Denver Broncos (3-3) at Cleveland Browns (3-3)
The rule of thumb in these Thursday games is to take a home favorite in a non-divisional matchup, as historically it has proven tough for inferior teams to travel on a short week and face a superior team that is out of their division that they are unfamiliar with. Overall, non-divisional home favorites cover at a 65% rate on Thursday nights, as long as both teams are on normal rest. The Browns are only favored by a point here, suggesting that the visitors are the superior team, but I think this line is way off.
Both teams are 3-3, but the Browns have been much better overall. Their three losses came against the Chiefs, Chargers, and Cardinals, who are all among the top teams in the league, with a combined record of 13-5 and no losses to opponents who are worse than 4-2, and two of those teams were decided by one score and could have gone either way. The Browns’ strength of schedule isn’t that impressive, but they went into Minnesota and won by a touchdown against a Vikings team that is better than their 3-3 record, while their wins over the Texans and Bears came in blowout fashion, with the Browns winning the first down rate battle by 11.26% and 18.86% respectively in those games and the yards per play battle by 1.02 and 4.24 respectively.
The Browns’ one blowout loss, their loss to the Cardinals, did come just last week, which is concerning because the Browns were dealing with significant injury issues in that game that will carry over to this game, but the Broncos are equally banged up. The Browns are expected to be without starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, their two top running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, their stud right tackle Jack Conklin, possibly starting wide receiver Odell Beckham, and their most impressive linebacker this season, rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, while the Broncos have lost wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, edge defender Bradley Chubb, and inside linebackers Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson since the start of the season.
The common narrative is that the Broncos got out to a 3-0 start by facing weak competition and have fallen back to earth against tougher competition, but the Broncos largely dominated their weak competition and looked like a legitimately good team, while their tougher competition in recent weeks has only consisted of the Ravens, Steelers, and Raiders. It’s not just that their schedule has gotten tougher; they have legitimately played much worse the past few weeks and injuries are the primary culprit.
This line has shifted from favoring the Browns by 6 points last week on the early line last week to a single point this week, largely due to the Browns injuries and their blowout loss last week, but it seems to ignore the Broncos’ injuries and their recent struggles, all against teams inferior to the Cardinals. When strength of schedule is taken into account, the Browns rank 16th in first down rate, 3rd in yards per play allowed, and 3rd in special teams DVOA, which are the most predictive metrics for each unit, while the Broncos rank 22nd, 23rd, and 25th.
My roster rankings have these two teams closer together and overall the value of the Browns’ injured players is more than the Broncos’ injured players, but the Browns still have about a four point talent edge and are still in relatively good hands under center because backup Case Keenum is one of the better in the league. Add in their extra homefield advantage on a short week and the Browns should be favored by a lot more than a point in this matchup. This might be a Pick of the Week if this was a Sunday or Monday game, but I hate having my top pick on Thursday before I’ve gotten to review everything during the weekend, so I’m keeping this as a high confidence pick.
Cleveland Browns 23 Denver Broncos 17
Pick against the spread: Cleveland -1