Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans: 2019 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (10-6) at Houston Texans (10-6)

The Bills and Texans both went 10-6 in the regular season, locking in their seeding at 10-5 with a week left to go in the season and resting starters in an eventual meaningless week 17 loss. The Texans faced a much tougher schedule though, with an opponents winning percentage of 53% (6th in the NFL) vs. 47% (28th in the NFL) for the Bills, who didn’t fare well against tougher competition in general. 

The Bills went just 1-4 against playoff qualifiers and that one win came over the Marcus Mariota led Titans back in week 5, a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals in a 7-point loss. All in all, the Bills had just a -2.05% first down rate differential against opponents who finished with a .500 or better record. The Texans, meanwhile, went 3-3 against playoff qualifiers (3-2 if you exclude a meaningless week 17 loss to the Titans), including wins over the Chiefs and Patriots.  

The Texans have been underwhelming in recent weeks, but they get a much needed boost on defense with JJ Watt returning from an 8-game absence. With Watt back in the lineup, I have the Texans 3 points better in my roster rankings than the Bills, so we’re getting good value with the Texans being favored by just 2.5 points at home. The Bills are also starting a first time playoff starter under center in Josh Allen. First time playoff starters are 14-32-1 ATS since 2002. 

Houston’s Deshaun Watson is in just his 2nd playoff start after losing at home to the Colts in his playoff debut last season, but even that one game of experience seems to matter, as there isn’t a similar trend for a quarterback’s second start. Watson struggled in his debut last season and could watch Josh Allen, a lesser quarterback, do the same this year. I would expect the Texans to win and it might not be close depending on how badly Allen struggles, so the Texans are worth a large bet in a game they basically just need to win to cover.

Houston Texans 24 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Houston -2.5

Confidence: High

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (6-9) at Buffalo Bills (10-5)

I’m going to do the rest of my picks this weekend as normal, but I want to get a couple quick ones out of the way. There are four games this week where a team is expected to rest starters with their seeding locked in or all but locked in. Two of those games (Baltimore/Pittsburgh and Houston/Tennessee) have one team playing for their playoff lives, so at least one side will be highly motivated in those matchups. In the other two games, the other side is eliminated from the post-season and might not care much about a game against an opponent who is playing a lot of backups. 

This game falls into the latter category (Minnesota/Chicago is the other). With the Bills getting eliminated from the division after their loss in New England last week and both the Titans and Steelers losing last week, the Bills are now locked into the 5th seed in the AFC and will rest key players for all or most of the game to keep them fresh for the wild card round. The Jets may play hard for pride, but I’m skeptical that they’ll take the Bills’ backups seriously, with the off-season right around the corner.

If neither of these teams are going to put much effort into this game, I’m not going to put much effort into this write-up. I would have this line calculated at Buffalo -6 under normal circumstances, so this line at Buffalo -1.5 doesn’t seem like it’s swung enough. In the Minnesota/Chicago matchup, there are 8 points of difference between my calculated line under normal circumstances and this actual line, but in this one the difference is just 4.5 points. I have no desire to wager anything of significance on this game, but I’m taking the Jets for pick ‘em purposes.

Buffalo Bills 17 New York Jets 16

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +1.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (10-4) at New England Patriots (11-3)

The Bills got a huge win last week, not only clinching a playoff spot in the process, but giving them their first double digit win total since 1999 and keeping them alive in the battle for the division with the New England Patriots, who they play this week in the first meaningful late season matchup between the Bills and Patriots in decades. The Bills rank 11th in first down rate differential at +2.25%, which more or less lines up with their 10-4 record, but that’s partially inflated by an easy schedule. Even with some tougher games in recent weeks, the Bills still rank tied for last in the NFL in opponents record at 43%. My roster rankings have the Bills 17th, which is I think is more in line with how they would play against an average schedule.

The Patriots had an easy schedule earlier in the year, but they’ve had a tough schedule over the past several weeks and overall have a 48% opponents record. Because these two teams are in the same division, they’ve had pretty similar schedules, but the Patriots have faced a first place schedule because they won the division last year and those first place teams (Ravens, Texans, and Chiefs) are the only teams they’ve lost to. Against teams that the Bills have also faced, the Patriots are 10-1 with a +18.00 points per game margin. The Bills are 8-3 against those teams, but with just a +7.00 point per game margin. The Patriots have also been significantly better statistically on the season than the Bills, ranking 3rd in first down rate differential at 32.59%, despite facing the Chiefs and Texans instead of the Broncos and the Marcus Mariota led Titans.

Given that, I don’t expect the Bills to be able to keep this game within a score in New England. The Patriots are almost an automatic bet at home when favored by less than a touchdown, going 47-19 ATS with Tom Brady under center, as they almost always manage to find a way to win by at least a touchdown at home. Brady and this Patriots offense could have a hard time putting points on the board, with Brady playing at less than 100% with a receiving corps that he hasn’t been able to get in rhythm with due to missed practice time, against a Bills defense that ranks 3rd in first down rate allowed, but the Bills’ offense ranks just 20th in first down rate, despite an easy schedule, and young quarterback Josh Allen is almost a guarantee to make at least a couple mistakes against a well-coached Patriots defense that ranks first in first down rate allowed by a wide margin at 28.66% (2nd place ranked team is 31.56%). Even if it’s not pretty, I expect the Patriots to win by at least a touchdown.

