Steven Lourie

Dec 312016
 

Seattle Seahawks (9-5-1) at San Francisco 49ers (2-13)

The Seahawks are typically a very good team in the 2nd half of the regular season under Pete Carroll, going 34-12-1 ATS since Carroll’s first season in 2011 in games 9-16 of the regular season. This year they’ve been 4-3 ATS in the 2nd half of the regular season, but that’s largely because they’ve been overrated for most of the season. In the first half of the regular season, they covered the spread in just two games, squeaking out close victories as big favorites against the Dolphins, Bills, and Falcons, losing to the Saints and Rams in upset fashion, and tying the Cardinals in a game that had an even line. They only covered the spread in big victories over the Jets and these 49ers, two of the worst teams in the league. In the second half of the season, they’ve pulled the upset in New England and gotten big victories over the Eagles, Panthers, and Rams, though they’ve also lost as favorites against the Cardinals, Packers, and Buccaneers. Still, they’ve definitely been a better team in the second half of the season again.

After last week’s home loss to the Cardinals, it doesn’t seem like the Seahawks are overrated anymore. The Cardinals are an underrated team that has won the first down rate battle in 13 of 15 games and that could easily be 10-5 or even 11-4 if they didn’t blow 5 close games with special teams mistakes, but that home loss has moved this line 3 points from 12.5 on the early line last week to 9.5 this week, a significant line movement. The 49ers pulled off a close victory against the terrible Rams last week, but that was just their 2nd victory of the season and prior to that win that had lost 13 straight by an average of 15.23 points per game, including 9 losses by double digits. The Seahawks should be able to make that 10 losses by double digits, though there’s not quite enough here for me to bet money on them.

Seattle Seahawks 23 San Francisco 49ers 10

Pick against the spread: Seattle -9.5

Confidence: Low

Dec 302016
 

Arizona Cardinals (6-8-1) at Los Angeles Rams (4-11)

The Cardinals pulled the upset victory in Seattle last week, a shock to many people, considering they were 8 point underdogs. However, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, given that the Cardinals have played significantly better than their record this season. They’ve had 5 close losses (or ties) that would have been wins if not for special teams screw ups. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points.

They’ve actually won the first down rate battle in 13 of 15 games and rank 3rd in first down rate differential on the season. On the flip side, the lowly Rams rank 31st in first down rate differential. They pulled the upset in Arizona against the Cardinals earlier this year, but that was because the Cardinals lost the turnover battle by 4, which tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Even then, it took a late long punt return touchdown to set up the winning score for the Rams. The Cardinals actually won the first down battle by a wide margin, 26 to 12. Since then, the Rams have lost 10 of 11 games and have benched veteran starting quarterback Case Keenum for rookie Jared Goff, who has looked lost in limited action. Prior to last week’s close home loss to the lowly 49ers, the Rams had lost 4 straight games by 16 points or more. The Cardinals should be able to hand them another big loss this week. As long as this line is less than a touchdown, Arizona is worth a bet.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Los Angeles Rams 13

Pick against the spread: Arizona -6.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 302016
 

Buffalo Bills (7-8) at New York Jets (4-11)

The Jets got blown out by the Patriots in New England 41-3 last week and, if that wasn’t bad enough, they were actually blown out 34-13 the previous week at home for the Dolphins. Believe it or not though, teams actually tend to cover the spread after a blowout loss like that and especially after two blowout losses in a row. Teams are 52-28 ATS since 2002 off of a loss by 35 or more points and teams are also 44-30 ATS since 2002 off of back-to-back losses by 21 or more points. It’s counterintuitive, but teams tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed in that spot, which leads to them covering the spread more often than not.

I can’t guarantee that the Jets will be overlooked or embarrassed this week, but it certainly makes sense that they would be. They’re also definitely undervalued as 4.5 point home underdogs against a Bills team that isn’t in a great position right now either. In the past week, they’ve fired head coach Rex Ryan and benched quarterback Tyrod Taylor so that he doesn’t get hurt, as his salary is guaranteed for next season if he gets hurt. That means that backup EJ Manuel, who looked lost as a starter two years ago, will get the start and it also means that the Bills are strongly considering moving on from Taylor this off-season, despite two solid seasons at the starter.

The players like interim coach Anthony Lynn, but might not give their best effort given that it’s clear that the priority of the front office is not to win this game. Even if they do give their best effort, they have no business being favored by more than a field goal on the road against anyone with EJ Manuel as their quarterback and the likes of Cordy Glenn, Stephon Gilmore, and Kyle Williams all out with injuries. The Jets are very much undervalued after two bad performances and have a good chance to bounce back and surprise people a little bit this week. This is worth a bet if you’re getting more than a field goal.

Buffalo Bills 17 New York Jets 16

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +4.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 302016
 

Carolina Panthers (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-7)

These two teams met back in week 5 in Carolina, a game that Tampa Bay won in an upset. In this re-match though, I think the Panthers have a decent chance to pull the upset as big underdogs and they should at least keep it close and cover the spread. 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.

