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Pick of the Week
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New Orleans Saints (1-0) at Las Vegas Raiders (1-0)
The Raiders went 7-9 last season, but they were not nearly as good as their record suggested, as all seven of their wins were decided by 8 points or fewer, including a few that easily could have gone the other way, while 6 of their 9 losses came by 18 points or more, giving them a -106 point differential on the season, which is much more in line with a 4-5 win team than a 7-win team. The same is true of their 29th ranked first down rate differential of -5.27%.
I was expecting the Raiders to be better this season, even if it didn’t necessarily translate into more wins, for a couple reasons. The first was off-season additions, most notably linebacker Cory Littleton, who signed on a big contract this off-season after being one of the best linebackers in the league with the Rams last season. The second reason was that I expected their offensive line to be healthier. The strength of this team along with the running game they block for, the Raiders have average or better starters at all five spots upfront, but those five starters played just four games together in 2019.
Unfortunately, this year is not off to a much better start in that category, with right tackle Trent Brown expected to miss this game. Without him and off-season addition Nick Kwiatkowski, who is also injured, the Raiders are starting to resemble last year’s team and the timing is not good, with the Raiders set to face the Saints, one of the top teams in the league and the kind of team that would have blown them out pretty easily last season.
Fortunately for the Raiders, the Saints come in pretty banged up too, missing wide receiver Michael Thomas, one of the best offensive players in the game, and talented starting defensive end Marcus Davenport. The Saints also didn’t play that well in week 1, beating the Buccaneers by 11, but losing the first down rate battle by 8.18% and winning primarily because of a +3 turnover margin, which is highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis.
Their relative struggles last week were likely in part due to injuries, particularly Thomas who did not appear healthy all game, but Drew Brees also had one of his worst games in years by a number of advanced metrics, a concern for a quarterback at an age where quarterbacks can drop off very quickly. This could just be a case of the Saints’ typical early season struggles, as even with last week’s turnover-aided win they are just 4-16-1 ATS in weeks 1 and 2 of the season since 2010 (85-53-2 ATS in weeks 3-17), but history suggests that’s not likely to go away for at least another week. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -6.5, so we’re getting some line value with them at -5.5, but there’s not enough here to take the Saints confidently.
New Orleans Saints 34 Las Vegas Raiders 27
Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5
Detroit Lions (0-1) at Green Bay Packers (1-0)
The Lions held a 23-6 lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter last week against the Bears last week, but ended up giving up three straight touchdowns to lose by a score of 27-23. It was an impressive comeback by the Bears, who did nothing on offense for the first three quarters of the game, but it’s worth noting it came against a Lions defense that was missing its top three cornerbacks, with Jeff Okudah inactive with injury and Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman suffering injuries of their own mid-game.
Okudah, the 3rd overall pick in April’s draft, will make his debut in this game, but both Trufant and Coleman are out, leaving Okudah with a tough assignment as the top cornerback in his first career game. The Lions will likely start 2019 5th round pick Amani Oruwariye opposite him and he’s shown promise in limited action in his career, but even if their young cornerbacks hold up outside, the Lions’ depth at cornerback is very questionable. The Lions will also be short-handed on offense, without a pair of starters on the offensive line (left guard Joe Dahl and right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai) and top receiver Kenny Golladay.
The Packers will be without top defensive lineman Kenny Clark in this one and he was clearly missed down the stretch against the Vikings, but overall the Packers are in much better injury shape. This line is right around where it should be though, favoring the Packers by 6.5 points at Lambeau with minimal homefield advantage. This is one of the toughest calls of the week, but I’m taking the Lions only because these teams both tend to play a lot of close games. The Packers won 8 of their 13 games last year by one score or less, while the Lions had 8 of their 12 losses come by one score or less, blowing a league leading four 4th quarterback leads. Even if the Lions can’t keep it close throughout, they have a good chance to get a backdoor cover late.
Green Bay Packers 30 Detroit Lions 24
Pick against the spread: Detroit +6.5
San Francisco 49ers (0-1) at New York Jets (0-1)
Going into the season, I thought the 49ers had a good chance to continue being a top level team after making the Super Bowl last year, as they didn’t have the factors that usually indicate a coming regression by a top level team. They didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They didn’t win an unsustainably high amount of close games (5-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league last season. They also mostly avoided the significant personnel losses that high level teams often have, ranking 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and generally doing a good job of replacing the few key players they lost. They also brought back all key members of their coaching staff.
