New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl LIII Pick

New England Patriots (13-5) vs. Los Angeles Rams (15-3) in Super Bowl LIII

By their standards, the Patriots had a down season. They finished with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since 2009 and were legitimately blown out in a few games. They lost as many games by double digits (3) as they had in the previous 3 seasons combined and their 34-10 loss to the Titans was their biggest loss since 2014. They also didn’t go on one of their typical late season runs, actually winning more games in their first 8 games (6) than their final 8 games (5). From week 9 to 15, they went just 2-3, starting with that loss to the Titans in week 10, which was their latest loss by that many points since back in 2000 before Brady became a starter.

They also showed stretches of dominance though, especially at home, where they went a perfect 8-0, with 6 of 8 wins by double digits. Their only home wins that were within double digits came against division winners in the Chiefs and Texans and they would have had the ball with a 14 point lead late in the 4th quarter against the Texans if not for a muffed punt that led to a late Houston touchdown.

They weren’t nearly as good on the road, but picked up another two double digit wins on the road against the Jets and Bills, giving them 8 double digit wins in the regular season, tied with the Saints for most in the NFL. They won in Chicago, where the Bears otherwise won all of their regular season home games en route to a 12-4 record. All in all, the Patriots went 4-0 against playoff qualifiers, the only playoff qualifier to have a perfect record against fellow playoff qualifiers.

The Patriots played down to their level of competition some this season, particularly away from home, but they’ve always brought their best for big games in the Brady/Belichick era, going a ridiculous 39-13 against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including an unfathomable 15-1 since 2010. That’s not even skewed by early season matchups where records don’t mean as much, as they are 17-5 against teams with a better record than them in week 11 or later, including 8-2 in the post-season. For comparison, the league average winning percentage against a team with a better record is 38.3%.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that they were able to beat the Chargers and Chiefs, who both finished 12-4, to advance to the Super Bowl, where they now face the 3-loss Rams. Granted, their win over the Chiefs was close to a 50/50 game that could have gone either way, but their game against the Chargers was over by halftime. They showed their top level for much of the season and securing a first round bye allowed key veterans like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to get healthy for another playoff run. Now with another week off, I wouldn’t want to bet against them right now, especially only getting 2.5 points. The Patriots have been close to an auto-bet with Brady under center as underdogs or favorites of less than 3, going 52-24 ATS and 47-29 straight up.

The Rams will present a tough test though. Their offense hasn’t been the same since Cooper Kupp went down with a torn ACL, as they had a first down rate of 46.09% in the 8 games he played, as opposed to 39.60% in the 10 games he missed, but that’s still an impressive rate and they should have a healthier Todd Gurley after a week off, giving them a one-two punch at running back of Gurley and talented replacement CJ Anderson. They’ve also been much better defensively with cornerback Aqib Talib on the field, allowing a 33.10% first down rate in the 10 games he played, as opposed to 43.29% in the 8 games he missed.

Both teams have plenty of standout players, with Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Andrew Whitworth among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Rams and Julian Edelman, Trey Flowers, and Stephon Gilmore among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Patriots. You could argue these are the two best coached teams in the league, with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels on one sideline, facing off with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips on the other. Ultimately, it’s just going to come down to execution, which I know isn’t much of an analysis, but the talent gap between these two teams isn’t much. I’m going with the Patriots because I trust their experience over the experience of the Rams, who are in just their 4th playoff game with Jared Goff and McVay. I probably wouldn’t bet this on a normal week, but it’s the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots 31 Los Angeles Rams 24

Pick against the spread: New England -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Championship Pick

Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

These two met back in week 9 in New Orleans, but a lot has changed since then. At the time, the Rams were favored by a couple points, despite being the road team, because they were an undefeated 8-0 and seen as the early Super Bowl favorite. That changed when the Saints pulled the upset and subsequently went on to win 7 of their next 8 meaningful games, while the Rams went “just” 5-3 over the second half of the season. As a result, the Saints were able to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC before week 17, despite being a game and a half back of the Rams going into their week 9 matchup.

The Saints’ strong play is a big part of the reason why they overtook the Rams in the NFC, but the Rams also regressed a little bit down the stretch, particularly on offense after they lost slot receiver Cooper Kupp. The Rams still have a talented duo of receivers in Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but Kupp had been Jared Goff’s most effective receiver over the past 2 years. Goff completed 72.4% of his 152 targets to Kupp for 1,504 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a ridiculous 124.5 QB rating. Kupp has missed 9 games in total including playoffs, but was also knocked out of 3 games with injury this season. In the 5 games he started and finished, the Rams had a 46.96% first down rate. In the 3 games he was knocked out, the Rams had a 44.72% first down rate. And in the 9 games he missed entirely, the Rams had a first down rate of 40.54%.

