Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (7-7-1) at Baltimore Ravens (9-6)

The Ravens have gone 5-1 since turning to Lamar Jackson at quarterback, but they’ve actually moved the ball at a slightly worse rate, picking up first downs at a 34.28% rate in Jackson’s 6 starts, as opposed to 36.46% in Joe Flacco’s 9 starts. That’s despite the fact that 4 of the 6 teams they’ve faced over that stretch rank 29th or worst in first down rate allowed. They’ve been able to win because their defense has played at a high level, with their best defensive performance coming last week when it was needed most. They held the Chargers to a 26.32% first down rate in a game in which the Ravens’ offense moved the ball at a mere 26.67% rate against the best defense Lamar Jackson has seen so far.

The Ravens have another tough game this week though and their defense might not be able to match what was arguably their best defensive performance of the season last week. The Browns are not typically a tough opponent, but they beat the Ravens earlier this season and have gotten significantly better in recent weeks. Since week 9, the Browns rank 8th in first down rate differential at +2.50%, above the Ravens, who rank 18th at +0.51%. I also have these two teams about even in my roster rankings, so we’re getting significant value with the Browns as 6-point underdogs. In a week with only a few good, bettable games, this is my Pick of the Week.

Baltimore Ravens 19 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +6

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (7-8) at Buffalo Bills (5-10)

The Dolphins have 7 wins and were in the playoff race late in the season, but they haven’t been nearly as good as their record and have arguably been one of the worst teams in the league. While their 7 wins have come by a combined 38 points, with none coming by more than 8 points, their 8 losses have come by a combined 127 points, with 7 of 8 coming by double digits. Their -89 point differential ranks 29th in the NFL and they’ve been even worse than that suggests.

Not only have they faced the 6th easiest schedule in the NFL, but they’ve also benefited from a +8 turnover margin, which is unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 30th on the season at -5.60%. Their offense has been a little better since getting quarterback Ryan Tannehill back from injury, but he’s not at 100% and their secondary has major issues without injured cornerback Xavien Howard and injured safety TJ McDonald, both of whom are expected to sit again this week. Since week 9, they’ve been even worse in first down rate differential, ranking 31st at -8.09%.

The Bills, meanwhile, have actually ranked 11th in first down rate differential over that time period. Their offense hasn’t been great, picking up first downs at a 34.19% rate since week 9, 25th in the NFL over that time period, but they’ve been better since getting Josh Allen back from injury, while their defense has been dominant over that time period, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.75%, as Sean McDermott has once again gotten the most of his defensive talent, despite missing a couple key players with injury. The Bills lost in Miami a few weeks ago, but they could have easily won that game despite a -2 turnover margin and they won the first down rate battle by 3.39%, despite Miami’s secondary being healthy at the time. I expect them to win with relative ease in rematch in Buffalo.

I also expect the Bills to have the motivational edge in this one, with reports coming out that the Dolphins will be moving on from quarterback Ryan Tannehill and head coach Adam Gase after the game. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see David Fales in the second half either. The organization clearly likes him, keeping him on the roster as a 3rd quarterback all season, and they gave him playing time in a meaningless week 17 game last season as well. Even not taking that into account, I have the Bills calculated at -8.5 in this one, so we’re getting good line value with the Bills at -5.5. The Bills aren’t a great team, but they could easily give the Dolphins another double digit loss, especially if the Dolphins don’t play their best game.

Buffalo Bills 23 Miami Dolphins 13

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -5.5

Confidence: High

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-10)

The Falcons have had a disappointing season and will be watching the post-season from home, but they’ve played better in recent weeks thanks to the return of dominant every down linebacker Deion Jones. Key defensive players suffering significant injuries early in the season is the primary reason for their disappointing year, as they ranked dead last in first down rate allowed at 43.02% through 11 games, but they’ve allowed a first down rate of 35.54% in 4 games since Jones returned.

Their offense has been strong throughout, ranking 9th in first down rate at 39.40%, as their strong passing offense has made up for an inconsistent running game, so if Jones had stayed healthy all year there’s a good chance the Falcons would at least still be in the playoff hunt right now. Over the past 4 weeks, they rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +3.40%. Despite that, they are 1.5-point road underdogs in Tampa Bay against a mediocre Buccaneers team, as casual bettors may not realize how important Jones is to this defense.

The Buccaneers rank 18th in the NFL in first down rate differential on the season at -0.16%, which is decent, but they start one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league, they rank 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.00%, and they are missing two key offensive playmakers in wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end OJ Howard. Over the past 4 weeks, they are just 24th in first down rate differential, as injuries have started to pile up.