However, injuries have really taken their toll on this team thus far and were a big part of the reason why they fell flat in a game they should have won at home against the Cardinals. The 49ers were without their starting receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and stud tight end George Kittle spent most of the game as a decoy after suffering an injury of his own. Aiyuk is back this week, but Kittle will be out, as will top cornerback Richard Sherman (47 snaps last week) and possibly talented edge defender Dee Ford (46 snaps last week). In their current injury situation, the 49ers have fallen to 12th in my roster rankings.
Fortunately, the 49ers get an easy matchup this week, as not only are the Jets one of the worst teams in the league, but they have their own injury problems, down starting running back Le’Veon Bell, starting wide receivers Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder, and possibly top linebacker Avery Williamson. We’re not getting any line value with the 49ers as 7-point road favorites, but the 49ers are also in a good spot with only another easy matchup with the Giants on deck, as teams are 63-42 ATS as 6+ point favorites since 2016 before being 6+ point favorites again the following week. I don’t have much confidence in this banged up 49ers team, but they should be the right side.
San Francisco 49ers 28 New York Jets 20
Pick against the spread: San Francisco -7
Baltimore Ravens (1-0) at Houston Texans (0-1)
This is a tough one. On one hand, you can definitely make the argument that the Texans are a good enough team that they shouldn’t be home underdogs of this many points (7.5) against anyone and this line has swung pretty significantly in the past week, from 5.5 on the early line last week to 7.5 this week. My roster rankings have the Texans calculated as 4 point underdogs, even factoring in diminished homefield advantage, so from that standpoint, we’re getting some line value. On the other hand, the Ravens are on a truly otherworldly run in their last 9 meaningful regular season games dating back to last season and it might be foolish to go against them regardless of the line, as my roster rankings may not adequately take into account how well the Ravens have played since about the middle of last season.
Dating back to last year’s week 8 bye, the Ravens have a ridiculous +15.50% first down rate differential and a +205 point differential in their last 9 meaningful regular season games. That would be impressive if a team did it in a full season, let alone in 9 games (22.8 points per game). The Ravens lost right guard Marshal Yanda and safety Earl Thomas this off-season, a pair of key players from last year’s team, so I thought we might be able to get some value going against them early this season, but they didn’t seem to miss them win they posted the league’s best first down rate differential (+17.39%) in their week one blowout victory over the Browns.
The Ravens did lose in the first round in the playoffs last year, after resting their starters in a meaningless week 17 game, but they didn’t play as badly as the 28-12 final score suggested, as the game swung entirely on the Ravens -3 turnover margin and 0 for 4 on fourth down, two highly inconsistent metrics and two things highly uncharacteristic of this Ravens’ team. The Ravens lost the first down rate battle in that game (their only instance of doing so since week 7 of last season), but only by 3.24% and it came against a Titans team that was legitimately one of the best in the league last season. If I had to make a pick against the spread for pick ‘em purposes, I would take the Texans just because they are a solid team and they have so much room for cushion as 7.5 point underdogs, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Texans played a good game and still lost by multiple scores.
Baltimore Ravens 27 Houston Texans 20
Pick against the spread: Houston +7.5
New York Giants (0-1) at Chicago Bears (1-0)
The Bears pulled out the win in Detroit last week, but it’s hard to ignore that they couldn’t generate any offense until the Lions lost cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, leaving the Lions down their top-3 cornerbacks, with Jeff Okudah ruled out before the game. Once that happened, the Bears strung together three straight touchdown drives to win the game, but that’s a lot less impressive against bottom of the roster cornerbacks.
The Bears are more or less at full health with free acquisition edge defender Robert Quinn making his debut after missing the opener with injury, but I still expect them to be a mediocre team this season, with their offensive issues still remaining and their defense not being what it was due to player departures. I expect the Giants to be mediocre as well but I have them less than a point behind the Bears in my roster rankings.
The Bears won’t have full homefield advantage, so it’s hard to understand them being favored by more than a field goal. There isn’t enough here for the Giants to be worth betting at +5, but that may change if Golden Tate is able to go (listed questionable after missing the opener and being limited in practice all week) and/or if the line creeps up to 6. About 1 in 6 games are decided by a field goal exactly and the most likely outcome of this game is the Bears winning by that exact amount, but I’d probably want protection from a 6-point Bears win if I was going to bet this one.
