Pick of the Week
Tennessee Titans (5-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-5-1)
This is one of the toughest calls of the week. On one hand, while the Titans are 5-1, most of their wins have been close, with 4 of their 5 wins coming by 6 points or fewer, despite facing a relatively easy schedule and benefitting from a +9 turnover margin (+1.5 per game), which is unlikely to continue going forward. Their one win that wasn’t close was a surprisingly dominant effort against the Bills, winning 42-16 and winning the first down rate battle by 6.99, but the Titans still rank just 18th in the NFL in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.13%.
At first glance, the Bengals seem like the kind of team that can at least give the Titans a close game. Not only have the Titans struggled to put away inferior teams like the Broncos, Texans, and Jaguars, but the Bengals have played a lot of close games over the past two seasons. They haven’t won a lot of games, winning just 3 games total over 23 games between the two seasons, but the Bengals also have a tie and 12 losses by one score or fewer, as opposed to 7 losses by more than one score.
However, even though the Bengals’ only loss by more than one score this season came against the Ravens, the Bengals have been much worse than that suggests, as the Bengals’ close games with the Colts and the Browns came in games in which the Bengals lost the first down rate battle by 8.20% and 5.56% 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. In total, the Bengals rank just 28th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.77%, actually down from their 23rd ranked finish in 2019 (-1.98%).
The Bengals offense is better this season with quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins making impacts as rookies and left tackle Jonah Williams and wide receiver AJ Green making an impact after missing all of 2019 with injury, but the Bengals’ defense is significantly worse, as their veteran leaders in 2019, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, have been traded and benched respectively, in favor of younger players playing.
On top of that, the Bengals are extremely banged up on the offensive line this week, missing four of their regular starters from a group that isn’t good to begin with, including Jonah Williams, who is one of their top offensive players, which has pushed them down to 29th in my roster rankings. My numbers suggest the Bengals should still be the pick by the slightest of margins, but this is definitely a no confidence pick and a push might be the most likely outcome.
Tennessee Titans 23 Cincinnati Bengals 16
Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +7
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) at Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
The Steelers are the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team, but they are still underdogs of 3.5 points in this game in Baltimore, 4 points at some points. That may sound unusual and it is, as this is the just 4th instance of an undefeated team being underdogs of this many points this late in the season over the past 30 seasons, but that doesn’t mean the Steelers are necessarily a smart bet, as the previous 5 teams to be underdog of this many points despite being undefeated in week 7 or later are just 1-3-1 ATS. That alone is not a reason to take the Ravens either, but it shows that there’s usually a good justification for an undefeated team being underdogs of this many points.
In this case, it’s perfectly understandable, as the Ravens are at home with at last some fan support and they are the defending AFC #1 seed, coming off of a 14-2 season, and their only loss this season came in Kansas City against the Chiefs, who are the defending AFC Champions. The Ravens played much worse in that game than the 34-20 final score suggests though, getting 11 points of value from special teams (return touchdown and a missed extra point and makeable field goal), not scoring on offense until the 4th quarter, and losing the first down rate battle by 9.54%.
That Kansas City game significantly brings the Ravens down on the season in first down rate differential, as does their first down rate battle loss (-4.31%) to the Eagles in a mere 2-point win in the Ravens’ last game prior to their bye. A year after ranking far and away the best team in the league in first down rate differential (+6.34%), the Ravens rank just 17th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential in 2020 at +0.30%. The Steelers haven’t been much better though, despite not losing, ranking 13th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.45%. Despite facing one of the easiest schedules in the league, the Steelers have won just one game by more than 10 points and that came against a Browns team that was starting an injured Baker Mayfield.
Both teams have lived up to expectations on defense, with the Steelers ranking 4th in first down rate allowed over expected at +4.72% and the Ravens ranking 7th at +3.21%, but they’ve been very disappointing on offense, ranking 29th at -3.28% and 27th at -2.91% respectively. Both teams should be better offensively going forward, but ultimately the Ravens should have a much higher ceiling on offense. The Steelers may have a slight edge on defense, but the Ravens are strong on that side of the ball too and are overall the better team. My calculated line is Baltimore -4, so we’re not getting much line value with the Ravens, but I do like that they’re coming off of a bye, as John Harbaugh at 20-8 ATS with extra time to plan. That’s not enough for the Ravens to be worth betting, but they should be the better pick for pick ‘em purposes.
