Steven Lourie

Feb 262017
 

Updated: 2/26/17

1. Cleveland Browns – DE Myles Garrett (Texas A&M)

I’ve had a quarterback here in recent mock drafts, figuring that some team would get desperate enough and move up to #1 to get a quarterback, like the Rams did last year, or that the Browns would get desperate and take a quarterback at 1 themselves. That’s still a possibility, but I’m not mocking trades for now until I see how the off-season unfolds. The Browns seem like a likely landing spot for Tyrod Taylor if the Bills let him go, which could be a huge steal for their organization. In that case, they wouldn’t need to take a quarterback and would likely take the top defensive player in the draft, Myles Garrett, #1 overall, if they couldn’t trade down. Garrett would be an instant starter at defensive end in the Browns’ new 4-3 defense, opposite last year’s 2nd round pick Emmanuel Ogbah.

2. San Francisco 49ers – DE Solomon Thomas (Stanford)

While the Browns will likely go hard after Tyrod Taylor if he becomes available, the 49ers and Bears are more likely to be interested in Jimmy Garoppolo as their primary target. Both new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Bears GM Ryan Pace are known to have been big fans of Garappolo during the 2014 NFL Draft and pushed their respective teams at the time (the Browns and Saints respectively) to draft Garappolo that year. Now with new teams, both have a chance to get Garappolo this off-season, probably for the price of around a high 2nd round pick and other later picks. The 49ers have the advantage because they pick before the Bears in the 2nd round. With their 2nd rounder going to New England, the 49ers use their first rounder on defense. Jonathan Allen might be higher ranked on most team’s boards, but the 49ers have gone with an interior defensive lineman in the first round in back-to-back years so they may favor edge rusher Thomas over him. He’ll fill a huge hole for them. Other than Ahmad Brooks, who will be 33 next season, the 49ers didn’t have a single edge rusher with more than 3 sacks this season.

3. Chicago Bears – QB Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina)

With the Browns getting Taylor and the 49ers getting Garappolo, the Bears have to “settle” for this draft class’ top quarterback prospect, Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky is also an option to go #1 or #2, either to the Browns or 49ers or a team moving up, and seems like a likely top-3 pick at this point in the process. The Bears seem likely to move on from Jay Cutler this off-season and could move forward with Trubisky as the long-term franchise quarterback and veteran Brian Hoyer as the stopgap quarterback until Trubisky is ready to start.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars – DT Jonathan Allen (Alabama)

The Jaguars’ defense was a lot better than their offense in 2016, but they’re likely to go defense in the top-5 for the 3rd straight year, after taking defensive end Dante Fowler 3rd overall in 2015 and cornerback Jalen Ramsey 5th overall in 2016. This is actually the Jaguars’ 6th straight draft picking in the top-5, drafting wide receiver Justin Blackmon 5th overall in 2012, offensive lineman Luke Joeckel 2nd overall in 2013, and quarterback Blake Bortles 3rd overall in 2014. With a quarterback likely to go in the top-3, the Jaguars should have one of the top-3 defensive lineman fall to them at 4, most likely either Jonathan Allen or Solomon Thomas. Both would fill big needs on the defensive line and Allen can start immediately at defensive tackle next to Malik Jackson.

5. Tennessee Titans – CB Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State)

The Titans made out like bandits in last year’s trade with the Rams that landed them 2 first round picks (among other picks) for the #1 pick that the Rams used to draft quarterback Jared Goff, who looked miles away from NFL ready in his first season in the league. As a result, the Titans are picking 5th overall. After an impressive season in which they almost made the playoffs, the Titans don’t have a lot of pressing needs, but they have a big one at cornerback. They need at least one, if not two new cornerbacks to pair with Jason McCourty and are likely to take one early in the draft. Lattimore declaring as a redshirt sophomore was a bit of a surprise, but his stock has shot up since. He’ll likely be the top cornerback off the board and a top-10 pick.

6. New York Jets – QB DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame)

The Jets are another team that desperately needs quarterback help. Pending free agents Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith are not the answer, nor is 2015 4th round pick Bryce Petty, who struggled down the stretch in his audition for the starting job. The Jets took Christian Hackenberg in the 2nd round last year, but he was horrendous in the pre-season and wasn’t given a chance to play as a rookie even with Fitzpatrick, Smith, and Petty all struggling. Not a draftable prospect on tape at Penn State, the Jets should just cut their losses with a draft pick that was one of the worst in recent memory. Even if he remains on the roster into 2017, he shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the depth chart. If the Jets fall in love with a quarterback and he’s there at 6, expect them to pull the trigger. This is going to be a very interesting spot on draft day.

7. Los Angeles Chargers – S Jamal Adams (LSU)

The Chargers lost a defensive cornerstone last off-season when Eric Weddle signed with the Ravens after 9 years with the Chargers and they never sufficiently replaced him. He was directly replaced with Dwight Lowery, who isn’t a bad player, but he’s going into his age 31 season, so he’s only a short-term replacement. Meanwhile, Jahleel Addae, the other starter last season, will be a free agent this off-season. Either of the top-two safety prospects, Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker, would be an upgrade over both of them, so look for them to take a look long at both of them at 7.

8. Carolina Panthers – RB Leonard Fournette (LSU)

The Panthers have expressed a desire to limit Cam Newton’s rushing attempts in an effort to keep him healthy as he gets older and have said that he can’t continue to be their leading rusher. Jonathan Stewart is supposed to be their leading rusher, but he can never make it through a whole season healthy. He hasn’t played in more than 13 games in a season since 2011 and has just one thousand yard rushing season in 9 years with the Panthers. Going into his age 30 season, owed a non-guaranteed 6.25 million, he could be at the end of his time in Carolina. Even if he isn’t, he could split carries with Fournette for a year before Fournette takes over as the feature back in 2018 and beyond. The Panthers have shown a willingness to take the best available player and Fournette certainly qualifies. He’s about one level below Ezekiel Elliott as a prospect.

9. Cincinnati Bengals – MLB Reuben Foster (Alabama)

Karlos Dansby was an every down linebacker for the Bengals in 2016, but he’s a free agent going into his age 36 season in 2017 and looks pretty close to the end of the line. Foster would give the Bengals a long-term complement to Vontaze Burfict at linebacker and would make an immediate impact on this defense. A true three-down linebacker, Foster has good chance to be a top-10 pick this April.

10. Buffalo Bills – QB Deshaun Watson (Clemson)

For some reason, the Bills are really eager to get rid of the best quarterback they’ve had since Jim Kelly and replace him with a veteran stopgap and yet another high drafted quarterback, something that hasn’t worked out well for the Bills in the past. Watson has a high upside, but probably isn’t ready to start week 1. He can spend the start of his career behind a veteran like Nick Foles, Jay Cutler, or Tony Romo on a team that doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere in a hurry.

11. New Orleans Saints – DE Derek Barnett (Tennessee)

The Saints took a defensive lineman in the first round last year, but they shouldn’t be done adding to the defensive line. They desperately need another pass rusher opposite Cameron Jordan because, outside of him, they didn’t have a single edge rusher with more than a sack and a half all season. Barnett is a rising prospect and the Saints could be his floor. He’d be a perfect fit as a defensive end in the Saints’ 4-3 defense.

12. Cleveland Browns – S Malik Hooker (Ohio State)

Hooker could still go as high as 5 to the Titans, but he needed shoulder surgery and will miss the rest of the pre-draft process, so he could fall a little bit. He’s expected to be ready to go for training camp, but the injury could scare off a couple safety-needy teams in the top-10. That would be the ideal scenario for the Browns, who are probably Hooker’s floor at 12. The Browns desperately need an upgrade at both safety spots and Hooker could be the next Earl Thomas if he reaches his upside.

13. Arizona Cardinals – CB Teez Tabor (Florida)

The Cardinals had major cornerback issues last year behind Patrick Peterson. When Tyrann Mathieu is healthy, he covers the slot really well, but it was a rotation of disappointments outside opposite Peterson after 3rd round rookie Brandon Williams struggled to start the year. Tabor fixes the problem in a hurry and gives the Cardinals a talented outside cornerback duo moving forward, along with a hopefully healthy Tyrann Mathieu, who plays safety and slot cornerback.

