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

Atlanta Falcons at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-10) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-1)

Several weeks ago, I said that the rule of thumb with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs was to pick them unless there’s a good reason not to, citing their 28-15-2 ATS record in games in which Mahomes has started in his career, including 18-7 ATS even after Mahomes won the MVP in 2018, as their defense had been noticeably improved since 2018. Since then, the Chiefs have continued winning, but somehow they haven’t managed to not cover the spread in any of their past 6 games, making them the only team in the past 30 seasons to win 6 straight games and not cover the spread in any of them. None of their wins have been blowouts either, with those 6 wins coming by a combined 24 points and none of them coming by more than 6 points.

Mahomes and the offense have not been the problem, as, while they have fallen behind the Bills by a significant amount in first down rate over expected (+4.89% vs. +3.87%), that has more to do with how the Bills’ offense has played in recent weeks against top level defenses than anything to do with the Chiefs’ offense. However, the Chiefs’ defense has struggled and now ranks 18th in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.55%. The Chiefs’ defense has been very inconsistent throughout Mahomes’ tenure as the starter, essentially single handedly keeping the Chiefs and their record setting offense out of the Super Bowl in Mahomes’ first season as the starter, but then being the complementary unit needed to go all the way last season. 

Defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive performance anyway, so the Chiefs’ defense could certainly swing back the other way, but they’re also no better than a middling group in my roster rankings, so it’s definitely a concern for this team. The general consensus is this Chiefs team is borderline unbeatable, but I don’t think they’re balanced enough for that to be the case, even if they are rightfully the Super Bowl favorites right now. In fact, their underwhelming defense drags them down to “only” 3rd in both schedule adjusted first down rate differential and in my roster rankings, so, while they’re obviously a great team, I think they’ve been a little overrated.

Even with their recent non-covers, the Chiefs remain overrated as 10.5 point home favorites over the Falcons. Some of their recent non-covers are as a result of opponents scoring garbage time touchdowns, but when a line is 10.5, garbage time touchdowns that lead to a backdoor cover is definitely something that needs to be considered and I think there’s a great chance that could happen this week, even if the game isn’t close throughout.

The Falcons shouldn’t be trusted to win anything, now having blown the same amount of games in which they had a 95% chance to win (four) as they have actual wins, but they can definitely keep a game like this close. Their 10 losses have come by a combined 67 points (6.7 points per game) and just three of them have come by multiple scores. If they had held on to win in even some of those improbable losses, the Falcons could easily be a .500 team right now and their point differential of +2 is right in line with a .500 team. The Falcons are slightly worse than that in schedule adjusted first down rate differential because of an underwhelming schedule, but their 22nd ranked differential of -1.05% is still significantly better than their record would suggest. My calculated line is Kansas City -8.5, so we’re not getting a ton of line value, but I like the Falcons’ chances of keeping this one close, enough to bet on it.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +10.5

Confidence: Medium

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

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-9)

Both of these teams have had disappointing seasons in the win-loss column, but both have been better than their record. The Chargers were blown out 45-0 by the Patriots last week, but most of their losses have been close, as they previously hadn’t lost by more than 10 and seven of their nine losses have come by one score, including blown leads against high level teams like the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. The Falcons, meanwhile, don’t need to be told about blowing leads, as they’ve blown three leads in games in which they had a very high win probability late, which has them at 4-8 despite a +9 point differential. Despite both team’s losing records, both teams have actually spent more time with the lead than trailing this season. 

The Chargers rank a little higher in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (-0.49% vs. -1.00%), but the Falcons have the better offense (-0.51% vs. -2.04%), which is more predictable and consistent, and they have the edge in my roster rankings as well (16th vs. 22nd). Overall, I have the Falcons about 2 points better than the Chargers, which gives us a calculated line of Atlanta -1.5 if we give the Chargers a half point for nominal homefield advantage. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where this line is, so we’re not getting any line value either way. I’m taking the Chargers purely because I think they’ll be the more motivated team, trying to avenge last week’s blowout loss (teams are 63-39 ATS since 2002 after losing by 35 or more points), but I don’t have much confidence in them.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

When these two teams met a couple weeks ago in New Orleans, the Saints won pretty easily by score of 24-9. Saints head coach Sean Payton was credited for his decision to start hybrid player Taysom Hill over backup quarterback Jameis Winston in that game in place of the injured Drew Brees, but ultimately the decision probably didn’t matter, as the Saints won that game primarily with their defense, holding a capable Falcons offense to a 23.73% first down rate that is among the worst single week marks in the league this season. The Saints then got another defensive led victory over a Broncos team that literally didn’t have a quarterback last week, so it’s safe to say the jury is still out on Hill as an NFL quarterback. 

