Pick of the Week
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NYG +110 vs. DAL
Pick of the Week
High Confidence Picks
Medium Confidence Picks
Low Confidence Picks
No Confidence Picks
NYG +110 vs. DAL
Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) at Denver Broncos (5-10)
The Raiders lost last week in crushing fashion, kicking what they thought was the game winning field goal with 19 seconds left in the game, only to allow the Dolphins to go 49 yards in one play with no timeouts left to get into position to kick their own game winning field goal, ending the Raiders’ faint playoff chances and effectively their season. Despite that loss, the Raiders have gone from being underdogs of 2.5 points on the early line last week to being 2.5 point favorites this week. That might be confusing at first glance, but when you look at how the Raiders played last week, it’s more understandable.
Despite losing the game, the Raiders actually won the first down rate battle by 8.25%. They lost the game because they committed the game’s only turnover and because they went a ridiculous 0 for 10 on 3rd down and 1 of 2 on 4th down. Despite their futility on 3rd and 4th downs, the Raiders still managed 23 first downs in the game, meaning they picked up 22 first downs on first or second down. That’s very encouraging to see because performance on those downs tends to be more predictive. That they moved the ball as effectively as they did on first and second down and still lost makes that loss all the more crushing, but it helps their projection going forward, as they go into the final game of their season, so it’s understandable that this line would move.
Five points of line movement (from +2.5 to -2.5) seems like a lot, but neither line crosses the key number of 3, so it’s not overly impactful line movement. In addition to how the Raiders played last week, the Broncos also lost their top defensive lineman Shelby Harris to injury, which is a big blow to an already injury plagued Broncos defense. The Broncos are very reliant on their defense, which ranks 8th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.20%, to cover for an offense that ranks just 31st in first down rate over expected at -3.86% and if their defense can’t perform up to their usual level because of injury absences, the Broncos would have a tough time beating most teams, so it’s understandable they’re no longer favored in this game.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, despite how they played last week, they’re still well below average in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, ranking 23rd at -1.53%. The Raiders’ 7-8 record isn’t bad, but 6 of their 7 wins have come by 10 points or fewer, while 4 of their 8 losses have come by 16 points or more, giving them a -45 point differential. Their one win by more than 10 points came against these Broncos in week 10, but that was a game in which the Broncos lost the turnover battle by 5, something that is highly unlikely to happen again this week, given the inconsistent nature of turnover margins. The Raiders only won the first down rate battle by 2.31% in that game, despite the final score being 37-12. I have the Raiders calculated as 1-point favorites in this rematch in Denver, so we’re getting slight line value with the Broncos at +2.5, but not nearly enough to take them with any confidence.
Las Vegas Raiders 26 Denver Broncos 24
Pick against the spread: Denver +2.5
Miami Dolphins (10-5) at Buffalo Bills (12-3)
This is one of the toughest calls of the week because no one seems to know what the Bills are going to be doing with their star players. Like Pittsburgh, Buffalo is locked into either the 2 or 3 seed in the AFC, so there is speculation that they could follow the Steelers’ lead and rest their starters week 17. Adding evidence to this speculation is the fact that the Bills rested starters in week 17 of last season, though that came in a situation where the Bills were locked into the 5 seed.
This situation is a little different for a couple reasons, so I’m not so sure we won’t see the Bills try in this one. For one, the Bills may still want the #2 seed, which they would clinch with a win over the Dolphins and a loss by Pittsburgh’s backups in Cleveland. The Steelers don’t seem to see a big difference between the 2 and 3 seed, but the Bills may see it differently. The Bills’ first playoff game next week will be their first home playoff game in 25 years and, unlike the Steelers, the Bills will be allowed to have limited fan attendance at their playoff games.
