Baltimore Ravens at Atlanta Falcons: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (6-5) at Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

The Falcons have been horrendous on defense this season, allowing opponents to pick up a first down or touchdown on 43.02% of their offensive plays, worst in the NFL, but they get a big boost this week with linebacker Deion Jones returning for the first time since week 1. They’re still missing safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, but fill-in safety Damontae Kazee has actually been one of the few bright spots on this defense, so they aren’t missed nearly as much as Jones, who is arguably the best player on this defense when healthy. The Falcons have other defensive issues and were an underwhelming unit even with Jones healthy last season (8th in points per game allowed, but 18th points per drive allowed, 22nd in defensive DVOA, and 25th in first down rate allowed), but the Falcons should still be noticeably better with Jones back out there.

The Ravens, on the other hand, are missing talented safety Tony Jefferson with injury, along with quarterback Joe Flacco, who I think they’ll miss this week. Lamar Jackson is 2-0 in 2 starts, but he was heavily favored at home in both games and has been shaky as a passer. I think he’ll have a tougher time on the road against a Falcons team that should be solid going forward if they can play even passable defense. Their offense is better than it was last season, even with an inconsistent running game, as Matt Ryan is back to playing at an MVP level. In a game they just have to win to cover, I like the Falcons at home a good amount because I think they’re the slightly better of these two teams right now.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -1.5

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Rams at Detroit Lions: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (10-1) at Detroit Lions (4-7)

The book on the Lions since Matt Stafford became a full-time starter in 2011 is to take them in easier games and fade them against tougher opponents. Over that time period, they are 20-39-2 ATS and 20-41 straight up against teams with a winning record. Most recently, they went a combined 1-11 against eventual playoff teams between 2016 and 2017, as opposed to 15-3 in their other 18 games. This year, they’ve beaten the Patriots, Panthers, and Packers, but the Panthers and Packers would have won if not for several missed kicks and both teams could easily end up missing the playoffs anyway.

The Rams certainly count as a tougher opponent, as they are arguably the best team in the league. They haven’t had many blowout wins lately, winning by double digits just twice in their past 9 games, which would seem relevant in a game they’re favored by 9.5 or 10 points, but look at who they’ve played during that stretch: Chargers, Vikings, Seahawks, Broncos, 49ers, Packers, Saints, Seahawks and Chiefs. Aside from the 49ers, who the Rams beat by 29, all of those teams are playoff contenders. The Rams also won by 20+ in their first 2 weeks of the season against the Raiders and Rams.

The Lions are more similar to the teams they’ve blown out, as they rank 26th in first down rate differential at -4.09%. They’ve been better defensively since getting defensive tackle Damon Harrison in a trade from the Giants and getting defensive end Ezekiel Ansah back from injury, but they’ve gone in the opposite direction on offense, trading slot receiver Golden Tate to the Eagles and losing running back Kerryon Johnson, right guard TJ Lang, and wide receiver Marvin Jones to injury.

The Rams are also in a great spot coming out of a bye. Good teams tend to take care of business after a week off, especially on the road, as road favorites of 4+ are a ridiculous 32-8 ATS off a bye since 2002. The bye also allowed them to get healthy, as they come into this game at close to full strength. Not only do they get starting cornerback Aqib Talib back from an extended absence, but fellow starting cornerback Marcus Peters has struggling through an injury and he should be closer to full strength after an extra week off. The Rams’ defense has been shaky recently, ranking 25th in first down rate allowed on the season at 39.67%, but they should be better than that going forward. I like their chances of taking care of business and blowing out the Lions. At -9.5, this is my Pick of the Week, but they’re also worth a big bet at -10.

Los Angeles Rams 31 Detroit Lions 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -9.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (10-1) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

Going into their week 8 bye, the Cowboys were a 3-4 team with a strong defense, but an underwhelming offense. They ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but just 23rd in first down rate at 33.81%. In order to remedy this, the Cowboys made an aggressive move to acquire slumping former Pro-Bowl receiver Amari Cooper from the Raiders for a 2019 1st round pick, potentially giving this offense #1 receiver it sorely lacked.

