Steven Lourie

Feb 062016
 

Denver Broncos (14-4) vs. Carolina Panthers (17-1) at San Francisco

Both of these teams finished with the #1 seed in their respective conference and won two home playoff games to get here. However, they’ve still had drastically different seasons and one team has been significantly more impressive this year. While Denver finished the year 12-4 with just 3 wins by more than a touchdown in the regular season and post-season combined, Carolina finished 15-1 with 10 wins by more than a touchdown between the regular season and post-season.

Denver might have the best defense in the NFL, finishing the regular season 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed, despite outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, safety TJ Ward, and safety Darian Stewart all missing at least some time with injury. All three will play in this one on a Denver team that is remarkably healthy, only missing one week 1 starter (left tackle Ty Sambrailo). However, the Panthers also have a great defense (4th in rate of moving the chains allowed) and are pretty healthy too, just missing cornerback Charles Tillman, cornerback Bene Benwikere, and left guard Amini Silatolu from week 1, none of whom were key parts of the team. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis is a key part of their team and he did break his arm two weeks ago in the NFC Championship, but he’s going to play anyway.

Davis’ effectiveness is of concern, but not enough that the Panthers aren’t the significantly more talented of these two teams. In addition to a great defense, the Panthers also have a great offense, led by likely NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton. They finished 4th in rate of moving the chains on the season, allowing them to finish the regular season 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. The Broncos, meanwhile, finished 11th in rate of moving the chains differential, thanks to an offense that ranked 30th in rate of moving the chains. Led by soon-to-be-40-year-old Peyton Manning, their offense is the biggest reason why they have had so many more near losses than the Panthers and it should be the biggest reason they lose this game by at least a touchdown. I don’t see them scoring more than one touchdown. I jumped on the line at 4.5 right after the championship game 2 weeks ago and I would still bet money at 5.5 or 6.

Carolina Panthers 21 Denver Broncos 10

Pick against the spread: Carolina -4.5

Confidence: Medium

Jan 232016
 

Arizona Cardinals (13-3) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)

I’ve been saying for pretty much all season that Arizona is better than Carolina, despite Carolina’s better record and their status as the #1 seed in the NFC really from start to finish (they’ve been tied for the best record in the NFC or had the best record in the NFC all season). Arizona obviously has lost more games than the Panthers, 3 to 1, but their margin of victory is much higher, winning their 13 games by an average of 16.92 points per game, while the Panthers’ 15 wins have come by an average of 13.27 points per game.

Arizona also finished the season #1 in rate of moving the chains differential, a statistic in which they led almost all season (Carolina finished 2nd). In two of their three losses they won the first down battle by a combined 20 first downs and only lost because they had a -3 turnover margin in both games. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. On average, teams that have a -3 turnover margin in a game have a +0.1 turnover margin the following game. That’s why I don’t really like to use turnover margin as evidence to support an evaluation of a team.

Carolina finished the season with a better point differential, +192 vs. +176, but they were more reliant on winning the turnover margin, finishing the season at +20, while Arizona finished at +9. Besides, Arizona’s point differential is better if you take out their 3rd loss, a 30 point home loss to the Seattle Seahawks week 17, a game in which the Cardinals didn’t even play their starters in the second half because the Panthers were simultaneously up big over Tampa Bay and on their way to locking up the #1 seed, making Arizona’s game meaningless. On top of that, the Cardinals played a much tougher schedule, as they had the 16th hardest strength of schedule record wise, while the Panthers had the nd easiest.

All of this being said, I’m not that confident in the Cardinals as 3 point road underdogs here for one reason: Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu was playing at a borderline Defensive Player of the Year level before a week 15 torn ACL ended his season prematurely. Without him, it’s hard to argue that the Cardinals are a significantly better team, which they’d have to be for me to have any real confidence in them as mere field goal underdogs on the road. If this line does move to 3.5 before gametime, I may reconsider, as about 1 in 6 games as decided by exactly a field goal, but this is a low confidence pick for now. If you feel the need to put money on something this weekend, I’d recommend Arizona +145 on the money line.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Carolina Panthers 23 Upset Pick +145

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3

Confidence: Low

Jan 232016
 

New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4)

The Patriots lost in Denver earlier this year, but the Patriots were without leading wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and also lost top receiving threat Rob Gronkowski and talented linebacker Dont’a Hightower with injuries in that game. Even still, the Patriots were leading 21-7 in the 4th quarter and likely would have won if not for a phantom holding call around the goal line and a muffed punt by Chris Harper, who was only returning punts because both Edelman and Amendola were out.

Despite very nearly winning, the Patriots did not move the ball well in that game, as they moved the chains at a 59.38% rate (as opposed to 69.23% for the Broncos). Two of New England’s touchdowns came on drives where they started with great field position, while the other one came on a long touchdown reception by backup running Brandon Bolden out of the backfield. That’s despite the fact that the Broncos were down DeMarcus Ware and then lost safety TJ Ward to injury in that game. Ware and Ward are keys on a Denver defense that finished the season 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed and both will play in this one, though talented cornerback Chris Harris could be limited with a serious shoulder injury.

However, as talented as Denver is defensively, the Patriots should have more offensive success in this one with key players returning from injury. In the 9 regular season games Julian Edelman played, the Patriots moved the chains at a 79.81% rate, as opposed to 65.42% in their other 7 regular season games. Last week, with Edelman healthy for the first time in 2 months, they moved the chains at an 82.76% rate against a solid Kansas City defense. That’s not all Edelman, as the Patriots have also gotten other players back from injury that missed time during that 7 game stretch (Gronkowski, Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, Josh Kline, etc), but there’s no denying that he’s such a huge part of their offense and they’re a different team when he’s out there, one that’s much better than Denver.

