Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (1-6) at Carolina Panthers (3-4)

Coming into the season, I had the Falcons as the better of these two teams and on paper they have more talent, but the Panthers have actually outplayed them by a pretty significant amount. The Panthers have faced a tough schedule overall and have been competitive in every game, with their only loss by more than one score coming against a dominant Buccaneers team in a game in which the Buccaneers won the yards per play battle, only narrow lost the first down rate battle (+1.28%), and had the game within one score late in the 4th quarter before a meaningless touchdown, despite losing the turnover battle by 2. The Falcons, who the Panthers already defeated in Atlanta back in week 5, have been the easiest opponent on the Panthers’ schedule thus far and the Panthers won the first down battle by 4.76% in that 7-point win.

The Panthers have especially outplayed the Falcons on offense, even though that should be a strength for the Falcons. On the season, the Panthers rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate and that’s even more impressive when you consider they’ve faced the 5th toughest schedule of defenses, including a trio of top defenses in the Buccaneers, Chargers, and Bears. Including schedule adjustments, the Panthers rank 2nd in the league in first down rate over expected at +3.14%. By comparison, the Falcons rank 24th in first down rate over expected. 

The Panthers haven’t fared as well on defense, where they rank 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.56%, but offensive stats tend to be much more consistent and predictable week-to-week and the Falcons have just a narrow edge over the Panthers on defense, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.43%, as they haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball. It’s true the Falcons are three improbable blown lead away from being 4-3, but they needed to win the turnover battle against the Cowboys by 3 to gain their big lead in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 10.19% and they also lost the first down rate battle to the Lions and in their one win, against the the Vikings. 

Their only first down rate battle win came against the Bears, despite not having a particularly tough schedule, and, on the season, they rank 29th in first down rate differential over expected at -2.70%, significantly behind the 14th ranked Panthers (+1.58%). The Panthers also have the edge in yards per play differential (+0.5 vs -1.0), point differential (-6 vs. -23), and DVOA (+0.6% vs. -13.8%), although when Football Outsiders’ pre-season projections are factored in, the Falcons have the narrow edge in DVOA (-4.9% vs. -6.3%). That last part and the Falcons’ higher level of talent on paper concern me about betting on the Panthers, because by all indications, the Falcons should be better than them, but that hasn’t been the case thus far this season. 

The Falcons have had injury problems this season and have gotten healthier in recent weeks, even since their week 5 matchup with the Panthers, as they’ll have Julio Jones in the lineup this time around, while the Panthers may be going the other way, without left tackle Russell Okung and a few lesser players on the defensive side of the ball. However, it’s also a possibility the Panthers get feature back Christian McCaffrey back from injury this week, which would obviously be a big boost. 

For now, I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick and this line may change from Carolina -2.5 if McCaffrey is active, but even if it does I may consider betting the Panthers, as long as the line doesn’t exceed 3. Favorites typically are at a big advantage on Thursdays and there’s a good argument to be made for the Panthers being significantly better than the Falcons if McCaffrey can go. I will have an update if needed. I am also locking in the below picks for this week before the lines move. I will have full write ups for those picks with the others as usual this weekend.

MIN +7 @ GB

IND -2.5 @ DET

Update: McCaffrey is out, but I wasn’t really expecting him to play this week and the spread has dropped to 1 as a result. I am comfortable with the Panthers at that number as they have significantly outplayed the Falcons this season, particularly on the more predictable side of the ball.

Carolina Panthers 31 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina -1

Confidence: Medium

Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (5-1) at Los Angeles Rams (4-2)

Both of these teams have impressive records, but neither team has been as good as its record suggests. The Rams have faced one of the easiest schedules in the league and have only beaten teams from the NFC East, getting lucky enough to face that whole division over the course of the first 4 weeks of the season, while their losses have come against the Bills and 49ers. The Bears, meanwhile, have faced a slightly tougher schedule, but all five of their wins have come by one score or fewer, including a few that easily could have gone the other way, while their loss in Indianapolis was a 19-3 game before a garbage time touchdown technically cut it to one score.