Update: Tate is playing, but with this line still at 5, I’m going to keep this one as a low confidence pick.
Chicago Bears 20 New York Giants 17
Pick against the spread: NY Giants +5
New England Patriots (1-0) at Seattle Seahawks (1-0)
The Patriots’ first season without Tom Brady got off to a good start last week, as Cam Newton and company led the team to a 21-11 win that could have been a lot more lopsided if not for a missed makeable field goal and a fumbled potential touchdown. Overall, the Patriots finished with the 2nd best first down rate differential of the week at +14.59%, only behind the Ravens, who blew out the Browns. The Patriots were only playing the Dolphins, but it’s still good to see them handle them relatively easily.
This is a completely different style of play from their underwhelming offense a year ago, with the Patriots incorporating a number of option runs that led to Cam Newton carrying the ball 15 times for 75 yards, more yardage than Brady has had in a single season since 2011. The Patriots’ offensive line is much healthier this year and, while they still lack downfield weapons in the passing game, they could follow a run heavy/strong defense style of play to a good amount of success, especially if Cam Newton continues to look as healthy as he did in week 1.
The Patriots get a much tougher test this week though, with a trip to Seattle on deck. Playing in Seattle won’t be as difficult as normal because of the lack of live crowd noise, but there are a couple key reasons why it won’t be easy. For one, the Seahawks look to have as good of a team as they’ve had in years, especially if they continue letting Russell Wilson handle more of the offensive load. Their defensive secondary has been completely reloaded with the additions of Quandre Diggs, Quinton Dunbar, and Jamal Adams over the past calendar year and are a headlining unit for a team that currently ranks 4th in my roster rankings.
The second reason is that this is a night game played between a west coast and an east coast team and, due to differing sleepcycles, the west coast team has a big advantage in night games, covering at about a 65% rate all-time. The Patriots aren’t far behind the Seahawks in my roster rankings in 10th and this line would be fair if this was a day game, but given the sleep cycle advantage, I would go with the Seahawks for pick ‘em purposes. There’s not enough here for them to be worth betting, but they should be the right side.
Seattle Seahawks 26 New England Patriots 20
Pick against the spread: Seattle -4
Atlanta Falcons (0-1) at Dallas Cowboys (0-1)
Going into the season, I liked the Cowboys’ chances of being a contender, after tough luck in close games in 2019 (0-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer after going 8-2 in those type of games with roughly the same team in 2018) led to the Cowboys missing the playoffs at 8-8, despite finishing 6th in the league in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%. However, the Cowboys are having a different kind of tough luck this season, as they’ve been arguably the most injury affected team in the league so far.
They lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for the year before the season even started and right tackle La’El Collins, tight end Blake Jarwin, and linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee are all out for an extended period of time now as well. The Cowboys do get cornerback Jourdan Lewis back after he missed the opener and the Cowboys are counting on the promising young cornerback as a starter in 2020 to replace departed free agent Byron Jones, but they could be without a far more important player than Lewis in this game, left tackle Tyron Smith, who aggravated a previous injury in practice early this week and has not returned since.
Smith is listed as questionable, suggesting he has a decent chance to play even though he didn’t practice at all Thursday or Friday, but he may be less than 100% and could easily have an in-game setback and have to leave the game. Without him, the Cowboys would be without their top-3 offensive tackles, with normal bookend Collins and swing tackle Cameron Erving both on injured reserve right now. The Falcons also could be without their left tackle though, as Jake Matthews barely practiced this week through injury and is likely in a similar situation as Smith where even if he plays he could be limited or have a setback. Matthews isn’t as big of a name as Smith, but he’d be as big of an absence to the Falcons as Smith would be to the Cowboys.
With Matthews and Smith both being up in the air, it’s hard to be confident in either side on this one, but there are reasons to like Atlanta, especially if Matthews can go and/or Smith can’t. This line was originally at 7 before all of the Cowboys injuries, but, particularly if Smith can’t go, this line didn’t move enough, down to 4.5. With Smith and Matthews factored in as highly questionable, I have the Cowboys just three spots ahead of the Falcons in my roster rankings and the Cowboys won’t have their normal homefield advantage either, with a limited crowd in the stands, giving us a calculated line of just -3 as of right now.
