Tennessee Titans at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (2-0) at Minnesota Vikings (0-2)

It’s weird to see the Vikings be this bad on defense, after years of consistently strong defensive play under Mike Zimmer, but it’s not a fluke, as this is just not a talented unit. The Vikings lost a pair of mainstays on the defensive line in Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph and, while they were replaced with Yannick Ngakoue and Michael Pierce, the latter opted out of the season, while the former is basically by himself on a defensive line that is missing Danielle Hunter, who is normally one of the top edge rushers in the league. The Vikings also just lost Anthony Barr from their linebacking corps due to injury, while their cornerbacks are very thin in part due to injury, in part due to lack of talent. Adding to their injury list, nominal top cornerback Mike Hughes is expected to be out this week. 

On offense, it’s tough to know what to make of this team because their week 1 and week 2 performances could not have been more different. In week 1, the offense did the most they could with the limited amount of time their defense allowed them to be on the field, picking up 25 first downs and 4 touchdowns on 49 offensive snaps, to give them a ridiculous 59.18% first down rate, but in week 2, they couldn’t get anything going, finishing with a 27.66% first down rate. Guard Pat Elflein didn’t play in week 2 after playing week 1 and he’ll be out again this week, but it’s unlikely his absence alone caused the big drop off from week 1 to week 2.

Realistically, the Vikings should ultimately be somewhere right in the middle of their past two performances this season. They finished 11th in first down rate last season and, while they lost wide receiver Stefon Diggs this off-season, they do have a healthy Adam Theilen. It’s going to be tough for their offense to keep up with what their defense puts up though, at least until Hunter is back, and especially against tougher competition.

The Titans are 2-0 and, though they haven’t been tested yet, I liked their chances of being a top-10 team coming into the season and, while they’re still missing top cornerback Adoree Jackson and top wide receiver AJ Brown, they’re actually healthier now than they’ve been in their first two games. I have them about 6 points better in my roster rankings than the Vikings right now, suggesting the Titans should be favored by about 3.5-4 points in Minnesota. That doesn’t seem like a lot of line value, with this line sitting at -2.5, but about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the Titans to beat the Vikings by a field goal or more, with the Vikings banged up and not having a normal homefield advantage, so they’re worth a bet as favorites of less than a field goal.

Tennessee Titans 26 Minnesota Vikings 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Las Vegas Raiders at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) at New England Patriots (1-1)

As crazy as it might seem, the Patriots seem to have found an upgrade on Tom Brady. In Brady’s final season in New England, the Patriots struggled to get consistent offense, finishing the season 21st in first down rate. That wasn’t Brady’s fault entirely, given his lack of downfield weapons, but the Patriots switched to Cam Newton this off-season and so far this offense is #1 in the NFL in first down rate through the first two weeks of the season at 48.12%, despite not adding any real downfield weapons. It’s not that Brady is a bad quarterback at this stage of his career, but this Patriots offense is much more oriented towards being a run heavy offense, with a good run blocking offensive line and a lack of downfield weapons, and Cam Newton is a better fit for a run heavy offense that lacks downfield playmakers than Brady because of his ability to make plays with his own feet. 

The Patriots defense isn’t what it was last year, but the Patriots still rank 2nd in the league in this early season in first down rate differential at +7.44%, only behind the Ravens. The Patriots lost in Seattle last week, but that was a tough situation playing a night game on the road on the west coast against a strong Seahawks team and the Patriots still came within inches of winning it and likely would have had a shot at an easy game winning field goal had they not missed a makeable attempt early in the season. The Patriots also won the first down rate battle in that game slightly, despite a tough situation, showing they still belong with some of the top teams in the league even without Brady.

This week, the Patriots return to New England to face a Raiders team that is getting some hype after a 2-0 start. The Raiders went back and forth in a close win over a very mediocre Panthers team week 1, but in week 2 they pulled an upset in their first game in their new stadium over the Saints. That win could prove to be a sign of things to come for this Raiders team, but it’s worth noting the Saints traditionally don’t start the season well, as they are just 4-17-1 ATS in the first two weeks of the season since 2010, as opposed to 85-53-2 ATS in weeks 3-17. Over the previous three seasons, the Saints won more regular season games than any team in the league, but they were just 2-4 in the first two weeks of the season, including a pair of losses to eventual non-playoff qualifiers. 