Despite Tampa Bay’s win in Carolina earlier this year and their two game lead in the standings, these two teams are more or less comparable talentwise, as they are within a percentage point in first down rate differential. The Panthers could easily be 8-7 like the Buccaneers, or better, as they’ve lost 5 games by 3 points or fewer, including their first matchup with Tampa Bay. That was despite the fact that the Panthers didn’t have Cam Newton in that game with a concussion and lost the turnover battle by 4.

Despite not having Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers won the first down rate battle in that game by 11.07%. The Panthers aren’t nearly fully healthy without linebacker Luke Kuechly or center Ryan Kalil, but the Buccaneers have lost #2 wide receiver Vincent Jackson and talented tight end Cameron Brate since their last matchup with Carolina too. No one is near fully healthy at this point in the season. Making matters easier for the Panthers, the Buccaneers haven’t had much homefield advantage in Tampa Bay in recent years, going just 21-39 ATS at home since 2009. I don’t know if the Panthers are going to pull the upset, but they’re my Pick of the Week worth a big bet as anything higher than 4 point underdogs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Carolina Panthers 23

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Dec 252016
 

Detroit Lions (9-5) at Dallas Cowboys (12-2)

With the Eagles’ upset victory over the Giants on Thursday Night Football, the Dallas Cowboys have clinched the NFC East and homefield advantage all the way through to the Super Bowl. The Cowboys have said they won’t take their foot off the gas, but it’s going to be tough for them to match Detroit’s intensity this week given that Detroit is still fighting for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, the line moved a point from 7 to 6 after the result of the Philadelphia game, a significant point given that about 9% of games are decided by exactly a touchdown.

If this line was still a touchdown, this would be worth a bet, as I like the spot Detroit is in besides the fact that this game is actually meaningful for them in the standings. The Lions are at an advantage because they are in their second of two road games. Teams are 142-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 113-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 239-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.94 points per game, as opposed to 341-476 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.96 points per game. On top of that, the Cowboys have no real homefield advantage because their fans travel so well. They’re just 11-28 ATS as home favorites since 2010. At 6, this is a low confidence pick, but if there are any 7s still floating out there it’s worth grabbing.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +6

Confidence: Low

Dec 252016
 

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)

I’m torn on this one. On one hand, the Steelers are in a better spot than the Ravens, finishing their season with an easy home game against the Browns on deck. Favorites of 6 or more, like the Steelers are here, tend to take care of business before easy games, going 96-54 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 6 or more again. The Steelers have also been great at home this year, going 4-1 straight up and against the spread in the 5 home games that Ben Roethlisberger started, outscoring opponents by an average of 16.25 points per game in the 4 victories and only losing to the Cowboys in a close 5-point game.

On the other hand, this is the biggest game of either team’s season, so I expect both teams to be completely focused, even if the Steelers have an easier game than the Ravens do next week. The Steelers are barely 6 point favorites any way and it’s arguable they are favored by a point or two too many. They rank 10th in first down rate, but the Ravens rank 16th. These Steelers/Ravens games always tend to be close anyway, with 16 of the last 21 matchups between these two teams being decided by a touchdown or less. On top of that, 10 of the Ravens’ last 17 losses have come by 6 points or fewer, as they have a strong defense and tend to keep games close. I’m taking the Ravens, but this is a no confidence pick. I’d need a full touchdown to take the Ravens with any sort of confidence.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Baltimore Ravens 19

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +6

Confidence: None

Dec 252016
 

Denver Broncos (8-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)

These two teams met back in week 12 in a game in which the Chiefs prevailed in overtime on a last second field goal. Despite Kansas City’s win, the Broncos actually outplayed the Chiefs for most of the game. The Chiefs needed a return touchdown and a Denver muffed punt just to get it to overtime and still trailed by 8 until the final drive, when they scored their 2nd offensive touchdown of the game and converted for two. At the very least, it was a game that could have gone either way, but it’s arguably a game that the Broncos should have won outright in regulation.

That game was in Denver and this one is in Kansas City, but that actually puts the Broncos in a good spot, as comparable teams tend to split the season series, even if the road team pulls the upset in the first game. Divisional road underdogs are 61-34 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 teams aren’t quite comparable though, as I have the Broncos ranked a few spots higher, so their likelihood of pulling the upset should be even higher.

The Chiefs have 10 wins, but have allowed 44 first downs and 3 offensive touchdowns more than they’ve scored. Their record is largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +13 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 Chiefs won the turnover margin by 2 at home against the Titans last week, but still lost the game as big home favorites because they lost the first down battle 21 to 13 and the first down rate battle by 10.19%, a huge margin. Teams that win the turnover margin by 2, on average, win the game about 81.6% of the time, but the following week they win just 54.2% of the time and an have an average turnover margin of -0.1. That’s the same average turnover margin had by teams that had a +4 turnover margin the week before and the same average turnover margin had by teams that had a -4 turnover margin the week before. There’s simply no correlation between a team’s turnover margin one week and the following week.

