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

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (7-8) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1)

The Steelers are 7-7-1, but their seven wins have been very different than their seven losses, as their seven wins have all come by one score and by a combined 32 points, while their seven losses have come by a combined 102 points, with five losses coming by multiple scores. That gives them a point differential of -70 that ranks 23rd in the NFL and in terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, they are even more underwhelming, ranking 29th, 20th, 21st and 29th respectively in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency on the season.

The Browns have a worse record at 7-8, but six of their losses have come by six points or fewer and they rank much better in schedule adjusted efficiency, ranking 16th, 8th, and 22nd on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 14th in overall mixed efficiency. They aren’t fully healthy on either side of the ball, but they are healthier than they have been in recent weeks, especially on offense, where they have quarterback Baker Mayfield about as healthy as he’s been all season with at least four fifths of the Browns’ dominant offensive line that has seldom been together this season. 

On defense, the Browns have some absences in the secondary, with Troy Hill, Ronnie Harrison, and John Johnson out, but their secondary hasn’t been healthy all season and they are getting back edge defender Jadeveon Clowney from a short absence. Unfortunately, we’ve lost all line value with the Browns in the past week, with this line moving from Pittsburgh -1 to Cleveland -3.5 in the past week, as a result of the Steelers’ blowout loss in Kansas City. My calculated line of Cleveland -4 still suggests the Browns should be the right side, but we’re getting such insignificant line value that I can’t be confident in the Browns at all.

Update: This line has shifted all the way from Cleveland -3.5 to Pittsburgh -2.5 because the Browns have been eliminated from the post-season, while the Steelers still technically are alive. I don’t think that should have triggered that big of a shift, as this is still a big divisional game for the Browns, who won’t want the Steelers to keep their playoff hopes alive against them on national television, especially since the Steelers beat them earlier this year. Teams tend to cover in this situation anyway, covering the spread at a 56.8% rate as divisional road underdogs against an opponent who previously won as road underdogs against them earlier in the season. I was hoping we would get a full field goal so I could take the Browns against the spread, but the best value in this game in the money line, as the Browns should be no worse than 50/50 to win this game and likely should still be favored, even given the circumstances.

Cleveland Browns 20 Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +2.5

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (7-7) at Green Bay Packers (11-3)

The Packers stand alone with the league’s best record at 11-3, but they haven’t been dominant in most of their wins. As a result, they rank just 10th in the NFL in point differential at +57 and, in terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Packers rank 4th, 15th, 32nd on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 13th in overall mixed efficiency. They have been better at home, which has been the case throughout Aaron Rodgers’ tenure, as they are 50-22 ATS at home in games Rodgers starts and finishes in front of crowds with fans, but this line is still too high, favoring the Packers by 7.5 points at home over a competent at worst Browns team (16th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency) that will be at least somewhat healthier than a week ago, most notably at the quarterback position with Baker Mayfield set to return.

My calculated line has the Packers favored by 5 points and, while that does not take into account the Packers’ typical home dominance, it’s still hard to justify getting this line up to 7.5 points. I’m not going to bet on the Browns because there is still so much uncertainty in this game with several Browns players who are still in COVID protocols from last week who could come off the list before gametime, as well as a key injury uncertainty on both sides, with dominant Browns defensive end Myles Garrett not practicing all week and likely to be limited if he plays, while dominant Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander could be set to return to the lineup after being designated to return from injured reserve a few weeks ago. It’s impossible to be confident enough in the Browns to bet on them right now given the uncertainty, but I could see that changing if the right players are active for the Browns and/or Alexander is out for the Packers.

Update: Alexander is out for the Packers, while Garrett is active, but that’s about where the good news ends for the Browns, who still have cornerbacks Greg Newsome and Troy Hill, safeties Ronnie Harrison and Grant Delpit, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and offensive linemen JC Tretter and Jedrick Wills in COVID protocols. My calculated line is at Green Bay -6, but I am leaving this as low confidence pick.