The Raiders also lost the first down rate battle in that game and have a negative first down rate differential (-1.20%) on the season, despite their 2-0 record, and they enter this game banged up, missing a pair of offensive linemen in Richie Incognito and Trent Brown, starting linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski, starting wide receiver Henry Ruggs, and will likely have their top-two offensive playmakers Darren Waller and Josh Jacobs at less than 100% after barely practice all week due to injury. It’s worth noting that the Patriots are also missing center David Andrews, a key player on their offensive line, but overall they’re in better injury shape than the Raiders and they’re in a better spot too. 

While Bill Belichick is 51-29-2 ATS off a loss since taking over as head coach in 2000, including 10-6 ATS without Tom Brady, the Raiders could be flat off their big home upset win, as teams are 45-69 ATS since 1989 as underdogs of 3 or more after a win by 10 or more as home underdogs of 3 or more. I’ll need this line to drop below 6 for the Patriots to be worth betting without Andrews, but I have a feeling this will drop before gametime and even if it doesn’t, the Patriots are the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 31 Las Vegas Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: New England -6

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) at Baltimore Ravens (2-0)

This is arguably the biggest game of the early season so far. Not only could it be an AFC Championship preview, but it could also decide the #1 seed in the AFC, as the winner would have a one game lead and the tiebreaker. That #1 seed is especially important under the new playoff format because, not only would the #1 seed host that eventual AFC Championship as usual, but also they would avoid playing on wild card weekend, which #2 seeds now have to do. In addition to the present implications of this game, this is also the third installment in what looks like it could be a long-time rivalry between the two best young quarterbacks in the game in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, who have won the last two MVP awards respectively.

The Chiefs are defending Super Bowl champions and won the previous two matchups between Mahomes and Jackson in 2018 and 2019, but despite that they are 3.5-point underdogs in Baltimore, where the Ravens won’t even have the benefit of normal homefield advantage. This line might not seem huge, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less and this is the most points Patrick Mahomes has been given as an underdog since his 3rd career start back in week 2 of 2018 (Mahomes is 4-0-2 ATS all-time as an underdog). 

That being said, I actually like the Ravens in this one. These two teams haven’t met since week 3 of last season and the Ravens are a much more complete team now than they were in either of their previous two matchups, primarily due to Lamar Jackson’s continued emergence as a passer and the addition of top cornerback Marcus Peters on defense. The Ravens have won their last 10 meaningful regular season games by an average of 22.2 points per game and, while their home playoff loss to the Titans is a black mark on their recent record, that game largely swung on an highly uncharacteristic -3 turnover margin and 0 for 4 on 4th down by the Ravens. Even including that game, the Ravens have a ridiculous +12.39% first down rate differential in their last 11 meaningful games.

The Chiefs are on a strong run of their own, winning their last 11 games, including three playoff games, with a +7.90%% first down rate differential over that stretch, but that number is still significantly behind the Ravens’ recent run, even if strength of schedule is factored in. The Ravens also have the obvious edge in this early season, with a +11.09%% first down rate differential, compared to +2.19% for the Chiefs. 

My roster rankings also give the Ravens a 3-point edge, suggesting they should be favored by 4.5 or 5 points, even with the diminished homefield advantage. The Chiefs have some question marks on their offensive line and defense, while the Ravens are a more complete team overall. I wouldn’t recommend betting on this if only because it’s silly to ever bet against Mahomes as underdogs of this many points, but the Ravens have the edge on paper and it wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up winning more easily than most people expect.

Baltimore Ravens 34 Kansas City Chiefs 27

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -3.5

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (1-1) at Seattle Seahawks (2-0)

It’s funny how narratives change. In 2018, the Cowboys went 10-6 with a 8-2 record in games decided by 7 points or less and they were seen as a team that was good at closing out games. In 2019, they went just 0-5 in games decided by 7 points or less with largely the same team as 2018, causing them to fall to 8-8 and out of the playoffs, and they were seen as a dysfunctional team that couldn’t close. That seemed to carry into week 1 of this season, when they lost a winnable game by a field goal to the Rams, but then in week 2 they completed a ridiculous 20-point comeback to win a game by 1 point that they statistically had just a 0.1% chance of winning with 2:52 left in the game.