While the Broncos enter this game 12th in first down rate differential, as opposed to 28th for the Chiefs. That gap seems bigger than it is because the gap between 12th and 28th is smaller than the gap between 12th and 4th, but the Broncos still have a 3% advantage in that metric, a significant amount. If we assume turnover neutral football, which we always should because of how inconsistent turnover margins are, the Broncos have a great chance to win this game on the road, even before taking into account any trends.

The Broncos enter this game pretty banged up, with middle linebacker Brandon Marshall and safety TJ Ward out and defensive end Derek Wolfe being a game time call, but the Chiefs are expected to be without their best defensive player, outside linebacker Justin Houston, while talented middle linebacker Derrick Johnson went down for the season with a torn achilles two weeks ago, so that kind of evens out. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, but I like the Broncos’ chances to win straight up as well. The Broncos are a high confidence pick at 4 or 3.5 and I’d take them all the way down to 3 if I had to.

Denver Broncos 17 Kansas City Chiefs 16 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: High

Dec 242016
 

Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1) at Houston Texans (7-7)

The Bengals were expecting to get top wide receiver AJ Green back from injury this week, after a 4-game absence with a hamstring injury. Green even said he was playing this week. However, at the end of a lost season, after getting eliminated in a close loss to the Steelers last week, the Bengals have decided to shut Green down for the rest of the regular season. Green won’t be the only absent Cincinnati player this week either, as he’ll be joined by top linebacker Vontaze Burfict and tight end Tyler Eifert, their top pass catcher in Green’s absence. Despite that, this line has shifted from 3 on the early line last week to 2.5 this week. The Texans could be without starting running back Lamar Miller, but we’re still not really getting any line value with the Bengals anymore. They’re still the pick here, but this is a no confidence pick because a field goal Houston victory is definitely a strong possibility.

Houston Texans 17 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +2.5

Confidence: None

Dec 242016
 

Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at Carolina Panthers (6-8)

The Falcons are 9-5, but they’re actually even better than that suggests, as they’ve gone 9-5 despite a 3-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. In fact, they rank 2nd in the NFL in both first down rate differential and point differential, ahead of the NFC leading Dallas Cowboys in both categories. This week, they get a couple of key players back from injury, with top wide receiver Julio Jones returning from a 2-game absence and starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn returning from a 3-game absence. The Panthers, meanwhile, are in a tough injury situation, missing two starters on the offensive line and top defensive player Luke Kuechly. That being said, we’re not getting great line value with the Falcons as 3 point road favorites. I wish this line was still 2.5, as it was earlier in the week when it opened. At 3, this is a no confidence pick.

Atlanta Falcons 27 Carolina Panthers 23

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3

Confidence: None

Dec 242016
 

Miami Dolphins (9-5) at Buffalo Bills (7-7)

These two teams finish their regular seasons in pretty much completely opposite fashions next week. While the Bills get an easy road game in New York against the lowly Jets, the Dolphins have to go home and host the New England Patriots. Teams are 73-58 ATS since 2012 before being 4.5+ point road favorites, which the Bills should be next week, and 43-93 ATS over that time period before being 4.5+ point home underdogs, which the Dolphins should be next week. In addition, the Dolphins are in a much worse injury situation.

The absence of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is obvious, even if backup Matt Moore is one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league, but they’re also without top cornerback Byron Maxwell, who has really been playing well in recent weeks. The Bills will be without left tackle Cordy Glenn, but they are definitely in the better injury situation overall. Even before injuries are taken into account, the Bills have played slightly better than the Dolphins this season, entering 15th in first down rate differential, as opposed to 20th for the Dolphins.

When this line opened at 3.5, I was hoping it would eventually come down to 3 by gametime. Instead, the opposite happened, as the line has since jumped to 4.5. I would have put money on the Bills as 3 point home favorites, but I’m not nearly as confident in them as 4.5 point home favorites, especially given that about 3 in 10 games are decided by 4 points or fewer. The Bills could easily outplay the Dolphins all game, but allow a late backdoor cover to give the Dolphins the cover. I’m still taking Buffalo, but it’s a low confidence pick.

Buffalo Bills 23 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -4.5

Confidence: Low

Dec 242016
 

San Francisco 49ers (1-13) at Los Angeles Rams (4-10)

These two teams met back in week 1 in what ended up being an absolute rout by the hometown San Francisco 49ers. Not only did the 49ers shutout the Rams, but they won the first down battle 28 to 10 and moved the chains at a 41.56% rate, as opposed to 16.67% for the Rams, a differential of 24.89% that is still one of the biggest single game first down rate differentials of the season. Since then though, the 49ers have lost 13 straight by an average of 15.23 points. The Rams haven’t been much better, entering this game at 4-10, with their 4 victories coming by a combined 18 points and their 10 losses coming by a combined 149 points, giving them a -131 point differential on the season, which is only ahead of the Browns and 49ers.

