Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Chargers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (9-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-8)

The Chargers’ victory in Jacksonville last week was highly impressive. The Jaguars have been an awful team in recent weeks, but the Chargers still gave them their biggest loss of the season by score of 45-10 and they won the first down rate battle by a ridiculous 31.50%, the highest single game margin of the season, eclipsing New England’s week 2 victory in Miami (29.66%). The Chargers are still just 5-8 after going 12-4 last season, but don’t let the record fool you. The core of last year’s 12-4 team is still there and is more or less healthy right now.

Earlier in the season, tight end Hunter Henry (4 games), left tackle Russell Okung (8 games), defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games), running back Melvin Gordon (4 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), and safety Derwin James (11 games) all missed significant time, but they’re all active now. They have a pair of expected starters on injured reserve, center Mike Pouncey and wide receiver Travis Benjamin, but neither was playing well before going down, so that’s not a big deal.

Even with the injuries they’ve had, the Chargers still rank 5th in first down rate differential at +4.72%, as they’ve managed a +38 point differential despite a -10 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so the Chargers aren’t necessarily going to continue losing the turnover battle going forward. Given that all 8 of their losses have come by a touchdown or less, in several cases swinging on a turnover or two, there’s a good argument to be made that the Chargers would be competing for the AFC West title right now if they had their key players healthy all season.

Unfortunately, we’re starting to lose some line value with them, as the Chargers are only 1.5 point home underdogs this week against the Vikings, after being 3 point underdogs on the early line last week. I don’t like to bet the Chargers at home anyway, as they have no fans in Los Angeles. Since moving in 2017, they are 7-12-1 ATS at home and 15-8-2 ATS on the road. Especially with the Chargers out of the playoff race, I would expect this crowd to be mostly Vikings fans. I only use a 1 point for homefield in Chargers games (instead of the traditional 2.5 or 3) and I have these two teams about even, so my calculated line is Chargers -1. The Vikings are in a potential trap game spot with a big divisional matchup against the Packers on deck, but there isn’t enough line value with the Chargers for them to be worth betting at +1.5. The money line isn’t a bad bet at +105 though, as this game is slightly better than a toss up for the Chargers.

Los Angeles Chargers 26 Minnesota Vikings 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)

The Bills only lost by a touchdown at home last week to the AFC leading Ravens and they even had a shot to tie the game at the end, getting stopped on 4th down on the Ravens’ 18-yard line to end the game, but the Bills weren’t quite as competitive in that game as the end result suggests. The Ravens held a 15 point lead into the middle of the 4th quarter and won the first down rate battle by 10.59%. The Ravens had more first downs (18 to 16) and more offensive touchdowns (3 to 1), despite running 9 fewer offensive plays (68 to 59). The Bills’ defense was impressive in holding the Ravens to just 4.4 yards per play, but their offense managed a pathetic 3.1 yards per play.

Even with last week’s game against the now 12-2 Ravens included, the Bills are still tied with the Jets for the easiest schedule in the NFL at 42% and they haven’t fared well against average or better opponents. In their 6 matchups against opponents that are currently 6-7 or better, they are just 2-4 with a -2.18% first down rate differential, as opposed to 7-0 with a +6.28% first down rate differential in their other 7 games (combined opponents record of 22-70).

With that in mind, the Bills could have some real trouble this week on the road in Pittsburgh against the 8-5 Steelers. The Steelers looked dead in the water after a 1-4 start, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberer out for the season, but those four teams they lost to turned out to be 4 of the best teams in the NFL (Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens) and they’ve won 7 of 8 games since, including wins over competent opponents like the Colts, Rams, and Browns. 