The Cowboys wouldn’t have gotten a chance to come back if the Falcons didn’t seemingly forget the onside kick rule at the end of the game, but they also could have easily won their week 1 game in Los Angeles had they not decided to go for it rather than kick a field goal down three and there were some fluky things that led to the Cowboys needing to come back against the Falcons in the first place, like the Cowboys losing a trio of fumbles. 

The Cowboys lost the turnover battle by 3, but still managed to win the game, something that only happens in about 10.3% of cases of a team with a -3 turnover margin, and they won the first down rate battle by a margin of 10.80% that is much more convincing then their margin on the scoreboard. Combine that with their slight first down rate margin win in week 1 against the Rams and the Cowboys have a +7.25% first down rate differential on the season that ranks 3rd in the league. That’s more or less in line with their +4.28% first down rate differential in 2019 (4th in the NFL), when their poor performance in close games caused them to miss the playoffs.

Ordinarily, that would be a good sign for the Cowboys going forward because a team’s record in close games tends to even out in the long run, but the Cowboys are one of several teams in the league that have been destroyed by injuries early in the season. They are without their dominant offensive tackle duo of Tyron Smith and La’El Collins, pass catching tight end Blake Jarwin, starting linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee, starting cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown, and possibly top defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence. 

The Cowboys schedule also gets a lot tougher this week when they head to Seattle. Playing in Seattle isn’t what it once was because of the lack of fans, but this is also arguably the best Seahawks team in years and the Seahawks are relatively healthy compared to the rest of the league. I have the Seahawks 4th in my roster rankings and 6 points ahead of the beat up Cowboys. 

This line shifted from -1.5 on the early line last week to -5 this week, but it arguably didn’t shift up enough, as even with a limited homefield advantage you can definitely make an argument for the Seahawks being favored by more than a touchdown in this one. The Cowboys’ propensity to keep games close is enough for me to not wager on the Seahawks as 5-point favorites, but they may just be too outmatched talent wise in this game with all of the key players they are missing. If DeMarcus Lawrence winds up missing this game and the line doesn’t shift significantly, I may reconsider a bet on Seattle.

Seattle Seahawks 31 Dallas Cowboys 24

Pick against the spread: Seattle -5

Confidence: Low

Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (2-0) at New Orleans Saints (1-1)

The Saints lost in Las Vegas to the Raiders last week and it seems to be a common narrative this week that the sky is falling in New Orleans. Drew Brees’ production has been questionable through two games and some are wondering if the 41-year-old might be done, with some media conversations discussing whether or not the Saints would be better off starting backup Jameis Winston instead of the future Hall-of-Famer. That reaction is noticeable in this line, which shifted from 5.5 on the early line last week to 3 this week.

The part that is usually left out of that discussion is that the Saints pretty much always do this to start the season. Since 2010, they are just 4-17-1 ATS in the first two weeks of the season, as opposed to 85-53-2 ATS in weeks 3-17. Over the previous three seasons, the Saints won more regular season games than any team in the league, but they were just 2-4 in the first two weeks of the season, including a pair of losses to eventual non-playoff qualifiers. The Saints losing their 2018 home opener to the eventual 5-win Buccaneers didn’t mean the sky was falling that season, so I wouldn’t be so sure that losing to a competent Raiders team in their first game in their new stadium means the sky is falling this season.

Brees’ age can’t be ignored and neither can the fact that he is without his top wide receiver Michael Thomas for at least another week, but I had the Saints as my highest rated team coming into the season and they still rank 3rd in my roster rankings despite a slow start and the absence of Michael Thomas, so the Saints could end up being very undervalued going forward if they can get over their early season struggles like they always do.

I wouldn’t assume that week 3 is a magic week for the Saints (even if they are 7-3 ATS in week 3 since 2010) or that the Saints are going to get hot like they normally do until Thomas can return and the Packers are a quality opponent as well, but the Packers are without top wide receiver Davante Adams and could be without top defensive lineman Kenny Clark for another week as well, so they’re not at full strength either. If both of those guys are out, I still have the Saints as 5-point favorites in this game even without Thomas, so there would be enough line value for the Saints to be worth a bet. I’ll leave this as a low confidence pick for now, but I may update this tomorrow.

Update: Clark’s status is unclear, but I think this line might move up to 3.5 by gametime if he’s ruled out, so I am going to lock this in at -3 while I can. I am comfortable betting on the Saints either way because Clark could be hobbled if he plays.

