Miami Dolphins (4-3) at Detroit Lions (1-5)
This is one of the toughest calls of the week, as both teams are probably a little overrated. The Lions began the season as the highest scoring team in the league through 4 games, averaging 35.0 points per game, before being held to six points in their past two games by the Patriots and Cowboys. The common thinking seems to be that the Lions’ dominant offensive start was somewhat legitimate and that they just happened to run into dominant defenses the past two weeks, but I don’t think that’s correct. Even with the last two games taken into account, the Lions still rank 9th in the NFL in points per game at 24.3, but, in terms of first down rate, which is much more predictive than points, the Lions rank just 14th.
That’s still pretty solid, but it’s a big concern for a Lions team that has one of the worst defenses in the league and relies on their offense’s ability to keep up in shootouts to win games. A year after ranking 30th in defensive efficiency, about 4 points below average, the Lions have somehow been even worse this season, ranking dead last, about 5.5 points below average, especially struggling since losing two of their better players, safety Tracy Walker and edge defender Charles Harris, due to injuries a few weeks back. This week, they will be without starting cornerback Mike Hughes and starting safety Deshon Elliott as well. Because of their defensive struggles, the Lions rank just 26th in schedule adjusted efficiency, about 4.5 points below average.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, are 4-1 in games started by Tua Tagovailoa, but they aren’t blowing teams out, with their only win by more than a touchdown coming against the Patriots, in a game in which they won the turnover margin by 3, but lost the first down rate battle by 0.85% and only won the yards per play battle by 0.18, a concern because yards and first downs are significantly more predictive week-to-week than turnovers. The Dolphins still rank 14th in schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on yards per play and first down rate, even with the injuries they’ve had at quarterback, but my roster rankings suggest this line should favor the Dolphins by 3 more than it should favor the by 3.5, a big difference considering how many games are decided by 3 points exactly.
In total, about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, with 1 in 4 games decided by a field goal or less. In large part because of this, 3.5-point underdogs cover more often than any other line, doing so at a 53.0% rate, actually enough to be profitable in the long run. A line of 3.5 is actually much higher than most realize, in real probability terms it’s closer to 5.5 or 6 than it is to 3, and as a result, odds makers will often use 3.5 to trap bettors into betting the favorite, as bettors don’t realize how high the line actually is. That alone isn’t enough for the Lions to be worth betting and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the Dolphins won by more than a field goal, but the Lions are the pick for pick ‘em purposes by the slimmest of margins. At -3, I would take the Dolphins.
Miami Dolphins 30 Detroit Lions 27
Pick against the spread: Detroit +3.5