14. Indianapolis Colts – RB Dalvin Cook (Florida State)

In most drafts, Dalvin Cook would probably be the top running back off the board and a top-10 pick. Unfortunately for him, he’s coming out the same year as Leonard Fournette and I just couldn’t find room for two running backs in the top-10. Cook could still come off the board before Fournette, but he’s more likely to be the second running back off the board. Fortunately, the Colts at 14 should be a floor for him. With Frank Gore going into his age 34 season in 2017 and coming off back-to-back seasons averaging less than 4 yards per carry, it’s time for the Colts to look to the future at the running back position, especially since they have next to no depth at the position.

15. Philadelphia Eagles – WR Mike Williams (Clemson)

The Eagles missed badly on wide receiver Nelson Agholor in the first round in 2015, as he has caught just 59 passes in 2 seasons in the league and was a healthy scratch down the stretch in 2016, for a Philadelphia team that might have the worst wide receiver corps in the NFL. They figure to target a wide receiver early in the draft, especially with their only useful wide receiver, Jordan Matthews, slated to hit free agency next off-season.

16. Baltimore Ravens – CB Marlon Humphrey (Alabama)

The Ravens seem to have found in a steal in the 4th round last year with Tavon Young, who covered the slot well as a rookie, but in today’s NFL you need three cornerbacks and the Ravens could use an upgrade over Shareece Wright opposite Jimmy Smith. Humphrey is a good value here and another young piece for this Baltimore defense.

17. Washington Redskins – MLB Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt)

The Redskins had major issues on all 3 levels of their defense last season and figure to take a defensive player here. Defensive line and safety are both pressing needs too, but Cunningham is probably the best available who makes sense. He can be an instant every down linebacker inside in the Redskins 3-4 defense and would be an upgrade over both Mason Foster and Will Compton.

18. Tennessee Titans – WR Corey Davis (Western Michigan)

The Titans addressed a huge need at cornerback with their last draft pick. Now they address an equally big need at wide receiver. The Titans were hoping that rookie Tajae Sharpe would continue his strong pre-season into the regular season, but instead he proved why he went in the 5th round in the first place, struggling in a starting role. Rishard Matthews, a free agent acquisition last off-season, did well in his first year in Tennessee, but they need at least one more wide receiver in the mix.

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)

Jabrill Peppers is going to be one of the most interesting prospects to watch leading up to the draft. Peppers was a Heisman finalist, playing linebacker, safety, running back, and returning kicks for the University of Michigan this season, but doesn’t have a clear position on either side of the ball in the NFL. Most expect the 6-0 203 pounder to be a hybrid safety/linebacker in the NFL, but his lack of size for a linebacker and lack of ball skills for a safety complicate matters. Ultimately, it only takes one team to fall in love with him and most still expect him to go in the first round. Peppers would fill a big need as a box safety for the Buccaneers.

20. Denver Broncos – OT Cam Robinson (Alabama)

Both of the Broncos’ starting offensive tackles in 2016 could be gone this off-season. Right tackle Donald Stephenson predictably struggled in his first season in Denver, after signing a 3-year, 14 million dollar deal last off-season, coming over from Kansas City, where he struggled whenever pressed into duty as the swing tackle. Owed a non-guaranteed 4 million in 2017, he’s no guarantee to return and, even if he does, they may want an upgrade at that position anyway. Meanwhile, on the left side, Russell Okung is even less likely to return, even though he outplayed Stephenson by a wide margin in 2016. The Broncos will have to do decide between picking up an option for the remaining 48 million over 4 years left on his contract, which includes 19.5 million guaranteed, and declining the option and letting him hit free agency. Okung was a good value for 5 million in 2016, but there’s next to no chance the Broncos give him that much guaranteed money given his history of injuries. He could be brought back at a cheaper rate, but offensive tackle still seems like a likely direction at 20 for the Broncos. This is one of the weaker offensive tackle classes in recent memory (as evidenced by the fact that the first offensive tackle is coming off the board at 20), but Robinson is a solid value at this point and makes a lot of sense for Denver.

21. Detroit Lions – DT Malik McDowell (Michigan State)

The Lions used a 2nd round pick on A’Shawn Robinson last year, but still have a need at defensive tackle, with Haloti Ngata going into his age 33 season and Tyrunn Walker set to hit free agency. McDowell makes sense in this spot and would provide the Lions with a long-term starter inside next to Robinson. McDowell’s quickness and pass rush ability will complement the bigger, more powerful Robinson well.

22. Miami Dolphins – TE OJ Howard (Alabama)

The Dolphins have a talented young duo of wide receivers in Jarvis Landry and Devante Parker, but could use a big target over the middle like OJ Howard. Jordan Cameron struggled when on the field in 2 years in Miami and will be a free agent with a troubling history of concussions this off-season. Dion Sims was their primary tight end for most of this season while Cameron was sidelined, but he’s not much more than a blocker, catching just 26 passes all season. Howard’s stock is rising after he stood out throughout the week at the Senior Bowl. There aren’t a lot of teams that will be looking at tight ends in the first round, but the Dolphins at 22 are probably Howard’s floor.

23. New York Giants – RB Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)

This is the strongest running back class in a while and this figures to be the first draft with three running backs going off the board in the first round since 2012. I’ve already mentioned Fournette and Cook, but McCaffrey is a very talented running back in his own right. He’s more of a speed/pass catching back, while Fournette and Cook are better power backs, and he fits what the Giants want to do offensively very well. He also fills a huge need for a team that just cut veteran starter Rashad Jennings and that isn’t sold on 2016 5th round pick Paul Perkins.

24. Oakland Raiders – OT Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin)

The Raiders have shown a willingness to commit resources to their offensive line in the past and that’s paid off thus far. However, they do have an issue at right tackle, where Menelik Watson is ineffective, injury prone, and headed to free agency, while Austin Howard is inconsistent and owed a non-guaranteed 5 million in his age 30 season in 2017. Ramczyk can be an upgrade over both of them and a long-term option on the left side, where Donald Penn will be in his age 34 season in 2017.

25. Houston Texans – OT Garett Bolles (Utah)

Quarterback wasn’t the only problem the Texans had on an offense that scored a league low 23 offensive touchdowns. The offensive line was a major problem as well. Injuries were a big part of that, but even fully healthy they need help. Besides, right tackle Derek Newton suffered a double torn patellar tendon injury, which is about as bad as a knee injury can get, so his long-term future is very much in doubt. On the left side of the line, offensive tackle Duane Brown is probably their best offensive lineman, but, going into his age 32 season, they need to start thinking about the long-term on the blindside. Bolles can slide in immediately at the right tackle spot, where he’d be an upgrade over fill-in Chris Clark, and could eventually start on the left side.

26. Seattle Seahawks – OT Taylor Moton (Western Michigan)

The Seahawks used a first round pick on an offensive lineman in last year’s draft, taking Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi and moving him inside to right guard, but they still had probably the worst offensive line in the whole league, struggling to pass protect for Russell Wilson and to open any running lanes on the ground. Offensive tackle was particularly a problem, as Bradley Sowell, Garry Gilliam, and George Fant all struggled when given chances to start this season. The offensive tackle position should be the #1 off-season priority for the Seahawks, as they need two new starters at the position. Unfortunately, this is a pretty weak offensive tackle class overall, but the Seahawks tend to have a significantly different board than most of the league and Moton fits what they look for in an offensive lineman because of his size (6-5 328). Moton would probably go in the 2nd most years, but he has a chance to sneak into the end of the first in a weak tackle class. The Seahawks’ last 3 first rounders (Germain Ifedi, Bruce Irvin, and James Carpenter) were all seen as 2nd or 3rd round prospects going into the draft, but the Seahawks took them anyway because they filled needs and were on top of their board. Moton could be a similar situation.

27. Kansas City Chiefs – WR John Ross (Washington)

The Chiefs got a steal with Tyreek Hill in the 5th round of the 2016 NFL Draft, but he’s not a true every down wide receiver. He’s a major weapon as a return man, as a runner out of the backfield, and on screens, but the Chiefs could use another downfield wide receiver, especially with Jeremy Maclin coming off of a down year. If Maclin continues to struggle, he won’t be back, owed 11 million non-guaranteed in 2018. Ross can be a long-term #1 wide receiver for the Chiefs, something they’ve lacked for a few years.

