New Orleans Saints (11-3) at Tennessee Titans (8-6)
Since turning to backup quarterback Ryan Tannehill in week 7, the Titans rank 5th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +4.37%. They are 6-2 over that stretch, after starting 2-4, with their only losses coming in games against the Panthers and Texans that they easily could have won if a few snaps went differently. Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team either, as the Titans’ defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 24th in first down rate differential at 37.28%, after ranking 4th at 30.93% through the first 6 games of the season, and 4th at 32.77% in 2018. The offense, which ranks 2nd in first down rate at 42.18% since Tannehill became the starter, has carried this team, after ranking 26th at 32.69% through the first 6 games of the season, and 24th at 34.12% in 2018.
That being said, the Titans offense is unlikely to be quite this good going forward. They have talent around the quarterback position and Tannehill has proven he can be a capable starter, but it’s unlikely he has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league. It would be reasonable to expect regression from him going forward, which the defense will need to compensate for. Unfortunately, their defense remains banged up, with edge defender Cameron Wake and cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler still out and defensive end Jeffery Simmons possibly joining them after missing practice on Friday with a lingering knee issue.
The Titans are still a competitive opponent, but we’re not getting the line value with them that we were a few weeks ago. With a dominant Saints team coming to town, the Titans are only 2.5-point home underdogs. The Saints lost a pair of key defensive linemen in their loss to the 49ers a couple weeks ago, with Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins done for the year, and their defense ranks just 35.78% in first down rate allowed at 17th even with Davenport and Rankins playing most of the season, but their offense is definitely good enough to compensate.
They have a 41.41% first down rate when Brees is on the field, which would be second best in the NFL on the season, and that arguably understates how good their offense will be going forward. They had a 43.48% first down rate differential in Brees’ starts last season and have been even better than that in recent weeks, with a 45.19% first down rate over the past 4 games. We’re still getting a little bit of line value with the Titans, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -1, but we’re not getting enough line value with the Titans at +2.5 for them to be worth betting. The money line at +115 is worth a small play because the Titans odds of winning this game are close to 50/50, but this is a low confidence pick for pick ‘em purposes, unless the line moves up to a full field goal.
Final Update: Not only is Simmons out for the Titans, but running back Derrick Henry is a surprise inactive as well. Henry’s absence is obviously big, but, beyond the impact his absence will have on this team, the reasoning behind Henry being inactive is even more important to predicting this game. Due to how tiebreakers work, because this is a non-conference game, this is actually a rare case of a week 16 game not mattering at all for a potential playoff qualifier. With the Texans winning yesterday, the Titans have been eliminated from contention for a division title, but, regardless of the outcome of this game against the Saints, the Titans can still clinch a wild card berth if they beat the Texans next week and the Steelers lose one of their next two games. If the Steelers win out or the Titans lose to the Texans next week, the Titans are eliminated regardless of what happens in this non-conference matchup with the Saints. This line has skyrocketed to 3.5, but I’m really concerned about the Titans’ psyche in a meaningless game, so I’m switching this pick to New Orleans for a no confidence pick.
New Orleans Saints 27 Tennessee Titans 23
Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5