Green Bay Packers 23 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +7.5

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (6-7) at Cleveland Browns (7-6)

Earlier in the week, the Raiders were 6.5-point underdogs and I liked them a lot at that number. That line swung from favoring the Browns by just a field goal on the early line and I typically like fading significant week-to-week line movements, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. In this case, the line movement was due entirely to the Raiders getting blown out 48-9 by the Chiefs last week, but the Chiefs are one of the best teams in the league and teams tend to bounce back after a blowout loss, covering the spread at a 58.2% rate all-time after a loss by 35 points or more, in large part because they tend to be undervalued, which the Raiders were as 6.5-point underdogs in Cleveland.

The Raiders’ point differential of -77 is much worse than their record, as they have been blown out on several occasions, including last week. That would normally suggest they are worse than their record, but they have faced a tough schedule overall and have largely underperformed on third and fourth downs relative to their early down performance, which tends to be the kind of thing that evens out in the long run. The Raiders rank 16th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 9th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but are just 31st and 17th respectively in third and fourth down conversion percentage and just 27th in both third and fourth down conversion percentage allowed. 

However, the Browns have since had a large COVID outbreak among their players and coaches, forcing this game to be pushed back from Saturday Night Football to Monday Night Football and causing the Browns to be without several key players, as well as members of their coaching staff. Their situation is not as bad as it would have been if they had to play Saturday, but they will be without their top two quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum, starting left tackle Jedrick Wills, starting tight end Austin Hooper, top wide receiver Jarvis Landry, talented edge defender Jadeveon Clowney, primary slot cornerback Troy Hill, and starting safety Ronnie Harrison.

As a result, this line has shifted all the way to favoring the Raiders by a field goal on the road, a massive 9.5-point mid-week shift. That seems to be an overreaction as the Browns have a competent third quarterback in Nick Mullens, who has been serviceable (87.2 QB rating) across 16 career starts and has been with the team on the practice squad for a few months, while the rest of their losses aren’t damaging enough for this line to shift like this. 

The Browns still have feature back Nick Chubb, talented backup D’Ernest Johnson, and the most talented interior offensive line in the NFL, allowing them to lean on their running game in a big way, while their defense still has edge defender Myles Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward, safety John Johnson, and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, probably their four best defensive players on a defense that ranks 7th in schedule adjusted efficiency. Their offense, meanwhile, ranks 17th in schedule adjusted efficiency, in large part due to their offensive line and running game, as their passing game has been below average for most of the season, with Mayfield struggling through injuries for most of the year. 

The Raiders have also not been the same on offense since losing top wide receiver Henry Ruggs and stud tight end Darren Waller, while their defense will be without two of their top three cornerbacks, with both Trayvon Mullen and Nate Dobbs out for this game. Missing those key players, the Raiders don’t deserve to be favorites of a field goal on the road against a team with a still competent roster, even given the circumstances. 

My calculated line actually still has the Browns favored by a point at home. I don’t want to bet them, given that they are missing multiple coaches as well and had a chaotic week with minimal practice, while the Raiders will still be motivated to bounce back from last week’s blowout loss, but the Browns are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, as we are getting a full field goal with them and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they pulled the upset and won straight up.

Las Vegas Raiders 24 Cleveland Browns 23

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +3

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (8-4) at Cleveland Browns (6-6)

The Ravens are 8-4, but they are not nearly as good as their record. They have played a lot of close games and are overall 6-2 in one score games, which is not something they can rely on long-term. When these two teams met two weeks ago in Baltimore, I picked the Browns as 3.5-point underdogs, as a result of the Ravens’ lack of big wins, and the Browns had numerous chances to cover that number in a game that was tight throughout and an eventual 6-point loss, giving the Ravens’ just their third biggest margin of victory of the season.

This week, these two teams meet in Cleveland and, in addition to the obvious location difference, the Browns could have a significant injury edge as well, as the Ravens have lost right tackle Patrick Mekari and top cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the past week, while the Browns could get a much better performance out of Baker Mayfield after a bye week, which would be huge because Mayfield’s poor play was the biggest factor in the Browns not winning when these two teams met the last time. 