The Saints have arguably the best defense in the NFL, but defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and the Saints aren’t healthy on defense either, with a pair of key players in cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive end Marcus Davenport picking up new injuries that will cause them to miss this game. If the Saints’ defense isn’t as dominant as they’ve been recently, the Falcons have a good chance to pull off this upset, especially since the Saints’ offense is also missing a key player beyond Brees, with stud left tackle Terron Armstead out for the second straight week. Meanwhile, the Falcons will have a key player in Julio Jones back from injury after missing the last game and a half, including the majority of the first matchup between these two teams two weeks ago.

The Saints are in a little bit better of a spot, with only an easy trip to Philadelphia on deck, while the Falcons are coming off of a huge upset victory over the Raiders, which typically tends to be a bad betting spot (teams are 32-44 ATS after a home upset victory by 17 points or more as underdogs of 3 points or more), but it’s hard to see the Falcons looking past a huge divisional rival that just beat them recently, so they should be mostly focused for this one. 

The line did move significantly from New Orleans -3.5 on the early line last week to 2.5 this week, a significant swing considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, but this line has crept back up to a field goal in some places, and if we can get a good +3 before gametime, I will probably end up betting on it. The money line is worth a bet as well at +130 because this game should be considered about a toss up.

Atlanta Falcons 24 New Orleans Saints 23 Upset Pick +130

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2.5

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) at Atlanta Falcons (3-7)

The Raiders are the only team to beat the Chiefs this season and they nearly beat them a second time last week and, even with that loss, they are still 6-4, but I’m still not that impressed with them. They seem to match up well with the Chiefs, but overall, they have just a +10 point differential and, while they’ve faced a tough schedule, they rank just 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.34%, as they have benefitted from an unsustainably high 51.61% third conversion rate on offense. That lines up with my roster rankings, which have them right at average as the 17th ranked roster in the league. 

The Raiders’ near win in Kansas City last week and the Falcons loss in New Orleans to backup quarterback Taysom Hill and the Saints has pushed this line from even on the early line last week to a full field goal this week, a significant swing given that 1 in 4 games are decided by three points or less. That’s an overreaction because the Raiders’ close game with the Chiefs was more about the Raiders matching up well with the Chiefs, while the Saints still rank 6th in my roster rankings despite losing Brees, so the Falcons’ loss in New Orleans isn’t as bad as it seems. 

The Falcons are just 3-7, but they could easily be 5-5 or even 6-4 if not for blowing three nearly impossible to blow leads. They haven’t faced a tough schedule outside of last week’s game against the Saints, but they aren’t far behind the Raiders in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -2.40% and, in my roster rankings, they’re actually slightly better than the Raiders, suggesting they’ve underachieved their talent level this season. 

The Falcons being higher in my roster rankings is even taking into account that Falcons #1 wide receiver Julio Jones is questionable and seemingly a true gametime decision after practicing very little this week due to a hamstring injury. Jones’ status obviously will have a big effect on this game, but, even without him, the Falcons are a decent value for pick ‘em purposes and, if Jones plays and this line stays at a field goal, I’ll likely end up betting on the Falcons. I’ll have an update before gametime if that is the case.

Update: Jones is out for the Falcons, but they will have tight end Hayden Hurst and edge defender Dante Fowler healthy, which was in question, while the Raiders will be without questionable defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who is a valuable part of the Raiders’ defensive front even if he doesn’t have big sack numbers. Meanwhile, this line has shifted to 3.5 in some places. My calculated line is just Las Vegas -1, so that’s pretty decent line value. The Falcons have struggled to move the ball without Julio Jones this season, but they still have a mismatch with the Raiders secondary and should be able to move the ball pretty well. I like getting more than a field goal in a game that should be a close shootout. 

Las Vegas Raiders 31 Atlanta Falcons 30

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (3-6) at New Orleans Saints (7-2)

I have been saying all season that I was planning on betting the Saints pretty consistently once they finally got healthy because they were my pre-season #1 team in my roster rankings and because they typically shake off slow starts, going 4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2 since 2010 and 88-57-7 ATS in weeks 3-17. The results were great once the Saints were finally all healthy, including a blowout victory in Tampa Bay, but it lasted less than six quarters before Drew Brees suffered a significant rib and lung injury that now has him sidelined for at least three weeks. The Saints were still able to close out the 27-13 victory over the 49ers and they still have a very talented and most healthy roster around the quarterback, but their projection obviously takes a big hit without their signal caller.

