Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (5-10) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)

The Chargers lost at home to the Raiders last week in a game that was embarrassing for multiple reasons. Not only did they lose to a team that entered the game 29th in first down rate differential, with 6 losses by 18 or more, but the crowd appeared to be somewhere around 95% Raiders fans, forcing the Chargers to regularly use silent counts at home. The Chargers’ lack of fans in Los Angeles is nothing new and they’ve struggled at home since moving in 2017 (7-15 ATS), so I’ve typically used 1 point for homefield advantage for the Chargers rather than the typical 2.5 or 3 points, but I’m starting to think the Chargers are actually a better team on the road than at home. 

The Chargers have to deal with opposing crowds regardless of where they play, but that’s to be expected on the road. It has to be demoralizing to deal with that on your own home field. Overall, they are 7-9 straight up at home over the past 2 seasons and 10-5 on the road, the 4th best road winning percentage over that time period. At the very least, all Chargers games should be considered neutral site games going forward and I’ve considered actually taking away a point from their calculated line at home and giving them a point on the road, for psychological reasons.

The Chargers really seemed to not give much effort last week in a meaningless game where the home crowd was supporting the visitor, but I would expect a better effort this week on the road against a tough Kansas City team that is playing for playoff seeding. Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Chargers as 9-point road underdogs this week. The Chiefs have somewhat quietly been a very complete football team since getting Patrick Mahomes back from injury, allowing a 32.67% first down rate in their past 9 games (6th in the NFL over that stretch) and moving the chains at a 42.12% rate in games started and finished by Mahomes, but the Chargers have played much better than their record suggests, even without any homefield advantage.

On the season, they rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.16% and have a positive point differential at +2, with all but one of their losses coming by a touchdown or less and the only exception being a game in which they lost the turnover battle by 6. Turnovers have killed them overall this season, as they rank last in the NFL with a -16 turnover margin, but turnover margins are highly unpredictable, so the Chargers aren’t necessarily going to lose the turnover battle in this game just because they’ve struggled with turnovers all season. In fact, teams with a turnover margin of -10 or worse over a 5-game stretch, like the Chargers, have an average turnover margin of just -0.1 in their next game and, as a result, cover at a 55% rate. Those are somewhat arbitrary endpoints, but the fact remains that there’s next to no correlation week-to-week between turnover margins. 

The Chargers are also healthier now than they’ve been most of the season, especially with stud safety Derwin James returning a few weeks ago. Even with the Chiefs being relatively healthy themselves and ranking 4th in my roster rankings this week, I still only have the Chargers 5 points behind them and, given that I’m treating all Chargers games as neutral site games, that gives us a calculated line of Kansas City -5.

I was hoping this line would be double digits after the results of last week’s games, but oddsmakers likely know that sharps would be all over the Chargers at +10 or higher, so I don’t expect this line to go there. Even at +9, I like the Chargers a lot. Even with the injury and turnover problems they’ve had, they’ve been competitive in most of their games and I wouldn’t expect this one to be any different, even as well as the Chiefs have played in recent weeks.

Kansas City Chiefs 24 Los Angeles Chargers 19

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (8-7) at Houston Texans (10-5)

The Titans lost last week at home to the Saints, but because it was a non-conference game and division and conference records are tiebreakers for playoff qualification, that was a completely meaningless game for them in the standings. As a result, they rested running back Derrick Henry and defensive end Jeffrey Simmons to get them closer to 100% for this much more meaningful week 17 divisional game against the Texans. The Saints are also one of the top teams in the league, so there’s no shame in losing that game, especially since it was close for most of the game before the Saints pulled away at the end. 

That was just the Titans’ 3rd loss in 9 games since switching to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, after losing 4 times in 6 games started by Marcus Mariota. The previous two losses could have gone either way, with the Titans losing by 10 to the Panthers in a game in which they missed 3 makeable field goals and had a couple fluke giveaways (+3.95% first down rate differential) and losing by 3 to the Texans in a game in which they had a field goal blocked and allowed a long interception return (-0.97% first down rate differential). Some of the Titans’ wins have been close, but they’ve undoubtedly been a better team since switching quarterbacks. Through the first 6 games of the season, they ranked just 12th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.76%. Over the past 9 games, they have ranked 7th at +3.21%. 

Tannehill isn’t just game-managing this team to victory either, as their defense has actually been pretty underwhelming over that stretch due to injury absences, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed at +38.31%, 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 41.52% 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. 