Seeing as it’s been so long since they’ve hosted a playoff game, they may be motivated by the opportunity to host two, which they would if they got the #2 seed and won the first playoff game, while landing the 3 seed would force them to go to Pittsburgh in the 2nd round (assuming both teams win in the first round). They wouldn’t have to deal with any road fans in Pittsburgh if they had to play there, but they could desire to play in their home stadium in a way that the Steelers don’t seem to. On top of that, they may want to get Josh Allen another chance to prove himself in the MVP race. All of this is speculation, of course, but there are reasons why the Bills won’t necessarily follow the Steelers’ lead and give their stars the week off before the playoffs to avoid potential injury.
This line, favoring the Bills by 1.5 points, seems to suggest that there is a chance that the Bills play their stars, but that they probably won’t play the whole game. This line was Buffalo -5.5 on the early line last week and a mere 4-point swing doesn’t seem to suggest that Allen and company won’t play beyond the first series, but the odds makers clearly aren’t treating this as a normal game either. If this was a normal game and the Bills were favored by 5.5, I likely would have been all over the Bills, as the gap between these two teams is much bigger than these records suggest.
Four of the Dolphins’ wins have come against the three worst teams in the league, the Jets (twice), the Jaguars, and the Bengals, while just two of their wins have come against teams with a .500 or better record, a 3-point victory over the 8-7 Cardinals and a win over the 9-6 Rams in which the Dolphins managed just 8 first downs and 145 yards of offense and primarily won because they had return touchdowns of 78 yards and 88 yards, which certainly is not sustainable every week.
Beyond those two return touchdowns, the Dolphins have benefitted from other metrics that have little predictive value, ranking 3rd in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 73.91%, 8th in fumble recovery rate at 57.14%, and leading the league in turnover margin at +11. Recovering fumbles and opponents missing field goals are not replicable skills, while turnover margin is very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis as well. Teams with a turnover margin of +10 or more in week 15 or later, on average, have a +0.64 turnover margin over the final 3 games of the season, leading to them covering the spread at just a 46.2% rate in those games.
Overall, the Dolphins rank 19th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.41%, which is a more predictive stat. That lines up with my roster rankings, which also have the Dolphins 19th. The Dolphins have also been slightly better offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center than Tua Tugavailoa, but, with Fitzpatrick on the COVID list, Tua will have to play this whole game. Making matters worse, his top-two wide receiver Devante Parker and Jakeem Grant are questionable and likely would be limited at less than 100% if they did play.
The Bills, meanwhile, rank 5th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.50%, 5th in my roster rankings, and may be even better than that suggests. Offense is the more predictable and predictive side of the ball and the Bills have absolutely dominated on that side of the ball this season, leading the league with a +4.83% first down rate over expected that dwarfs the 2nd place Chiefs, who are “only” are +3.63. The Bills’ defense has been an issue, allowing a +1.33% first down rate over expected, 26th in the league, but, beyond the inherent unpredictability of defensive play, there is plenty of reason to expect the Bills to be better than that defensively going forward, now that they are much healthier than they were earlier this season. After the Chiefs, the Bills look like the clear 2nd best team in the AFC.
My calculated line would have them favored by 9 points over a middling at best Dolphins team if this was a normal game. Given that, I’m inclined to take the Bills this week, as this line is 7.5 points lower than where it should be without clear confirmation that the Bills will be resting starters and not taking this game seriously. It’s hard to wager any money on a game this uncertain, but unless I hear that the Bills will be resting their starters for the full game, I am going to be on the Bills at -1.5 for a low confidence pick.
Buffalo Bills 23 Miami Dolphins 20
Pick against the spread: Buffalo -1.5
Baltimore Ravens (10-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1)
The primary stat I use to handicap games is schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which tends to be more predictive than other stats because it minimizes the impact of stats that tend to be less predictable on a week-to-week basis, like turnover margins, return touchdowns, missed field goals, big plays, and third and fourth down conversion rates. It also takes into account level of competition. One thing that stands out when looking at this stat is the Ravens, who lead the league with a +130 point differential, but rank just 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.81%.