It was a risky move, but it’s gone well so far, as Cooper has 22 catches for 349 yards and already leads the team with 3 receiving touchdowns, despite being with the team for just 4 games. In addition, his 19 receiving first downs are 2nd on the team. The offense hasn’t been great or anything since he arrived, but they have moved the chains at a 35.94% rate in his 4 games, about league average, which is noticeably better than before the bye.

However, the Cowboys’ defense has gone in the opposite direction, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 38.06% rate in 4 games since the bye. They are 3-1 in those 4 games, but they have just a +4 point differential and have lost the first down rate battle in every game except last week’s home game against a backup quarterback. Injuries are the biggest reason for their defensive decline, particularly the injury to linebacker Sean Lee, who went down early in the Cowboys’ first game out of the bye against the Titans, coinciding with their defensive decline.

Lee is one of the most injury prone players in the league and the Cowboys have always been significantly worse defensively with him out of the lineup. They are better prepared for his absence this season, with young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith capable of playing every down, but this team is noticeably better when they have all three linebackers together. In the 4 healthy games that Lee has played this season (not including the game against the Titans which he left early in the first half), the Cowboys have allowed a 30.43% first down rate, as opposed to 35.93% in their other 7 games. Starting defensive end Taco Charlton, who also went down in their first game after the bye, is expected to return this week, but their offense could be without stud left tackle Tyron Smith, which would be a big blow.

The Saints are obviously a dominant team, but we’re not getting line value with them like we were earlier in the season, as they are -7.5 in Dallas this week (remember when they were +3 in Baltimore and -3 in New York against the Giants). In fact, if Smith ends up playing and this line doesn’t move, we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Cowboys. Unfortunately, Smith is a gametime decision, so we might not know until inactives are announced. For now, I’m taking the Cowboys for a no confidence pick, but I’ll almost definitely have an update before gametime.

Thursday Update: Smith looks unlikely to play, after not practicing all week. With him out, we aren’t getting any line value with the Cowboys, so I’m switching this pick to the Saints. This remains a no confidence pick as this line is about right.

New Orleans Saints 24 Dallas Cowboys 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: None

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Chargers: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (2-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (7-3)

The Chargers lost at home to the Broncos last week, but they won the first down rate battle (-2.35%) and could have won the game if they made all their extra points. The Broncos are also an underrated team that has played the Texans, Chiefs (twice), and Rams close, so that loss isn’t as bad as it looks. Even with that loss, the Chargers are still 7-3 and rank 7th in point differential at +53 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.86%. The Chargers should also be better this week with stud defensive end Joey Bosa going into his 2nd game and likely to see close to his full snaps.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are one of the worst teams in the league, ranking 31st in first down rate differential (-6.78%) and 30th in point differential (-103) and they are going in the wrong direction injury wise, with left tackle DJ Humphries joining right guard Justin Pugh on the sidelines this week, meaning the Cardinals will be without their best two offensive linemen from an offensive line that was pretty underwhelming to begin with.

Normally when one of the better teams in the league hosts one of the worst teams in the league the line should be at least two touchdowns and this line is a little short of that at -13, but I wouldn’t bet on the Chargers for a couple reasons. For one, they don’t have a typical homefield advantage, as they have serious trouble attracting fans in Los Angeles, even as well as they’ve played this season. The Chargers also aren’t in a great spot this week with a trip to Pittsburgh on deck. Double digit favorites are just 61-80 ATS before being underdogs, which the Steelers will be this week. With a weak opponent coming to town, they might not be completely focused with that game on deck.

