Atlanta Falcons (9-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-4)
The Falcons may be 9-1 and the Buccaneers may be 6-4, but the Buccaneers are playing better football right now. They’ve had 5 wins by a touchdown or less against sub .500 teams, including 4 at home. Denver is the only team better than .500 they beat and that was back week 2 before Denver got hot. Despite their 9-1 record, they are just +77 in points differential, 6th in the league (New England, Houston, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago). The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are +57, but in the last 6 weeks, they are +66 to Atlanta’s +29. The Falcons have lost to the Saints and they could easily lose to Tampa Bay this weekend. As I mentioned when they played the Saints, there’s only so long you can play inferior opponent’s close before one of them beats you.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have been on fire since the bye, winning 5 of 6, with the one loss coming down to the final play against the Saints. If you showed me tape of this team before the bye, I wouldn’t recognize them. Josh Freeman is 115 of 190 for 1715 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in his last 6 games. He has a cannon for an arm, but he wasn’t using it last year, throwing 20 yards downfield or more on just 6.5% of his throws, by far least frequent in the NFL, despite being the 3rd most accurate deep ball thrower in the NFL. This year, with a reliable deep threat in Jackson, he’s going deep on 15.0% of his throws and, more important, he’s having a ton of success, going 21 of 48 for 862 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception.
Their makeshift offensive line is run blocking and pass protecting well. The Freeman to Vincent Jackson combo is deadly (42 catches for 863 yards and 7 touchdowns) and opening thinks up for Mike Williams and Doug Martin, who is running much better since the bye thanks to improved blocking and the defense fearing the pass. Defensively, as bad as their secondary is, they have a great front 7 led by the finally healthy Gerald McCoy and rookie of the year candidate Lavonte David. Even before the bye, they have not lost by more than a touchdown all season. Only the Patriots, Seahawks, and Falcons can also say that.
As you can imagine, we’re getting some line value with the Buccaneers, even before you take into account momentum. The yards per play differential method gives us a real line of Tampa Bay -3 and the rate of sustaining drives differential method gives us a real line of Atlanta -2. Tampa Bay should really be the ones favored here at home and yet the Falcons are by -1.5. In spite of that, the public is pounding the Falcons, a bad sign because the odds makers have had a rough 3 week stretch and are due for a big week.
The Falcons also could be caught looking forward to a rematch with the Saints next week on Thursday Night. Favorites are just 24-37 ATS before a divisional Thursday Night game since 1989, including 15-24 ATS before being divisional favorites, which the Falcons should be when they host the Saints in Atlanta. It’s a significant play on Tampa Bay. Rather than putting 3 units on the spread and one on the money line, I’m putting all 4 on the money line. Since 1989, there have been 414 teams who have been favorites of less than 2. Of those 414 teams, only 7 of those teams won by exactly 1 point, about 1.7%. It’s not worth the extra 15 cents for something that historically will only hurt me about 1.7% of the time.
Public lean: Atlanta (80% range)
Sharps lean: ATL 16 TB 9
Final update: Sharps like Atlanta, but they also seem to like Tampa Bay too. This is the most bet game of the week by the 44 sharps, with 25 of them having it in their top-5 in LV Hilton one way or another on a 16 game week. I feel fine taking Tampa Bay still. Asante Samuel could be out for the Falcons, which would be a big loss to their secondary in a game where points will be aplenty.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Atlanta Falcons 24 Upset Pick +105 4 units
Pick against spread: Tampa Bay +1.5 (-110) 0 units