That’s still a good number and would have ranked 6th in the NFL over the course of the season, but they’re not quite the dominant offense they were going into the previous matchup, one of the five games Kupp started and finished (45.76% first down rate in a 45-35 loss). Their passing game in particular has fallen back to earth. Goff completed 71.8% of his passes for an average of 10.33 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the 5 games Kupp started and finished, but just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the 9 he’s missed completely. They’re still a strong offense, but they’re more reliant on the run than they were when Kupp was healthy.

Fortunately for them, the Saints also are missing a key player from the first matchup, with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins going down with a torn achilles early in last week’s win over the Eagles. Outside of Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, Rankins was probably the Saints’ best defensive player this season, so that’s a big loss. Not only does losing him significantly hurt their chances of slowing down Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson on the ground, but he had a productive year as pass rusher as well, totaling 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 32 hurries on 450 pass rush snaps (10.2%).

On top of that, the Rams also have cornerback Aqib Talib healthy, which they didn’t have in the first matchup. In 6 games in which Talib has played more than half the snaps, the Rams have allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.45% rate, as opposed to 40.12% in the 11 games in which he was inactive or limited. The Rams faced a pretty easily schedule in those 6 games (Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Dallas), but it’s not hard to imagine how the return of the 6-1 209 Talib could have an impact in a rematch of a game in which the 6-3 212 Michael Thomas went for 12/211/1. I still have the Saints a little higher in my roster rankings, but I don’t think we’re getting enough line value here to bet on the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Los Angeles Rams 30

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

The Patriots won in convincing fashion at home over a strong Chargers team last week, wrapping up an undefeated 9-0 home record, but now they have to go on the road (where they are 3-5) and travel to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game. The common narrative seems to be that they will continue to struggle on the road and, as a result, they are underdogs in a game started by Tom Brady for the first time since week 13 of the 2014 season.

The statistical difference between the Patriots at home and on the road has been very significant this season, beyond even what the records show. At home, 7 of those 9 wins came by double digits, with the only exceptions coming against the Texans and the Chiefs, a pair of AFC division winners. They have a first down rate differential of +9.65% at home. For comparison, the Bears finished 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +6.64%. On the road, however, they have a first down rate differential of -5.29%. For comparison, that would have ranked 29th in the NFL over the course of the season, most comparable to the Washington Redskins.

Fortunately for them, home/road differentials tend to be random more than anything. Over the past 30 seasons, teams with a home winning percentage of more than 90% and a road winning percentage under 50% are 40-36 straight up on the road in week 11 or later and are 21-12 ATS as road underdogs. The Patriots have been incredible at home since 2001, going 141-26 straight up, but they are also 99-49 on the road, including 24-15 ATS and 20-19 straight up as road underdogs. Any time you’re getting points with the Patriots, even against the most dominant of teams, they are worth a bet, as they tend to rise to the occasion against tough opponents, going a ridiculous 38-13 straight up against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including 7-2 in the post-season.

The Chiefs have been a dominant team on offense this season, finishing the regular season by far #1 in first down rate at 45.18% (Rams are 2nd at 43.05%), but they’ve been far from dominant on defense. They finished the season ranked 24th in points per game allowed at 26.3 and were even worse in first down rate allowed at 42.20%, worst in the NFL. Against playoff qualifiers, their defensive numbers were downright ugly, as they allowed 36.0 points per game and a ridiculous 46.54% first down rate in 6 regular season games against playoff qualifiers (2-4).

The strength of this defense is its pass rush, which led the league in sacks, led by edge rushers Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (9 sacks) and interior rusher Chris Jones (15.5 sacks). Combined with their explosive offense, their pass rush has allowed them to dominant weaker opponents. They go up big early with their offense, forcing their opponents to pass more than they’d like (most pass attempts against in the league), which allows their pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. That same formula hasn’t worked as well against tougher opponents, who have been able to exploit their weaknesses against running games and quick passing games. The Patriots both rode of those to victory last week, so it’s not hard to imagine them following a similar formula this week in Kansas City.

The big exception to the Chiefs’ defensive struggles this season came against the Colts last week, in a game in which the Chiefs held the Colts to a 30.19% first down rate in a blowout 31-13 win. However, when you look at their whole season, last week’s performance looks like a fluke, especially when you consider there wasn’t any personnel change that was made between last week’s game and a month ago, when they allowed 67 points combined in a 2-game stretch against the Chargers and Seahawks.