The Broncos finished the regular season 11th in rate of moving the chains differential and then had an underwhelming home victory against the very banged up Pittsburgh Steelers in their first playoff game last week. Just 3 of Denver’s wins this season have come by more than a touchdown so their record is kind of a farce. Their defense is incredible, but they have major problems offensively, finishing the regular season 30th in rate of moving the chains. Peyton Manning, by most measures, was the worst quarterback in the NFL this season. Meanwhile, the Patriots were one of the best teams in the NFL before injuries struck and are now relatively. They’re far more well-rounded than the Broncos. We know about their offense when everyone is healthy, but their defense is strong too, arguably stronger than any Patriots defense since 2007, ranking 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Teams tend to cover in the playoffs in a same season, same site, non-divisional rematch against a team that beat them previously anyway, going 31-15 ATS since 2001. On top of that, the Patriots themselves tend to cover in same season revenge games in the Bill Belichick era (since 2000), going 14-5 ATS in those type of games over that time period. All this being said, I can’t put money on New England as 3.5 point road favorites, given that about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal and close to 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less. For that reason, this is only a low confidence pick, though if the line drops before gametime, I’ll definitely reconsider.

New England Patriots 24 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against spread: New England -3.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 162016
 

Seattle Seahawks (11-6) at Carolina Panthers (15-1)

This is a matchup of two absolute powerhouses, as Carolina and Seattle rank 2nd and 3rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential. Seattle gets running back Marshawn Lynch back from a 7 game absence, while Carolina gets running back Jonathan Stewart back from a 3 game absence, safety Kurt Coleman back from a 1 game absence, and wide receiver Ted Ginn back from a 1 game absence, though cornerback Charles Tillman is out for the season. I think Carolina is the better team, so I like being able to take them as mere 2.5 point favorites at home, given that about 1 in 6 games are decided by a field goal or less, but I’d need to be getting points to bet any money against Seattle, especially since home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round.

Carolina Panthers 16 Seattle Seahawks 13

Pick against the spread: Carolina -2.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 162016
 

Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)

This one’s tough. The Patriots should be able to cover this 5 point spread at home against the Chiefs. The Chiefs have famously won 11 straight games since a 1-5 start, but who did they beat over that time period? Buffalo? Denver when Manning had a bad foot? Houston? Meanwhile, during their 1-5 start, they lost to the likes of Denver (with a healthier Manning), Green Bay, Cincinnati, Minnesota, all playoff teams. They’re a solid team and rank 8th in rate of moving the chains differential, but I don’t really like their chances of winning a road playoff game against a tough team and making a deep run, especially since teams are 11-21 ATS in the playoffs on a winning streak of 7 or more, since 2001.

Their toughest game strength of schedule wise that they won might have been last week in Houston. The final score was 30-0, but that’s a little misleading, as the Chiefs didn’t have an offensive touchdown until JJ Watt got hurt in the 3rd quarter. That win was propelled by a kickoff return touchdown and a +4 turnover margin, two things they won’t be able to count on this week, against an opponent that ended up being pretty weak without the superstar Watt. Kansas City’s offense really seemed to miss talented rookie center Mitch Morse, who will miss his 2nd straight game with a concussion this week. Possibly joining him on the sideline this week are top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who hurt his ankle last week, and outside linebacker Justin Houston, a defensive standout who tweaked a knee injury last week that caused him to miss the previous 5 games.

The Patriots, meanwhile, are getting way healthier this week. They’ve played pretty badly in recent weeks, especially struggling on the offensive side of the ball, moving the chains at a 65.42% rate in the past 7 games, as opposed to 79.81% in the first 9 games of the season. That timeline coincides with when top wide receiver Julian Edelman went down with a broken foot, but he makes his return this week after more than 2 months.

It wasn’t just Julian Edelman getting hurt, as Edelman, running back Dion Lewis, running back LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Danny Amendola, tight end Rob Gronkowski, tight end Scott Chandler, guard Josh Kline, offensive tackle Nate Solder, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, linebacker Jamie Collins, safety Devin McCourty, and safety Patrick Chung all combined to miss 45 full games over that 7 game stretch (33 offensive, 12 defensive). Amendola, Chandler, Kline, Gronkowski, Collins, McCourty, and Chung all played week 17, while Vollmer, Jones, and Hightower all return this week, along with Edelman. Blount, Lewis, Solder, and Easley are all out for the season, but every team has some amount of injuries right now. They’re in pretty good shape.

However, it’s tough to be too confident in them because we just haven’t seen it from them in a while. It’s a projection that they’re going to be a lot better this week, a good one, but it’s tough to know that everything is just going to go back to the way it was a couple months ago. I also don’t like the feel around this one, with Chandler Jones possibly facing an internal punishment for an off-the-field issue and Rob Gronkowski apparently being more questionable than normal questionable and reportedly getting a pain injection on Thursday in the right knee he injured earlier this season. Add in the fact that home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round and that close to 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer, and it becomes very tough to be too confident in New England covering as 5 point favorites, though they are my pick.

New England Patriots 24 Kansas City Chiefs 17

Pick against the spread: New England -5

Confidence: Low

Jan 162016
 

Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Arizona Cardinals (13-3)

The Cardinals clobbered the Packers 38-8 at home just 3 weeks ago back in week 16, so people don’t seem to be giving the Packers much of a chance. However, as the Vikings showed last week, even though a team blew you out recently, you still have a good chance to beat them in the playoffs. Teams are 30-15 ATS since 2001 in the playoffs in a same season, same site, non-divisional rematch against a team that beat them previously, including 15-7 ATS if the previous margin was 10+ points. Like the Vikings, the Packers are healthier this time around, getting left tackle David Bakhtiari back from a 3 game absence and cornerback Sam Shields back from a 4 game absence. Plus, I think it’s important to not get too caught up in a team’s best or worst performance of the season. The last time these two teams played, it was the Cardinals’ best and the Packers’ worst.

