Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl LV Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (16-2) in Super Bowl LV

Tom Brady will be appearing in his 10th ever Super Bowl in Super Bowl 55, an incredible number that is double the next highest total and that is more than all of Brady’s Hall-of-Fame contemporaries combined. This one will be unique from all the others because he’ll be doing it with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in his first season with the team after two record breaking decades in New England. Brady is being given most of the credit, understandable if you just pay attention to team’s records, as the Buccaneers improved from 7 wins to 11 wins and a Super Bowl appearance, while New England fell from 12 wins to out of the playoffs with 7 wins, after Brady had made the post-season in 16 straight healthy seasons in New England. 

However, that is far from the whole story and ignores the reasons why Brady headed south in the first place. The Patriots won 12 games last year, but Brady and the offense weren’t the primary reason they won those games, as the Patriots had a dominant defense, but an offensive supporting cast that left a lot to be desired, especially in the receiving corps and especially down the stretch as injuries mounted. The Patriots’ defense led the league in first down rate allowed by a mile, but their offense ranked just 21st in first down rate, their lowest finish since before Brady arrived.

The Patriots didn’t make any major upgrades to their receiving corps last off-season, so it’s likely the Patriots’ 2020 offense would have resembled their 2019 offense if they had kept Brady, rather than the 2020 Buccaneers’ offense, which has a much better receiving corps. That still would have been enough for the Patriots to make the post-season had their defense continued playing at a high level like in 2019, but the Patriots’ defense is where they had by far their biggest dropoff from 2019 to 2020, finishing the 2020 season ranked 23rd in first down rate allowed. 

Given how much their defense fell off, it’s very likely the Patriots would not have made the playoffs even if they had kept Brady and, by some metrics, the Patriots were better offensively in 2020 with Cam Newton leading a run based attack than they were in 2019 when they relied primarily on an ineffective aerial attack with Brady throwing to arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. The 2019 Patriots ran a league leading 1,126 plays because their defense kept getting them the ball back so often, 115 more plays than they ran in 2020, but the 2019 Patriots only managed 6 more first downs than the 2020 Patriots and they averaged fewer yards per play as well, 5.3 vs. 5.2. 

The Patriots have gotten a lot of criticism for not bringing back Brady, but that would have required at least matching a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar contract for a 43-44 year old quarterback who might not have even gotten them back to the post-season in the first year of the deal. For a team that needs to rebuild and reload, that kind of contract could have set them back a year or two. The contract obviously has worked out for the Buccaneers, but it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges, because the Buccaneers are built to win now much more than the Patriots and were right to be aggressive to try to capitalize on that.

Brady, of course, likely recognized the two teams were heading into opposite directions, which is why he made the decision he did. For all the talk about how Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl because of what he did as a player this season, what Brady did this off-season as a scout probably has more to do with him being back here than anything. The Buccaneers were not widely discussed as a potential destination for Brady last off-season, but I put them at the top of my list for Brady last February and, while I wasn’t expecting Brady to actually leave New England, it was easy for me to see why he picked the Buccaneers when he picked them. 

The Buccaneers won just 7 games in 2019, but they finished 9th in first down rate differential, suggesting they were better than their record. They also had a massive need at quarterback after years of subpar play from Jameis Winston, they were well coached, going into the second season of the Bruce Arians regime, and they got a lot better down the stretch in 2019, particularly on defense, leading to the Buccaneers winning 6 of their last 9 games, with the exceptions being a loss to the division leading Saints and two losses by less than a score in games in which Winston threw at least one pick six. Tampa Bay’s loaded receiving corps was the main draw, but this was a talented roster overall, beyond their pass catchers and, after Brady brought his friends Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski along for the ride, Tampa Bay suddenly became legitimate contenders.

Brady, for his part, played at an above average level and was obviously a massive upgrade over the backup caliber Jameis Winston, but Brady is not the same player he was in his prime or even a few years ago when he could single handedly elevate a team with an underwhelming supporting cast to the league’s highest stage, likely part of the reason why Brady looked for a better football situation to spend the twilight of his career last off-season. Focusing too much on Brady overlooks the talented players and coaches (including defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) that the Buccaneers have throughout their roster and throughout their staff, which is a huge part of the reason why the Buccaneers are where they are.

