Greg Cote

Was Dolphins’ magic vs. Patriots a mirage or real? We’re about to find out in Week 15

Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake’s performance Sunday vs. an average Bills run defense holds key to Miami’s upset hopes, writes Greg Cote.
Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake’s performance Sunday vs. an average Bills run defense holds key to Miami’s upset hopes, writes Greg Cote. Miami Herald

NFL WEEK 15

GREG COTE’S NFL PICKS OF THE WEEK

DOLPHINS THIS WEEK

DOLPHINS (6-7) at BILLS (7-6)

LINE: BUF by 3 1/2.

COTE’S PICK: BUF 20-17.

TV: 1 p.m., CBS.

The Dolphins Bandwagon, formerly bereft of passengers, has begun to populate a bit since Monday night. It is hardly a jam-packed, rollicking party bus, don’t get me me wrong. Playoff hope remains slim, but at least the Maybe Meter wiggles a little. I wish I could tell you I’m hopping on that Dolphins Bandwagon (there’s still plenty of open seating), but I just cannot bring myself to count on the inconsistent and therefore unreliable Fins to replicate the extraordinary performance they mustered in beating the Patriots Monday night in Miami. Not sure that will travel well on a short week, especially to a place where the temperature will be in the low 30s and falling, and under an expected cloudy sky threatening snow. Game stayed off betting boards until Thursday, when it became obvious Buffs QB Tyrod Taylor would be good to go. But two of his best weapons — RB LeSean McCoy (ankle) and WR Kelvin Benjamin (knee) — are iffy to play, and their absence would be a big break for Fins. These AFC East rivals will play twice in next three weeks, but it’s this game both sides must consider as must-win for any real playoff hope — and moreso Miami. I like Dolphins with the points in a low-scoring game and give MIA a medium outright upset shot. But Fins have not been great on the road this year (2-4), and Buffs have been solid at home (5-2). Jay Cutler on Sunday will confront a much better pass defense than he saw from the Pats, so the key for Miami may be more good stuff from RB Kenyan Drake vs. a very average Bills run defense. Good teams keep stacking good performances on top of one another, but I don’t think Miami is there yet. As impressed (and surprised) as I was in the Dolphins Monday night, I think this will be a long flight home by a team out of playoff hope.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler speaks to the media after the Miami Dolphins defeat the New England Patriots 27-20 at Hard Rock Stadium on Monday, December 11, 2017.

GAME OF THE WEEK

UPSET OF THE WEEK

PATRIOTS (10-3) at STEELERS (11-2)

LINE: NE by 3.

COTE’S PICK: PIT 34-31.

TV: 4:25 p.m., CBS.

“AAAWWWK!” trumpets the Upset Bird. “Time for Steelers to get the monkey off their baaawwwk!” It’s a rare Game of the Week/Upset of the Week dos por uno. The first part came easier. This game likely will determine the AFC’s No. 1 seed. It’s Tom Terrific vs. Big Ben. And both have added weapons with the return of Rob Gronkowski and Juju Smith-Schuster. The GOTW selection committee deliberated about 25 seconds before pounding gavel and retiring to the Quill ‘n Swill Pub to pound beers. The upset part? Now that was a tougher sell. Patriots are 10-3 vs. Pitt under Bill Belichick, including four in a row, and including 3-0 in the postseason. That’s the monkey-on-back reference. And it’s always hard to imagine New England (made to look so shockingly ordinary by the Dolphins Monday night) losing two in a row. I see these two powers as close to even, so the pick tips on a strong home-field advantage for the ‘dogs. “Who let the dogs out!” sings U-Bird in a non-sequitur homage to the Baha Men. “Ben Roethlisbaaawwwk!”

OTHER GAMES

@Lions (7-6, -5 1/2) over Bears (4-9), 24-20: First of two Saturday games finds Motown trying to stay in playoff contention and Chitown in spoiler role. Bears, coming off faith-restoring 33-7 rout of Cincy, should keep division-rivalry game close.

@Chiefs (7-6, +1) over Chargers (7-6), 27-23: Upset! (Well, a mini-one). Bolts opened 0-4 and Chiefs 5-0 but both wind up in same spot, in huge game for AFC West lead. KC has won seven straight in series. Make it eight with a venue call in first primetime Saturday game in Arrowhead’s 46-year history.

