Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)

One of the biggest betting edges I’ve discovered over the years is the lack of week-to-week correlation between turnover margins. The winner of the turnover margin wins the game about 80% of the time, but turnover margins have no predictability week-to-week. Teams that lose the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.0 the following week, while teams that win the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.1 the following week. You can test this at killer sports for yourself if you’d like, but this holds true regardless of what a team’s turnover margin was the previous week. For this reason, I use first down rate as my primary evaluative stat, as it has much more week-to-week correlation and minimizes the impact of turnover margin and other inconsistent metrics on an evaluation of a team.

The Falcons are a great example of this in action. Through their first 8 games of the season, the Falcons had a -0.29% first down rate differential, but were just 1-7 due in large part to a -12 turnover margin. Since the bye, the Falcons are +5 in turnover margin and, as a result, have won 5 of 7 games. Their first down rate differential has improved slightly, as they are at +3.16% over those 7 games, but the big difference has been turnover margin. They’re still negative in turnover margin on the season at -7, but now at 6-9, their first down rate differential of +1.14% on the season (in the NFL) is much more in line with their record. 

I do make a few exceptions to the inconsistent turnover margin rule. One is the Patriots, who have proven to be the exception to most rules over the past two decades and have consistently won the turnover battle throughout the Brady/Belichick era. Since 2000, they have a +210 turnover margin and the next closest team is at +95. Another exception is Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston, who has consistently been among the league leaders in giveaways in his 5 seasons in the league. 

In 69 career starts, Winston has 136 combined interceptions and fumbles, 31 more than any quarterback in the league over that stretch. The Buccaneers are more than just their quarterback, but it would make sense that they would have a negative turnover margin with a quarterback like Winston under center. Since Winston entered the league in 2015, the Buccaneers have the 4th worst turnover margin in the league at -33, including -11 this season (5th worst in the NFL).

That’s not to say that Winston doesn’t bring a lot to the table that is good, as he has a career 7.74 YPA average, including 8.15 YPA this season, 5th in the NFL, which has led the Buccaneers to a 37.02% first down rate, 12th in the NFL, but after 5 years in the league it’s clear that he’s just more turnover prone than the average quarterback. Making matters even worse, Winston is playing this game at less than 100% through an injured thumb and without his top-2 wide receivers. 

The Buccaneers have the edge over the Falcons in first down rate differential this season (+2.20% vs. +1.14%) and their defense has been significantly better since week 7, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.33% over that stretch, due to the return of edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the emergence of several young defensive backs in what was once the worst secondary in the NFL, but my roster rankings have the Falcons ranked slightly higher than the Buccaneers, which I think is more accurate. The Falcons have also faced a significantly tougher schedule this season, with a 56% combined opponents winning percentage (highest in the NFL), as opposed to 50% for the Buccaneers.

All that being said, we’re actually still getting some line value with the Buccaneers this week, as this line is even, suggesting the visiting Falcons are about 2-3 points better than the hometown Buccaneers. My calculated line is Tampa Bay -2. Winston’s turnover proneness is a problem, but as I’ve mentioned he also does a lot well, even at less than 100%, and the Buccaneers’ defense has actually been downright stifling over the past few weeks, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.59% over the past 6 games. The absences of wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are obviously significant, but the Falcons are missing key players like wide receiver Calvin Ridley, cornerback Desmond Trufant, and defensive ends Takkarist McKinley and Adrian Clayborn. There’s not enough here to bet on the Buccaneers confidently, but they should be the right side.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay PK

Confidence: Low

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