The Browns are favored this time, but only by 2.5 points and my calculated line has the Browns favored by 3.5 points, as, despite all of their injury absences, the Browns still rank 13th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, just behind the Ravens, who rank 11th, but are going in the wrong direction injury wise, while the Browns seem to be heading in the right direction. Just 8% of games are decided by two points or fewer, while about 1 in 6 are decided by exactly a field goal, so we’re getting good line value with the Browns as long as this line is under a field goal. There isn’t enough here to bet the Browns confidently, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes in a game in which they basically just have to win to cover this spread.

Cleveland Browns 24 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -2.5

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-5) at Baltimore Ravens (7-3)

The Browns are 6-5, but they could easily have a couple more wins, as they have faced a tough schedule and have three one-score losses, including a pair of games in which they won the first down rate and yards per play battle, but lost the turnover battle. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency rankings, which are based on yards per play and first down rate, more predictive metrics than point differential or winning percentage, the Browns rank 13th, 13th, 16th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 11th in mixed efficiency.

The Browns have slipped in recent weeks, especially on offense, but injuries have been the primary culprit and they figure to be a lot healthier this week. Not only will they get stud right tackle Jack Conklin and talented running back Kareem Hunt back from extended absences, giving them arguably their healthiest offensive supporting cast since the beginning of the season, but quarterback Baker Mayfield seems likely to be closer to 100% than he has been in recent weeks, practicing in full on Thursday and Friday and being left without an injury designation on this week’s injury report. 

The Ravens, meanwhile, are 7-3, but they have needed a 5-1 record in one score games to get there and rank 10th, 29th, 2nd, and 14th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency. In fact, just three of their seven wins would have covered this 3.5-point spread and one of those was an overtime win where they won by six points after being down 22-3 earlier in the game. They are very overvalued as 3.5-point favorites against a capable opponent. 

My calculated line is even, with the Ravens getting a couple points for homefield advantage, but also being a couple points behind the Browns in my rankings, so we are getting a lot of value with the suddenly much healthier Browns at +3.5. This is a high confidence pick and one of my top plays of the week. The money line is also a great value at +165 (or close to that), as the Browns should be at worst considered a 50/50 shot to pull the upset and win this game.

Cleveland Browns 24 Baltimore Ravens 23 Upset Pick +165

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +3.5

Confidence: High

Detroit Lions at Cleveland Browns: 2021 Week 11 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (0-8-1) at Cleveland Browns (5-5)

Ordinarily, this would be a look ahead spot for the Browns, who have a much tougher game next week in Baltimore, after this game against the winless Lions. Favorites of a touchdown or more cover at just a 41.5% rate all-time before facing an opponent with a winning percentage that is 60% higher or more than their current opponent’s winning percentage, which would apply to the Browns. On top of that, winless teams tend to be a good bet after a certain point in the season, covering at a 63.0% rate all-time in week 9 or later.

However, the Browns are coming off of a blowout 45-7 loss in New England and will probably be more focused than they normally would have in this game, as they try to bounce back from an embarrassing loss. Teams cover at a 58.2% rate all-time after a loss by 35 points or more, as a result of being some combination of undervalued, overlooked, and embarrassed. The Lions, meanwhile, could be tired after a tie with the Steelers last week, with teams going 11-17 ATS all-time after a tie. The Lions have played a lot of their losses close, but they also haven’t had back-to-back close losses, following up every single digit loss with a double digit loss and they could be flat again this week after coming so close last week.

Meanwhile, despite the Browns’ blowout loss last week, they are still much better than their record suggests, as they have faced a tough schedule and have three one-score losses, including a pair of games in which they won the first down rate and yards per play battle, but lost the turnover battle. They rank 10th, 5th, and 5th respectively in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency on the season, despite dealing with a significant amount of short-term injury absences, many of whom have since returned. Still one of the more talented teams in the league, I have the Browns calculated as 14-point favorites in this matchup with the Lions.