Baltimore Ravens 25 Pittsburgh Steelers 20
Pick against the spread: Baltimore -3.5
San Francisco 49ers (4-3) at Seattle Seahawks (5-1)
Earlier this week, I was expecting to be betting on the Seahawks in this one. This line has shifted significantly since last week, moving from Seattle -6 to Seattle -3, as a result of the 49ers’ dominant win in New England and the Seahawks overtime loss to the Cardinals, which I think is an overreaction, especially since the Cardinals are a legitimately good team, ranking 9th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, led by an offense that leads the league in first down rate over expected. On top of that, Russell Wilson traditionally bounces back well off of a loss, as many top level quarterbacks do, going 22-10 ATS all-time off of a loss.
Most of the Seahawks’ games have been close over the past two seasons (17 one score games, with the Seahawks going 14-3 in those games) and the 49ers hold the edge in schedule adjusted first down rate differential in 2020, ranking 6th at +2.10%, while the Seahawks rank 15th at +0.92%, but the Seahawks have a big edge on offense, ranking 5th in first down rate over expected at +2.61%, while the 49ers rank 19th at +0.05%. The Seahawks have been held back by a defense that ranks 25th in first down rate allowed over expected, but defensive performance tends to be much more unpredictable on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance and if the Seahawks can even be a middling defensive unit, this team should go a long way, as long as their offense can continue what it’s done so far.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks may need to get healthier before they can expect to even be middling on defense and this week their injury situation is going in the wrong direction, with cornerbacks Shaq Griffin and Ugo Amadi expected to join stud safety Jamal Adams on the sideline, where he would be for the 4th straight game. There’s a slight chance Adams plays because he returned to practice on Friday and was listed as questionable, but he’s had just one limited practice in over a month, so I wouldn’t expect him to be on the field.
For that reason, it’s hard to be as excited about the Seahawks as I was earlier this week when I thought they were going to be healthier. The Seahawks also have injury concerns on offense, where their top-3 running backs are all listed as questionable after barely practicing all week. If the Seahawks get a favorable inactives list (meaning Adams and at least one of the running backs are active), I will still probably make a bet on the Seahawks, assuming the line doesn’t change, but for now this is a low confidence pick.
Update: Still no word on Jamal Adams, but this line has dropped to 1 overnight. That is likely a sign that Adams won’t play, but at that number, the Seahawks are worth a bet without him. I think it’s unlikely that Russell Wilson loses back-to-back games, even without Adams, and the 49ers, who have been streaky this season, haven’t faced a team as good as the Seahawks.
Seattle Seahawks 29 San Francisco 49ers 24
Pick against the spread: Seattle -1
Los Angeles Rams (5-2) at Miami Dolphins (3-3)
This is a tough one to pick. Both teams have played easy schedules, but the Rams have played significantly better against their easy schedule, ranking 2nd in the NFL in first down rate differential at +3.27%, even when adjusted for schedule, while the Dolphins rank 22nd at -0.72%. However, offenses tend to be much more consistent than defenses and the gap between these two teams on offense hasn’t been much, with the Rams ranking 15th at +0.90% first down rate over expected and the Dolphins ranking 17th at +0.61%.
The Rams have the significant edge on defense (+2.37% vs. -1.33%), but that might not necessarily continue, especially the Dolphins are arguably as healthy as they’ve been all year on defense, after cornerback Byron Jones and defensive ends Kyle Van Noy and Andre Branch all missed time early in the season and have since returned. If the Rams don’t continue being significantly better on defense, the Dolphins are a good value as 3.5-point home underdogs.
At the same time, it’s fair to wonder if the Dolphins will be as good offensively going forward, given that they are switching quarterbacks from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa has obvious upside long-term and Fitzpatrick is in his age 38 contract year, but Fitzpatrick has been a big part of the reason for the Dolphins’ success this season and was coming off of back-to-back strong games in big wins for the Dolphins prior to being benched. It seems that starting Tagovailoa after their bye week 7 was always the plan (although no one told Fitzpatrick), as it’s pretty unusual for a quarterback to be benched when he’s been playing as well as Fitzpatrick has.
Whether that’s the right move in the long-term remains to be seen, but in the short-term, it could easily hurt this team. The Dolphins still have a lot of problems on the offensive line and, at the very least, the rookie Tagovailoa may have a lot more trouble with that than the veteran Fitzpatrick. The Rams don’t have any pre-season tape of Tagovailoa, which may put them at a disadvantage against the rookie in his debut, but it still wouldn’t surprise me if he struggled, especially with the Rams having a strong defensive front led by game wrecker Aaron Donald. If Fitzpatrick was still playing, the Dolphins would be the right side, but with Tagovailoa in the lineup, I think I like the Rams, albeit for a no confidence pick.