New England Patriots 20 Buffalo Bills 10

Pick against the spread: New England -6.5

Confidence: Medium

Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)

The Bills only lost by a touchdown at home last week to the AFC leading Ravens and they even had a shot to tie the game at the end, getting stopped on 4th down on the Ravens’ 18-yard line to end the game, but the Bills weren’t quite as competitive in that game as the end result suggests. The Ravens held a 15 point lead into the middle of the 4th quarter and won the first down rate battle by 10.59%. The Ravens had more first downs (18 to 16) and more offensive touchdowns (3 to 1), despite running 9 fewer offensive plays (68 to 59). The Bills’ defense was impressive in holding the Ravens to just 4.4 yards per play, but their offense managed a pathetic 3.1 yards per play.

Even with last week’s game against the now 12-2 Ravens included, the Bills are still tied with the Jets for the easiest schedule in the NFL at 42% and they haven’t fared well against average or better opponents. In their 6 matchups against opponents that are currently 6-7 or better, they are just 2-4 with a -2.18% first down rate differential, as opposed to 7-0 with a +6.28% first down rate differential in their other 7 games (combined opponents record of 22-70).

With that in mind, the Bills could have some real trouble this week on the road in Pittsburgh against the 8-5 Steelers. The Steelers looked dead in the water after a 1-4 start, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberer out for the season, but those four teams they lost to turned out to be 4 of the best teams in the NFL (Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens) and they’ve won 7 of 8 games since, including wins over competent opponents like the Colts, Rams, and Browns. 

Their defense leads the way, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.41%. Since their week 7 bye, they’ve been even better defensively, ranking as the 2nd best defense in the league in first down rate allowed over that stretch at 30.23%. Their offense has been a different story, as they rank 27th in first down rate at 32.16% on the season, but they’ve played significantly better with Devlin Hodges under center than they did with Mason Rudolph under center. Not only does Hodges have a QB rating about 23 points higher than Rudolph, but he’s led the Steelers to a 36.53% first down rate in his 3 starts (3-0), as opposed to a 30.94% first down rate in their other 10 games. 

Hodges was supposed to be getting running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back from injury this week and I was considering the Steelers as my Pick of the Week as a result, but Smith-Schuster had a setback in practice and will not return this week. Still, the return of Conner should help this offense and with wide receivers James Washington and Diontae Johnson showing more in recent weeks, the absence of Smith-Schuster isn’t as big of a deal.

The Steelers will not be my Pick of the Week this week, but I do think they’re worth betting on. At the very least, these two teams should be considered about even, but I give the slight edge to the Steelers because they’ve shown more competence in tough games and because they’ve been a better team since changing quarterbacks. This line, favoring the Steelers at home by just one point, suggests the Bills are the better team. My calculated line is Pittsburgh -3.5 and with about 20% of games decided by 2-3 points, we’re getting pretty significant line value with the Steelers at -1. This isn’t a huge play, but this spread definitely seems off.

Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -1

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-2) at Buffalo Bills (9-3)

The Bills got a statement win on Thanksgiving in Dallas, but that wasn’t as impressive as it seemed, so the Bills are a little overrated right now. Not only have the Cowboys since been beaten rather easily by the Bears, but, while the Bills won that game by 11, they lost the first down rate battle by 7.54%. The Cowboys picked up 32 first downs in the game and got into Buffalo territory on 8 of 10 drives, but managed just 15 points because they missed a pair of field goals, turned it over twice, and got stopped on 4th down twice late in the game when they were forced to go for it. 

The Bills have a first down rate differential of +3.44% on the season, 6th in the NFL, but they’ve faced the easiest schedule in the NFL by far, with their opponents having a combined winning percentage of 38%. No one else has faced a schedule easier than 42%. Aside from last week, their only win over a team with more than 4 wins came against the Titans by 7 in a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals. Excluding the Cowboys and Titans, the Bills have 7 wins against teams that are a combined 20-64.

The Bills’ schedule gets much tougher this week, as they host the Baltimore Ravens, arguably the top team in the league right now. The Ravens beat another top team candidate last week, the San Francisco 49ers, but this line still shifted from Baltimore -7 on the early line last week to Baltimore -6 this week, as a result of Buffalo’s win over Dallas. About 10% of games are decided by exactly a field goal, so that’s a significant one-point shift. 