This line favors the Browns by 12, so we are getting some line value with the Browns, but not nearly enough to bet them, especially with the conflicting trends and other uncertainties in this game. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield will be playing at less than 100% with several injuries and the extent to which he’ll be limited is unclear, while the Lions will be turning to unproven backup Tim Boyle, who has thrown four passes in four seasons in the league. 

It’s possible Boyle’s lack of experience could work to the Lions’ benefit, as the Browns won’t have much tape of him to prepare with, but it’s also possible he shows why he hasn’t played much in his career and proves to be completely overmatched. Not knowing which will be the case makes this game even tougher to predict. The Browns are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I am not confident in them at all.

Cleveland Browns 26 Detroit Lions 13

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -12

Confidence: None

Cleveland Browns at New England Patriots: 2021 Week 10 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (5-4) at New England Patriots (5-4)

I wish these two teams weren’t playing each other this week, because both are underrated. Both have records of just 5-4, but could easily have several more wins each. Of the Browns’ four losses, three came by one score, including a pair where they won the first down rate and yards per play battle, but lost the turnover battle, and their only multi-score loss came against the Cardinals in a game in which Baker Mayfield got hurt. Mayfield is not the only Browns player to miss time or be limited with injury and they still are missing some key personnel, but, despite that, the Browns rank 9th, 5th, and 5th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency respectively, as they have won the first down rate battle convincingly in all five of their wins, including a trio of double digit victories.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have faced an easy schedule overall, but three of their four losses have come by 1 point, 2 points, and in overtime, including a pair of losses to the Cowboys and Buccaneers, who are among the best teams in the league. Meanwhile, three of their five wins have come by more than one score, with the exceptions being a game in which they were without four of their five starters on the offensive line against the Texans and a game in which the Chargers, a 5-3 team, needed a late touchdown in garbage time to cut the final margin of victory to one score. The Patriots aren’t fully healthy either, but they are in much better shape on the offensive line now and are clearly better than their 5-4 record.

However, I do feel that, while the Patriots’ are more commonly known to be better than their record, it’s not as well known that the Browns are better than their record and, as a result, they are a more underrated team. This line, favoring the Patriots by 2.5 points at home, suggests these two teams are about even, but I have the Browns a couple points better in my roster rankings and I have this line calculated at even, giving us some line value with the Browns +2.5. 

On top of that, the Patriots are in a bad spot, having to turn around and play another game in four days in Thursday Night Football. Favorites cover at just a 41.6% rate all-time before a short week when their opponent is not going into a short week and, while the Patriots are only small favorites this week and do only face the Falcons, that game could still serve as a distraction. I would need a full field goal to bet the Browns against the spread, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes even at +2.5 and they are worth a bet on the money line, as they should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game.

Cleveland Browns 24 New England Patriots 23 Upset Pick +115

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +2.5

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 Week 9 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (4-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-3)

The Browns lost at home to the Steelers last week, but it was a game they likely would have won if not for a red zone fumble, as they won the first down rate battle, but lost by 5-points in a game in which they were -1 in turnovers. The turnover margin also likely cost them their week 1 game against the Chiefs, losing the turnover battle by 2 in a 4-point loss. The Browns also have another one score loss to a quality team, the Chargers, while their only mutli-score loss was the Cardinals, who were the league’s last unbeaten team. 

Overall, the Browns still rank highly in offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency, ranking 8th, 5th, and 4th respectively. They have a -3 turnover margin, which has likely cost them at least a game or two, but turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. The Browns do have some injury concerns with running back Kareem Hunt, right tackle Jack Conklin, and wide receiver Odell Beckham all out, while quarterback Baker Mayfield is playing at less than 100%, but they haven’t really been healthy all season and, even in their current injury situation, they still have a 4-point edge on the Bengals in my roster rankings. 