That being said, I think the Cardinals were the best team in the NFL last season, as they ranked 1st in rate of moving the chains differential. The Packers, meanwhile, were down in 10th. However, the Cardinals are missing defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who was having an All-Pro caliber season before tearing his ACL and going down for the season week 15. That’s definitely going to matter at some point. The Packers, meanwhile, are as healthy as they’ve been all season and coming off a strong performance in Washington last week. Home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round. Seven and a half points is a lot, so I’ll take it easily.

Arizona Cardinals 27 Green Bay Packers 24

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +7.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Jan 162016
 

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)

Pittsburgh entered the post-season as a trendy sleeper pick to go all the way, thanks to a high flying offense led by arguably the best quarterback/pass catcher duo in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. They finished 9th in rate of moving the chains differential and moved the chains at a 75.00% rate in the 12 games that Ben Roethlisberger played, as opposed to 63.64% in the 4 games he didn’t. Also in those 12 games, Antonio Brown caught 119 passes for 1599 yards and 10 touchdowns, an unbelievable 159/2132/13 pace over 16 games by a player who once again finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver. He might be the most valuable offensive player in the league, excluding quarterbacks.

The Steelers won on the road in their first playoff game last week, but they may have won the battle, but lost the war. Antonio Brown will have to miss this game with a concussion, one that, ironically, was suffered on the hit that drew the personal foul penalty that started the sequence of events that led to the Steelers’ improbable late comeback, moving Pittsburgh from mid-field to easy field goal range quickly, with time running out. On top of that, Ben Roethlisberger will play this week despite torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. The gutty effort is commendable, but it’s unclear how well he’ll be able to throw the ball downfield or if he’ll even be able to finish the game.

Roethlisberger and Brown share the injury report with running back DeAngelo Williams, who will miss his 2nd straight game with injury. He was already filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who has been on IR since week 8 with a knee injury, leaving the Steelers with undrafted 2nd year player Fitzgerald Touissant and journeyman Jordan Todman at running back. Also on IR since mid-season is left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who’s been out since week 6 with a torn ACL,while center Maurkice Pouncey has been out all year with a broken leg. Suddenly, the Steelers’ sleeper hopes seem a lot slimmer.

However, I have no idea why they’re 9 point underdogs in Denver. The Broncos might be the #1 seed, but they have their own problems, especially at quarterback, where neither veteran Peyton Manning nor the inexperienced Brock Osweiler have been able to seize control of the job. Manning played horribly to start the season before going down for close to 2 months with a foot injury, but Osweiler did not impress in his absence and was benched for Manning mid-game week 17. Manning led the comeback effort to clinch the #1 seed, but most of the Broncos’ yardage after he entered the game was on the ground, so it’s tough to know if the 39-year-old future Hall-of-Famer actually has anything left in the tank. Regardless, he’ll get the start this week.

They’ve moved the chains at a 68.66% rate in Osweiler’s 6 starts, a 67.49% rate in Manning’s 8 starts, and a 64.71% rate in the 2 games where they’ve both played. Osweiler’s number looks a little better, but most, if not all, of that can be attributed to a running game that’s recently improved. Any way you look at it, the Broncos have struggled to move the ball this season, almost no matter what, thanks to poor quarterback play, an inconsistent running game, and a weak offensive line. Despite being the #1 seed, the Broncos rank just 11th in rate of moving the chains differential. Their 12-4 record is kind of a farce because they have just 3 wins by more than a touchdown, so I don’t know why Pittsburgh couldn’t keep this one close to. On top of that, home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round. Give me the 9 points.

Denver Broncos 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 13

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +9

Confidence: High

Jan 092016
 

Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Washington Redskins (9-7)

The Redskins come out of the NFC East, arguably the weakest division in football, but they’ve turned into a pretty good team. They rank 14th in rate of moving the chains differential, worst among playoff teams, but they’re hot right now and have been since getting both tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver DeSean Jackson back from injury. Their passing game has been on fire since then. They’ve moved the chains at a 72.96% rate in their last 9 games with those two healthy, as opposed to 71.30% in their previous 7 games.

The Packers are probably still the better team, ranking 10th in rate of moving the chains differential, but they’re the ones who are banged up now. Cornerback Sam Shields will miss his 4th straight game with a concussion, left tackle David Bakhtiari is a gametime decision at best, after missing the last 2 games with injury, and defensive end Datone Jones could also be out with a neck injury. I’m not that confident in Washington, but I have this as a field goal game, as about 1 in 6 games are, so I’ll take Washington as 1 point favorites for a low confidence pick.

Washington Redskins 23 Green Bay Packers 20

Pick against the spread: Washington -1

Confidence: Low

Jan 092016
 

Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at Minnesota Vikings (11-5)

The Seahawks smoked the Vikings in Minnesota back in week 13, winning 38-7. However, the trio of linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith, and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, arguably the Vikings’ 3 best defensive players, played a combined 19 snaps in that one, thanks to injury. Joseph was out completely, while Barr and Smith both got knocked out with injuries early, after 8 snaps and 11 snaps respectively. The Vikings are, unsurprisingly, a much better team when those 3 are healthy. In fact, in the 13 games where at least 2 of the 3 have been healthy, the Vikings allow their opponents to move the chains at a mere 68.17% rate, as opposed to 79.38% in their other 3 games, which includes their embarrassing home blowout loss to these Seahawks. They’re better than their 12th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential suggests.

The Seahawks are still the better team, ranking 3rd in that metric, but they’re the ones that are banged up this time around. Running back Thomas Rawls, a key part of the Seahawks’ earlier win in Minnesota, will miss his 4th straight game this week. He rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries the last time these two met. Meanwhile, running back Marshawn Lynch, who was expected to return from a 7 game absence with a sports hernia this week, did not travel with the team, leaving them once again thin at running back.