Part of that is because the Ravens have played a significantly below average schedule, but beyond that a deeper dive into the numbers is needed. The Ravens had a stretch earlier this season where they lost 4 of 5 games, but one of those games was a game in which the Ravens were missing seemingly half their team due to COVID protocols and the Ravens have won 4 straight games since. Upon closer look into those 4 games, the reasons why the Ravens rank so much lower in first down rate than points start to show.
In their first win, they played the Cowboys and actually lost the first down rate battle by 2.63%, despite winning the game by 17. The Cowboys picked up 29 first downs in that game, but had one play over 20 yards and missed 3 field goals, so their first downs didn’t translate to many points against the Ravens. In their second win, it was a close game down to the wire against the Browns and the Ravens won the first down rate battle by just 0.93%. In their third win, they won the first down rate battle by 9.57%, but against Jacksonville, who ranks dead last in the NFL.
Last week, they beat the Giants by 14, but lost the first down rate battle by 0.21%. The Giants had trouble sustaining drives because they went just 1 for 10 on third down and 1 for 3 on fourth down, while the Ravens went 8 for 11 on third down and didn’t have to attempt a fourth down, but third and fourth down performance tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and it’s very concerning to see that the Giants got 22 of their 24 first downs on first and second down, as performance on those downs tends to be more predictive.
Looking back even further reveals a similar pattern. Their one win during the stretch in which they lost four of five came against the Colts by 14 points, but the Ravens lost the first down rate battle by 0.26%. The Colts primarily lost because they went 2 of 12 on third down, 2 of 4 on 4th down, and gave up a return touchdown. The Ravens’ last win before that rough stretch came by 2 against the Eagles in a game in which the Eagles won the first down rate battle by 2.99%, but went 3 for 12 on 3rd down, 1 for 3 on 4th down, and lost the turnover battle by 1.
In total, the Ravens are just +3 in turnover margin and +1 in return touchdown margin on the season, but they lead the league in opponent’s field goal percentage allowed at 65.22% and have played significantly better on third and fourth down than first and second down, which are both metrics that have less predictive value. The Ravens pick up 3rd downs at a 47.37% rate and 4th downs at a 64.71% rate, while allowing 35.16% and 45.71% respectively.
This is actually an overall improvement over last season, when they picked up 3rd downs at a 48.29% rate and 4th downs at a 60.71% rate, while allowing 38.16% and 33.33% respectively, and they were a much better team overall last season, particularly on offense, before they lost Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda, and Nick Boyle and before the league started figuring out how to defend this offense better. Last year, they were far and away the top team in the league in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but it has been much more of a struggle this season, leading to them ranking 26th.
The Ravens are much more talented than the 26th best team in the league on paper, as they rank 11th in my roster rankings, but any way you look at it, they’re not nearly as good as they were last season. They’re totally overvalued as 14-point road favorites in Cincinnati, against a Bengals team that has played better on both sides of the ball in recent weeks and has slightly moved out of the league’s cellar, ranking 28th in my roster rankings. The Bengals also will have at least some homefield advantage with fans in the stands.
My calculated line is Baltimore -7, so we’re getting great line value with the Bengals, who are also in a good spot, as teams typically tend to underperform in must win games against sub-500 opponents. Teams with a winning percentage between 50% and 67% cover at just a 40.8% rate as favorites against teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage in weeks 16 or 17. Between that and the line value, there is a lot to like about Cincinnati this week, who should be able to keep this relatively close even if they can’t pull the upset. I’m making this a high confidence pick and even considering it for Pick of the Week, which I will announce Sunday morning.
Update: The Bengals will be my Pick of the Week. This is in part because the Ravens will be without some key questionable players (cornerback Jimmy Smith, edge defender Yannick Ngakoue, center Patrick Mekari, and wide receiver Willie Snead), but also because the other pick I was considering (Washington) saw significant late line movement. Both Cincinnati and Washington are strong picks if you locked in Washington when I did, but Cincinnati will officially be my Pick of the Week.
