Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (11-3) at Arizona Cardinals (3-11)

The Cardinals were blown out last week in Atlanta, losing by 26 points to a team that had previously lost 5 straight games. That was probably in part due to the Cardinals not being totally focused, with this much bigger game against the Rams on deck, but, even if they’re fully focused this week, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll cover this spread. This spread is huge, with the Cardinals being 14-point home underdogs, but it’s justifiable given the talent gap between these two teams.

The Cardinals rank dead last in first down rate differential at -7.22% and might be even worse than that suggests, given all of their injuries. They are missing their top-3 offensive linemen, DJ Humphries, Mike Iupati, and Justin Pugh, their top receiver Christian Kirk, starting defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, and every down linebacker Josh Bynes, among others. On the season, 6 of their 11 losses have come by at least two touchdowns. The Rams don’t have that many blowout wins (4 wins by 14 points or more), but that’s in part due to a tough schedule. Those blowout wins came against the Raiders, Cardinals, 49ers, and Lions, all among the worst teams in the league, so they’ve taken care of business whenever they’ve had an easy matchup like this.

The Rams should also be fully focused for this game, as their schedule gets way easier to close out the year, facing the 49ers next week after this game against the Cardinals. Favorites of 7+ are 58-36 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 7+ again, as superior teams tend to take care of business without upcoming distractions. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have another tough game in Seattle next week and it’s proven to be very tough for inferior teams to hang with superior teams with another tough game on deck. Underdogs of 7+ are just 31-50 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 7+ again, including just 4-14 ATS if their opponent will next be favorites of 7+ again. I don’t want to make a bet on this game without confirmation that Todd Gurley will play for the Rams after missing practice all week, but I will revisit this if he ends up playing.

Final Update: Todd Gurley is expected to play and, while we won’t know for sure until later this afternoon, I want to lock this in now in case the line jumps from 14. The Rams have blown out every terrible team they’ve faced this season and that trend dates back to last season as well, when they went 3-0 against teams that finished 5-11 or worse, winning those 3 games by an average of 32.3 points per game. Without an upcoming distraction on the schedule for the Rams, I don’t expect this to be close.

Los Angeles Rams 34 Arizona Cardinals 13

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -14

Confidence: Medium

New York Giants at Indianapolis Colts: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

New York Giants (5-9) at Indianapolis Colts (8-6)

The Colts are a solid 8-6, but they’re even better than their record suggests. They had major injury problems earlier in the year, leading to a 1-5 start, but they’ve won 7 of 8 games since then, with 4 wins by at least two touchdowns. On the season, they rank 7th in point differential at +72 and 5th in first down rate differential at +3.95%. They’ve faced one of the easier schedules in the league, but they’re arguably even better than those numbers suggest, given how well they’ve played when healthy. With talented center Ryan Kelly returning last week, the Colts are as healthy as they’ve been all season, which should be a scary proposition for the rest of the AFC, with the Colts in the running for the final wild card spot.

The Giants also improved as the season went on, but they have a serious injury on both sides of the ball now, with #1 wide receiver Odell Beckham and Pro-Bowl safety Landon Collins on the sidelines. They blew out the Redskins without them, but I think that was more about the Redskins not giving effort with a hapless street free agent quarterback under center than anything to do with the Giants and the Giants followed that game up by getting shut out at home by the Titans in a 17-0 loss. I expect their struggles to continue this week and for the Colts to take care of business and win this easily. This line shifted from Indianapolis -6 to Indianapolis -9 in the past week, but I have this line calculated at Indianapolis -13, so we’re still getting significant line value with the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts 27 New York Giants 13

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -9

Confidence: High

Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) at New Orleans Saints (12-2)

The Steelers got a huge win last week, beating the Patriots for the first time since the 2011 season. That win was big for several reasons, as the Steelers were previously on a 3-game losing streak (all in upset fashion) and were in danger of falling out of the playoffs with another loss. The schedule doesn’t get any easier this week though, with the Steelers now having to go to New Orleans to play the Saints, arguably the top team in the league. The Saints haven’t been quite as good in recent weeks, but they’ve also been on the road for three straight games and are now returning home, where they have covered 4 straight games, winning by an average of 22.25 points per game.

The injury news also favors the Saints, who are expected to get left tackle Terron Armstead back from a 5-game absence. Armstead is one of the top left tackles in the league and getting him back should boost this offense significantly. The Steelers, meanwhile, could be without talented receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who suffered a groin injury in practice on Thursday and did not practice at all on Friday. They’ll also be without running back James Conner for the second straight week. Given these two teams injury situations, this line is short at New Orleans -6.5. As long as this line is under a touchdown, the Saints are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -6.5

Confidence: Medium

Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (10-4) at San Francisco 49ers (4-10)

The Bears have been better than their record all season. Even at 10-4 with the 3rd best record in the NFC, the Bears are better than that suggests, as their 4 losses came by a combined 14 points, including one game with a backup quarterback. Despite starting a backup quarterback for two games, the Bears still rank 1st in the NFL in first down rate differential at +6.57% and 2nd in NFL in point differential at +119. Because of that, I’ve picked them against the spread in every game but two this season and they are 10-2 ATS in those 12 games.

That being said, I’m not going to be taking the Bears this week because the 49ers are also better than their record suggests. They are only 4-10, but they are 3-3 since turning to 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens, who has played pretty well. They have moved the chains at a 38.16% rate in those 6 games, as opposed to 35.17% in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts. More important, Mullens has committed just 6 turnovers in 6 games, while Beathard committed 10 in 5 games.

