2021 NFL Head Coach Openings – Rankings and Predictions

1. Los Angeles Chargers 

Pros – Young franchise quarterback, talented roster, cap space to be aggressive in free agency

Cons – Ownership, lack of fanbase

The Chargers are one of the only two teams on this list with the most valuable asset in the NFL, a young franchise quarterback, Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Justin Herbert. However, unlike the other team the Texans, the Chargers have talent on the rest of this roster as well and, because their franchise quarterback is on a cheap rookie deal, they have the financial flexibility to add more talent this off-season, entering the off-season with the 9th projected most cap space in the league. 

There are concerns about the ownership and the lack of fanbase (once fans are allowed back in stadiums), but all of the available jobs have their warts and the Chargers’ job looks to be the clear best of the bunch. That is likely to be the consensus among head coaching candidates as well, so the Chargers could have their pick of the bunch. 

No head coaching candidate has been more popular than Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who has interviewed for every available position after three seasons coordinating the league’s most explosive offense in Kansas City with Pat Mahomes and Andy Reid, so he could have his pick of jobs. A pairing between him and Herbert and the Chargers would make a lot of sense.

Prediction: Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

Pros – #1 pick, tons of cap space

Cons – Weak roster

The Jaguars may seem like an unattractive opening, given that they finished with the worst record in the league last season, but this was always part of a long-term rebuild and the Jaguars are armed with an extra first round pick and a lot of cap space to build their roster and, of course, because they were the worst team in the league last season, they get the right to draft Trevor Lawrence, once of the top quarterback prospects in decades. 

This could be a quick rebuild and any head coach who takes this job will have relatively low expectations to start. Compared to the other options, there is a lot to like here. Multiple reports suggest the Jaguars are locked onto former college championship winning head coach Urban Meyer and are waiting on his decision to come out of retirement, at age 56.

Prediction: Urban Meyer, Former Ohio State University Head Coach

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Pros – Good players on both sides of the ball, ownership/front office, #6 pick, quarterback?

Cons – No financial flexibility, likely need to cut players, quarterback?

The Eagles are late to the game after somewhat surprisingly firing Doug Pederson earlier this week and they’re a complicated case overall. Probably more than any team on this list, the Eagles are a well-run organization from top to bottom and, despite their record last season, they have a lot of individually talented players. They also have a premium draft pick by virtue of their record last season, picking 6th overall. However, they’re already far over next year’s cap before re-signing free agents and may need to let some very talented players go, or further sacrifice depth on a top-heavy roster.

Then there is the matter of their quarterback situation, which could be viewed as either a positive or a negative depending on the incoming coach’s view of this team’s quarterback options. Some may see Carson Wentz as an exciting reclamation project who, prior to last season’s disastrous performance, had always been a capable starter and at times an MVP candidate, and some may see 2020 2nd round pick Jalen Hurts as an exciting young quarterback prospect, but the Eagles don’t seem to have a clear plan at the position and wouldn’t be able to get appropriate value for either quarterback if they were to move on right now. 

The Eagles may be a little behind, but they can still get a good offensive coach to help resolve this situation, with Arthur Smith or perhaps Joe Brady looking like strong early options. I have Brady going elsewhere, but Smith would still be a strong hire. In two seasons as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, Smith unlocked Derrick Henry as a feature back, coaxed a mid-career breakout out of Ryan Tannehill, and orchestrated one of the best offenses in the league in back-to-back seasons. Only 38, Smith is an exciting young candidate that is in high demand this off-season.

Prediction: Arthur Smith, Tennessee Titans Offensive Coordinator

4. Houston Texans 

Pros – Deshaun Watson

Cons – Weak roster, no first round pick, lack of financial flexibility, ownership/front office, Deshaun Watson?

I alluded to the Texans’ situation earlier, but I didn’t include the added wrinkle that the Texans don’t have their own first round pick this year and that star quarterback Deshaun Watson may want out. Add in the questions around their front office and ownership, their cap situation (7th least projected cap space in the league), and a roster that is arguably the league’s worst outside of the quarterback position and there are a lot of concerns about this opportunity.