Their defense leads the way, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.41%. Since their week 7 bye, they’ve been even better defensively, ranking as the 2nd best defense in the league in first down rate allowed over that stretch at 30.23%. Their offense has been a different story, as they rank 27th in first down rate at 32.16% on the season, but they’ve played significantly better with Devlin Hodges under center than they did with Mason Rudolph under center. Not only does Hodges have a QB rating about 23 points higher than Rudolph, but he’s led the Steelers to a 36.53% first down rate in his 3 starts (3-0), as opposed to a 30.94% first down rate in their other 10 games. 

Hodges was supposed to be getting running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back from injury this week and I was considering the Steelers as my Pick of the Week as a result, but Smith-Schuster had a setback in practice and will not return this week. Still, the return of Conner should help this offense and with wide receivers James Washington and Diontae Johnson showing more in recent weeks, the absence of Smith-Schuster isn’t as big of a deal.

The Steelers will not be my Pick of the Week this week, but I do think they’re worth betting on. At the very least, these two teams should be considered about even, but I give the slight edge to the Steelers because they’ve shown more competence in tough games and because they’ve been a better team since changing quarterbacks. This line, favoring the Steelers at home by just one point, suggests the Bills are the better team. My calculated line is Pittsburgh -3.5 and with about 20% of games decided by 2-3 points, we’re getting pretty significant line value with the Steelers at -1. This isn’t a huge play, but this spread definitely seems off.

Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -1

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-9) at San Francisco 49ers (11-2)

The 49ers got a huge win last week in New Orleans in arguably the game of the year in the NFL thus far. With head-to-head wins over the Packers and Saints, the 49ers are in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the NFC if they can hold off the Seahawks for the division. Unfortunately, that game did not come without losses for the 49ers, as they will be without cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams, defensive end Dee Ford, defensive tackle DJ Jones, and center Weston Richburg for at least this week, some of them for an extended period of time. They join safety Jaquiski Tartt, defensive end Ronald Blair, and linebacker Kwon Alexander on the sidelines. 

The 49ers have dealt with key injuries pretty much all season, but this is the most banged up they’ve been at once and, as a result, they enter this game just 7th in my roster rankings. They also might not bring their best effort this week, playing a 4-win Falcons team in between a huge win against the Saints and a divisional matchup with the Rams. The Falcons have been better since their bye, but the 49ers probably won’t take them as seriously as some of their recent opponents like the Ravens and Saints.

With that in mind, I like the Falcons a good amount this week. The Falcons are dealing with some key injuries as well, losing wide receiver Calvin Ridley and cornerback Desmond Trufant for the season last week, but they’re in much better shape injury wise than the 49ers and they’re better than their 4-9 record suggests. On the season, they rank 18th in first down rate differential, but have been held back by a -7 turnover margin, which tends to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

During their week 9 bye, the Falcons were just 1-7 with a -12 turnover margin, but a -0.29% first down rate differential. Since that bye, their first down rate differential is largely unchanged at -0.18%, but they’re +4 in turnover margin and, as a result, have won 3 out of 5 games. It’ll obviously still be tough for the Falcons to win straight up on the road against the 49ers, even with the 49ers at much less than full strength, but we’re getting 11 points of cushion with them, so they definitely don’t have to win to cover. My calculated line is 7.5, so we’re getting enough value with the visitors for them to be worth a bet.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +11

Confidence: Medium

Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (5-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)

Last week, the Broncos were 9-point underdogs in Houston against a Texans team that was likely to have a let down performance after a huge win over the Patriots the week before. With a defense that has consistently ranked in the top-8 in first down rate allowed all season and a promising new quarterback under center in Drew Lock, the Broncos seemed like a smart bet last week. Ultimately, they exceeded everyone’s expectations, getting a convincing win on the road against a team in first place in their division.

This week, the Broncos are in a similar situation in Kansas City against a Chiefs team that is likely to have a let down performance after a huge win over the Patriots last week, and yet, despite last week’s strong performance, the Broncos are still 10-point underdogs. The Chiefs are better than the Texans, but not by much, especially with Patrick Mahomes playing at less than 100% through a hand injury. 

