Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)

One of the biggest betting edges I’ve discovered over the years is the lack of week-to-week correlation between turnover margins. The winner of the turnover margin wins the game about 80% of the time, but turnover margins have no predictability week-to-week. Teams that lose the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.0 the following week, while teams that win the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.1 the following week. You can test this at killer sports for yourself if you’d like, but this holds true regardless of what a team’s turnover margin was the previous week. For this reason, I use first down rate as my primary evaluative stat, as it has much more week-to-week correlation and minimizes the impact of turnover margin and other inconsistent metrics on an evaluation of a team.

The Falcons are a great example of this in action. Through their first 8 games of the season, the Falcons had a -0.29% first down rate differential, but were just 1-7 due in large part to a -12 turnover margin. Since the bye, the Falcons are +5 in turnover margin and, as a result, have won 5 of 7 games. Their first down rate differential has improved slightly, as they are at +3.16% over those 7 games, but the big difference has been turnover margin. They’re still negative in turnover margin on the season at -7, but now at 6-9, their first down rate differential of +1.14% on the season (in the NFL) is much more in line with their record. 

I do make a few exceptions to the inconsistent turnover margin rule. One is the Patriots, who have proven to be the exception to most rules over the past two decades and have consistently won the turnover battle throughout the Brady/Belichick era. Since 2000, they have a +210 turnover margin and the next closest team is at +95. Another exception is Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston, who has consistently been among the league leaders in giveaways in his 5 seasons in the league. 

In 69 career starts, Winston has 136 combined interceptions and fumbles, 31 more than any quarterback in the league over that stretch. The Buccaneers are more than just their quarterback, but it would make sense that they would have a negative turnover margin with a quarterback like Winston under center. Since Winston entered the league in 2015, the Buccaneers have the 4th worst turnover margin in the league at -33, including -11 this season (5th worst in the NFL).

That’s not to say that Winston doesn’t bring a lot to the table that is good, as he has a career 7.74 YPA average, including 8.15 YPA this season, 5th in the NFL, which has led the Buccaneers to a 37.02% first down rate, 12th in the NFL, but after 5 years in the league it’s clear that he’s just more turnover prone than the average quarterback. Making matters even worse, Winston is playing this game at less than 100% through an injured thumb and without his top-2 wide receivers. 

The Buccaneers have the edge over the Falcons in first down rate differential this season (+2.20% vs. +1.14%) and their defense has been significantly better since week 7, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.33% over that stretch, due to the return of edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the emergence of several young defensive backs in what was once the worst secondary in the NFL, but my roster rankings have the Falcons ranked slightly higher than the Buccaneers, which I think is more accurate. The Falcons have also faced a significantly tougher schedule this season, with a 56% combined opponents winning percentage (highest in the NFL), as opposed to 50% for the Buccaneers.

All that being said, we’re actually still getting some line value with the Buccaneers this week, as this line is even, suggesting the visiting Falcons are about 2-3 points better than the hometown Buccaneers. My calculated line is Tampa Bay -2. Winston’s turnover proneness is a problem, but as I’ve mentioned he also does a lot well, even at less than 100%, and the Buccaneers’ defense has actually been downright stifling over the past few weeks, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.59% over the past 6 games. The absences of wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are obviously significant, but the Falcons are missing key players like wide receiver Calvin Ridley, cornerback Desmond Trufant, and defensive ends Takkarist McKinley and Adrian Clayborn. There’s not enough here to bet on the Buccaneers confidently, but they should be the right side.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay PK

Confidence: Low

Houston Texans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (9-5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7)

The Texans got a huge win in Tennessee last week against a Titans team that was previously tied with the Texans for the division lead. However, that game could have gone either way, as both teams were about even in first down rate (Houston +0.97%) and the game swung on a blocked field goal and a long interception return by the Texans. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, got a big blowout win over the Lions on the road last week even without injured wide receiver Mike Evans, but fellow stud wide receiver Chris Godwin also got hurt in that game, so between that and the Texans’ win last week, this line has shifted from Houston -1 on the early line last week to Houston -3 this week, a big swing considering about 20% of games are decided by 2-3 points.

I think this line is pretty far off and would be off even without the big line movement. Even without Evans and Godwin, the Buccaneers are still a better team that most people realize. They actually rank above the Texans in first down rate differential on the season, ranking 12th at +2.14%, while the Texans rank 14th at +1.31%. That gap is more pronounced when you look at recent weeks. While the Buccaneers have been a legitimately tough opponent since their week 7 bye, losing only to the Saints, the Seahawks (in overtime), and the Titans (by 4) and ranking 8th in first down rate differential at +3.73% over that stretch, the Texans have gone the opposite direction, ranking 21st in first down rate differential since week 7 at -1.35%, in large part due to the absence of JJ Watt on defense in recent weeks.