It’s not just a talent gap between these teams either, as the Buccaneers probably won’t be at their best with head coach Dirk Koetter expected to be let go after the game. Koetter seems to know he’ll be gone and has even said he’s going to try to get 3rd string quarterback Ryan Griffin in the game because he hasn’t gotten a chance to play yet, so it doesn’t sound like they’re treating this as a normal game. Even if Jameis Winston can keep this game close, the Falcons would likely pull ahead when Griffin comes in. I like the Falcons a lot this week.

Atlanta Falcons 26 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +1.5

Confidence: High

New York Jets at New England Patriots: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (4-11) at New England Patriots (10-5)

I bet on the Patriots as 13-point favorites last week at home against the Bills. They nearly covered, holding a 24-6 lead with 2 minutes left in the game before allowing the backdoor cover, but I never really felt comfortable with that bet during the game. Both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski seem to be playing at less than 100% and part of the reason the Patriots didn’t cover is because Brady was pulled with 7 minutes left in the game, an unusual move by Bill Belichick. Gronkowski also played less than his normal snaps and was frequently subbed for on run plays for blocking tight end Dwayne Allen.

The Patriots are in a similar spot this week, as 13-point home favorites, about to go into a first round bye if they can take care of business, a much needed first down bye for a team that can still be dangerous if healthy. They’re not healthy right now though, so I’m hesitant to take them, but the Jets are not the Bills, who have a legitimately good pass defense, which contributed to the Patriots’ passing game struggles. The Jets’ offense has been better in recent weeks, since Sam Darnold returned from injury, but the same could be said of the Bills with Josh Allen before last week.

Unlike the Bills, the Jets’ defense has gone in the other direction since Darnold’s return. They rank 31st in the NFL in first down rate allowed over the past 4 weeks at 41.38% and the obvious culprit is the absence of linebacker Darron Lee, who was suspended for the final 4 games of the season. Lee helped hold Patriots running back James White to 1 catch on 5 targets in the previous meeting between these two teams and also helped on Rob Gronkowski, who was limited to 3 catches.

The Jets did beat the Bills in Buffalo a few weeks ago without Lee, but the Bills won the first down rate battle in that game by 2.66% and had one of their better offensive weeks of the season. On the season, the Jets rank 31st in the NFL in first down rate differential at -6.09%, only ahead of the Cardinals. We’re getting some line value with the Patriots, so they should be the right side this week, but I’m hesitant to bet on them because they could pull Brady late and allow the backdoor cover again.

New England Patriots 27 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Low

Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (3-12) at Seattle Seahawks (9-6)

Unlike other games this week, I am confident the Seahawks will play their starters the whole way in this game, unless they jump out to a huge lead, in which case covering this spread shouldn’t be a problem. The Seahawks are locked into either the 5th or 6th seed, but they’ve never rested starters in the past even when they’ve had nothing to play for and I think they’d much rather go to Dallas next week than either Chicago or Los Angeles. Winning this game assures they will face the Cowboys, easily the weakest of the four division winners.

Given that the Seahawks will be treating this as a real game, I like their chances of covering as 13-point home favorites. The Cardinals are horrible, ranking dead last in first down rate differential at -8.41%, and they’ve been even worse over the past 8 weeks at -9.49%, as injuries have piled up on both sides of the ball. The Seahawks, on the other hand, have gotten better as the season has gone on, just as they have in almost every season in the Russell Wilson era, going 37-17 ATS in the final 8 games of the regular season since 2012.

I haven’t picked them much in recent weeks because they went just 3-5 ATS in the final 8 games of last season and because they don’t have the same talent level they had from 2012-2016 when they always finished the season dominantly, but Russell Wilson is playing at an MVP level and Pete Carroll seems to have once again gotten his team playing at a high level at the end of the season. They should run over the worst team in the league.

Seattle Seahawks 27 Arizona Cardinals 10

Pick against the spread: Seattle -13

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (9-6) at New York Giants (5-10)

This is another game with motivational uncertainty. The Cowboys are locked into the #4 seed in the NFC and have rested starts with nothing to play for in the past, but Jason Garrett at least publicly says he’s treating this as a real game because the Cowboys still have issues they need to work through. That makes some sense, as the last time the Cowboys rested starters it was with a first round bye locked up, but the Cowboys have also been giving more reps to backups at practice this week, including practice squad running back Darius Jackson, who could split carries with backup Rod Smith this week if Ezekiel Elliott sits on the sidelines, with his rushing title all but wrapped up.