The Bears don’t seem to be getting much respect for their record though, while the Rams seem to be, as they are favored by 6 points over the Bears, despite not having any fans in the stadium at home. That suggests the Rams are about five points better than the Rams, but I have about 3-3.5 points difference between these two teams, so we’re getting decent line value with the visitors. It’s not enough for me to bet on the Rams and this might be a no confidence pick at 5.5, but the Bears should be the right side.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Chicago Bears 20

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) at Las Vegas Raiders (3-2)

The Raiders have had a tough start to their season. The easiest game they’ve had so far was on the road in Carolina against a capable Panthers team and in their other four games they’ve had to face the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints, and Bills. Despite their tough schedule and despite missing two key offensive linemen in Richie Incognito and Trent Brown for most of the season, the Raiders have still gone 3-2 over their first 5 games, including wins over the Saints and Chiefs, and their two losses (Bills and Patriots) were both games in which the Raiders were competitive in the first down rate battle. On the season, the Raiders rank 10th in first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule at +2.05% and it stands to reason that they’ll be better than that going forward when they have their offensive line healthy.

Unfortunately, things are not getting any easier for the Raiders this week, as not only are they not getting their offensive linemen back, but most of their offensive line didn’t practice this week due to potential COVID exposure. At one point this week, it looked like the Raiders may have to play this game with backups across the whole line, which is why this line is just being posted now. The Raiders should have everyone except Incognito and Brown available, but the lack of practice time will hurt. On top of that, the Raiders schedule doesn’t get any easier with the Buccaneers coming to town.

The Buccaneers have a pair of losses on the season, but one was a one-point loss in Chicago and the other came in a game in New Orleans in which they won the first down rate battle by 8.18% and only lost the game because they lost the turnover battle by 3, which was never going to happen every week. The Buccaneers lead the league by more than a full percent with a +7.11% first down rate differential and they are even better when strength of schedule is taken into account, as they are at +8.06%, while no other team is better than +5.46% (Chiefs). 

The Buccaneers lost stud defensive tackle Vita Vea for the season with injury, but they got a solid replacement for him on early downs in veteran Steve McLendon and they are otherwise healthy, particularly on offense, where they’ve only had their dominant wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin healthy in the same game once this season, last week’s blowout victory over the Packers. The Buccaneers also rank first in my roster rankings and should be favored by about a touchdown in this game, as the Raiders are a capable opponent, but probably won’t be able to overcome the tough situation they are in and the Buccaneers large talent advantage, especially since they also won’t have the benefit of having any fans in the stadium. We’re not getting great line value with the Buccaneers at -4, but they’re worth a bet.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Las Vegas Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -4

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (4-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-4-1)

I expected the Bengals to be a competitive team this season. Though they went just 2-14 last season, they lost 8 of those games by one score or less and finished 24th in first down rate differential at -3.47%, primarily due to a capable defense that ranked 18th in first down rate allowed. This season, they looked likely to be improved on offense, with the addition of quarterback Joe Burrow and the return of left tackle Jonah Williams and wide receiver AJ Green from injuries that cost them all of 2019. 

Based on box scores, the Bengals seem like a competitive team, losing just once by more than one score, but they’ve been worse than that suggests, ranking 27th in first down rate differential at -4.23% and 29th in first down rate differential at -4.78% when you factor in the Bengals’ relatively easy schedule. The Bengals’ close games with the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 10.78% and 10.75% respectively. They lost to the Colts despite winning the turnover battle and they needed to go 5 for 5 on 4th down and get a last second garbage time touchdown to cut it to a single score against the Browns, while their one win came by 8 points against a terrible Jaguars team. 