28. Dallas Cowboys – CB Sidney Jones (Washington)

The Cowboys had high hopes when they signed Brandon Carr to a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal and drafted Morris Claiborne 6th overall 5 off-seasons ago in 2012. Unfortunately, that cornerback duo struggled throughout tenure in Dallas, up until their contract years in 2016, when both played well. Giving either player much guaranteed money is risky, especially considering Claiborne is coming off another injury and Carr is now in his 30s, and the Cowboys don’t have much flexibility on the cap either, so they could easily be outbid for both players. That would leave the Cowboys with just Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown at cornerback, in need of at least one, if not two more players at the position for depth purposes. Jones can be a long-term #1 cornerback if he reaches his potential, for a team that doesn’t have many pressing needs.

29. Green Bay Packers – OLB Takkarist McKinley (UCLA)

The Packers need to re-stock at the edge rusher position this off-season, with Nick Perry, Datone Jones, and Julius Peppers all set to hit free agency. That leaves the Packers with Clay Matthews, who seems to be falling apart physically going into his age 31 season, and 2016 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell, who barely played as a rookie. They’ll probably either re-sign one of their own guys or add someone in free agency before the draft, but they could also use a first round pick on an edge rusher because they lack to rotate players at that position.

30. Pittsburgh Steelers – OLB Tim Williams (Alabama)

The Steelers drafted outside linebackers in the first round in 2013 and 2015, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did so again in the first round this year, or at least high in the draft. Jarvis Jones, their 2013 1st round pick, hasn’t given them much in 4 years in the league and is not likely to be brought back this off-season as a free agent, after the Steelers’ declined his 5th year option last off-season. Bud Dupree, their 2015 1st round pick, has been very inconsistent through 2 years in the league thus far. Even if he puts it all together, they need another edge rusher opposite him because James Harrison is going into his age 39 season in 2017 and can’t do this forever. Harrison was their leading sack man in 2016 with 5, so there’s definitely room from improvement here.

31. Atlanta Falcons – G Forrest Lamp (Western Kentucky)

The Falcons’ strong offensive line was a huge part of their success this season, but they could use an upgrade at right guard over Chris Chester, who was their weakest link by far upfront last season. He’ll also be a 34-year-old free agent this off-season and, if he’s brought back, it shouldn’t be as a starter. Lamp is the top interior offensive line prospect in this draft class and could start instantly as a rookie.

32. New England Patriots – DE Taco Charlton (Michigan)

The Patriots have a bunch of pending free agents at the defensive end position, as Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Rob Ninkovich all set to hit free agency this off-season. Long and Ninkovich are older players anyway, going into their age 32 and age 33 seasons respectively in 2017. They need another edge rusher opposite the promising young Trey Flowers for the long-term.

Feb 052017
 

Atlanta Falcons (13-5) vs. New England Patriots (16-2) in Super Bowl LI

There are distinct differences between these two teams, but they have one impressive similarity: both teams have lost key players and played as well or better without them. On New England’s side, one of their losses was a self-inflicted one if you can even call it a loss, as the Patriots “lost” linebacker Jamie Collins in a midseason trade. Collins, one of the Patriots’ best defensive players and one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball in the entire league, was stunningly sent to the last place Browns for a mere 3rd round compensatory pick during the Patriots week 9 bye. The 3rd round compensatory pick they got from the Browns is what they would have gotten in 2018’s draft if they simply let Collins walk at the end of the off-season, so they essentially got no compensation. Despite Collins’ obvious talent, Bill Belichick didn’t like Collins’ tendency to freestyle and simply thought his defense would be better without him.

That seemed like an absurd idea at the time, even giving Belichick the benefit of the doubt as much as he deserves, but, if the numbers are to be believed, the Patriots have been a lot better without him, with young role players like Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts filling in well for Collins. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.54% rate, as opposed to 29.49% in 10 games without him, a substantial difference. To put that into perspective, the figure with Collins is around where the Seattle Seahawks finished the regular season in first down rate (19th). The figure without Collins would have been lower than every offense in the league this year except for the Rams’ offense. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed 166 first downs and 15 touchdowns. They allowed the same amount of touchdowns and two fewer first downs in 10 games without him.

The numbers don’t give the full context, as the Patriots played an easier schedule in the second half of the season. 7 of the 10 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other three were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, Seattle (19th) who beat them, and Pittsburgh last week, in a game in which the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell with an injury early in the game. Their schedule wasn’t that hard in the first half of the season either, but it was definitely easier after losing Collins, so that probably played a role in the significant statistical improvement. It might not be fair to say their defense is definitely better without Collins, but at the very least the trade has not backfired in any way. Their defense is untested, but it’s still one of the better stop units in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, it’s definitely not fair to say the Patriots have been better offensively without Gronkowski. Gronkowski was fully healthy for 5 games this season, not counting the 2 games he played as a decoy with a 3rd string quarterback under center in week 3 and week 4 or the game in which he hurt his back in and left the game in the first quarter in week 12. In those 5 games, the Patriots picked up first downs at a 43.35% rate. The only team that picked up first downs at a better rate than that this season is their opponent this week, the Atlanta Falcons (more on them later obviously). In the 9 games since Gronkowski last caught a pass, the Patriots have picked up first downs at a 37.06% rate, good, but significantly down from the 5 games in which Brady and Gronkowski tore apart the NFL (they averaged a ridiculous 14.0 yards per target). That first down rate is most equivalent to the Detroit Lions, who finished just 12th.

The Patriots’ offense hasn’t been derailed by the absence of the Gronkowski this season, as it has been in years past, thanks to a deeper than usual receiving corps, a great #2 tight end in Martellus Bennett, a much improved running game and offensive line, and, of course, Tom Brady somehow arguably having the best season of his career at age 39. It’s a myth that they don’t need Gronkowski and should sell low and trade him this off-season, ahead of just his age 28 season. They just aren’t screwed in the playoffs without him like they have been in recent years because the rest of the team is better on both sides of the ball.

Without Gronkowski, it’s very hard to argue that the Patriots have the better offense in this game, an unfamiliar position for a New England team that is used to having the better offense in the Super Bowl. Matchup wise, the Falcons most resemble the Patriots’ first Super Bowl opponent, against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. The Falcons finished the regular season with easily the best first down rate in the NFL, picking up first downs at a 43.92% rate. The next best team was the Saints, who picked up first downs at “just” a 40.72% rate in the regular season. In fact, there was a bigger gap between 1st and 2nd in first down rate than there was between 2nd and 9th. That number has actually jumped after two playoff games and they’ve picked up first downs at a 44.61% rate between 16 regular season games and 2 postseason games.

Basically, as good as the Patriots were offensively for 5 games with Gronkowski, the Falcons have been better than that all year for 18 games on the offensive side of the ball. Led by their version of the triplets (Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones), along with one of the best offensive lines in football, the Falcons have been so good offensively that they lead the NFL in first down rate differential, despite a defense that has allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 38.23% rate, more or less equivalent to the Colts’ 7th ranked offense in terms of first down rate. They’re not a balanced team, but they still rank #1 in that in first down differential, just ahead of the Patriots.

The good news for Atlanta is, like the Patriots’ defense, the Falcons’ defense has statistically been significantly better down the stretch, despite losing one of their best defensive players, cornerback Desmond Trufant, for the season. In 9 games with Trufant, the Falcons allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 40.06% rate, most equivalent to Dallas’ 3rd ranked offense. In 9 games without him, they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.27% rate, most equivalent to Oakland’s 15th ranked offense. Part of that could be that they faced weak offenses like San Francisco and Los Angeles during that time period, but their defense has held up much better without their best defensive back than you’d expect.

Young cornerbacks Brian Poole and Jalen Collins have played well in his absence and overall a very young defense has gotten better as the season has gone on. The Falcons are starting 4 rookies (2nd round and 4th round linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, 1st round safety Keanu Neal, and Poole, an undrafted free agent), 3 second year players (first round edge rusher Vic Beasley, Collins, a 2nd rounder, and 5th round defensive tackle Grady Jarrett), and a third year player (safety Ricardo Allen, a former 5th round pick). They aren’t a great defense by any stretch of the imagination, especially after losing starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn with an injury a few weeks back, but Dan Quinn has done a good job developing young defensive talent in 2 years on the job and this defense is definitely better than it was earlier in the season, even without Trufant or Clayborn.