Baltimore Ravens 24 Cincinnati Bengals 17
Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +14
Confidence: Pick of the Week
Arizona Cardinals (8-7) at Los Angeles Rams (9-6)
The Rams had a chance to clinch the division last week with a win in Seattle, but instead that game went about as bad as it could, as not only did the Rams lose, but they lost their starting quarterback Jared Goff, among other players who won’t be available for what is now a must win game against the Cardinals, as a loss and a Bears win against the Packers would lead to the Rams being out of the playoffs in a three way tie at 9-7.
In Goff’s absence, the Rams will start 2018 undrafted free agent John Wolford, who has never thrown an NFL pass, and he’ll be without the benefit of running back Darrell Henderson, possibly running back Cam Akers, and wide receiver Cooper Kupp, on an offense that has already been without stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth for the past 6 weeks. The Rams ranked just 20th in first down rate over expected at -0.11% before their recent injuries and, while they’ve been carried by a defense that ranks 1st in first down rate allowed over expected at -5.07%, defensive performance is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance.
All of a sudden, the Rams have gone from having a chance to clinch the division in week 16 to being underdogs in a game they may need to win to stay alive. This line has shifted from Los Angeles -4 on the early line to Arizona -3 this week, but I think that is a little much, especially with the Cardinals dealing with some absent skill position players as well (Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, Chase Edmonds). The Rams still rank 22nd in my roster rankings because of their defense, while the Cardinals rank 16th without the players they are missing. My calculated line favors Arizona by just 1 point, though that’s not enough line value to get me to bet on a quarterback as unproven as Wolford.
Arizona Cardinals 20 Los Angeles Rams 19
Pick against the spread: LA Rams +3
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14) at Indianapolis Colts (10-5)
When these two teams met all the way back in week 1, I bet the Colts as 8-point favorites in Jacksonville because I had the Colts ranked as one of the top teams in the league and the Jaguars as one of the worst teams, but the Jaguars shockingly pulled the upset by final score of 27-20. The Colts won the first down rate battle by 1.79%, but lost the game primarily because of a -2 turnover margin, which tends to be very inconsistent week-to-week. Beyond the turnover battle, that game proved to be a total fluke, as the Jaguars haven’t won since, losing each of their past 14 games by an average of 12.79 points per game to secure the #1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, while the Colts have a variety of scenarios where they can qualify for the post-season at 11-5 if they can win this rematch.
The Jaguars looked like one of the worst teams in the league on paper coming into the season and have gotten worse as the season has gone on due to injuries, most notably missing their top edge defender Josh Allen, their top-3 cornerbacks Sidney Jones, DJ Hayden, and CJ Henderson, talented center Brandon Linder, feature back James Robinson, and #1 wide receiver DJ Chark. On top of that, quarterback Gardner Minshew got hurt and has struggled since returning, which got him benched for veteran journeyman Mike Glennon. The Jaguars rank dead last in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -5.58% and dead last in my roster rankings as well.
The Colts, however, haven’t been quite as good as I expected coming into the season, as they have benefitted from a below average schedule and rank just 15th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.07%. They should be able to win this game with ease, but covering this 14.5-point spread could be an issue, especially since teams typically tend to underperform in must win games against sub-500 opponents. Teams with a winning percentage between 50% and 67% cover at just a 40.8% rate as favorites against teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage in weeks 16 or 17. My calculated line is Indianapolis -14, so we’re barely getting line value with the Jaguars, but they could play this game slightly closer than you’d think, with the Colts in a bad spot. They should be the right side if you have to pick a side in this one, even if it’s hard to be confident in them.
Indianapolis Colts 26 Jacksonville Jaguars 13
Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +14.5
Tennessee Titans (10-5) at Houston Texans (4-11)
I was hoping we would get the Titans at a discount this week after last week’s 40-14 loss in Green Bay. The Titans looked ugly in that game, losing the first down rate battle by 14.91%, but it’s likely they knew they could still win the division with a win over the lowly Texans this week and simply stopped trying once they got down multiple scores against the Packers in the snow. I expect a much better effort this week with the division on the line and their defense should be better than it was earlier in the season now that they have top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from injury.