Drew Lock is unlikely to be as good as he was last week every week, but he definitely has the most upside of any quarterback who has started for the Broncos this season and, even with poor quarterback play for most of the season, the Broncos still rank 20th on the season in first down rate differential at -1.14%, thanks to a defense that ranks 6th with a 32.97% first down rate allowed. With Lock under center, this team could easily continue playing spoiler going forward.

I don’t think the Broncos are necessarily going to win straight up convincingly again this week or that they’re even going to win at all, but I have this line calculated at Kansas City -7, so we’re getting good line value with the visitor, even before any situational factors are taken into account. While the Chiefs could give less than their best effort after a huge win, the Broncos should be fully focused, with arguably their easiest game of the season on deck, a home game against the Lions, in which they are expected to be 6.5-point home favorites. Double digit underdogs are 65-44 ATS since 2002 before being favorites, including 43-25 ATS before being favorites of 3 or more. The Broncos should be able to keep this game close and, without an obvious other option, they are my Pick of the Week this week.

Kansas City Chiefs 23 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +10

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (10-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-8)

The Panthers got off to a 4-2 start, but they’ve been an entirely different team since their week 7 bye, ranking 29th in first down rate differential over that stretch at -5.60% and losing 6 of 7 games. First time starting quarterback Kyle Allen has regressed since a hot start to the season, but the offense hasn’t been the problem, as they’ve ranked 13th in first down rate at 35.67% since week 7. The problem has been the defense, which ranked 7th in first down rate allowed at 33.97% before their bye, but has fallen to 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.27% since their bye. The Panthers fired head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera a couple weeks ago, but it didn’t seem to make a difference in the Panthers blowout loss in Atlanta last season.

That being said, I actually kind of like the Panthers this week, as 6-point home underdogs against the Seahawks. The Seahawks have 10 wins, but they haven’t blown teams out, with just one of their wins coming by more than a touchdown. Their average margin of victory is just 5.60 points per game and 6 of their wins have come by 6 points or fewer, relevant given this line is 6. Overall on the season, the Seahawks rank 13th in point differential at +20 and 17th in first down rate differential at -0.55% and could easily be 8-5 right now if not for missed makeable field goals in wins over the 49ers and Rams. If that were the case, they’d be fighting for a playoff spot and likely would not be favored by 6 points on the road against the Panthers.

The Seahawks have been even worse in recent weeks, ranking 25th in first down rate differential since week 7 at -3.05%, only about two and a half percent better than the Panthers over that stretch, as much as Carolina has struggled. The Seahawks also come into this game very banged up, with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney out and fellow defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and cornerback Shaq Griffin considered true question marks. I have this line calculated at Seattle -3, so we’re getting enough line value with the Panthers for them to be worth betting at home this week.

Final Update: Both Ansah and Griffin are inactive for this game, along with Clowney. Those are three key players on this defense and my calculated line drops to Seattle -2 without them. Despite that, this line has moved up to 6.5 in some places, so I’m raising the confidence on this pick.

Seattle Seahawks 33 Carolina Panthers 31

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6.5

Confidence: High

Cleveland Browns at Arizona Cardinals: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-7) at Arizona Cardinals (3-9-1)

Expected to be a contender in the AFC this year, the Browns have been massively disappointing, entering this game at 6-7 with little chance of getting into the post-season. Despite their underwhelming record, I think they’re still a little overrated. People look at their roster and see the big name stars, but they are a very top heavy roster with minimal talent beyond their stars and little depth at the bottom of their roster. Now without star defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, the Browns have arguably the worst defensive line in football, giving significant snaps at defensive end to bottom of the roster type players. I have them just 22nd overall in my roster rankings without those two players.

