Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) at Detroit Lions (3-9-1)

The Lions’ season has been completely derailed by quarterback Matt Stafford’s back injury, as they’ve lost 5 straight games in his absence to fall to 3-9-1. Stafford was in the middle of one of the best seasons of his career before going down and backups Jeff Driskel and David Blough are among the worst backup quarterbacks in the NFL. The Lions ranked 15th in the NFL in first down rate through 8 games at 36.75%, but they have just a 31.75% first down rate in 5 games without Stafford, which is most equivalent to the 29th ranked Bengals on the season. With a defense that ranks 26th in first down rate allowed on the season at 37.90%, the Lions are one of the worst overall teams in the league. Also without wide receiver Marvin Jones, right tackle Ricky Wagner, and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson this week, the Lions rank just 28th in my roster rankings.

The Buccaneers have their own injury problems though, with dominant wide receiver Mike Evans and starting left tackle Donovan Smith both out for this game. The most concerning injury might be the injury to Jameis Winston’s thumb on his throwing hand. Winston isn’t even listed on the injury report, but he has a small fracture in his thumb and, while he’s not likely to make the injury worse playing through it, there was some question this week whether or not it would limit him, which creates a lot of uncertainty with this game. If Winston is able to play through the injury without problem, this line is about right at Tampa Bay -4.5, as the Buccaneers rank 11th in first down rate differential on the season at +1.68% and are significantly better than the Lions even without Evans and Smith, but the uncertainty with Winston’s injury makes the Lions a safer choice. This is a no confidence pick either way.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +4.5

Confidence: None

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (8-5) at Tennessee Titans (8-5)

The Titans saved their season by switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Sitting at 2-4 after week 6 when they made the switch, the Titans have won 6 of 7 games to get to 8-5 and climb into a tie for the AFC South lead with the Texans, who they will play twice in the next three weeks in games that would decide the division if either team managed to sweep both. 

Tannehill isn’t just game managing the Titans to victory either, as Tannehill’s run at quarterback has actually coincided with a significant decline on defense. After finishing last season 4th in first down rate allowed at 32.77% and ranking 4th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 30.93% through 6 games this season, the Titans have allowed a 37.37% first down rate in Tannehill’s 7 starts, 24th in the NFL over that stretch, due to injuries to players like linebacker Jayon Brown, cornerback Malcolm Butler, defensive end Jurrell Casey, and cornerback Adoree Jackson. This offense is carrying the team, ranking 2nd in first down rate at 42.50% since Tannehill entered the starting lineup, giving them the 3rd best first down rate differential over that stretch at +5.13%.

Tannehill probably won’t continue playing this well going forward, but the Titans have a strong running game too and a good supporting cast around the quarterback, so the Titans’ offense is legitimately a strong unit. Defensively, they’ve gotten Casey and Brown back from injuries, though the two cornerbacks Butler and Jackson remain out, leaving them very thin at a key position. They’re still a couple points better than the Texans in my roster rankings though, ranking 11th, while the Texans rank 14th. 

Deshaun Watson leads a strong Houston offense that ranks 4th in first down rate at 39.47%, but their defense ranks 27th at 38.12% and has been even worse in 5 games without JJ Watt, with a 39.51% first down rate allowed in those 5 games. We’re not getting a ton of line value with the Titans, but this line favoring them only by a field goal at home suggests these two teams are about even, which isn’t the case. I like the Titans for a small bet as there’s a good chance this game at least pushes.

Tennessee Titans 30 Houston Texans 24

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (8-5) at Dallas Cowboys (6-7)

I normally like to fade significant week-to-week line movements, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. On the early line last week, the Cowboys were 3.5 point home favorites in this matchup against the Rams, but now a week later they are 1.5 point home underdogs. That’s a huge swing, but I actually think it can be justified somewhat. The Cowboys had an awful performance last week in Chicago, losing the first down rate battle by 7.54% to a middling at best Bears team, while the Rams were dominant in a home victory against a tough Seahawks team, winning the first down rate battle by a whopping 18.97%, with the game being a blowout aside from a long Seattle interception return. 

Even with last week’s poor performance included, the Cowboys still rank 6th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +4.48% and in point differential at +67, as their 6 wins have come by a combined 107 points and their 7 losses have come by a combined 40 points. However, they’ve faced a much easier schedule than the Rams (47% opponents winning percentage vs. 57%) and their play has slipped in recent weeks, as they’ve ranked just 9th in first down rate differential since week 7 at +2.83%. The Cowboys are a poorly coached team and Jason Garrett’s lameduck status as head coach seems to be hanging over them in recent weeks.

The Rams, meanwhile, are very well coached, on both sides of the ball with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips. They were blown out a few weeks ago at home on Monday Night Football against the Ravens, but have bounced back very well with dominant performances against the Cardinals and Seahawks to keep themselves alive in the playoff race in the NFC. Their offense hasn’t been the same this season because of their offensive line, but their defense has quietly been one of the best in the league. Even including that blowout loss against a Ravens team that no one has really stopped this season, the Rams rank 4th in first down rate allowed on the season at 32.72% and first at 29.94% since acquiring Jalen Ramsey during week 7. 

I have this line calculated at Dallas -1, so, while I don’t think the line movement all the way to Rams -1.5 is quite justified, we’re not getting nearly enough line value to bet the Cowboys confidently. The Cowboys probably have a slightly better than 50/50 shot to win this game at home, so the money line at +105 could be worth a small bet, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet the Cowboys against the spread unless this line somehow moves all the way up to Rams -3. 

Dallas Cowboys 24 Los Angeles Rams 23 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Dallas +1.5

Confidence: Low

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