Late-season trends worth a look

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The NFL season plays out much like the game itself. Four quarters of four games each with the final quarter comprising games 13 through 16. This is the stretch run as teams attempt to make the playoffs or just play with a focus more on the future (the NFL Draft) than the current (their losing record).

Road teams have had point spread success down the stretch, going 96-86-10 ATS, including 40-33-5 when favored from 2017 through 2019. This latter result goes against the premise of home underdogs being good bets late in the season.

Surprisingly, perhaps, few teams show strong tendencies in the final part of the season and there’s a myriad of reasons. Teams often already in the playoffs don’t field their best lineup in the final week or so, especially in Week 17 when they know they’ll have to play the following week in the Wild Card round.

Other teams may be playing for next season, looking to end the current season on a high note even though missing the playoffs.

Over the past two seasons, Atlanta is 7-1 SU, 6-2 ATS despite being out of playoff contention. Perhaps we’ll see a similar finish this season as the Falcons are playing for interim coach Raheem Morris to get the permanent job.

In the AFC, Baltimore has gone 7-1 SU, 6-2 ATS the past two seasons, making the playoffs in both. The Ravens may need a 4-0 finish this season, or at minimum 3-1, as they stood just 6-5 SU heading into Tuesday night’s game vs. Dallas.

Assuming they got a win over the Cowboys, it may be tough to bet against the Ravens having another strong finish under the leadership of veteran coach John Harbaugh and young QB Lamar Jackson. Baltimore’s problems have been in the playoffs.

Sunday

Cardinals at Giants, Total 45: The Giants still control their fate in the NFC East following their upset win at Seattle, their fourth straight win. In contrast, Arizona’s lost three straight and no longer controls its Wild Card destiny.

New York’s defense has shown steady improvement over the past month and is now the team’s strength. The offense continues to be pedestrian, although the running game has been a strength, gaining over 140 yards in four straight games.

Ball control keeps the defense off the field, lessening the number of possessions. It’s also an excellent way to control game flow in what should be considered a letdown spot. UNDER

Broncos at Panthers (No Line): Prior to being taken off the board Sunday evening amid Carolina COVID-19 concerns, the Panthers were favored by 3.5. RB Christian McCaffrey was listed as ‘probable’ after missing nine of Carolina’s last 10 games.

Off its Bye, Carolina is rested and ready catch the Broncos off an emotionally draining but losing effort at Kansas City. Denver played outstanding defense in containing the Chiefs, especially in the red zone.

The loss had to exact a mental and emotional toll on Denver and QB Drew Lock who still struggles with interceptions. Denver ranks last in the NFL with its -17 turnover margin. PANTHERS

Vikings +6.5 at Buccaneers: Both teams currently hold Wild Cards. With Minnesota winning five of six and the Bucs losing three of four, a Vikings win ties the teams at 7-6 and a tiebreaker edge.

During this stretch, Tampa’s offense has been very one-dimensional, failing to top 85 rushing yards in five of its last six games.

Tampa’s solid run defense will be challenged by Minnesota RB Dalvin Cook. Three of Minnesota’s losses — and each of its last three games — were by a FG or less. Both of Tampa’s first two games of this three-game home stand were each 27-24 losses.

Tampa is off its Bye but this line appears inflated when judged by recent form. VIKINGS

Jets +13.5 at Seahawks: At 0-12 controversy continues to surround the Jets who are all but certain to make a coaching change following the season. If it’s possible, the Jets are in a letdown situation after nearly upsetting Las Vegas but for a questionable defensive strategy that cost the Jets the game and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams his job.

Seattle is tied with the Rams atop the NFC West and will play host in Week 16 after losing at the Rams last month. Jets QB Sam Darnold continues to struggle while Seattle’s Russell Wilson is off a rare poor game in the loss to the Giants. Seattle’s defense is in excellent form, allowing under 300 yards for the only time this season in their last two games. SEAHAWKS

Saints -7 at Eagles: The Eagles will start backup QB Jalen Hurts, who provided a spark in last week’s loss in Green Bay after starter Carson Wentz was again ineffective. Philly can still win the NFC East by winning out with the Giants and Washington having tougher foes.

Having clinched a playoff berth, New Orleans also controls the NFC’s top seed. QB Drew Brees could return but likely will be held out rather than face an aggressive Eagles defense.

Philly has been competitive in most of its losses. The Saints have won nine straight and have covered their last five, making this a spot in which the points are likely to come into play, barring an outright upset. EAGLES

Washington +3.5 at 49ers: Washington stayed even with the Giants atop the NFL East by ending Pittsburgh’s perfect season on Monday. Several hours later, in a critical game, the 49ers were beaten badly by Buffalo, dropping to 5-7 and all but ending their hopes of a return to the playoffs.

The Niners were outplayed on both sides of the ball with backup QB Nick Mullens showing his limitations.

This game is in Arizona which eliminates any home field edge for the 49ers. Washington has shown great progress following its 1-5 start. Winners of three straight and four of six, their last three losses were each by a FG. Current starter Alex Smith has been the best of the three QBs who’ve started for Ron Rivera this season. WASHINGTON

Last week: 2-4

Season: 28-49-1 

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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