Besides, teams are 29-14 ATS since 1989 in the playoffs in a same season, same site, non-divisional rematch against a team that beat them previously, so the Vikings will likely keep this game much more competitive than the last one, at the very least. Despite all of this, the public is all over the Seahawks as 5 point road favorites, as they’re seemingly way too caught up in what happened between these two teams week 13. I love fading the public whenever it makes sense, as they always lose money in the long run, and it does here. This line is way too high at 5, given that about 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer. Worst case scenario, I like the odds of a backdoor cover.

Seattle Seahawks 17 Minnesota Vikings 16

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +5

Confidence: Medium

Jan 092016
 

Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

This is the game that I have the least strong opinion on. The Bengals rank 5th in rate of moving the chains differential on the season, while the Steelers rank 9th, but the Steelers have been far better offensively in the 12 games where Ben Roethlisberger has led them in pass attempts, as opposed to their other 4 games when he was hurt. In those 12 games, they moved the chains at a 75.00% rate, as opposed to 63.64% in those other 4 games. On the flip side, the Bengals will be without starting quarterback Andy Dalton for essentially the 5th straight game, as he went down with a broken thumb early in the Bengals’ week 14 home loss to the these Steelers. In their last 4 games, they’ve moved the chains at a mere 70.25% rate, as opposed to 76.19% through their first 12 games.

This line would have seemed too high if it was a field goal because the Bengals are essentially at full strength aside from Dalton and have arguably the most talented roster in football top to bottom. However, at 2.5, I’m going to take the Steelers. I have Pittsburgh winning by a field goal exactly. AJ McCarron is just too limited of a quarterback to be picked to beat a strong team like the Steelers, as talented as his supporting cast here. The Steelers, with Roethlisberger, have one of the best offenses in football and their defense is solid. It’s a no confidence pick though.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -2.5

Confidence: None

Jan 092016
 

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Houston Texans (9-7)

The Chiefs are favored by 3.5 points here in Houston. It’s not hard to understand why that’s the case. The Texans are seen as a team that’s only in the playoffs by default, after winning the weak NFC South; they’ve also already lost to the Chiefs at home this season, 27-20 back in week 1.The Chiefs, meanwhile, are seen as a legitimate team, coming into the playoffs with an 11-5 record and a 10 game winning streak. Despite the fact that the Chiefs are favored by more than a field goal on the road, when close to 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, the public is still all over Kansas City.

They seem to be falling into the odds makers’ trap, as they often do. I think the Texans are actually the better team here. Like the Chiefs, they survived a rough start and got better as the season went on, starting 2-5 and winning 7 of their next 9 games. Like the Chiefs, they’ve gotten better as the season has gone on, largely because quarterback Brian Hoyer has stabilized the quarterback position, and they’ve quietly become a legitimately tough team to face in the playoffs. A strong defense has led them to a 7th place rank in rate of moving the chains differential and they’re a better offense with Brian Hoyer, as they’ve moved the chains at a 70.11% rate in the 11 games Hoyer has led them in pass attempts, as opposed to 68.57% in their other 5 games. The Chiefs, meanwhile, rank 8th in rate of moving the chains differential, which is impressive, but this line is way off.

It’s true that the Chiefs did win 27-20 in Houston earlier this year, but I think the public has gotten too caught up in that. Teams are 29-14 ATS since 1989 in the playoffs in a same season, same site, non-divisional rematch against a team that beat them previously. The Chiefs’ 10 game winning streak is another thing the public seems to have gotten too caught up in, as teams are 10-21 ATS in the playoffs on a 7+ game winning streak, including 6-17 ATS as favorites. The Chiefs are overrated and I’ll gladly take the points. The Texans have some key injuries to left tackle Duane Brown and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, while the Chiefs get outside linebacker Justin Houston back from a 5 game absence, but the Chiefs are missing their other starting outside linebacker Tamba Hali and center Mitch Morse is expected to join him. There’s still enough here to make Houston my top pick this week.

Houston Texans 17 Kansas City Chiefs 13 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Houston +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Jan 032016
 

Tennessee Titans (3-13) at Indianapolis Colts (7-8)

This is another one where I wouldn’t touch either side with money. Both teams have serious quarterback problems. The Colts are on to their 4th quarterback of the year, Josh Freeman. Matt Hasselbeck was playing in the absence of starting quarterback Andrew Luck, but he got hurt last week and Charlie Whitehurst finished out. However, Whitehurst got hurt too, leaving the Colts with the choice between Stephen Morris, a 2014 undrafted free agent signed off of Philadelphia’s practice squad last week, Ryan Lindley, signed this week, and Josh Freeman, signed this week. They ultimately seem to have settled on Freeman as their best option, even though he wasn’t signed until Tuesday and definitely doesn’t know the playbook well enough to play yet. The Colts just didn’t have another option.

Freeman hasn’t seen regular season action since 2013, when he completed 42.9% of his passes for an average of 5.18 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions across 4 games with two teams. A capable quarterback as recently as 2012, Freeman is only 27 (28 next week), but saw his NFL career go south in a hurry and hasn’t been nearly impressive enough to make anyone’s roster since. His last NFL start came week 7 in 2013 for the Minnesota Vikings, who had just signed him less than 2 weeks prior, and it showed, as he completed 20 of 53 for 190 yards and an interception in what stands as the worst quarterback performance of the past few years. This time taking the field after just 5 days with the team, I wouldn’t rule out him being comparably bad. Hopefully he won’t have to pass as much this time.

The Titans, meanwhile, will start backup quarterback Zach Mettenberger in this one, with starter Marcus Mariota dealing with a knee injury. Mettenberger, a 2014 6th round pick, has completed 61.1% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2 years in the league. He’s the better of the two quarterbacks in the game, but this might be the first time in his career you can say that about him. The Titans have moved the chains at a 56.88% rate this season in the 4 games where he’s led the team in pass attempts, as opposed to 72.78% in the other 11 games where Mariota was healthy.