The Falcons are also in a much better spot schedule wise, as the Cowboys have to turn around and go to Seattle next week, while the Falcons get to host the Bears. Underdogs are 76-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are almost definitely true here. Depending on injury reports and associated line movement, I may end up placing a bet on the Falcons, but for now this is a low confidence pick because of the uncertainty around Matthews and Smith.
Update: Matthews is playing and Smith is not, but this line has dropped all the way to 3, so there’s isn’t enough line value here. I think the single most likely outcome of this game is still the Cowboys winning by 3, so I’d want at least 3.5 for this to be worth a bet.
Dallas Cowboys 27 Atlanta Falcons 26
Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3
Washington Mascots (1-0) at Arizona Cardinals (1-0)
The Cardinals pulled off a big upset last week in San Francisco, knocking off the reigning NFC Champions by score of 24-20 as 6.5-point underdogs. The Cardinals legitimately played well on both sides of the ball and finished with the 5th highest first down rate differential of the week at +8.24%. I buy their offensive performance, as they finished last season 18th in first down rate differential and now have DeAndre Hopkins as a #1 option, Kyler Murray in his second year, and a full season of Kenyan Drake, so they could make a leap offensively, but I have to see more from their defense to buy that they’re going to be consistently better than their 30th ranked finish in first down rate allowed in 2019, without any major off-season upgrades.
The Cardinals’ defensive performance last week might have had more to do with the fact that the 49ers were missing their two starting wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk due to injury and then had to turn George Kittle into a decoy for most of the game after he suffered an injury of his own. If the Cardinals’ defense falls back down to earth, they won’t be more than a middling team and will be looked back on as overrated after the first week.
The formerly named Washington team also got an upset win last week, knocking off the Eagles by score of 27-17 as 6-point home underdogs. That upset also was influenced by injury, as the Eagles were missing their top two offensive linemen and their entire right side of the offensive line with injury, though Washington had injury issues of their own, missing top linebacker Thomas Davis and top cornerback Kendall Fuller, who are both expected to return this week. However, Washington didn’t get nearly as much attention for their upset as Arizona, as this line shifted up further from Arizona -6 on the early line last week to Arizona -7 this week.
The Cardinals are definitely the better team, but the Mascots do some things well as well and they will play hard every week for Ron Rivera because of the situation he’s coaching through (think the Colts surprising 11-win season in their ChuckStrong year in 2012), so I only have the Cardinals about 3 points better in my roster rankings. Given that and that the Cardinals won’t have a normal homefield advantage this week, there’s some line value here with Washington, who should only be underdogs of 4.5 points at most and should be able to keep this one relatively close. They’re worth a small bet.
Arizona Cardinals 24 Washington Mascots 20
Pick against the spread: Washington +7
Los Angeles Rams (1-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (0-1)
The Eagles lost in embarrassing fashion on the road in Washington last week, blowing a 17-0 lead in a 27-17 defeat against one of the worst teams in the league. That shifted this line pretty significantly, moving from Philadelphia -3.5 to a -1 in the wake of the Eagles’ defeat. That loss is definitely reason for some concern in Philadelphia, but they will get a big boost this week with right tackle Lane Johnson returning from injury.
Johnson hasn’t been the most durable player in his career, but he’s been one of the best offensive linemen in football when on the field and that shows up in a significant way in Carson Wentz’s career splits (his QB rating is about 20 points higher with Johnson on the field). Johnson’s return is especially important because the Eagles are already without right guard Brandon Brooks for the season and had to re-sign 38-year-old Jason Peters to start at left tackle because expected left tackle Andre Dillard is out for the season as well.
I don’t think this huge line shift fully takes into account the impact that Johnson’s absence had against Washington and the impact that his return will have this week. The Eagles will also get running back Miles Sanders and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave back from injury. However, even with those players returning, I still only give the Eagles a slight edge in my roster rankings over the Rams, whose young offensive line was surprisingly impressive last week. Given that they only have a minimal edge in talent, there isn’t enough line value for the Eagles to be worth betting at home in front of an empty crowd as 1-point favorites, but they should be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, as the most likely result of this game is an Eagles win by a field goal.
Philadelphia Eagles 27 Los Angeles Rams 24
Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -1