New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

New York Jets (4-12) at Buffalo Bills (10-6)

The Bills have beaten up on bad teams this season, en route to ranking first in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency and point differential (+177), going 8-1 against teams who are .500 or worse, with their one loss coming by three points and all eight wins coming by at least 14 points, with an average margin of victory of 24.5 points. The Jets would fall into the category of bad teams, but they are not as bad as their 4-12 record and they are being given 16 points here, so we have some room for them to cover even if this game isn’t particularly close, especially if they can get a backdoor cover against a defense that is missing its top cornerback Tre’Davious White, who played in most of the Bills blowout victories this season.

The Jets have struggled significantly with turnovers this season, with the league’s 2nd worst turnover margin at -13, but that is not as nearly predictive as schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play. The Jets still rank 26th in that metric, but that is still better than their record suggests and their offense has been better in recent weeks, with quarterback Zach Wilson showing some promise. I wouldn’t bet on the Jets, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes, as my calculated line has them as 13-point underdogs.

Buffalo Bills 31 New York Jets 17

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +16

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (10-6) at Miami Dolphins (8-8)

The Dolphins won seven straight games, but that came to a crashing halt last week when they were blown out by a final score of 34-3 in Tennessee. Their losing streak was always the result of an easy schedule, as their only two games over their seven-game winning streak against teams with a record better than 5-11 were against the Baltimore Ravens, who were in a near impossible spot playing on a short week after an overtime game, a spot in which teams have covered just 3 out of 28 times historically, and the New Orleans Saints, who were starting a fourth string quarterback behind a skeleton crew offensive line, also a near impossible situation. Their other five opponents on their winning streak are a combined 21-59.

On the other hand, the Dolphins have struggled in tougher games, losing four of five games against likely playoff qualifiers by double digits. The one exception was week one against the Dolphins’ opponents this week the New England Patriots, but the Patriots won the first down rate and yards per play battle by 0.6 and 2.56% respectively in that game, losing because they lost the fumble margin by -2 in a 1-point loss. Fortunately for the Patriots, fumble margin is highly non-predictive, while yards per play and first down rate differential are much more predictive. On the season, in terms of schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on yards per play and first down rate, the Patriots rank 4th, while the Dolphins rank 30th.

The Patriots also were starting a rookie quarterback with a bunch of free agent additions week one and did not have their full offensive line, so the Patriots should fare even better in the second matchup than they did in a week one matchup which they should have won if not for two lost fumbles. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Patriots in the past week, as they have gone from 2.5-point favorites on the early line last week to 6-point favorites this week, in the wake of their blowout loss over the Jaguars and the Dolphins’ blowout loss to the Titans. My calculated line favors the Patriots by 8.5, so we’re still getting some line value with them, but I think I would need this line to drop to at least 5.5 for the Patriots to be worth betting.

Update: This line has dropped to 5.5 before gametime, so I am going to place a small bet on New England.

New England Patriots 26 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: New England -5.5

Confidence: Medium

Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1) at Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

The Ravens have lost five straight games, including the last four without starting quarterback Lamar Jackson, but it hasn’t been as bad as that sounds, as their only loss over that stretch by more than two points came in a game started by third string quarterback Josh Johnson. Second string quarterback Tyler Huntley has been Jackson’s replacement in the other three games and remains the starter in this game, having played reasonably well thus far. 

The Ravens are also healthier on defense than they’ve been recently, with edge defender Justin Houston, interior defenders Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, cornerback Jimmy Smith, and safety Chuck Clark all returning from short-term absences, which have been in part to blame for their recent struggles on the defensive side of the ball. The Steelers are also relatively healthy and they have a slightly better record at 8-7-1, but that’s in large part due to 7-2 record in one-score games, with the Ravens possessing a significant edge in point differential (-2 vs. -58) and schedule adjusted mixed efficiency (16th vs. 27th).

Unfortunately, it’s a pretty open secret that the Steelers aren’t as good as their record, to the point where the Ravens are 3.5-point favorites even with a backup quarterback and a 5-game losing streak. We’re actually still getting a little bit of line value, as my calculated line has the Ravens favored at home by 5 points, but it’s not enough to be confident in the Ravens at all. They’re the pick, but only for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: This line has dropped to 3, so I am going to boost the confident on Baltimore a little bit at that number.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Pittsburgh Steelers 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -3

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at Cleveland Browns (7-9)

This could have been an exciting divisional matchup between two young quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, but the Bengals pulled the upset on the Chiefs last week, clinching the division and eliminating the Browns from playoff contention even before the Browns’ eventual loss in Pittsburgh, and, with the Browns season over, quarterback Baker Mayfield has been shut down for the season with his myriad of injuries, while the Bengals will also be without quarterback Joe Burrow, as he is being rested with a knee injury, with the Bengals’ chances of climbing into a top-2 seed in the AFC are minimal.