So why do they rank ahead of other opportunities with so many cons and just one pro (who may want out)? Because Watson is that good. When you have a superstar quarterback like that in the prime of his career, other things tend to fall into place much more easily. Even if the Texans are forced to trade Watson, he would command a king’s ransom including multiple premium picks, which, along with the cap space freed up by moving Watson, would allow the Texans to adequately rebuild the rest of this roster long-term.

The Texans seem to be focused on the short-term in their coaching search, interviewing several older former head coaches like Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, and Marvin Lewis. They seem more likely to hire a steady hand that has experience being in playoff races to assure their veterans they plan on continuing to try to compete, rather than rebuilding with a young head coach. 

Caldwell is reportedly the favorite for the job. He’s an unexciting hire who has never really moved the needle as a head coach in his first two opportunities with the Colts and Lions, but he’s guided talented teams and has a winning record overall, including playoff appearances in 4 of 7 seasons (2-4). 

A football lifer, Caldwell, 65, coached in some capacity at the NFL or collegiate level for 41 straight seasons from 1977-2017, including a stint as Wake Forest’s head coach and pair of Super Bowl victories, as the Colts quarterbacks coach and then as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. Caldwell unretired for a year to be an assistant in Miami in 2019, before sitting out 2020, and seems likely to be willing to return a third time in 2021, for the right opportunity.

Prediction: Jim Caldwell, Former Detroit Lions Head Coach

5. Atlanta Falcons

Pros – More talented than 4-12 record, #4 pick

Cons – Aging roster, limited financial flexibility

The Falcons went just 4-12 last season, but their four losses in which they had a 95% chance to win in the 4th quarter, their 2-8 record in one score games, and their -18 point differential suggest this is a team that is a lot more talented than that record. That record also gets them the 4th overall pick. However, they have a relatively old roster without a lot of financial flexibility (3rd least cap space in the league) and might max out as a .500 team with this roster. 

The Falcons seem committed to keeping highly paid stars Matt Ryan and Julio Jones as they go into their mid-30s, so the incoming head coach will be expected to compete relatively quickly, which is possible, but not given, with this roster. The Falcons can add to this roster with their high draft pick, but they could also use the pick on a quarterback with an eye on the future, as Ryan is going into his age 36 season and isn’t getting cheaper. 

Hiring a young offensive coach may make that more likely and reports suggest they’re down to either Arthur Smith or divisional rival Joe Brady, who coordinated an overachieving Panthers offense in his first season as an NFL offensive coordinator, after coordinating a record setting offense at the college level with LSU in 2019. Also experienced as an assistant with fellow division rival New Orleans, Brady has an impressive resume for a 31-year-old and seems likely to get a shot at a head coach job, if not this off-season then within the next couple years.

Prediction: Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers Offensive Coordinator

6. New York Jets 

Pros – #2 pick, cap space

Cons – Ownership, weak roster, quarterback situation

This job would have been a lot more attractive had the Jets held on to the #1 overall pick and had the rights to select Trevor Lawrence. The Jets still have the #2 pick and the cap space to add to this roster this off-season, but they have an unfavorable ownership situation and they have the kind of roster where the cap space they have and the #2 overall pick don’t seem like enough to turn this around quickly. 

The #2 overall pick plays into the uncertainty at quarterback, where the Jets will have to decide between keeping 2018 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, guaranteeing him 25 million for injury in 2022, and trading away the #2 pick for more draft assets, or using the #2 pick on his replacement and trading Darnold for lesser draft assets. Darnold is only going into his age 24 season and could still develop into a starter somewhere else, while any quarterback they take #2 overall would not be a sure thing, but Darnold’s contract situation is much less favorable than a rookie’s and passing on a franchise quarterback in the draft could easily come back to haunt them as well. Whoever the quarterback is, the Jets will undoubtedly have to do more to support them in 2021.

The Jets may be passed over by some of the best coaching candidates, but they could still get a good candidate from division rival Buffalo. Daboll has only interviewed with the Chargers aside from the Jets and, though the Chargers seem to like Daboll, I have them going elsewhere in this scenario, leaving the Jets to get the guy responsible for helping develop Josh Allen into a franchise quarterback. The Jets would be hoping he could do the same in New York, either with Darnold or a rookie like Justin Fields or Zack Wilson. Daboll, 45, also has experience on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England and on Nick Saban’s staff at the University of Alabama, winning championships in both spots.