The 49ers actually still rank higher than the Rams in first down rate, though they’ve been ravaged by injuries this season and are missing, among others, cornerback Jimmie Ward, defensive end Arik Armstead, middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman, and safety Eric Reid for the season. All 4 of those players played in the week 1 matchup and those were arguably their best defensive players before going down. Now they’re working with a skeleton crew on defense and things are not much better on offense, where left tackle Joe Staley, easily their best player on either side of the ball, will miss his 3rd straight game with a hamstring injury. The Rams have had some injuries this season, most notably to defensive end Robert Quinn, their top pass rusher who is out for the season, but they definitely have an advantage in terms of injury situations.

Despite that, we’re still getting line value with the 49ers as 5 point underdogs in Los Angeles. The Rams are probably a little bit better of a team, but this line should be much closer to 3 in favor of the host, as these two teams are more or less even. That being said, there’s not enough here for me to be confident in the 49ers, especially since both teams are in a pretty good spot. The Rams have lost back-to-back games by 21+ and teams are 44-29 ATS in that spot since 2002, as teams tend to be overlooked, embarrassed, and undervalued in that spot. However, they are not undervalued as 5 point home favorites. They probably won’t be overlooked by a team that has lost 13 straight. And, they probably aren’t entering this game any more embarrassed than the 49ers are. On the flip side, for the 49ers, road underdogs on a 7+ game losing streak are 56-32 ATS since 1989, as teams also tend to be overlooked, embarrassed, and undervalued in that spot.

It also helps the 49ers that they’re in their 2nd of two road games. Teams are 142-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 113-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 239-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.94 points per game, as opposed to 341-476 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.96 points per game. However, with a tough home game against the Seahawks on deck, the 49ers are in a tough spot, as teams tend to struggle before tough home games, going 18-40 ATS since 2012 before being 7+ point home underdogs, which the 49ers almost definitely will be next week. I’m taking the 49ers because I’m expecting a field goal game, but I couldn’t be confident betting any money on them.

Los Angeles Rams 16 San Francisco 49ers 13

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +5

Confidence: Low

Dec 242016
 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6) at New Orleans Saints (6-8)

This is a tough one. On one hand, the Saints are the better of these two teams, despite the Buccaneers having a 2 game lead in the standings and winning a close matchup between these two teams in Tampa Bay a couple weeks back. The Saints enter this game with a point differential of +14, as opposed to -9 for the Buccaneers. The Saints actually rank 3rd in the NFL with a +10 offensive touchdown margin, but are just 6-8 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. In terms of first down rate differential, the Saints rank 8th, while the Buccaneers rank 24th. Despite that, this line is at 3, suggesting these two teams are equal, so we’re getting some line value with the Saints.

On the other hand, the Saints are in a tough spot with a trip to Atlanta on deck, while the Buccaneers get to host the last place Carolina Panthers. Divisional home favorites are just 23-61 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road favorites. On top of that, favorites are 61-97 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs when their opponent will next be favorites, which the Buccaneers almost definitely will be next week at home against the Panthers. With another tough game on deck, the Saints could have trouble playing their best, while the Buccaneers should be completely focused.

The Buccaneers are also in a good spot in their second of two road games. Teams are 142-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 113-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 239-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.94 points per game, as opposed to 341-476 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.96 points per game. I’m taking the Saints, but this is a no confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: None

Dec 242016
 

New York Jets (4-10) at New England Patriots (12-2)

The Patriots finish the season in Miami next week, while the Jets host the Bills. That puts the Patriots in a much better spot because the Miami isn’t a real distraction for them. The Buffalo game might not be a distraction for the Jets given that they’re facing the Patriots this week, but it’s tough for inferior teams to keep it close against superior teams with a big home game on deck, while superior teams tend to take care of business and cover the spread when they don’t have any upcoming distractions. While teams are 73-58 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites of 4.5 or more, as the Patriots will be next week in Miami, teams are 43-93 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs of 4.5 or more, as the Jets will be next week against the Bills. That being said, the Patriots are favored by 17 here at home, so we’re getting terrible value with them. This is a no confidence pick, but New England is the pick in pick ‘em pools.

New England Patriots 31 New York Jets 13

Pick against the spread: New England -17

Confidence: None

Dec 242016
 

Tennessee Titans (8-6) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)

Both of these teams used to top my underrated list, but have fallen down the list in recent weeks. In Tennessee’s case, it’s just a matter of public opinion catching up to how good they actually are, following upset victories over Green Bay, Denver, and Kansas City in recent weeks. They’re still an underrated team that ranks 6th in first down rate differential, but they’re not underrated like they once were. In Jacksonville’s case, it’s because they have played especially poorly in the past 2 weeks and just fired their head coach Gus Bradley.