Burrow will be joined on the sidelines by feature back Joe Mixon, who is in COVID protocols, while a trio of talented starters, safety Vonn Bell, starting left guard Quinton Spain, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson, are also in COVID protocols. On top of that, interior defender DJ Reader could be rested with an injury to get 100% for the Bengals’ playoff game next week and, overall, it doesn’t seem like the Bengals are trying that hard to win this game, leading to the Browns becoming 6-point favorites.

It’s possible some of the aforementioned players could play and it’s unclear what would happen with the line if that happened, but the Browns also might not be trying too hard to win this game, which could become important, as most of their secondary (cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Troy Hill and Greedy Williams and safeties John Johnson and Ronnie Harrison) are legitimately questionable and could be held out of a meaningless game when they might otherwise play. 

If the Browns’ secondary plays and the Bengals’ questionable players don’t, we are getting line value with the Browns at -6, as my calculated line would be Cleveland -9 in that scenario, but depending on who plays for the Bengals and who is out for the Browns, that line could drop as low as Cleveland -3.5, so I can’t be confident at all in either side. I am taking the Browns for now, but that could easily change, as could this line.

Cleveland Browns 20 Cincinnati Bengals 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -6

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (13-3) at Detroit Lions (2-13-1)

The Packers have nothing to play for this week, having clinched the #1 seed in the NFC last week, and this spread expects them to play their key starters very little, as the Packers would not be mere 3.5-point favorites in Detroit in normal circumstances. My calculated line has the Packers favored by 10.5 if the Lions are missing their two talented tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, who are both in COVID protocols, and favored by 9 if both Decker and Sewell play. 

However, those calculated lines are meaningless if we don’t know how much action the Packers’ key starters will get. Aaron Rodgers, for his part, says he wants to play, but his head coach Matt LaFleur has also said Rodgers doesn’t need to play and it’s possible he only plays enough to get Davante Adams to some receiving milestones and to put up another few drives to keep fresh in the minds of MVP voters. 

This line doesn’t suggest the Packers’ starters won’t play at all, as they are still favored on the road by more than a field goal, but they may need only Rodgers and Adams to play a half to cover this spread, especially with Jordan Love being a capable backup. I am taking the Packers for now, but this can’t be anything more than a no confidence pick unless something changes or we hear something definitive on how the Packers will approach a meaningless game, with a bye week secured for next week.

Green Bay Packers 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -3.5

Confidence: None

Washington Football Team at New York Giants: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Washington Football Team (6-10) at New York Giants (4-12)

Giants fans thought things were bad with Daniel Jones, but he proved to be the one thing keeping this team somewhat competitive, as the Giants have not been competitive in any of the five straight games they have lost since he went down, losses that have come by an average of 18.4 points per game. However, they haven’t had the easiest schedule over that stretch (Dolphins, Chargers, Cowboys, Eagles, Bears) and this week’s game is probably their easiest game, with a home game against Washington on the schedule.

Washington is just 6-10 and they are arguably even worse than their record, going 5-4 in one score games and ranking just 26th in point differential at -114. Despite that, they are favored by seven points here on the road, a margin of victory they have achieved or surpassed just once all season and never on the road. As bad as the Giants are, they are a little healthier than they have been in recent weeks and Washington is not good enough to be favored by a touchdown on the road against anyone. I don’t want to make this a big play, but my calculated line has Washington favored by just 1.5 points, so there is just too much value here with the Giants to ignore, even if their quarterback situation is horrendous.

Washington Football Team 19 New York Giants 17

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +7

Confidence: Medium

Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (6-10) at Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

The Vikings’ suffered their first loss of the season by more than eight points last week and it came on the road in Green Bay in a game in which backup quarterback Sean Mannion started. However, the Vikings have also only won once by more than eight points, while two of their close defeats required the Vikings to get a pick six to make the final score closer than it would have been (Arizona and Baltimore) and they lost both the first down rate and yards per play battle by a wide margin in both of those games, which is more predictive than the final score.

Kirk Cousins returns this week, but he doesn’t solve the problems with the Vikings’ defense, which ranks 26th in schedule adjusted efficiency on the season, dragging the Vikings down to 25th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency on the season. Having Kirk Cousins back does help, but he only missed one game and he’ll be remain without one of his top wide receivers Adam Thielen, while this defense figures to have major problems without a trio of key defensive linemen, Michael Pierce, Everson Griffen, and Danielle Hunter, whose consistent absences in recent weeks have contributed significantly to the Vikings’ defensive struggles.

