Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (0-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-0)

The Chargers won just five games a year ago, but they actually finished the season 7th in first down rate differential at +3.84%. How is that possible? Well, the Chargers went just 2-9 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and they also had a league worst -17 turnover margin. Turnover margins and a team’s record in close games tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Chargers went 6-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2018 and had a +1 turnover margin, with a very similar roster. The Chargers’ impressive first down rate differential from last year should be much more predictive than their turnover margin or record in close games.

The Chargers first down rate differential is even more impressive when you consider that they frequently played in front of visiting crowds at home, if they played in front of any crowd at all, and that they had terrible injury luck. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and those injuries disproportionately affected their top level players, so you could argue they were the most injury affected team in the league last season. 

Safety Derwin James (11 games), center Mike Pouncey (11 games), left tackle Russell Okung (10 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), edge defender Melvin Ingram (3 games), and tight end Hunter Henry (4 games) all missed significant time with injury and all were big absences. This year, the Chargers won’t have to play in front of fans at home at all (or possibly even on the road) and they should have better injury luck as well, as adjusted games lost to injury tends to be a highly inconsistent statistic year-to-year as well. Even though the Chargers are downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, I still liked the Chargers’ chances of being a playoff contender this off-season.

It’s not off to a good start for the Chargers injury wise though, as Derwin James is out for the season, Mike Pouncey will miss this week, and new offensive linemen Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga could join him on the sideline as well, which would leave the Chargers very thin upfront. Wide receiver Mike Williams could be out as well, after topping 1000 yards receiving in 2019. The Bengals won’t have stud interior defender Geno Atkins, but it’ll be hard to pick the Chargers as three point road favorites here if they’re missing multiple offensive line starters and their #2 receiver. I’m taking the Chargers for now, but I’ll need to check injury reports before deciding on this one.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Cincinnati Bengals 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -3

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0) at New York Giants (0-0)

I have these two teams about 7 points apart in my roster rankings, so this line is accurate, favoring the Steelers by 6 points on the road in New York against a Giants team that won’t have any fans. However, this is the kind of game the Steelers have not fared well in under Mike Tomlin. Since Tomlin took over as the head coach in 2007, the Steelers are just 4-15 ATS as non-divisional road favorites of 4.5 points or more.

I’m not sure that’s totally relevant this week though, for a couple reasons. The obvious one is the lack of fans, but also, because this is week 1, the Steelers are probably less likely to sleepwalk through a game against an underwhelming non-divisional opponent  (none of the previous instances that the Steelers have been significant non-divisional road favorites came in week 1). I’m still taking the Giants for pick ‘em purposes, but there isn’t nearly enough here for me to take them with any sort of confidence.

Pittsburgh Steelers 21 New York Giants 16

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +6

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (0-0) at Denver Broncos (0-0)

The Titans got a big boost on the eve of the season, signing edge defender Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal to give them a much needed boost on the edge. The Broncos, on the other end, were dealt a crippling blow on the eve of the season, losing edge defender Von Miller, likely for the season, with an ankle injury. The Broncos also will be without linebacker Mark Barron and possibly #1 wide receiver Courtland Sutton, while Bradley Chubb, now their top edge defender, is expected to be limited in his first game back from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season. 

Because of all of this, this line has shifted up to a full field goal in favor of the visiting Titans. What seems to be ignored is the injuries the Titans have, with top cornerback Adoree Jackson and starting edge defender Vic Beasley both out. The Titans also might not get a full game from Jadeveon Clowney, who is very new to the team. I still have this line calculated at Tennessee -4, so we’re getting some value with the Titans, but there isn’t enough here to bet the Titans as long as this line is at 3. If Sutton is ruled out, it’s possible I’ll reconsider.

Tennessee Titans 20 Denver Broncos 16

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0) at New Orleans Saints (0-0)

This is the most anticipated game of the week, with Tom Brady making his debut with the Buccaneers after two legendary decades in New England, squaring off against fellow future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, who are the reigning division champions. Adding Tom Brady to what was previously a talented roster kept down by inconsistent quarterback play makes the Buccaneers legitimate Super Bowl contenders, but I still have a pretty big gap between them and the Saints in my roster rankings, as the Saints enter the season with the most talented roster in the league on paper. 

The Saints historically start pretty slow, going 3-16-1 ATS in the first two weeks of the season since 2010, so I don’t want to bet them as favorites of more than a field goal in a stadium without a crowd, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Buccaneers start somewhat slow too before gelling later in the season, given all of their off-season changes. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -5.5, so the Saints are the choice for pick ‘em purposes, but there’s not enough here to bet the Saints.

New Orleans Saints 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (0-0) at Los Angeles Rams (0-0)

The Cowboys finished last season just 8-8, but that was primarily due to terrible luck in close games, going 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They finished 6th in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%, which both predict future success in 2020. The Cowboys lose free agent cornerback Byron Jones and their free agent additions HaHa Clinton-Dix and Gerald McCoy got cut and suffered a season ending injury respectively, but they did add a big upgrade on the edge in Everson Griffen. Right tackle La’El Collins and cornerback Jourdan Lewis are out with injury, but the Cowboys still rank 10th in my roster rankings even without them.

