Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)

I’ve been high on the Chargers all year and, with the Bears eliminated, the Chargers now rank 1st among remaining playoff teams on the season in first down rate differential at +5.24%. Since week 10, they rank 3rd at +6.04%. Making this even more impressive is the fact that they have next to no homefield advantage in Los Angeles, where they struggle to attract home fans, even when playing well. Outside of Los Angeles, they are a perfect 9-0, covering the spread in 8 of 9 games and winning by an average of 9.11 points per game. That is a trend that actually dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 37-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have been pretty underwhelming statistically for a playoff team. They have a +2.67% first down rate differential on the season, 2nd worst among remaining playoff teams, and they didn’t go on their normal late season run this year either, with a +2.68% first down rate differential since week 10, 4th worst among remaining playoff teams. That being said, I’m hesitant to bet too heavily against the Patriots, who are not a team I want to underestimate in the playoffs, even with them giving 4 points to a Chargers team that has been statistically better almost across the board this season.

This is still a talented Patriots roster, one that has underachieved for stretches of the season, but also has shown signs of dominance, with 8 double digit wins and a 4-0 record against playoff qualifiers. If Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski can be healthier off of a bye, this is still a very scary team, especially at home, where they are undefeated this season with an average margin of victory of 16.25 points per game.

Normally home/road disparities are random more than anything (for example the Patriots were 14-1 on the road in 2016-17 before going 3-5 this season), but the Patriots have been dominant at home for close to two decades, going 140-26 since 2001, including 112-18 against the AFC. On top of that, they are a ridiculous 36-12 against teams with a better record than them with Tom Brady under center and they should be more than up to the challenge of taking on an elite Chargers team. Four points isn’t a huge cushion, but I do want to put a small bet on the Chargers, even though I do ultimately expect the Patriots to pull out the victory.

New England Patriots 24 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +4

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens: 2018 AFC Wild Card Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

The Ravens beat the Chargers in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, but I’d be wary of extrapolating that result to this game, as that was just one game in a 16-game season. Just because a team wins a matchup in the regular season doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily win again in the post-season. Teams are 55-38 in the post-season over the past 30 seasons against non-divisional opponents who they previously beat in the regular season, but they are just 39-54 ATS. I know that Ravens/Chargers game was just a few weeks ago, but when you cut the sample size down to teams that previously won in a game week 12 or later, the numbers are even less in the Ravens’ favor, as those teams actually have a losing record at 16-18 in the playoff rematch and are just 12-22 ATS.

That isn’t evidence enough that the Chargers will win this rematch, but they were the significantly better team this season, ranking 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.86%, while the Ravens ranked 10th at +2.95%, so I like the Chargers’ chances of prevailing here. The Ravens have notably been 6-1 since making the swap from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson under center during their week 10 bye, but they actually rank just 14th in first down rate differential since week 10 at 1.31%.

The Ravens’ defense remained dominant, but their offense has actually dropped from a 36.46% first down rate with Joe Flacco to 34.48% with Jackson. Their record is impressive, but they played a relatively easy schedule (5 of 7 games against teams with a losing record), won several games by a touchdown or less, and needed return touchdowns to push the margin of victory higher in the few games that did not have a close final score. For comparison, the Chargers rank 2nd in first down rate differential since week 10, at +6.87%.

This game is in Baltimore, while the first matchup was in Los Angeles, but that barely matters to the Chargers, who have remarkably gone 12-4 despite not having any homefield advantage in Los Angeles. They’ve been a dominant team outside of LA, going 8-0 (7-1 ATS) with an average margin of victory of 9.50 points per game. That is a trend that dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 36-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

The Ravens are also at a disadvantage with a first time starting quarterback. Quarterbacks tend not to cover in their first career post-season start, especially at home, where they are 6-18 ATS since 2002 unless they’re playing another first time starter, which is not the case this week with the veteran Philip Rivers going into his 10th career playoff start. I’d bet on the Chargers this week at +2.5, but +3 is available is some places and I’d much prefer to have protection against a Baltimore win by a field goal, even if I have to pay higher juice. Either way, I like the Chargers to win this game straight up.

Los Angeles Chargers 20 Baltimore Ravens 16 Upset Pick +125

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (11-4) at Denver Broncos (6-9)

The Broncos have had a tough year. They started the season with the toughest schedule in the league through 11 games, going 5-6, with close losses to the Texans, Rams, and Chiefs (twice) and wins over the Chargers, Steelers, and Seahawks. The schedule has gotten easier recently, but they’re not the same team as they were earlier in the season, with key players like right guard Ron Leary, center Matt Paradis, cornerback Chris Harris, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders on injured reserve and fellow wide receiver Demaryius Thomas traded to the Texans. As a result, they’ve lost 3 of 4, most recently losing in Oakland to the last place Raiders.