The Vikings face a Bears team that is just 6-10, but the Bears’ biggest problem has been the turnover margin, as they rank 3rd worst in the NFL at -11, which is not predictive week-to-week. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on more predictive metrics, yards per play and first down rate, the Bears rank 25th, 11th, 7th, and 20th on offense, defense, special teams, and in overall mixed efficiency respectively. When these two teams met a few weeks ago, the Vikings won by eight, but the Bears won the yards per play and first down rate battle by 12.88% and 2.12 yards per play respectively, losing because they lost the turnover battle by two and went just 2/12 on third down and 2/5 on fourth down, which also isn’t predictive week-to-week. 

I wish Akiem Hicks was playing for the Bears this week, as his presence the last time these two teams met contributed significantly to the Vikings’ offensive struggles, but he has missed most of the season, so his absence is nothing new for the Bears, while the Bears’ offense is as healthy as it’s been at running back, on the offensive line, and in the receiving corps, most notably getting back top offensive lineman Jason Peters and starting wide receiver Allen Robinson, who both missed the last matchup, in a game in which the Vikings had Michael Pierce active. Andy Dalton will start at quarterback with Justin Fields out this week and he is an uninspiring option long-term, he’s still probably the Bears best quarterback in the short-term, given how much Justin Fields has struggled as a passer in his rookie season. 

I would probably need this line to move up to Minnesota -6 for the Bears to be worth betting (my calculated line is Minnesota -3), but that could happen tomorrow when the Vikings are expected to get left tackle Christian Darrisaw, right guard Ezra Cleveland, linebacker Eric Kendricks, and safety Camryn Bynum back from COVID protocols and, if any of those players unexpectedly can’t play in this game, that would make the Bears a possibly attractive bet even at +5.5. This is a low confidence pick for now, but could be updated before gametime.

Update: The Vikings got Darrisaw and Cleveland back as expected, but not Kendricks and Bynum. Kendricks’ absence in particular will be a big loss for a Vikings defense already missing a trio of talented defensive linemen, in a meaningless game a week after being eliminated from the playoff chase. The Bears, meanwhile, will be motivated to get revenge against a team they could have beaten in the first matchup if not for a couple turnovers and failed fourth down conversions, despite the fact that Minnesota was much healthier in that game and the Bears were missing key personnel who will be available in this matchup. This line has dropped to 4.5 or 4 in some places, but my calculated line is Minnesota -1, will these two teams about equal in my roster rankings and the Bears possessing a motivational edge. The Bears are worth a bet.

Minnesota Vikings 24 Chicago Bears 23

Pick against the spread: Chicago +4.5

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (11-5) at Houston Texans (4-12)

The Titans lost to the Texans by nine points in Tennessee a few weeks ago, but that was a very fluky game in which the Titans won the first down rate battle by 9.47% and the yards per play battle by 2.25 yards per play, but lost because they lost the turnover margin by five, which is not predictive at all. In fact, teams that lose the turnover battle by 5 against a divisional opponent on average have a turnover margin of -0.1 in a same season revenge game.

The Texans have won four games, but they are still arguably the worst team in the league, as they have had some non-predictive things go their way in three of their four wins, with the exception being a week one win at home against a terrible Jaguars team, when the Texans were starting veteran Tyrod Taylor and had a much healthier offensive line. In their second win over the Jaguars a couple weeks ago, Texans lost the first down rate battle by 8.02%, only winning the game because they overperformed on third down (10/18 vs. 3/14), which is not as predictive as early downs.

In their upset win over the Chargers, the Texans won the turnover battle by 3, but lost the first down rate and yards per play battle by 2.86% and 0.49 against the Chargers. Meanwhile, in the Texans’ losses, they are getting outscored by 18.33 points per game. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play, the Texans still rank 32nd on offense, 30th on defense, and dead last in mixed efficiency, about three points behind the second worst team.

The Titans have gone 5-2 in one-score games and are not the same offense without Derrick Henry, but Henry has not been their only absence in recent weeks and, aside from Henry being out, the Titans are as healthy on offense as they’ve been since Henry went down, with their whole offensive line back together and their top two wide receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones in the lineup. They’re healthier than they were the first time they played the Texans and if they win the first down rate and yards per play battle by large margins again, that should translate on the scoreboard this time. This line is high, favoring the Titans by 10 on the road, but my calculated line is Tennessee -11.5 and the Texans have nine double digit losses this season, so there’s at least enough here for the Titans to be worth taking for pick ‘em purposes.