The Rams, meanwhile, lost significant players this off-season like Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Dante Fowler, Clay Matthews, Cory Littleton, and Nickell Roby-Coleman and didn’t bring in players who can adequately replace them immediately. They should take a significant step back from last season’s 11th rank in first down rate differential. I have them 22nd in my roster rankings, 5.5 points behind the Cowboys, suggesting the Cowboys should be favored by about 4.5 points, in front of an empty stadium in Los Angeles. We’re getting good value with the Cowboys at -2.5, so they’re worth a bet, in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Los Angeles Rams 19

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

New York Jets (0-0) at Buffalo Bills (0-0)

I am not as high on the Bills as most, as their success last season came almost entirely against easier opponents and now they have a much tougher schedule, but I’m surprised they are only 6.5 point home favorites over the Jets. The Bills’ schedule will get tougher this season, but it doesn’t start that way as the Jets enter the season with a bottom-5 roster. The Jets finished last season 26th in first down rate differential and, while that was partially due to their significant amount of games lost to injury, most of the players who missed time are either irrelevant or no longer with the team, including opted out linebacker CJ Mosley. 

The Jets also are already pretty banged up to start the season, missing starting wide receiver Denzel Sims and possibly safety Marcus Maye. The Jets are also without their other incumbent starting safety Jamal Adams, their top defensive player a year ago, who was traded to the Seahawks. The Jets have a healthy Sam Darnold under center, but their -1.42% first down rate differential in his 13 starts last season would have been just 20th in the NFL over the full season, despite the fact that the Jets faced a very easy schedule. 

Darnold will need to make a huge leap forward to carry the rest of this roster into playoff contention against a tougher schedule in 2020, without defensive leader Jamal Adams. They should be underdogs of more than 6.5 in Buffalo, even with pandemic restrictions limiting fans. I have this line calculated at Buffalo -8 and while I’m not going to bet on this one yet, if Maye is ruled out and this line remains the same, I would recommend betting the Bills.

Buffalo Bills 23 New York Jets 13

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -6.5

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (0-0) at New England Patriots (0-0)

These two teams went in opposite directions talent wise this off-season. The Patriots most obvious loss was quarterback Tom Brady, but Brady showed decline last season and could be adequately replaced by a healthy Cam Newton. The Patriots’ bigger concern is on defense. The Patriots had far and away the best defense in the league last season, finishing with a 29.64% first down rate allowed, significantly better than even the 2nd ranked Steelers, who allowed a 32.43% first down rate, but they only return 5 of their top-11 in snaps played from last season’s defense.

The Patriots lost a pair of players to opt outs (Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung), a trio to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Danny Shelton), and another in Duron Harmon who was traded. Harmon and Chung can be replaced effectively by free agent acquisition Adrian Phillips and rookie Kyle Dugger and the Patriots have great coaching and still have a good amount of talent, including promising young players like Chase Winovich, Jawhaun Bentley, and Josh Uche who could breakout in a significant role, but there’s no doubt the Patriots are worse on defense. 

On offense, Cam Newton will benefit from a healthier offensive line than Tom Brady had last season and a healthier Julian Edelman as well, but the Patriots did lose right tackle Marcus Cannon to an opt out and still don’t have proven skill position talent behind Edelman, which was a big part of the reason why they finished just 21st in first down rate last season. The Dolphins, meanwhile, added talent on both sides of the ball, adding much needed serviceable running backs and offensive linemen and adding key defenders like former Byron Jones and Patriot Kyle Van Noy, and are looking to improve on their 5-11 record from last season.

All that being said, I think there’s still a big gap between these two teams talent wise. The Patriots are unlikely to be a great offense, but there’s enough talent on their defense that they could be able to be at least above average on that side of the ball, especially if young players are coached up and come along in significant roles, while the Dolphins are starting with a lower floor than most realize. They did manage 5 wins last season, but they were consistently blown out and finished 30th in first down rate differential at -5.49% and last in point differential at -188. 

That’s despite the fact that they got close to a career year from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who single handedly won at least a couple games last season. Now in his age 38 season, Fitzpatick is unlikely to be as good and it’ll be hard for rookie Tua Tagovailoa to be as good as Fitzpatrick was last season either, whenever he is able to take the field. The Dolphins are a more complete football team, but might not necessarily win more games. I still have 7 points between these two teams in my roster rankings and even though the Patriots won’t have fans in the stands, we’re still getting some line value with them as just 6.5-point home favorites. This isn’t one I would bet, but I like the Patriots for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 24 Miami Dolphins 16

Pick against the spread: New England -6.5

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (0-0) at Atlanta Falcons (0-0)

The Seahawks weren’t as good as their 11-5 record suggested last season, as they went 10-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less and just 1-3 in games decided by more than a touchdown. They also lost Jadeveon Clowney this off-season and he was arguably their best defensive player last season. Despite that, I still have the Seahawks ranked 11th in my roster rankings, due to the incredible job they’ve done rebuilding their secondary. 

