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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. Cleveland Browns – QB Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina)
I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not sure Trubisky is going to go to the Browns, but I think he ultimately will be the first player off the board. We saw last year how quarterbacks can get pushed up the board. It doesn’t always work out (see Jared Goff), but teams are going to continue taking the risk at the top of the draft because of how good the reward is when they pan out. With the going rate for even borderline starting quarterbacks being at 12-13 million dollars annually, potentially getting a legitimate franchise signal caller on a cheap rookie contract is so intriguing to teams, even if you have to mortgage your entire draft to do so. If the Browns aren’t interested in Trubisky, there will be no shortage of teams with interest, including the New York Jets, who are reportedly enamored with him. Trubisky is the top quarterback in the draft class and figures to go #1 overall to someone.
2. San Francisco 49ers – OLB Myles Garrett (Texas A&M)
The 49ers are another team that could take a quarterback, either here at 2 with DeShone Kizer, the 2nd best quarterback in the draft class, or by moving up to 1 to grab Trubisky. Another option is staying put and grabbing the top defensive player in the draft class, Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett. 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. Garrett could have double digit sacks as a rookie and would instantly become their best pass rusher. He’s probably the best overall player in this draft class.
3. Chicago Bears – QB DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame)
The Bears are another team that will be picking at the top of the draft in need of a quarterback. Jay Cutler could be back in 2017 at his 15 million dollar salary, but he’s going into his age 34 season and probably isn’t the guy who is going to take this team where they need to go. Kizer is far from a polished prospect, but has all the tools and will likely be a top-5 pick when all is said and done, either to a team like Chicago or to a team that wants to move up. This could be another trade down spot if the Bears are not interested in Kizer.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars – DT Jonathan Allen (Alabama)
The Jaguars are in an interesting spot quarterback wise. They just used the 3rd overall pick in the draft on Blake Bortles in 2014 and he had a solid year in 2015, but he struggled mightily in both 2014 and 2016 and has always been an interception machine. Only going into his age 25 season, it might be too soon to give up on him, but front office has already said the new coaching staff won’t have a mandate to keep Bortles as the starter. It’s tough to know what they’re going to do until they hire their next coach, but using another high pick on a quarterback is certainly a possibility, even if they have to move up to do it. With Kizer and Trubisky off the board at this point, it’s more likely that they take a quarterback in the later rounds and take a top defensive prospect like Jonathan Allen here. Allen would instantly be a starter inside at defensive tackle in Jacksonville.
5. Tennessee Titans – CB Teez Tabor (Florida)
The Titans made out like bandits in last year’s trade with the Rams that landed them 3 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 and, given that the Rams don’t have a first round pick to improve themselves, they could be picking high in the Rams’ spot again in 2018. 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.
6. New York Jets – OT Cam Robinson (Alabama)
As I mentioned, 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. They’ll probably have to move up if they’re going to grab a quarterback in the first round, certainly a possibility. If they stay put, taking the draft class’ offensive tackle makes a lot of sense, considering they need upgrades on both end of the offensive line.
7. San Diego Chargers – S Jabrill Peppers (Michigan)
The Chargers parted ways with long-time safety Eric Weddle last off-season and didn’t really replace him, only adding veteran journeyman Dwight Lowery. The safety duo of Lowery and Jahleel Addae was underwhelming in 2016 and the latter is a free agent this off-season anyway, so help is needed at the position. Peppers isn’t a traditional safety and will probably play more linebacker than anything in the NFL, but the Chargers have a need at that position as well. The top defensive player left on the board, Peppers makes a lot of sense at this juncture.
8. Carolina Panthers – S Malik Hooker (Ohio State)
Neither Tre Boston nor Kurt Coleman played particularly well at safety this season, a big part of why the Panthers’ defense was not nearly as good as it was last season. Coleman had a strong 2015, so he could return as a starter in 2017, but he’s also a one-year wonder going into his age 30 season and, even if he returns as a starter, Boston isn’t a guarantee to return as a starter either. Hooker is the best pure safety prospect in the draft class and could help turn Carolina’s defense around immediately.
9. Cincinnati Bengals – WR Mike Williams (Clemson)
The Bengals used a 2nd round pick on a wide receiver last year in Tyler Boyd and obviously still have AJ Green, but in today’s NFL you need three receivers. Free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell had a nice bounce back year in 2016 after a terrible year in 2015 in New England, but he was only signed to a one-year deal so he might not be back in 2017. Williams would give them a trio of talented young wide receivers. They have more pressing needs on the defensive line, but any defensive lineman would be a reach at this point and Williams fits their strategy of taking the best available player.