In Brees’ absence last week, former Buccaneers starter and current Saints backup Jameis Winston played most of the snaps, playing 34 snaps total, while hybrid player Taysom Hill played 22, and Winston also attempted all 10 of the Saints’ non-Drew Brees pass attempts, but the Saints seem to be throwing everyone a curveball and going with Hill for his first career start. There have been varying reports of how much the Saints plan to use both quarterbacks, from Hill playing all game, to Winston and Hill splitting time based on certain packages, but it’s clear the Saints plan to use Hill more than they’ve ever used him before, particularly as a passer. Hill has just 18 career regular season pass attempts and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he exceeded that total in this game alone.

The big question is whether that would be a good thing for the Saints or if they would be better served using their two quarterbacks like they did in the second half last week. Hill has made some big passing plays downfield in his career, but he’s never shown consistent accuracy, he has rarely played as a traditional drop back passer outside of the pre-season, and he’s also had some fumbling problems this season. His athleticism will obviously help him, but he’s a 30-year-old quarterback who has never started and didn’t show much as a passer in college, so this move could easily backfire or cause the Saints to have a mid-game pivot to Winston playing more. Hill will have plenty of talent around him, but this Saints passing game takes a big hit with him starting compared to Brees or even compared to Winston.

The Falcons, meanwhile, are relatively healthy coming off of a bye and, even though they haven’t played particularly well this season compared to their easy schedule, ranking 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.58%, they could easily be 5-4 or 6-3 if not for blowing three nearly impossible to blow leads. They’re also more talented on paper than the statistics suggest they’ve played thus far and could underachieve less going forward, especially since they seem to be playing better since firing Dan Quinn and going with interim head coach Raheem Morris. 

My roster rankings have these teams about even, so with the Saints having minimal fans in attendance for this one, we’re getting good value with the Falcons as more than a field goal underdogs at +3.5. The Saints could still pull out the victory, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, and I would expect this one to be a close one either way, so the Falcons are worth a bet.

Update: Marshon Lattimore is out for the Saints, despite practicing all week in limited capacity. Lattimore hasn’t played that well this year, so his absence doesn’t move the needle in this game as much as you’d think, but it’s more good news for Atlanta bettors, especially since the line has stabilized at +3.5, rather than dropping to 3.

New Orleans Saints 27 Atlanta Falcons 26

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (3-4) at Atlanta Falcons (2-6)

Everyone knows the Falcons have blown three games where they had a very high win probability late and that the Falcons would be 5-3 if they hadn’t blown those leads, but the Broncos could also have a better record if quarterback Drew Lock had been healthy all season. Lock isn’t playing that well, but he’s supported by a strong defense that ranks 4th in first down rate allowed over expected at +3.83% and he’s gone 2-2 in the four games he’s been healthy, with one of the losses coming on the road at Kansas City.

Defense tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offense and the Broncos offense hasn’t been good this season even with Lock under center, but the Falcons haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball, ranking 21st in first down rate over expected and 20th in first down rate allowed over expected. Despite the fact that they could easily have 4-5 wins right now, they still rank 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.78% and haven’t played well overall. 

The Falcons’ offense should theoretically be better than this because they’re more talented than how they’ve played, but on the flip side, their defense is very underwhelming, especially missing their top-2 edge defenders in Dante Fowler and Takkarist McKinley. Despite that, the Falcons are favored by 4 points at home with limited homefield advantage. There isn’t quite enough here for the Broncos to be worth betting, but if Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley is unable to play through a questionable tag after not practicing all week and/or Broncos defensive tackle Shelby Harris is able to get cleared from the COVID tracing protocol, the Broncos would probably be worth a play as long as the line remains above a field goal. I will have an update if needed.

Update: Ridley is out for the Falcons, but the Broncos will not only be missing Shelby Harris, but also surprisingly slot cornerback Bryce Callahan, who practiced Thursday and Friday. Callahan is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league and his absence is an even bigger deal because the Broncos will also be without top outside cornerback AJ Bouye. The Broncos are simply too depleted in the secondary and on the defensive line to continue playing like they have in recent weeks. I’m still on the Broncos, but I would drop this to the bottom of your pick ’em pool.

Atlanta Falcons 27 Denver Broncos 23

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (1-6) at Carolina Panthers (3-4)

Coming into the season, I had the Falcons as the better of these two teams and on paper they have more talent, but the Panthers have actually outplayed them by a pretty significant amount. The Panthers have faced a tough schedule overall and have been competitive in every game, with their only loss by more than one score coming against a dominant Buccaneers team in a game in which the Buccaneers won the yards per play battle, only narrow lost the first down rate battle (+1.28%), and had the game within one score late in the 4th quarter before a meaningless touchdown, despite losing the turnover battle by 2. The Falcons, who the Panthers already defeated in Atlanta back in week 5, have been the easiest opponent on the Panthers’ schedule thus far and the Panthers won the first down battle by 4.76% in that 7-point win.