Now the Broncos end the season with another hard game, with the Chargers coming to town. The Broncos did beat the Chargers earlier this season in Los Angeles, but they had both Sanders and Harris healthy in that game, and the Chargers still won the first down rate battle by 2.35%, despite not playing their best game. The Chargers also have basically no homefield advantage in Los Angeles and played that game in front of primarily Broncos fans, so the Broncos pulling off the road upset is not as impressive as that suggests.

While the Chargers have had issues at home this season, they’ve been great away from Los Angeles, going 7-0 (6-1 ATS) with an average margin of victory of 8.86 points per game, including upset wins over the Steelers, Chiefs, and Seahawks. That is a trend that dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 35-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012. We’ve lost line value with the Chargers since last week, with this line shifting from 4.5 on the early line to 6 this week, as a result of the Broncos’ loss in Oakland, but the Chargers should still be the right side for pick ‘em purposes, as I have this line calculated at Chargers -7.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -6

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (8-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (11-3)

Rookie starting quarterback Lamar Jackson will make his 6th career start this week, even with Joe Flacco back healthy. Jackson is 4-1, with his only loss coming in overtime in Kansas City, but he’s faced a ridiculous easy schedule of defenses so far, with the Raiders, Bengals, Falcons, Chiefs, and Buccaneers all ranking 24th or worse in first down rate allowed and the Bengals, Falcons, Chiefs, and Buccaneers all ranking in the bottom-4 in first down rate allowed. Despite that, the Ravens have actually moved the ball worse in Jackson’s 5 starts, picking up first downs at a 35.54% rate, as opposed to 36.46% in Flacco’s 9 starts. That’s not a significant difference, but it’s fair to say that the Ravens offense probably would have had more success in recent weeks with Flacco under center, even as good as the Ravens’ record has been.

Jackson’s schedule gets a lot tougher this week in Los Angeles, as the Chargers rank 15th in first down rate allowed at 36.48%. The Chargers are weak against the run and strong against the pass, so this could be a good matchup for Jackson, but the Chargers also have a strong offense that likely will force the Ravens to throw the ball more than they’d like in order to keep up. Considering Jackson has completed just 58.9% of his passes against an easy slate of defenses, that doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. The Chargers are by far the most well-rounded team the Ravens have faced since Jackson became the starter and I have them about 4-4.5 point better in my roster rankings right now.

The Ravens are also in a tough spot playing a night game against a west coast team, a situation east coast teams have historically struggled in, due to differing internal time cycles. In fact, in games between west coast and east coast teams at night, the west coast team covers about 65% of the time. That should be partially offset by the Chargers’ lack of homefield advantage in Los Angeles. Much like the Eagles/Rams game last week, the crowd should be full of visiting fans, as both Los Angeles teams have had trouble drawing home fans, even as well as both teams are playing. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Ravens are going to pull the upset like the Eagles did, but it’s enough to scare me off of betting the Chargers as 4.5-point favorites, even though we’re getting line value with the team that’s in the better spot.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Baltimore Ravens 17

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -4.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (10-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-2)

These two teams met all the way back in week 1, with the Chiefs winning 38-28 in Los Angeles. That game swung on a few plays though, despite it being a 10-point game, as the Chargers turned the ball over twice and allowed a punt return touchdown (still the Chiefs’ only special teams touchdown of the season). The Chargers actually won the first down rate battle by 6.83%, picking up a first down or touchdown on 48.65% of offensive plays, as opposed to 41.92% for the Chiefs.

They could easily do so again this week and, if they do, they have a good chance to pull the upset. This game is in Kansas City, but the atmosphere won’t be much different, as Chiefs fans filled the Chargers’ stadium week 1, as most visiting fanbases do. Lacking homefield advantage in Los Angeles, the Chargers are 6-0 straight up (5-1 ATS) with an average margin of victory of 10.2 points per game in 6 games outside of Los Angeles this season. That is a trend that dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 34-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

Divisional road underdogs typically do well in this spot anyway, as teams are 70-43 ATS since 2002 as divisional road underdogs against a team that previously beat them as home favorites earlier in the season. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are in a terrible spot on a short week after going to overtime with the Ravens last week. Understandably teams are just 6-26 ATS on a short week on a Thursday night after an overtime game in the past 30 years.

I considered making this my Pick of the Week, but didn’t for a couple reasons. One is injury uncertainty. The Chiefs are pretty banged up on offense, missing left guard Cam Erving, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and running back Spencer Ware, who is only starting because Kareem Hunt got kicked off the team, but their defense could be getting a big boost with Eric Berry returning from injury. I say “could” because it’s tough to know what kind of shape he’s going to be in for his first game in 15 months, after missing 28 straight games over the past 2 seasons with injury. He may not even play full snaps this week. On top of that, #1 receiver Tyreek Hill barely practiced this week with a foot injury.