Ravens (7-6, -7 1/2) over @Browns (0-13), 23-13: Miami needs to win out and get help to make playoffs, and loss here by Ravens would be some of that help. But I just can’t bring myself to like DeShone Kizer vs. strong Crows defense.

@Vikings (10-3, -11) over Bengals (5-8), 31-10: Cincy packed it in (and probably got Marv Lewis fired) with last week’s 33-7 collapse vs. Bears. Rock-solid Vikes can clinch division title with win, and will, handily.

@Saints (9-4, -16) over Jets (5-8), 27-16: Saints are biggest point-spread favorite in franchise history, partly because Josh McCown’s broken hand means unproven Bryce Petty will pitch for Planes. But too many points to turn down ... right?

Eagles (11-2, -7 1/2) over @Giants (2-11), 24-20: Carson Wentz’s season-ending knee injury majorly dents Birds’ Super dreams, but Nick Foles is experienced, capable fill-in. Phils will clinch first-round bye with win, but like playing-for-pride Biggies to hang close.

@Redskins (5-8, -4 1/2) over Cardinals (6-7), 23-21: ‘Zona a trendy upset pick by the NFL literati this week, but I’ll trust Kirk Cousins at home to outscore injury-wracked Cardbirds. Do like Cacti with points, though.

@Panthers (9-4, -2 1/2) over Packers (7-6), 27-20: Carolina is tied for NFC South lead but all eyes here will be on Pack thanks to Aaron Rodgers’ (very likely) return from injury after seven games away. In the fairy tale, Rodgers returns heroically to lead a Gee Bees triumph. In the real world, he’s as likely to be reinjured as a strong Cats pass rush faces a GB O-line that has been beaten for 43 sacks.

@Jaguars (9-4, -11 1/2) over Texans (4-9), 19-13: Jax is poised to clinch its first playoff berth since 2007, and should, but — even with third-string QB T.J Yates facing excellent Jags defense — still hunch Texans beat spread in low-scoring game.

@Seahawks (8-5, -2 1/2) over Rams (9-4), 27-23: Betting line opened even before money started flowing to Seattle (with reason) in this great NFC West duel with Game of the Week heft. I like Russell Wilson to outplay Jared Goff. Also like ‘Hawks’ defense, especially at home, to limit Todd Gurley as it did in teams’ first meeting.

@49ers (3-10, -2) over Titans (8-5), 23-20: Titans a tempting road ‘dog, but Niners have won three of past four, while in his past four games Marcus Mariota has tossed eight interceptions. Jimmy Garoppolo has given Frans just the spark they hoped he would.

Cowboys (7-6, -3) over @Raiders (6-7), 27-20: Sunday nighter brings us two glamour franchises navigating unglamorous seasons. Winner here maintains slim playoff hope; loser must stop pretending. ‘Boys are 4-2 on road. WR Amari Cooper is iffy for Raiders, and return from injury of LB Sean Lee is huge for Dallas D.

Falcons (8-5, -6) over @Buccaneers (4-9), 34-17: Monday night stage finds Falcons trying to stay on playoff pace and Bucs trying to figure out what the hell went wrong. ‘Lanta has won four of past five, and its defense is a tough matchup for Jameis Winston’s turnover-prone offense.

HOW THE DARTS LANDED

A strange Week 14 for us produced a lousy 8-8 mark overall but a nice 9-5-2 against the spread, with two games off the board. We bull’s-eyed outright upsets with wins by Falcons, Panthers, Broncos and Eagles, and also had a trio of ‘dogs-with-points in Jaguars, Ravens and Dolphins. It’s been a rough season for us, and it could come down to a photo finish on whether we avoid our worst records ever. We’re at .587 straight-up and trying to get up over the Mendoza line of .600 — and also stay above our low-water season mark .573 in 2008. We’ve been hot lately against the Evil Betting Line to improve to .447 there. Our career low is .449 in 2006. Big finish! [Note: Thursday pick was @Colts (+2 1/2) over Broncos, 21-19].

▪ Week 14: 8-8, .500 (overall); 9-5-2, .625 (vs. spread)

▪ Season: 122-86, .587 (overall); 87-109-12, .447 (vs. spread)

▪ Final 2016: 159-95-2; .626 (overall); 139-109-8, .560 (vs. spread)

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