The Browns are also in an awful spot this week, flying across the country to play a last place non-conference opponent with a huge home game against the Ravens on deck. With their season essentially over, I don’t expect the Browns’ best effort at all this week, especially with how undisciplined and poorly coached they are. Road favorites are 44-75 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs, including just 4-16 ATS as road favorites of 3+ before being home underdogs of 4+ (the early line has Cleveland +7 next week). 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to justify a big bet on the Cardinals this week as they’ve been pretty terrible this season. First overall pick Kyler Murray has been promising and could easily develop into a franchise quarterback long-term, but he’s not good enough right now to elevate this team by himself and outside of him their roster isn’t that much better than it was last season when they finished with the worst record in the NFL at 3-13. The Cardinals rank just 29th in first down rate differential at -6.40% and 26th in point differential at -102, and their only three wins have come by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 7-32 on the season. They still have a good shot to catch the Browns off guard in a tough spot and I like getting the field goal protection with them at home, but I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because the Browns would be the best team the Cardinals have beaten this season.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Cleveland Browns 23 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Baltimore Ravens: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

New York Jets (5-8) at Baltimore Ravens (11-2)

The Ravens were 4-2 through the first 6 weeks of the season, but they had just one win by more than a touchdown, despite playing a trio of teams that currently have three wins or fewer (Miami, Arizona, Cincinnati). Since then, however, they have won all 7 games, despite only playing one losing team during that stretch, and 5 of those wins have come by more than a touchdown. They also have a first down rate of +11.79% over that stretch, easily the best in the NFL (2nd best over that stretch is +6.71%). 

Lamar Jackson and this offense get a lot of attention, but they ranked 5th in first down rate through those first 6 games at 40.68% and have actually only been marginally better in their past 7 games at 42.49%, 2nd in the NFL during that stretch. The big difference has been the defense, which went from 24th in the NFL through the first 6 games of the season at 37.95% to 3rd over the past 7 games at 30.70%. The addition of cornerback Marcus Peters, acquired between week 6 and week 7, is a big part of the reason why, but the Ravens have also gotten great play from mid-season signing Josh Bynes, they’ve gotten cornerback Jimmy Smith back from injury, and they’ve gotten breakout performances from safety Chuck Clark and edge defender Tyus Bowser. With strong play on both sides of the ball, this is arguably the most complete team in the NFL.

The Jets have also been better since week 7, ranking 13th in the NFL in first down rate differential over that stretch at +1.40%, but they remarkably haven’t faced a single team during that stretch that ranks better than 25th in first down rate differential on the season and they’re just 4-3 during that stretch, so they haven’t stood out as significantly better than the bottom of the league teams they’ve faced. Overall, the Jets have had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season at 38% (2nd easiest is 42%) and they still rank 24th in the NFL on the season in first down rate differential at -2.85%. Part of that is because quarterback Sam Darnold missed time early in the year, but even with him healthy this miserable offense ranks just 27th in first down rate since week 7, despite a pathetic schedule.

The Jets’ last game against a challenging opponent was their embarrassing week 6 home shutout loss to the Patriots. The Ravens, who handled the Patriots pretty easily, shouldn’t have much trouble with the Jets, especially at home on a short week. It’s very tough for an inferior team to travel on a short week and face a superior team, especially if it’s an unfamiliar non-divisional opponent. Over the past 30 years, when both teams are on short rest on a Thursday night, non-divisional home favorites are 36-18 ATS, including 10-2 ATS as double digit favorites.

I wish the Ravens were coming into this game healthier, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley out and quarterback Lamar Jackson and his #1 receiving option Mark Andrews both dealing with injuries that could limit them or knock them out of the game on a short week, but the Jets aren’t in a good injury situation either, with talented rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, starting tight end Ryan Griffin, talented cornerback Brian Poole, and Pro-Bowl safety Jamal Adams all expected out for this one and we’re still getting line value with the Ravens (my calculated line is -17.5) in a good spot. This is just a small bet, but barring Jackson being knocked out of the game early, I can’t imagine this game being close.

Baltimore Ravens 31 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -15.5

Confidence: Medium