The Bengals’ offense has been marginally better, but AJ Green has not returned to form and this week they’ll be without lead running back Joe Mixon, while their defense has played worse this season than last season, in large part due to injuries. The Bengals’ injury situation on defense has changed since their last matchup with the Browns, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten better. The Bengals will have defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels this time around, but they won’t have fellow defensive tackle DJ Reader, defensive end Sam Hubbard, or top cornerback William Jackson. On top of that, Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who led this defense last season, are both over 30 and have taken a significant step back in 2020.

However, the Browns haven’t been that much better statistically than the Bengals this season and they have their own injury concerns on offense, missing right guard Wyatt Teller, running back Nick Chubb, and tight end Austin Hooper, while Baker Mayfield is dealing with a rib issue that seemed to limit him significantly against the Steelers last week. That 38-7 loss in Pittsburgh last week and their 38-6 loss in Baltimore week 1 are the reason why the Browns rank 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.07%, despite winning and playing pretty well in their other four games. 

It’s possible the Browns would have been much more competitive if Mayfield was healthy, but it’s also possible Mayfield is still not healthy, in which case the Bengals would have a decent chance to pull the home upset this week. There’s too much uncertainty with Mayfield for either side to be worth betting and my calculated line, factoring in Mayfield being less than 100%, is Cleveland -3 anyway, so we’re not getting any line value in either direction. I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes, but this is essentially a coin flip and a push is very likely.

Update: The Bengals seem to have internal issues going on with their defense and the defensive coordinator. I still don’t have a strong lean on this game, but that’s enough for me to flip this to Cleveland.

Cleveland Browns 30 Cincinnati Bengals 27

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -3

Confidence: None

Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (2-3) at Atlanta Falcons (1-5)

These two teams are pretty similar. Both teams look like middling teams on paper, but have struggled in first down rate differential, with the Falcons ranking 30th at -5.53% and the Lions ranking 28th at -4.83%. Both teams have primarily struggled on defense, ranking 30th and 31st respectively in first down rate allowed, but their offenses have also been disappointing, as they have the offensive talent to be above average on that side of the ball, but have not been thus far. At their best, these are both middling teams that can compensate for a below average defense with an above average offense.

The Lions have a pair of wins, but one came against the Jaguars and the other came by just three points against the Cardinals in a game in which the Lions lost the first down rate battle by 10.50%, but managed to win because of a +3 turnover margin, which isn’t replicable every week. The Falcons, meanwhile, are legitimately a couple plays away from being 3-3, blowing near impossible to blow leads against the Cowboys and Bears, but they lost the first down rate battle against the Cowboys (-10.80%) and against the Vikings last week (-8.56%). 

When adjusted for strength of schedule, the Falcons have a decent lead in first down rate differential (-3.47% vs. -5.07%) because they’ve faced a much tougher schedule and they have the slight edge in my roster rankings as well, so they should be considered the better team, even if only by a slim margin. However, this line has it somewhat backwards, favoring the Falcons by just a point at home, suggesting the Lions are the slightly better team. It’s not enough to make the Falcons worth betting, but my calculated line is -3 and the Falcons should have a good chance to cover in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Detroit Lions 31

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -1

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at New York Jets: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (4-2) at New York Jets (0-6)

The Jets are not just the last remaining winless team and the worst team in the league; they’re the worst team in the league by a wide margin and one of the worst teams of all time statistically. None of their games have been decided by one score or less. They haven’t been remotely competitive in any of their games, with their best single week first down rate differential being their -6.56% mark in week 2 in a 31-13 loss to the 49ers. They’ve lost by an average of 18.3 points per game and their -110 point differential is the 9th worst through 6 games since the merger. In terms of first down rate differential, the Jets are at -11.68% when adjusted for schedule and no other team is worse than -6.79%.

The Jets can look to last year’s Dolphins, who were 0-6 with a -148 point differential and a -13.68% first down rate differential through 6 games, before eventually going 5-5 over their final 10 games, but the Dolphins had a capable veteran quarterback to turn to in Ryan Fitzpatrick and were well coached by first year head coach Brian Flores, two things the Jets don’t have going for them. 