For Brady, being in the Super Bowl is nothing new, but what is relatively new is that he won’t be favored, with the Buccaneers listed as 3.5 point underdogs. Brady led the historic upset as massive underdogs in his first Super Bowl appearance back in Super Bowl 36, but he’s been favored in each of the past 8, covering in just 3 of them. Brady and the Buccaneers being underdogs has everything to do with the team on the other side, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and have been presumptive Super Bowl favorites all season, having lost just one meaningful game. 

For Mahomes, this is his second straight Super Bowl appearance and, in 3 seasons as the starter, he’s lost just once in the post-season, in 8 appearances. His one loss was to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship, one of four matchups between these two quarterbacks in just the 3 seasons that Mahomes has been the starter. The 4th matchup was earlier this season when the Chiefs won by a field goal in Tampa Bay in a matchup that previewed the Super Bowl, both in matchup and in location, with the Buccaneers being fortunate enough to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. 

The common narrative is that the Chiefs dominated that game and the Buccaneers came back in garbage time, but the Buccaneers’ score to cut it to a field goal came with over four minutes left on the clock and two timeouts left for Tampa Bay, so those were hardly meaningless possessions. A better way to think of that game is that both teams dominated a single quarter (the Chiefs in the 1st jumping out to a 17-0 lead and the Buccaneers in the 4th cutting it from 27-10 to 27-24), but that the Chiefs played slightly better overall. How much better overall may be very slight though, as the Chiefs only won the first down rate battle by just 0.66% and actually had slightly fewer yards per play (7.6 vs. 7.5). 

Winning close games was a big part of the story of the Chiefs’ season this year, as they snuck out 8 of their 14 wins by 6 points or fewer, including several against teams much worse than the Buccaneers. Overall, the Buccaneers actually had the edge in point differential (+137 vs. +111), DVOA (33.7% vs. 25.2%), and schedule adjusted first down rate differential (4.25% vs. 3.36%) on the season and, even though they won 3 fewer games, they had significantly more double digit wins (8 vs. 5). Wins by larger totals tend to be predictive of future winning at a much higher rate than close victories. 

Some ignore that most of the Chiefs wins have been close because the Chiefs have Mahomes and they assume that quarterbacks of his caliber can consistently win close games. Even ignoring the obvious fact that even the most elite quarterbacks couldn’t consistently win 88.9% of their one score games like Mahomes did this season, there isn’t much evidence of elite quarterbacks even consistently winning close games at a significantly higher than average rate. Entering this season, Mahomes was just 9-8 in one score games in his career, as dominant as he was in his first two seasons in the league. In fact, the only quarterback who has seemed to be able to consistently win close games is the quarterback on the other sideline, who is a remarkable 94-44 in his career in one score games. 

In addition to his dominance in one score games, Brady has somehow been even more dominant in tough games like this. Not only is Brady 33-11 in the post-season, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 56-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 44-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 42-13 straight up record in those games. 

As an underdog, Brady is 28-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 21 of 30 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 4-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including their 3-point loss as 3.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs earlier this season and their wins over the Saints and Packers in their past two games. 

It will take a lot more than just Tom Brady to win this game, but the Buccaneers have it, with arguably the most well-rounded roster in the league and a better overall team than the Chiefs, who may have the passing game stars, but have questions on defense and on the offensive line, particularly with the Chiefs now being without both of their starting offensive tackles, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who are one of the best duos in the league when healthy. This offensive line was already not the same since losing Schwartz in week 8, a 11-game stretch in which they’ve won by more than 6 points just twice and Fisher going down in the Chiefs’ last game in the AFC Championship makes things much worse. 

The Chiefs have done a good job of rebuilding their offensive line on the fly this season, but they figure to be overmatched against a tough Tampa Bay front. I like the Buccaneers to pull the upset straight up and, even if they can’t, they should be able to keep it close, especially in what will be something of a home game for the Buccaneers. About 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer and the Chiefs haven’t blown out most of their opponents this season. The Buccaneers seem like a relatively safe bet against the spread and a great value on the money line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers: 2020 NFC Championship Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-3)

The Packers led the NFL in points per game this season, but in terms of first down rate over expected, the Packers ranked “just” 4th at +2.48%. The reason I prefer first down rate as a stat is because it treats all snaps the same and minimizes the impact of outlier plays and of teams being good in unsustainable ways. With the Packers, the difference is their ridiculous 78.46% red zone conversion percentage, which not only led the league, but set a record. 