Tennessee Titans 24 Houston Texans 13

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -10

Confidence: Low

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (9-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)

The Jaguars have the league’s worst record at 2-14 and are coming off of an embarrassing blowout defeat in New England last week, losing by a score of 50-10 in a game that was never competitive. However, there is reason to expect a lot better effort from the Jaguars this week. For one, they figure to be at least somewhat healthier, getting back starting right guard Ben Bartch, top cornerback Shaq Griffin, and starting edge defender Dawaune Smoot from COVID protocols, with starting left tackle Cam Robinson, stud starting center Brandon Linder, and starting safety Andrew Wingard possibly joining them.

Teams tend to bounce back well after a blowout loss anyway, as teams cover at a 56.3% rate all-time after a loss by 35 points or more. That is because teams tend to be highly motivated to bounce back from embarrassment, while opponents overlook them and oddsmakers and the public undervalue them based off of an overreaction to one big loss. That last part certainly seems to be the case here as the Jaguars have moved from being 8.5-point home underdogs on the early line last week to now being 15.5 point home underdogs, even with the Colts disappointing last week in a loss as big home favorites against the Raiders.

The Jaguars are inarguably one of the worst teams in the league, but the Colts are not a good enough team to be favored by this many points on the road against anyone. The Colts have a better point differential (+101) than their 9-7 record suggests, but they have also benefited from an easy schedule and a +16 turnover margin, which is not a predictive metric, while ranking just 12th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is based on more predictive metrics like yards per play and first down rate. 

There is some uncertainty in this game with the Jaguars having the three aforementioned key players in the COVID protocols, while stud Colts’ interior defender DeForest Buckner is highly questionable after not practicing all week, but even in the best case scenario for the Colts, my calculated line is just Indianapolis -10.5, while my calculated line in the best case for the Jaguars is Indianapolis -9, so we’re getting significant line value with the Jaguars either way. Because of that, I want to lock this in now and it’s possible I increase this bet later this weekend depending on who plays and where the line settles.

Indianapolis Colts 23 Jacksonville Jaguars 13

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +15.5

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

This game is a very tough call because the Eagles have a significant number of players whose status is uncertain for this game. Starting guard Landon Dickerson and talented right tackle Lane Johnson are both highly questionable after not practicing all week, while their two best running backs Jordan Howard and Boston Scott, talented tight end Dallas Goedert, starting guard Nate Herbig, stud center Jason Kelce, top interior defender Fletcher Cox, starting linebackers Alex Singleton and Genard Avery, starting cornerback Avonte Maddox, and starting safety Rodney McLeod are all in COVID protocols, but could still clear them before gametime.

The Eagles are better than their 9-7 record, ranking 11th in point differential (+84) and 8th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency (about 3.5 points above average), but they’ve also benefited significantly from being relatively healthy compared to most teams and they would be at a significant disadvantage if they were to be without all of most of the aforementioned players this week. That would justify the Cowboys being favored by 4.5 points in Philadelphia, even though the Cowboys will be down a pair of important players as well, with left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Micah Parsons both in COVID protocols and not expected to clear before gametime.

However, if a significant amount of those aforementioned players do play, we could be getting significant line value with the Eagles as long as the line doesn’t shift significantly to compensate. In fact, if the Eagles were to get all of the aforementioned players back this week, my calculated line would favor them by 1.5 points. All of those players playing may be an unlikely scenario, but I could definitely see a scenario where a significant amount of those players play and the line doesn’t take that into account enough. For now I am going to be on the Eagles for a no confidence pick, but I could definitely update this before gametime depending on what happens with the Eagles’ questionable players and where the line ends up.

Update: Aside from Jason Kelce, it doesn’t sound like the Eagles will be getting any of their questionable players back for this game and, beyond it, it doesn’t sound like the Eagles plan to take this game that seriously, with quarterback Jalen Hurts expected to play minimally to rest an ankle injury ahead of the playoffs and other starters also possibly being rested as well. The Eagles are locked into either the 6th or 7th seed, so the result of this game doesn’t really matter for them. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are mostly locked into the #4 seed, but have the opportunity to move up to 3 or 2 in certain improbable scenarios and they seem more likely to take this game seriously, even without Tyron Smith, Micah Parsons, and top cornerback Trevon Diggs, who was ruled out with COVID yesterday after this write up. Likely because of Diggs’ absence, this line has dropped to 3.5, but, for all the interceptions Diggs has, he also leads the league in yards allowed, so his absence isn’t as big of a deal as it seems, while the fact that the Eagles are unlikely to take this game seriously with many key players in COVID protocols and nothing substantial to play for is much more impactful than Diggs’ absence. I am switching my pick to the Cowboys, though this will remain a no confidence pick in a game with uncertain level of motivation for both teams.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Philadelphia Eagles 20

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3.5

Confidence: None