The Jets are getting healthier on offense, which has been the worse side of the ball, as not only will they have Sam Darnold back from a two-game absence, but he could have his top-3 wide receivers all healthy for the first time all year, with Jamison Crowder returning three weeks ago, Breshad Perriman returning last week, and rookie Denzel Mims likely to make his season debut this season. However, even with better health, the Jets still stand out as dead last in my roster rankings.

This week, the Jets host the Bills and are 10-point home underdogs. Earlier this week, I was thinking of making a small bet on the Bills just as a fade of the Jets, who have yet to cover this season, but the injury developments have changed my mind, as not only are the Jets getting healthier, but the Bills, who haven’t played as well over the past two weeks, are going in the other direction injury wise. They may get linebacker Matt Milano back from injury, but wide receiver John Brown, tight end Dawson Knox, guard Cody Ford, cornerbacks Josh Norman and Levi Wallace, and possibly top cornerback Tre’Davious White are all expected to be out this week. 

This line has shifted from -12.5 earlier this week down to -10 because of the injury news, but I still don’t like betting on a huge road favorite when they’re banged up and could potentially be sleep walking through the game, with a much bigger game against the Patriots on deck. The Bills are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes now, but if both Milano and White are ruled out, I may flip this pick, as I don’t have a strong lean either way.

Final Update: The injury report is better than I was expecting, as the Bills will have both Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano, while the Jets will be missing their top receiver Jamison Crowder in a surprise inactive (as well as talented guard Alex Lewis, but that was known earlier this week). I still wouldn’t bet on the Bills, but I’m pumping this up to low confidence.

Buffalo Bills 24 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -10

Confidence: Low

Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) at Tennessee Titans (5-0)

Both of these teams are undefeated at 5-0, but both teams have been less than stellar for stretches this season. The Steelers faced one of the easiest schedules in the league in their first 4 games of the season and managed just a +1.39%% first down rate differential, before stepping their play up in a big way last week, winning the first down rate battle by 11.41% in a 38-7 blowout win over a Browns team who was the toughest team the Steelers had faced to date. 

The Titans, meanwhile, have faced a slightly tougher schedule, but four of their five wins have been decided by one score or less, with the exception being a 42-16 blowout victory over the Bills that stands out as being a significantly better performance by the Titans than their other four games, much in the same way the Steelers’ win last week against the Browns was significantly better than their first four results.

This matchup was originally supposed to take place in week 4, but was pushed forward to week 7 because of the Titans’ COVID outbreak. The extra time has benefited both teams, as it’s allowed them to get healthier, but the Titans get the bigger boost, as top cornerback Adoree Jackson and top wide receiver AJ Brown have both missed time with injury, among others, while several other key players have missed time with positive COVID tests. All of those key players are expected to play this week, with the possible exception of Jackson, who has yet to play this season. The Titans are missing left tackle Taylor Lewan now, but he hasn’t played that well so far this season and the Titans have a first round rookie in Isaiah Wilson behind him on the depth chart. The Steelers get stud right guard David DeCastro back healthy after he missed 3 of the first 5 games, but they’ll be without top off ball linebacker Devin Bush and slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who will miss their first games of the season this week.

These two teams are pretty even overall, but I give the Titans the edge right now because of their injury situation. Despite that, this line favors the Titans by just 1 point at home, suggesting the Steelers are the slightly better team. This line has moved from favoring Pittsburgh by a couple points earlier this week, but that’s pretty insignificant line movement and the Titans should still have a good chance of covering in a game they basically just need to win to cover. I would need Jackson to play for the Titans to be worth betting, but they’re definitely under consideration and they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes either way.

