Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (1-11) at Cleveland Browns (5-7)

The Browns’ season might have ended last week, with their loss in Pittsburgh dropping them to 5-7 on the year. A tough schedule has been part of the problem, as they have the highest opponents winning percentage in the NFL at 62%, but this team has also been overrated from the start because they lack depth on the roster beyond their stars. Running back Nick Chubb, wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, left guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, linebacker Joe Schobert, and cornerback Denzel Ward are all among the best in the league at their respective positions, but this is a very top heavy roster.

With linebacker Christian Kirksey out for the season, the Browns have gotten horrible play from their linebackers other than Schobert. Their defensive line depth is horrendous and now with Myles Garrett suspended and Olivier Vernon hurt they arguably have the worst defensive line in the NFL. Things aren’t much better on the offensive line, where they’ve had problems everywhere except left guard and center. Kareem Hunt has given them a third weapon in the passing game since returning from suspension and they’re expected to get tight end David Njoku back from injury this week as well, but they’re also without starting safety Morgan Burnett for the season on the other side of the ball, which is a big loss. All in all, I have the Browns ranked just 23rd in my roster rankings without Garrett, Vernon, or Burnett. 

Despite their loss last week, the Browns remain overrated, favored by a touchdown at home against a Bengals team that is better than their record suggests. Of the Bengals’ 11 losses, 6 of them have come by a touchdown or less and that’s despite the fact that they’ve had the 3rd toughest schedule in the NFL (57% opponents winning percentage) and despite the fact that they’ve benched quarterback Andy Dalton for overmatched 4th round rookie Ryan Finley for 3 games. 

On the season, the Bengals rank 27th in first down rate differential at -4.59%, led by a defense that is actually middle of the pack, ranking 16th with a 35.60% first down rate allowed. Their defense has been even better in recent weeks, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed since week 7. Their offense has been a problem, but they’ve been about 3% better in first down rate with Dalton under center vs. Finley and they got left tackle Cordy Glenn back from injury a few weeks ago as well, which is a big help.

I have the Bengals 27th in my roster rankings about a point and a half behind the Browns. My calculated line is Cleveland -4, so we’re getting enough line value with Cincinnati +7 to justify betting on that, even with the Bengals in a tough spot before a home game against the Patriots (teams are 30-58 ATS since 2014 before being 7+ point home underdogs). Even in a tough spot, this should be another close game for the Bengals, who should be focused for a division rival.

Cleveland Browns 20 Cincinnati Bengals 16

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +7

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (5-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5)

A week ago, the Steelers were favored in this game by a field goal on the early line. That line made sense, as the Browns were favored by a field goal in the first matchup between these two teams a couple weeks ago in Cleveland. Three points for homefield advantage is standard, so both of those lines suggested these two teams were about even. However, this line has since shifted all the way to Cleveland -2.5 this week, suggesting a significant difference between these two teams.

I don’t really understand that line movement. The Browns blew out the Dolphins last week in Cleveland, but that’s not all that impressive. The Steelers had an underwhelming performance in Cincinnati, but still managed a 6-point win as 6.5 point favorites. It’s possible this line movement has a lot to do with the Steelers benching Mason Rudolph for Devlin Hodges, but that could ultimately prove to be an upgrade. Although he’s seen very limited action, Hodges has a QB rating 17 points higher than Rudolph so far this season. Over the past 6 weeks, the Steelers have a first down rate of just 28.66%, second worst in the NFL over that span, so it would be hard for Hodges to be a significant downgrade. At the same time, the Steelers have the best defense in the league in terms of first down rate allowed at 29.35% over that time span, so they can definitely win games even without great quarterback play.

In the previous matchup between these two teams, the Browns won 21-7 at home, but that’s primarily because they won the turnover margin by 4 (due to 4 Rudolph interceptions) in a game in which the Browns actually lost the first down rate battle by 0.28%. That’s despite the fact that they had defensive end Myles Garrett in that game and he’ll be a very notable absence (for multiple reasons) from this matchup. The Browns could get fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon back from a 3-game absence, but that’s far from a guarantee, after he was limited in practice all week and he’s not the same caliber player as Garrett. The Browns will also be without both of their starting safeties from the previous matchup, with Morgan Burnett out for the season with a torn Achilles and Damarious Randall listed as out for disciplinary reasons. 

The Steelers won’t have running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, but both of those players barely played in the first matchup and the Steelers still were able to play about even in first down rate on the road. If Hodges can avoid throwing 4 interceptions like Rudolph did, the Steelers have a good chance to win this game at home. I have this line calculated at even, so we’re not getting quite enough line value with the Steelers for them to be worth betting, but if this line moves up to 3 and/or Vernon is ruled out I would reconsider.

Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Cleveland Browns 16 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +2.5

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (2-8) at Cleveland Browns (4-6)

Even though the Browns got off to a 2-6 start, there was some optimism they could go on a second half run and compete for a playoff spot in the weaker AFC. That optimism came from the fact that their schedule, which was one of the toughest in the league in the first half of the season, suddenly became one of the easiest in the league in the second half of the season. The Browns also looked to be trending towards being closer to 100%, with players like cornerback Denzel Ward, safety Damarious Randall, and running back Kareem Hunt returning after missing significant time in the first half of the season.

The Browns’ second half is off to a good start in the win/loss column, as they’ve won a couple of home games against a pair of easier opponents, the Bills and Steelers, to improve to 4-6. However, they’re now very much trending away from being 100%. After losing defensive end Olivier Vernon to injury in the game against the Bills, the Browns lost safety Morgan Burnett to injury in the game against the Steelers and also lost defensive end Myles Garrett and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to suspensions of indefinite length and one game respectively, for their roles in the on field brawl with the Steelers at the end of the game. The absences of Vernon and Garrett are the biggest, as not only are they two of the better defensive ends in the league, but the Browns also completely lack depth behind them. 

The good news for the Browns, at least for this week, is that their schedule is about to get even easier, with the Dolphins coming to town. The Dolphins have managed a pair of wins, but they still rank dead last in the NFL in point differential (-166) and first down rate differential (-8.72%), as well as in my roster rankings. They’re better offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but they completely lack talent around him on both sides of the ball. Still, it’s a question whether or not the Browns can cover this 10.5-point line. Without Garrett and Vernon, I have the Browns calculated as just 9-point favorites. It’s hard to be confident in the Dolphins at all without a lot of line value, but they’re my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Cleveland Browns 34 Miami Dolphins 24

Pick against the spread: Miami +10.5

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) at Cleveland Browns (3-6)

This is going to be one of my lowest confidence picks of the week. Not only do I not have a strong lean either way, but Thursday games have been tough to predict this season, as I am just 2-7 ATS on Thursday this season, dating back to week 2. The Browns’ 3-6 record is in part the result of a tough schedule (5th highest opponent’s DVOA), but a lot of their losses haven’t been close, as they have an average margin of defeat of 14.67 points per game rank 25th in point differential at -50. 

The Steelers’ 5-4 record is largely the result of a +13 turnover margin, 2nd best in the NFL, and turnover margins are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, but even in first down rate differential the Steelers hold slight edge, ranking 22nd at -2.52%, while the Browns rank 26th at -3.20%. The Steelers haven’t faced a cupcake schedule either, with the 15th highest opponent’s DVOA, and they have a solid +42 point differential since being blown out week 1 by the Patriots. The also hold the slight edge in my roster rankings, ranking 16th, while the Browns rank 21st. 

This line, favoring the Browns at home by 2.5 points, suggests the Steelers are the slightly better team, which is about right. I have this line calculated at Cleveland -1.5, but that’s barely any line value, as only about 4% of games are decided by exactly 2 points. If the Browns had defensive end Olivier Vernon healthy, I’d pick them because that would mean the Browns would be as healthy as they’ve been all season, but he is a big absence, as the Browns lack capable players behind him on the depth chart. The Steelers would be my pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I don’t like either side that much.

Cleveland Browns 19 Pittsburgh Steelers 17

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +2.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (6-2) at Cleveland Browns (2-6)

These two teams have mirror image records, with the Bills at 6-2 and the Browns at 2-6, but it’s fair to wonder if they’d have a similar record if they played the same schedule. While the Browns have faced the 4th toughest schedule in terms of opponents DVOA, the Bills have faced the second easiest. The combined record of the 6 teams the Bills have defeated (by an average of 8.5 points per game) is 9-42 and they’ve lost both games they’ve played against teams with a winning record. The Browns, despite having 4 fewer wins than the Bills, are the only team in this matchup that has defeated a winning team, beating the now 6-2 Ravens 40-25 in Baltimore back in week 4. The Browns’ 6 losses have come against teams that are a combined 34-17.