The Colts have the better defense (ranking 14th in rate of moving the chains differential, as opposed to 23rd for the Titans) and more supporting talent on offense, but it’s hard to have any confidence in them given their quarterback situation, even in what figures to be a low scoring game that they could control with running and defense. Both of these teams are also likely in their final game with their current coach. Mike Mularkey has been the Titans’ interim Head Coach for 7 weeks since Ken Whisenhunt was fired, but doesn’t really have much of a shot of getting the long-term gig.

Meanwhile, Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano is at the end of his contract and isn’t expected back after a down year and a falling out with the front office. The line on this one is 3.5, so for me to take the Colts, I’d have to be at least somewhat confident they could win by more than a field goal. I’m not, so I’m going the other way. Close to 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less. I can’t have any confidence in Tennessee either though.

Indianapolis Colts 13 Tennessee Titans 10

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +3.5

Confidence: None

Jan 022016
 

Oakland Raiders (7-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-5)

This is another one I don’t have a good feel for. The Chiefs are favored by a touchdown, which I think is a little much, considering the Chiefs rank 10th in rate of moving the chains differential, while the Raiders rank 15th. The Chiefs could also be missing outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, huge parts of their defense, for the 5th and 2nd straight game respectively. It’s not enough for me to have any sort of confidence in Oakland, but they’re my pick here.

Kansas City Chiefs 23 Oakland Raiders 17

Pick against the spread: Oakland +7

Confidence: None

Jan 022016
 

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6) at Cleveland Browns (3-12)

The Steelers lost last week as huge road favorites in Baltimore, but they get a 2nd chance this week and I like their chances of bouncing back this week as 11 point favorites in Cleveland. The Browns rank 29th in rate of moving the chains differential, while the Steelers rank 9th. That doesn’t suggest an 11 point line is appropriate, but the Steelers are better than their rank because they’ve moved the chains at a 75.53% rate in the 11 games Ben Roethlisberger has played, as opposed to 63.64% in the 4 he missed.

Cleveland, meanwhile, is on their 3rd quarterback of the year, as Austin Davis will make his 2nd start of the season, in place of an injured Johnny Manziel. Manziel was playing decent in recent weeks, while Davis really struggled in his first start of the season a few weeks back and I’m not expecting a lot out of the Browns this week, especially since Head Coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer are expected to be fired after the game. I can’t be confident in Pittsburgh, but they’re my pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 27 Cleveland Browns 13

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -11

Confidence: None

Jan 022016
 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9) at Carolina Panthers (14-1)

The Panthers’ undefeated season attempt ended with last week’s road loss in Atlanta, but that doesn’t mean that the Panthers are going take it easy in their final regular season game this week. In fact, it likely means the opposite because now their week 17 game is meaningful, as they need a win to hold onto the #1 seed. A loss at home to the Buccaneers, coupled with an Arizona home win over the Seattle Seahawks, drops Carolina into the #2 seed.

Fortunately for them, the Panthers have a pretty easy matchup, hosting Tampa Bay, who ranks 21st in rate of moving the chains differential. The Panthers, who rank 2nd in that metric, are favored by 10.5 points here. Given that, I think it’s more of a question of how much the Panthers will win by, as opposed to whether or not they’ll win. The Panthers are kind of banged up right now, especially relative to the rest of the season, as they’ve overall benefitted from good health. Now, running back Jonathan Stewart, safety Kurt Coleman, and wide receiver Ted Ginn are all out. I’m still laying the 10.5 points with Carolina, but not with any confidence.

Carolina Panthers 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13

Pick against the spread: Carolina -10.5

Confidence: None

Jan 022016
 

Detroit Lions (6-9) at Chicago Bears (6-9)

I don’t have too strong of a feel for this one, but this line seems too low at a pick em. That suggests that the Lions are 3 points better than the home team Bears, which I disagree with. The Bears rank 18th in rate of moving the chains differential and have been even better when Jay Cutler has been healthy, moving the chains at a 72.18% rate in the 13 games he’s been healthy, as opposed to 56.25% in the 2 games he was hurt. Granted, those two games Cutler missed were against Seattle and Arizona, arguably the two toughest defenses they’ve faced, and they’re missing top wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in this one, but I think they’re still probably more talented than the 18th place rank suggests.

The Lions also are more talented than their rank suggests, as they rank 20th in rate of moving the chains differential, but have played much better offensively since Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator. However, they’re not 3 points better than the Bears. This line should be a field goal or so and, given that, we’re getting line value with the Bears. It’s not enough for me to put money on them in a game that’s otherwise meaningless for both teams, but they’re my pick.

Chicago Bears 20 Detroit Lions 17

Pick against the spread: Chicago PK

Confidence: Low

Jan 022016
 

Philadelphia Eagles (7-8) at New York Giants (6-9)

I want to preface this write up by saying I wouldn’t put money on either side. It’s going to be tough to know the emotional state of both of these teams. The Eagles got eliminated last Saturday with a home loss to the Redskins and then their head coach Chip Kelly was fired Tuesday. The Giants, meanwhile, were also eliminated last Saturday with that Philadelphia loss, then promptly got blown out 49-17 in Minnesota the following day, and then likely found out that this will probably be Tom Coughlin’s last game as the Head Coach of the Giants. The two-time Super Bowl winning Head Coach is expected to resign/retire, ahead of his age-70 season, after the 4th straight season in which the Giants have failed to make the playoffs. Coughlin has been in New York as long as Eli Manning, since 2004, and is the third longest tenured head coach in the league behind Bill Belichick (2000) and Marvin Lewis (2003).

