Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (4-0) at Tennessee Titans (3-0)

I think this game is finally safe to write up. A line was posted at Buffalo -3.5 and after two straight days of COVID negatives by the Titans, it seems likely that this game will take place, for the Titans their first game in 16 days. A team having that much time off between games mid-season isn’t unprecedented in the NFL, as three teams went three weeks without playing in 2001 due to 9/11 cancellations, but there is very limited history of how this affects teams and the Titans have also had very little chance to practice and will be playing without several key players, which puts the Titans in uncharted territory historically.

The Titans activated defensive end Da’Quan Jones from the COVID list and they’ll have top wide receiver AJ Brown back from injury for the first time since week 1 and any of their other COVID list players could theoretically be activated before gametime, but right now they are slated to be without starting cornerback Kristian Fulton, starting wide receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries, and top defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons. This is nowhere near their full strength squad. 

Making matters worse for the Titans, they weren’t nearly as good as their 3-0 record suggests, even before all this happened. Their three wins have come by a combined 6 points, despite a +5 turnover margin, something that they’re not necessarily going to be able to count on going forward, and they actually entered week 5 ranking just 25th in first down rate differential at -3.44%. Part of that was due to injury absences, as they’ve also been missing top cornerback Adoree Jackson all season, but they’re in much worse shape now. 

The Titans also haven’t had a particularly tough schedule thus far, struggling to put away the Broncos, Jaguars, and Titans, and now face a much tougher test, as the Bills are off to an impressive 4-0 start and look significantly improved in 2020 thanks to Josh Allen’s improvement and the addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs. This line favors the Bills by 3.5, which would be my calculated line in normal circumstances, but the Titans are also definitely at a disadvantage due to their lack of practice time and unpredictable schedule over the past two weeks. 

I’m not sure if I’m going to bet on the Bills, however, because the Titans have players who could be activated before gametime, while the Bills’ top cornerback Tre’Davious White is questionable after not practicing all week and could join top linebacker Matt Milano on the sideline, though the extended week probably gives White a better than normal chance of playing despite the lack of practice time. Either way, I’ll likely have an update before gametime, but I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick on Buffalo for now.

Final Update: White is out for the Bills, but the Titans won’t be getting any additional players back from the COVID list and this line has dropped to a field goal. I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick, but the Bills should still be the right side.

Buffalo Bills 30 Tennessee Titans 24

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -3

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (1-3) at New Orleans Saints (2-2)

This is one of three games that will be played Monday/Tuesday this week and all three games are impossible to make a call on right now because the status of so many players is unknown. In the other two games (Bills/Titans and Patriots/Broncos) the uncertainty is because otherwise healthy players are on the COVID inactive list and could be activated before the game if they can pass protocol. 

In this game, the uncertainty is because the Saints have several players who could return from injury that are listed questionable and practiced all week, but only in a limited fashion, including top wide receiver Michael Thomas, starting defensive end Marcus Davenport, top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, starting tight end Jared Cook, and starting guard Andrus Peat. This game has a line posted, but it’s impossible to pick a side without knowing the status of the aforementioned players.

If the Saints are relatively healthy, I’ll likely bet on them, possibly for a big play. They’ve gotten off to a slow start this season, but they typically start slow before going on a run (4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2 since 2010, as opposed to 86-54-2 in weeks 3-17) and if they’re relatively healthy they’re still among the most talented teams in the league. The Chargers, meanwhile, are beat up on both sides of the ball, missing feature back Austin Ekeler, the right side of their offensive line in Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga, starting defensive end Melvin Ingram, starting cornerback Chris Harris, and possibly #2 wide receiver Mike Williams, not to mention safety Derwin James and linebacker Drue Tranquill, who have been out all season. 

The Chargers don’t get blown out often (just 2 of their last 14 losses coming by more than one score), so they can keep this game close if the Saints are also going to be banged up, but I like a healthy Saints team to win this game with ease, if that ends up being the case. I’m tentatively on the Saints for a low confidence pick, but I’ll have an update for this on Monday, when I will hopefully have more clarity on the other two games as well.