Against the Vikings at home, the Jaguars lost the first down rate battle by 8.86% and last week against the Texans they lost the first down rate by 10.77%. It was only a 1-point loss, but that was despite the fact that the Jaguars won the turnover battle and returned a punt for a touchdown. They managed just 9 first downs all game, as compared to 23 for the Texans, who are not a tough opponent. They still rank 17th in first down rate differential on the season, but with Bradley gone and just two games left in the season, it’s possible this team could quit. For that reason, I’m taking the Titans, but I couldn’t be confident in them at all as 5.5 point road favorites in what could be a trap game against a Jaguars team that has still played a lot better than their 2-12 record would suggest, especially on the defensive.

Tennessee Titans 27 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -5.5

Confidence: None

Dec 242016
 

San Diego Chargers (5-9) at Cleveland Browns (0-14)

Betting on winless teams is usually a good idea, as teams that are 0-8 or worse are 34-22 ATS since 1989. However, no one seems to have told that to the Browns, who have failed to cover in 8 straight games and are now 0-14. The Browns have lost 7 of those 8 games by 13 or more points and their average margin of defeat over those 8 games has been 13.88 points per game. They covered some spreads earlier in the year, but that was before injuries struck their offensive line and while Cody Kessler was starting at quarterback. Kessler wasn’t great or anything, but he was significantly better than both Josh McCown or Robert Griffin. It’s no coincidence that they are 2-2 ATS in the 4 games he’s started and finished and just 1-9 ATS in their other 10 games. RG3, who has looked lost in 2 starts since returning from injury, has been the worst of the bunch, but he’ll get another start this week.

Typically, when a team has lost as many games against the spread in a row as the Browns have, the odds makers boost the spread significantly, but we’re still getting good line value with the Chargers as 4.5 point road favorites in Cleveland. That’s because the Chargers are an underrated team. Despite a 5-9 record, the Chargers have an even point differential, significantly better than Cleveland’s league worst -188. That’s despite the fact that the Chargers are -5 in turnover margin on the season. They have 14 more first downs and 3 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents on the season and rank 5th in first down rate differential, significantly higher than the Browns, who are in dead last in that metric.

The Chargers are in a tough spot with a home game against the Chiefs on deck, a game in which they are expected to be home underdogs. Road favorites tend to struggle before being home favorites, going 52-71 ATS since 2002. The Chargers could overlook the Browns with Kansas City on deck. However, the Browns don’t exactly have it easy next week either with a trip to Pittsburgh on deck, where they will almost definitely be double digit underdogs. Teams predictably struggle before tough games like that, going 41-67 ATS since 2012 before being double digit underdogs. I like the Chargers’ chances to win this game by a good margin.

San Diego Chargers 27 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: San Diego -4.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 242016
 

Arizona Cardinals (5-8-1) at Seattle Seahawks (9-4-1)

The last time these two teams faced each other, it was a defensive matchup that ended in a 6-6 tie. However, the Cardinals actually significantly outplayed the Seahawks in that game, winning the first down battle 23 to 11 and the first down rate battle by 6.26%. They had plenty of opportunities to win that game, missing two makeable field goals and allowing a blocked punt that set up a Seattle field goal at the end of the first half. That game was in Arizona, but this line is at 8.5, so we have plenty of room to work with even if the Cardinals get outplayed this time around.

That tie against the Seahawks was not the only winnable game the Cardinals have blown this year because of special teams. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They’ve won the first down rate battle in 12 of 14 games and rank 3rd in first down rate differential on the season, but have been arguably the most disappointing team in football record wise, going 5-8-1 after finishing last season 13-3. The Seahawks, meanwhile, rank 7th in first down rate differential, so we’re definitely getting some line value with the Cardinals.

This isn’t a bigger play for two reasons. One, the Cardinals are pretty banged up at this point in the season. Left tackle Jared Veldheer, right guard Evan Mathis, middle linebacker Deone Bucannon, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, and safety Tyvon Branch are all out for the season, while replacement left tackle DJ Humphries is out this week with a concussion. The Seahawks are missing safety Earl Thomas, but they’re definitely in a better spot injury wise, especially since they were without their other safety Kam Chancellor in their first matchup with Arizona.

The second reason is the Seahawks are in a good spot with only an easy game in San Francisco on deck, in which they are expected to be road favorites of at least 10 points. Teams are 34-20 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites of 7 or more and favorites of 7 or more are 58-33 ATS before being favorites of 7 or more again over that same time period. Teams tend to take care of business before easy games, but the Seahawks should have a much tougher time taking care of business than this line suggests against an Arizona team that has been much better than their record and that is a few special teams plays away from a completely different season.

Seattle Seahawks 17 Arizona Cardinals 13

Pick against the spread: Arizona +8.5

Confidence: Medium

Dec 242016
 

Indianapolis Colts (7-7) at Oakland Raiders (11-3)

The Raiders are 11-3, but are not nearly as good as their record suggests, as their record is largely the result of a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less and a league best +15 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, as there’s no week-to-week correlation in turnover margin. Outside of those 15 plays, the Raiders have been a pretty average team this year and they are legitimately a few snaps away from being 8-6, 7-7, or even 6-8. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank just 21st in the league.