However, I will be taking the Eagles for a couple of reasons. For one, I think this line is too high at 4.5. These two teams are pretty evenly matched, ranking 23rd (Giants) and 24th (Eagles) in rate of moving the chains differential and about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so getting anything more than a field goal with the Eagles is intriguing. The Giants also don’t have much homefield advantage, going 54-45 at home (outscoring opponents by an average of 2.54 points per game), as opposed to 56-47 (getting outscored by an average of 0.35 points per game), in the Coughlin/Manning era. Philadelphia is the pick.

New York Giants 27 Philadelphia Eagles 24

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +4.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 022016
 

Seattle Seahawks (9-6) at Arizona Cardinals (13-2)

I’ve thought for a while that the Cardinals were the most underrated team in the NFL. I’ve taken them in every week since week 2. Despite the fact that the Panthers didn’t lose their first game of the season until last week, I think the Cardinals have been the best team in the league for most of the year. The Cardinals rank first in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential, despite having a couple losses. In those 2 losses, they won the first down battle by a combined 20 first downs and only lost because they had a -3 turnover margin in both games. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. On average, teams that have a -3 turnover margin in a game have a +0.1 turnover margin the following game. That’s why I don’t really like to use turnover margin as evidence to support an evaluation of a team.

Comparing them with the Panthers, they have a point differential of +206, while the Panthers are at +162, despite the fact that they have a turnover margin of +12, while the Panthers are at +19. The Cardinals are 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but the Panthers are 6-1, accounting for nearly half of their wins, and the Cardinals rank 17th in rate of strength of schedule, as opposed to 28th for Carolina.

However, it appears the Cardinals are underrated no more, in the wake of their 38-8 win over the Packers last week, as this line has shifted from 2.5 in favor of the Seahawks to 6.5 in favor of the Cardinals, a massive 9 point shift. I actually think the line is pretty appropriate, but we’ve lost all value with the Cardinals. In fact, I’m going the other way. The Cardinals rank #1 in rate of moving the chains differential, but the Seahawks still come in 4th, despite a huge upset home loss to the St. Louis Rams last week. The Seahawks would have had a much easier time winning that game if they didn’t lose the turnover battle by 3 (including a fumble recovered for a touchdown) and I’ve already talked about how inconsistent turnover margins are.

Despite that loss, the Seahawks have still won 7 of 9 since a 2-4 start. They are 26-7 ATS in the second half of the regular season in the Pete Carroll era (since 2011), including 5-2 ATS this season. Well run teams like the Seahawks always seem to get it together down the stretch. Losing running back Marshawn Lynch, tight end Jimmy Graham, and running back Thomas Rawls with injuries has made this team more one-dimensional, but Russell Wilson has been playing arguably the best football of his career.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are missing cornerback Tyrann Mathieu for the season with a torn ACL and he was playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before going down. They obviously didn’t seem to miss him last week against the Packers, but it’s possible they just had a really spirited performance to compensate for Mathieu, something that’s going to be tough to do every single week. They’ll definitely miss him. The Seahawks are also in a great spot as divisional road underdogs are 57-31 ATS in a same season regular season rematch against a team they previously lost to as divisional home favorites, since 2002. Revenge is far from uncommon in divisional matchups similar to this one and the Cardinals beat the Seahawks as underdogs in Seattle earlier this year. I can’t put money on the Seahawks, but I’m going with them.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Seattle Seahawks 20

Pick against the spread: Seattle +6.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 022016
 

New England Patriots (12-3) at Miami Dolphins (5-10)

The Patriots are traditionally very good off of a loss, going 34-17 ATS all-time off a loss with Tom Brady as the starting quarterback. However, I’m going to go against them this week for three reasons. For one, teams are 81-105 ATS since 1989 off of a road loss in overtime, 60-85 ATS if we exclude road underdogs in their 2nd of two road games. The Patriots lost in New York against the Jets in overtime last week. Two, the Patriots also traditionally struggle to cover the spread as double digit favorites, going 9-16 ATS when favored by 10 or more points since 2008.

The Patriots are favored by too many points anyway, the third reason I’m going against them. The Patriots are favored by 10 points. They rank 6th in rate of moving the chains differential, as opposed to 31st for the Dolphins, but they are so banged up right now. They’re not the same team that started the season 10-0 and won’t resemble that team until maybe their first playoff game in 2 weeks. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley, running back LeGarrette Blount, left tackle Nate Solder, and running back Dion Lewis are all out for the season, while right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, linebacker Jonathan Freeny, and wide receiver Julian Edelman have already been ruled out for this one. On top of that, safety Devin McCourty, wide receiver Danny Amendola, and safety Patrick Chung are all likely going to be game-time decisions. I can’t be confident going against New England, but I’m taking Miami.

New England Patriots 24 Miami Dolphins 16

Pick against the spread: Miami +10

Confidence: None

Jan 022016
 

Baltimore Ravens (5-10) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-4)

I’m completely torn on this one. On one hand, the Ravens are in a good spot because divisional road underdogs are 57-31 ATS in a same season regular season rematch against a team they previously lost to as divisional home favorites, since 2002. Revenge is far from uncommon in divisional matchups similar to this one and the Ravens lost as home favorites against the Bengals earlier this year. Meanwhile, the Bengals are in a tough spot, as teams are 81-105 ATS since 1989 off of a road loss in overtime, 60-85 ATS if we exclude teams that were road underdogs in their 2nd of two road games the following week. The Bengals lost by a field goal in Denver last week.

On the other hand, the Ravens are in a bad spot, coming off of a huge upset victory at home over the Steelers as 10.5 point underdogs. That was an impressive victory, but teams are 46-72 ATS since 2012 off of a win as home underdogs and 50-70 ATS since 1989 off of a win as double digit underdogs. They could be overconfident after winning their Super Bowl last week and get caught off guard by the Bengals this week.