The Packers are always going to be good in the red zone with Aaron Rodgers under center, but the Packers were 10%+ better in the red zone this season than any season in the Aaron Rodgers era and teams that overperform in the red zone tend not to keep that up long-term. Even with their ridiculous red zone conversion percentage, the Packers still scored just 8 more points than the Buffalo Bills, even though the Bills ranked just 12th with a 62.50% red zone conversion percentage, so it’s not as if this was some all-time great offense overall.

The Packers still have a better offense than the Buccaneers, who rank 6th in first down rate over expected at +1.90% and are missing talented wide receiver Antonio Brown with injury, but the Buccaneers have the edge on defense, where they rank 6th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.48% and, with stud defensive lineman Vita Vea back from injury for the first time since week 5, the Buccaneers’ defense is healthier than it’s been since the beginning of the season, when they were a dominant unit. 

The Packers aren’t bad on defense and are overall the most complete and talented team left in the playoffs, but there isn’t much separating the final four teams this season and the Buccaneers are my second ranked remaining team, so we’re getting good line value with the Buccaneers as 3.5 point underdogs in Green Bay. The Packers will have the benefit of some fans in the stands in this game at home and, in a playoff atmosphere, the Packers could have something resembling normal home field advantage, but they still shouldn’t be any higher than field goal favorites over the Buccaneers in this game. The difference between 3 and 3.5 might not seem like much, but 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so it’s a very significant half point.

This is also the kind of spot where Tom Brady has done well historically. Not only is Brady 32-11 in the post-season (as opposed to 11-8 for Aaron Rodgers), but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 55-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 43-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 41-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 27-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 20 of 29 games. 

Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 3-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including last week’s win in New Orleans and the Buccaneers’ blowout win over the Packers earlier this season. That lopsided result is an outlier and, like the Buccaneers’ blowout loss to the Saints earlier this season, it’s not a guarantee that the Buccaneers will win this game again, but they should at least keep this game close, so I love getting more than a field goal with them. 

I was hesitant to bet the Buccaneers last week in a similar situation in New Orleans last week, but that was primarily because of the Buccaneers’ struggles against the Saints in two games this season and, even still, I would have bet the Buccaneers had they been 3.5-point underdogs like they are this week, rather than the 3-point underdogs they were last season. At +3.5 in Green Bay, I am much more confident in the Buccaneers this week.

Green Bay Packers 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)

This was the toughest call of the week for me and the only one of the four games I didn’t lock in with a bet earlier this week. There is a lot of history that suggests Tom Brady and the Buccaneers should have the edge over Drew Brees and the Saints. Not only does Brady have the obvious edge in post-season success, 31-11 with 9 Super Bowl appearances vs. 9-8 with 1 appearance, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win.

Overall in his career, Brady is 54-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 42-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 40-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 22-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 19 of 28 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers did go 2-1 ATS as underdogs this year.

That one loss was week 1 against the Saints in New Orleans, when the Saints won 34-23 as 3.5-point favorites, but that was the Buccaneers’ first game of the season and they actually won the first down rate battle by +6.31%, with the Saints largely winning because of a +3 turnover margin and a return touchdown, which is not predictive week-to-week. The Saints beat the Buccaneers more convincingly week 9, winning the game 38-3 and the first down rate battle by +9.96%, but that game looks like an outlier for two teams that were largely equal this season overall, with the Saints ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.59% and the Buccaneers ranking 3rd at +4.45%. 

All that being said, we’re not getting the line value needed to bet the Buccaneers confidently, especially with Tom Brady now being 43 and away from New England, facing off with a team that has played him well this season. The Buccaneers are only field goal underdogs, which is exactly where I have them calculated, with the Saints having slight homefield advantage with some fans in the stands and having a slight edge on the field as well. Even though these two teams were about even this season, the Saints did that at much less than 100% throughout due to injury. 

Brees (4 games missed), feature back Alvin Kamara (1 game), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games), Trey Hendrickson (1 game), and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (3 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), among other minor players, all missed time with injury this season and are expected to play this week. 