Los Angeles Rams 20 Miami Dolphins 16
Pick against the spread: LA Rams -3.5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) at New York Giants (1-6)
I have had the Buccaneers as underrated for a while and, as a result, I have bet on them every week since week 2. It has worked out, as the Buccaneers have gone 5-1 ATS over that stretch. Everyone knew about Tom Brady and the weapons coming into the season, but their young defense was also dominant down the stretch last season, which didn’t get a lot of attention and, after the Buccaneers lost in New Orleans in week 1 in a game they would have likely won if not for an uncharacteristic -3 turnover margin (+8.11% first down rate margin), the Buccaneers became a smart bet going forward.
The Buccaneers lost stud defensive tackle Vita Vea for the season with a broken ankle in week 5, but that was right around when the Buccaneers got their dominant wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both healthy for the first time all season, which cancelled out Vea’s absence. Overall, the Buccaneers rank first in the league in scheduled adjusted first down rate differential at +6.71%, a wide margin over the #2 ranked Rams (+3.27%), and have not missed a beat without Vea because of other players stepping up and/or getting healthy.
However, there are a couple reasons why the Buccaneers aren’t a good bet this week. For one, the lines seem to have caught up with how good this team is, as they are favored by 13 points over the Giants, after being favored by just 8.5 points on the early line last season. That is despite the fact that the Buccaneers have lost Chris Godwin to injury again, which is a big blow for this team. Now with Godwin, Vea, and tight end OJ Howard, the key injuries are starting to stack up for a Buccaneers team that falls slightly out of the top spot in my roster rankings this week. I’m still taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes, but I have no confidence in them at this number.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 New York Giants 10
Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -13
Las Vegas Raiders (3-3) at Cleveland Browns (5-2)
Last week when looking at the early lines for week 8, I had the Raiders +3.5 at Cleveland circled. The Raiders are just 3-3, but they have had probably the toughest schedule in the league thus far. The easiest opponents they’ve faced are the Panthers and Patriots, which were both road games, and they’ve pulled out upset victories over the Saints and Chiefs. The Browns, who rank 24th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.20% and 14th in my roster rankings, aren’t much better than the easiest teams the Raiders have faced, so the Raiders had a good chance to come in and pull the straight up upset, especially if they were to get back left guard Richie Incognito and right tackle Trent Brown, who have been limited to 74 snaps and 73 snaps respectively this season.
Unfortunately, a couple things have changed in the past week to make the Raiders a less favorable bet. For one, Incognito remains out and Brown is apparently truly questionable for this game, so the Raiders still aren’t going to be full strength upfront. On top of that, this line has shifted from 3.5 to 2.5, a big swing, considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal. That happened despite the Raiders losing by 25 points at home, though I don’t really hold that against the Raiders either, against a Buccaneers team that is arguably the best in the league.
The line movement in the Raiders’ favor isn’t warranted though and is almost definitely due to the Browns losing wide receiver Odell Beckham to injury, which I don’t think will be as big of a deal as most think. Wide receiver isn’t as important of a position as the general public thinks and Beckham has been more of a 1b than a true #1 since arriving in Cleveland. In fact, Baker Mayfield’s stats in his career with and without Beckham suggests he’s been a better quarterback without Beckham in the lineup.
I don’t necessarily buy that the Browns are better without Beckham, but it’s worth noting that Baker has thrown about 20% of his passes to Beckham over the past two seasons and 28% of his interceptions, likely due to his tendency to force the ball into coverage for his star wide receiver. I don’t think Beckham will be missed much. Given that this line is 2.5 now, I actually like the Browns this week, although only slightly and if Brown is able to play for the Raiders, I would probably flip this pick to the Raiders. That’s how close it is.
Cleveland Browns 34 Las Vegas Raiders 31
Pick against the spread: Cleveland -2.5
Dallas Cowboys (2-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-4-1)
I can’t remember a team ever falling in my rankings as fast as the Cowboys. Going into the season, I had pretty high expectations for the Cowboys, who finished last season 6th in point differential at +113 and 5th in first down rate differential at +3.24%, but missed the playoffs at 8-8 because of an 0-5 record in games decided by one score or less. With a similar roster entering the season as last year, the Cowboys looked like one of the better teams in the league, but now the Cowboys rank dead last in my roster rankings.
Injuries have been a big part of the problem, especially on offense, where the Cowboys are missing their dominant offensive tackle duo of Tyron Smith and La’El Collins and are down to 3rd string quarterback Ben DiNucci, a 7th round rookie making his first career start this season, but the Cowboys also have a lot of players who aren’t injured that just aren’t playing up to expectations, especially on defense, where close to no one is having a good season in the first year of overmatched defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme. Some of those veteran players have already been benched, traded, or released, while others remain in the starting lineup, but have struggled mightily.