We’re also not really getting any line value with either side. The Bengals come in at 5th in rate of moving the chains differential, as opposed to 26th for the Ravens, which suggests that the Bengals should be favored by more than the 9.5 points they’re currently favored by. However, the Bengals are still without quarterback Andy Dalton. Backup quarterback AJ McCarron has been serviceable and has been able to put up decent production because of a strong supporting cast. The Bengals also get safety George Iloka and tight end Tyler Eifert, key players, back from injury. It’s tough to lay this many points with them with any sort of confidence though, especially since both teams are in bad spots. In fact, I’m going to go the other way and take a Baltimore team that has lost just twice by more than 8 points all season, though I can’t be confident because the Bengals are talented enough to make that three times.

Cincinnati Bengals 17 Baltimore Ravens 9

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +9.5

Confidence: None

Jan 022016
 

Washington Redskins (8-7) at Dallas Cowboys (4-11)

Ordinarily, I would be all over the Redskins as 3.5 point underdogs here in Dallas, for three reasons. The first is that the Cowboys tend to struggle as hosts, particularly as home favorites, going 8-25 ATS as home favorites since 2010. The second is this is a big revenge spot for the Redskins, who were upset at home by the Cowboys earlier this year.  Divisional road underdogs are 57-31 ATS in a same season regular season rematch against a team they previously lost to as divisional home favorites, since 2002. Revenge is far from uncommon in divisional matchups similar to this one, especially in matchups like this where one team barely has any homefield advantage (Dallas).

The third is that the Redskins are much better than the Cowboys. They rank 13th in rate of moving the chains differential and have been playing great football since wide receiver DeSean Jackson returned from injury. They’re playing their best football at the best time and are relatively healthier than most of the league. The Cowboys, meanwhile, rank 17th and are missing key players with injury. With Tony Romo out for the season, Kellen Moore will make the 2nd start of his career this week, the 4th quarterback to start for the Cowboys this season. The Cowboys have moved the chains at a 66.46% rate in the 11 games Romo has missed, as opposed to 72.80% in the 4 games Romo played, and will also be without top wide receiver Dez Bryant and possibly top linebacker Sean Lee with injury in this one.

However, this game is meaningless to the Redskins with the division already wrapped up and the #3 seed out of reach. Win or lose this game, they’ll be the #4 seed and host the better of the two wild card teams next week in Washington. As a result, they’re not expected to play their starters for the full game. I can’t take Dallas, one of the worst teams in the NFL, favored by 3.5 points at home, where they traditionally struggle, in a bad spot, but, because I don’t know how much the Redskins will be playing their starters, I can’t put any money on them.

Dallas Cowboys 17 Washington Redskins 16

Pick against the spread: Washington +3.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 022016
 

San Diego Chargers (4-11) at Denver Broncos (11-4)

The Chargers are just 4-11, one of the worst records in the NFL, but rank 11th in rate of moving the chains differential. How can that be? Well, their record is largely the result of a 3-7 record in games decided by a touchdown (3-8 in games decided by 8 points or fewer), a -8 turnover margin, a -5 return touchdown margin, a -6.5 yards per kickoff return margin, and a -2.8 net punt margin. On the season, they’ve actually outgained their opponents by 344 yards.

None of those things suggests anything deeply wrong with this team, but rather that they have the framework of a decent team and just need to clean some things up. They’ve won the rate of moving the chains battle in 9 of 15 games and could easily be 6-9, 7-8, 8-7, or even 9-6. This team reminds me a lot of the 2012 Lions, who went 4-12 that season, but then 7-9 the following year and 11-5 two years later, with essentially the same framework of the team. They don’t have a tremendous ATS record on the season because they were pretty highly valued to start the season, but they’ve covered 4 of their last 5.

They’ve also been way better on the road than at home. At home, they were just 2-6 ATS this season, as they seemingly have no fans. As a result, their stadium has been overrun with visiting fans pretty much every game this year, meaning they’ve essentially had to play 16 road games this season. I feel bad for the few Chargers fans who do show up because they’re going to lose their team, but the Chargers have a borderline obligation to move up to Los Angeles at this point. It’s not fair to the team to not have any true home games and it also really hurts their chances of signing key free agents, as nice as San Diego weather is.

Meanwhile, on the road, they are 5-2 ATS on the season, with one of those non-covers being a 5 point loss as 3 point underdogs in Cincinnati week 2, against a Bengals team that turned out to be one of the best in the NFL. They have just one road loss by more than a touchdown, relevant considering they’re underdogs of 9 points here in Denver. If they can keep it within a touchdown against the likes of the Bengals, Packers, and Chiefs, they can do so here in Denver. All 3 of those teams rank higher in rate of moving the chains differential than the Broncos, who come in 12th.

Despite a 7 game lead over them in the standings, the Broncos actually rank one spot below the Chargers in rate of moving the chains differential. They’ve benefitted an 8-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, have lost the rate of moving the chains battle in 5 of 15 games, and have just three victories of more than a touchdown. They beat the Chargers by 14 earlier this year, but that was in San Diego and that would have been a touchdown game if not for a return touchdown. The Broncos had just one offensive touchdown in that game. This figures to be a pretty close game, so getting 9 points with the visitor seems like a good deal.

It does hurt the Chargers that they’re coming off of a road overtime loss, as teams are 81-105 ATS in that spot since 1989. However, they’re also in their 2nd of two road games. Teams are 130-94 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 106-64 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. Historically, teams cover at about a 65% rate in that situation.  This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 225-227 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.51 points per game, as opposed to 321-438 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.75 points per game. Road underdogs in their 2nd of two road games off of an overtime loss are 21-20 ATS since 1989, so those two trends cancel out. It’s just too many points to pass on.

Denver Broncos 17 San Diego Chargers 13

Pick against the spread: San Diego +9

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Jan 022016
 

St. Louis Rams (7-8) at San Francisco 49ers (4-11)

The Rams have gone from being favored by 2.5 points on the early line last week to being favored by 3.5 points this week. That might not seem like a huge difference, but about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so it definitely is. It’s pretty obvious why the change occurred, as the Rams pulled off an upset victory as double digit underdogs in Seattle last week. However, I love fading significant line movements whenever it makes sense and I don’t really think the Rams should be favored by more than a field goal over anyone, even the lowly 49ers, given that running back Todd Gurley isn’t expected to play. The Rams rank 30th in rate of moving the chains differential and, while the 49ers are dead last in that metric, they should be able to keep it close against a Rams teams that, without Gurley, has easily the least talented offense in the NFL.

The Rams’ victory last week was certainly a very big one, but they would have had a much tougher time winning that game if they didn’t win the turnover battle by 3 (and return a fumble for a touchdown). Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. A team that wins the turnover margin by 3, on average, has a turnover margin of +0.1 the following week. As bad as the 49ers have been, they’re just -4 in turnovers on the year. On top of that, teams are just 50-70 ATS off of a win as double digit underdogs, dating back to 1989. That’s because teams tend to be overvalued and overconfident off of a huge upset victory like that. Eliminated from the playoffs, the Rams won their Super Bowl last week and could easily get caught off guard by the 49ers this week. They also shouldn’t be favored by this many on the road against anyone. I’m comfortable putting money on San Francisco.

St. Louis Rams 10 San Francisco 49ers 9

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Jan 022016
 

New York Jets (10-5) at Buffalo Bills (7-8)

I really wish we were still getting points with the Jets, like we were last week, when they were underdogs of 1.5 in Buffalo on the early line. The line hasn’t moved to the opposite 3 yet, but the Jets are now favored by 2.5, which takes a pretty powerful trend out of play. Divisional road underdogs are 57-31 ATS in a same season regular season rematch against a team they previously lost to as divisional home favorites, since 2002. The Jets lost to the Bills at home earlier this year in a game that would have been a lot different if the Jets hadn’t lost the turnover margin by 4 (the Jets actually won the rate of moving the chains differential battle).

Fortunately for the Jets, turnover margins are really inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Teams that have a -4 turnover margin in a divisional matchup, on average, have a -0.1 turnover margin in a same season regular season rematch, since 1989. Those teams are also 51-40 ATS for what it’s worth. The Jets are also healthier now and playing great football since getting both cornerback Darrelle Revis and center Nick Mangold back from injury. While the Bills are missing cornerback Stephon Gilmore, defensive tackle Kyle Williams, middle linebacker Nigel Bradham, wide receiver Percy Harvin, running back LeSean McCoy, safety Aaron Williams, tight end Charles Clay, wide receiver Robert Woods, and right tackle Seantrel Henderson (9 starters) from their week 1 starting lineup, the Jets are arguably the healthiest team in the NFL.

The Jets also rank 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential, as opposed to 19th for the Bills, so, even though the Jets are now favored, we’re still getting some line value with them. It’s just not enough for me to be confident putting money on them. The public is all over them, despite the significant line movement. I usually love fading heavy public leans whenever it makes sense, as the public always loses money in the long run, and fading significant week-to-week line movements whenever it makes sense, as they tend to be overreactions to a single week of play. The Jets’ win at home against the Jets as home underdogs last week have really exposed the Jets as a significant player, so the value isn’t quite there with them anymore. On top of that, teams are 46-72 ATS since 2012 off of a home win as underdogs and the Jets could easily come in overconfident. I’m still taking the Jets, especially with the line under a field goal, but I’m staying away money-wise.

New York Jets 16 Buffalo Bills 10

Pick against the spread: NY Jets -2.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 012016
 

Minnesota Vikings (10-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-5)

The Packers were favored by 5.5 over the Vikings last week on the early line, but now are favored by just 3, a significant line movement considering both 3 and 4 are key numbers. While about 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer, close to 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so only having to lay a field goal with the Packers now is a significant difference. I love fading significant line movements whenever it makes sense.

It might seem like the line movement was warranted, considering the Packers lost 38-8 in Arizona last week and the Vikings won 49-17 at home against the Giants, but it’s important not to get too excited about a team off their best performance of the season and also to not get too down on a team off their worst performance of the season. In fact, since 2002, teams are 20-11 ATS off of a loss of 24 or more when their opponent is coming off of a loss of 24 or more. It’s a small sample size, but it makes sense to contrarian bettors.

The Vikings have played better in recent weeks, blowing out the Giants last week, winning by 21 over a decent Bears team the week before, and coming close to beating the Cardinals in Arizona the week before that, but it’s important not to forget that before that, they got blown out at home twice in three weeks by the Seahawks and these Packers. The Vikings’ offense has been better in recent weeks and the defense got key players back last week in outside linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith, but they’ll continue to be without defensive tackle Linval Joseph, a significant absence, and they’re only barely better than their 14th place rank in rate of moving the chains differential suggests.

The Packers are probably a little bit worse than their 7th place rank in rate of moving the chains differential suggests, as left tackle David Bahktiari is highly questionable after missing last week and not practicing all week. He was severely missed last week. He could still try to give it a go on a bum ankle and it helps that this is the Sunday Night game, but he won’t be 100% even if he plays. However, the Packers do get cornerback Sam Shields back and are overall better than they looked last week.

It also really helps the Packers that they are at home this week. As long as Aaron Rodgers starts (minus any games he’s been knocked out very early with injuries), the Packers are 31-14-1 ATS at home since 2010 and 40-6 straight up, with an absurd +625 point differential, meaning they outscore opponents, on average, by 13.59 points per game. The Packers have been favored by at least 3.5 points in each of their last 16 home games (10-6 ATS), so we’re getting the Packers really cheap here at home. That’s too good to pass on. Despite what happened last week, the Packers are still the better of these two teams.

Green Bay Packers 23 Minnesota Vikings 13

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -3

Confidence: Medium