If Elliott sits, you have to figure banged up offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin also won’t play and, without those two and Elliott, it doesn’t make much sense to have Dak Prescott or any other stars play for more than a quarter or so. This line also seems to expect the Cowboys to mail it in, favoring the Giants by 6. The Giants are also missing a pair of stars though, without stud safety Landon Collins and #1 wide receiver Odell Beckham due to injury, so I’m taking the Cowboys for pick ‘em purposes and hoping they don’t completely mail it in.

New York Giants 24 Dallas Cowboys 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas +6

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (6-9) at New Orleans Saints (13-2)

This is one of several games this week that is unpredictable because of uncertainty about motivation. Saints head coach Sean Payton is at least giving lip service to playing his starters, but with the #1 seed in the NFC locked up it’s unlikely he’ll play his starters the whole game and the last time the Saints in 2009 were in this position their stars didn’t play at all. Drew Brees has already said publicly he doesn’t expect to play the whole game.

Backup quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill are good enough to still lead the Saints to a victory even if Brees and company barely play and the Panthers are could be fielding a skeleton crew as well, down to practice squader Kyle Allen under center, missing top defensive lineman Kawann Short and talented guard Trai Turner, and possibly resting other key players like stud feature back Christian McCaffrey in a meaningless game, but this line is pretty high at 7. I’m taking the Saints for pick ‘em purposes, but I’m not putting much time into handicapping a game with this kind of uncertainty.

New Orleans Saints 24 Carolina Panthers 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7

Confidence: None

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (11-4) at Minnesota Vikings (8-6-1)

Vikings came into the season with high expectations, but now are fighting for their playoff lives against a team that had the kind of year they were expected to have, the 11-4 Bears, who have clinched the NFC North. The Vikings have been better recently though and have started resembling the team they were supposed to be. Their offensive line remains a problem, but they’ve taken a more balanced approach on offense since changing offensive coordinators, leaning on Latavius Murray and a finally healthy Dalvin Cook, which has benefitted both the offensive line and inconsistent quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Their defense has also played a lot better since getting defensive end Everson Griffen back in the middle of the season and they rank 2nd in first down rate allowed since week 9 at 30.96%, only behind their week 17 opponent. The Vikings are playing their best football at the right time and, with the Bears missing stud safety Eddie Jackson due to injury right now, these two teams are about even right now, with the Vikings actually ranking slightly higher in my roster rankings.

Unfortunately, this is one of several games I’m staying away from this week because of motivational uncertainty. This line favors the Vikings by 5 points at home, suggesting the books think the Bears are not going to bring their best effort, needing an improbable Rams loss at home to the 49ers to change their seeding, against a Vikings team they might be facing again in the first round. That may be the case, but I’m not totally convinced.

The Bears may sit injured #1 receiver Allen Robinson for cautionary reasons, but I don’t expect them to completely mail it in with a first round bye on the line (especially with key injured players who could use a week off) and I think they may also want to eliminate a division rival and face a banged up Eagles squad in the first round if they have to play next weekend. This is a no confidence pick and I may update this at some point, but the Bears should be able to keep it within the points if they treat this like a real game.

Minnesota Vikings 20 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Chicago +5

Confidence: None

Jacksonville Jaguars at Miami Dolphins: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10) at Miami Dolphins (7-7)

The Dolphins are 7-7, but have not played nearly as well as their record. While their 7 wins have come by a combined 38 points, their 7 losses have come by a combined 117 points, giving them a -79 point differential that ranks 29th in the NFL. That’s despite the fact that they rank tied for 4th in the NFL in turnover margin at +9. Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so they won’t necessarily be able to rely on that going forward, and they rank just 30th in first down rate differential at -5.75%.

The Dolphins have been significantly better at home than on the road, going 6-1 at home and 1-6 on the road, but home/road disparities tend to be random more than anything. Over the past 30 years, there have been 26 teams that have a home winning percentage 60% better than their road winning percentage this late in the season. Those teams are 13-13 ATS in their next home game. That’s not reason enough to bet against the Dolphins, but we also shouldn’t blindly bet them because they’ve been good at home.

That being said, we’re not getting nearly enough points with the Jaguars at +4 to take them with any confidence. While Jacksonville’s defense is by far the strongest unit in this game, their offense is by far the worst, with a ton of injuries on the offensive line and a backup caliber quarterback under center in Cody Kessler. Miami hasn’t gotten any blowout wins this season, but this is one of their easier games. I expect this to be a close game, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Dolphins won with relative ease compared to their other wins.

Miami Dolphins 16 Jacksonville Jaguars 13

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +4

Confidence: None