Prediction: Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills Offensive Coordinator

7. Detroit Lions

Pros – Some good players, #7 pick

Cons – Ownership, mediocre roster, limited financial flexibility

The Lions aren’t the worst team on this list, but it was hard to find big pluses for them. They do have some talented players in Matt Stafford, DeAndre Swift, TJ Hockenson, Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Trey Flowers, as well as pending free agent Kenny Golladay and they have the 7th overall pick to add to this team, but they don’t have a lot of financial flexibility, even before re-signing or franchise tagging Golladay, and they may be maxed out with their current roster. 

Injuries were a big part of the problem for this team in 2021, most notably Golladay and Flowers, leading to a 5-11 finish, but, even with better health in 2021, it’s hard to see this as much better than a middling team. They could opt to rebuild, using the 7th overall pick on a quarterback and either sitting him for a year or trading Stafford to get draft compensation and financial flexibility to build around their rookie quarterback, but it wouldn’t be a quick rebuild. 

Robert Saleh, 41, is one of the most in-demand young head coaching candidates, coordinating a dominant 49ers defense to a Super Bowl appearance in 2019 and then arguably doing a better job in 2020, when the 49ers still finished in the top-10 in most defensive metrics, despite missing half of their roster. He could probably get a better job than this, but he’s been rumored to Detroit because he’s from the area and they could certainly use his defensive minded coaching after fielding arguably the worst defense in the league last season.

Prediction: Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator

Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Chicago Bears (8-8) at New Orleans Saints (12-4)

Coming into the season, the Saints ranked a clear #1 in my roster rankings and were my pre-season Super Bowl pick (over Baltimore). The Saints weren’t a consistently dominant team this season, but they consistently played well overall, despite missing various key players with injury at different points in the season. They went 12-4 and finished 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.34%, even though quarterback Drew Brees (4 games missed), feature backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray (1 game missed each), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games) and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore, among other minor players, all missed time with injury.

All of the aforementioned players are expected to be available in this one. The Saints aren’t at full strength, but they’re much closer to it than they were for most of the season and they’re closer to it than most teams at this point in the season. They aren’t the #1 team in my roster rankings, but they’re only slightly behind Green Bay, with their most notable absence, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, causing them to fall slightly behind the Packers. They should be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl of any of the wild card weekend teams, as long as they continue staying reasonably healthy.

Making matters even better for the Saints, they have a relatively easy first round matchup, with the 8-8 Bears coming to town. In schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Bears are about as you’d expect from an 8-8 team, ranking 13th at +0.17%, but, unlike the Saints who are balanced on both sides of the ball, ranking 8th in first down rate over expected and 6th in first down rate allowed over expected, the Bears are heavily reliant on their defense, which ranks 7th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.30%, while their offense ranks just 26th in first down rate over expected at -2.12%

That’s a concern because defensive performance is much less predictive and predictable week-to-week than offensive performance. The Bears also have injury concerns on defense, most notably the potential absence of stud linebacker Roquan Smith, who has been a big part of their defensive success this season. The Bears’ offense has been better in recent weeks with Mitch Trubisky under center, but he’s struggled in their only two games against competent defenses over that stretch, both double digit losses to the Packers, while his other games have come against defenses ranked 26th (Vikings), 29th (Jaguars), 30th (Texans), and 32nd (Lions) in first down rate allowed over expected. 

Trubisky did lead the Bears to 30+ points in each of those 4 games, but he’s yet to prove he’s anything more than an upgrade over Nick Foles, which isn’t saying much. Of all of the playoff qualifiers, I have the Bears ranked last in my roster rankings, coming in about a half point below average overall. I have the Saints with a 9.5 point advantage, which gives us a calculated line of New Orleans -11, with the Saints at least having some fans in advantage for this matchup. Unfortunately, this line is up to New Orleans -10, with the public recognizing how lopsided this matchup is, but the Saints should still be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, even if there isn’t enough value here for the Saints to be worth betting.

