Houston Texans (9-5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7)
The Texans got a huge win in Tennessee last week against a Titans team that was previously tied with the Texans for the division lead. However, that game could have gone either way, as both teams were about even in first down rate (Houston +0.97%) and the game swung on a blocked field goal and a long interception return by the Texans. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, got a big blowout win over the Lions on the road last week even without injured wide receiver Mike Evans, but fellow stud wide receiver Chris Godwin also got hurt in that game, so between that and the Texans’ win last week, this line has shifted from Houston -1 on the early line last week to Houston -3 this week, a big swing considering about 20% of games are decided by 2-3 points.
I think this line is pretty far off and would be off even without the big line movement. Even without Evans and Godwin, the Buccaneers are still a better team that most people realize. They actually rank above the Texans in first down rate differential on the season, ranking 12th at +2.14%, while the Texans rank 14th at +1.31%. That gap is more pronounced when you look at recent weeks. While the Buccaneers have been a legitimately tough opponent since their week 7 bye, losing only to the Saints, the Seahawks (in overtime), and the Titans (by 4) and ranking 8th in first down rate differential at +3.73% over that stretch, the Texans have gone the opposite direction, ranking 21st in first down rate differential since week 7 at -1.35%, in large part due to the absence of JJ Watt on defense in recent weeks.
With the Buccaneers missing a pair of dominant wide receivers, I have the Texans slightly ahead in my roster rankings, but the Texans definitely aren’t at full strength either, missing talented middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney in addition to Watt, and my calculated line favors the Buccaneers at home by 2.5 points. Given that, we’re getting significant line value with the Buccaneers as 3-point home underdogs.
The Buccaneers are also in a better spot as this game is sandwiched between last week’s matchup against the Titans and a rematch next week, a game in which the Texans can clinch the division even if they lose this week. The Texans still have incentive to win this game for seeding purposes, but they might not take the Buccaneers totally seriously this week in a trap game spot. I’m going to bet on the Buccaneers either way, but if we get confirmation that both cornerback Carlton Davis and left tackle Donovan Smith are playing this week, I’ll probably bump this up to a high confidence pick.
Final Update: Both Davis and Smith are playing for the Texans. After looking at other games this week, I’ve decided I’m actually going to bump this up to my Pick of the Week, for lack of another strong option. Much has been made of the Buccaneers missing their dominant wide receiver duo, but quarterback Jameis Winston has independently been playing good football since the bye, as has the Buccaneers’ defense, thanks to the return of Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the improvement of this young secondary. Meanwhile, the Texans are arguably missing their two best defensive players in Watt and McKinney and yet are favored by 3 points on the road. I have these two teams about even and my numbers suggest the Buccaneers are actually the better team, so this line is way off. I’d be surprised if the Buccaneers don’t at least push this week, barring a meltdown performance from Winston.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Houston Texans 27 Upset Pick +150
Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3
Confidence: Pick of the Week