Making the 49ers’ recent record more even more impressive is the fact they haven’t gotten a single takeaway over that 6-game stretch. In fact, they are -9 in turnover margin over that time frame, including -2 in their 3 wins. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent and unpredictable on a week-to-week basis and this defense has played well enough (36.88% in first down rate allowed at 18th) that they should be able to get more takeaways going forward. This is a quietly capable team with Mullens under center.

We’ve lost line value with the 49ers due to their recent upset wins over Denver and Seattle, as this line has dropped to Chicago -4 from Chicago -6 on the early line last week, but the Bears have also lost stud safety Eddie Jackson to an ankle injury in the past week, so that line movement is more than justified. An All-Pro caliber player, Jackson’s absence is worth at least 2-3 points. We’re not getting enough line value with the 49ers to take them with any confidence, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Chicago Bears 23 San Francisco 49ers 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +4

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1) at Detroit Lions (5-9)

The Lions have been pretty predictable in the Matt Stafford era, playing well against weaker opponents, but struggling in tougher games. Since Stafford’s first full season as a starter in 2011, the Lions are 20-40-2 ATS and 20-42 straight up against teams with a winning record like the Vikings. Most recently, they went 1-11 against eventual playoff teams between 2016 and 2017, as opposed to 17-4 against non-playoff teams.

The Lions have also incurred a lot of losses over the course of the season, losing right guard TJ Lang, running back Kerryon Johnson, wide receiver Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, and defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand, among others. Quarterback Matt Stafford is also dealing with a back injury that seems to have limited him in recent weeks. They rank 26th in first down rate differential at -3.29% and they’re arguably even worse than that, given all of their missing personnel.

All that being said, this line is pretty high, favoring the Vikings by 6 points on the road. If the Vikings’ offense plays like it did last week in their first game under new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, they should cover with ease, but that’s far from a guarantee, as inconsistent as their offense has been this season. I’m still going with the Vikings, but I would need this line to drop below 6 to consider betting money on Minnesota.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Detroit Lions 16

Pick against the spread: Minnesota -6

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (5-9) at Carolina Panthers (6-8)

The Panthers got off to a great start to the season, starting 6-2, but they’ve been in freefall ever since, losing 6 straight to effectively eliminate themselves from the post-season. Most of those losses were close, with five straight losses by a touchdown or less, and they won the first down rate battle in four of those close losses, so they could easily have 8-9 wins right now if a few snaps went differently, but with their season essentially over, the Panthers have decided to shut injured quarterback Cam Newton down for the season.

Newton getting shut down caused this line to shift to Atlanta -3, after originally being Carolina -3 early in the week (and Carolina -6 on the early line last week). Originally I liked Atlanta a lot at +3, because this isn’t a good spot for the Panthers, sandwiched in between two huge games against the Saints, but Newton has been part of the problem lately, throwing at least one interception in all 6 of the Panthers’ losses, including 6 in the past 3 games, so I think this line shifted way too much for his absence.

The Falcons are still an average team at best and the Panthers have played a lot of close games (7 of 8 losses by a touchdown or less), even with underwhelming quarterback play in recent weeks. New starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke is a complete wild card, with 5 career pass attempts in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2015, and we’re not getting nearly enough points to bet on the Panthers confidently with him under center, but I like the Panthers for pick ‘em purposes now that they’re getting a field goal.

Final Update: Kawaan Short was ruled out Sunday morning with a calf injury, after surprisingly playing through it last week against the Saints. That’s yet another big loss for the Panthers, who also placed linebacker Shaq Thompson on injured reserve this week. The Falcons, meanwhile, have played better defensively since getting linebacker Deion Jones back a few weeks ago. This is still a no confidence pick, but I’m changing sides.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (5-9) at New England Patriots (9-5)

The Patriots have lost back-to-back games for the second time this season, but that’s been a very rare occurrence for them in recent years. In fact, this is just the 8th time the Patriots have done so in the past 15 seasons. Even rarer is the Patriots losing 3 in a row, as that hasn’t happened since 2002. The Patriots need to do more than just win here to cover as 13-point home favorites, but history suggests they should be able to do that as well. Not only have they won their last 9 games after back-to-back losses, but they’ve also covered in 8 of those 9 games. All in all, the Patriots are 49-26 ATS off of a loss in the Bill Belichick era.

The Patriots have also been a lot better at home than on the road this season. Home/road disparities tend to be random more than anything, but the Patriots have been dominant at home for two decades (138-26 since 2001 with a +10.93 points per game margin) and they’ve played noticeably better overall this season than they’ve shown in their last two road games, so they’re a little undervalued right now at New England -13. The Bills have played significantly better offensively since getting quarterback Josh Allen back from injury a few weeks ago, but their defense is not as good as it was a couple weeks ago, with stud every down linebacker Matt Milano and talented slot cornerback Taron Johnson now out for the season.

With those two players out, I have this line calculated at New England -17. That might seem high, but the Patriots have won 4 of their 6 home games by at least two touchdowns, with the only exceptions being the Texans and Chiefs, who are currently the top-2 teams in the AFC. The Bills are obviously not on that level and even that Texans game could have been a two touchdown win if not for a 4th quarter muffed punt when the Patriots were set to get the ball back up by 14.

The Bills will give their best effort this week in a game they may be viewing as their Super Bowl, but the Patriots should be fully focused as well, off of back-to-back losses, with only an easy home game against the Jets on deck. Favorites of 7+ are 58-36 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 7+ again, as superior teams tend to take care of business without upcoming distractions. I expect that to be the case in this one, though I’m keeping this at a medium confidence pick because of the Josh Gordon suspension.

New England Patriots 30 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Medium