New Orleans Saints 27 Chicago Bears 15

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Cleveland Browns (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Earlier this week, I was expecting to bet on the Browns. I had the Browns as the slightly better of these two teams, but the Steelers were being favored by a field goal at home, where they wouldn’t have any homefield advantage. The Steelers won one more game than the Browns this season, despite not even trying in their week 17 matchup with the Browns with the division locked up, and the Steelers have the edge in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+0.93% vs. -1.12%), but the Browns’ issues were primarily concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.14%, while the Steelers’ issues were primarily concentrated on the offensive side of the ball, ranking 30th in first down rate over expected at -3.56%. 

Offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance, which was a good sign for the Browns’ chances going forward, compared to the Steelers. The Steelers did beat the Browns easily in their first matchup this season, winning 38-7 in week 6, and then last week the Steelers’ backups came within a 2-point conversion of tying the game late in a 24-22 Browns victory, but those scores don’t tell you the whole story. 

In the first matchup, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was playing at far less than 100% through an injury and he was missing stud running back Nick Chubb and key right guard Wyatt Teller. In the second matchup, the Browns actually won the first down rate battle by 6.18% and led 24-9 late before Pittsburgh converted two 4th downs and stopped the Browns on a 4th down attempt of their own, to make the final score look closer than the game was throughout. The Browns seemed to be underrated, with casual fans putting a lot of stock in the first two matchups between these teams. 

The Browns also seemed to be getting healthier, with stud running back Nick Chubb (4 games missed), key right guard Wyatt Teller (5 games), #1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1 game), starting left tackle Jedrick Wills (1 game), starting tight end Austin Hooper (3 games), edge defender Myles Garrett (2 games), top cornerback Denzel Ward (4 games), and safety Ronnie Harrison (5 games) all looking likely to play this game after missing significant time earlier in the season. Unfortunately, that changed very quickly.

Most of the aforementioned players will still play, but Ward is considered a gametime decision and Harrison is out due to COVID protocols, as is left guard Joel Bitonio, who is just as important to this offensive line as Teller, who could be playing at less than 100%. Also possibly at less than 100% is right tackle Jack Conklin, who didn’t practice at all on Friday. The Browns also lost talented starting defensive end Olivier Vernon to a torn Achilles and also won’t have head coach Kevin Stefanski and some key assistants. 

Despite all that, I could still be talked into taking the Browns, as this line has shifted appropriately by 3 points, favoring Pittsburgh by 6. My calculated line now has the Steelers favored by 2.5 or maybe 3 points, with the Steelers having nominal homefield only and being just 2 points better than the Browns in my roster rankings, even with the Browns at less than 100%. I’m not going to place a bet on the Browns just yet, but when I have confirmation of who is playing in this game for Cleveland, I may decide to place a bet at +6. The Steelers won half of their games by fewer than 6 points this season, including matchups against the Broncos, Cowboys, and the COVID depleted Ravens, so the Browns could definitely keep this game close, even if they can’t pull the upset.

Update: The Browns won’t have Denzel Ward or fellow cornerback Kevin Johnson this week, but they will have cornerback Terrance Mitchell, linebacker Malcolm Smith and right tackle Jack Conklin, who were all listed as questionable, while safety Ronnie Harrison, originally out after a positive COVID test, was confirmed to be a false positive and will play. With all of the Browns’ Sunday COVID testing out of the way, I feel comfortable placing a bet on the Browns at +6, which I am locking in now because the lines have dropped to 5 and 5.5 in some places.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +6

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (11-5)

Both of these teams finished at 11-5 and qualified for the post-season, but they also both finished with negative schedule adjusted first down rate differentials, with the Titans ranking 21st at -0.91% and the Ravens ranking 25th at -1.64%. First down rate tends to be one of the most predictive metrics because it minimizes the impact of outlier plays and other metrics that aren’t predictive week-to-week, like turnover margins, missed field goals, narrow victories, return touchdowns, etc.