The Saints entered the season atop my roster rankings and are only slightly behind the Packers right now, ahead about 1.5 points ahead of the Buccaneers. I’m taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes purely because of Brady’s history in these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t bet them at this number. If the line moves off of 3, I would reconsider, as a field goal Saints win is probably the most likely outcome of this game, but this is a low confidence pick for now.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Washington Football Team (7-9)

The Washington Football Team has made the post-season at 7-9, just the third time in NFL history a team with a losing record has made the playoffs. Washington’s record and the fact that they only qualified for the playoffs because they’re in a terrible division in the NFC East has caused them to be seen as an illegitimate playoff team by some, but Washington actually could have had 9 or 10 wins fairly easily, as their went 0-3 in games decided by 3 points or fewer, including a pair of games against the Giants in which they lost by 4 points combined, despite winning the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, as a result of a combined -6 turnover margin in those 2 games. 

Turnover margin is highly inconsistent week-to-week and Washington was +2 in turnovers other than those 2 games, so it’s not hard to see how Washington could easily be 9-7 right now (not even including a near victory against Detroit). If Washington was 9-7, I think they would be getting a little bit more respect going into the post-season, especially since they are 5-1 in games started by Alex Smith, with the one loss being that loss to Detroit. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington ranks 10th at +1.57%, which is also in line with roughly a 9-7 team.

Washington is led by their defense, which ranks 3rd in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.36%. That’s somewhat of a concern because defensive play is much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive play and Washington’s offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.79%, but Washington’s offense has been better in recent weeks. Not only because Alex Smith has been their best starting quarterback this season, but also because their offensive line is at full strength and playing at a high level in recent weeks. That helped them stay competitive even in the two games Alex Smith missed with injury down the stretch.

Unfortunately, Smith’s injury situation seems to be getting worse, not better, with Washington looking likely to rotate Smith and Taylor Heinicke at quarterback in this one, to keep Smith fresh. Heinicke even took most of the first team reps in practice on Thursday, though Smith is still expected to be able to go in a limited capacity. Heinicke is probably better than either Kyle Allen or Dwayne Haskins, Washington’s other quarterbacks besides Smith this season, and Washington’s offensive line should be a big help for him, but, of further concern, their feature back Antonio Gibson and top wide receiver Terry McLaurin are also playing at less than 100% through injuries, though they’re both in better shape than Smith. The injury uncertainty of their three most important offensive skill position players makes it tough to be confident in Washington.

What also makes it tough to be confident in Washington is that their opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are legitimately one of the best teams in the league and, while they might not quite justify being 8-point favorites over a capable Washington team, they come close to it, so we’re not getting the kind of line value with Washington that we could need to bet them in their current injury situation. Like Washington was better than their 7-9 record, Tampa Bay was also better than their 11-5 record, as their 5 losses all came against playoff qualifiers, including 3 losses by 3 points or fewer. 

Overall, Tampa Bay finished 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.46% and they were one of just two teams in the league (New Orleans) to finish in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them early in the season and, though they had some expected regression on that side of the ball, they still finished 5th at -2.77%, while their offense improved as the season went on and Tom Brady got more familiarity in this offense and more consistency from his receiving corps, leading to them finishing 9th at +1.69%. My roster rankings also support the Buccaneers being seen as a top contender, ranking Tampa Bay 3rd among playoff qualifiers. We’re still getting some line value with Washington (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -6.5, with Washington’s injury uncertainty factored in), but not nearly enough to be confident in them in their current injury situation.

Update: Smith has been ruled out and this line has jumped to 10 in response. I don’t think Heinicke is a big downgrade from a banged up Smith and he’s played better than all of Washington’s other non-Alex Smith quarterbacks, so I like Washington against the spread little more at the new line, though not nearly enough to bet on them.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Washington Football Team 16

Pick against the spread: Washington +10

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-11) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-5)

With the playoffs around the corner, the Buccaneers are one of the most balanced teams in the league, joining division rival New Orleans as the only two teams in the league to rank in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them in the early part of the season and, even as they suffered some predictable regression, they still rank 4th in the league in first down rate allowed over expected on the season at -3.06%, while their offense more than made up for any decline on defense, improving significantly as the season went on, with players like Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown being integrated into the offense after missing time earlier in the season, leading to them ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.26%. 