It’s definitely fair to wonder if their young defense has much of a shot to stop Tom Brady and company though, especially since they don’t consistently pressure the passer. The Falcons enter this game with the better offense, but the Patriots have easily the better defense and probably have a better chance of slowing down the Falcons’ offense than Atlanta’s defense has of slowing down the Patriots. One thing that could be very important in a close game is the fact that Atlanta All-Pro center Alex Mack is playing hurt and reportedly might not be able to last the whole game. It’s tough to wager on this game with the line at 3 though because I think this has a very good chance to be a 3 point game. At the very least, I see this game being decided by a touchdown or less, a shootout where the team who has the ball last likely wins the game. New England is my pick, but it figures to be a great game either way. Unfortunately though, this game is a non-bet.

New England Patriots 38 Atlanta Falcons 34

Pick against the spread: New England -3

Confidence: Low

Jan 212017
 

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)

Like the Packers in the NFC, the Steelers enter this game on a long winning streak, winning 9 straight games to go from 4-5 to 11-5, the 3rd seed in the AFC, 2 playoff wins, and an AFC Championship appearance. However, the Steelers have two big obstacles to overcome if they want to make their 4th Super Bowl in the Ben Roethlisberger era. One, they haven’t been very good on the road this season. Two, they’re facing a New England team that isn’t just the best team in the NFL, but that also has rarely lost at home in recent years, especially against AFC opponents. Since 2010, they are 57-9 at home, including 48-4 against AFC opponents, with one loss coming in a meaningless week 17 game and another coming in a game started by 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brady has lost just two meaningful conference home games in the last 6 seasons, though both came in the playoffs (both against Baltimore).

On the other side, in 7 home starts this season (including playoffs), the Steelers are 6-1, with the one loss coming in a close shootout with the Cowboys and the 6 wins coming by a combined 96 points. In those 7 home games, Roethlisberger completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 115.3. In 9 road games, however, his QB rating is 36.5 points lower. The Steelers are 6-3 in those 9 games, but with a point differential of just +18, as compared to +91 in 7 home games started by Roethlisberger. This home/away split is nothing new for Roethlisberger, as he’s had at least a 15 point disparity in home to road QB rating in 4 of the last 6 seasons, including each of the last 3.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they have arguably the league’s most dangerous weapon, Le’Veon Bell, doing work both as a de facto #2 receiver out of the backfield and as a runner, behind one of the best offensive lines in football. The Patriots were able to keep the Steelers’ run game in check in their first matchup with the Steelers, but that was because Ben Roethlisberger was injured and Landry Jones was starting, enabling the Patriots to stack 8 or 9 guys in the box against Bell on almost every snap. Bell still had a huge game overall, leading the team with 10 catches for 68 yards in what was ultimately a 27-16 home loss for the Steelers. Roethlisberger hasn’t been the same quarterback on the road this season, but he’s an obvious upgrade over Landry Jones, so the Patriots won’t have the luxury of being able to stack the box against Bell as often.

Roethlisberger is also an obvious upgrade over most of the quarterbacks the Patriots have faced in recent weeks. In fact, since Brady’s return, the Patriots have faced Cody Kessler, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson (their one loss), Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, Matt Moore, and Brock Osweiler. That at least calls into question some of the legitimacy of the Patriots’ defense, which finished the regular season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed. It’s concerning that they lost at home to the only even decent offense they’ve faced since trading Jamie Collins.

In fact, 7 of the 9 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other two were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle (19th) who beat them. The Steelers rank 10th, and that’s with Le’Veon Bell missing 3 games, Ben Roethlisberger missing one, and most of the key offensive starters resting in a meaningless week 17 game. Even with Roethlisberger struggling on the road, this is still the toughest offense the Patriots have faced since trading away one of their best defensive players almost 3 months ago.

Fortunately, it’s much tougher to call into question the legitimacy of the Patriots’ offense, which has managed to keep rolling without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, something they haven’t been able to do in recent years, because their running game, offensive line, and complementary pass catchers are all better and healthier than they’ve been in recent years. And, of course, because quarterback Tom Brady is having arguably one of the best seasons of his career. They finished the regular season 8th in first down rate, despite Brady missing 4 games with injury and despite the fact that the defenses they’ve faced are much tougher than the offenses they’ve faced. Baltimore, Seattle, Houston, and Denver all have weak offenses, but they also all have top-8 defenses and the Patriots have had impressive offensive performances in 3 of those 4 games. The Patriots’ offense is much more battle tested than their defense and Pittsburgh’s average stop unit figures to have trouble with them.

Overall, the Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule, as their opponents had the 2nd lowest combined winning percentage of any team’s opponents this season and two of the playoff teams they faced (Pittsburgh and Miami) were using backup quarterbacks when the Patriots faced them. However, at the end of the day, you can only play the teams that are on your schedule and it’s not like the Patriots were squeaking out victories against these teams. Just 4 of their 15 wins have come by 7 points or fewer and two of those were weeks 1 and 2 when Tom Brady was suspended.

Their average margin of victory was 15.47, 16.33 in Brady’s 12 wins. They finished the regular season with a league best +24 offensive touchdown margin (Dallas was second at +just 15) and a league best +191 point differential (Atlanta was second at just +134) and they have the highest first down rate differential of any team left in the playoffs (+6.26 vs. +2.34 for Pittsburgh). So, while the Patriots might not be quite as good as their 15-2 record suggests, they’re probably still the best team in the league.

For that reason, they should be able to win big here at home against a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t been that good on the road this season, but it’s tough to lay 6 points with them confidently. This line was at 5.5 earlier this week and I made a big mistake not locking in that line at the time (expecting the line to possibly go to 4 or 4.5 if the sharps liked Pittsburgh). If 5.5 or lower comes back in the next 24 or so hours before the game, it’s worth a bet, but it would be tough to be confident at 6.

New England Patriots 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Pick against the spread: New England -6

Confidence: Low

Jan 212017
 

Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are red hot right now and understandably getting a lot of attention. Since an unimpressive 4-6 start, the Packers have won 8 straight games to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record and to win two playoff games and advance to the NFC Championship game. If you watch sports talk shows this week, you’d think it was the Packers favored by 4 points and the presumptive favorite to move on to the Super Bowl, but instead it’s the other way around, with the higher seeded Falcons favored by 4 points at home.

There’s a reason for that. As much attention as the Packers’ offense is getting, the Falcons’ offense is still significantly better and is statistically one of the top offenses in NFL history. Including last week’s win over the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons have picked up a first down or touchdown on 43.92% of offensive snaps this season, more than 3% higher than the next best team, the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers, meanwhile, have moved the chains at a “mere” 38.94% rate this season, including playoffs, almost 5% lower than the Falcons.

Even if you just look at their 8 game winning streak, the Packers are only moving the chains at a 41.60% rate, meaning, as red hot as they are right now offensively, the Falcons have still been better than them offensively all season. If you look at just the last 8 weeks, the Falcons are actually even better, moving the chains at a 47.19% rate over that time period. As good as the Packers are offensively, the Falcons are simply better. They run the ball better and with more consistency. They have a better overall offensive line. And they also have healthier wide receivers.

Atlanta’s top receiver Julio Jones has been limited by a toe injury in recent weeks, but, as you can see, it hasn’t hurt their ability to move the ball. On the Green Bay side, #1 receiver Jordy Nelson could miss his 2nd straight game with broken ribs, while fellow starter Davante Adams and #4 receiver Geronimo Allison are expected to be gametime calls. Even if all 3 of them play, they all figure to be limited, as head coach Mike McCarthy admitted that none of them would play if this wasn’t a playoff game.

Defensively, these two teams are comparable. The Packers have a little better defense overall (37.34% first down rate vs. 38.01% first down rate allowed), but the Falcons have been better than the Packers if we just look at the last 8 weeks (36.94% first down rate vs. 35.51% first down rate allowed), even with the Packers being 8-0 over that time period. The Falcons aren’t undefeated over that time period, but they’re pretty close, going 6-1 with their one loss coming by 1 point against a Kansas City team that scored 9 points off returns and won despite losing the first down battle 32 to 17.

