Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (2-1) at Chicago Bears (2-1)

Normally I like to go against significant week-to-week line movement as it tends to be an overreaction to a single week of play and the line in this game has shifted from Chicago -3 to Chicago -1 in the past week, a significant shift considering about 1 in 6 games are decided by 3 points exactly. However, my calculated line is Chicago -1, so I think it’s a justifiable shift. The Bears won by 16 in Washington last week, but it came against a weak Redskins team and they only won the first down rate battle by 1.67%, building a big lead due to a +4 turnover margin and 5 takeaways, which tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

In week 2, the Bears barely won in Denver against an underwhelming Broncos team in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 2.91%. In the past two weeks, they’ve faced two of the worst offenses in the league and have allowed a 38.19% first down rate, so I’m concerned they’re not the same defense they were last season when they led the league with a 30.38% first down rate allowed. They lost a couple key players in the secondary in free agency, slot cornerback Bryce Callahan and safety Adrian Amos, who were among the best players in the league at their respective positions in 2018. 

Their defense could bounce back now that they are back at home, but they also could be without defensive end Akiem Hicks this week, as he’s listed questionable, but did not practice all week. Behind Khalil Mack, he might be their second best defensive player, so his absence would be a big deal. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky seems to be regressing under center, so the Bears need their defense more than ever this week in a huge divisional game against a solid Vikings team. This is going to be a no confidence pick either way, but I’m going to make this pick dependant on whether or not Hicks plays. If he does not, I’ll switch to the Vikings.

Update: Akiem Hicks is reportedly unlikely to play, so I am switching this pick.

Minnesota Vikings 20 Chicago Bears 19

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +1

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (1-2) at Atlanta Falcons (1-2)

The Falcons have gotten off to a disappointing 1-2 start, winning a big home game against the Eagles week 2, but also losing on the road in Minnesota and Indianapolis. They’ve been better than their record has suggested though, ranking 11th in first down rate differential at +2.97%. The biggest problem for them is they have the third worst turnover margin in the league at -4, but turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Matt Ryan, who has a career 2.20% interception rate over 6,324 pass attempts, is not going to continue throwing interceptions at a 6.74% rate the rest of the way.

The bigger concern for the Falcons is the loss of safety Keanu Neal for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Neal was not playing well, coming off of a torn ACL that ended his 2018 season, but projections that had the Falcons being improved in 2019 included the Falcons having better health on defense and the return to form of Neal, who missed 15 games with injury last season, was supposed to be a big part of that. Without Neal, I have the Falcons slightly above the Titans in my roster rankings, so this line favoring the Falcons by 3.5 points at home seems about right. I’m taking the Falcons for pick ‘em purposes and hoping they will play more like they did against the Eagles now that they are back at home, but this is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week.

Atlanta Falcons 26 Tennessee Titans 21

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3.5

Confidence: None

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (0-3)

When the NFL scheduled this game on Monday Night Football, they probably thought they’d be getting a competitive early season matchup between two hated division rivals. Instead, they got the second Monday Night Football game in the past thirty years between a pair of teams that are 0-3 or worse. The other instance was a 9-7 victory by the 0-4 Cowboys over the 0-4 Redskins in week 5 of 2001. Both of these teams came into the season with expectations, but have been ravaged by injury. 

For the Bengals, the sheer amount of key players they are missing this early in the season is pretty incredible. They came into the season with major injury concerns, losing first round pick Jonah Williams for the season in June, losing long-time starting guard Clint Boling to an early retirement due to injury, and losing top wide receiver AJ Green, starting cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and top offensive lineman Cordy Glenn indefinitely with injuries suffered in training camp, and things have just gotten worse from there. In addition to the aforementioned players, the Bengals will also be without a pair of key rotational defensive linemen, defensive end Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, who also missed last week loss in Buffalo.

The Steelers don’t have the sheer number of missing key players that the Bengals have, but they have the most impactful injury between these two teams, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for the season. The Steelers are publicly confident in backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was a third round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he hasn’t shown much to be confident in thus far, averaging just 6.22 yards per attempt and leading the Steelers to just 19 first downs and 4 touchdowns on 79 snaps on 18 drives, a first down rate of just 29.11%. For comparison, the Steelers had a 40.55% first down rate last season. The Steelers almost won their first game with Rudolph as the starter in San Francisco last week, but they ultimately lost, despite winning the turnover battle by 3. In terms of first down rate, they were -14.24% and that tends to be much more consistent week-to-week than turnover margin. 