Overall, the Buccaneers rank 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.33% and don’t have any glaring weaknesses as they prepare for what they hope will be a long playoff run. Their defense might not be quite as good this week, with talented cornerback Carlton Davis, starting linebacker Devin White, top edge defender Shaq Barrett, and rotational defensive lineman Steve McLendon joining long-term injured Vita Vea (out since week 5) on the sidelines this week, giving the Buccaneers their thinnest defense of any week this season, but they still rank 5th in my roster rankings, even with those key absences.

This line is lower than I would have expected, shifting from Tampa Bay -7 last week on the early line to Tampa Bay -6.5 this week, even with the Buccaneers playing probably their best game of the season last week in a 47-7 win in Detroit. Tampa Bay isn’t at full strength and the Falcons played a close game with the Chiefs last week, but the Chiefs haven’t won by more than a single score in a couple months, even against inferior teams like the Panthers, Raiders, and Broncos, and it’s rare to see a line drop even a little bit when a team plays as well as the Buccaneers did last week.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to be betting on the Buccaneers though, as the Falcons play a lot of close games (eight one-score losses, including a 31-27 loss to the Buccaneers in week 15) and have overall been much better than their 4-11 record, with a -1 point differential and an 18th ranked -0.30% schedule adjusted first down rate differential. My calculated line is still Tampa Bay -8, but the Falcons are also in a better spot, as road underdogs against a team divisional opponent who beat them earlier this season. 

Teams cover at a 54.8% rate as road underdogs in a regular season rematch against a divisional opponent who beat them earlier in the season, as it tends to be tough to bring your best effort against an underdog who you’ve already beaten once. I’m still taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes, but it’s hard to be confident in them at all if they’re not getting significant line value in a bad spot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Atlanta Falcons 24

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -6.5

Confidence: None

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) at Detroit Lions (5-9)

The Buccaneers’ 9-5 record doesn’t jump off the page, but they’ve been one of the better teams in the league this season. They’ve faced one of the toughest schedules in the league, with their five losses coming against opponents who are a combined 49-21. On top of that, three of those losses came by 3 points or fewer, as opposed to just one win all season by 3 points or fewer. In total, the Buccaneers are 8-2 in games decided by more than a field goal. They rank 6th in point differential at +80, despite a tough schedule, and, in terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they rank 2nd at +3.75%.

That’s more or less where the Buccaneers have ranked all season, but how they’ve been successful has shifted. Earlier in the year, they were very reliant on their defense, which ranked first in first down rate allowed over expected for most of the early part of the season, but dominant defenses tend to regress to the mean as the season goes on, especially as injuries pile up. 

The Buccaneers have not been an exception and they are missing key players like defensive tackle Vita Vea and cornerback Carlton Davis, but they have made up for their declining defense by improving on offense, as Tom Brady has gotten more comfort in this offense, with wide receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown being integrated after missing significant time earlier this season due to injury and suspension respectively. 

In addition to ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they are also the only team in the league to currently be in the top-10 on both sides of the ball (9th on offense and 4th on defense). They could continue regressing defensively going forward, but their offense should be able to continue compensating. My roster rankings also back them up as a top level team, as they rank 3rd currently, so I would expect them to continue to play at a high level going forward.

The Buccaneers’ schedule gets a lot easier this week in Detroit, as not only are the Lions 5-9, but they’re far from full strength. The Lions have been one of the most injury plagued teams in the league in recent weeks, missing key players on both sides of the ball, but, beyond that, they will also be without interim head coach Darrell Bevell due to COVID protocols, so they will essentially have a head coach by committee this week. 

The Lions rank 28th in my roster rankings and would plummet to dead last without quarterback Matt Stafford, who will play through rib and hand injuries, but is a candidate for an in-game setback that would cause him to be pulled for backup Chase Daniel, who would be a massive downgrade even from a less than 100% Stafford. This is only a low confidence pick on the Buccaneers for now because this line is pretty high at 9.5, but, depending on the status of several questionable players for the Lions (left tackle Taylor Decker, center Frank Ragnow, and linebacker Jamie Collins), I may end up placing a bet on Tampa Bay. The gap between these two teams is massive.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -9.5

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) at Atlanta Falcons (4-9)

The Falcons are just 4-9, but they’ve been competitive in most of their games, losing just three times by more than one score and losing three games in which they had a 95% chance of winning late. None of their losses have been decided by more than 15 points, while two of their wins have featured margins of victory larger than 15. They have a positive point differential at +6 and, despite a relatively easy schedule overall, they still rank 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.70%. 

