5 NFL teams to watch in December stretch run

November 27, 2018 11:40 PM
Andrew Luck has led the Colts (6-5) to five consecutive wins while totaling 16 touchdown passes during the streak.
© USA Today Sports Images

Computers spit out numbers as the cold truth, with no emotion and no consideration for Aaron Rodgers’ history of late-season rallies. The Packers’ playoff chances are down to 15 percent.

Green Bay will be favored in four of its final five games. The schedule shows four opponents with losing records and a mid-December trip to Chicago to face the NFC North-leading Bears, an opponent Rodgers has dominated during his career. Rodgers, 0-6 on the road this season, said he knows the Packers (4-6-1) need to run the table and receive help to reach the playoffs. It’s mathematically possible — ESPN’s Football Power Index makes it 15 percent — and realistic.

The truth is the Packers, one of last summer’s hottest tickets on the Super Bowl futures board, are a footnote in the playoff race as the NFL regular season hits the stretch run. It’s never wise to count out Rodgers or leave him in a blind spot.

Still, there are other more intriguing teams to watch with the season dwindling to five games in December. Here are five teams bettors and bookmakers will be eyeing:

Browns — After losing at Pittsburgh in late October, Cleveland fired coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Since the dark cloud was lifted, the Browns are 2-1 straight up and against the spread, losing only to Kansas City. Baker Mayfield completed 73.8 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and one interception in those three games.

“I love the Browns,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said without a hint of sarcasm. “Cleveland could be capable of winning out in December.”

Doug Fitz, a retired Las Vegas police officer turned analytics-based handicapper at SystemPlays.com, uses a set of power ratings that rank the Browns as the NFL’s 23rd-best team.

“Absolutely, the Browns are on the upswing. This is not a fluke,” Fitz said. “Jackson was holding back Mayfield. I think next year, with Mayfield having a full year of experience, they can be legitimate playoff contenders. The Browns are back to being respectable and they are nowhere near being the worst team in the league.”

Colts — Andrew Luck has led Indianapolis (6-5) to five consecutive wins, with Luck totaling 16 touchdown passes while completing 71 percent or more of his throws in each of those games.

Maybe it was a lucky break in February, when Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels backed out of an agreement to become coach of the Colts, who settled on the Eagles’ Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator, Frank Reich.

“I have been really impressed with their offense, and I like the job Reich is doing,” Murray said. “The Colts may have stumbled into something great with a young coach, a young quarterback and a ton of cap space. The Colts are a team to watch in the next month and next year.”

The Colts hit the road for their next two games at Jacksonville and Houston before returning home to face the Cowboys and Giants. It’s not an easy schedule. The Texans are looking over their shoulder in the AFC South. Playoffs or not, Indianapolis will enter the offseason with more salary-cap room than any other team in the league.

Cowboys — A three-game win streak has eased the pressure on Jason Garrett and quieted the calls for an organizational overhaul in Dallas. The next three games will get interesting. The Cowboys, tied with the Redskins atop the NFC East at 6-5, are 7-point home underdogs to the Saints on Thursday before hosting the Eagles on Dec. 9 and playing at Indianapolis on Dec. 16.

“I think Dallas will win the division,” Murray said. “The Cowboys have a ton of talent, especially on defense, but Garrett is such a bad coach. Just feed the ball to Ezekiel Elliott, who’s a stud, and ride him.”

Elliott leads the league in rushing with 1,074 yards. He went for 121, 122 and 151 yards in the past three games. Dallas ranks No. 3 in scoring defense (19.4 points per game) behind Baltimore and Chicago.

Ravens — The Joe Flacco era might be history. John Harbaugh’s era as coach might hinge on the Ravens (6-5) reaching the playoffs, and it appears Harbaugh is riding with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.

In his first two starts, home victories over the Bengals and Raiders, Jackson passed for a total of 328 yards with one TD and three interceptions while rushing 37 times for 190 yards.

“Baltimore has a good chance of being a playoff team,” Murray said. “Harbaugh is such an excellent coach, he’ll put Jackson in a position to succeed. But we don’t know if Jackson can throw the ball. I think the Ravens are one of the toughest teams to handicap in the final month because you don’t know what you’re getting from the quarterback.”

Jackson has been fortunate to face two weak defenses. A majority of the Ravens’ final five opponents — Falcons, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Chargers and Browns — are weak defensively. But can Jackson win on the road against Matt Ryan, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers?

Raiders — Saving the worst for last — and a strong argument can be made for Arizona as the NFL’s worst team — bookmakers fear the Raiders in the final month.

Oakland (2-9) is in must-lose situations in a quest to get the No. 1 draft pick, yet coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr celebrated a Week 11 victory over the Cardinals as if they had won some type of championship. Reality followed as the Raiders, 13-point underdogs, were whipped 34-17 at Baltimore on Sunday.

The Raiders are 15-point home ‘dogs to the Chiefs this week. When the teams meet again in Kansas City in Week 17, Murray said, “You could be looking at a 21-point spread.

“We need the Raiders each week because the public is lining up to fade them. We’re going to need them to cover two of five spreads down the stretch to save us a few bucks. The Raiders should be trying to lose."

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