Unfortunately, we’re not getting that discount and, in fact, this line has soared from Tennessee -4.5 on the early line last week to Tennessee -7.5 this week. The Texans had an ugly result last week too, losing at home to the Bengals, and it seems that’s what the oddsmakers and public took more notice of. With that in mind, I’m actually going to take the Texans this week, albeit for a no confidence pick. Tennessee -7.5 is right where I have this line, but there’s a chance the Titans could choke with the division on the line, as teams with a winning percentage between 50% and 67% cover at just a 40.8% rate as favorites against teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage in weeks 16 or 17.
That’s not enough to take the Texans with any confidence, as they’re one of the worst teams in the league, ranking 25th in my roster rankings, with key players missing on both sides of the ball (Will Fuller, Laremy Tunsil, Bradley Roby, Whitney Mercilus, Justin Reid, among others), while the Titans have the kind of dominant offense (6th in first down rate over expected at +2.02%) that correlates well with long-term success, but I would give the Texans the slight edge if you have to pick a side.
Tennessee Titans 31 Houston Texans 24
Pick against the spread: Houston +7.5
Minnesota Vikings (6-9) at Detroit Lions (5-10)
I thought the Vikings were an underrated team for much of the season, but I have mostly stayed away from betting them in recent weeks due to the absence of key linebacker Eric Kendricks. The Vikings still have a very productive offense that ranks 3rd in first down rate over expected at 2.88%, which is important because offensive performance tends to be much more consistent week-to-week than defensive performance, but their offense takes a hit this week without Dalvin Cook and their defense has fallen to 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.19% and hasn’t stopped much of anybody without Kendricks.
Making matters worse, the Vikings will also be without their top cornerback Cameron Dantzler and top defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo this week, among other absences on defense, giving them one of the least talented defenses in the league on paper. Their offense can trade points with a lot of teams, even without Cook, but I have the Vikings ranked 18th overall in my roster rankings due to the absence of Cook and their absences on defense, which is a significant fall from where they were at their highest point, especially when you consider how many other teams also have significant injury absences right now.
Detroit has struggled for most of the season, ranking 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.19%, and they have had injury problems in recent weeks as well, culminating in a humiliating 47-7 home loss to the Buccaneers last week. The good news for the Lions is that they’re actually getting healthier. Matt Stafford didn’t play most of last week, but is expected to start this week, as is center Frank Ragnow, returning from a 2-game absence, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, returning from a 4-game absence, and possibly linebacker Jamie Collins, returning from a 1-game absence.
The Lions’ defense has been awful this season, allowing the highest first down rate over expected in the league at +4.38%, but their offense hasn’t been bad, ranking 10th at +1.19% and playing noticeably better with Matt Stafford in the lineup. As I mentioned earlier, offensive performance is much more consistent and predictive week-to-week. The Lions rank 23rd overall in my roster rankings, just a few spots down from Minnesota, and have the ability to trade points with a Vikings team that might actually have a worse defense than Detroit does. My calculated line is Minnesota -1.5, so we’re getting good line value with the Lions at +4.
On top of that, this is a good spot for the Lions, coming off of last week’s blowout loss. Teams tend to be overlooked and motivated in that spot, covering at a 57.8% rate all-time after a loss by 35 points or more. That’s especially true with home underdogs who previously lost as home underdogs, as they cover at a 53.8% rate, including a 61.7% rate after a loss by 24 points or more. I like to see that the Lions have players willing to play through injury in a meaningless game, led by Stafford, as it seems they’re ready to give much more effort than they did last week, while the Vikings could have one foot in the off-season after a disappointing, injury plagued season. Between the line value and the good spot, there is enough here for the Lions to be worth a bet, but the possibility of a in-game re-injury by Stafford is enough to keep this a smaller play.
