New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (8-2) at Denver Broncos (4-6)

Sean Payton is getting a lot of credit for starting Taysom Hill over Jameis Winston in a 24-9 win over the Falcons, but the decision probably didn’t matter, as that win was really more about the Saints’ defense, which held a decent Falcons offense to just a 23.72% first down rate. That allowed the Saints to run the run heavy offense they wanted to run, which allowed Taysom Hill to avoid being exposed as a passer. The jury is still out on Hill as a starting quarterback, going into just his second career start, but there’s no denying the talent on the rest of this team, and, even with Hill being a questionable starting quarterback, the Saints still rank 6th in my roster rankings. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Saints rank 3rd at +4.15% and are the only team in the league to rank in the top-10 in first down rate over expected on offense (4th at +2.48%) and on defense (8th at -1.67%). That’s despite the fact that the Saints had a lot of injury problems even when Brees was in the lineup, with top wide receiver Michael Thomas (6 games missed), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (4 games) and David Onyemata (1 game), starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (2 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), starting tight end Jared Cook (1 game), and #2 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (2 games) all missing time with injury earlier in the year and having since returned.

Hill is unlikely to be exposed this week either, with the Saints being 6-point road favorites in Denver. The Broncos rank 30th in first down rate over expected at -4.27% and have one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league under center in Drew Lock, so I would expect them to have a very tough time moving the ball against a Saints defense that is legitimately one of the best in the NFL, which would allow the Saints to run their offense the way they want to run it again this week. 

The Broncos do have a strong defense, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.15%, but they’re missing one of the top defensive players in defensive tackle Shelby Harris and defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offense, so the Broncos’ defense is unlikely to be as reliably good as their offense is reliably bad. The Saints are a balanced team that is still one of the better teams in the league without Brees and they’re on an impressive run right now, winning 7 straight since starting 1-2, something they seem to do every season, going 89-57-7 ATS in weeks 3-17 since 2010, as opposed to 4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2.

The Saints are also in a better spot than the Broncos, who have to turn around and play another tough game against a Chiefs team that has dominated their division in recent years and that blew them out earlier this season, while the Saints only have a rematch against a Falcons team that they just beat easily last week, so they should be fully focused. The Broncos are 13-point underdogs on the early line in Kansas City and teams cover at just a 37.5% rate all-time before being double digit underdogs.

We’re not getting line value with the Saints as 6-point favorites, as New Orleans -6 is right where I have this line calculated, but the Broncos have some key offensive players that seem legitimately questionable in wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, right tackle Demar Dotson, and right guard Graham Glasgow, who would all be big absences if they were unable to go. Depending on what happens with the Broncos’ injury report, I may decide to place a bet on the Saints, especially if this line drops back down to 5.5, where it was on the early line last week. Even if not, the Saints should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: Saints left tackle Terron Armstead is going to be out after testing positive for COVID on Saturday, which is a big blow for a Saints offense against a tough Broncos pass rush. Meanwhile, all three of the Broncos questionable players are expected to play. Despite that, this line has gone up to 6.5 in favor of the Saints in some places. Given all of that, I’m changing this pick to the Broncos. This is a no confidence pick because of the bad spot that the Broncos are in, but my calculated line is now New Orleans -4.5, so this line is off. The Saints should still be able to win this game, but it would be hard to lay this many points with them on the road without Brees and Armstead against a team that isn’t terrible.

Update: Losing Terron Armstead to a positive COVID test the day before the game was a big blow for the Saints, but that’s nothing compared to the Broncos’ situation, as somehow they couldn’t manage to keep their four quarterbacks separate and, as a result, will have to be without all of their quarterbacks this week, with Jeff Driskel testing positive and their other three quarterbacks being close contacts. Instead, the Broncos will have to turn to an undrafted rookie practice squad wide receiver who averaged 5.99 yards per attempt on 251 passes and 4.69 yards per carry on 186 carries as a dual threat quarterback at Wake Forest from 2015 to 2018 before converting to a wide receiver in his final collegiate season in 2019. As a result, this line has ballooned from 6.5 to 14.5.

This is an unprecedented situation so it’s hard to say this with confidence, but that seems like an overreaction. The Broncos’ quarterback play had already been terrible this season and extreme run heavy offenses have had more success than you’d think in the modern NFL. The Broncos still have a great defense and, even with their quarterbacks set to the lowest possible value, I still have the Broncos ahead of the Jets, Bengals, and Jaguars in my roster rankings. My calculated line is Denver +7.5, so we seem to be getting significant line value with them at Denver +14.5. I say seem to be because, again, this is a highly unprecedented situation, so it’s tough to know how to address it. The Broncos should be able to cover that huge spread in what should be a low scoring game overall (teams are 30-20 ATS as underdogs of 14 or more in a game with a total of 39 or less), but I’m not sure if I actually want to bet any money on it. Maybe I’ll be bolder before gametime. For now, it’s a low confidence pick.

Update: I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to bet on a team that doesn’t have a quarterback. This line has ballooned to 16.5 in some places. With the total at 36.5, the Broncos have a presumed total of 10 points in this game, but they have a decent running game, offensive line, and kicking game, especially at home with the elevation, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Broncos exceed that total.  They would just need to bust one long run and kick a couple of field goals. The Panthers hit that total exactly in 2006 when they ran 52 times for 183 yards in 10-3 win over the Falcons in a game in which they attempted just 7 passes and frequently played without a quarterback on the field.

Even if the Broncos can only hit to 10, the Saints will still need to get to 27 to cover this spread, which is going to be a tough task without their starting quarterback and left tackle against a good defense in a game that figures to have a very slow pace. I mentioned earlier that big favorites typically have trouble covering in games with big totals, but a team being favored this many with this small of a total almost never happens and teams are 1-4 ATS in this spot over the past thirty years. This is a highly unprecedented situation so it’s hard to be too confident, but the Broncos should be a reasonable safe bet at this number.

New Orleans Saints 20 Denver Broncos 10

Pick against the spread: Denver +16.5

Confidence: Medium

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