With the Titans, it’s easy to understand how they finished negative in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, despite their record. The Titans played one of the easiest schedules in the league and still needed to go 7-2 in games decided by one score or less in order to get to 11 wins. The Titans also benefited significantly from turnovers, leading the league with a +11 turnover margin, a very impactful, but largely non-predictive metric. Teams with turnover margin of +10 or better manage just a +0.05 turnover margin per game in the playoffs, so the Titans won’t be able to rely on that again this week. 

For the Ravens, the reasons they finished negative despite their record aren’t as immediately apparent as it is with the Titans. The Ravens did benefit from a below average schedule, but they are negative in first down rate differential even before schedule is taken into account (-0.58%) and they led the league with a +165 point differential, despite only having a +4 turnover margin, so they didn’t benefit from winning a high percentage of close games or from consistently winning the turnover battle.

Upon further analysis though, you can see that the Ravens played drastically better on 3rd and 4th down than they did on 1st and 2nd down, allowing them to lead the league in point differential despite a negative overall first down rate differential. The difference in their 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th down performance is enormous and it happens on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Ravens rank just 27th in first down conversion rate on 1st/2nd down, but 3rd on 3rd/4th down, while their defense ranks 28th on 1st/2nd down and 2nd on 3rd/4th down.

3rd and 4th down are more impactful downs, obviously, but how a team performs on 1st and 2nd down is much more predictive week-to-week and, likewise, there is little week-to-week or year-to-year correlation that suggests that teams can consistently exceed their 1st/2nd down performance on 3rd/4th down. In the long run, performance by down tends to even out. The Ravens were also really good on both sides of the ball on 3rd/4th down last season, but the key difference is they were really good on 1st/2nd down as well. 

In 2019, the Ravens’ offense ranked 1st in conversion rate on both 1st/2nd down and 3rd/4th down, while their defense ranked 4th on 1st/2nd down and actually “slipped” to 9th on 3rd/4th down. This year, the Ravens have struggled on early downs on both sides of the ball, but have greatly exceeded expectations on 3rd and 4th downs, which is unlikely to continue, especially against tougher competition. 

My roster rankings suggest the Ravens are better than their first down rate differential suggests, but even in my roster rankings the Ravens rank just 8th among qualifying playoff teams, so this is clearly not the dominant team they were last season. They have been hurt by expected regression from their defense, their offense being less novel, and the absence of arguably their most important three offensive players in 2019 aside from Lamar Jackson, with right guard Marshal Yanda retiring and left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle getting hurt.

The Titans haven’t been a dominant team overall this season either, but the good news for them is their issues have been primarily concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, which is much less predictable and predictive than offense. The Titans have had one of the best offenses in the league overall, ranking 4th in first down rate over expected at +2.16%, but their defense has been one of the league’s worst, allowing a +3.06% first down rate over expected, 2nd worst in the NFL, which is why they’re negative in schedule adjusted first down rate differential. 

If the Titans’ defense be can even a little bit better than they’ve been and their offense can continue playing at the level they’ve played at, the Titans are going to be a tough team for anyone to face and the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance gives the Titans a much higher ceiling than how they’ve played so far this season. The Titans are dealing with injuries upfront with linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Jayon Brown both out for the season, but their secondary got a boost when they acquired slot cornerback Desmond King from the Chargers at the trade deadline and they got a bigger boost when #1 cornerback Adoree Jackson returned from injury a few weeks ago. My roster rankings suggest they’re better on that side of the ball than they’ve performed thus far and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see them be at least somewhat more capable on that side of the ball in the post-season.

The Ravens’ talent level and common sense suggest the Ravens aren’t the 25th best team in the league like they’ve ranked in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but even on a talent basis I have these two teams about even, so we’re getting great line value with the Titans as more than a field goal underdog at home with at least some fans in the stands. In fact, my calculated line has the Titans favored by a field goal. The average bettor likely expects the Ravens’ 3rd and 4th down dominance and the Titans’ defensive woes to both continue, but history suggests that isn’t necessarily going to be the case, so let’s take advantage of that. I love the Titans this week and would make this my Pick of the Week if this was a normal week. 