Final Update: The Saints will have all of the aforementioned questionable players except Michael Thomas, who apparently could have gone but was suspended for a fight in practice. Thomas’ absence will hurt, as will starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was ruled out earlier in the week, but this is arguably as healthy as the Saints have been all season, seeing as their injury problems started in week 1. Despite that, this line has dropped down to a touchdown. The Saints also have one advantage that I didn’t mention above, which is that they are going into a bye and home favorites of 7+ are 63-25 ATS before a bye since 2002.

The Chargers typically play teams close and will have wide receiver Mike Williams active, but they’re still so banged up on both sides of the ball, while the Saints are getting healthy quickly and could easily be starting to go on their annual mid-season run. I have 10 points of separation in my roster rankings between these two teams in their current state, so we’re getting significant line value with the host at only -7 and in a great spot as well. I like this for a high confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 30 Los Angeles Chargers 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7

Confidence: High

Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (2-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-0)

The Raiders got some early hype after their 2-0 start, including a nationally televised win over the Saints week 2, but they barely beat the Panthers week 1 and their win over the Saints wasn’t as impressive as it seemed, as the Saints were banged up, typically start seasons slow, and still won the first down rate battle by +8.77%, despite the final score. Over the past two weeks, the Raiders have been exposed more against a pair of tough teams in the Patriots and Bills.

Injuries have been part of the problem over the past two weeks, as the Raiders were without a pair of starting offensive lineman and their starting outside wide receivers last week. They’re expected to get right tackle Trent Brown and wide receiver Henry Ruggs back from injury this week, but left guard Richie Incognito and their other outside wide receiver Bryan Edwards remain out and they’ll also be without a key player on defense in defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. Overall, they rank just 26th in my roster rankings in their current state.

That’s going to be a problem for the Raiders on the road in Kansas City against arguably the top team in the league. Dating back to week 11 of last season, the Chiefs have won 13 straight games, including 3 playoff games, and they’ve won those games by an average of 14.4 points per game with a +8.57% first down rate differential over that stretch, including a 2nd ranked +7.04 first down rate differential through 4 games of this season. They’re also very healthy relative to the rest of the league, both top cornerback Chavarius Ward and top defensive lineman Chris Jones set to play this week after missing some time earlier this season. The Chiefs should be able to win with relative ease over the Raiders, though this line is high enough at -11.5 that I wouldn’t want to bet this one.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Las Vegas Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -11.5

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (1-3) at San Francisco 49ers (2-2)

The 49ers are a tough team to evaluate. They’re just 2-2, but they rank 4th in the NFL with a +5.32% first down rate differential, with their two wins coming in blowout fashion and their two losses being close. That’s more or less in line with how they played last season, when they finished 2nd in the NFL with a +5.29% first down rate differential, but the 49ers have also had a very easy schedule to start the season and, due to all of their injuries, they are very clearly not the same team as they were last season.

Their injuries have made them especially difficult to evaluate, as they’ve had pretty drastically different rosters available to them in each of their four games. Last week, they got their top-2 pass catchers George Kittle and Deebo Samuel back from injury and this week starting quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo will join them after a 2-game absence, as could starting running back Raheem Mostert after a 2-game absence.

Their defense still has a lot of injuries though, especially at key positions, with cornerback K’Waun Williams joining fellow cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Akhello Witherspoon, and Emmanuel Mosley on the sideline and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah joining fellow defensive ends Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Solomon Thomas on the sidelines, though their linebacking corps will get a big boost this week with Dre Greenlaw returning from a 2-game absence. Fortunately for them, the 49ers’ schedule remains easy, with the Dolphins coming to town. My calculated line of San Francisco -10 suggests we’re getting a little bit of line value with the 49ers as 9-point favorites, but there’s far too much uncertainty here to take them with any confidence.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -9

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Rams at Washington Mascots: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (3-1) at Washington Mascots (1-3)

The mascot-less team from Washington got off to a good start to their season with a win over the Eagles, but the Eagles were missing arguably their more valuable player in Lane Johnson in that game and have shown themselves to be a subpar team even with Johnson in the lineup over the past few weeks, while Washington has also struggled since that week 1 game, losing all three games by at least two touchdowns. To try to right the ship, the Mascots will make a surprising change at quarterback this week, benching second year quarterback Dwayne Haskins for backup Kyle Allen.