This off-season, the Seahawks added cornerback Quinton Dunbar and safety Jamal Adams to a unit that already saw significant improvement down the stretch last season after adding Quandre Diggs in a deadline trade. Including top cornerback Shaq Griffin, the Seahawks have arguably the best secondary in the NFL, which buoys a roster that is otherwise underwhelming around the quarterback and that is especially weak on the defensive line.

That being said, I don’t really like the Seahawks’ chances week 1, for a couple reasons. For one, they typically are a much better team later in the season, going 38-39-6 ATS in week 9 or earlier and 49-26-2 ATS in weeks 10-17 since Pete Carroll’s first season in 2010. Breaking that down even further, the Seahawks are just 6-13-1 ATS in weeks 1 and 2 over that stretch. This is a well coached team that normally figures it out by the end of the season, but they don’t usually start strong.

The second reason I don’t really like the Seahawks’ chances this week is simply that the Falcons won’t be an easy opponent. I have the Seahawks 11th in my roster rankings, but the Falcons are just one spot behind. I don’t have them making the playoffs, but that’s primarily due to a brutal schedule. The Falcons finished last season 7th in first down rate and 24th in first down rate allowed, giving them the 15th ranked first down rate differential in the league, and offensive performance tends to be much more consistent on a year-to-year basis than defensive performance. They also enter the season without injury concerns.

The Falcons won’t need to have a great or even a good defense to be a competitive football team and if they can be even just a few spots better than last season on defense while continuing their offensive performance, they could easily be a playoff caliber team. Given that, I think they’re a little underrated, opening the season as 2.5 point home underdogs. The Falcons won’t have their normal homefield advantage and very few games are decided by 3 points or fewer, so this won’t be a big bet, but I would consider increasing the play if this line happens to move to a field goal.

Atlanta Falcons 26 Seattle Seahawks 23 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2.5

Confidence: Medium

Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (0-0) at Detroit Lions (0-0)

The Bears won 12 games in 2018 on the strength of a defense that led the NFL in first down rate allowed, but in 2019 they fell to just 8-8 and were noticeably worse on both sides of the ball. Part of it was their schedule got significantly tougher after facing one of the easiest in 2018, but their defense lost a pair of starters to free agency, lost their defensive coordinator to a head coaching job, and then lost Akiem Hicks for an extended period of time due to injury, after having the best injury luck in the league on defense in 2018, while their offense continued to have issues at the quarterback position and couldn’t hide them nearly as easily as they did in 2018 with their run game and offensive line struggling as well.

In 2020, I expect things to get worse. After some off-season departures and opt outs, the Bears have just 6 players remaining from their top-11 in snaps played from their dominant 2018 defense and all six players are coming off of down years relative to 2018 when Vic Fangio was defensive coordinator. They’ve also done little to replace the players they’ve lost and their one key off-season addition Robert Quinn is set to miss what would have been his debut with the team due to injury. The Bears still ranked 8th in first down rate allowed last season, but this year I don’t expect them to be nearly that good, especially without Quinn. On offense, the quarterback situation has yet to be resolved and their offensive line and running game figure to continue to be mediocre at best.

The Bears look like a bottom-5 team on paper, but this line suggests they’re essentially on par with the Lions, favoring the Lions by just 2 points. The Lions won’t have much homefield advantage due to pandemic restrictions, but very few games are decided by fewer than 2 points, so the Lions really just need to win to cover. The Lions probably won’t be a playoff team, but they should at least be competitive, similar to the start of last season when the Lions had a healthy Matt Stafford. The Lions aren’t fully healthy with top wide receiver Kenny Golladay out with injury, among other minor absences, but they were one of the most injury plagued teams in the league last season and even in their current injury state, they still have a substantial edge on the Bears in my roster rankings. I have this line calculated at Detroit -6, so we’re getting a great value with them at -2. This is my Pick of the Week.

Detroit Lions 24 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Detroit -2

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (0-0) at Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0)

This is the biggest line of the opening week, with the Colts favored by 8 points on the road in Jacksonville, but I don’t think this line is high enough. Not only will the Jaguars barely have any homefield advantage with limited fans, but there’s a massive talent gap between these two teams. The Colts were just a middling team last season, finishing 16th in the NFL in first down rate differential at 0.79%, but they get a significant upgrade at quarterback going from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers, they get TY Hilton back healthy after an injury riddled 2019 season, and they added a massive upgrade on defense in DeForest Buckner, who they acquired via trade from the 49ers.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, finished last season dead last in first down rate differential at -6.64%, got substantially worse after trading away Jalen Ramsey, with a -9.00% first down rate differential from week 7 on, and they shed even more talent this off-season, including key players like Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. On paper, they are the worst team in the league, while the Colts rank in the top-5 in my roster rankings. Given that and the lack of homefield advantage, this line should be closer to Indianapolis -12, so they’re worth a bet at -8.

Indianapolis Colts 30 Jacksonville Jaguars 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -8

Confidence: Medium