On the season, the Falcons have won 8 of 12 games by more than a touchdown, with just 1 loss coming by more than a touchdown (9 points in Philadelphia), and have they the NFC’s best point differential at +150, along with the NFC’s best first down rate differential at +6.07% (vs. +2.15% for the Packers). The public seems to be eating up the sports talk media idea that the Packers are the better team here, as more than ⅔ rds of the action is on Green Bay. I disagree, which is probably a good thing, considering the public always loses money in the long run. I think this line should be around 6 in favor of the Falcons, so we’re getting good line value with them at 4. They’re worth a bet if you can get that number, though this line is 4.5 or 5 in some places.

Atlanta Falcons 38 Green Bay Packers 31

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4

Confidence: Medium

Jan 132017
 

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

The Chiefs have been on my overrated list for a while. Despite their 12-4 record, they rank dead last among remaining the 8 remaining playoff teams in first down rate differential. Their record is largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +16 turnover margin (best in the NFL), and a +7 return touchdown margin (best in the NFL), but it’s tough to rely on teams to get takeaways and return touchdowns to win close games, as there’s no week-to-week correlation in turnover margin and, as a result, there’s no week-to-week correlation in return touchdown margin. They won’t be able to count on winning the turnover margin to win close games every week, especially not in the playoffs, and they had just a +1 offensive touchdown margin in the regular season, on top of a -37 first down margin.

However, I don’t love the Steelers this week for a few reasons. For one, the Chiefs’ play has improved as the season has gone on. Thanks to the emergence of youngsters Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones, along with the return of Justin Houston from injury, the Chiefs have played better football in recent weeks. You also have to take into that account that, for whatever reason, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid seems to turn into Bill Belichick after a bye, going 14-5 ATS off of a bye as a head coach. He’s only 3-1 ATS in the playoffs, but this would worry me if I bet on the Steelers.

I was hoping to get at least a field goal here with the Steelers on the road, but their blowout victory over the Dolphins last week made that line impossible. That’s really unfortunate because their win last week was against a mediocre Miami team that made the playoffs thanks to an easy schedule and close wins and because that game was in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have had no problem winning this season with Ben Roethlisberger under center all season. In 7 games started by Ben Roethlisberger at home this season (including playoffs), the Steelers are 6-1, with the one loss coming in a close shootout with the Cowboys and the 6 wins coming by a combined 96 points. In those 7 home games, Roethlisberger completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 115.3. In 8 road games, however, his QB rating is 34.9 points lower and the Steelers are 5-3 with a point differential of just +16. The money line is your best bet here as the Steelers probably have about a 60-65% chance of winning, but this isn’t a high confidence pick.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Kansas City Chiefs 20 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +1.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 132017
 

Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3)

This is another game I’ve gone back and forth on all week. On one hand, the Packers are hot right now and the Cowboys haven’t had much homefield advantage in recent years.  Since 2010, they are 31-24 ATS on the road, as opposed to 20-36 ATS at home (12-28 ATS as home favorites). Over that time period, they’ve been outscored opponents by 0.25 points per game on the road and outscored opponents by an average of 1.63 points per game at home, meaning home field advantage hasn’t even been worth a point for them in recent years. That makes sense because their fan base travels so well that it doesn’t really matter where they play.

On the other hand, the Cowboys are only favorites of 4.5 points, so we’re not getting a ton of points with the Packers, and the Cowboys have been the significantly better team this season. Among remaining playoff teams, they rank 3rd in first down rate differential at 4.22%, while the Packers rank 5th at 1.99%, including their victory over the Giants last week. The Cowboys also beat the Packers earlier this year, winning 30-16 in Green Bay and winning the first down rate battle by 3.00%. Despite that, the public is actually on the Packers this week, so I’m going to fade the public and take the Cowboys. People seem to be so caught up in how the Packers have played in recent weeks that they’ve forgotten how good the Cowboys have been all season. I couldn’t be confident in the Cowboys at 4.5, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Dallas Cowboys 30 Green Bay Packers 24

Pick against the spread: Dallas -4.5

Confidence: None

Jan 132017
 

Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2)

The Patriots are 16 point favorites here in this matchup with the Houston Texans, the first time a team has been favored by that many points in the playoffs since the 1998 Minnesota Vikings blew out the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 as 16 point home favorites in the divisional round of the playoffs that season. Not only are they the largest playoff favorites in two decades, it’s also hard to argue that they don’t deserve it. The Texans snuck into the playoffs because of close wins and a weak division, winning the AFC South with just 9 wins (4-6 in non-divisional games), despite a -49 point differential that was easily worst among playoff teams (7th worst in the entire NFL). They lucked out in their first playoff matchup, getting to host the Oakland Raiders and 3rd string quarterback Connor Cook, but now they enter the round of 8 as easily the worst team left facing arguably the best team in the entire NFL.

The Patriots had easily the most impressive regular season of any team in the league. They have the best point differential (+191) and first down rate differential (+5.90%) of any team in the post-season, despite not even having Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season. One of those 4 games was against these Texans, who they defeated 27-0 week 3, despite being down to 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. With Brady back, the Patriots have obvious advantages on both sides of the ball. I mentioned earlier that almost all of the Texans regular seasons wins were close (9 wins by a total of 44 points). In addition to that, a lot of their losses were not close (7 losses by a total of 93 points).

I also mentioned earlier that they struggle outside of the division. That was especially bad on the road outside of the division, losing all 5 road non-divisional games, by an average of 15.6 points per game. These Patriots are better than any team they’ve faced this year though and should be able to win this one easy. I’ve flipped back and forth between Houston +16 and New England -16, but I’ve ultimately decided on New England, though I could see this being a 14-point game that isn’t as close as the final score suggests. The Patriots played a weak schedule in the regular season and are more vulnerable than most people realize, but the schedule isn’t really getting any harder this week. It’s a no confidence play either way because I have no interest in betting on Houston here, but I don’t really want to lay 16 points either.

New England Patriots 27 Houston Texans 10

Pick against the spread: New England -16

Confidence: None

Jan 132017
 

Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

This might sound weird considering they finished with the 2nd best record in the NFC and secured a first round bye, but I think the Falcons are an underrated team. In a year with so few top level teams, I don’t understand why the Falcons are not regularly mentioned among the best teams in the league. A lot of the attention fell on the Cowboys in the NFC, and rightfully so as they ran away with the conference’s top seed early in the season, and now the Packers are the hot team in the NFC, but the Falcons actually finished the season with a better point differential than Dallas (+134 vs. 115) and ranked higher in first down rate differential. The Falcons’ offensive line and running game are almost as good as Dallas’ and the Cowboys don’t have anything like the combination of Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. As much attention as Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got leading the Cowboys’ offense as rookies this year, the Falcons scored 119 more points than the Cowboys this season. Their defense doesn’t match up, but this is overall one of the top few teams in the league.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, have probably their worst team going into the playoffs in the Russell Wilson era. That’s not necessarily saying much because of how good the Seahawks typically are, but they finished the regular season with a much less impressive +62 and rank 6th among the 8th remaining playoff teams in first down rate differential, only ahead of Houston and Kansas City. They looked good last week in a victory over a weak Detroit team, but their offensive line and running game have been miserable for most of the season and their defense isn’t quite the same unit with safety Earl Thomas out for the season. This line should be about 6 or 7, but instead this line has fluctuated between 4 and 5 all week. I would take them at 5 if I had to, but 4 and 4.5 are obviously better numbers if you can get them.

Atlanta Falcons 27 Seattle Seahawks 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4

Confidence: Medium

Jan 062017
 

New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)

I always talk about the inconsistency of turnover margins and why using past turnover margins as evidence for predictions of future turnover margins is basically useless. On average, a team that wins the turnover battle by 4 in a game has a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week, as does the average team that losses a turnover battle by 4 in a game. The Packers are a great example of the inconsistency of turnover margins. Through the first 12 games of the season, the Packers were -5 in turnover margin on the season, but over the final 4 games of the regular season they were +13 in turnover margin, powering their run to another NFC North title.

Unfortunately for them, that works both ways and teams that have a +13 turnover margin or better over a 4 game span, on average, have a turnover margin of -0.3 the following week. Even despite their recent success in turnover margin, we should assume turnover neutral football for them going forward, which means they’re unlikely to have the same kind of overall success that they’ve had in recent weeks. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 9th, which is solid, but only 2 spots higher than the Giants. The difference between the Packers and the Giants in that metric is a mere 0.06%, a negligible difference. These teams are basically opposites of each other, as the Packers have an incredible offense and a weak defense, while the Giants have a weak defense, but an incredible defense.

Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Giants as 4.5 point underdogs in Green Bay. However, I can’t put money on the Giants as less than 6 point underdogs, given that they will once again be without stud defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul with injury. Unfortunately, that means I will not be betting on any games this weekend, but sometimes there just aren’t games worth betting on. There are only 4 games this weekend and I didn’t want to force anything with sides I wasn’t confident in. This is technically my Pick of the Week because it’s the one I’m most confident it, but I wouldn’t recommend placing any bets this weekend. For pick ‘em pool purposes, I would go NYG, PIT, OAK, and DET in that order.

Green Bay Packers 23 New York Giants 20

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +4.5

Confidence: Low

Jan 062017
 

Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)

Detroit made the playoffs with a 9-7 record, despite losing their final 3 games of the regular season, but they’re one of a few playoff teams I don’t think much of (Houston, Oakland, and Miami are the others). They’re the only playoff team that hasn’t beaten another playoff team, entering with a 0-5 record in games against playoff teams (losses to the Texans, the Giants, the Cowboys, and the Packers twice). Even though all 9 of their victories came against non-playoff teams, just one came by more than a touchdown, meaning they were squeaking out victories against non-playoff teams all season to get to this point. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 28th, the worst among playoff teams.

They didn’t get blown out a lot, losing just twice by more than a touchdown all year, but both losses by more than a touchdown came against playoff teams (the Cowboys and the Giants) and both losses to the Packers involved garbage time scoring that made the final score a lot closer. In last week’s home loss to the Packers, the Lions were down by two touchdowns before a meaningless touchdown with 13 seconds left in the game. In their loss in Green Bay, they were down 31-3 in the first half and did most of their damage in garbage time in an eventual 34-27 loss. Aside from those two games, their only loss by a touchdown or less against a playoff team was a 7-point loss to the Texans and the Texans are also a very weak playoff team. In fact, that 7-point victory tied the Texans’ 2nd highest margin of victory of the season.

This all is very relevant because this line is at 8, so if the Lions can keep this within a touchdown again, they’ll cover this spread. The Seahawks are a much better team than the Texans, but come into this game with a lot of questions, given how they ended the season. Aside from a blowout victory over the lowly Rams, who had just fired their coach 3 days earlier, the Seahawks have been very underwhelming for the last month of the season, since losing stud safety Earl Thomas for the year with a broken leg. They were blown out in Green Bay. They lost at home to Arizona. And last week, they barely won in San Francisco. They enter the post-season 8th in first down rate differential, which is solid, but they also had one of the easiest schedules in the league and are not the same team without Thomas. I’m taking the Lions to keep this within a touchdown, but I can’t take them for any sort of confidence.

Seattle Seahawks 27 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +8

Confidence: None

Jan 062017
 

Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)

The Texans won the AFC South and will host a home playoff game, but they had probably the worst regular season of any team that made the playoffs. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points with their biggest margin of victory being 9 points, back in a 23-14 week 1 victory over the Chicago Bears, who ended the season with 3 wins. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL, right between non-playoff teams Carolina and Jacksonville. They also enter the post-season 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and with a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division and a lot of close wins, as well as a capable, but far from elite defense.

The Texans luck out again though, as they get probably the easiest playoff matchup they could have gotten. The Raiders won 12 games, but enter the playoffs in about as bad of an injury situation as possible. After hardly having any injuries to starters this season, the Raiders are now without starting quarterback Derek Carr and probably Donald Penn, their valuable blindside protector and one of the best left tackles in the league. Those are two major blows to their offense. Connor Cook will make the start for the Raiders this week, even though he’s a 4th round rookie who has never made a start in his career, making him the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first NFL start in the post-season.

Cook played about a half last week against Denver, in relief of Matt McGloin, a veteran backup who struggled before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Cook outplayed McGloin, but only by default. He’s also only seen practice reps the past two weeks because he was the 3rd string quarterback until Carr went down and 3rd string quarterbacks don’t practice during the week. He even admitted after last week’s game that he was calling plays he didn’t know. He’ll get a full week with the first team in practice this week, but he’s still in a very tough situation. McGloin is expected to be active this week as the backup, meaning we could easily see both quarterbacks in this one if Cook struggles early.

Even before the injury, the Raiders were not as good as their record.  Eight of their 12 victories have come by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less and they have a point differential of just +31, just behind non-playoff teams in the Eagles and Ravens (both at +36). That’s despite the fact that the Raiders have a league best +16 turnover margin. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, if we assumed turnover neutral football for them going forward, which we always should, it was hard to see them advancing deep in the playoffs even with Carr. I’m taking them as 4 point underdogs in Houston because of how many close games the Texans have played this year (4 wins by 4 points or fewer), but the Raiders, without Carr and Penn, are one of the worst teams in the league, so I can’t take them with any sort of confidence, even as bad as Houston is.

Houston Texans 16 Oakland Raiders 13

Pick against the spread: Oakland +4

Confidence: None

Jan 062017
 

Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

The Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 thanks to a 10-6 record, but they still have a lot of problems and are not as good as their record suggests. Many of their wins were close, while many of their losses were not. They went 8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, meaning they had just two wins by more than a touchdown, while 4 of their losses came by 13 points or more. That’s despite the fact that they had the easiest schedule in the league this year in terms of opponents’ combined record. In some order, the Rams, 49ers, Jets, and Browns were the worst 4 teams in the league this season and the Dolphins played all 4 of them, including the Jets twice. The Dolphins won all 5 of those games, but just 1 of them came by more than a touchdown (a 34-13 win week 15 in New York), meaning they had a tough time beating some of the worst teams in the league.

Ironically, their other victory by more than a touchdown came against their opponents this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who they beat 30-15 back in week 6. The Steelers are also the only playoff team the Dolphins have beaten. When you look at the Dolphins’ season, it’s a lot of close wins against bad teams and big losses against capable or better teams (15 point loss vs. Cincinnati, 13 point loss vs. Tennessee, 32 point loss vs. Baltimore, and 21 point loss vs. New England). The Dolphins’ week 6 home victory over these Steelers was easily the best game they’ve played this season and a major outlier in their season on the whole.

This game will be in Pittsburgh and the Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger healthy for the whole game, after he was knocked out midway through the game last time, but if the Dolphins can repeat easily their best game of the season they have a good shot in this one. Much more likely, they’ll be unable to repeat their best performance of the season, especially given all of the injuries they have. Since that week 6 victory, the Dolphins have lost both safeties, Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus, and talented center Mike Pouncey for the season with injury, while top cornerback Byron Maxwell and starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill will also be out for this game. The Steelers, meanwhile, aren’t missing any key players that played in the first matchup and are definitely in the better injury situation overall. This one seems like it’s going to be a Pittsburgh blowout, but I’m not confident laying 10 points with them.

Pittsburgh Steelers 31 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -10

Confidence: Low

Jan 052017
 

2016

Straight Up: 160-94-2 (62.99%)

Against the Spread: 123-123-10 (50.00%)

Pick of the Week: 11-6-0 (64.71%)

High Confidence: 12-17-2 (41.38%)

Medium Confidence: 40-26-4 (60.61%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 63-49-6 (56.25%)

Low Confidence: 30-39-2 (43.48%)

No Confidence: 30-35-2 (46.15%)

Upset Picks: 25-25 (50.00%)

Since 2013

Straight Up: 666-387-4 (63.25%)

Against the Spread: 545-484-28 (52.96%)

Pick of the Week: 40-28-2 (58.82%)

High Confidence: 59-48-3 (55.14%)

Medium Confidence: 164-119-5 (57.95%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 263-195-10 (57.42%)

Low Confidence: 140-144-9 (49.30%)

No Confidence: 142-145-9 (49.48%)

Upset Picks: 87-111 (43.94%)

Dec 312016
 

Cincinnati Bengals (5-9-1) at Baltimore Ravens (8-7)

When both are fully healthy, I have the Bengals a little higher than the Ravens, as they rank 14th in first down rate differential and the Ravens rank 21st, but the Bengals are far from fully healthy right now. Not only are they missing wide receiver AJ Green and running back Giovani Bernard, who they’ve been without for a while, but they’ve also lost guard Clint Boling, tight end Tyler Eifert, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict to injury in recent weeks, a trio of key players. The Ravens aren’t fully healthy at this point in the season (no one is), but they’re in much better shape injury wise than the Bengals. I still think we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Bengals as 1.5 point home underdogs, but I couldn’t be confident in them at all.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +1.5

