Cleveland Browns (2-5) at Denver Broncos (2-6)
Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco is done for the season with a neck injury and, with expected backup Drew Lock still working back from off-season thumb surgery, the Broncos will instead turn to Brandon Allen, a 2016 6th round pick who has never thrown a regular season pass across stints with 3 teams: the Jaguars, Rams, and Broncos. As a result, this line that opened at Denver -1.5 has now moved all the way to Denver +4.
It’s always risky to bet on a quarterback with no regular season experience, but it’s hard to justify a 5.5-point shift like that given the way Joe Flacco has played this season, especially in recent weeks. This offense has problems beyond Flacco, especially with Emmanuel Sanders now with the 49ers and right tackle Ja’Wuan James again injured, but they’ve ranked just 29th in first down rate this season at 31.54%, so Allen is unlikely to be a significant downgrade. And given the way we’ve seen some inexperienced backup quarterbacks come out and play well in their first few starts this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Allen actually ended up being a little bit of an upgrade under center for a few games.
Even with their offensive struggles, the Broncos have ranked 17th in first down rate differential this season at -0.41%, as a result of a dominant defense that ranks 4th in first down rate differential. An already talented unit last season, they have been taken to the next level in 2019 by defensive minded head coach Vic Fangio and free agent acquisition Kareem Jackson, who has been one of the best defensive backs in the league this season. The Broncos are just 2-6, but three of their losses came on last second field goals, so they aren’t far away from being a 4-5 win team right now.
The Browns, meanwhile, rank 25th in first down rate differential at -3.70% and have had below average play on both sides of the ball, ranking 25th in first down rate and 20th in first down rate allowed. They’ve had one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, but the Broncos haven’t had a cakewalk schedule either. This line suggests the Browns would be favored by about 10 points if this game was in Cleveland, so I think it’s way too high. I have the line calculated at Denver -1, even with the uncertainty of Allen under center. There’s too much risk here for this to be a big bet, but the Broncos are worth a play this week.
Cleveland Browns 17 Denver Broncos 16
Pick against the spread: Denver +4