards but were done in by turnovers. If Josh Allen learns how to protect the ball, this could be a dangerous team down the stretch.

Packers at Bears (-6)

Home-field advantage: 3.5 points
Power rating line: Bears -8.5
Lookahead line: Bears -6

Record vs. spread 5-7-1 9-4
Yards per play differential 0.40.6
Points per drive offense rank 1215
Points per drive defense rank 181
Weighted DVOA 7.116.0
Pass offense DVOA rank 922
Pass defense DVOA rank 171
Run offense DVOA rank 415
Run defense DVOA rank 291

The Bears have been one of the most underrated teams all year, with their 9-4 ATS mark sitting only behind the Saints (10-3) and Seahawks (8-3-2). Their defense has been phenomenal, ranking first in DVOA (and against both the pass and run individually), points per drive, turnover rate and first downs allowed. On the other side, the Packers offense has the lowest turnover rate in the league, and Aaron Rodgers has thrown just one pick. Can that continue in his toughest test of the season?

As great as the Bears defense is, their offense could be what keeps them from making a deep playoff run. They're just an average unit according to the stats above, but they've been turnover prone of late, giving the ball away three times in three of their last four games. Only one of those three-turnover performances was by Chase Daniel, so don't blame Mitchell Trubisky's injury for the poor ball security. The Packers don't have a great turnover rate on defense, and they've been pounded on the ground over the last two months, so the Bears could roll in this matchup regardless of their offensive flaws.

Titans at Giants (-2.5)

Home-field advantage: 2 points
Power rating line: Giants -3
Lookahead line: Giants -2.5

Record vs. spread 7-67-5-1
Yards per play differential 0.0 0.0
Points per drive offense rank 2018
Points per drive defense rank 523
Weighted DVOA -4.88.8
Pass offense DVOA rank 2416
Pass defense DVOA rank 2224
Run offense DVOA rank 1718
Run defense DVOA rank 1318

The Giants are on a roll, winners of four of their last five with an offense scoring 31.4 points per game during that stretch. Their 8.8 mark in weighted DVOA is good for 12th in the league, meaning this version of the Giants is playing at the level of a playoff team. The rushing attack ranks fourth in yards per carry on the season, and the defense has multiple turnovers in four of their last five. At home, they should be laying three or more against any team that isn't great.

And on the road, the Titans aren't great at all. They've scored just 16.4 points per game in their seven road contests this year (less if you take out the neutral-field London game), and 12 of their 15 turnovers this season have come away from home. They've won two games in a row, but both were at home against replacement-level QBs, and this should be a much tougher test with how well the Giants are playing.

Redskins at Jaguars (-7)

Home-field advantage: 2.5 points
Power rating line: Jaguars -5.5
Lookahead line: Jaguars -7

Record vs. spread 7-64-7-2
Yards per play differential -0.7-0.3
Points per drive offense rank 2730
Points per drive defense rank 177
Weighted DVOA -35.4-8.8
Pass offense DVOA rank 29 28
Pass defense DVOA rank 147
Run offense DVOA rank 1423
Run defense DVOA rank 25 10

It's understandable that the Redskins would be touchdown underdogs with their fourth starting quarterback of the season. But Josh Johnson played well after just a few days with the team, incredibly so when compared to Mark Sanchez's performance. Still, he's probably the worst quarterback starting in Week 15.

I say probably, because Cody Kessler could deserve a shot at that title. After all, the Jaguars have scored just one TD the last two weeks, and it game with the team already down 30-2. If the defense shows up and gives it everything they got, they can probably shut down the Washington offense. But how is this Jacksonville offense supposed to score points? Making them seven-point favorites is a bit perplexing.

Cardinals at Falcons (-9)

Home-field advantage: 2.5 points
Power rating line: Falcons -7
Lookahead line: Falcons -7.5

Record vs. spread 6-6-13-10
Yards per play differential -0.8-0.2
Points per drive offense rank 325
Points per drive defense rank 1931
Weighted DVOA -35.9-6.2
Pass offense DVOA rank 318
Pass defense DVOA rank 1030
Run offense DVOA rank 3229
Run defense DVOA rank 2231

The stoppable object meets the movable force as Arizona brings DVOA's No. 32-ranked offense into a battle with DVOA's No. 32-ranked defense in Atlanta. The Cardinals are tied for the worst record in football at 3-10, but the Falcons' 3-10 ATS record puts them all alone for the worst ATS mark in the league. They actually haven't been that big of favorites this year either, as they haven't been more than a 5.5-point favorite in any game.

The Cardinals know how to hang around in games, and they're 6-4-1 ATS when they close as an underdog. That's thanks largely to a pass defense ranked 10th in DVOA and fourth in net yards per attempt. If they're at their best here, the Falcons could have trouble having success at the one thing they do well. That's probably what will have to happen for the Cardinals to cover, as you can't trust an offense that scores 13.7 points per game and ranks dead last almost across the board statistically.