The one player who could boost this defense is Eric Berry, who is expected to play through a heel injury this week, after sitting out the previous 2 games, but he’s played just 99 snaps since week 1 of 2017, so it’s unclear how much having him active will benefit the Chiefs. Unless the Chiefs suddenly became a different defense overnight or Eric Berry can somehow return to Pro Bowl form by Sunday, I like the Patriots’ chances of pulling the upset and they’re a great bet if you can get the full field goal.

New England Patriots 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New England +3

Confidence: High

Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (10-7) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

When these two teams met in week 11, the Saints destroyed the Eagles in a game with the 2nd highest victory of margin on the season, beating them 48-7. A lot has changed for these Eagles since then though. For one, starting quarterback Carson Wentz was shut down with a back injury, after struggling through it for much of the season, which has allowed Nick Foles to take over under center. Not only is Foles playing at a high level, but this team really does seem to play at a higher level with their backs against the wall and a backup quarterback under center, winning 6 of 7 games since the Saints dropped them to 4-6 a couple months ago.

Their defense is also playing better, with talented every down linebacker Jordan Hicks back from injury and young cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox stepping up in an injury ravaged secondary. Hicks was originally injured in the loss to the Saints, as was Maddox and stud center Jason Kelce. Having those three in the lineup and Foles playing well under center should make this a much different game this time around.

That being said, the Saints are so good that they could still easily cover this spread. I’m taking the 8 points with the Eagles, who haven’t lost any of their other games by more than a touchdown, but the Saints are the most talented team in the league, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were able to win by multiple scores again here at home. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -7.5, so we’re barely getting any line value with the Eagles at +8. I’m taking them for pick ‘em purposes, but I would be surprised if the Saints didn’t advance. The Eagles have won straight up in all 5 games in which they’ve been underdogs with Nick Foles as the starter over the past two seasons, but I expect that miracle run to end this week.

New Orleans Saints 31 Philadelphia Eagles 24

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +8

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)

I’ve been high on the Chargers all year and, with the Bears eliminated, the Chargers now rank 1st among remaining playoff teams on the season in first down rate differential at +5.24%. Since week 10, they rank 3rd at +6.04%. Making this even more impressive is the fact that they have next to no homefield advantage in Los Angeles, where they struggle to attract home fans, even when playing well. Outside of Los Angeles, they are a perfect 9-0, covering the spread in 8 of 9 games and winning by an average of 9.11 points per game. That is a trend that actually dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 37-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have been pretty underwhelming statistically for a playoff team. They have a +2.67% first down rate differential on the season, 2nd worst among remaining playoff teams, and they didn’t go on their normal late season run this year either, with a +2.68% first down rate differential since week 10, 4th worst among remaining playoff teams. That being said, I’m hesitant to bet too heavily against the Patriots, who are not a team I want to underestimate in the playoffs, even with them giving 4 points to a Chargers team that has been statistically better almost across the board this season.

This is still a talented Patriots roster, one that has underachieved for stretches of the season, but also has shown signs of dominance, with 8 double digit wins and a 4-0 record against playoff qualifiers. If Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski can be healthier off of a bye, this is still a very scary team, especially at home, where they are undefeated this season with an average margin of victory of 16.25 points per game.

Normally home/road disparities are random more than anything (for example the Patriots were 14-1 on the road in 2016-17 before going 3-5 this season), but the Patriots have been dominant at home for close to two decades, going 140-26 since 2001, including 112-18 against the AFC. On top of that, they are a ridiculous 36-12 against teams with a better record than them with Tom Brady under center and they should be more than up to the challenge of taking on an elite Chargers team. Four points isn’t a huge cushion, but I do want to put a small bet on the Chargers, even though I do ultimately expect the Patriots to pull out the victory.

New England Patriots 24 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +4

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Dallas Cowboys (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

The Cowboys are the weakest of the remaining 8 playoff teams. Their offense has been better since acquiring Amari Cooper during the bye, picking up first downs at a 35.98% rate in 10 games with him, as opposed to 33.81% in 7 games without him, but their defense has gone in the other direction. Before the bye, the Cowboys ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.59% rate in 10 games since.

After overachieving on defense early in the season, they’ve largely fallen back down to earth in recent weeks, but they’re still considered an elite defense by many because they played their best game on primetime against the Saints. Even with that week 13 upset win over the Saints included, the Cowboys are allowing 22.3 points per game since the bye. They’ve been winning, going 8-2 in their last 10, but all of their wins have been by 8 points or fewer and they are somehow even in point differential over those 10 games. I don’t give them much of a shot to win this game in Los Angeles against the Rams, especially if slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Blake Jarwin are both unable to go after not practicing all week.