Tennessee Titans 34 Baltimore Ravens 31 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +3.5

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

The Rams’ offense had serious injury issues last week against the Cardinals, but things seem to be getting better quickly. Running back Cam Akers, who struggled while playing at less than 100% last week, was not listed with an injury designation this week and, while fellow running back Darrell Henderson remains out, Akers should be healthy enough to be an effective lead back, with Malcolm Brown being a capable running back behind him. 

The Rams will also get #1 wide receiver Cooper Kupp back from one-game COVID absence and, probably even more importantly, they’ll get stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth back from a 7-game absence. The big question though is the health of quarterback Jared Goff, who sat out last week after thumb surgery. Goff reportedly practiced this week and threw the ball well, but he should be considered less than 100% even if he does suit up and there’s a possibility we’ll see unproven backup John Wolford for some or all of this game. 

The quarterback situation is a concern because the Rams haven’t been a particularly good offense this season overall, even with minimal injuries beyond the absences mentioned above, only one of which (Whitworth’s) was longer than a game. On the season, the Rams rank 21st in first down rate over expected at -0.36% and I would expect them to be even more below average now, given their quarterback situation. 

The Rams’ defense has been dominant, leading the league with a -5.05% first down rate allowed over expected, but defensive performance is much less consistent week-to-week than offensive performance. If the Rams’ don’t get a dominant performance from their defense, they could be in a lot of trouble and there’s no guarantee they’ll get one, given the inherent game-to-game inconsistency of defensive performance.

The Seahawks, in many ways, have been the opposite. Their defense struggled mightily earlier in the season, but they’ve been significantly improved in recent weeks, due in part to the inherent inconsistency of defensive play, but also due to the return of top cornerback Shaq Griffin and top safety Jamal Adams, as well as the addition of top edge rusher Carlos Dunlap at the trade deadline. Now they rank 15th in the league in first down rate allowed at +0.28% and they’re more talented than that suggests when Griffin, Adams, and Dunlap are on the field together

That gives the Seahawks a great compliment for an offense that has remained strong throughout the season, ranking 6th in first down rate over expected at +2.05%. They’re also getting healthier on offense, as left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Brandon Shell will return, giving the Seahawks’ their full offensive line healthy together for the first time since week 4. I’m going to leave this as a low confidence pick at -3 for now, but only because I want to see what happens with this line when Goff is announced as the starter, which seems like it will be the case. If this line drops below 2.5, the Seahawks are an easy bet and, even if it stays put at 3, I could be talked into betting Seattle.

Update: I don’t expect this line to go down to 2.5 anymore because the news on Goff on gameday isn’t as good as it was earlier in the week, when it seemed likely that he would play. Now reports suggest he may only be active as an emergency backup, meaning unproven backup John Wolford would be likely to play all or most of this game. If that turns out to be the case, this line may shoot back up to 3.5-4.5. I think that’s more likely than a drop to 2.5, so I’m going to lock in -3. Even if Goff is able to play, it would likely be at less than 100% and I like getting the Seahawks as mere field goal favorites against a banged up Goff or his backup Wolford.

Seattle Seahawks 23 Los Angeles Rams 17

Pick against the spread: Seattle -3

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Buffalo Bills (13-3)

The Colts qualified for the post-season at 11-5 and their 8th ranked +89 point differential is what you’d expect from an 11-win team, but they benefited from the league’s 2nd best turnover margin at +10 and the league’s easiest schedule, two things that don’t bode well for this Colts team as they head into the post-season. Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and teams with a turnover margin of +10 or better manage just a +0.05 turnover margin in the playoffs, so the Colts won’t be able to rely on that again this week. On top of that, their strength of schedule is going up significantly, as the Bills are arguably the top team in the AFC.

The Kansas City Chiefs get a lot more attention as defending Super Bowl Champions and the AFC’s #1 seed, but it was the Bills that led the league by a wide margin with a +4.67% first down rate over expected (Kansas City finished second at +3.61%) and that lead the AFC with 31.3 points per game. Both of those hold up even when you discount the Chiefs’ last game in which they rested their key players. The Chiefs have a slight edge on defense over the Bills (+0.88% vs. +1.22%), but even with their defensive edge, Kansas City still ranks behind the Bills in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+3.45% vs. +2.73%) and defensive performance is much less consistent week-to-week than offensive performance. 

