Los Angeles Chargers at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (3-7) at Buffalo Bills (7-3)

The Chargers have once again been one of the most injury prone teams in the league. It started when they lost stud safety Derwin James, arguably their top defensive player, for the season with injury before the season even began and over the first half of the season the Chargers lost several other key players. Last week against the Jets was arguably the healthiest they’ve been since the beginning of the season, with key players like stud defensive ends Joey Bosa (2 games missed) and Melvin Ingram (3 games), starting defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games), starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games), #2 wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game), and starting right guard Trai Turner (7 games) all active after missing time earlier this year.

However, that really only lasted a week, as the Chargers have since lost top cornerback Casey Hayward and talented defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Uchenna Nwosu (their top-two edge defenders after Bosa) to injuries. The Chargers could be getting some reinforcements from injured reserve, with starting running back Austin Ekeler and starting cornerback Chris Harris potentially being activated after being designated to return, but, even with those two, the Chargers would still be far from full strength. 

Despite injuries, the Chargers have played reasonably well this season, regardless of what their 3-7 record suggests, as they’ve been within one score in all seven losses, including early leads over top level teams like the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. However, with Ekeler and Harris’ uncertainty factored in, the Chargers still rank just 23rd in my roster rankings. The general public is also pretty aware that the Chargers have been competitive against good teams in their losses and, as a result, the Chargers are just 4.5 point favorites in Buffalo against a 7-3 Bills team, so we’re not getting any line value with them.

In fact, Buffalo -4.5 is my exact calculated line and, without any situational trends that apply to this game, my decision on which side to take for pick ‘em purposes is going to be entirely dependent on the status of Ekeler and Harris. For now, I’m taking the Chargers, but that would change if Ekeler and Harris were ruled out. Either way, I expect this to be a no confidence pick barring a significant change to the spread or some other unexpected circumstance.

Update: Ekeler and Harris are both in, but I’m leaving this as a no confidence pick.

Buffalo Bills 24 Los Angeles Chargers 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +4.5

Confidence: None

New York Jets at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

New York Jets (0-9) at Los Angeles Chargers (2-7)

In 2019, the Chargers were a solid team, but went just 5-11 because of a ridiculous 2-9 record in one score games. That type of thing tends to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, but somehow the Chargers have been even worse in close games this season, going 1-7 in one score games. Rookie starting quarterback Justin Herbert has had even worse luck, as the Chargers one one-score victory came in week 1 in Cincinnati with veteran Tyrod Taylor under center. 

All seven of Herbert’s losses were one score games, even though he’s played a pretty tough schedule in those seven losses, with five of the losses coming against teams that are currently 6-3 or better, including near victories over the Saints, Buccaneers, and Chiefs. Meanwhile, Herbert’s only victory came by 10 over the Jaguars in a game in which the Jaguars scored on special teams and the Chargers won the first down rate battle by 12.24%. 

The Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the league, but the Jets are the one team that is clearly worse than them. Not only do they rank dead last in my roster rankings and in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -7.87% (the Jaguars are 31st at -5.43%), but they’ve lost every game they’ve played and most of them haven’t been particularly close, with 8 losses by 8 points or more and an average margin of defeat of 16.3 points per game. The Chargers are 9.5 point favorites in this game, but wouldn’t even have to come that close to the Jets’ average margin of defeat to cover this spread. 

The Chargers have played much better than their record and are arguably the healthiest they’ve been all season right now, with key players like defensive ends Joey Bosa (2 games missed) and Melvin Ingram (3 games), defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games missed), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games missed), wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game missed), and right guard Trai Turner (7 games missed) all being available for this game, so you can definitely make the case that they’re at least an average team. I don’t know if I like the Chargers quite enough for them to be worth betting, but they should be the right side and I ultimately may end up wagering on them.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 New York Jets 12

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -9.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (2-6) at Miami Dolphins (5-3)

Sitting at 3-3, coming off back-to-back wins by 24 points, the Dolphins made the surprising move during their bye week to bench veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick for rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa was drafted by the Dolphins with the 5th overall pick and was obviously the future of the position after the 38-year-old Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick was solid last season as the starting quarterback, while Tagovailoa was still working back from a serious leg injury suffered at the end of his collegiate career, so it always seemed likely that Fitzpatrick would be the starter in 2020 unless he struggled mightily. Instead, even with Fitzpatrick playing similarly to last season and winning games despite poor offensive line play, the Dolphins took a big chance and went with the unproven rookie instead.