The Panthers have especially outplayed the Falcons on offense, even though that should be a strength for the Falcons. On the season, the Panthers rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate and that’s even more impressive when you consider they’ve faced the 5th toughest schedule of defenses, including a trio of top defenses in the Buccaneers, Chargers, and Bears. Including schedule adjustments, the Panthers rank 2nd in the league in first down rate over expected at +3.14%. By comparison, the Falcons rank 24th in first down rate over expected. 

The Panthers haven’t fared as well on defense, where they rank 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.56%, but offensive stats tend to be much more consistent and predictable week-to-week and the Falcons have just a narrow edge over the Panthers on defense, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.43%, as they haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball. It’s true the Falcons are three improbable blown lead away from being 4-3, but they needed to win the turnover battle against the Cowboys by 3 to gain their big lead in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 10.19% and they also lost the first down rate battle to the Lions and in their one win, against the the Vikings. 

Their only first down rate battle win came against the Bears, despite not having a particularly tough schedule, and, on the season, they rank 29th in first down rate differential over expected at -2.70%, significantly behind the 14th ranked Panthers (+1.58%). The Panthers also have the edge in yards per play differential (+0.5 vs -1.0), point differential (-6 vs. -23), and DVOA (+0.6% vs. -13.8%), although when Football Outsiders’ pre-season projections are factored in, the Falcons have the narrow edge in DVOA (-4.9% vs. -6.3%). That last part and the Falcons’ higher level of talent on paper concern me about betting on the Panthers, because by all indications, the Falcons should be better than them, but that hasn’t been the case thus far this season. 

The Falcons have had injury problems this season and have gotten healthier in recent weeks, even since their week 5 matchup with the Panthers, as they’ll have Julio Jones in the lineup this time around, while the Panthers may be going the other way, without left tackle Russell Okung and a few lesser players on the defensive side of the ball. However, it’s also a possibility the Panthers get feature back Christian McCaffrey back from injury this week, which would obviously be a big boost. 

For now, I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick and this line may change from Carolina -2.5 if McCaffrey is active, but even if it does I may consider betting the Panthers, as long as the line doesn’t exceed 3. Favorites typically are at a big advantage on Thursdays and there’s a good argument to be made for the Panthers being significantly better than the Falcons if McCaffrey can go. I will have an update if needed. I am also locking in the below picks for this week before the lines move. I will have full write ups for those picks with the others as usual this weekend.

MIN +7 @ GB

IND -2.5 @ DET

Update: McCaffrey is out, but I wasn’t really expecting him to play this week and the spread has dropped to 1 as a result. I am comfortable with the Panthers at that number as they have significantly outplayed the Falcons this season, particularly on the more predictable side of the ball.

Carolina Panthers 31 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina -1

Confidence: Medium

Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (2-3) at Atlanta Falcons (1-5)

These two teams are pretty similar. Both teams look like middling teams on paper, but have struggled in first down rate differential, with the Falcons ranking 30th at -5.53% and the Lions ranking 28th at -4.83%. Both teams have primarily struggled on defense, ranking 30th and 31st respectively in first down rate allowed, but their offenses have also been disappointing, as they have the offensive talent to be above average on that side of the ball, but have not been thus far. At their best, these are both middling teams that can compensate for a below average defense with an above average offense.

The Lions have a pair of wins, but one came against the Jaguars and the other came by just three points against the Cardinals in a game in which the Lions lost the first down rate battle by 10.50%, but managed to win because of a +3 turnover margin, which isn’t replicable every week. The Falcons, meanwhile, are legitimately a couple plays away from being 3-3, blowing near impossible to blow leads against the Cowboys and Bears, but they lost the first down rate battle against the Cowboys (-10.80%) and against the Vikings last week (-8.56%). 

When adjusted for strength of schedule, the Falcons have a decent lead in first down rate differential (-3.47% vs. -5.07%) because they’ve faced a much tougher schedule and they have the slight edge in my roster rankings as well, so they should be considered the better team, even if only by a slim margin. However, this line has it somewhat backwards, favoring the Falcons by just a point at home, suggesting the Lions are the slightly better team. It’s not enough to make the Falcons worth betting, but my calculated line is -3 and the Falcons should have a good chance to cover in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Detroit Lions 31

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -1

Confidence: Low