The Colts, meanwhile, rank 18th in first down rate, so we’re getting some line value with them as 4 point underdogs, even if it’s not a lot. The Colts are also in a much better spot than Oakland, closing out the season with an easy home game against the Jaguars, while the Raiders finish with a tough divisional matchup in Denver, where they are expected to be underdogs. Favorites are 61-97 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs when their opponent will next be favorites. The Raiders could definitely look past the Colts a little bit, while Indianapolis should be completely focused with no distractions on the horizon. I wish we were getting more than 4 points, but there’s enough here to put money on the Colts. If Oakland wins, it’ll probably be another close one.

Oakland Raiders 24 Indianapolis Colts 23

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +4

Confidence: Medium

Dec 232016
 

Washington Redskins (7-6-1) at Chicago Bears (3-11)

The Bears narrowly lost at home last week to the Packers, but they were impressive even in defeat. They won the first down battle 29-20 and the first down rate battle by 11.14% and only lost on a last second field goal because they lost the turnover battle by 4. Fortunately, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. In fact, teams that lose the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of +0.1 the following week. As a result, those teams cover the spread at a 53.1% rate, including 57.7% as home underdogs, as the Bears are here.

The Bears have been impressive in defeat most of the year actually, as they enter this game 14th in first down rate differential, despite a 3-11 record. Six of their last eight losses have come by 6 points or fewer. At home, the Bears are 3-4 with a +8 point differential and just one loss by more than 6 points (back in week 2). They’ve had a lot of injuries, but are still playing pretty well. Last week, their offense got a boost when top receiver Alshon Jeffery returned from his 4-game suspension. This week, their defense gets a boost with top linebacker Jerrell Freeman returning from a 4-game suspension.

The Redskins, meanwhile, have just 2 wins by more than a touchdown all year and one was at home against the Browns in a game in which they lost the first down battle 26 to 24. They enter this game 19th in first down rate differential, actually a few spots below the Bears, despite having a better record, and are coming off of a home loss to the underdog Carolina Panthers. They’re also without tight end Jordan Reed, their best offensive play maker. We’re getting great value with the Bears as 3.5 point home underdogs, especially since 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less. On top of that, the Bears’ close home loss to the Packers last week puts them in a good spot this week, as teams are 75-56 ATS since 2002 as home underdogs after a loss as home underdogs. I like the Bears a lot this week, not just to cover the 3.5 point spread, but also to win straight up.

Chicago Bears 24 Washington Redskins 23 Upset Pick +145

Pick against the spread: Chicago +3.5

Confidence: High

Dec 232016
 

Minnesota Vikings (7-7) at Green Bay Packers (8-6)

The Vikings got blown out at home last week as 4.5 point home favorites, losing 34-6 to the Indianapolis Colts. It was a stunning result, but a major outlier for a Vikings team who previously hadn’t lost a game by more than 10 all season. The good news for them is teams tend to bounce back from losses like that, as teams are 95-54 ATS since 2002 off of an against the spread loss of 28 or more. It’s counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you think about it, as teams tend to be undervalued, overlooked, and embarrassed off of a loss like that.

I can’t guarantee that the Vikings will be embarrassed or overlooked this week, off of that huge home loss, but they’re definitely undervalued with this line moving from 5 on the early line last week to 7 this week. That’s the same amount of points the Packers were favored by three weeks ago against the Texans and the Vikings are definitely a better team than the Texans. Since that mere 8-point victory over the Texans, the Packers have blown out the Seahawks and won in Chicago, but much of that is because of their +10 turnover margin over the past 2 weeks.

Turnover margins tend to be incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis though. In fact, the Packers are just the 11th team since 1989 to have a turnover margin of +10 or better over a 2 weeks span. The previous 10 went 2-8 ATS the following week and had an average turnover margin of -0.3. The Packers probably would have still beaten the Seahawks even if they didn’t win the turnover margin by 6, but the Packers lost the first down battle 29-20 and the first down rate battle by 11.14% last week in Chicago and only won the game on a last second field goal because they won the turnover battle by 4. The Packers’ offense is playing well, but I’m concerned about their defense’s ability to get off the field if they can’t force a turnover.

The Packers are the better team, but the difference in first down rate differential between these two teams is less than a percent and a half, so we’re getting good line value with the Vikings as full touchdown underdogs in Green Bay, especially since there’s a chance safety Harrison Smith could return. It was originally reported that he’d miss the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury, but he returned to practice this week and is at least a gametime decision for this game. He’s arguably the best safety in the NFL and as important to Minnesota’s defense as Earl Thomas is to Seattle’s defense, so he’d be a welcome return. Even if he doesn’t play, I like Minnesota’s chances of covering here.