The Dolphins have continued winning, extending their winning streak to 4 games with wins in each of Tagovailoa’s first two starts, but the jury is still very much out on Tagovailoa. He struggled mightily in his debut against the Rams, with the Dolphins winning that game primarily because of defense and special teams and, while he looked much better in his second start, outdueling Kyler Murray in Arizona, that performance came against a weak Arizona defense that was also missing multiple starters with injury and illness. It’s very possible the Dolphins would be 5-3 regardless of their quarterback swap, so time will tell whether or not it was the right short-term decision for this team in 2020.

This week Tagovailoa will square off with the quarterback drafted one spot behind him, Justin Herbert, who went 6th overall to the Chargers. Herbert didn’t take as long to get into the starting lineup, although it took a fluke injury to veteran starter Tyrod Taylor to give Herbert his initial start in week 2, after Taylor won the season opener in Cincinnati. Since being plugged into the lineup, Herbert has won just one game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that win came by 10 in a game in which the Chargers won the first down rate battle by 12.24%, while his 6 losses have all come by one score or less, including near victories over the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Saints, who are among the best teams in the league.

By comparison, the Dolphins have faced a pretty easy schedule and they have benefitted from things like a +5 turnover margin, a +3 return touchdown margin, and a 55.56% opponent’s field goal percentage, three things that tend to be totally unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Dolphins rank 25th at -1.36%, well behind the Chargers, who rank 5th at +2.28%. The Dolphins have the slight edge on offense, ranking 19th in first down rate over expected at -0.23%, while the Chargers rank 25th at -1.44%, which is significant because offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance, but the Dolphins’ offense has statistically been worse overall with Tagovailoa under center rather than Fitzpatrick and the Chargers have a big edge on defense.

The Chargers are missing probably their most important defensive player in defensive end Joey Bosa, but this isn’t his first absence and otherwise they’re much healthier than they’ve been, as key players like defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games missed), defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games missed), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games missed), wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game missed), and right guard Trai Turner (7 games missed) are all set to play this week. 

The Dolphins, meanwhile, will be without #2 wide receiver Preston Williams and two of their most important defensive players Christian Wilkins and Kyle Van Noy this week for the first time this season. In their current states, I have the Chargers 2.5 points better than Miami in my roster rankings, so we’re getting some line value with them as 1.5 point road underdogs. There isn’t quite enough here for the Chargers to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes and the money line at +110 is a good bet as well, as the Chargers should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game straight up.

Update: Kyle Van Noy must have been a false positive because he was cleared to play after just a day in the COVID protocol, while Wilkins remains out. Van Noy’s presence will be a boost to Miami’s defense, but I still have the Chargers as just slightly better than 50/50 to pull the upset. I would lower this a couple confidence points though, with Van Noy in the lineup.

Los Angeles Chargers 17 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (4-3) at Los Angeles Chargers (2-5)

The Raiders have a couple more wins than the Chargers, but the Chargers have the edge in most of the key season-long stats, including point differential (-6 vs. -16), DVOA (-4.1% vs. -12.3%) and first down rate differential (+1.92% vs. -1.58%). The Raiders have faced one of the toughest schedules in the league, but the Chargers’ schedule hasn’t been much easier and they have managed to keep all of their losses within a touchdown, something they did frequently last year as well, when 9 of their 11 losses came by a touchdown or less. On top of that, the Chargers have led, in some cases by significant amounts, in most of their losses and rank 11th in the league in average lead. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Chargers rank 6th at +2.08%, still significantly above the Raiders in 22nd at -0.38%.

The bad news for the Chargers is that they’ve been very reliant on their 6th ranked defense in first down rate allowed over expected (their offense ranks just 26th in first down rate allowed over expected) and defenses tend to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offenses, where the Raiders have the edge with a 17th ranked offense in terms of first down rate over expected. Making matters worse for the Chargers, their defense will be without it’s best player this week in Joey Bosa, who is out with a concussion, and they could also be without top outside cornerback Casey Hayward, after already trading away top slot cornerback Desmond King to the Titans this week.

