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Pick of the Week
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Miami Dolphins (0-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4)
The Steelers have had a strange season. On one hand, they haven’t lost by more than a field goal since their week 1 trip to New England, despite starting three different quarterbacks, even winning with third string undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges under center in their most recent game before the bye. Even with that 30-point week 1 loss in New England included, the Steelers have a -8 point differential that isn’t terrible, especially considering they’ve faced the second toughest schedule in the league by DVOA and that they are the only team in the league who have faced both the undefeated Patriots and the undefeated 49ers. This week, the Steelers get back second string quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was showing signs of progress before being concussed in the Steelers week 5 game loss to the Ravens, a game they likely would have won had he not gotten injured.
On the other hand, the Steelers have benefited immensely from turnovers and turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. The Steelers have a +7 turnover margin on the season that ranks 2nd only to the Patriots and is easily the best among teams with a negative point differential (the Lions are +4 at -11 and the Cardinals are +2 at -31). There have been just 18 instances of a team losing a game this season despite winning the turnover battle and the Steelers were on the losing end of 3 of those games (Seahawks, 49ers, Ravens). In terms of first down rate differential, the Steelers rank 22nd at +-.72%, which is underwhelming. In my roster rankings, they rank 21st, with their defense suffering a huge blow when Stephon Tuitt went down for the season with an injury in their last game before the bye. He had been one of the top defensive linemen in the league this season.
Tuitt might not be missed this week though, as the Steelers’ schedule suddenly gets much easier with the Dolphins coming to town. The Dolphins are better when veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick is under center, as young quarterback Josh Rosen has shown no ability to deal with the heavy amounts of pressure let up by this backup caliber offensive line, but they are still one of the worst teams in the league by a mile, regardless of who is under center. After an off-season teardown, they have few talented players remaining and those players likely aren’t giving 100% effort for a coaching staff and front office that transparently doesn’t care about winning this season. This line is about right at -14, but I’m not taking the Dolphins this season unless I have a great reason to, so the Steelers are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.
Pittsburgh Steelers 27 Miami Dolphins 13
Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -14
New York Giants (2-5) at Detroit Lions (2-3-1)
This one is a tough call. On one hand, the Lions are favored by 6.5 points and have yet to beat a team convincingly, with both of their wins coming by a field goal. They have a decent 2-3-1 record, but they have just a -11 point differential even with a +4 turnover margin. No team with a worse point differential has better than a +2 turnover margin and turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 3rd at -3.17%. On top of that, they are also missing top cornerback Darius Slay.
The Giants aren’t exactly a tough opponent though, ranking 26th in my roster rankings, and, even with the Lions being underwhelming thus far this season, I still have this line calculated at Detroit -5. We’re getting some line value with the Giants, but not a significant amount, and the Giants are also in a tough spot, with a bigger game against the Cowboys on deck. Teams tend to struggle before big home games, going 42-74 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 6+ and the Cowboys are currently -7.5 on the early line. Underdogs of 6+ are also just 58-90 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 6+ again, as it’s tough for an inferior team to hang with a superior team if they have another tough game on deck. I’m taking the Giants, but for a no confidence pick, as it would hardly be a surprise to see the Lions win by a touchdown.
Detroit Lions 26 New York Giants 20
Pick against the spread: NY Giants +6.5
Seattle Seahawks (5-2) at Atlanta Falcons (1-6)
Things have gone from bad to worse in the Falcons’ wildly disappointing 2019 season, as the Falcons not only lost at home in convincing fashion to the Rams last week, but they also lost quarterback Matt Ryan to an ankle injury. With head coach Dan Quinn likely coaching for his job ahead of the Falcons’ bye week next week, it looked like Ryan was going to play at less than 100% in an otherwise meaningless game, but they couldn’t get him ready for action and will turn to backup Matt Schaub instead, snapping Matt Ryan’s 154-game consecutive start streak, the 5th longest streak in NFL history.
As disappointing as this season as been for the Falcons as a whole, Matt Ryan has still produced at a high level, completing 70.9% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while leading the Falcons to a 40.82% first down rate that ranks 5th in the NFL. Now they’ll have to turn to a backup in Matt Schaub who is one of the worst in the NFL. Schaub is plenty experienced with 92 career starts, but he hasn’t been a productive starter since 2012 and, now in his age 38 season, has thrown just 16 regular season passes since his last regular season start in 2015.
Ryan gets a lot of help from a strong receiving corps, but has been pressured on 37.7% of his dropbacks, above the league average, and the Falcons rank just 25th in yards per carry with 3.66, so Schaub doesn’t have a great supporting cast, especially with Mohamed Sanu getting traded. The bigger problem is the defense, which has allowed opponents to move the chains at a 42.13% rate and has not allowed the Falcons’ offense to keep up, especially with top cornerback Desmond Trufant sidelined with an injury. Now without Ryan, the Falcons suddenly have major problems on both sides of the ball.
Despite that, I am actually taking the Falcons as 8.5-point home underdogs this week, although that’s more of a fade of the Seahawks than anything. The Seahawks are 5-2, but four of their five wins have come by 4 points or fewer, including narrow victories over the Bengals and Steelers, who are a combined 2-11. Even with the Falcons in the bottom-5 of my roster rankings without Ryan, I still have the Seahawks calculated as just touchdown favorites, as there’s a good chance the Falcons are able to give the Seahawks a game like almost everyone else has. That’s not nearly enough line value to bet on Matt Schaub with any confidence this week, especially since the Falcons could quit on their lameduck coach if they get down big early, but the Falcons are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.