Starting caliber quarterbacks rarely fall to the third round, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Rudolph has looked like a backup caliber player, especially this early in his career. As much as the Bengals are missing, they at least have a competent quarterback under center. The Steelers will also be without starting tight end Vance McDonald, rotational edge rusher Anthony Chickillo, and situational middle linebacker Vince Williams.

Despite that, I still have the Steelers as the slightly better team in my roster rankings, as they still have a pretty strong roster around the quarterback. This line, which favors the hometown Steelers by 3.5 points, is about right, so we aren’t getting much line value in either direction. The Bengals are my pick because they are in a better spot, hosting the Cardinals next week in a game in which they will likely be favored, while the Steelers host the Ravens in a game in which they will likely be underdogs. Underdogs are 100-56 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and even at 0-3 it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Steelers get caught looking forward to a bigger divisional game next week. They’re facing a fellow winless team and this could be a bit of a sandwich game between a close loss on the road and a big divisional home game. It’s not enough to bet the Bengals in the shape they are in, but they should be the right side.

Pittsburgh Steelers 19 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3.5

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (3-0) at Buffalo Bills (3-0)

This is a battle between a pair of 3-0 teams in the AFC East, but these two teams have had very different paths to 3-0. While the Patriots have dominated everyone they’ve faced, leading the league with a +21.55% first down rate differential and a +29.7 average point differential, the Bills trailed in the second half against the Jets and Bengals before coming back to narrowly win. Neither team has faced a tough schedule, with the Bills also facing the Giants and the Patriots facing the Steelers, Dolphins, and Jets, but the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger is the only thing close to a tough opponent that either of these teams have faced and the Patriots dominated them in a 30-point victory. They’ve had a much more impressive start despite these two teams having the same record.

The Patriots’ defense has been especially impressive, not allowing a single touchdown all season and allowing just 32 first downs on 169 snaps, an absurd 18.93% first down rate allowed. I don’t care who you play, these are all professional football players and having a 3-game stretch like that against anyone is worth taking note of. The Patriots’ defensive dominance goes back to the end of last season, when they held the Rams without a touchdown in the Super Bowl, blanked the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC Championship game before a second half offensive explosion, held the Chargers to just one touchdown in the first half of the AFC Divisional before allowing some garbage time points, and held the Jets, Steelers, Bills to a combined 32 points in the final 3 games of the regular season. 

Dating back 9 games, the Patriots have allowed just 3 first half touchdowns and have allowed more than one offensive touchdown total in just 3 of 9 games, with 5 games in which they did not allow an offensive touchdown, including 4 straight. Going back to last year’s bye, they have allowed just 14.0 points per game in their past 12 games. At this point, this is not a fluke. Bill Belichick has somehow quietly built a very deep and versatile defense and has them firing on all cylinders as his own defensive coordinator. Off-season additions of Jamie Collins, Chase Winovich, and Michael Bennett have been key, as have the re-emergence of veteran stars Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty and the emergence of budding young shutdown cornerback Jonathan Jones. The Patriots’ probably are not going to allow a first down rate under 20% the rest of the way as their schedule gets tougher, but they should finish among the top few teams in the league in most defensive metrics. 

There’s some concern that the Patriots weren’t a good road team last year, going just 3-5 on the road, with losses to teams like Jaguars, Lions, and Dolphins, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. Home/road splits tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, with rare exceptions. In fact, the Patriots recently had a stretch from 2016 to 2017 where they won 14 consecutive games away from Gillette, before their road struggles last year. The pendulum could easily swing back the other way this season.