With the Buccaneers missing a pair of dominant wide receivers, I have the Texans slightly ahead in my roster rankings, but the Texans definitely aren’t at full strength either, missing talented middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney in addition to Watt, and my calculated line favors the Buccaneers at home by 2.5 points. Given that, we’re getting significant line value with the Buccaneers as 3-point home underdogs. 

The Buccaneers are also in a better spot as this game is sandwiched between last week’s matchup against the Titans and a rematch next week, a game in which the Texans can clinch the division even if they lose this week. The Texans still have incentive to win this game for seeding purposes, but they might not take the Buccaneers totally seriously this week in a trap game spot. I’m going to bet on the Buccaneers either way, but if we get confirmation that both cornerback Carlton Davis and left tackle Donovan Smith are playing this week, I’ll probably bump this up to a high confidence pick.

Final Update: Both Davis and Smith are playing for the Texans. After looking at other games this week, I’ve decided I’m actually going to bump this up to my Pick of the Week, for lack of another strong option. Much has been made of the Buccaneers missing their dominant wide receiver duo, but quarterback Jameis Winston has independently been playing good football since the bye, as has the Buccaneers’ defense, thanks to the return of Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the improvement of this young secondary. Meanwhile, the Texans are arguably missing their two best defensive players in Watt and McKinney and yet are favored by 3 points on the road. I have these two teams about even and my numbers suggest the Buccaneers are actually the better team, so this line is way off. I’d be surprised if the Buccaneers don’t at least push this week, barring a meltdown performance from Winston.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Houston Texans 27 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) at Detroit Lions (3-9-1)

The Lions’ season has been completely derailed by quarterback Matt Stafford’s back injury, as they’ve lost 5 straight games in his absence to fall to 3-9-1. Stafford was in the middle of one of the best seasons of his career before going down and backups Jeff Driskel and David Blough are among the worst backup quarterbacks in the NFL. The Lions ranked 15th in the NFL in first down rate through 8 games at 36.75%, but they have just a 31.75% first down rate in 5 games without Stafford, which is most equivalent to the 29th ranked Bengals on the season. With a defense that ranks 26th in first down rate allowed on the season at 37.90%, the Lions are one of the worst overall teams in the league. Also without wide receiver Marvin Jones, right tackle Ricky Wagner, and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson this week, the Lions rank just 28th in my roster rankings.

The Buccaneers have their own injury problems though, with dominant wide receiver Mike Evans and starting left tackle Donovan Smith both out for this game. The most concerning injury might be the injury to Jameis Winston’s thumb on his throwing hand. Winston isn’t even listed on the injury report, but he has a small fracture in his thumb and, while he’s not likely to make the injury worse playing through it, there was some question this week whether or not it would limit him, which creates a lot of uncertainty with this game. If Winston is able to play through the injury without problem, this line is about right at Tampa Bay -4.5, as the Buccaneers rank 11th in first down rate differential on the season at +1.68% and are significantly better than the Lions even without Evans and Smith, but the uncertainty with Winston’s injury makes the Lions a safer choice. This is a no confidence pick either way.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +4.5

Confidence: None

Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7)

The Colts are just 6-6 after back-to-back divisional losses to the Texans and Titans, but they could be 8-4 right now if not for missed makeable field goals against the Chargers and Steelers. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 10th in the NFL at +2.25%, which is more in line with an 8-4 record than a 6-6 record. They are changing kickers this week, with ex-49ers and Chargers kicker Chase McLaughlin coming in to replace long-time veteran Adam Vinatieri, who is dealing with an injury and has just a 68.0% field goal percentage and a 78.6% extra point percentage on the season. McLaughlin is 13 on 17 field goals and 15 of 15 on extra points this year and could shore up a spot that’s been an obvious weakness for the Colts this season.

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, have also been better than their record suggests, with a -6 point differential and a +0.84% first down rate differential, but they’re behind the Colts in both metrics. Despite that, this line suggests these two teams are about even, favoring the hometown Buccaneers by a field goal. With that in mind, we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visiting Colts at +3, but not nearly enough to bet on them confidently. My calculated line is Tampa Bay -1.5 and I do still expect the Buccaneers to win straight up, though it is close to a toss up.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Indianapolis Colts 26

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +3

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-7)

Both of these teams enter this game at 4-7, but the Buccaneers have definitely been the more impressive team this season. Despite playing in a tougher conference and facing a tougher schedule (13th in opponent’s DVOA vs. 22nd), the Buccaneers have a significantly better point differential (-23 vs -55). In first down rate differential, the difference is even more pronounced, as the Jaguars rank 28th in first down rate differential at -5.27%, while the Buccaneers rank 16th at +0.34%. The Buccaneers have been killed by the turnover margin (-10), while the Jaguars are even on the season, but turnover margin is highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. The Jaguars, who have trouble winning games even with a neutral turnover margin, would have a very tough time winning this game if they lost the turnover battle. 

