Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at Buffalo Bills (13-3)

The Colts qualified for the post-season at 11-5 and their 8th ranked +89 point differential is what you’d expect from an 11-win team, but they benefited from the league’s 2nd best turnover margin at +10 and the league’s easiest schedule, two things that don’t bode well for this Colts team as they head into the post-season. Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and teams with a turnover margin of +10 or better manage just a +0.05 turnover margin in the playoffs, so the Colts won’t be able to rely on that again this week. On top of that, their strength of schedule is going up significantly, as the Bills are arguably the top team in the AFC.

The Kansas City Chiefs get a lot more attention as defending Super Bowl Champions and the AFC’s #1 seed, but it was the Bills that led the league by a wide margin with a +4.67% first down rate over expected (Kansas City finished second at +3.61%) and that lead the AFC with 31.3 points per game. Both of those hold up even when you discount the Chiefs’ last game in which they rested their key players. The Chiefs have a slight edge on defense over the Bills (+0.88% vs. +1.22%), but even with their defensive edge, Kansas City still ranks behind the Bills in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+3.45% vs. +2.73%) and defensive performance is much less consistent week-to-week than offensive performance. 

The Bills’ defense has also played a lot better in recent weeks since getting healthier, particularly with top linebacker Matt Milano back. Their improved defense, paired with a consistently dominant offense, is the primary reason why they’ve won all 6 games since their bye week, by at least 10 points each, making them just the 9th team in the last 30 seasons to win at least 6 games in a row by double digits, including the 2nd (2014 Seahawks) to carry a streak like that into the post-season, although just two of nine went on to win the Super Bowl, for what it’s worth.

Ranking 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, only behind a trio of NFC teams, despite a defense that has overall ranked 25th in first down rate allowed over expected on the season at +1.22%, the Bills should be considered one of the top Super Bowl contenders going into the post-season and perhaps the favorite in the AFC if quarterback Josh Allen can continue his dominant season (I might give the Chiefs a slight edge because Mahomes is more playoff experienced).

The Colts, meanwhile, finished just 14th in the league in first down rate differential at +0.08%, once strength of schedule is taken into account, so there is a pretty big gap between these two teams. The Bills should also have some homefield advantage in this matchup, with at least some fans being allowed into the Bills’ first home playoff game since 1995. Unfortunately, we’re not getting great line value with the Bills as 6-point home favorites, as they’re not underrated anymore after 6 straight wins that weren’t all that close. My calculated line is Buffalo -7, so I’d need this line to drop to 5.5 to consider placing a bet on the Bills.

Buffalo Bills 31 Indianapolis Colts 24

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -6

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-14) at Indianapolis Colts (10-5)

When these two teams met all the way back in week 1, I bet the Colts as 8-point favorites in Jacksonville because I had the Colts ranked as one of the top teams in the league and the Jaguars as one of the worst teams, but the Jaguars shockingly pulled the upset by final score of 27-20. The Colts won the first down rate battle by 1.79%, but lost the game primarily because of a -2 turnover margin, which tends to be very inconsistent week-to-week. Beyond the turnover battle, that game proved to be a total fluke, as the Jaguars haven’t won since, losing each of their past 14 games by an average of 12.79 points per game to secure the #1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, while the Colts have a variety of scenarios where they can qualify for the post-season at 11-5 if they can win this rematch. 

The Jaguars looked like one of the worst teams in the league on paper coming into the season and have gotten worse as the season has gone on due to injuries, most notably missing their top edge defender Josh Allen, their top-3 cornerbacks Sidney Jones, DJ Hayden, and CJ Henderson, talented center Brandon Linder, feature back James Robinson, and #1 wide receiver DJ Chark. On top of that, quarterback Gardner Minshew got hurt and has struggled since returning, which got him benched for veteran journeyman Mike Glennon. The Jaguars rank dead last in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -5.58% and dead last in my roster rankings as well. 

The Colts, however, haven’t been quite as good as I expected coming into the season, as they have benefitted from a below average schedule and rank just 15th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.07%. They should be able to win this game with ease, but covering this 14.5-point spread could be an issue, especially since teams typically tend to underperform in must win games against sub-500 opponents. Teams with a winning percentage between 50% and 67% cover at just a 40.8% rate as favorites against teams with a sub-.500 winning percentage in weeks 16 or 17. My calculated line is Indianapolis -14, so we’re barely getting line value with the Jaguars, but they could play this game slightly closer than you’d think, with the Colts in a bad spot. They should be the right side if you have to pick a side in this one, even if it’s hard to be confident in them.

Indianapolis Colts 26 Jacksonville Jaguars 13

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +14.5

Confidence: None

Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (10-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3)

The Steelers were very overrated when they were 11-0, but they’ve completely fallen down to earth in recent games, losing three straight games, including two games against opponents with a losing record. The most shocking was their nationally televised loss to the previously 2-10-1 Bengals as 14.5 point underdogs last week, after which it’s hard to imagine the Steelers being overrated anymore. 

The good news for the Steelers is that teams tend to bounce back from huge upset losses like that the following week, as teams cover at a 57.0% rate after a loss as favorites of 10 points or more. That’s in part because teams tend to be very motivated to bounce back after a performance like that, but also because losses like that tend to be flukes that cause an overreaction line movement. In this game, the line shifted from favoring the Steelers by 3 on the early line to the Colts by 1.5 this week. 

That being said, I would not recommend betting on the Steelers because the line movement really only moved the line to where it should be, as my calculated line is exactly Indianapolis -1.5. The Steelers are in another good spot because they have a winning record and are facing a team with a winning record before facing another team with a winning record (Cleveland) next week. Teams cover at a 54.4% rate in that spot. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but good teams seem to be totally focused before back-to-back difficult games. For that reason, the Steelers should be the right side, but only slightly, as it’s hard to be confident in them without any line value.

This line has shifted to even in the wake of Anthony Castonzo being ruled out for the Colts, meaning the Colts will be down both of their starting tackles with right tackle Braden Smith on the COVID list. I already had Smith being out factored into this evaluation and, without Castonzo, I actually still have the Colts slightly better than 50/50 to win this game, so I’m going to take the Colts now at even. This is still a no confidence pick, as we’re getting only the slightest line value and the Steelers are in a slightly better spot.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Pittsburgh Steelers 23

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis PK

Confidence: None

Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (4-9) at Indianapolis Colts (9-4)

The Texans nearly beat the Colts two weeks ago, losing by 6 after a botched goal line snap at the end of the game when the Texans had a chance to score a game winning touchdown. That loss effectively ended the Texans’ season and they played like it last week, showing minimal effort in a 36-7 loss to a middling at best Bears team. Now playing the Colts again, I would expect a much better effort from the Texans this week. 

The Colts, meanwhile, could easily be flat, having already beaten the Texans, with a much tougher game against the Steelers on deck, while the Texans only have the lowly Bengals on deck. Favorites cover at just a 43.4% rate against opponents with a 35% winning percentage or worse when they next play an opponent with a winning percentage higher than 70% and when their opponent next plays an opponent with a winning percentage or 35% or less. On top of that, favorites cover at a 42.9% rate when their next opponent has a winning percentage 50%+ higher than their current opponent.

Unfortunately, we’re not getting the line value we need with the Texans for them to be worth betting. The Texans were somewhat capable earlier in the year, but the injuries are starting to pile up, most notably two of their top-3 pass catchers (Will Fuller and Randall Cobb) and their top-2 defensive backs (Bradley Roby and Justin Reid). My calculated line is Indianapolis -8, although that would change if gametime decision DeForest Buckner is ruled out, as he’s one of the Colts most important players. If that happens, I may consider betting on the Texans, but if he plays, there isn’t nearly enough here.

Update: Buckner is playing. The line has shifted to 7.5, but I still have no desire to bet on the Texans, as my calculated line is Indianapolis -9.5 with Buckner in the lineup.

Indianapolis Colts 27 Houston Texans 20

Pick against the spread: Houston +7.5

Confidence: Low

Indianapolis Colts at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (8-4) at Las Vegas Raiders (7-5)

The Colts only have a one game edge in the standings, but record is not always indicative of how a team has played and the Colts have been the clearly better of these two teams this season, with clear edges in point differential (+55 vs. -24) and schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+0.45% vs. -2.37%). The Colts also hold about a 5-point edge in my roster rankings and are relatively healthy aside from left tackle Anthony Castonzo being questionable to return from a one-game absence, while the Raiders are missing their top-2 defensive backs Damon Arnette and Jeff Heath. 

Despite that, the Colts are favored by just 2.5 points in Las Vegas, where the Raiders won’t have any fans. My calculated line is Indianapolis -4.5 and, while those two points might not seem like a big deal, about 1 in 5 games are decided by 3-4 points exactly. I like the Colts a lot this week because they are the significantly better team and essentially just need to win in what isn’t much more than a neutral site game to cover this 2.5-point spread. This is a smaller bet for now, but I will increase this if there is good news on Castonzo. 

Update: Not only is Castonzo active, but, while Josh Jacobs is active for the Raiders, he’s apparently not going to be playing. Get -2.5 while you can. 

Indianapolis Colts 27 Las Vegas Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -2.5

Confidence: High

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (7-4) at Houston Texans (4-7)

The Colts are 7-4, but there are reasons for concern. For one, they’ve faced a pretty easy schedule thus far this season. In fact, in terms of first down rate differential, the Colts have faced the easiest schedule in the league. With that in mind, their 7-4 record isn’t as impressive. In schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Colts are about a middling team, ranking 16th at +0.20%. On top of that, they’ve been a better defensive team than offensive team, ranking 11th in first down rate allowed over expected, but just 20th in first down rate over expected, which is a concern because offensive play tends to be more consistent week-to-week. 

The Colts are also starting to lose key players to injury and illness after being relatively healthy through the first half of the season. Last week, they missed defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and center Ryan Kelly against the Titans and, while both will be back this week, the Colts now have lost left tackle Anthony Castonzo, which is also a big blow. The Texans, who the Colts face this week, are missing some key players as well, losing top wide receiver Will Fuller and top cornerback Bradley Roby to suspension, but my roster rankings still have the Colts just 2.5-3 points better than the Texans, giving us a calculated line of Indianapolis -1, with the Texans at least having some fans in attendance for this one. 

I locked this line in at 3.5 earlier this week and, while 2.5 points might not seem like a huge deal, it’s a bigger deal than you might think, as about 1 in 4 games are decided by 1-3 points. The Texans are also in a better spot, as the Colts have a game that will be very important for their playoff implications on deck, in Las Vegas against the Raiders, while the Texans have a relatively meaningless out of conference game in Chicago. I like the Texans a lot at 3.5 and, even if you didn’t lock this line in at 3.5, I would recommend a smaller bet at 3 as well. The money line is also worth betting as well, as the Texans could easily pull the upset.

Houston Texans 24 Indianapolis Colts 23 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Houston +3.5

Confidence: High

Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (7-3) at Indianapolis Colts (7-3)

These two teams met just two and a half weeks ago in week 10 on Thursday Night Football, with the Colts winning 34-17. That final score looks somewhat lopsided, but it was a much closer game that suggests, as the Titans led with a 71.5% chance of winning with 4 minutes left in the third quarter, before a series of special teams snafus. The Titans also won the first down rate battle in the game by 3.99%, which lines up with how these two teams have played on the season, with the Titans faring slightly better, ranking 15th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, while the Colts rank 16th. 

The Titans are also better suited to continue playing well going forward because they’re an offensive led team (3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate and 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate allowed), while the Colts are a defensive led team (22nd and 11th) and offense tends to be much more consistent and predictive going forward than defense. Both teams can compete with almost anyone if their weaker side of the ball has a middling performance, but the Titans’ offense is better than the Colts’ defense and it’s more likely that the Titans’ weaker side of the ball has a middling performance than the Colts’ because of the inherent randomness of defensive play, so the Titans have the higher upside of these two teams.

Despite that, the Titans are 3.5 point underdogs here in Indianapolis, likely because the general public looks at what happens when these two teams met two weeks ago in Tennessee and assumes the Colts will have no problem winning in Indianapolis. However, the Colts are highly unlikely to dominate special teams like they did in the first matchup and homefield advantage doesn’t matter much this year with limited fan attendance, so I like the Titans chances of keeping this one competitive, if not winning straight up.

The Titans have lost top linebacker Jayon Brown and top edge defender Jadeveon Clowney since the last matchup, but neither one played particularly well in the first matchup and the Colts will also be without stud defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, which is a massive loss, as well as fellow defensive starters linebacker Bobby Okereke and defensive tackle Denico Autry and starting center Ryan Kelly. I have the Titans a half point better in my roster rankings, suggesting the Colts should be favored by no more than a point with limited homefield advantage, but with the Titans’ vastly superior offensive prowess, there is also a good chance they can pull the upset straight up. Either way, I like their chances of covering the 3.5 a lot.

Update: It’s all good on the injury report for the Titans with Saffold and Jones both playing and center Ryan Kelly and running back Jonathan Taylor being ruled out for the Colts. If I didn’t like the Buccaneers so much this week, this would be my Pick of the Week.