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, rank 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate at +3.99%, but they’ve been slipping a little in recent weeks. They’re led by their defense, which ranks 5th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.99%, but defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance and their defense hasn’t been as good recently as it was earlier in the season.

That was expected, but I would have also expected to see their offense improve as their defense declined, as Tom Brady got more familiarity in this system and with his new receiving corps, particularly Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, who missed significant time earlier this season with injury and suspension respectively. That hasn’t happened though, in part because Brady seems to be slowing down at age 43. We’re not getting much line value with the Falcons (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -5.5), but they’re the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Atlanta Falcons 19

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +6

Confidence: None

Minnesota Vikings at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5)

The Vikings have jumped to 6-6 after their 1-5 start, but I still think they’re a little underrated, as a lot of the metrics that suggested they’d be better after their 1-5 start still suggest they can be better going forward. They have a net -18.2% fourth down conversion rate, a 38.71% fumble recovery rate (30th in the NFL), a 3.31% interception rate (28th in the NFL) that is nearly double quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average from the past 5 seasons (1.90%), and -4 return touchdown margin, all metrics that tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which is a much more consistent metric, the Vikings rank 8th in at +2.13%, and, while their defense will have a big absence this week with top linebacker Eric Kendricks injured, they still rank a respectable 13th in my roster rankings, suggesting that, even without one of their best defensive players, the Vikings still are a little better than their .500 record.

The Buccaneers also have been better statistically than their record would suggest, ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.33%. They’re “just” 7-5, but three of their five losses came by one score or less and four of their five losses came against other teams in the top-4 in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (The Saints twice, the Chiefs, and the Rams). However, they have been led by their defense more than the Vikings, which is a concern because defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance. 

The Buccaneers’ defense, which ranks 5th in first down rate allowed over expected at -3.25%, has somewhat covered for an offense that has been inconsistent and ranks 11th in first down rate over expected at +1.08%, but their defense might not be able to do that going forward, not just due to the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance, but also because the injuries are starting to pile up, with talented starting cornerback Jamel Dean joining stud defensive tackle Vita Vea on the sidelines. The Vikings, meanwhile, rank 7th in first down rate over expected at +1.76%, so they’ve been the more efficient of these two offenses this season. 

The Buccaneers’ offense has the talent to be a lot better offensively than they’ve been, but they’ve underachieved thus far, in large part due to the fact that quarterback Tom Brady seems to be slowing down after all these years. He’s still a capable quarterback, even at age 43, but if you look at his performance over the past three seasons, you can see a steady decline and he should be producing a lot more with the talent he has around him in this offense. 

Given all of this, there are reasons to be tempted to bet the Vikings, as we’re getting seven points with a team who has statistically been more efficient on offense this season, but I’m going to keep this as a low confidence pick only because of the chance that Tom Brady and this offense live up to their potential, at least for a week, as they’ll be rested coming out of their bye week, which also likely gave them some extra time to build needed chemistry on this offense. 

With the bye included, the Buccaneers haven’t won a game in close to a calendar month (November 15th) and Tom Brady’s history off of a loss (46-22 ATS) is well noted at this point, so he should be as fully focused as possible. That doesn’t matter if Brady continues to be far from the quarterback he used to be, especially against an underrated Vikings team, and he hasn’t been as good at covering the spread after a loss when he’s favored by this many points, but the possibility that this offense has their best week of the season after a bye against a defense missing it’s top linebacker is enough for me to keep this as just a low confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 Minnesota Vikings 23

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)

The Buccaneers lost at home to the Rams on Monday Night Football last week and the general opinion seems to be that the sky is falling in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers were already home field goal underdogs against the Chiefs on the early line last week, but their loss to the Rams has pushed this line to 3.5, which is significant, given that 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, including 1 in 6 games by exactly a field goal.