The Cardinals aren’t in a good spot either with another tough game in Green Bay on deck, a game in which they are expected to be double digit underdogs again. Double digit underdogs are just 26-51 ATS since 2002 before being double digit underdogs again, as it’s very tough for a significantly inferior team to hang with a superior team when they have another tough game on deck. There’s not enough here to bet the Chargers, but they should be the right pick. I’ll probably downgrade this to a no confidence pick if running back Melvin Gordon is ruled out for the Chargers, but the fact that he was able to get some practice in on Friday suggests he at least has a good shot to play, even if he’s officially being called a gametime decision after tweaking his knee in practice this week.

Los Angeles Chargers 31 Arizona Cardinals 16

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -13

Confidence: Low

Oakland Raiders at Baltimore Ravens: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (2-8) at Baltimore Ravens (5-5)

First round rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson will make his second straight start for the Ravens in this one, with Joe Flacco still sidelined with a hip injury. Jackson won his debut, but the jury is still very much out on him as a passer. He barely beat a Cincinnati team that has not played well lately due to injuries and he carried the ball a ridiculous 26 times (most in NFL history by a quarterback), as opposed to just 19 pass attempts, which isn’t something he’s going to be able to do every week.

Fortunately, Jackson gets another easy game this week with the Raiders coming to town. The Raiders pulled off the upset in Arizona last week, but they’ve had a miserable season at 2-8. They rank just 27th in first down rate differential at -5.08% and are arguably even worse than that due to all of their personnel losses since the start of the season. The Ravens should be able to execute a conservative, run heavy offense again this week, knowing that the Raiders’ offense has little chance of consistently putting together drives against Baltimore’s talented stop unit.

I think this line is about right at Baltimore -10.5, but I’m giving the Ravens the edge in this one because the Raiders might not bring their best effort. In a lost season, they could easily be looking forward to next week’s home clash with the Chiefs, a game in which they are a ridiculous 14-point home underdogs. Teams are just 39-85 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs of 7.5 points or more, as upcoming big home games tend to be a distraction to teams. On top of that, double digit underdogs are just 26-51 ATS since 2002 before being double digit underdogs again. We’re not getting enough line value with the Ravens to bet on them, but they should be the right side this week.

Baltimore Ravens 23 Oakland Raiders 10

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -10.5

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (5-5) at Houston Texans (7-3)

The Titans are high on my underrated list right now, following a tough performance in Indianapolis last week. They lost that game 38-10, but the Colts have been playing legitimately great football for weeks (they’re also high on my underrated list) and the Titans also lost Marcus Mariota in the first half of that game with a stinger in his neck, which certainly didn’t help. As a result, this line shifted from Houston -4 on the early line to Houston -6.5 this week, which I think is a major overreaction. Mariota’s injury is not considered serious and he should be good to go this week after getting in full practices on both Friday and Saturday. Whenever Mariota is healthy this is a legitimately dangerous team.

The Titans have a strong defense that ranks 9th in first down rate allowed at 34.42%. They’re a middle of the pack team in first down rate differential on the season, ranking 20th at -1.86%, but that’s because Mariota was limited with an elbow injury for most of the first half of the season, which really limited their offense. When he’s at full strength, the Titans have a capable offense to complement their strong defense and they are a tough team to handle as a result.

Prior to last week’s game in Indianapolis, the Titans covered their previous 3 games, losing by 1 on a failed 2-point conversion against a now 7-3 Chargers team, pulling an upset win in Dallas against the Cowboys, who haven’t lost since, and of course blowing out the Patriots, who were playing as well as anyone going into that game. Given that, it really makes no sense that this line is this high. In fact, I have these two teams close to even in my book, so we’re getting significant line value with the visitors.

The Texans are 7-3, but they haven’t exactly been blowing teams out. Just 2 of their 7 wins came by more than a touchdown and 4 of them came by 3 points or fewer, including a pair of overtime wins. I wish we were getting a full touchdown with Tennessee, but I expect this to be a close game, one that Tennessee could win straight up, so they’re still a great bet at +6 or +6.5. The only thing that stopped me from making this my Pick of the Week is the off chance that Mariota gets knocked out of the game again, as he has not been durable throughout his career.

Houston Texans 19 Tennessee Titans 17

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +6.5

Confidence: High