Haskins being benched isn’t all that surprising because he hasn’t played well in his limited career action and the front office and coaching staff that drafted him are no longer around, but I would have figured if he was going to get benched, it would be later in the season, rather than after only the 11th start of the 2019 first round pick’s career, and that it would have been for Alex Smith, a proven veteran starter working his way back from a devastating leg injury. Instead, head coach Ron Rivera is turning to his former starting quarterback in Carolina, Kyle Allen.

It’s hard to understand the logic here. Haskins hasn’t been good, but he still has a lot of upside and Allen is a former undrafted free agent who was truly horrendous down the stretch for the Panthers last season, tossing 16 interceptions in his final 9 starts after a somewhat impressive beginning to his career as a starter. Allen’s true talent level may be somewhere between his hot start and his horrendous finish, but even if it is, he’ll be lucky to max out as a long-term backup in the NFL. Allen also had 12 dropped interceptions last season, giving him the most expected interceptions in the league of any quarterback other than Jameis Winston, and he overall ranked 38th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. 

Allen is not a short-term upgrade on Haskins nor does he do anything to clarify Washington’s long-term quarterback situation, as Haskins needs as much experience as possible to realize his potential, after just 14 collegiate starts. I didn’t have a strong lean either way on this game before Allen was announced as the starter, but I’m taking the Rams as a pure fade of Allen, who covered just twice in his final 9 games in Carolina, with more offensive talent around him than he has in Washington. There isn’t enough here for the Rams to be worth betting as 7.5-point favorites, but they should be the right side.

Los Angeles Rams 20 Washington Mascots 10

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -7.5

Confidence: Low

Arizona Cardinals at New York Jets: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (2-2) at New York Jets (0-4)

I’m torn on this one. On one hand, the Jets have been inarguably the worst team in the league through 4 games, as they rank dead last by a wide margin in point differential (-66, next closest is -49) and first down rate differential (-11.66%, next closest is -8.84%). The way they’ve played, it’s hard to imagine them being competitive against anyone outside of the worst few teams in the league. They were 8.5-point home underdogs in this home game against the Cardinals on the early line last week, but we’re getting a smaller number now, with this line dropping down to 7, in large part due to the Cardinals losing their second straight game last week.

The Cardinals started out hot with two straight wins, but the public has soured on them as they’ve fallen down to 2-2, including upset losses to the Lions and Panthers. However, they won the first down rate battle against the Lions by 10.50%, only losing by 3 because of a -3 turnover margin, which is a very inconsistent metric week-to-week, and then against the Panthers, they were without three defensive starters, two of whom are expected to return this week, most importantly safety Budda Baker, who is one of their top defensive players. 

Even with losing the first down rate battle against the Panthers, the Cardinals still rank 9th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +2.81%. Their 14th ranked defense probably won’t be as good going forward, as they have similar personnel to last year when they finished 30th in first down rate allowed, but they should still finish better defensively than they did last year and their 10th ranked offense could easily keep this up. Their offense finished last season 18th in first down rate and now they have Kyler Murray in his second year, a full season of Kenyan Drake, and the addition of DeAndre Hopkins as a #1 wide receiver. Even if their defense falls off, this should still be a competitive mid-level team because of their offense.

On the other hand, the Jets could be a little better than they’ve been in recent weeks, for two reasons. For one, they are getting running back Le’Veon Bell back from injury, giving them arguably their best skill position player back a week after the Jets got top pass catcher Jamison Crowder back from injury. The second reason is that quarterback Sam Darnold is out with an injury for the Jets, which could prove to be a blessing in disguise, given how badly he’s been playing lately. 