Tennessee Titans 23 Pittsburgh Steelers 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -1

Confidence: Low

Green Bay Packers at Houston Texans: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (4-1) at Houston Texans (1-5)

The Texans are just 1-5, but they’ve faced arguably the toughest schedule in the league, with 4 games against teams with 1 loss or fewer (Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Titans), and they’ve still played three of their five losses within one score, including 4th quarter leads over the undefeated Steelers and Titans. Of their two games against teams with losing records, one was against a Vikings team that is significantly better than its record and the other was an easy win over the Jaguars. I didn’t think the Texans were any better than a middling team entering the season, but I don’t think they’re much worse now. Adjusting for schedule, they have a first down rate differential of -1.06%.

The Texans have another tough game this week with the 4-1 Packers coming to town, but I would argue the Packers are behind all four of the aforementioned teams with one loss or fewer. The Packers’ blowout defeat in Tampa Bay last week is a significantly worse loss than any loss by any of the four other teams and even going into that game the Packers ranked just 11th in first down rate differential at +2.63%, due to a defense that ranks among the worst in the league in first down rate allowed. Now, the Packers aren’t far ahead of the Texans in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.14%.

Making matters worse, the Packers will be without stud left tackle David Bakhtiari, talented safety Darnell Savage, and possibly running back Aaron Jones. Jones’ absence wouldn’t be as big of a deal as most think because the Packers are deep at running back, but I still have this game close to 50/50 regardless of whether or not Jones plays, so we’re getting great line value with the Texans at +3.5. They might not pull the straight up upset, but about a quarter of games are decided by a field goal or less, so I like getting the 3.5 point cushion. This figures to be a shootout and the most likely outcome is either side winning by a field goal, two scenarios that would both lead to a Texans cover.

Green Bay Packers 34 Houston Texans 33

Pick against the spread: Houston +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at Washington Mascots: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (2-4) at Washington Mascots (1-5)

This is a tough one and I’ve been going back and forth on it. On one hand, the Cowboys have all the usual factors for a team that should be better going forward. They have a -12 turnover margin through 6 games and turnover margins are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. At the very least, they should recover more than 28.57% of their fumbles going forward, but their fumble rate is likely to regress as well. 

In addition, they’ve played a tougher than average schedule, which gets significantly easier going forward. They’ve been competitive in most of their losses, within three of four games being one score games in the 4th quarter. With strength of schedule taken into account, the Cowboys rank 11th in first down rate differential at +1.98%. The Cowboys injury situation on offense can’t be ignored, with guard Zack Martin joining quarterback Dak Prescott, tight end Blake Jarwin, and offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins on the sidelines. However, the Cowboys are getting healthier on defense with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch returning last week and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, linebacker Sean Lee, and defensive end Randy Gregory all likely to return this week, and backup quarterback Andy Dalton should theoretically be a capable if underwhelming starter.

The Cowboys were much better in first down rate (4th in the NFL at +4.28%) than their 8-8 record last season, in part due to their tendency to blowout bad teams (7 wins by 18 points or more). The Cowboys have yet to do that this season, but they’ve won their only two games against lower level opponents (Falcons and Giants), despite losing the turnover battle in both games. In those two games, they won the first down rate battle by 10.80% and 12.95% respectively, even though Dalton played a big chunk of the game against the Giants and led the comeback. If they can do that again in this game against a bottom-5 team, they should be able to win fairly easily.

On the other hand, the Cowboys are nowhere near the same team they were last season and the dropoff from Dak Prescott to Andy Dalton looked bigger than expected in Dalton’s debut last week. If that’s the case, the Cowboys, who are poorly coached as well, will likely continue struggling going forward, despite their past success in first down rate differential. I’m still taking the Cowboys for pick ‘em purposes in this game, with the line moving from Dallas -3 on the early line last week to Dallas -1 this week, but I don’t have confidence in them.

Update: It looks like both Lee and Awuzie will miss another week for the Cowboys. I didn’t have any confidence in the Cowboys anyway, so I’m switching this to Washington.

Washington Mascots 24 Dallas Cowboys 23

Pick against the spread: Washington PK

Confidence: None