That seems to be an overreaction, as the Buccaneers were in a terrible spot last week and still were competitive with a Rams team that is a borderline Super Bowl contender. The Buccaneers were in a look ahead spot ahead of this huge game against the Chiefs and were also an east coast team playing a west coast team at night, which is a very tough spot. I expect much better focus and effort this week from a Buccaneers team that is still one of the top teams in the league.

The Buccaneers’ defense hasn’t been quite as good since losing Vita Vea for the season and they’ll also be without starting cornerback Jamel Dean for the first time this season this week, but they’re still one of the best defenses in the league, while their offense has improved since getting Chris Godwin (4 games missed to injury) and Antonio Brown (8 games missed to suspended) into the mix. Overall, they still rank first in the NFL in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +5.13%, with three of their four losses coming to fellow top-3 ranked teams (Saints x2 and Rams), and they rank 3rd in my roster rankings as well.

The Buccaneers could be without left tackle Donovan Smith this week due to injury, but that isn’t a big deal because they can slide talented rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs to the left side and because they are likely getting back guard Ali Marpet from a 3-game absence and he’s a higher caliber offensive lineman. Tom Brady isn’t playing quite as well as he did in his prime, but he’s playing well enough and has enough talent around him for this to be a high level team. They shouldn’t be 3.5-point home underdogs against anyone, even against another high level team like the Chiefs.

Speaking of Brady, I would especially expect a much better performance from him this week, as this is the kind of spot where he has always played his best historically. His record off of a loss is famous at this point, but his ATS record off of a loss is even more incredible at 45-22 ATS and that becomes 21-3 ATS if you look only at instances where Brady is an underdog or favorite of fewer than 3 points, which is the case here. Brady is also a ridiculous 39-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including 28-9 ATS in week 5 or later (when records are more likely to be indicative of talent level). 

Those numbers were primarily accumulated in New England with Bill Belichick and Brady is now in his age 43 season, but it stands to reason that Brady still will be at his best when his back is up against the wall (he’s 3-0 ATS off a loss this season and 1-0 ATS against a team with a better record), even if that best isn’t quite what it was in his prime. I would expect this to be a close game either way, even if the Buccaneers can’t pull the upset, so I love getting +3.5. I locked this at +3.5 earlier this week, but that number is still available as the sharps haven’t pounded this game like I expected they would, so you can still get this number if you missed it. This is my Pick of the Week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 33 Kansas City Chiefs 31 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (6-3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3)

These two teams have some big similarities. Both teams rank highly in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, as the Buccaneers rank first at +5.13%, while the Rams rank second at +4.87%. Both teams have been better defensively than on offense, ranking 2nd and 5th respectively in first down rate over expected and 12th and 11th respectively in first down rate allowed over expected. Both teams are also missing their best offensive lineman, left tackle Andrew Whitworth for the Rams and left guard Ali Marpet for the Buccaneers.

The big edge the Buccaneers have is their offensive has much more upside than the Rams’ offense. Marpet’s absence hurts, but they have top wide receiver Chris Godwin back healthy after missing 4 games earlier this season and they have also added fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown into the mix after he missed the first 8 games of the season with suspension. Overall, the Buccaneers have a 2.5 point edge in my roster rankings as a result of their offensive upside. Given that, this line favoring the Buccaneers by 4 points in Tampa Bay, where they will have the benefit of at least some fans, is pretty reasonable.

That being said, there are two key reasons why I like the Rams for a small play this week. For one, they have a big advantage as a west coast team playing an east coast team in a night game. Due to circadian rhythms, west coast teams cover at about a 60% rate against east coast teams at night, as east coast teams tend to get tired towards the end of the game and see their performance fall off in the second half.

On top of that, the Rams are in a great spot, as they only have a home game against the banged up 49ers on deck, while the Buccaneers have a matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Underdogs are 89-41 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those factors should be true here. If Tom Brady and company are looking ahead to facing Pat Mahomes and company, the Rams could easily give the Buccaneers a game or even pull the upset, especially when you consider the circadian rhythms as well. About 30% of games are decided by 4 points or less (and 25% by 3 points or less), so I like the Rams as underdogs of more than an underdog, especially at +4, even if we’re not getting great line value overall.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Los Angeles Rams 22

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +4

Confidence: Medium