That’s not to say Flacco is definitely going to be an upgrade, as Flacco hasn’t been a capable starter in a few seasons and now is in his age 35 season and coming off of a major injury, but he’s a very experienced veteran who could stabilize the position a little for a couple games. I’m still taking the Cardinals, but there are enough reasons to think the Jets will be better this week than they’ve been this season, so this is a no confidence pick. The most likely result might be a push.

Final Update: The Cardinals have a bit of a surprise absence with safety Chris Banjo being unable to return from his one week absence despite practicing throughout the work. Budda Baker’s return is a much bigger deal, but the Cardinals will still be without a pair of defensive players with Devon Kennard also out. Since I was barely on the Cardinals to begin with, I’m flipping this to the Jets, still for a no confidence pick.

Arizona Cardinals 27 New York Jets 20

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +7

Confidence: None

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-3) at Houston Texans (0-4)

The Texans are really in a mess of a situation. They gave complete control of their roster and complete control of the offense to head coach Bill O’Brien, who was essentially functioning as his own general manager and offensive coordinator, despite never proving himself as a great coach. O’Brien took this team to the post-season in 2019, but the Texans had a negative point differential at -7 and O’Brien’s roster changes this off-season undoubtedly made them worse. 

Now the Texans are off to a 0-4 start and, making matters so much worse, due to O’Brien’s failed aggressive moves to try to build this roster into a Super Bowl contender, the Texans won’t even have the luxury of having their own first or second round pick this year. This comes after having just one first round pick and just two picks in the top-50 over the past 3 drafts combined, due to other failed aggressive moves. On top of that, the Texans don’t have much long-term financial flexibility either, with a projected negative 11 million in cap space for 2021 and 11 players under contact for 2021 who are all making 9 million or more annually. Simply put, the Texans aren’t winning games and won’t be able to utilize the normal methods by which teams improve themselves and rebuild.

The Texans’ solution to this was to fire Bill O’Brien four games into the season. O’Brien certainly is to blame for the current situation, but it’s hard to see how firing him makes them better in the short-term. O’Brien isn’t a great coach, but he’ll be turning the job over to 73-year-old Romeo Crennel, who has already failed in two other head coaching stints. It’s very unlikely he’ll be able to do much more with O’Brien’s roster than O’Brien could, especially as a defensive background head coach without a proven offensive coordinator, so the Texans probably would have been better off just stripping O’Brien roster control powers rather than outright firing him and leaving a huge vacuum. 

That being said, there is one reason to like the Texans’ chances of turning things around somewhat in the short-term and that’s simply that their schedule gets a lot easier. The Texans started their season with a murderer’s row of the Chiefs, Ravens, and Steelers and, while the Vikings were winless coming into their week 4 matchup in Houston, the Vikings were much better than their record suggested, as they too started the season with a brutal schedule and fared much better on a per snap basis than their final scores would have suggested. 

The Texans weren’t competitive with the Chiefs and Ravens, but they played both Pittsburgh and Minnesota within one score, leading the Steelers at one point in the fourth quarter and then having a chance to at least send the game to overtime at the end of the game against the Vikings. The Texans aren’t a great team, but on paper they have enough talent that they should be a middling team, regardless of their head coaching situation, and I think that’s been obscured by how tough their early schedule has been.

This week, the Texans get arguably the easiest game of their season, at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite having one of the worst rosters in the league, the Jaguars surprisingly won week 1 against the Colts in a game that largely swung on the Jaguars winning the turnover battle by 2, something that is very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. However, they’ve fallen back to reality since then, especially on defense, where they rank 30th in first down rate allowed. Their offense has kept them afloat by ranking 8th in first down rate at 42.51%, but it’s hard to imagine their offense being this good all season. If they even fall down to being an middling offense, it’s going to be tough for them to win games against anyone.

Given that, I like the Texans chances of covering this week. It may be weird to see an 0-4 team favored by 5.5 points, but typically when a winless team is favored by this many points, there’s a good reason for it. Over the past 30 years, teams that are 0-2 or worse are 33-21 ATS as favorites of 4.5 or more. That alone isn’t a reason to bet the Texans, but it’s a reason to not be scared off by the Texans’ record. 