Seahawks (-4.5) at 49ers

Home-field advantage: 2 points
Power rating line: Seahawks -7.5
Lookahead line: Seahawks -7

Record vs. spread 8-3-24-9
Yards per play differential -0.50.3
Points per drive offense rank 923
Points per drive defense rank 826
Weighted DVOA 13.5-24.1
Pass offense DVOA rank 623
Pass defense DVOA rank 1325
Run offense DVOA rank 630
Run defense DVOA rank 1914

These two teams just played in Week 13, with the Seahawks going off as 9.5-point favorites and winning 43-16. Now it's a few points higher on the neutral line (8.5 instead of 6.5 when you take out the standard three for home-field), and that makes perfect sense with Seattle continuing to roll. While this is away from home, they've won four of their last five on road and covered the spread in each of their last four road games.

There is an anatomy for a San Francisco upset, however. They did just that against another run first team at home last week when the Broncos were completely shut down offensively. This is also a terrible spot for Seattle on short rest in a game they're expected to win with a matchup against the Chiefs up next. The 49ers could make this their Super Bowl as they look to get revenge for an embarrassing loss just two weeks ago. The stats say Seahawks roll again. The spot says watch out.

Patriots (-2.5) at Steelers

Home-field advantage: 2.5 points
Power rating line: Steelers -1.5
Lookahead line: Steelers -2.5

Record vs. spread 8-56-6-1
Yards per play differential 0.01.0
Points per drive offense rank 68
Points per drive defense rank 1613
Weighted DVOA 12.713.5
Pass offense DVOA rank 47
Pass defense DVOA rank 1921
Run offense DVOA rank 913
Run defense DVOA rank 217

The stats show that the Steelers are a slightly better team, thanks to New England's struggles on defense this year where they have just the 21st-ranked unit in the league. But the Patriots obviously have the psychological advantage in this matchup, winning five straight and 12 of their last 15 meetings (including playoffs). They're also 8-2-1 against the spread in their last 11 games with the Steelers.

If Pittsburgh can put that aside, they can win this game. Even though they've lost three straight, only one was at home, where they've scored 30 or more points in five of their six games thus far. The Patriots have a pretty easy road schedule this year, but still gave up 31 in Jacksonville, 26 in Detroit, 31 in Chicago, 34 in Tennessee and now 34 in Miami. None of those teams rank higher than 20th in offensive DVOA on the year. The Patriots could be in trouble if you trust the stats, but in this matchup, stats might not matter.

Eagles at Rams (-11)

Home-field advantage: 3 points
Power rating line: Rams -12.5
Lookahead line: Rams -7.5

Record vs. spread 4-95-7-1
Yards per play differential -0.6 0.5
Points per drive offense rank 193
Points per drive defense rank 20 22
Weighted DVOA -6.823.6
Pass offense DVOA rank 185
Pass defense DVOA rank 236
Run offense DVOA rank 251
Run defense DVOA rank 1524

The Eagles are somehow in the playoff hunt at 6-7 but fading fast. They won two straight and might have almost beat the Cowboys on the scoreboard, but they were outgained by a wide margin in three of their last four and got to face Mark Sanchez for most of the other game (and still took until the fourth quarter to pull away). As such, they rank just 21st in weighted DVOA and have pretty ugly stats across the board.

Dak Prescott just rolled up 434 passing yards on the beat-up Philadelphia secondary, so imagine what Sean McVay's offense is capable of. The L.A. offense is top five in DVOA (and in both pass and rush DVOA individually), points per drive, pass yards, rush yards and first downs gained. They had been averaging close to 35 points per game before being held to six in Chicago. They should come into this game angry looking to post a huge number, and I'm not sure the Eagles can stop them. It'll be on Nick Foles, with Carson Wentz expected to miss the game, to keep up in a shootout, but the Rams defense has played pretty well the last two weeks, giving up just 31 points combined on the road.

Saints (-5.5) at Panthers

Home-field advantage: 2.5 points
Power rating line: Saints -7
Lookahead line: Saints -6

Record vs. spread 10-35-8
Yards per play differential 0.30.2
Points per drive offense rank 110
Points per drive defense rank 2127
Weighted DVOA 26.31.6
Pass offense DVOA rank 313
Pass defense DVOA rank 2029
Run offense DVOA rank 82
Run defense DVOA rank 38

The Saints finaly got their act together in the second half in Tampa after six bad quarters from their offense. As a result, they own an NFL-best 10-3 record against the spread. This could be a good spot for the passing game to fully get back on track, with Carolina ranking 29th in pass DVOA and 27th in net yards per attempt on defense.

The Panthers have been in a slump, losing five straight games, but four of those came on the road. They're 5-1 at home this year, and if they can re-establish the ground attack after topping 100 rushing yards just twice in that five-game stretch, they could hang around in this matchup, particularly if Drew Brees continues to look a bit off. While Carolina hasn't covered in any of their last six games against the Saints, they've won four of the last six in Carolina. Could they rediscover their home magic in time to make a playoff run?

Teaser of the Week

Ravens -1.5 vs. Buccaneers
Vikings -1 vs. Dolphins

I'm teasing against the Bucs for the second straight week, only this time they have to go on the road and face one of the best defenses in the league. The Bucs are giving up almost 40 points per game on the road, and the Ravens are allowing only 17 at home. I can't see the Ravens losing this game, so laying the small number should be no problem. I considered the Texans for the other leg of the teaser, but I think at home in a 1 p.m. spot the Vikings get their act together and beat a Dolphins team that is nowhere near as good as their 7-6 record suggests.

The teaser of the week is 10-4 after the Browns won outright on our +8.5 line and the Saints ran away in the second half at -2.

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