New Orleans Saints 33 Green Bay Packers 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at New York Giants: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (1-1) at New York Giants (0-2)

Going into the season, I noted that the 49ers didn’t have the usual risk factors for a team that has a big decline after an impressive season, as they didn’t have an unsustainably high turnover margin, they didn’t win an unsustainably high percentage of their close games, they didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, and they didn’t have significant personnel or coaching staff losses this off-season. What couldn’t have been foreseen was the devastation that injuries would have on this team early in the season. I can’t remember a team that entered the season with this much promise losing this many key players to injury before the third week of the season.

In total, the 49ers are without their starting quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo, their top-two running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, their top-two pass catchers George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, their top-two edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, starting linebacker Dre Greenlaw, and their top cornerback Richard Sherman. A team that entered the season as an obvious contender has fallen all the way to 24th in my roster rankings. This line has shifted from favoring the 49ers by 6.5 last week on the early line to 3.5 this week, with many of those players going down just last week, but I don’t think this line has shifted nearly enough. In fact, I actually have the Giants better than the 49ers right now, so I have this line calculated at Giants -3.

The Giants are 0-2 and just lost their best offensive player Saquon Barkley, but what’s lost in all that is that they’ve played pretty well so far this season, particularly on defense. They’ve allowed tied for the second fewest first downs in the league with 37, with only Indianapolis, who has been on the field 34 fewer plays, having allowed fewer first downs than the Giants, and they’ve done that despite allowing a 54.84% conversion rate on third down. 17 of their 37 allowed first downs.came on third down and, conversely, their 20 first downs allowed on first and second down are the fewest in the league.

How well a defense performs on third down tends to match how well a defense performs on first and second down in the long run, which is a good sign for the Giants going forward. Overall, they’ve allowed just a 32.81% first down rate on the season, 2nd lowest in the league, giving them a positive first down rate differential at +2.90%, despite the Giants 0-2 record, which is primarily driven by a disparity in third down performance. That’s a good indicator that they should be better going forward.

The Barkley injury obviously hurts, but running back is one of the more replaceable positions and the Giants have to be happy with the process of quarterback Daniel Jones and their young defense. They may not win a lot of games, but they should at least be competitive in most of their games and they’re actually slightly more talented than this beaten up 49ers team right now, so they should be able to get the win here at home. Getting the extra 3.5 points as protection is just a bonus. This is my top pick this week.

New York Giants 24 San Francisco 49ers 20 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1) at Denver Broncos (0-2)

Several teams have been decimated by injuries early this season and the Broncos are certainly one of them. It started when they lost their best defensive player Von Miller for the year to a freak injury on the eve of the season and since then the Broncos have also lost starting middle linebacker Mark Barron, top cornerback AJ Bouye, starting defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones, top wide receiver Courtland Sutton, key running back Phillip Lindsay, and starting quarterback Drew Lock. The Broncos will turn to career backup Jeff Driskel this week (how much does John Elway want his Jeff Driskel over Cam Newton decision back?), with an inexperienced receiving corps, and an undermanned defense. They currently rank 27th in my roster rankings and they’re only even that high because there are other undermanned teams behind them.

This week, the Broncos host a Tampa Bay team that has mostly avoided the injury bug and is actually healthier now than they’ve been in either of their first two games, with both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin expected to be healthy together for the first time this season. The Buccaneers lost their season opener in New Orleans, but that was largely due to a -3 turnover margin, which tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, and they’ve actually won the first down rate battle in each of their first two games, giving them a 4th ranked +6.68% first down rate differential on the season. It’s very early, but that’s in line with their level of talent and what I would have expected for this team going into the season, especially if they can continue avoiding major injuries.

Despite that, the Buccaneers are weirdly only 5-point favorites this week in Denver. Let’s say the Broncos get two points for their diminished homefield advantage, that would mean the Buccaneers are only a touchdown better than this banged up Broncos team on a neutral field. This line only shifted from -3.5 last week on the early line (4 is not a key number), despite the injuries to Lock and Sutton. I have this line calculated at Tampa Bay -10.5, so we’re getting significant line value with the visitors, who should be able to come in and win by multiple scores. This is one of my two top plays this week, but there’s one I like a little more for Pick of the Week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Denver Broncos 13

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -5

Confidence: High

Miami Dolphins at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (0-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-1)

The rule of thumb on Thursday nights has always been to take a non-divisional home favorite, as teams cover at about a 70% rate in that spot historically. It makes sense. Road teams are at a bigger disadvantage on a short week because they have to travel and, while some of that can be mitigated if the road team is a better team and/or if the road team is more familiar with the home team because they are a divisional opponent, non-divisional home favorites are especially at an advantage. 