The Bengals got out to a 5-2 start on the strength of their defense, but their defense was always overachieving its talent level and has now fallen back to earth in a big way after being carved apart by the lowly Jets, now ranking 14th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, while their offense still ranks just 27th when you take into account they’ve faced the easiest schedule of defenses in the league. 

Add in a 10th ranked special teams and you have a Bengals team that ranks behind the Browns in all three phases and yet is being favored at home, albeit by less than 3 points. I wish we were getting the full field goal and that we had more certainty in Baker Mayfield’s health, but he practiced in full all season and the Browns have a very good chance to come on the road and get the upset, so I like the Browns both against the spread and straight up at +115.

Update: The more I think about this, the more I want to increase this bet. Baker Mayfield practiced in full all week, reportedly looked great, and was not listed with an injury designation. The Browns have been held to 14 points or fewer in three straight games with Baker out or playing at less than 100%, but they topped 26 points in 4 of their first 5 games before then, including 28.3 points per game in 3 road games, so if Baker can resemble the quarterback he was to begin the season, the Browns should be able to go on the road and win this game relatively easily. There may also be some added incentive for Baker to play well in the wake of the Odell Beckham situation and Baker’s statistical production has been noticeably better without Odell than with him since he arrived in Cleveland, so I’m not worried that Baker will miss Odell on the field. I’m moving this to a high confidence pick. I was waiting for a +3, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Cleveland Browns 23 Cincinnati Bengals 20 Upset Pick +115

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +2.5

Confidence: High

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: 2021 Week 8 NFL Pick

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

The Browns have had among the worst injury luck in the league. In total, they have been without quarterback Baker Mayfield (one game), running backs Nick Chubb (2 games) and Kareem Hunt (1 game), wide receivers Jarvis Landry (4 games) and Odell Beckham (2 games), left tackle Jedrick Wills (2 games), right tackle Jack Conklin (2 games), Jadeveon Clowney (1 game), and cornerback Greg Newsome (2 games) for differing periods of time. Hunt remains out and top cornerback Denzel Ward will join him on the sideline, missing his first game of the season, but the Browns have enough depth at both running back and cornerback to compensate and, in general, the Browns have much more talent available to them this week than they have had most of the season.

Despite their injury issues, the Browns have been better than their record, as their losses have come to the Chiefs, Chargers, and Cardinals, with two of those games being decided by one score. In total, the Browns rank 11th in first down rate, 9th in yards per play, 8th in first down rate allowed, 2nd in yards per play allowed, and 4th in special teams DVOA, making them one of the most impressive and well-rounded teams in the league from a statistical standpoint, despite all of their injury absences to date.

The most questionable injury situation in this game is how effective quarterback Baker Mayfield will be, returning from a one-game absence to play through a serious injury to his non-throwing shoulder, which could knock him out of the lineup again. However, even with Case Keenum under center, I still have the Browns calculated at 10-point favorites over the Steelers. That’s in part because the Browns are healthier now and have played better than their record despite their injury absences, but also because the Steelers are still a little bit overrated. 

The Steelers have managed wins in their last two games but they were facing two teams in the Broncos and Seahawks who are both mediocre without the key players that both are missing due to injury. The Browns, meanwhile, still have one of the most talented rosters on paper even with some significant contributors out. The Steelers still have a good defense, but it’s not nearly as good as it was a year ago when they played well enough to mask a mediocre offense and led this team to an impressive record with a lot of close wins against mediocre opponents.

The Browns are somewhat in a bad spot because they have to turn around and face the Bengals in a tougher divisional game next week and teams cover at just a 41.9% rate all-time at home in a divisional matchup against a team with a .500 record or worse before going on the road and facing another divisional opponent with a record better than .500. However, that should be somewhat offset by the fact that the Browns are in their third of three home games, a spot with a 55.1% cover rate all-time. Even with conflicting trends, there is just too much line value with the Browns to not bet them, as they could beat the Steelers with relative ease even if Mayfield doesn’t play his best football or leaves the game for Case Keenum.

Cleveland Browns 23 Pittsburgh Steelers 14

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -4

Confidence: High