10. Buffalo Bills – S Jamal Adams (LSU)
Unfortunately, safety Aaron Williams’ future is very much in doubt after back-to-back seasons that ended with scary neck injuries. The Bills should look to the future at the safety position, especially since their other starting safety, converted cornerback Corey Graham, will be in his age 32 contract year in 2016. Adams is more of a replacement for Williams though, as he projects as a strong safety in the NFL. He’s the top pure strong safety in this draft class.
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. In a weaker than usual defensive line class, Derek Barnett could get pushed up into the top-15. He’s a first round talent regardless and fills a big need here for the Saints, who need to continue to add to an improving, but still weak defense.
Like the Titans, the Browns have a pair of first round picks as a result of trading down last year, sending the 2nd overall pick to the Eagles, who drafted quarterback Carson Wentz, for the 8th overall pick last year, Philadelphia’s first rounder this year, and several other picks. Unlike the Titans, the Browns desperately need these picks as they have pressing needs all over the field, including at cornerback. Joe Haden is a shell of his former self thanks to injuries and, if he returns at his scheduled 11.2 million dollar salary, it’s only because the Browns have the most cap space in the league going into this off-season and don’t need to cut players to free up space. Jamar Taylor was the Browns’ best cornerback this season and will return as a starter, but Tramon Williams is expected to move to safety in 2017 and 2016 undrafted free agent Briean Boddy-Calhoun is best off as a 4th cornerback. If they take a quarterback atop the draft, expect them to use their other first rounder on the best available defensive player, which Humphrey is.
The Cardinals have one talented middle linebacker in Deone Bucannon, an ex-safety who has done a very nice job converting to linebacker. However, they need a 2nd middle linebacker for their 3-4 defense. Kevin Minter is a capable player, but unspectacular and a free agent this off-season. With several other pending free agents, Minter could easily not be back in 2017. Foster would be an upgrade anyway. The top middle linebacker in this draft class, Foster’s skill set would complement the smaller, more athletic Bucannon very well.
14. Indianapolis Colts – RB Leonard Fournette (LSU)
The Colts badly need help on the defensive side of the ball, but that hasn’t stopped GM Ryan Grigson from drafting offensive players in the past. 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. This spot makes sense for the draft class’ top running back to come off the board. Fournette is a top-10 talent, but there wasn’t an obvious spot for him early on.
15. Philadelphia Eagles – CB Sidney Jones (Washington)
The Eagles’ defense has been much improved in Jim Schwartz’ first season in Philadelphia, but they really need more talent at the cornerback position. Despite a very talented front 7 that can pressure the quarterback with regularity, the Eagles allowed several big passing days this season because they have arguably the weakest group of cornerbacks in the league. The likes of Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll, Jalen Mills, and Ron Brooks are not going to cut it. The Eagles got this first rounder from Minnesota in the Sam Bradford trade and should use it on a cornerback like Sidney Jones, who would instantly be in the best cornerback on their roster.
16. Baltimore Ravens – OLB Tim Williams (Alabama)
The Ravens had a strong defense once again in 2016, but they need youth in a few spots, especially outside linebacker. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are going into their age 35 and 33 seasons respectively in 2017 and the edge rushers they’ve drafted in the mid rounds in the past couple years, Matt Judon (2016 5th round pick) and Za’Darius Smith (2015 4th round pick), haven’t shown themselves to be long-term starters in limited action thus far. GM Ozzie Newsome has always loved players from Alabama and Williams is the top pure 3-4 edge rusher in the draft class.
17. Washington Redskins – RB Dalvin Cook (Florida State)
The 2017 NFL Draft could have 3 different running backs drafted in the first round, a rarity in today’s NFL. In fact, it would be the first time that’s happened since the 2012 NFL Draft and it would match the total amount of running backs drafted in the first round from 2013-2016. Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook seems like locks for the first round at the very least and Washington is one of the teams that I could see taking a running back in the first round. They drafted Matt Jones in the 3rd round in 2015, but he’s just averaged 3.91 yards per carry with 6 lost fumbles on 243 career carries and wasn’t heard from after yet another lost fumble week 7. Undrafted rookie Rob Kelley took over down the stretch, but he’s a mediocre runner whose production was largely the product of a strong offensive line. They could easily use a high pick on a running back.
18. Tennessee Titans – WR John Ross (Washington)
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, possibly two if Kendall Wright leaves as a free agent.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DT Malik McDowell (Michigan State)
The Buccaneers have one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league in Gerald McCoy, but they could use help next to him in their 4-3 defense. Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence split snaps at the other defensive tackle spot this season and both struggled mightily. McDowell could step in immediately and, if he reaches his potential, he and McCoy could form a fearsome duo inside for years to come.