That being said, it’s hard to be confident in the Rams as 7-point favorites. They have 7 wins by more than a touchdown this year, but 6 of them came against the Raiders, Lions, Cardinals, and 49ers, among the worst teams in the league. The Chargers are the only non-cellar dweller they’ve beaten by more than a touchdown, with teams like the Broncos, Packers and Seahawks (twice), comparable caliber teams to the Cowboys, all keeping their games against the Rams close. I only have this line calculated at Rams -7.5, so I can’t be confident in the Rams at -7 and I may switch this pick to the Cowboys if both Beasley and Jarwin are able to go. A push also seems like a strong possibility.

Los Angeles Rams 26 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -7

Confidence: None

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Indianapolis Colts (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

The Chiefs finished with the best record in the AFC, while the Colts snuck into the playoffs as the 6th seed on the NFL’s final weekend, but statistically the Colts have been the better of these two teams this season, ranking 5th in first down rate at +4.56%, while the Chiefs rank 9th at +2.98%. Not only do they have a significant edge in first downs (+56 on the year, as opposed to -35 for the Chiefs), but they also have a league leading +19 offensive touchdown margin, even better than Kansas City’s +17 offensive touchdown margin.

That’s even more impressive considering how slow the Colts started. After week 6, they sat at 1-5 and ranked just 18th in first down rate differential at -1.47%, but since then they lead the NFL in first down rate differential at +9.02% and they’ve won 10 of 11 games, including last week’s first round victory over the Texans. They have several young players who have gotten better as the season has gone on and their injury situation has improved significantly as well, as they are close to full strength right now, after they were arguably the best injury plagued team in the league to start the season. Andrew Luck has also gotten better as the year has gone along in his first year back from shoulder surgery, with arguably the best team he’s ever had around him.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction a little bit, starting out hot and then declining in recent weeks. The offense has remained strong, leading the league with a first down rate of 43.34% since week 10, but that’s down from an otherworldly 46.65% prior to week 10 and their defense has not gotten any better, allowing a first down rate of 42.21% since week 10 and a first down rate of 42.19% prior to week 10. They were expecting to get safety Eric Berry back from injury at some point, but he only played limited snaps in a few games down the stretch and seems to be shut down again, missing week 17 and barely practicing this week after the bye.

They may get a boost on offense with wide receiver Sammy Watkins possibly returning after missing all but a few snaps over the past 7 games, but he didn’t get in a full practice this week and would likely be less than 100% and at risk of an in-game setback even if he plays through his recurring foot problems. The loss of Watkins and running back Kareem Hunt (released for off-the-field issues with 5 games left in the season) are part of the reason why the offense slowed down a little down the stretch.

Without those two, even as talented as Pat Mahomes is, he’s had issues keeping pace with what his defense is allowing. They played 3 of their final 7 games against the Cardinals or Raiders, two of the worst teams in the league, and in their other 4 games they either lost or went to overtime. Granted, those four games were against the Seahawks, Chargers, Ravens, and Rams and the Chiefs were competitive in all 4 games, but the Colts are a tough test too and the you’d have to go back to the Chiefs’ 10-point week 1 victory over the Chargers to find a game the Chiefs have played against a top tier team like the Colts in which they would have covered this 5.5-point spread.

At the very least, these two teams are even right now, in which case the Chiefs should be favored by just 3 points at home, but there’s an argument to be made that the Colts are the better of these two teams at the moment, despite what their records say. The Colts also have the edge in quarterback experience, with Luck making his 8th career playoff start and Mahomes in his first. First time playoff starting quarterbacks are just 6-21 ATS at home since 2002, unless they’re facing another first time playoff starter.

We’ve already seen Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, and Mitch Trubisky lose straight up as home favorites in their first career playoff start. Mahomes is on another level talent wise and it helps that he has an experienced coach in Andy Reid (even if Reid is just 11-13 with one Super Bowl appearance in 13 playoff trips), but the other three quarterbacks also had much stronger defenses supporting them and, even if Mahomes does pull out the win, he won’t necessarily cover this 5.5-point spread. I love the Colts’ chances of covering and I think they have a decent shot at pulling off the straight up upset as well.

Indianapolis Colts 31 Kansas City Chiefs 30 Upset Pick +195

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +5.5

Confidence: High