Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-9) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-14)

The Bengals have just one win this season, but they’ve been much more competitive than their record suggests. Of their losses, 8 of them have come by one score or less and they rank 26th in the NFL in first down rate differential at -3.98%, which obviously isn’t great, but far from the worst in the league. They’ve been killed by turnovers, tied with the Chargers for the worst turnover margin in the league at -16, but turnovers are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Bengals aren’t necessarily going to lose the turnover battle in this matchup just because they’ve struggled with them all season.

The Bengals have also played better in recent weeks since getting left tackle Cordy Glenn back from injury and switching back to veteran quarterback Andy Dalton, rather than hapless rookie Ryan Finley. Over the past 4 weeks, the Bengals actually have a positive first down rate differential at +1.19%. The Browns, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction, as their defense has completely fallen off since losing stud defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Myles Garrett. Over the past 4 games, the Browns rank 29th in the NFL with a -7.76% first down rate differential, primarily due to a defense that ranks dead last in the NFL with a 44.36% first down rate allowed over that stretch.  

Even though the Bengals have been the better team in recent weeks, this line still favors the Browns by a field goal on the road. The Browns won their matchup against the Bengals a few weeks ago, but that Bengals actually won the first down rate in that game by 2.35%, with the 8-point game largely swinging on a long interception return touchdown by the Browns. That first matchup was in Cleveland and, now back home Cincinnati, the Bengals have a great chance to win outright. Getting field goal protection is just a bonus. This is my Pick of the Week.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Cleveland Browns 20 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-2) at Cleveland Browns (6-8)

When these two division rivals met back in week 4, the Browns won somewhat easily by a final score of 40-25, resulting in both teams being 2-2 after 4 games. At the time, it looked like a sign of things to come, as the Browns were the pre-season favorite to win the division. However, while the Browns have fallen to 6-8 and out of the playoff race entirely, the Ravens haven’t lost since that first matchup against the Browns way back in week 4.

I would expect this matchup to be much more similar to how these teams have played in the past 10 games than how they played in week 4. While the Browns rank just 23rd in first down rate differential on the season at -2.31% and are the without talented defensive end duo of Myles Garrett (suspension) and Olivier Vernon (injury), the Ravens have completely reinvented their defense since the start of the season and are the most complete team in football. They have added cornerback Marcus Peters and middle linebacker Josh Bynes, have gotten breakout play from edge defender Tyus Bowser and safety Chuck Clark, and have gotten cornerback Jimmy Smith back from injury.

Peters was their most important addition and since adding him in week 7, the Ravens rank 2nd in first down rate allowed at 30.18%, after ranking 24th in first down rate differential through the first 6 games of the season at 37.95%. Lamar Jackson and this offense gets by far the most attention on this team, but they’ve been a dominant unit the whole season, ranking 5th in first down rate through the first 6 games of the season at 40.68% and 1st in the past 8 games at 43.30%. The defensive improvement is the reason why this team now looks unbeatable. Since week 7, the Ravens have a ridiculous +13.11% first down rate differential, which is best in the NFL by a wide margin (the second ranked team is at +5.32%).

With the Ravens playing as well as they are and the Browns treading water at best, I have this line calculated at Baltimore -11. The Browns have recognizable stars on both sides of the ball, but are a top heavy roster with poor depth, so they might still be a little overrated, even with the way their season has gone. Some think that their previous victory over the Ravens is proof that they are the Ravens’ Achilles heel, but these are not the same teams as the last time and history suggests the Ravens actually have a better chance of covering this spread because they lost the previous matchup. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 39-27 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s not enough here to for the Ravens to be worth betting, but I like them for pick ‘em purposes.

Baltimore Ravens 33 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -10

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Arizona Cardinals: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-7) at Arizona Cardinals (3-9-1)

Expected to be a contender in the AFC this year, the Browns have been massively disappointing, entering this game at 6-7 with little chance of getting into the post-season. Despite their underwhelming record, I think they’re still a little overrated. People look at their roster and see the big name stars, but they are a very top heavy roster with minimal talent beyond their stars and little depth at the bottom of their roster. Now without star defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, the Browns have arguably the worst defensive line in football, giving significant snaps at defensive end to bottom of the roster type players. I have them just 22nd overall in my roster rankings without those two players.

The Browns are also in an awful spot this week, flying across the country to play a last place non-conference opponent with a huge home game against the Ravens on deck. With their season essentially over, I don’t expect the Browns’ best effort at all this week, especially with how undisciplined and poorly coached they are. Road favorites are 44-75 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs, including just 4-16 ATS as road favorites of 3+ before being home underdogs of 4+ (the early line has Cleveland +7 next week). 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to justify a big bet on the Cardinals this week as they’ve been pretty terrible this season. First overall pick Kyler Murray has been promising and could easily develop into a franchise quarterback long-term, but he’s not good enough right now to elevate this team by himself and outside of him their roster isn’t that much better than it was last season when they finished with the worst record in the NFL at 3-13. The Cardinals rank just 29th in first down rate differential at -6.40% and 26th in point differential at -102, and their only three wins have come by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 7-32 on the season. They still have a good shot to catch the Browns off guard in a tough spot and I like getting the field goal protection with them at home, but I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because the Browns would be the best team the Cardinals have beaten this season.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Cleveland Browns 23 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3

Confidence: Medium

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