20. Denver Broncos – DE Chris Wormley (Michigan)
The Broncos’ pass defense was as good as ever in 2016, but their run defense took a big hit from 2015. Injuries were part of it, but free agent losses were the primary cause, particularly the loss of defensive end Malik Jackson. Jackson wasn’t properly replaced so they could use an early draft pick on the position in the 2017 NFL Draft. Wormley is an ideal fit as a 5-technique defensive end in Denver’s 3-4 defense and would be an instant starter over mediocre veterans Jared Crick and Billy Winn and last year’s 2nd round pick Adam Gotsis, a reach who barely played as a rookie.
21. Detroit Lions – MLB Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt)
Detroit’s linebacking corps has been a mess all season, a big part of the reason why they’ve struggled defensively. Things got better when DeAndre Levy returned from injury, but he’s been limited to just 6 games by injury in the last 2 seasons. Even if he can stay healthy long-term, they still need another every down linebacker. Tahir Whitehead is a solid run stopper, but should only be a base package third linebacker going forward. He’s been overstretched as an every down player in recent years because of injuries to other players.
22. Houston Texans – OT Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin)
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. Ramczyk 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.
23. Miami Dolphins – TE OJ Howard (Alabama)
The Dolphins have a talented young duo of wide receivers in Jarvis Landry and Devante Parker, but could 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 is the top tight end in the draft class and a candidate to go off the board late in the first round, so the Dolphins could definitely be interested.
24. Green Bay Packers – RB Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
The Packers haven’t had a strong feature back since 2014 with Eddie Lacy struggling in 2015 and getting hurt in 2016. Lacy could be back in 2017, but he’s a free agent this off-season, so he’s no guarantee to return. The Packers had a couple strong rushing performances from different backs in 2016 even after Lacy got hurt, but those were primarily the result of strong blocking and a great passing game giving their backs room to run. The Packers tend to take the best available prospect and McCaffrey could easily qualify. He’s the #3 running back in this draft class and a likely first round pick. He’d also be an ideal fit in Green Bay because of what he can do as a receiver out of the backfield as well.
25. Seattle Seahawks – OT Roderick Johnson (Florida State)
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.
26. Atlanta Falcons – G Dan Feeney (Indiana)
The Falcons’ strong offensive line has been a huge part of their success this season, but they could use an upgrade at right guard over Chris Chester, who has been their weakest link by far upfront this 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. Feeney is the top interior offensive line prospect in this draft class and could start instantly as a rookie.
27. Pittsburgh Steelers – OLB Carl Lawson (Auburn)
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 terrible through 2 years in the league thus far. Even if he turns it around, 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.
28. Oakland Raiders – MLB Jarrad Davis (Florida)
The Raiders have a young talented roster, but they desperately need help at linebacker. Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney both struggled mightily as every down players this season. Heeney got hurt and veteran Perry Riley took over and played surprisingly well down the stretch, but he’s a free agent this off-season and can’t be trusted to be an every down player given his history of inconsistency. Davis would instantly be their best young linebacker.
29. New York Giants – OT Garett Bolles (Utah)
The Giants used a first round on an offensive tackle in 2015, taking Ereck Flowers 9th overall, but he’s struggled mightily through 2 years in the league. They won’t give up on him or anything because he’s still young, but the offensive line as a whole is a big problem for the Giants, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they took another offensive lineman in the first round. First year starting right tackle Bobby Hart was probably their worst offensive starter in 2016. Bolles would be an instant upgrade on the right side or he could play left tackle with Flowers moving over to the right side, where he could be a better fit.
30. Kansas City Chiefs – QB DeShaun Watson (Clemson)
DeShaun Watson isn’t a lock to go in the first round, but there’s a good chance someone takes a chance on him at the end of the first round. Someone could trade back up into the end of the first round to grab him or a team like Kansas City could take him as a long-term quarterback option. This would be a surprising pick, but Andy Reid always liked to have a developmental quarterback prospect behind Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia and they don’t have one in Kansas City behind Alex Smith, an average at best starting quarterback going into his age 33 season in 2017. Smith is no lock to remain with the Chiefs beyond the final year of his contract in 2018.
31. Dallas Cowboys – WR Corey Davis (Western Michigan)
Wide receiver isn’t a huge need for the Cowboys, but they don’t have a ton of pressing needs and Davis is arguably the best available player left on the board. Dez Bryant hasn’t been the same player over the past couple years thanks to injuries. Cole Beasley has emerged as a solid complementary receiver, but you need three good wide receivers in today’s NFL. Terrance Williams was the 3rd wide receiver in Dallas this season, but he’s an underwhelming player and a free agent this off-season.
32. New England Patriots – DE Charles Harris (Missouri)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.