The Chargers, meanwhile, might be getting star running back Melvin Gordon back from injury, but if he’s out again, they’ll also be down to their 3rd string running back. They have some injuries on defense as well, with cornerback Trevor Williams, defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget, and middle linebacker Denzel Perryman all on the sidelines, but they’ve also gotten stud defensive end Joey Bosa back recently, giving them a dominant duo of Melvin Ingram and Bosa at defensive end, which has masked some of their issues at other positions like defensive tackle and linebacker. Their secondary is also playing at a high level, led by #1 cornerback Casey Hayward, dominant slot cornerback Desmond King, and stud rookie safety Derwin James.

The second reason I didn’t want to make this my Pick of the Week is the Chargers’ recent track record against the Chiefs. I normally don’t make too much of a team “having another team’s number” because the NFL changes so much and there usually isn’t a large enough sample size to make that claim, but the Chiefs have had the same head coach and defensive coordinator since 2013 and Philip Rivers is 2-9 against them, with 9 straight losses. That being said, he could easily exorcise those demons this week against a banged up Chiefs team that’s going to be exhausted on a short week and I like getting more than a field goal if the Chargers can’t pull the upset.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Kansas City Chiefs 23 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3.5

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals at Los Angeles Chargers: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (5-7) at Los Angeles Chargers (9-3)

The Chargers have an easy opponent this week, facing a Bengals team that has lost 6 of their last 7 and that is incredibly banged up on both sides of the ball, with starting quarterback Andy Dalton, #1 wide receiver AJ Green, starting tight end Tyler Eifert, starting left tackle Cordy Glenn, key edge rusher Carl Lawson, every down linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick all on the sidelines with various injuries. However, despite the easy opponent, the Chargers are in a very tough spot, having to play their biggest game of the season in 4 days on Thursday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs, a game that could easily decide the AFC West.

Favorites typically struggle before a short week anyway, going 55-73 ATS since 2012, but that should especially be the case in this one, as I can’t imagine the Chargers aren’t spending some time on the Chiefs this week, with such an easy opponent in front of them this week. On the other side, the Bengals are distraction free, with only a home game against the Raiders on deck. Favorites are just 55-92 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs when their opponent will next be favorites. On top of that, favorites of 10+ are just 63-80 ATS since 2002 before being underdogs.

That being said, I can’t be confident in the Bengals at all, given the talent disparity between these two teams. The Chargers are one of the better teams in the league and I have them calculated as 16-point favorites in this one, so we’re actually getting a little bit of line value with them as only 14-point favorites. I’m taking the Bengals for pick ‘em purposes because I expect the Chargers to be flat and not give their best effort, but even still the Chargers could win this game by multiple scores.

Los Angeles Chargers 23 Cincinnati Bengals 10

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +14

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (8-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1)

Both of these teams have had strong seasons, but the Chargers have been a little better. They rank 5th in point differential at +88 and 2nd in first down rate differential at +7.03%, while the Steelers rank 7th in point differential at +67 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.64%. The big difference is the amount of blowout wins the Chargers have gotten, with 6 of their 8 wins coming by at least a touchdown. The Steelers, meanwhile, have just 5 wins by more than a touchdown in their last 20 games, dating back to last season.

The Steelers have had a tougher schedule, with a combined opponents’ record of 49%, as opposed to 44% for the Chargers, but the Chargers schedule has been tougher than that suggests, as they have next to no homefield advantage in Los Angeles. In 5 games away from Los Angeles this season, the Chargers are 5-0 straight up (4-1 ATS) with an average margin of victory of 11.6 points per game.

This is a trend that actually dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 33-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012. The Chargers are also at an advantage as a west coast team playing an east coast team at night. Teams cover at about a 65% rate in that spot all-time, regardless of where the game takes place, as western teams have internal clocks that are more suited for playing at night than eastern teams.

The Chargers have some injuries, with running back Melvin Gordon joining every down linebacker Denzel Perryman and rotational defensive tackles Corey Liuget and Brandon Mebane on the sideline. The loss of Gordon is the biggest one, but the Chargers have good depth at the running back position. They also got stud edge rusher Joey Bosa back from injury a couple weeks ago and with him at full strength that should more than cancel out their other injuries, as he’s one of their best players. The Steelers, meanwhile, get stud defensive end Stephon Tuitt back from injury, but they lose safety Morgan Burnett again and he was noticeably missed when he was out earlier this season.

Despite all of this, this line suggests the Steelers are the better of these two teams, favoring them by more than a field goal at home. Given the Chargers’ slight statistical advantage and the advantage they have playing at night, I think this line should be closer to even, giving us good line value, as about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less. The Chargers are a smart pick against the spread this week and have a decent shot to pull the straight up upset.

Los Angeles Chargers 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 30 Upset Pick +155

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3.5

Confidence: High