NFL WEEK 15: This Week 15 kicked off with a thrilling Thursday night duel between two of the game’s best young quarterbacks, and it was Patrick Mahomes finding Travis Kelce with a 34-yard TD pass in overtime to give the Chiefs a 34-28 win over Justin Herbert and the Chargers. That makes 7 straight wins for Kansas City, and those October days of people fretting about whether Mahomes & Co. would make the playoffs feel like ancient history. It was a painful loss for L.A., putting the Chargers among a group of seven AFC teams with six losses. There aren’t enough postseason chairs to go around, of course, and it looks like that 7-team group will be fighting for three Wild Card spots over these next four weeks. Should make for some great football…

Unfortunately, the story dominating the NFL right now is the wave of positive COVID tests that has put what feels like half the league in the protocols and has turned this week into a total crapshoot, as nobody really knows which players will be on the field once these games kick off. Several teams have had outbreaks so severe that it became questionable as to whether they’d be able to field a full roster this week, so the league office was forced to move the Raiders/Browns game to Monday afternoon and two games– Seahawks/Rams and Washington/Philadelphia– to Tuesday night. That means this week’s 16-game slate is spread out over five days– there was the Thursday nighter, and we have a Saturday night game, ten Sunday games, and two apiece on Monday and Tuesday. And this is assuming that the current wave of positive tests doesn’t get worse– if it does, we may end up seeing the hot dog vendor taking snaps at quarterback before this is over.

For obvious reasons I’ve tried to steer clear of the most COVID-affected games this week, but it’s all big guessing game at this point. That said, as long as there’s no unexpected roster attrition between now and kickoff, I’ve got a pretty good feeling about these four:

New England Patriots @ Indianapolis Colts (Saturday 8:15pm EST) (IND -2.5, 45.5)

Recommendation: Indianapolis -2.5 at 1.92

The Patriots have been the surprise of the AFC this season, bouncing back from a down year in 2020 to win 9 of their first 13 games while leading the NFL in point differential. Considering they’re starting a rookie at quarterback and parted ways with their highest-paid defensive player in October, this may be Belichick’s finest hour. The Pats ride a 7-game win streak into Indianapolis on Saturday night, but this is a tough matchup, as New England’s top-ranked defense will be put to the test by one of the NFL’s most underrated offenses. Behind league-leading rusher Jonathan Taylor and a veteran quarterback who is playing good football in Carson Wentz, the Colts have been nearly unstoppable in recent weeks, scoring 30 points or more in 7 of their past 8 games. They now lead the AFC in points scored (28.5 ppg) and are pretty capable on the other side of the ball as well, ranking 5th in the conference in points allowed (21.8 ppg). The Patriots have been winning games with great defense and a conservative, run-first offensive game plan, but their top running back Damien Harris is injured and out this week, and with the way the Colts have been putting up points you’d have to think that Mac Jones is going to be forced to air it out more than usual. This just feels like a great spot for the Colts: they have the better QB, the offense has been firing on all cylinders, and they get a chance to make a statement against one of the NFL’s glamour teams in front of their home fans. I like their chances.

Houston Texans @ Jacksonville Jaguars (JAX -5, 39.5)

Recommendation: Jacksonville -5 at 1.91

It’s been a nightmarish season for both of these teams, but in Jacksonville the sun has finally broken through the clouds, as owner Shad Khan mercifully put an end to Urban Meyer’s disastrous 13-game tenure as head coach this week. Normally in situations like this I’d keep my money in my pocket and would avoid betting on the team in transition until the dust settled and we could see how the players react on the field, but in this particular situation, with all the negativity surrounding Meyer and the general vibe that has come from Jacksonville players and coaches since the announcement was made– that of relief and togetherness– I have become utterly convinced that the Jaguars are poised to play their best game of the season. And if they’re hoping to exorcise the demons in front of the home fans this week, they certainly have the right opponent: the Texans have lost 10 of their past 11 games and all but one of those losses has come by 7 points or more. They’re starting rookie Davis Mills at quarterback, and their defense, which ranks 30th in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed, will be without starting safety Justin Reid after he sustained a concussion last week. The Jags actually have a capable defense, and I expect leading rusher James Robinson to be more involved in the offense going forward now that he’s out of Meyer’s doghouse. It’s a fresh start all around in Jacksonville and I have a hunch that we’ll see better on-field results, starting with a win this week.

Cincinnati Bengals @ Denver Broncos (DEN -3, 43.5)

Recommendation: Cincinnati +3 at 1.91

Both of these teams sit at 7-6, right in the thick of things in the AFC, so this should be a terrific game with a playoff-like atmosphere. The Broncos have been winning with defense, as only New England is allowing fewer points per game and only three AFC teams are allowing fewer yards. That means it will be strength vs. strength when the Denver defense is on the field, because Cincinnati has one of the NFL’s best offenses, a unit that is both balanced and explosive and, unlike many teams around the league, not ravaged by injuries or COVID. Joe Burrow has established himself as one of the league’s best young quarterbacks, and in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, he has at his disposal what is perhaps the best trio of wideouts in the NFL. The Bengals also have Joe Mixon, the NFL’s second-leading rusher, so it really is a “pick your poison” situation when facing this Cincinnati offense. The Broncos, meanwhile, have been very inconsistent on offense, scoring fewer than 20 points 6 times in their past 10 games and seldom challenging defenses downfield. The Cincinnati defense is tough against the run, meaning Denver QB Teddy Bridgewater is going to have to make it happen with his arm in this game, and if it comes down to Bridgewater vs. Burrow, or the Denver passing attack vs. the Cincy passing attack, I know where I’m going with my money. The Bengals are simply more talented and more capable on offense, and I think they’ve got a great shot at pulling out a tough win here.

Atlanta Falcons @ San Francisco 49ers (SF -9.5, 46.5)

Recommendation: San Francisco -9.5 at 1.91

It’s hard to say who the worst team in the NFL is… Detroit? Jacksonville? Houston? One of the New York teams? It’s debatable, and you’d probably come up with a different answer each week. What is not debatable, however, is the identity of the worst team with six or more wins: that would be Atlanta, and it’s not even close. Yes, this Falcons team has managed to pull out victories over the likes of Carolina and Jacksonville in recent weeks, but if you watch them play on any given Sunday you realize that they are objectively closer to “bad” than “good”, and sometimes, like when they lost back-to-back games by a combined score of 68-3 last month, you’re left mystified as to how they’ve managed to post as many Ws as they have. Their defense, which ranks 24th in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed, will have its hands full this week against a San Francisco offense that has been rolling lately, putting up 23 points or more in each of the team’s last five games. The Niners have won 4 of 5 overall to put themselves back in the NFC Wild Card mix, and while it’s true that their defense has been largely disappointing this season, this is a great “get well” spot against a Falcons offense that averages just 18.8 ppg. It’s almost inconceivable that San Francisco would lose to this Atlanta team, in this situation, with so much on the line. Love the Niners in this spot.