The Titans’ offense might not be quite that good going forward, as it’s unlikely Tannehill has suddenly become a top level quarterback in his 8th season in the league, but they have plenty of talent around the quarterback, especially with feature back Derrick Henry back in the lineup this week, so this is one of the better offenses in the NFL. Their defense is still missing key players like cornerback Adoree Jackson, cornerback Malcolm Butler, and edge rusher Cameron Wake, but I still have the Titans’ 8th overall in my roster rankings. 

The Titans have a rematch this week with the Texans, who narrowly defeated them a couple weeks ago, but the Texans have been pretty underwhelming overall this season, entering this game just 17th in the NFL in first down rate differential. They’re 10-5 on the season and have the AFC South locked up, but 8 of their 10 wins have come by a touchdown or less and they’ve undoubtedly been a worse team than the Titans since the Titans changed quarterbacks, especially with stud defensive end JJ Watt out with injury. 

One thing complicating this pick is the uncertainty over whether or not the Texans will play their starters. The line, favoring the Titans by 5 points on the road, suggests the Texans will rest starters, even though Bill O’Brien has shot that idea down during the week. I would expect the Texans to at least rest starters like quarterback Deshaun Watson, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and cornerback Bradley Roby, who have been limited in practice this week with injury, assuming the Texans are locked into the 4th seed when this game begins, but that’s dependant on the Chiefs winning earlier in the day and locking up the 3rd seed. The Chiefs are favored by 9 points at home over the Chargers, but the Chiefs winning isn’t a lock and the Texans could play this like a real game if they’re still alive for the 3rd seed at gametime. 

Seeding isn’t a huge deal in the first round, but in the second round I imagine the Texans would rather face the Patriots, who they’ve already beaten, than the Ravens, who absolutely destroyed them earlier this season, and if both the Texans and Chiefs advance to the AFC Championship, the Texans would obviously want to have homefield advantage in that matchup. If the Chiefs win as expected this week, I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have too much trouble with the Texans’ backups and we’re getting line value with the Titans as 5-point favorites if the Texans are somewhere around the 22nd best team in the league or worse with key players missing, which would almost definitely be the case, but I’m going to hold off on placing any sort of bet on this game until the Chiefs’ game is decided.

Update: The Texans are resting starters in this game locked into the 4th seed, but the line has skyrocketed to -10, so I can’t take the Titans with any confidence.

Tennessee Titans 27 Houston Texans 16

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -10

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (12-3) at Detroit Lions (3-11-1)

It’s hard to believe there was a time when the Lions were 2-0-1. In fact, when the Lions and Packers met the first time back in week 6, the Lions could have taken over the division lead had they prevailed in a game that ended up being a 1-point loss. Even as late as week 10, the Lions were still in playoff contention at 3-4-1, but quarterback Matt Stafford injured his back and ended up missing the remainder of the season. As a result, the wheels have fallen off for this team. With one of the worst backup quarterback situations in the league, the Lions have lost all 7 games since Stafford went down, dropping them to 3-11-1 on the season.

The Lions ranked 15th in the NFL in first down rate differential at 36.75% at the time Stafford went down, but have managed just a 30.96% first down rate in their past 7 games without him, most equivalent to the 31st ranked Jaguars on the season. With a defense that ranks 26th in the NFL on the season with a 38.10% first down rate allowed, the Lions are undoubtedly one of the worst few teams in the league. They currently rank just 29th in my roster rankings. 

The Packers, meanwhile, are at the opposite end of the spectrum, able to lock up a first round bye in the NFC with a win in this game. However, they’re not quite as good as their record suggests. A lot of their wins have been close, with 7 of 12 games coming by one score or fewer and an average margin of victory of 9.25 points per game. On the flip side, two of their three losses have come by 15 points or fewer, giving them a point differential of +60 that ranks 9th in the NFL, suggesting they’ve played more like a 10-5 team this season. This spread requires them to win by 13 or more points on the road, so their inability to blow teams out this season is very relevant. They could still blowout a hapless Lions team, so I definitely don’t want to bet on the Lions, but I am taking them for pick ‘em purposes, though this is more of a fade of a slightly overrated Packers team than anything.

Green Bay Packers 27 Detroit Lions 16

Pick against the spread: Detroit +12.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

The Panthers have had a wild ride at quarterback this season and are now on their third quarterback of the season. Cam Newton limped through the first two games of the season with a foot injury that was worse than he let anyone know, costing them a pair of winnable games that were decided by a combined 9 points. Newton then shut himself down for the good of the team and backup Kyle Allen went on to win his next 4 games, making the Panthers look like a borderline contender going into their week 7 bye.