It’s not all bad news on the injury front for the Chargers, as the injuries aren’t anything new for them and key players like defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games missed), defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games missed), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games missed), wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game missed), and possibly right guard Trai Turner (6 games missed) are set to play this week after missing time earlier in the season. Meanwhile, the Raiders remain without a pair of starting offensive linemen in left guard Richie Incognito and right tackle Trent Brown and could be missing a third with left tackle Kolton Miller questionable, while their defense will be without one of it’s top players in defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. 

I still have the Chargers as the better team in my roster rankings, but only by a half point. With fans still not allowed in the Chargers’ home stadium, we’re not getting much line value with them on an even line against the Raiders, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes. Depending on the status of Trai Turner, Casey Hayward, and Kolton Miller for this game, I may issue an update before gametime, but I don’t expect to be betting on either side regardless.

Los Angeles Chargers 26 Las Vegas Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers PK

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (2-4) at Los Angeles Chargers (2-4)

These two teams are pretty similar. Both teams are 2-4, but have positive first down rate differentials (+0.73% for the Broncos and +1.49% for the Chargers), despite facing an above average strength of schedule. When adjusting for strength of schedule, the Chargers and Broncos rank 7th and 12th respectively in first down rate differential at +2.02% and +1.45% and both teams have achieved that in the same way, with a strong defense covering for a struggling offense. 

The Chargers and Broncos are at -2.17% and -3.31% respectively in first down rate over expected, with the Chargers struggling due to a weak offensive line and an inability to run the ball and the Broncos struggling due to poor quarterback play. On defense, the Chargers and Broncos rank 5th and 3rd respectively in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.19% and -4.76% respectively, but defensive production tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so I wouldn’t expect either team to be quite that good going forward, especially since both teams are outplaying their talent level and have overachieved thus far this season.

Despite teams two teams being so similar, the Chargers are favored by 3.5 points here in Denver on the road, where the Broncos will have at least some fans in attendance. The Chargers are the slightly better team with the better quarterback, but this line suggests the Chargers are about 5-5.5 points better than the Broncos, which isn’t the case. The Broncos will be without guard Graham Glasgow, which hurts, but they’ve also been better offensively with Drew Lock in the lineup than his backups and they’ll have running back Phillip Lindsay back from injury this week.

The Chargers may get right tackle Bryan Bulaga back from injury this week, which would be a boost for their horrendous offensive line, but if he can’t play, the Chargers will be down to their 3rd and 4th offensive tackles against the Broncos tough pass rush. If that’s the case and this line remains 3.5, the Broncos are worth betting and they may even be worth if Bulaga can play because he could be at less than 100% in his first action since week 3. I’m leaving this as low confidence for now, but there may be an update before gametime.

Los Angeles Chargers 20 Denver Broncos 19

Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-4)

Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert hasn’t won a game yet in his four career starts, but the Chargers have been competitive in all four losses, including games against top level teams in the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Saints, all three of whom the Chargers led in the first half. That’s more or less been the story for the Chargers over the past two seasons, as they are just 6-15, but have lost a ridiculous 13 games by one score or less (3-13 overall in such games). In fact, in games decided by more than one score, the Chargers are actually 3-2 over the past two seasons, including a blowout 45-10 victory over the Jaguars last year.

This rematch could easily be a similarly easy victory, as the Jaguars are still one of the worst teams in the league. They finished last season dead last in first down rate differential at -6.64% and in 2020 it’s been all downhill since a fluke week 1 win over the Colts, as they’ve been outscored by 61 points over their past 5 games, despite a mediocre schedule. Their offense hasn’t been horrible, but their defense has allowed a league worst 44.27% first down rate and are every bit that bad on paper as well, especially with top linebacker Myles Jack and top safety Jarrad Wilson out with injuries. 