Unfortunately, we aren’t really getting much line value with the Patriots as 7-point favorites on the road in Buffalo. The Bills haven’t been nearly as impressive as the Patriots, but they have a solid team that should still compete for a wild card spot in the AFC and they could easily bring their best effort at home in a huge divisional matchup. The Bills have had a legitimately good defense since the start of last season, finishing last season 7th in first down rate allowed at 34.30% in 2018 and now ranking 6th at 31.75% in first down rate allowed through 3 games. Their offense struggled for most of last year, but it improved significantly down the stretch, with a 37.14% first down rate in their final 7 games of the season, after a 25.85% first down rate in their first 9 games, and that seems to have carried over into this season, as they rank 9th in first down rate at 39.41% thus far. Their competition is about to get a whole lot harder and I have them calculated as 9-point underdogs, but there isn’t quite enough to bet the Patriots with confidence this week.

New England Patriots 23 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: New England -7

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at Miami Dolphins: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (1-2) at Miami Dolphins (0-3)

Typically, betting teams off of back-to-back blowout losses is a smart move, as teams tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed in that situation. Since 2002, teams are 49-34 ATS off of back-to-back losses of 21+. That applies to the Dolphins this week, but that doesn’t mean they are a good bet. That applied last week as well, after back-to-back losses by 40+ in the first two weeks of the season, and the Dolphins couldn’t manage to cover as 23-point underdogs. 

Through three games, the Dolphins have an average point differential of -39.0 points per game, worst in a three game stretch in at least 30 years, and they have a ridiculous -26.46% first down rate, allowing opponents to pick up a first down or touchdown on 49.76% of snaps, while only doing so on 23.30% of their offensive snaps. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they managed to win a game at some point, but this team is arguably worse than both the winless Lions in 2008 and the winless Browns in 2017 even if they do win at some point. 

Neither the winless Browns nor winless Lions ever lost by 40+ and the winless Browns never lost by more than 24, but the Dolphins have already lost twice by 40+ and have lost all three games by 25+ points. The few good players that the Dolphins do have don’t seem to be trying hard because the coaching staff and front office transparently don’t care about winning this season, leading to a historically bad on the field performance. They’re unlikely to be a good bet all season.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Chargers either as 14.5-point road favorites. Incredibly banged up, the Chargers seem to be using this game as an opportunity to rest injured players and could be without a bunch of key players on both sides of the ball. Already without stud safety Derwin James, his replacement Adrian Phillips, top offensive lineman Russell Okung, and talented tight end Hunter Henry, the Chargers are also expected to be without starting wide receiver Mike Williams, #3 wide receiver Travis Benjamin, new starting tight end Virgil Green, and possibly top cornerback Casey Hayward, who only got in a limited practice on Friday. 

Even with all of their injuries, the Chargers still have enough talent to blow out the Dolphins, but this could be closer than the Dolphins’ other games because the Chargers are at far less than 100%. The Chargers could also take their foot off the gas in the second half if they have a big lead, which is always a risk when picking a heavy road favorite. I would take them if I had to pick a side, but this is a no confidence pick. 

Los Angeles Chargers 28 Miami Dolphins 13

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -14.5

Confidence: None

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2) at Los Angeles Rams (3-0)

Probably the most surprising stat from this early season is the Buccaneers ranking 4th in first down rate allowed at 30.73%, after finishing 30th at 40.98% last season. The Buccaneers made changes on defense this off-season, but didn’t add any marquee players. They made a lateral move at the defensive tackle position, cutting Gerald McCoy to sign Ndamukong Suh in a cost saving measure. They signed underrated ex-Bronco Shaq Barrett to help their edge rush, but also lost their top pass rusher from a year ago Jason Pierre-Paul to an off-season injury. They used the 5th overall pick on middle linebacker Devin White, but he’s barely played due to injury. Barrett has exceeded expectations, but mostly it’s been young holdovers exceeding expectations so far, in large part due to the addition of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Last year’s first round pick Vita Vea has especially broken out, but their young secondary has been better than expected as well. 

Despite that, they are still just 1-2 and it’s fair to question whether their defense can keep it up and definitely fair to question their competition thus far. In week 1, they faced the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo was rusty in his first back, having the 6th worst completion percentage above expected of the week, at -5.4%. In week 2, they faced a severely injured Cam Newton, who had the 4th worst completion percentage above expected the week, at -11.7%. Last week, they faced a Giants team that was starting a rookie quarterback and that was without Saquon Barkley and surrendered over 30 points. The Rams are an obvious step up in talent. 