The Jaguars have been even worse in recent weeks, with the worst first down rate differential in the league over the past 6 weeks at -8.44%, coinciding with their trade of Jalen Ramsey to the Rams. With Ramsey gone and both Marcell Dareus and Myles Jack currently injured, the Jaguars have just 3 players left from their top-11 in terms of snaps played from their dominant 2017 defense. With so many key defensive players no longer playing for them and a weak offense, I have the Jaguars 28th in my roster rankings, 8 spots behind the Buccaneers.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost a ton of line value with the Buccaneers in the past week. As a result of the Jaguars’ blowout home loss to the Titans last week and the Buccaneers double digit win in Atlanta, this line has shifted a whole 6 points in the past week, going from Jacksonville -3.5 on the early line last week to Tampa Bay -2.5 this week. Normally I like fading significant week-to-week line movements like that, but I actually have this line calculated at Tampa Bay -3, so we’re still getting a little bit of line value with the Buccaneers. It’s not enough to bet on, but the most likely outcome of this game is the Buccaneers winning by a field goal, so I’d take them for pick ‘em purposes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Jacksonville Jaguars 27

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -2.5

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7) at Atlanta Falcons (3-7)

The Falcons were just 1-7 coming out of their bye week two weeks ago, but they were better than that record suggested, as they ranked 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%. Since the bye, the Falcons have won their past two games as big road underdogs against divisional opponents by scores of 26-9 over the Saints and 29-3 over the Panthers. As a result, they now rank 16th in first down rate differential at +0.83%. 

Unfortunately, we’re not getting much line value with the Falcons anymore, especially against a Buccaneers team that is also better than their 3-7 record (18th in first down rate differential at -0.65%). Now favored by 4, the Falcons were favored by 2.5 on the early line a week ago and prior to the New Orleans game I imagine this line would have been around even. Considering 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer, including 1 out of 6 by exactly a field goal, that’s a pretty significant shift. I have this line calculated at Atlanta -4.5, so we’re not getting any real line value with the Falcons.

With that in mind, I like the Buccaneers a little bit this week, since they’re in a much better spot. While the Buccaneers have a non-conference game on deck against the last place Jaguars, the Falcons have another game against the Saints, this time in Atlanta on Thanksgiving on a short week. Favorites only cover at about a 44% rate before Thursday Night Football and teams are also just 40-71 ATS since 2016 before being home underdogs of 4.5 or more (Atlanta is +5.5 on the early line). There isn’t enough here to bet on the Buccaneers, but they should be the right side.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +4

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (7-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6)

The Saints suffered a shocking home loss to the Falcons as 13.5-point home favorites last week, not just losing but losing by the final score of 26-9 in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 8.57%. The peripheral numbers always suggested the Falcons weren’t as bad as their record, as they entered last week 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, despite being just 1-7, but the idea that they could somewhat easily upset the Saints, previously seen as one of the top teams in the league, was beyond anything even the biggest Falcons’ defender could have imagined.

Even with that loss included, the Saints still look like one of the top teams in the league. They rank “just” 11th in first down rate differential at +2.07%, but that’s because Drew Brees has only played a little bit more than 3 of their 9 games. Their offense has moved the chains at a 38.28% rate with Brees under center (most equivalent to the 9th ranked Packers), as opposed to 34.15% with backup Teddy Bridgewater under center (most equivalent to the 23rd ranked Cardinals), while their defense has been among the best in the league on the season, ranking 6th in first down rate allowed at 33.58%. Their offense has even more room for improvement too, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Drew Brees’ 15 starts last season. They rank second in my roster rankings and, with all Super Bowl contenders having at least one bad loss, they still look very much in Super Bowl contention.

Teams tend to bounce back off of huge upset losses anyway, going 30-18 ATS over the past 30 years after losing as favorites or 13 or more. The Saints have typically bounced back off of a loss with Drew Brees under center as well, going 47-31 ATS after a loss with Brees since he arrived in 2006. I wish we were getting more line value as a result as the Saints’ loss and the absence of Saints top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, as this line didn’t move at all from last week to this week, but I have this line calculated at New Orleans -8 and I would be surprised if the Saints had back-to-back bad games, so they’re worth a bet as long as this line remains below 6.

New Orleans Saints 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: Medium