When adjusted for schedule, only the Jets have a worse first down rate differential than the Jaguars’ -6.79% rate and the Jaguars are arguably even worse than that suggests, while the Chargers have a +1.49% first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule and are getting healthier, with defensive linemen Justin Jones and Melvin Ingram and probably right tackle Bryan Bulaga set to return this week. This line might be a little high at 7.5, but if Bulaga is confirmed playing or this line drops to a touchdown, I would consider a bet on the Chargers.

Los Angeles Chargers 27 Jacksonville Jaguars 17

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -7.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (1-3) at New Orleans Saints (2-2)

This is one of three games that will be played Monday/Tuesday this week and all three games are impossible to make a call on right now because the status of so many players is unknown. In the other two games (Bills/Titans and Patriots/Broncos) the uncertainty is because otherwise healthy players are on the COVID inactive list and could be activated before the game if they can pass protocol. 

In this game, the uncertainty is because the Saints have several players who could return from injury that are listed questionable and practiced all week, but only in a limited fashion, including top wide receiver Michael Thomas, starting defensive end Marcus Davenport, top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, starting tight end Jared Cook, and starting guard Andrus Peat. This game has a line posted, but it’s impossible to pick a side without knowing the status of the aforementioned players.

If the Saints are relatively healthy, I’ll likely bet on them, possibly for a big play. They’ve gotten off to a slow start this season, but they typically start slow before going on a run (4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2 since 2010, as opposed to 86-54-2 in weeks 3-17) and if they’re relatively healthy they’re still among the most talented teams in the league. The Chargers, meanwhile, are beat up on both sides of the ball, missing feature back Austin Ekeler, the right side of their offensive line in Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga, starting defensive end Melvin Ingram, starting cornerback Chris Harris, and possibly #2 wide receiver Mike Williams, not to mention safety Derwin James and linebacker Drue Tranquill, who have been out all season. 

The Chargers don’t get blown out often (just 2 of their last 14 losses coming by more than one score), so they can keep this game close if the Saints are also going to be banged up, but I like a healthy Saints team to win this game with ease, if that ends up being the case. I’m tentatively on the Saints for a low confidence pick, but I’ll have an update for this on Monday, when I will hopefully have more clarity on the other two games as well.

Final Update: The Saints will have all of the aforementioned questionable players except Michael Thomas, who apparently could have gone but was suspended for a fight in practice. Thomas’ absence will hurt, as will starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was ruled out earlier in the week, but this is arguably as healthy as the Saints have been all season, seeing as their injury problems started in week 1. Despite that, this line has dropped down to a touchdown. The Saints also have one advantage that I didn’t mention above, which is that they are going into a bye and home favorites of 7+ are 63-25 ATS before a bye since 2002.

The Chargers typically play teams close and will have wide receiver Mike Williams active, but they’re still so banged up on both sides of the ball, while the Saints are getting healthy quickly and could easily be starting to go on their annual mid-season run. I have 10 points of separation in my roster rankings between these two teams in their current state, so we’re getting significant line value with the host at only -7 and in a great spot as well. I like this for a high confidence pick.

New Orleans Saints 30 Los Angeles Chargers 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (1-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)

The Buccaneers lost week one in New Orleans, but that was primarily due to the Buccaneers having a -3 turnover margin, which is not a predictable week-to-week metric. The Buccaneers actually won the first down rate battle by 8.18% in that game and they have gone on to defeat the Panthers and Broncos by a combined 32 points in the two weeks since. Overall, the Buccaneers rank 2nd in the NFL with a +6.31% first down rate differential. 

The Buccaneers haven’t had the toughest schedule, but I had high expectations for them coming into the season and, if anything I’ve been more impressed with them because of how they’ve achieved that 2nd ranked first down rate differential. While their offense has been nothing to write home about, ranking 21st in first down rate at 37.43%, their defense has led the league with a 31.12% first down rate allowed. 

Their offense figures to get better as the season goes on, given they have a lot of new parts to integrate, so it’s great to see their defense pick up right where they left off down the stretch last season, when they had the 4th lowest first down rate allowed in the league during the final 8 weeks of the season, in large part due to the development of their young secondary, which had previously struggled mightily. This might not be the best defense in the league all season, or even top-5, but their expected offensive improvement should more than offset that and it’s clear that this is a balanced team that can win a lot of different kinds of games.

This week, the Buccaneers host a banged up Chargers team, which is missing starting cornerback Chris Harris, starting edge defender Melvin Ingram, starting wide receiver Mike Williams, and the right side of their offensive line, guard Trai Turner and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, in addition to stud safety Derwin James, who has been out since training camp. The Buccaneers aren’t at full strength either with Chris Godwin out, but they still have Mike Evans and other weapons and they haven’t had their receiving corps at full strength really all season, so their injury situation isn’t really comparable to the Chargers’ situation, which primarily involves new injuries as of the past week. 

I have the Buccaneers 10 points better than the Chargers in their current injury situation, as they are one of the top teams in the league facing off against a team that is in the bottom third without their key absences. Given that, we’re getting a lot of value with the Buccaneers as mere 6.5-point home favorites. This is a team that could easily start to go on a big run and they should be able to win this game by at least a touchdown, if not possibly a lot more. This is my Pick of the Week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 Los Angeles Chargers 10

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -6.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Carolina Panthers at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (0-2) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-1)

This is the toughest game of the week for me, as I have the line calculated right at 6.5, which is where it is on the board, and there aren’t any situational edges on either side. The Panthers are one of the worst teams in the league without their top offensive player Chrisitan McCaffrey and their top defensive lineman Kawaan Short, but the Chargers have a raw, unproven quarterback under center in Justin Herbert and, while he showed some success against the Chiefs last week after regular starter Tyrod Taylor was a late scratch with a medical issue, I wonder how much he benefited from the Chiefs game planning for a different kind of quarterback all week. 

Herbert will have a full week with the first team in practice this week, which he didn’t have last week, but the Panthers also won’t be caught off guard by him and at least have some professional tape of him in this offense. Ultimately, I’m taking the Chargers since the most likely outcome is then winning by a touchdown, but the Panthers could easily keep it closer and they have the kind of offense, even without McCaffrey, that is very capable of a backdoor garbage cover late in the game.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Carolina Panthers 17

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -6.5

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-0)

The Chargers snuck out a close victory in Cincinnati last week, on the strength of a +2 turnover margin. That was certainly not the norm last season, as the Chargers finished with a 2-9 record in games decided by 8 points or less and had a league worst -17 turnover margin on the season. It’s not unexpected though, as turnover margin and close game record tend to be highly inconsistent year-to-year. Case in point, the Chargers were 6-1 in games decided by 8 or less and had a +1 turnover margin in 2018, with largely the same roster as 2019.

The Chargers only finished 5-11 last season, but they actually ranked 7th in the NFL in first down rate differential (not far behind their 2nd ranked finish in 2018), which bodes well for their chances in 2020, as first down rate is a much more predictive stat than turnover margin or close game record. I wouldn’t expect the Chargers to be as good this season in first down rate differential, downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, and they haven’t started the season with better injury luck, losing stud safety Derwin James for the season after he missed 11 games last season, but Taylor is better than most give him credit for, now in an offense that fits his skillset well again, and the Chargers are getting healthier this week, as big off-season addition Trai Turner will make his debut at right guard after missing the opener, which should give this offense a boost.

The Chargers are running into a juggernaut in the Chiefs, but they played the Chiefs twice down the stretch last season when the Chiefs were hot and on their eventual Super Bowl run and the Chargers kept those games between 7 and 10 points and were even closer in first down rate differential at -2.12% and -1.75% respectively. This line gives them 9 points of cushion and they’ll also have one benefit that they didn’t have last season, which is that they won’t have to face a road crowd, something they always do against the Chiefs, regardless of where they play, even at home. In fact, with the Chargers able to pump in fake crowd noise, this team might have some real homefield advantage for the first time in years. 

The Chiefs are also in a tough spot, as they could easily look past the Chargers with a huge Monday night matchup in Baltimore on deck, while the Chargers have an easy game against the Panthers on deck. Underdogs are 76-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are almost definitely true here. I like the Chargers’ chances of keeping this close, especially with the Chiefs pretty banged up on defense with starting #1 cornerback Chavarius Ward and rotational defensive linemen Alex Okafor and Khalen Saunders out. This would be my Pick of the Week if I wasn’t terrified of the Chiefs.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Los Angeles Chargers 27

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High