The Bills’ defense has also played a lot better in recent weeks since getting healthier, particularly with top linebacker Matt Milano back. Their improved defense, paired with a consistently dominant offense, is the primary reason why they’ve won all 6 games since their bye week, by at least 10 points each, making them just the 9th team in the last 30 seasons to win at least 6 games in a row by double digits, including the 2nd (2014 Seahawks) to carry a streak like that into the post-season, although just two of nine went on to win the Super Bowl, for what it’s worth.

Ranking 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, only behind a trio of NFC teams, despite a defense that has overall ranked 25th in first down rate allowed over expected on the season at +1.22%, the Bills should be considered one of the top Super Bowl contenders going into the post-season and perhaps the favorite in the AFC if quarterback Josh Allen can continue his dominant season (I might give the Chiefs a slight edge because Mahomes is more playoff experienced).

The Colts, meanwhile, finished just 14th in the league in first down rate differential at +0.08%, once strength of schedule is taken into account, so there is a pretty big gap between these two teams. The Bills should also have some homefield advantage in this matchup, with at least some fans being allowed into the Bills’ first home playoff game since 1995. Unfortunately, we’re not getting great line value with the Bills as 6-point home favorites, as they’re not underrated anymore after 6 straight wins that weren’t all that close. My calculated line is Buffalo -7, so I’d need this line to drop to 5.5 to consider placing a bet on the Bills.

Buffalo Bills 31 Indianapolis Colts 24

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -6

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Washington Football Team (7-9)

The Washington Football Team has made the post-season at 7-9, just the third time in NFL history a team with a losing record has made the playoffs. Washington’s record and the fact that they only qualified for the playoffs because they’re in a terrible division in the NFC East has caused them to be seen as an illegitimate playoff team by some, but Washington actually could have had 9 or 10 wins fairly easily, as their went 0-3 in games decided by 3 points or fewer, including a pair of games against the Giants in which they lost by 4 points combined, despite winning the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, as a result of a combined -6 turnover margin in those 2 games. 

Turnover margin is highly inconsistent week-to-week and Washington was +2 in turnovers other than those 2 games, so it’s not hard to see how Washington could easily be 9-7 right now (not even including a near victory against Detroit). If Washington was 9-7, I think they would be getting a little bit more respect going into the post-season, especially since they are 5-1 in games started by Alex Smith, with the one loss being that loss to Detroit. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington ranks 10th at +1.57%, which is also in line with roughly a 9-7 team.

Washington is led by their defense, which ranks 3rd in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.36%. That’s somewhat of a concern because defensive play is much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive play and Washington’s offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.79%, but Washington’s offense has been better in recent weeks. Not only because Alex Smith has been their best starting quarterback this season, but also because their offensive line is at full strength and playing at a high level in recent weeks. That helped them stay competitive even in the two games Alex Smith missed with injury down the stretch.

Unfortunately, Smith’s injury situation seems to be getting worse, not better, with Washington looking likely to rotate Smith and Taylor Heinicke at quarterback in this one, to keep Smith fresh. Heinicke even took most of the first team reps in practice on Thursday, though Smith is still expected to be able to go in a limited capacity. Heinicke is probably better than either Kyle Allen or Dwayne Haskins, Washington’s other quarterbacks besides Smith this season, and Washington’s offensive line should be a big help for him, but, of further concern, their feature back Antonio Gibson and top wide receiver Terry McLaurin are also playing at less than 100% through injuries, though they’re both in better shape than Smith. The injury uncertainty of their three most important offensive skill position players makes it tough to be confident in Washington.

What also makes it tough to be confident in Washington is that their opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are legitimately one of the best teams in the league and, while they might not quite justify being 8-point favorites over a capable Washington team, they come close to it, so we’re not getting the kind of line value with Washington that we could need to bet them in their current injury situation. Like Washington was better than their 7-9 record, Tampa Bay was also better than their 11-5 record, as their 5 losses all came against playoff qualifiers, including 3 losses by 3 points or fewer. 