Unfortunately, we still aren’t getting any line value with the Browns, who are favored by 2.5 points here at home over the Bills. I still have the Bills slightly higher in my roster rankings right now, especially with the Browns missing talented defensive end Olivier Vernon. The Browns are also on a tight turnaround with another game against the Steelers on deck 4 days after this game (favorites cover at a 45% rate all-time before Thursday Night Football), and though I do expect them to be focused, having lost 4 straight, the Bills are in a great spot, with only a trip to Miami on deck (underdogs are 57-36 ATS since 2002 before being road favorites of 4.5+). I have this line calculated at even and, while there’s not enough here to bet the Bills confidently at +2.5, I do like the money line at +120 in a game that should be a toss up. If this line moves up to 3, I might consider a bet on the Bills against the spread as well.

Update: +3s are showing up Sunday morning. If you can get that line, the Bills are worth a bet.

Buffalo Bills 20 Cleveland Browns 19 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +3

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos: 2019 Week 9 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (2-5) at Denver Broncos (2-6)

Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco is done for the season with a neck injury and, with expected backup Drew Lock still working back from off-season thumb surgery, the Broncos will instead turn to Brandon Allen, a 2016 6th round pick who has never thrown a regular season pass across stints with 3 teams: the Jaguars, Rams, and Broncos. As a result, this line that opened at Denver -1.5 has now moved all the way to Denver +4.

It’s always risky to bet on a quarterback with no regular season experience, but it’s hard to justify a 5.5-point shift like that given the way Joe Flacco has played this season, especially in recent weeks. This offense has problems beyond Flacco, especially with Emmanuel Sanders now with the 49ers and right tackle Ja’Wuan James again injured, but they’ve ranked just 29th in first down rate this season at 31.54%, so Allen is unlikely to be a significant downgrade. And given the way we’ve seen some inexperienced backup quarterbacks come out and play well in their first few starts this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Allen actually ended up being a little bit of an upgrade under center for a few games.

Even with their offensive struggles, the Broncos have ranked 17th in first down rate differential this season at -0.41%, as a result of a dominant defense that ranks 4th in first down rate differential. An already talented unit last season, they have been taken to the next level in 2019 by defensive minded head coach Vic Fangio and free agent acquisition Kareem Jackson, who has been one of the best defensive backs in the league this season. The Broncos are just 2-6, but three of their losses came on last second field goals, so they aren’t far away from being a 4-5 win team right now. 

The Browns, meanwhile, rank 25th in first down rate differential at -3.70% and have had below average play on both sides of the ball, ranking 25th in first down rate and 20th in first down rate allowed. They’ve had one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, but the Broncos haven’t had a cakewalk schedule either. This line suggests the Browns would be favored by about 10 points if this game was in Cleveland, so I think it’s way too high. I have the line calculated at Denver -1, even with the uncertainty of Allen under center. There’s too much risk here for this to be a big bet, but the Broncos are worth a play this week.

Cleveland Browns 17 Denver Broncos 16

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: Medium

Cleveland Browns at New England Patriots: 2019 Week 8 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (2-4) at New England Patriots (7-0)

The Browns have gotten off to a very disappointing start to the season, going 2-4 with a -34 point differential (25th in the NFL) and a -3.63% first down rate differential (27th in the NFL), after entering the season with expectations of contending in the AFC. Injuries have been a big part of the reason why, as they’ve already had seven week 1 starters miss time with injury. Coming out of their bye week, that number is now down to three (safety Damarious Randall, linebacker Christian Kirksey, and tight end David Njoku), with starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both returning from 4+ game absences. 

Unfortunately, the Browns are getting healthy just in time to run into a juggernaut, as the Patriots lead the league with a +12.65% first down rate differential. They have played a weak schedule, so there’s an argument to be made that the 49ers, who rank 2nd with a +10.14% first down rate differential, have been the better team this year, but regardless of who they’ve played there’s no denying the Patriots have been a dominant team thus far this season, especially on defense, where they have allowed just 88 first downs and 3 offensive touchdowns on 394 snaps (23.10%) in 7 games. Their defensive dominance actually started late last season, as they have allowed 168 first downs and 12 offensive touchdowns on 678 snaps (26.55%) in their last 12 games, despite some much tougher competition last post-season.

The Patriots’ offense, which ranks 16th with a 35.74% first down rate, has not been as good and could be limited by a Browns defense that is getting healthier, but the Patriots could still cover this 11.5 point spread regardless. Baker Mayfield and the Browns are arguably the most talented offense the Patriots have faced thus far this season, but Mayfield is a young, mistake prone quarterback who figures to have a lot of trouble with Bill Belichick’s scheme. I have this line calculated at New England -14, so the Patriots should be the right side, though only for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 27 Cleveland Browns 13

Pick against the spread: New England -11.5

Confidence: Low