The wheels have fallen off for the Panthers since that bye week though, as they rank 31st in first down rate differential over that stretch at -7.20%. The offense, which ranks 21st in first down rate over that stretch at 34.99%, hasn’t been their biggest problem, as their defense has fallen from a 33.97% first down rate allowed over their first 6 games (7th in the NFL) to a 42.19% first down rate allowed over the past 9 weeks (31st in the NFL), but their offense has been carried by running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore and Allen was responsible for 18 giveaways over a 8-game stretch, leading to him being benched for 3rd round rookie Will Grier before last week’s game in Indianapolis.

Grier’s debut went about as bad as possible, as he completed 27 of 44 for 224 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 picks and led the Panthers to just a 26.76% first down rate in a 38-6 loss to the Colts, who entered last week ranking just 22nd in first down rate allowed. Grier struggled in the pre-season as well, leading to the Panthers naming Allen the backup going into the season. Grier will get another shot in the Panthers’ season finale, which isn’t a bad idea because the Panthers used a relatively high pick on him and need to evaluate him in game action, but he’s unlikely to be much better in his 2nd start, especially with top wide receiver DJ Moore out for this game after missing most of last week’s game. The defense also hasn’t gotten any better since firing head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and the team seems to have somewhat mailed it in. Overall, they rank just 30th in my roster rankings.

The Saints, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum, tied for the best record in the NFC at 12-3 with a shot at a first round bye. Making that even more impressive is the fact that quarterback Drew Brees missed close to 6 full games with injury. Backup Teddy Bridgewater was able to squeak out some wins in games in which their defense played at a high level, but their offense has been significantly better with Brees on the field this season, moving the chains at a 34.15% first down rate with Bridgewater on the field (most similar to the 24th ranked Lions on the season) and a 41.52% first down rate with Brees on the field (most similar to the 2nd ranked Chiefs on the season). 

The Saints’ offense has been especially good in recent weeks, ranking only behind the Ravens with a 43.36% first down rate over their past 6 games. Their defense took a big hit a couple weeks ago when defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport went down for the season and they’ll also be without safety Marcus Williams this week, but the Saints have more than enough offense to compensate and look like one of the top few Super Bowl contenders going into the post-season. They should be able to take care of business against a hapless Panthers team in their final post-season tune-up.

Unfortunately, the Saints are 13-point road favorites in this game, up from 10.5 on the early line a week ago. While the Saints should win this game pretty easily, there’s definitely uncertainty over whether or not they’ll play a complete enough game to cover this large spread, especially with Williams out. There’s also uncertainty in this game because, due to tiebreakers, the outcome of this game will only affect the Saints’ seeding if the Packers lose as heavy favorites to the Lions.

If the Packers win and Seahawks defeat the 49ers on Sunday Night to win the NFC West, the Saints would move into the 2nd seed in the NFC regardless of the outcome of this game because they currently have a one game lead and a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Seahawks. If the 49ers win that game, the Saints would be stuck in the 3rd seed regardless of the outcome of this game because the 49ers have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. 

Saints head coach Sean Payton has said he will treat this as a real game, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pull his starters in the 2nd half if the Packers are up big on the Lions because that will render this game meaningless. That would allow the Panthers to potentially get a backdoor cover even if they get dominated when the Saints’ starters are in the game. For that reason, I’m taking the Panthers, but this is a no confidence pick because of all the uncertainty.

New Orleans Saints 31 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina +13

Confidence: None

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (4-11) at New England Patriots (12-3)

The Dolphins have been a tough team to predict this season. On one hand, they’ve undoubtedly been better since committing to veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback before week 7, winning 4 games in what once looked like a potential 0-16 season and ranking 19th in first down rate differential at -1.08% over that stretch, led by an offense that ranks 12th in first down rate at 36.35% over that stretch. On the other hand, they have the worst supporting cast in the NFL around Fitzpatrick and have consistently ranked dead last in my roster rankings, despite solid quarterback play. When Fitzpatrick plays well, the Dolphins can be a competitive team, but when he doesn’t they’re the worst team in the league and Fitzpatrick hasn’t been consistent throughout his career.

