Atlanta Falcons (4-11) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5)
With the playoffs around the corner, the Buccaneers are one of the most balanced teams in the league, joining division rival New Orleans as the only two teams in the league to rank in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them in the early part of the season and, even as they suffered some predictable regression, they still rank 4th in the league in first down rate allowed over expected on the season at -3.06%, while their offense more than made up for any decline on defense, improving significantly as the season went on, with players like Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown being integrated into the offense after missing time earlier in the season, leading to them ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.26%.
Overall, the Buccaneers rank 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.33% and don’t have any glaring weaknesses as they prepare for what they hope will be a long playoff run. Their defense might not be quite as good this week, with talented cornerback Carlton Davis, starting linebacker Devin White, top edge defender Shaq Barrett, and rotational defensive lineman Steve McLendon joining long-term injured Vita Vea (out since week 5) on the sidelines this week, giving the Buccaneers their thinnest defense of any week this season, but they still rank 5th in my roster rankings, even with those key absences.
This line is lower than I would have expected, shifting from Tampa Bay -7 last week on the early line to Tampa Bay -6.5 this week, even with the Buccaneers playing probably their best game of the season last week in a 47-7 win in Detroit. Tampa Bay isn’t at full strength and the Falcons played a close game with the Chiefs last week, but the Chiefs haven’t won by more than a single score in a couple months, even against inferior teams like the Panthers, Raiders, and Broncos, and it’s rare to see a line drop even a little bit when a team plays as well as the Buccaneers did last week.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to be betting on the Buccaneers though, as the Falcons play a lot of close games (eight one-score losses, including a 31-27 loss to the Buccaneers in week 15) and have overall been much better than their 4-11 record, with a -1 point differential and an 18th ranked -0.30% schedule adjusted first down rate differential. My calculated line is still Tampa Bay -8, but the Falcons are also in a better spot, as road underdogs against a team divisional opponent who beat them earlier this season.
Teams cover at a 54.8% rate as road underdogs in a regular season rematch against a divisional opponent who beat them earlier in the season, as it tends to be tough to bring your best effort against an underdog who you’ve already beaten once. I’m still taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes, but it’s hard to be confident in them at all if they’re not getting significant line value in a bad spot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Atlanta Falcons 24
Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -6.5