I was hoping for an even better line with Baltimore, but I like the Ravens a good amount this week. They’ve blown their competition out of the water for about two months, ranking 1st in first down rate differential since week 7 at +11.83% (no one else is higher than +5.65%), despite facing teams that are 7-5 or better in 5 of 6 games. The Ravens got off to a relatively slow start, but still rank 2nd in first down rate differential on the season at +7.28%. The Bills, meanwhile, are going in the opposite direction, with just a +0.02% first down rate since week 7, 18th in the NFL over that time period, despite facing opponents with a combined 29-56 record. Everyone knows the Ravens are good so it’s hard to get value with them, but we’re getting some this week (Baltimore -8.5 is my calculated line) because the Bills are overrated, so the Ravens are worth betting this week. 

Baltimore Ravens 27 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -6

Confidence: Medium

Buffalo Bills at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (8-3) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

People seem to be souring on the Cowboys as a result of their loss in New England last week, but I don’t really understand why. The Patriots are one of the top few teams in the league once again this season and have been borderline impossible to beat at home over the past two decades. They have just 26 home losses since 2001 and prior to last week they were 51-20 ATS at home in games in which they were not favored by a touchdown or more. The fact that the Cowboys were able to play the game close and cover the 6-point spread is impressive, losing 13-9 in a game they played about even in first down rate (-0.15%) and lost primarily as a result of a blocked punt. 

The common narrative is the Cowboys can’t beat good teams and in fact they are 0-4 against teams that currently have winning records right now, but all of those losses have been close, decided by 20 points combined, and the Cowboys actually won the first down rate battle in two of those losses. All in all, their 5 losses have come by a combined 22 points, while their 6 wins have come by a combined 107 points, giving them a +85 point differential that ranks 4th in the NFL. They also rank 4th in first down rate differential at 5.34% and 4th in my roster rankings.

The Cowboys haven’t faced a tough schedule overall (46% opponents winning percentage), but that’s significantly tougher than the Bills’ schedule, as the Bills’ opponents have a combined 35% winning percentage, 8% less than any other team in the league. Their 8-3 record is a complete farce as the 8 teams that have defeated are a combined 21-67, with their one win against a team that currently has more than 4 wins coming against a Titans team that was starting Marcus Mariota at the time and that missed 4 makeable field goals in a 7-point loss. The Bills’ strength of defeat isn’t all that impressive either, as their 3 losses have come against teams that are a combined 20-13.

The Bills enter this game 6th in first down rate differential at +4.70%, but that’s still behind the Cowboys, despite facing such an easy schedule. My roster rankings have the Bills as a middle of the pack team, ranked 18th overall. The Bills are also in a horrible spot, having to play on the road on a short week against a superior opponent who they aren’t familiar with. Short weeks are tough enough as they are, but they’re easier when you’re at home, when you’re facing an inferior opponent, and when you’re facing a divisional opponent you’re familiar with. Non-divisional road underdogs are 17-36 ATS over the past 30 years on Thursdays, including 9-20 ATS as road underdogs of 4 or more. 

Given the Bills’ disadvantage on a short week and the talent gap between these two teams, I have this line calculated at Dallas -10, so we’re getting good line value with the hosts, especially with the line shifting off of the full touchdown it was at on the early line last week to -6.5 this week, as a result of the public souring on the Cowboys a little bit. About 1 in 10 games are decided by exactly a touchdown, so that’s a big half point. The Cowboys have 6 wins by more than a touchdown this season and should be able to make it seven this week against a Bills team that has barely been tested this season. I like them a lot as favorites of less than a touchdown. I’m also locking in Cincinnati +3.5 early in case in moves and I will have a full write up for that game this weekend with the others as usual.

Dallas Cowboys 27 Buffalo Bills 16

Pick against the spread: Dallas -6.5

Confidence: High

Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (3-7) at Buffalo Bills (7-3)

At first glance, the Bills are having a strong season, going 7-3 and ranking 6th in first down rate differential at +4.18%. However, they’ve played by far the easiest schedule in the NFL so far. Their seven wins have come against teams that are a combined 15-55 and their only win against a team with more than three wins came by a touchdown in a game in which the now 5-5 Titans missed four makeable field goals. Even the record of the teams that have defeated the Bills is not overly impressive, at 18-12. My roster rankings have the Bills 18th, which is think is a much more accurate representation of how the Bills stack up against the rest of the league. 

That’s just one spot ahead of where I have the Broncos, who also rank 19th in first down rate differential at -0.80%. Denver is 3-7, but four of their losses have come by four points or fewer on last-second drives, so they could easily have 5 or 6 wins right now. They’re down to third string quarterback Brandon Allen, but he hasn’t been much of a dropoff from Joe Flacco. The Broncos have compensated for their offensive issues all season with a defense that ranks 5th in the NFL in first down rate at 32.46%. 

Unfortunately, we’re not really getting line value with the Broncos, as this line has been bet down from Buffalo -6 on the early line last week to Buffalo -4 this week. I have this line calculated at Buffalo -3.5, which isn’t much different than the actual line. I still like the Broncos chances of keeping this game close, with the Bills having to turnaround and play again in 4 days on Thursday Night Football (a 44% cover spot all-time for favorites), but not enough to bet on it.

Buffalo Bills 20 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: Low