In addition to Minnesota getting blown out last week, another reason the Packers could overlook the Vikings a little bit this week is they have a tougher game on deck in Detroit, while the Vikings will host the Bears. Divisional home favorites are just 23-61 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road favorites. On top of that, favorites are 61-97 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs when their opponent will next be favorites, which the Vikings almost definitely will be next week at home against the Bears. The Packers are only 1 point underdogs in Detroit on the early line, but the logic still makes sense. The Packers have a tough upcoming game that could be a distraction for them, while the Vikings don’t. This is my Pick of the Week.

Green Bay Packers 23 Minnesota Vikings 20

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Dec 212016
 

New York Giants (10-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-9)

Prior to the season, the Eagles were on my underrated list and I bet the over on their over/under of 6.5 wins. When they started the season 3-0, that looked like a wise bet. However, since that 3-0 start, the Eagles have lost 9 of 11 and need to win out against a pair of tough divisional opponents, the Giants and Cowboys, just to get over 6.5 wins. What happened? Well, there are a lot of factors, but part of it has been their inability to win close games, as they are 0-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season and have a +17 point differential despite their 5-9 record. Declining play at both at the quarterback position and the offensive line have also been a factor.

After looking like the next big thing to start the season, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has fallen down to earth in a big way and now is among the worst quarterbacks in the NFL in QB rating. That’s understandable from a rookie quarterback and not something that’s likely to fix itself in the next two weeks. However, their offensive line is about to get a big boost from returning right tackle Lane Johnson, who has missed the last 10 games with suspension. Johnson is one of the best offensive tackles in the league, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the Eagles went 2-8 in the games he missed, after starting the season 3-1 in the 4 games he played. They also get left guard Allen Barbre back after he missed last week’s game, the 3rd game he’s missed in the last 7 weeks. With a healthy offensive line and a lot of close losses that could have gone either way, the Eagles enter this game underrated.

The Giants, meanwhile, are not healthy entering this one. They got left guard Justin Pugh back last week, a big boost because he’s their best offensive lineman, but talented defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul will miss his 3rd straight game with an abdominal injury, while top cornerback Janoris Jenkins could join him on the sidelines after taking a big hit last week against Detroit. Jenkins hasn’t been ruled out yet, but his status is very much in doubt on a short week and even if he plays he might not be 100%.

That being said, the Giants rank 9th in first down rate differential and are still a solid squad even at less than 100%. Plus, we’re still only getting 3 points with the Eagles, so we’re not getting great line value or anything. The Eagles are also in a tough spot given that they have to turn around and host Dallas next week. Teams don’t usually big well before big home games like that,  as teams are 43-94 ATS since 2012 the week before being 4.5 point home underdogs, which the Eagles almost definitely will be next week. Philadelphia should still be the right side, but this is a low confidence pick to start the week.

Also, by request, I’m going to be posting bets I lock in earlier in the week in my Thursday Night pick write up in the future so readers can grab them before they move. These are not all my bets for the week, just ones where I think the line may move in an unfavorable direction.

DEN +4 (I’d still take 3 or 3.5, but lock in +4 if you can. This opened at 4.5)

IND +4

MIN +7

CHI +3.5 (I’d still take 3, but lock in +3.5 if you can)

ARZ +8.5 (I’d take this all the way down to 7, but the line is moving down after opening at 9 so this might be worth locking in)

New York Giants 17 Philadelphia Eagles 16

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +3

Confidence: Low

Dec 182016
 

Indianapolis Colts (6-7) at Minnesota Vikings (7-6)

Minnesota was dealt a huge blow when they lost safety Harrison Smith for likely the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury. They were impressive in their first game without him last week in Jacksonville, but he’s arguably the best safety in football and the Vikings’ best defensive player, so he’s not an easy player to replace. He’s as important to this defense as Earl Thomas is to the Seahawks, but his injury doesn’t get nearly the attention that Thomas’ did. The good news for the Vikings is they get top offensive lineman Joe Berger back from a 2-game absence with a concussion and Adrian Peterson is expected to return for the first time since week 2 with a torn meniscus, though how effective he’ll be in his first game back is a major question mark.

The Colts, meanwhile, have plenty of injury problems, as has been the case all year. They’re missing 3 starters on the offensive line, including left guard Jack Mewhort, who is probably their best offensive lineman, 2 starters in the secondary (safety Clayton Geathers and cornerback Patrick Robinson), and #2 wide receiver Donte Moncrief. The Vikings have been a little bit better than the Colts all year, entering this game 16th in first down rate differential, while the Colts enter in 23rd, and they are significantly better than them right now given both teams’ injury situations. However, this line is at 5 in favor of the hometown Minnesota Vikings, so there’s not enough for me to be at all confident in Minnesota. This line is right where it should be.