Overall, Tampa Bay finished 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.46% and they were one of just two teams in the league (New Orleans) to finish in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them early in the season and, though they had some expected regression on that side of the ball, they still finished 5th at -2.77%, while their offense improved as the season went on and Tom Brady got more familiarity in this offense and more consistency from his receiving corps, leading to them finishing 9th at +1.69%. My roster rankings also support the Buccaneers being seen as a top contender, ranking Tampa Bay 3rd among playoff qualifiers. We’re still getting some line value with Washington (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -6.5, with Washington’s injury uncertainty factored in), but not nearly enough to be confident in them in their current injury situation.

Update: Smith has been ruled out and this line has jumped to 10 in response. I don’t think Heinicke is a big downgrade from a banged up Smith and he’s played better than all of Washington’s other non-Alex Smith quarterbacks, so I like Washington against the spread little more at the new line, though not nearly enough to bet on them.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Washington Football Team 16

Pick against the spread: Washington +10

Confidence: Low

NFL Against The Spread Pick Results (2013-2020)

2020 Regular Season

Total Against the Spread: 130-122-4 (51.59%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 16-12 (57.14%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 39-34-1 (53.42%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 65-52-2 (55.66%)

Low Confidence Picks: 46-38 (54.76%)

No Confidence Picks: 19-32-2 (37.25%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 18-18 (50.00%)

2019

Total Against the Spread: 134-125-8 (51.74%)

Pick of the Week: 12-3-2 (80.00%)

High Confidence Picks: 20-11-1 (64.52%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 35-36-2 (49.30%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 67-50-5 (57.26%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-40-1 (46.67%)

No Confidence Picks: 32-35-2 (47.76%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 22-21 (51.16%)

2018

Total Against the Spread: 154-102-11 (60.16%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-13-2 (61.76%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 41-27-1 (60.29%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 72-46-4 (61.02%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-28-1 (55.56%)

No Confidence Picks: 47-28-6 (62.67%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 25-17-1 (59.52%)

2017

Total Against the Spread: 139-120-8 (53.67%)

Pick of the Week: 11-6 (64.71%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-11-3 (65.63%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 33-34-1 (49.25%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 65-51-4 (56.03%)

Low Confidence Picks: 44-38-4 (53.66%)

No Confidence Picks: 30-31 (49.18%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 19-25 (43.18%)

2016

Total Against the Spread: 130-127-10 (50.58%)

Pick of the Week: 11-6-0 (64.71%)

High Confidence Picks: 12-17-2 (41.38%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 42-26-4 (61.76%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 65-49-6 (57.02%)

Low Confidence Picks: 34-40-2 (45.95%)

No Confidence Picks: 31-38-2 (44.93%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 26-25 (50.98%)

2015

Total Against the Spread: 124-138-5 (47.33%)

Pick of the Week: 9-8 (52.94%)

High Confidence Picks: 14-11 (56.00%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 35-36-1 (49.30%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 58-55-1 (51.33%)

Low Confidence Picks: 36-45-2 (44.44%)

No Confidence Picks: 30-38-2 (44.12%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 16-30 (34.78%)

2014

Total Against the Spread: 150-113-4 (57.03%)

Pick of the Week: 9-7-1 (56.25%)

High Confidence Picks: 9-11 (45.00%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 57-31 (64.77%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 75-49-1 (60.48%)

Low Confidence Picks: 36-32-2 (52.94%)

No Confidence Picks: 39-32-1 (54.93%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 19-25 (43.18%)

2013

Total Against the Spread: 148-110-9 (57.36%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 25-10-1 (71.43%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 32-26 (55.17%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 67-42-2 (61.47%)

Low Confidence Picks: 39-28-3 (58.21%)

No Confidence Picks: 42-40-4 (51.22%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 27-31 (46.55%)

All-Time (Since 2013)

Total Against the Spread: 1109-957-59 (53.68%)

Pick of the Week: 82-48-6 (63.08%)

High Confidence Picks: 138-96-9 (58.97%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 314-250-10 (55.67%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 534-394-25 (57.54%)

Low Confidence Picks: 305-289-15 (51.35%)

No Confidence Picks: 270-274-19 (49.63%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 172-192-1 (47.25%)