That being said, the Rams haven’t been quite as impressive on offense this year as they have been the past two years, in large part due to their offensive line. They will get right guard Austin Blythe back after he missed last week with injury, but they lost left guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan in the off-season and second year replacements Joe Noteboom and Brian Allen have not been impressive. 

Their defense has been better this season, but their offense ranks just 17th in first down rate and they are lucky to be 3-0, recovering all 4 fumbles in a 3-point win over an injured Cam Newton and the Panthers week 1, then facing a Saints team week 2 that lost Drew Brees in the first quarter, and then last week they narrowly escaped against a Browns team that was missing eight week 1 starters due to injury, including four in the secondary. They have relatively easy competition this week, but they are in a tough spot with a much bigger game in Seattle on deck in 4 days. Favorites are 56-77 ATS since 2012 before Thursday Night Football and the Buccaneers could definitely cover this 9-point spread if the Rams don’t play their best game.  There’s not enough here to bet on the Buccaneers, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Los Angeles Rams 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +9

Confidence: Low

Washington Redskins at New York Giants: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (0-3) at New York Giants (1-2)

I was hoping to be able to fade the Daniel Jones hype this week, as I felt the loss of running back Saquon Barkley was important to the Giants’ chances of winning going forward than Jones having a strong debut against an underwhelming Buccaneers defense. Even as well as Jones played, the Giants still had a middle of the road 35.00% first down rate and would have lost the game if the Buccaneers could have hit a very makeable field goal at the end. Without Barkley for the near future and with one of the worst defenses in the league supporting him, Jones will be relied upon heavily for a rookie and he doesn’t get wide receiver Golden Tate back until next week. 

This line didn’t move significantly from the early line last week though, going from New York -2.5 to -3, so we aren’t getting any line value with the Redskins, who will be without starting center Chase Rouiller and right guard Brandon Scherff, the latter of whom is their best offensive lineman, and possibly top wide receiver Terry McLaurin as well. I thought we might see something closer to -6, so I’m actually going to take the Giants for a no confidence pick. A push seems like a likely result.

New York Giants 30 Washington Redskins 27

Pick against the spread: NY Giants -3

Confidence: None

Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (3-0) at New Orleans Saints (2-1)

The Cowboys are one of six teams currently 3-0. That’s where they should be, given that their schedule has had them face three of the worst teams in the league (Giants, Redskins, Dolphins) in the first three weeks of the season, but it’s good to see the Cowboys win all 3 games convincingly, by an average of 17.7 points per game, after having just one win by more than eight points all last season. Along with the Patriots, they are one of two teams that have won all three games by double digits so far this season and their first down rate differential of +10.96% is 3rd in the NFL behind the Patriots and 49ers. We’ll see how they look against tougher competition, but I thought they had one of the better rosters in the league going into the season, in large part due to the return of center Travis Frederick, who missed all of last season.

This is when the Cowboys’ schedule is supposed to get tougher, with a trip on New Orleans on the schedule for week 4, but the Cowboys’ good schedule luck continues as they get to face the Saints without starting quarterback Drew Brees, who is out for about 6 weeks with a thumb injury. Backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the Saints to a victory in Seattle in his first start last week, but the Saints lost the first down rate battle in that game by 3.47% and ended up winning by just 6 points despite getting two return touchdowns.

In 18 drives since taking over for Brees, Bridgewater has led the Saints to just 28 first downs and 3 touchdowns on 98 plays, a 31.63% first down rate. By comparison, the Saints had a 43.17% first down rate in 2018. Bridgewater has starting experience and could still turn it around, but he does not look like the same player as he was in his last stint as a starter 2015, when he was one of the more promising young quarterbacks in the league. Given all that’s happened since then, that’s not exactly a surprise.

The Saints have a strong roster around the quarterback, but have not looked impressive since losing Brees, outside of their two return touchdowns last week. Even including their week 1 win over the Texans with Brees healthy, the Saints rank 27th in the NFL with a -4.84% first down rate differential this season, as their defense has struggled without injured defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who is unlikely to make his season debut this week and would almost definitely be limited if active. I have this line calculated at Dallas -4, so I like their chances of covering in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover, as 2.5-point favorites. With this line dropping below 3 in most places, the Cowboys are worth a small bet.