Outside of their receiving corps and their edge rush duo of DeMarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith, this team really doesn’t have much going for them and they will be starting one of the least qualified starting quarterbacks the NFL has seen over the past few years. The per play stats show the Cowboys to have been better than their record and final scores have suggested, but much of that is due to an offense that was much better before injuries and primarily only struggled with fumbles, which tend to be fluky. Now without Dak Prescott, Andy Dalton, and others, this offense has plenty of problems beyond their fumbling tendencies, while their defense continues to struggle even as they’ve gotten a few players back that were not available earlier this season, including linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.
All that being said, I think we’re actually getting some value with the Cowboys this week. The Cowboys are 0-7 ATS on the season and when that happens the odds makers typically boost the spreads more than they should, knowing no one will want to bet on a consistent loser, which leads to those teams covering 62.3% of the time the rest of the way, including 75.0% of the time in their 8th game of the season. Case in point, the Cowboys are whopping 11-point underdogs against an Eagles team that isn’t even middling, ranking 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential and 23rd in my roster rankings, even with a couple players due back from injury this week. I have no desire to bet on the Cowboys, but my calculated line is Philadelphia -8 and Dallas should be the right pick if you have to make a pick for pick ‘em purposes.
Philadelphia Eagles 24 Dallas Cowboys 16
Pick against the spread: Dallas +11
Denver Broncos (2-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (2-4)
These two teams are pretty similar. Both teams are 2-4, but have positive first down rate differentials (+0.73% for the Broncos and +1.49% for the Chargers), despite facing an above average strength of schedule. When adjusting for strength of schedule, the Chargers and Broncos rank 7th and 12th respectively in first down rate differential at +2.02% and +1.45% and both teams have achieved that in the same way, with a strong defense covering for a struggling offense.
The Chargers and Broncos are at -2.17% and -3.31% respectively in first down rate over expected, with the Chargers struggling due to a weak offensive line and an inability to run the ball and the Broncos struggling due to poor quarterback play. On defense, the Chargers and Broncos rank 5th and 3rd respectively in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.19% and -4.76% respectively, but defensive production tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so I wouldn’t expect either team to be quite that good going forward, especially since both teams are outplaying their talent level and have overachieved thus far this season.
Despite teams two teams being so similar, the Chargers are favored by 3.5 points here in Denver on the road, where the Broncos will have at least some fans in attendance. The Chargers are the slightly better team with the better quarterback, but this line suggests the Chargers are about 5-5.5 points better than the Broncos, which isn’t the case. The Broncos will be without guard Graham Glasgow, which hurts, but they’ve also been better offensively with Drew Lock in the lineup than his backups and they’ll have running back Phillip Lindsay back from injury this week.
The Chargers may get right tackle Bryan Bulaga back from injury this week, which would be a boost for their horrendous offensive line, but if he can’t play, the Chargers will be down to their 3rd and 4th offensive tackles against the Broncos tough pass rush. If that’s the case and this line remains 3.5, the Broncos are worth betting and they may even be worth if Bulaga can play because he could be at less than 100% in his first action since week 3. I’m leaving this as low confidence for now, but there may be an update before gametime.
Los Angeles Chargers 20 Denver Broncos 19
Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5
New York Jets (0-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (6-1)
This is the biggest line of the year so far, favoring the Chiefs at home by 19.5 points. Normally I don’t like to bet on massive favorites like this and for good reason, as favorites are 17.5+ are 7-15 ATS over the past 30 seasons (though 3-1 ATS over the past 8 seasons), but this line arguably isn’t big enough and it’s smaller than it was on the early line last week, when the Chiefs were favored by 21. I’m guessing the Jets’ close game against the Bills last weekend is the reason for the movement, but that 8-point loss to an overrated Bills team is the Jets’ closest game of the year and they have been outscored by an average of 16.9 points per game in their 7 losses. It’s not hard to imagine the Jets losing by 20 or more against arguably the top team in the league.
The Chiefs are also in a great spot, as they have another easy home game on deck, while the Jets have a divisional clash with the Patriots and could easily not be as focused as they need to be this week to keep this one close. Favorites of 6+ are 82-42 ATS since 2008 before being favorites of 6+ again the following week when their opponents will next be underdogs of 6+ again the following week and all three of those conditions are likely to be true in this one. I wouldn’t make this a huge bet, but I see no reason other than fluky plays or a backdoor cover that this game is within three touchdowns.
Kansas City Chiefs 30 New York Jets 6
Pick against the spread: Kansas City -19.5