Minnesota Vikings 34 Detroit Lions 33
Pick against the spread: Detroit +4
New Orleans Saints (11-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)
I have been expecting to bet on the Saints this week, but things got thrown into flux on Saturday when it was announced that not only Alvin Kamara, but the Saints’ entire running back room will be out due to COVID protocols, in a situation reminiscent of the Broncos playing without quarterbacks and the Browns playing without their top-4 wide receivers earlier this season. Both of those teams not only lost, but failed to cover. I think this is a different situation though, for a couple reasons.
For one, running back is one of the more replaceable positions. On top of that, the Saints have players at other positions, wide receiver Ty Montgomery and quarterback Taysom Hill, who have the versatility to move to running back if needed. And perhaps more important, the Saints are a much more complete and talented team than the Broncos or Browns were. The pre-season #1 team in my roster rankings, the Saints haven’t been quite as dominant as expected, but that is largely due to the fact that they have been dealing with key injury absences all season.
Despite that, they rank 2nd in the league with a +4.47% schedule adjusted first down rate differential and are one of two teams, along with the Buccaneers, to rank in the top-10 both on offense in first down rate (4th) and on defense in first down rate allowed (7th). They started 1-2, but have won 10 of 12 games since, as they typically do after slow starts, going 4-17-1 ATS since 2010 in weeks 1 and 2 and 93-58-7 ATS in week 3-17. They’ll be more depleted this week than usual, but I still have them 7th in my roster rankings with Montgomery and Hill as their running backs and I still have this line calculated at New Orleans -9, shifted down from -10.5 earlier this week.
The oddsmakers’ line has shifted appropriately, going from -6.5 to -5, but it was undervalued to begin with. The Panthers have been competitive in most of their games, with 11 games decided by one score or less, including 8 of their 10 losses, despite a relatively tough schedule, and they rank 17th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.30%, but they’ve largely overachieved their talent level this season and are further depleted by missing key players in this matchup. Already without feature back Christian McCaffrey and left tackle Russell Okung on offense, the Panthers will also be without McCaffrey’s backup Mike Davis, who has played well as the feature back in McCaffrey’s absence, and they’ll be without their top defensive player Brian Burns.
Overall, I have the Panthers 25th in my roster rankings, without the players they are missing, and I wouldn’t expect them to be that competitive this week with a Saints team that is still one of the better teams in the league, even without some key absent players. I’m not as confident in the Saints as I would have been earlier this week at -6.5 when the Saints still had their running backs, but at -5, the Saints are still worth a bet.
New Orleans Saints 24 Carolina Panthers 16
Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) at Cleveland Browns (10-5)
This one is a tough call and I don’t want to spend too much time on it because the Steelers will be resting most of their key players, with either the 2 or 3 seed locked in. The line has ballooned to Cleveland -9.5 with that news, even with the Browns losing several players, including most notably their top cornerback Denzel Ward, to the COVID list. Benefitting the Browns is that they are expected to get stud right guard Wyatt Teller back from a 2-game absence, which is a big key to their run based offense, as well as left tackle Jedrick Wills and their top-4 wide receivers, who missed last week on the COVID list and were badly missed along with Teller in a poor offensive showing in New York against the previously 1-win Jets.
My calculated line would be Cleveland -2 in normal circumstances, as they have a slight talent edge over Pittsburgh, with Teller and without Ward, and have a slight homefield advantage with some limited fans in attendance. The question becomes if all of the starters that Pittsburgh is resting are worth 7.5 points to this game. That’s not really clear to me, nor is the effort level from the Steelers in what the coaching staff has telegraphed as a meaningless game by resting key players. It’s also possible Pittsburgh could play the Browns in back-to-back weeks if the Browns win this game and qualify for the post-season, so Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff are likely saving their better game plan for next week as well. I’m taking the points, but only because there is no reason to be confident in either side of this one.
Cleveland Browns 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 22
Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +9.5