Dallas Cowboys 24 New Orleans Saints 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Jacksonville Jaguars at Denver Broncos: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) at Denver Broncos (0-3)

Minshew Mania has taken over Jacksonville, with backup quarterback and rookie sixth round pick Gardner Minshew leading the Jaguars to their first win of the season last week on Thursday Night Football. Minshew took over for an injured Nick Foles in the first half of their first game of the season against the Chiefs and has completed 73.9% of his 88 pass attempts since, 2nd in the NFL and a record for highest completion percentage by a rookie quarterback in his first 3 games. However, if we look further down that list of quarterbacks who have gotten out to a hot start, we see that Minshew’s hot start doesn’t necessarily predict long-term future success. 

While the top-10 contains quarterbacks like Carson Wentz (7th) and Dak Prescott (4th), it also includes Colt McCoy (2nd), Cody Kessler (5th), Nick Mullens (6th), and Chris Weinke (9th). It’s important to remember that Minshew has played roughly 11 quarters and, as much of a crapshoot as the draft can be, the NFL rarely lets starting caliber quarterbacks fall out of the first 3 rounds. Even the Jaguars weren’t sure if Minshew could be the backup as recently as mid-August, after a whole off-season of seeing him. Minshew has so far proven many people wrong, including his own team, but that may not necessarily continue. 

I think the Jaguars are a little bit overrated right now because of Minshew Mania. As well as Minshew has played, the Jaguars still rank just 23rd in first down rate, due to a lack of talent around the quarterback, so if Minshew starts to struggle this offense will have a very difficult time moving the ball. The Broncos aren’t a good team, but I have them a few spots higher in my roster rankings than the Jaguars, who are expected to be without top cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and yet this line, which favors the Broncos by 3 points at home, suggests these two teams are about even. We are getting a little bit of line value with the Broncos, who are well positioned to get their first win of the season, but I wouldn’t recommend betting them because they have some injury concerns of their own (Kareem Jackson, Ja’Wuan James, Bryce Callahan) and have a tougher game on deck against the Chargers.

Denver Broncos 20 Jacksonville Jaguars 16

Pick against the spread: Denver -3

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at Houston Texans: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Houston Texans (2-1)

The Panthers come into this game just 1-2, but they could easily be 3-0 right now. They lost their first 2 games by a combined 9 points, including a 3-point loss to the Rams in which they failed to recover a single one of the games four fumbles. Those games were close despite getting worse than replacement level quarterback play from Cam Newton, who was clearly not at 100% due to a foot injury and now has been shut down indefinitely. Through 2 games, Newton had the worst completion percentage above expected in the league at -9.3% and was actively hurting this team, which has a strong roster around the quarterback.

In backup quarterback Kyle Allen’s first start of the season, the Panthers got their first win of the season in a 38-20 victory in Arizona. Allen is a former undrafted free agent and only has made two career starts, but he’s played well in both starts (QB ratings of 111.3 and 144.4) and the Panthers don’t need him to be great to win games. It shouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over what Cam Newton was for the first two games of the season, though it’s premature to suggest that he should continue playing if Newton can come back healthy. He gives them the luxury of not having to rush Newton back at less than 100%, but he may ultimately prove to be a quality backup caliber player. 

It seems like we’ve lost all line value with the Panthers as a result of Allen’s strong performance last week, as the Panthers, who were 2-point underdogs in Arizona last week, are now just 4-point underdogs against a much better Texans team. Allen should have a much tougher day against Houston’s defense than he did against an Arizona defense that is missing its two starting cornerbacks. The Panthers also have some other injury concerns, with defensive end Kawaan Short, right guard Trai Turner, and cornerback Donte Jackson not practicing on Friday. They still have a solid supporting cast without those two players, but their absences will likely be felt. My calculated line is actually Houston -4.5, so the Texans are probably the better pick for pick ‘em purposes. 

Houston Texans 22 Carolina Panthers 17

Pick against the spread: Houston -4

Confidence: None