Tennessee Titans 26 Indianapolis Colts 24 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +3.5

Confidence: High

Green Bay Packers at Indianapolis Colts: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (7-2) at Indianapolis Colts (6-3)

Earlier this week when the Packers opened as 2.5-point underdogs, I was hoping we’d get a +3 at some point, but instead sharp action on the Packers has pushed them down to 1.5-point underdogs of even 1-point in some places. I still like the Packers, but not to the same extent. Typically, I like offensive led teams over defensive led teams because defense tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. That is the case in this matchup. These two teams have played roughly even this season, but the Packers have a much better offense, while the Colts have been led by their defense.

In addition to the Packers having that edge, the Packers are also healthier than they’ve been for most of the season. At full strength, the Packers have one of the top rosters in the league, but key players like wide receiver Davante Adams (2 games missed), running back Aaron Jones (2 games missed), left tackle David Bakhtiari (3 games missed), defensive tackle Kenny Clark (3 games missed), cornerback Jaire Alexander (1 game missed), and safety Darnell Savage (1 game missed) have all missed time this season. 

Now with those players all back, I have the Packers at the top of my roster rankings. That still doesn’t give us great line value, as the Colts will have some fans in attendance and are a talented team in their own right, and my calculated line is only Green Bay -1, but the Packers should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes and they’re worth a small bet on the money line at +105, as they should be at least even, if not slightly favored to win this game straight up.

Green Bay Packers 26 Indianapolis Colts 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Green Bay +1.5

Confidence: Low

Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (5-3) at Tennessee Titans (6-2)

This one is a tough call. The Colts have been better overall this season, ranking 8th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.75%, while the Titans rank 21st at -0.54%, but the Titans have been a much better offensive team than the Colts, which is important because offense is a much more predictable side of the ball. The Colts have a big edge on defense, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed over expected at -3.06%, as compared to 21st at +1.61% for the Titans, but, if the Colts regress defensively, it would really expose their offense, which ranks 24th in first down rate over expected at -1.31%. The Titans, meanwhile, rank 11th in first down rate over expected at +1.07% and could easily be better defensively going forward, especially after acquiring slot cornerback Desmond King from the Chargers, one of the best players at his position in the league. They will also get edge defender Jadeveon Clowney back from a one-game absence this week.

Ordinarily, I would take a team like the Titans’ at home as small favorites against a team like the Colts that has struggled offensively, but my roster rankings have the Colts’ offense much higher than their performance so far, in large part due to their dominant offensive line. That suggests the Colts have underachieved offensively and could be improved going forward. In fact, in my roster rankings, these two teams are about even overall, suggesting this line is right about where it should be. I’m taking the Titans, but mostly only because the home team winning by a field goal is the most likely outcome in a tight matchup like this. This is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week.

Tennessee Titans 27 Indianapolis Colts 24

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -1.5

Confidence: None

Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (5-2) at Indianapolis Colts (5-2)

Typically I like to go against significant week-to-week line movements as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play and this line has shifted from Baltimore -4 on the early line last week to even this week, but this line movement is understandable. Not only did the Ravens lose the game at home last week to the Steelers, but they also lost arguably the top left tackle in the league in Ronnie Stanley and, to add to that, they had a COVID outbreak this week that disrupted their practices and will cost them at least top cornerback Marlon Humphrey, as well as potentially others. Given that, four points of line movement is pretty reasonable.

In fact, I don’t think the line movement went far enough. I had this game circled last week as a likely bet and we’re still getting line value at even, given all that the Ravens are missing. Even when healthy, the Ravens haven’t been nearly as good this season as they were last season, especially on offense. A big part of the reason why was the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda, whose replacements have been a massive downgrade, and now without Stanley as well, the Ravens’ chances of bouncing back offensively take a serious hit. The Ravens have been strong on the defensive side of the ball this season, but Humphrey is a big absence and they could be without fellow defensive back Jimmy Smith as well.

The Colts, meanwhile, are relatively healthy, most notably getting dominant linebacker Darius Leonard back from a two and a half game absence last week, and have been slightly better on both sides of the ball thus far this season than the Ravens, even before these teams went in opposite directions injury wise. In my roster rankings, I have the Colts a couple points better, so they should be favored by at least a field goal here at home with limited fans. This isn’t a big play because the line has moved so much, but the Colts should be the clear favorite in this one, so this line is still mispriced.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis PK

Confidence: Medium