I’m keeping this as a low confidence bet for now, but the Jaguars are already without cornerback DJ Hayden, seem likely to be without edge defender Josh Allen, who didn’t practice all week, and could possibly also be without linebacker Myles Jack and cornerback CJ Henderson, though both did get limited practices in on Friday. Depending on the inactive report for Jacksonville and where this line is Sunday morning, I may end up making a bet on Houston.

Final Update: The Texans have an unexpected absence in linebacker Benardrick McKinney, which will hurt because he is their top linebacker, but that’s nothing compared to the Jaguars, who will be without their top cornerback, linebacker, and edge rusher, with all three questionable players being unable to go. With top slot cornerback DJ Hayden ruled out earlier in the week, the Jaguars have an absolute sieve of a defense right now and, in fact, are the lowest rated defense in my roster rankings in any single week over the past 3 years. This will be a shootout, but one the Texans should win with relative ease, so I’m comfortable laying the 5.5.

Houston Texans 38 Jacksonville Jaguars 28

Pick against the spread: Houston -5.5

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (3-1) at Cleveland Browns (3-1)

Coming into the season, I expected the Colts to be one of the best teams in the league and, even with a disappointing performance week 1 in Jacksonville, the Colts still rank 3rd in the NFL in first down rate differential at +6.71%. They haven’t faced the toughest schedule, but none of their wins have been that closely fought, including a game last week in Chicago against the previously 3-0 Bears in which the Bears trailed 19-3 before a garbage time touchdown made the final score look closer than the game was.

Going into this week, I was expecting to be betting the Colts again, as small road favorites in Cleveland, but the Colts are starting to get hit by injuries, something that hasn’t affected them in a significant way yet this season. This week, they’ll be without left tackle Anthony Castonzo and linebacker Darius Leonard. Castonzo’s absence isn’t as big as it might seem because the Colts have a capable backup and a strong overall offensive line at the other four positions, but Leonard’s absence is huge because he’s not only one of the best linebackers in the league and arguably the best defensive player on one of the best defenses in the league, but the Colts also don’t have anyone close to filling in what he does on this defense, as their linebacker depth is very suspect. Leonard’s absence should move this line 2-3 points by itself.

This line has moved down to even from 1.5 earlier this week, but that’s a pretty insignificant shift, so we’re not getting real line value with the Colts. The Browns have a high level player missing as well in running back Nick Chubb, but the Browns have a proven feature back behind him on the depth chart in Kareem Hunt, who should be more than capable of carrying the load for a few weeks, and they have arguably the best run blocking offensive line in football. I’m still taking the Colts for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no confidence in that pick.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Cleveland Browns 23

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis PK

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (2-2) at Atlanta Falcons (0-4)

I typically like to go against significant week-to-week line movements because they tend to be overreactions to a single week of play and that is the case here, with the Panthers going from 3.5-point underdogs in this game in Atlanta on the early line last week to just 1-point underdogs now, likely as a result of their home win over the Cardinals last week. That’s a big shift, considering about 1 in 4 games are decided by 1-3 points. The Cardinals were an overrated team entering that game though and they were also very banged up, missing a trio of defensive starters, so the Panthers shouldn’t get too much credit for that.

The Falcons are obviously missing a key player in Julio Jones, who looks likely to miss his 2nd game of the season with a hamstring injury after not practicing all week, but they’re actually otherwise getting a lot healthier, particularly on defense, where they will get safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, edge defender Takkarist McKinley, and cornerback AJ Terrell back this week. None of those players are great, but they provide necessary upgrades for a defense that has been one of the worst few in the league thus far this season. The Falcons should be favored at least by a field goal at home, even without normal homefield advantage, as they are the better of these two teams in their current states. This isn’t a big play, but in a game the Falcons just need to win to cover, they’re worth a bet.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Carolina Panthers 30

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -1

Confidence: Medium