Confidence: None

Dec 312016
 

Cleveland Browns (1-14) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5)

The Steelers are resting their starters with the #3 seed locked up and the Browns are probably the worst team in the league, so I’m not going to spend too much time on this one, though I do find it funny that the Steelers’ backups are favored by 5.5 over the Browns. Notice I said funny, not inaccurate. This line makes sense to me. The Steelers were favored by 16.5 on the early line last week and I can buy that the Steelers’ resting their starters is worth about 11 points on the spread. The Browns beat the Chargers for their first win of the season last week, but they still rank dead last in first down rate and could be flat after winning what they called their “Super Bowl” last week. Teams tend to struggle after a home upset victory anyway, going 63-81 ATS in that spot since 2012. I have no interest in betting either side in this game, but I’m following the trend and taking the Steelers, even if it’s for a no confidence play.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -5.5

Confidence: None

Dec 312016
 

Houston Texans (9-6) at Tennessee Titans (8-7)

The Titans had a week from hell last week. Not only did they suffer their biggest loss of the season, losing 38-17 in Jacksonville of all places (previously their biggest loss this season was by 9), but they also lost starting quarterback Marcus Mariota with a broken leg that figures to sideline him well into the off-season. It’s really a shame because a healthy Titans team could have been some noise in the post-season. Even after last week’s loss to an admittedly underrated Jaguars team, they still rank 8th in first down rate differential as they have 2 more first downs and a whopping 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents on the season. Only New England, Dallas, and Atlanta have a better offensive touchdown margin on the season than the Titans. The only reason they’re just 8-7 is they have a league worst -8 margin in return touchdowns, but that’s more bad luck than anything. Outside of those 8 snaps, they’ve outplayed their opponents for the most part this season, which is why they rank 8th in first down rate differential.

The Texans, meanwhile, have already won the division, despite ranking 26th in first down rate differential and allowing 10 more offensive touchdowns than they’ve scored. Their 21 offensive touchdowns are the fewest in the entire NFL. Their 9 wins have come by a combined 44 points and their 6 losses have come by a combined 86 points, giving them a point differential of -42, 7th worst in the NFL and easily the worst among playoff teams or potential playoff teams. Even with veteran backup Matt Cassel under center instead of the promising young Mariota, the Titans are at least a comparable team to the Texans. Cassel might even still be the best quarterback in this game, as Tom Savage is starting for the Texans and his biggest accomplishment through 2 games is being just a little bit less terrible than free agent mega-bust Brock Osweiler was.

The problem is this line only moved from 4.5 to 3 for the big Tennessee loss and Mariota injury, because the odds makers seem to think the Texans are going to rest starters, given that they’re locked into the #4 seed regardless of the outcome of this game. They’ll rest injured starters like running back Lamar Miller and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but they didn’t rest any starters last year when they were locked into the 4th seed and they need to give quarterback Tom Savage all the reps he can get with the first team anyway, given that this is just his 3rd game of the season, so I don’t see them taking it easy on Tennessee. I’m taking the Titans even at 3, but I’m not confident enough to bet anything on it.

Tennessee Titans 20 Houston Texans 16

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Low

Dec 312016
 

Oakland Raiders (12-3) at Denver Broncos (8-7)

The Raiders were dealt a huge blow last week when quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg, likely knocking him out for the season, but, despite their record, the Raiders probably would have had trouble advancing deep in the playoffs regardless. Even though they are 12-3, they rank just 17th in first down rate differential and have scored just 3 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents. Eight of their 12 victories have come by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less and they have a point differential of just +49, just ahead of non-playoff teams in the Bills (+41) and Ravens (+39). That’s despite the fact that the Raiders have a league best +18 turnover margin. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, if we assumed turnover neutral football for them going forward, which we always should, it was hard to see them advancing deep in the playoffs even without Carr.

However, despite losing Carr last week, this line has actually moved in their favor, as the Broncos have gone been being favored by 2 points on the early line last week to being favored by just 1 point this week. I know the Broncos got blown out in Kansas City last week and are far from healthy themselves, missing outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, safety TJ Ward, defensive end Derek Wolfe, and possibly middle linebacker Brandon Marshall, but they still rank 16th in first down rate differential, one spot ahead over the Raiders, so I would have had this line at 3 if both teams were fully healthy.

Both teams are far from it, but I think the Raiders are in a worse position injury wise without Carr, so we should be getting at least 3, if not more points with the Raiders here, instead of just 1. At 1, I think it’s worth a wager on the Broncos, as they’re deep enough defensively to mask some of the holes created by injuries. DeMarcus Ware might not even be a loss for them as youngsters Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray were outplaying him anyway, while Marshall would be returning from a 3-game absence if he plays this week.

Denver Broncos 17 Oakland Raiders 13

Pick against the spread: Denver -1

Confidence: Medium

Dec 312016
 

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12) at Indianapolis Colts (7-8)

I really messed up not taking the Jaguars last week. The Jaguars were at the top of my underrated list for most of the second half of the season, but I didn’t want to bet on them last week because they had just fired their head coach and were facing another team on my underrated list, the Tennessee Titans, even though we were getting good line value with the Jaguars as 5.5 point home underdogs in that game. Turns out a coaching change might have been exactly what this team needed as they blew out a good Tennessee team 38-17. Part of that is because of the injury to Marcus Mariota, but the Jaguars were in control of that game long before Tennessee’s quarterback got hurt.

Unfortunately, that win cost us a lot of line value with the Jaguars this week, as the Colts have gone from 7 point favorites on the early line to 4.5 point favorites this week. At 7, this would have been pick of the week material, but about 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer so I think the Jaguars are still worth a bet at 4.5. The Jaguars are 3-12, but they are far from the worst team in the league. In addition to 7 of 12 losses coming by less than a touchdown, they’ve been killed by a -16 turnover margin. Fortunately for them, turnover margins are very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. For that reason, I love to bet on teams that have poor turnover margins, as they tend to be undervalued. In terms of first down rate differential, the Jaguars rank 14th and actually have a +17 first down margin on the season. The Colts, meanwhile, rank 19th in that metric. This should be a closer game than this line suggests.

Indianapolis Colts 23 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +4.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 312016
 

Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) at San Diego Chargers (5-10)

The Chiefs are coming off of easily their best performance of the season, blowing out the Denver Broncos 33-10 in a game they won the first down battle 23 to 14 and the first down rate differential battle by a season high 10.17%. However, that type of performance has been far from the norm for this team. Even after that win, they still have allowed as many offensive touchdowns as they’ve scored and they have a -37 first down differential, 5th worst in the NFL. In first down rate differential, they enter this game in 25th. Their record is largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +15 turnover margin, and a +7 return touchdown margin, but it’s tough to rely on takeaways and return touchdowns to win you close games, as there’s no week-to-week correlation in turnover margin and, as a result, there’s no week-to-week correlation in return touchdown margin.

The Chargers have also played a lot of close games, as 9 of their 10 losses have come by 8 points or fewer. They rank 6th in first down rate differential as they have 10 more first downs and 3 more offensive touchdowns than they’ve allowed, but are just 5-10 because of bad luck in close games. This could be another close loss for them and another close win for the Chiefs, but this line is way too high at 5.5 in favor of the visiting Kansas City Chiefs. The Chargers almost beat the Chiefs in Kansas City earlier this year and figure to give them another close game this week. There’s also a real chance at a San Diego upset victory here as well.

Kansas City Chiefs 24 San Diego Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: San Diego +5.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 312016
 

New England Patriots (13-2) at Miami Dolphins (10-5)

In a league with few top level teams, the Patriots have to stand out atop the league. Not only are they the Patriots and they’ve done this before, but they rank 1st in the NFL in first down rate differential and point differential, despite not even having quarterback Tom Brady for the first 4 games of the season. They rank 5th in points, first in points allowed, 8th in first down rate, and 3rd in first down rate allowed. Their +22 offensive touchdown margin is double any other team’s offensive touchdown margin except the Dallas Cowboys (+17).