I’m a little bit more skeptical about that this week because the Jaguars won’t have a full crowd and because the Dolphins won’t have to travel that far for this in-state game, but the Jaguars should still be at an advantage because they’ll have some crowd noise and get to sleep in their own beds on a short week. Also, it may be early, but home teams have not been disadvantaged as much by their lack of fans so far as you’d think, as they’ve outscored opponents by 2.7 points per game (more or less in line with recent history) and have covered in 18 of 32 games. There is sleep science that suggests athletes perform at a higher level when they are able to get a good night’s sleep in a familiar bed and it’s possible that’s a bigger factor in homefield advantage than previously realized.

We’re also getting some line value with the Jaguars as 3-point home favorites, as I have them 2.5 points higher than the Dolphins in my rankings. Even if we don’t use the traditional 3 points for homefield advantage, the Jaguars still should be favored by at least 4-4.5 points here at home over the Dolphins. The Dolphins were expected to be better this season, particularly on defense, but so far their defense has the highest first down rate allowed in the league through 2 games at 48.36% and will be without their biggest off-season addition, cornerback Byron Jones, in this one. 

The Jaguars, meanwhile, have been better than expected on offense, in large part due to their offensive line and running game, which will both take a hit this week without center Brandon Linder, but they should still be able to move the ball relatively easily against this Dolphins defense. The Jaguars 44.63% first down rate on offense is almost definitely unsustainable long-term even with Linder and the Jaguars’ defense is also a problem as they are minimally talented on that side of the ball and have allowed a 43.75% first down rate on the season, but they should still have the advantage in this matchup. DJ Chark is a question mark for the Jaguars, but if he plays I will probably be betting on Jacksonville. They are the pick for pick ‘em purposes regardless.

Update: Chark is out, so I’m keeping this where it is.

Jacksonville Jaguars 30 Miami Dolphins 24

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville -3

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (1-0) at Las Vegas Raiders (1-0)

The Raiders went 7-9 last season, but they were not nearly as good as their record suggested, as all seven of their wins were decided by 8 points or fewer, including a few that easily could have gone the other way, while 6 of their 9 losses came by 18 points or more, giving them a -106 point differential on the season, which is much more in line with a 4-5 win team than a 7-win team. The same is true of their 29th ranked first down rate differential of -5.27%.

I was expecting the Raiders to be better this season, even if it didn’t necessarily translate into more wins, for a couple reasons. The first was off-season additions, most notably linebacker Cory Littleton, who signed on a big contract this off-season after being one of the best linebackers in the league with the Rams last season. The second reason was that I expected their offensive line to be healthier. The strength of this team along with the running game they block for, the Raiders have average or better starters at all five spots upfront, but those five starters played just four games together in 2019.

Unfortunately, this year is not off to a much better start in that category, with right tackle Trent Brown expected to miss this game. Without him and off-season addition Nick Kwiatkowski, who is also injured, the Raiders are starting to resemble last year’s team and the timing is not good, with the Raiders set to face the Saints, one of the top teams in the league and the kind of team that would have blown them out pretty easily last season.

Fortunately for the Raiders, the Saints come in pretty banged up too, missing wide receiver Michael Thomas, one of the best offensive players in the game, and talented starting defensive end Marcus Davenport. The Saints also didn’t play that well in week 1, beating the Buccaneers by 11, but losing the first down rate battle by 8.18% and winning primarily because of a +3 turnover margin, which is highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

Their relative struggles last week were likely in part due to injuries, particularly Thomas who did not appear healthy all game, but Drew Brees also had one of his worst games in years by a number of advanced metrics, a concern for a quarterback at an age where quarterbacks can drop off very quickly. This could just be a case of the Saints’ typical early season struggles, as even with last week’s turnover-aided win they are just 4-16-1 ATS in weeks 1 and 2 of the season since 2010 (85-53-2 ATS in weeks 3-17), but history suggests that’s not likely to go away for at least another week. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -6.5, so we’re getting some line value with them at -5.5, but there’s not enough here to take the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Las Vegas Raiders 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: Low