Minnesota Vikings 23 Indianapolis Colts 17

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -5

Confidence: None

Dec 182016
 

Carolina Panthers (5-8) at Washington Redskins (7-5-1)

This line has shifted from 4 on the early line to 6.5 in the past week, which I think gives us decent value with the Panthers. The Panthers are 5-8 and incredibly banged up on the offensive line, but 5 of their 8 losses have come by 3 points or fewer and they are expected to get middle linebacker Luke Kuechly back from a 3-game absence after he was cleared to return from his concussion. The Redskins, meanwhile, have just 2 wins by more than a touchdown all year and one was at home against the Browns in a game in which they lost the first down battle 26 to 24. I can’t be confident in the Panthers with Kuechly’s status still somewhat up in the air, but I may revisit this on Monday if it becomes clear that he’s going to play and this line doesn’t move.

Washington Redskins 24 Carolina Panthers 19

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6.5

Confidence: None

Dec 182016
 

New England Patriots (11-2) at Denver Broncos (8-5)

Tom Brady has had a lot of success in his career, but the Denver Broncos have always been his achilles heel. They’re the only team in the league he has a losing record against and he is just 2-7 in his career on the road in Denver, including a loss late last season that cost them homefield advantage in the AFC Championship and the Patriots’ eventual loss in the AFC Championship as well.

Since the AFC Championship, a lot has actually changed with these teams. New England has a healthy LeGarrette Blount and an improved offensive line, two things they didn’t have last year. Denver is also without Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, and Brandon Marshall from this defense. The former two left as free agents this off-season, while the latter remains sidelined with an injury. As a result, the Broncos’ run defense is actually pretty weak right now, which the Patriots should be able to take advantage of. It’s going to be a much different gameplan for them than last January when the Patriots had 56 passes to 17 runs.

At the same time, Denver’s pass defense has arguably improved since last season with Chris Harris and Aqib Talib both playing as well as any cornerback in the league. They still rank 2nd in first down rate allowed. Their offense has been a problem as they rank 26th in first down rate, but their offense wasn’t good last season either. If anything, new starting quarterback Trevor Siemian is better than either Brock Osweiler or Peyton Manning were last season and the offensive line is improved, though they’ve had major problems with their running game since losing CJ Anderson for the season with injury a few weeks back.

New England, meanwhile, is without Rob Gronkowski on offense with injury and have traded away defensive stars Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. Despite those losses, the Patriots still rank 1st in first down rate (compared to 13th for Denver), but they’ve also had a very easy schedule, so it’s fair to question how good they really are, even after an impressive victory over Baltimore last week. We’re getting 3.5 points with Denver, a lot considering 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer, so I’m taking the Broncos, but there’s not enough here for me to bet money on them.

New England Patriots 23 Denver Broncos 20

Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5

Confidence: Low

Dec 182016
 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-2)

The Buccaneers are getting a lot of attention right now thanks to a 5-game winning streak that has improved their record to 8-5 and pushed them into a tie for first place in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons. As a result of their home victory over the Saints last week, as well as the Cowboys’ close loss in New York to the Giants, this line has shifted from 9.5 in favor of Dallas on the early line to 7 this week. I think that’s an overreaction. Both Tampa Bay’s win and Dallas’ loss were close, as have most of the Buccaneers’ wins on their winning streak. Four of 5 victories have come by single digits. On the season, they still have a negative point differential and they rank just 20th in first down rate differential.

Their defense has led the way over the 5-game winning streak, allowing just 12.8 points per game, but they still rank in the bottom half in first down rate allowed (20th) because their defense was awful to start the season, allowing 37+ points on 3 separate occasions. They’re better now that they’re healthier on the defensive line, I don’t buy that they’re as good as they’ve looked, so I think we’re getting good line value with the Cowboys as 7 point home favorites. Despite a close loss to a good Giants team, they are still arguably the best team in the league and rank 3rd in first down rate differential. This is a no confidence pick though because the Cowboys have no homefield advantage, going 11-27 ATS as home favorites since 2010.

Dallas Cowboys 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Dallas -7

Confidence: None

Dec 172016
 

New Orleans Saints (5-8) at Arizona Cardinals (5-7-1)

Both of these teams have losing records, but both have played significantly better than their record would suggest. In fact, the Saints have a +9 offensive touchdown differential, tied for 4th best in the NFL, and the Cardinals have a +8 offensive touchdown differential, 6th in the NFL. The Cardinals have played well this season, with the exception of a few special teams plays that have unfortunately decided games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And last week, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They’ve won the first down rate battle in 11 of 13 games and rank 2nd in first down rate differential on the season, but their season is essentially over at 5-7-1 because of a handful of special teams screw ups.

The Saints, meanwhile, rank 6th in first down rate differential, but their season is essentially over as well at 5-8, because of a -4 return touchdown differential and 6 losses by 6 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer. The Cardinals are the better team and are only favored by 2.5 here at home, so I’m taking them, but I can’t be confident in them, especially with a tough Seattle game on deck. The Saints are also in a good spot in their second of two road games. Teams are 141-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 112-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 236-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.97 points per game, as opposed to 338-473 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.98 points per game. The Cardinals are the pick, but I wouldn’t put money on them this week.

Arizona Cardinals 24 New Orleans Saints 20

Pick against the spread: Arizona -2.5

Confidence: Low