Seattle Seahawks 24 Atlanta Falcons 16
Pick against the spread: Atlanta +8.5
Arizona Cardinals (3-3-1) at New Orleans Saints (6-1)
The Saints won 5 straight games with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater under center, but it’s still big for the Saints to be getting Drew Brees back from his thumb injury this week. Since taking over for Drew Brees in the first quarter of their week 2 game, Bridgewater has led the offense to 113 first downs and 12 offensive touchdowns on 366 snaps, a 34.15% first down rate that isn’t bad, but that is a far cry from last year’s 43.48%. The biggest reason why they’ve been winning has been the play of their defense, which has allowed just a 29.52% first down rate in 4 games since getting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins back from injury. With Brees re-joining this offense, this team is incredibly dangerous.
The news that Brees will be playing has pushed this line up to New Orleans -12, but I still like the Saints a lot this week. Their opponents the Arizona Cardinals have gotten some attention for their 3-game winning streak, but those 3 wins have come against teams that are a combined 3-18 and they came by a combined 10 points. Their 3 losses, meanwhile, have come by a combined 41 points. They rank 24th in the NFL in point differential at -31, 29th in first down rate differential at -5.67%, and 23rd in my roster rankings. As big as this line is, I think it should be bigger, calculating it at New Orleans -15.
The Saints are also in a great spot going into a bye, as big home favorites tend to take care of business before a week off. Home favorites of 7+ are 35-14 ATS before a bye since 2002. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are in a tough spot, needing to turn around and play the division leading 49ers in 4 days on Thursday Night Football, a game in which they are 6.5-point home underdogs on the early line. It’s very tough for big underdogs to cover before being big underdogs again, as underdogs of 6+ are 58-90 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 6+ again. On top of that, teams are 42-74 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 6+. The Saints should be able to win with ease and cover the spread as well.
New Orleans Saints 30 Arizona Cardinals 13
Pick against the spread: New Orleans -12
Carolina Panthers (4-2) at San Francisco 49ers (6-0)
The Panthers started 0-2 with a badly injured Cam Newton under center, but only lost week 1 by 3 points, despite failing to recover all 4 fumbles in the game, and week 2 they only lost by 6 points in a game they had a chance to win at the end. Since then, they Panthers have won 4 straight games with backup quarterback Kyle Allen under center, with Newton inactive and rehabbing. There’s an argument to be made that the Panthers could be 6-0 if Allen were starting all season, though many of those wins would be close.
The 49ers, meanwhile, actually are 6-0 and most of their wins have not been close, with their only win by less than a touchdown coming in a game in which they won despite losing the turnover battle by 3. Along with the Bills, the 49ers are one of two teams in the league to win multiple games despite losing the turnover battle (Steelers and Rams) and they are 6-0 with a +92 point differential (2nd in the NFL) despite only a +2 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so it’s very encouraging to see the 49ers able to win games even without winning the turnover battle.
On the season, the 49ers rank 2nd in first down rate differential at +10.14%, only behind the Patriots at +12.65%. Given that they’ve played a much tougher schedule than the Patriots, there’s an argument that they’ve been the best team in the league thus far. They rank 6th in my roster rankings, significantly better than the Panthers, who rank 14th in my roster rankings and 13th in first down rate differential at +1.71%. This line is a little short at San Francisco -5.5. I have the 49ers calculated as 7.5-point favorites in this one. The 49ers aren’t in a great spot with another game in 4 days on Thursday Night Football, but it’s against the Cardinals, so it’s unlikely that the 49ers won’t be focused for this much more important game. I don’t think we’re getting quite enough line value to bet on San Francisco, but they should be the right side.
Sunday Update: This line has dropped to -4 Sunday Morning. The 49ers are worth a bet at that number. The gap between these two teams is much wider than that suggests.
San Francisco 49ers 24 Carolina Panthers 16
Pick against the spread: San Francisco -4
Cleveland Browns (2-4) at New England Patriots (7-0)
The Browns have gotten off to a very disappointing start to the season, going 2-4 with a -34 point differential (25th in the NFL) and a -3.63% first down rate differential (27th in the NFL), after entering the season with expectations of contending in the AFC. Injuries have been a big part of the reason why, as they’ve already had seven week 1 starters miss time with injury. Coming out of their bye week, that number is now down to three (safety Damarious Randall, linebacker Christian Kirksey, and tight end David Njoku), with starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both returning from 4+ game absences.
Unfortunately, the Browns are getting healthy just in time to run into a juggernaut, as the Patriots lead the league with a +12.65% first down rate differential. They have played a weak schedule, so there’s an argument to be made that the 49ers, who rank 2nd with a +10.14% first down rate differential, have been the better team this year, but regardless of who they’ve played there’s no denying the Patriots have been a dominant team thus far this season, especially on defense, where they have allowed just 88 first downs and 3 offensive touchdowns on 394 snaps (23.10%) in 7 games. Their defensive dominance actually started late last season, as they have allowed 168 first downs and 12 offensive touchdowns on 678 snaps (26.55%) in their last 12 games, despite some much tougher competition last post-season.
The Patriots’ offense, which ranks 16th with a 35.74% first down rate, has not been as good and could be limited by a Browns defense that is getting healthier, but the Patriots could still cover this 11.5 point spread regardless. Baker Mayfield and the Browns are arguably the most talented offense the Patriots have faced thus far this season, but Mayfield is a young, mistake prone quarterback who figures to have a lot of trouble with Bill Belichick’s scheme. I have this line calculated at New England -14, so the Patriots should be the right side, though only for pick ‘em purposes.
New England Patriots 27 Cleveland Browns 13
Pick against the spread: New England -11.5