However, this line moved from 6 to 9.5 in the past week as a result of the Patriots’ 41-3 victory over the lowly Jets, so I think the Patriots’ hype is a little bit out of control right now. The Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule since Brady returned, with their only even somewhat tough games coming at home against the Seahawks, on the road in Denver, at home against the Ravens, on the road in Buffalo, and at home for the Bengals. Other than the Seahawks, the Dolphins might be the toughest team they’ve faced since Brady’s return, so I don’t think the Dolphins should be 9.5 point home underdogs, especially since the Broncos were just 3.5 point home underdogs two weeks ago. The Patriots could win big again here (9 of their 13 victories have come by double digits), so there’s not enough here for me to bet money against them, but this should be a closer game than this line suggests.

New England Patriots 27 Miami Dolphins 20

Pick against the spread: Miami +9.5

Confidence: Low

Dec 312016
 

New Orleans Saints (7-8) at Atlanta Falcons (10-5)

In a league with so few top level teams, it’s surprising that the Falcons aren’t getting more Super Bowl hype. They rank 3rd in the NFL in point differential and 2nd in first down rate differential and are 10-5 despite a 3-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their defense has major problems, especially with top cornerback Desmond Trufant out for the season, but their offense has been far and away the best in the league this season, even ahead of the Dallas Cowboys.

They’ve picked up a first down or a touchdown on an outstanding 43.48% of snaps this season, while the Cowboys, who are 2nd best in that metric, have done so on “just” 40.86% of snaps. For comparison, there’s a bigger gap between the #1 ranked team in first down rate and the #2 ranked team than there is between the #2 and #6 ranked teams. The Falcons are not a well-rounded team, but their offense is so dominant that it might not matter, especially in a year where few teams are standing out.

That being said, the Saints are also an underrated team and I think we’re getting good line value with them, as this line is at a full touchdown. The Saints actually rank tied for 4th in the NFL in offensive touchdown margin, with 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents, only behind New England, Dallas, and Atlanta, who has a +11 offensive touchdown margin. They also have a +41 first down margin, which is 3rd best in the NFL, and they rank 7th in first down rate differential. They are just 7-8 as a result of because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer.

The Saints lost to the Falcons 45-32 in New Orleans earlier this year, but actually had 32 first downs to 26 for the Falcons in that game and it would have been a much closer game if not for two New Orleans turnovers, including one returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Outside of those 2 snaps, it was a pretty evenly matched game. That loss actually puts the Saints in a good betting spot this week, as comparable divisional rivals tend to split the season series, even if the road team pulls the upset in the first game. Divisional road underdogs are 61-35 ATS since 2002 in same season divisional revenge games against an opponent that previously beat them as home favorites and they also pull the upset and win straight up about half the time.

These two teams aren’t quite comparable and it would be a bigger play if I didn’t think so highly of the Falcons, but the Saints are definitely an underrated team that can keep this one close. Aside from their first matchup with the Falcons, which was closer than the final score suggested, the Saints have just one other loss by more than a touchdown all season and I don’t expect the Falcons to make it three this week. If you can get the full touchdown with the Saints, this is worth a bet.

Atlanta Falcons 31 New Orleans Saints 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +7

Confidence: Medium

Dec 312016
 

Green Bay Packers (9-6) at Detroit Lions (9-6)

I always talk about the inconsistency of turnover margins and why using past turnover margins as evidence for predictions of future turnover margins is basically useless. The Packers are a great example of that. Through the first 12 games of the season, the Packers were -5 in turnover margin on the season, but over the past 3 weeks they are +12. Unfortunately for them, that works both ways and teams that have a +12 turnover margin or better over a 3 game span, on average, have a turnover margin of +0.0 the following week. Despite their recent run to put them in position to win the NFC North, the Packers rank just 12th in first down rate differential.

The Lions, meanwhile, rank just 27th in that metric, despite their 9-6 record, and actually have a -5 point differential on the season, as 8 of their 9 victories have come by a touchdown or less. That’s why this isn’t a bigger bet on Detroit, but we’re still getting great line value with them as 3.5 point home underdogs. This line suggests the Packers are about 6.5 points better than Detroit, which don’t make sense. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, so the Lions have plenty of room to cover even if they don’t win this game straight up. The Packers are just 2-5 ATS on the road this season anyway, with losses in Minnesota, Atlanta, Tennessee, and Washington, so I really don’t understand this line. Even just 2 weeks ago, the Packers won by just a field goal in Chicago and that was despite winning the turnover margin by 4, something they’re far from guaranteed to do again this week. If you can get more than a field goal, Detroit is worth a bet.

Green Bay Packers 31 Detroit Lions 30

Pick against the spread: Detroit +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 312016
 

Chicago Bears (3-12) at Minnesota Vikings (7-8)

The Bears are 3-12, but have played a lot better than their record, as they have 4 more first downs than their opponents on 42 fewer plays and rank 11th in first down rate differential. How is that possible? Well, 6 of their 12 losses have come by a touchdown or less, including 3 losses by a field goal or less, and they have a -16 turnover margin, tied for 2nd worst in the league. Fortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, which is why I prefer other statistics.

They’ve dealt with a lot of injuries, but that hasn’t stopped them from going 4-1-1 ATS in their last 6 games. Last week was their one non-cover, a 41-21 home loss to the Washington Redskins, but that was primarily because they lost the turnover margin by 5. They actually gained 31 first downs on 67 plays, just the 9th team this season to have more than 30 first downs in a game. They were also just the 3rd team since 1989 to have more than 30 first downs in a game and lose by 20 or more points. The week before they had 29 first downs, but lost by a field goal because of a -4 turnover margin.

As I mentioned though, this kind of thing is inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. For example, the Bears were -7 in turnover margin through the first 13 games of the regular season before going -9 in the past 2 weeks. Since 1989, 33 teams have had a turnover margin of -9 across a two game stretch. The following week, those 33 teams had an average turnover margin of -0.2. If we assume turnover neutral football for them in this game, which we should always assume, they have a great chance of covering this 6 point spread against a Minnesota team that ranks just 24th in first down rate differential.

Minnesota Vikings 19 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6

Confidence: High

Dec 312016
 

New York Giants (10-5) at Washington Redskins (8-6-1)

I typically don’t like to bet on teams that are expected to rest their starters, but I’m making an exception here because, even though this line suggests the Giants are going to rest their starters and they don’t have anything to play for locked into the 5th seed, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo said that the Giants plan to play to win this game, suggesting they won’t be resting their starters. That makes some sense because, after last week’s loss in Philadelphia, the Giants might not want to head into the post-season on a 2-game losing streak with no momentum to speak of.

Perhaps the oddsmakers know something I don’t about McAdoo’s plans that hasn’t been revealed publicly, as they have the Giants as 7.5 point road underdogs in Washington, but I would have had this line as a pick ‘em in normal circumstances so we get more than a touchdown to work with if the Giants do surprisingly pull the starters at halftime or something. The Giants have been the better team this year (9th in first down rate differential vs. 23rd) and they’re in a revenge game after losing at home as favorites to the Redskins earlier this year.

Comparable divisional rivals tend to split the season series, even if the road team pulls the upset in the first game. Divisional road underdogs are 61-35 ATS since 2002 in same season divisional revenge games against an opponent that previously beat them as home favorites and they also pull the upset and win straight up about half the time. If the Giants play their starters all game, they could easily pull the upset and I think it’s worth betting on them as 7.5 point underdogs given Ben McAdoo’s comments this week.

Washington Redskins 23 New York Giants 20

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +7.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 312016
 

Dallas Cowboys (13-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-9)

I almost never bet on teams that are expected to rest their starters for some or most of a game in week 17 because it’s too unpredictable. In this game, the Cowboys are expected to start their starters, but how long they play is a complete mystery with the #1 seed already locked up. This line expects their backups to play a lot as they are 5 point underdogs in Philadelphia in a game in which they likely would have been favored by 5 points if their starters were going to play the whole game.

The Cowboys have been one of the best teams in the league this season, particularly on the road, where they are 5-2 ATS (31-23 ATS since 2010), so they could easily jump out to a 10-0 or 14-0 lead with their starters out there and cover this spread even with Mark Sanchez and company playing most of the game, but I’m not going to bet anything on it, especially since the Eagles are an underrated team that has top offensive lineman Lane Johnson back from suspension and is 6-9 despite a 1-6 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Philadelphia Eagles 23 Dallas Cowboys 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas +5

Confidence: Low