That makes this game tough to predict against the spread, with the Dolphins being 16-point underdogs in New England. If Fitzpatrick can play well, the Dolphins should be able to keep this relatively close and at the very least should be in position for a backdoor cover late in the game. If Fitzpatrick can’t play well, this will be a blowout for New England, who has 6 wins by 21 points or more this season. My calculated line is New England -17.5, so I’m leaning towards the Patriots for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no interest in betting anything of significance on this game. 

Update: The more I think about this the more I want to upgrade the Patriots to a low confidence pick. They historically do very well in week 17 games and it feels like the Patriots are once again starting to click before the post-season. The large spread and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s tendency to randomly have big games prevent me from betting on New England, but they should be the right side.

New England Patriots 30 Miami Dolphins 10

Pick against the spread: New England -16

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7) at Baltimore Ravens (13-2)

The Ravens’ season got off to an unspectacular start, as they were just 2-2 through 4 games, including a blowout week 4 loss against the Browns, but they have won 11 straight games since then and have the #1 seed in the AFC already locked up before week 17, allowing them to rest key players in a game that is meaningless for them. For the Steelers, this game is the opposite, as they are one of three teams still alive for the 2nd wild card spot in the AFC. Losing this game won’t eliminate the Steelers, as they can still make the post-season if the Titans and Raiders lose and the Colts win, and winning this game won’t guarantee them a post-season spot, as the Titans would hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers if both teams win, but the Steelers’ path to the post-season is certainly easier with a win. 

The common logic seems to be that because the Steelers need this game and the Ravens don’t that the Steelers will be able to prevail and, as a result, they are favored by 2 points on the road in Baltimore. It’s difficult to come up with a calculated line for a game in which one side will be playing several unproven backups, but I have this line calculated at Baltimore -1.5. For this line to be accurate at Pittsburgh -2, the Ravens would have to rank around 27th or 28th in my roster rankings and even at far less than 100% I don’t think they are that bad. They can’t rest everyone and this is a deep roster with great schemes on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers obviously have the edge on defense, as they have one of the top stop units in the NFL, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.64%, but Baltimore’s offense is still better than the Steelers offense even with backups in the lineup. As good as the Steelers defense is, their offense is equally bad, maybe even more so. They rank 30th in the NFL in first down rate at 31.42% and are starting overmatched undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges at quarterback. 

Baltimore backup quarterback Robert Griffin is far more experienced and proven at the NFL level, even if he is just a backup caliber talent. I’m not expecting Griffin to suddenly become the quarterback he was when he won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 over Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, but I’m excited to see how he performs in extended action in a scheme that actually fits his abilities and what we’ve seen from him in limited action and the pre-season has been promising. I don’t want to bet on the Ravens because of the uncertainty over how some of their backups will perform, but they should be the right side in this one.

Baltimore Ravens 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +2

Confidence: Low

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (6-9) at Buffalo Bills (10-5)

I’m going to do the rest of my picks this weekend as normal, but I want to get a couple quick ones out of the way. There are four games this week where a team is expected to rest starters with their seeding locked in or all but locked in. Two of those games (Baltimore/Pittsburgh and Houston/Tennessee) have one team playing for their playoff lives, so at least one side will be highly motivated in those matchups. In the other two games, the other side is eliminated from the post-season and might not care much about a game against an opponent who is playing a lot of backups. 

This game falls into the latter category (Minnesota/Chicago is the other). With the Bills getting eliminated from the division after their loss in New England last week and both the Titans and Steelers losing last week, the Bills are now locked into the 5th seed in the AFC and will rest key players for all or most of the game to keep them fresh for the wild card round. The Jets may play hard for pride, but I’m skeptical that they’ll take the Bills’ backups seriously, with the off-season right around the corner.

If neither of these teams are going to put much effort into this game, I’m not going to put much effort into this write-up. I would have this line calculated at Buffalo -6 under normal circumstances, so this line at Buffalo -1.5 doesn’t seem like it’s swung enough. In the Minnesota/Chicago matchup, there are 8 points of difference between my calculated line under normal circumstances and this actual line, but in this one the difference is just 4.5 points. I have no desire to wager anything of significance on this game, but I’m taking the Jets for pick ‘em purposes.

Buffalo Bills 17 New York Jets 16

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +1.5

Confidence: None

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (10-5)

I’m going to do the rest of my picks this weekend as normal, but I want to get a couple quick ones out of the way. There are four games this week where a team is expected to rest starters with their seeding locked in or all but locked in. Two of those games (Baltimore/Pittsburgh and Houston/Tennessee) have one team playing for their playoff lives, so at least one side will be highly motivated in those matchups. In the other two games, the other side is eliminated from the post-season and might not care much about a game against an opponent who is playing a lot of backups. 

This game falls into the latter category (Buffalo/NY Jets is the other). With the Vikings getting eliminated from division contention after their Monday night loss to the Packers, they are now locked into the 6th seed in the NFC and will rest key players for all or most of the game to keep them fresh for the wild card round. The Bears may play hard for pride, but I’m skeptical that they’ll take the Vikings’ backups seriously, with the off-season right around the corner. 

If neither of these teams are going to put much effort into this game, I’m not going to put much effort into this write-up. I would have this line calculated at Minnesota -9 under normal circumstances, so this line at Minnesota -1 is a pretty big difference. The Vikings won’t be able to rest everyone and the Bears might not care about this game at all, so I’m taking the Vikings for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no desire to wager anything of significance on this game. I am going to lock in one line I do like early (CIN +3) before the line shifts. I will consider that for Pick of the Week and will have a full write-up this weekend as usual. 

Update: For some reason, even though it was assumed all week that the Vikings would rest starters in this game, this line swung all the way to Chicago -3 when the Vikings announced they would be resting starters. Again, the Vikings can’t rest everyone and the Bears likely won’t put in much effort for a meaningless game against the Vikings’ backups, so I still like the Vikings for pick ’em purposes, but I have no desire to bet on this meaningless game.

Chicago Bears 17 Minnesota Vikings 16

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +3

Confidence: None

Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (6-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-9)

The Chargers have had a very disappointing 5-9 season, a year after going 12-4, but they’ve been much better than their record suggests, entering this game 6th in first down rate differential at +4.08%, especially impressive when you consider they basically play 16 road games, as they completely lack a fan base in Los Angeles. Most of their losses have been close, with their only loss by more than a touchdown coming last week against the Vikings, a game against one of the best teams in the league that was closer than the final score (Chargers lost the first down rate battle by just 4.36% in a 29-point loss). 

Turnovers have killed the Chargers more than anything, as they rank dead last in the NFL with a -16 turnover margin and have had more than a couple losses that have swung on turnovers. Fortunately, turnover margin tends to be very unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Chargers’ awful turnover margin doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll continue losing the turnover battle going forward.

One of their losses that swung on the turnover battle was their first matchup with the Raiders, back in week 10 in Oakland, a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 7.58%, but ended up losing by 2 because of a -3 turnover margin. Outside of those 3 snaps, the Chargers outplayed the Raiders significantly. The Chargers don’t have a homefield advantage, but I like their chances a lot in the rematch in Los Angeles, assuming turnover neutral football, which should almost always be assumed. 

Not only did the Chargers outplay the Raiders for most of the previous rematch, but they also have stud safety Derwin James available this time around, while the Raiders are missing a trio of key contributors on offense, running back Josh Jacobs and offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Trent Brown. The Chargers are without left tackle Russell Okung, which is a significant absence for them, but Okung only played 7 snaps in the previous matchup before getting hurt and has been absent for most of the season, so his absence is not anything new.

The Raiders, meanwhile, have had Incognito, Jacobs, and Brown on the field for most of the season, and, despite that, the Raiders have been significantly worse than their 6-8 record suggests. While their largest margin of victory this season is just 8 points, but all 2 of their losses have come by at least 18 points, with the only exceptions being a game in Houston in which they lost the first down rate battle by 9.28% and last week’s game at home against the Jaguars, who are arguably the worst team in the NFL and had lost their previous 5 games by at least 14 points prior to last week’s win. 

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders rank 29th in the NFL at -5.31%, a long way behind the 6th ranked Chargers. Their defense has been the biggest problem, ranking dead last in the NFL with a 41.36% first down rate allowed, but their offense, which ranks 36.06% in first down rate at 17th, could have a lot of trouble this week too without their feature back and a pair of talented offensive linemen. 

I typically don’t like betting on the Chargers at home, but I would expect this to be yet another blowout loss for the Raiders. Despite these teams records, the Chargers have significantly outplayed the Raiders on the season and they are also in a significantly better injury situation. We’ve lost line value with the Chargers going from 6.5-point favorites on the early line last week to 7.5-point favorites this week, but I still like the Chargers enough to bet on them. If this line drops back down to a touchdown before gametime, I’ll probably increase this bet.

Los Angeles Chargers 31 Oakland Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -7.5

Confidence: Medium