Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (3-10) at Atlanta Falcons (4-9)

The Falcons have had a disappointing season at 4-9, but their defense got a big boost a couple weeks ago when they got every down linebacker Deion Jones back from the foot injury that kept him out since week 1. The Falcons haven’t won either of the games since he’s been back, but he’s playing well and has resumed his old every down role. It’s obviously a small sample size, but they’ve allowed a 35.64% first down rate in the three games he’s played, as opposed to 44.23% in the 10 games he missed. The schedule gets much easier for the Falcons this week at home against the Cardinals, so I expect their improved defense to be more noticeable in this one than it was on the road in Green Bay.

While the Falcons are getting healthier, the Cardinals are going in the opposite direction. They’ve put their top-3 offensive linemen, DJ Humphries, Mike Iupati, and Justin Pugh, on injured reserve, along with their top receiver Christian Kirk, starting defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, and every down linebacker Josh Bynes. They were already one of the worst teams in the league before the injuries and they rank dead last in first down rate differential at -6.98%, They’re arguably the worst team in the league right now and an underrated Falcons team could easily give them their 8th double digit loss of the season.

The Cardinals are also in a tough spot, because they could be looking forward to next week’s home game against the Rams, which they may view as their Super Bowl. Teams typically struggle before being big home underdogs, going 24-45 ATS since 2014 before being home underdogs of 7 or more (the Cardinals are currently +11.5 on the early line). On top of that, underdogs of 7+ are 31-49 ATS over that same time period before being underdogs of 7+ again, as it’s very tough for an inferior team to hang with a superior team when they have another tough game on deck serving as a distraction. The Falcons are in Carolina next week, but that’s not nearly as tough of a game, so I give them a better shot of being focused. They also have a massive talent advantage, even in a disappointing season, and should win easily.

Atlanta Falcons 23 Arizona Cardinals 10

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -9.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-8) at Green Bay Packers (4-7-1)

I picked the Falcons last week as 1-point home favorites against the Ravens because the Falcons were getting stud middle linebacker Deion Jones back from injury and the line didn’t seem to reflect that. The Falcons lost that game 26-16, but the defense was not the reason, as they allowed a first down rate of just 33.77%, after leading the league in first down rate allowed at 43.02% through the first 11 games of the season. The Falcons actually won the first down rate by 4.01%, but lost because they went 2-9 on 3rd down and 0-1 on 4th down.

As well as the Falcons’ offense has played this season, that’s unlikely to continue, so I think this team is still a little underrated. They have a top-10 offense (8th in first down rate at 39.44%) and their defense is more respectable with Jones back in the lineup. They’re also in a great spot this week. While they get to face the Cardinals next week, a game that should provide no distractions for the Falcons this week, the Packers have a rivalry game with the Bears in Chicago that they could be looking ahead to. Underdogs like the Falcons are 92-55 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs.

All of this sounds like I’m going to be betting on the Falcons, but I’m not because the Packers have a significant talent advantage and may finally stop underachieving this week, after bottoming out with a home loss to the Cardinals that got Mike McCarthy fired. The Packers have consistently ranked high in my roster rankings and still rank 4th this week, despite injuries to key players like Bryan Bulaga and Mike Daniels, but are just 4-7-1 on the season. In past years, their issue has been defense, but they rank 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.83% and have standouts like Kenny Clark, Blake Martinez, and Jaire Alexander that are playing at Pro-Bowl levels.

The offense has been the bigger problem this season, as they rank just 18th in first down rate at 36.13%, despite having Aaron Rodgers under center for most of the season. Rodgers has had some young receivers this season, but he also has a legitimate #1 option in Davante Adams, a starting running back that is averaging 5.73 yards per carry, and a good pass protecting offensive line. He also has Randall Cobb back from injury as of last week and tight end Jimmy Graham still playing reasonably well despite a thumb injury. If this offense finally breaks through this week, the Packers could cover this 5-point line with ease, so I’m keeping this to a low confidence pick.

Green Bay Packers 31 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +5

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Atlanta Falcons: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (6-5) at Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

The Falcons have been horrendous on defense this season, allowing opponents to pick up a first down or touchdown on 43.02% of their offensive plays, worst in the NFL, but they get a big boost this week with linebacker Deion Jones returning for the first time since week 1. They’re still missing safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, but fill-in safety Damontae Kazee has actually been one of the few bright spots on this defense, so they aren’t missed nearly as much as Jones, who is arguably the best player on this defense when healthy. The Falcons have other defensive issues and were an underwhelming unit even with Jones healthy last season (8th in points per game allowed, but 18th points per drive allowed, 22nd in defensive DVOA, and 25th in first down rate allowed), but the Falcons should still be noticeably better with Jones back out there.

The Ravens, on the other hand, are missing talented safety Tony Jefferson with injury, along with quarterback Joe Flacco, who I think they’ll miss this week. Lamar Jackson is 2-0 in 2 starts, but he was heavily favored at home in both games and has been shaky as a passer. I think he’ll have a tougher time on the road against a Falcons team that should be solid going forward if they can play even passable defense. Their offense is better than it was last season, even with an inconsistent running game, as Matt Ryan is back to playing at an MVP level. In a game they just have to win to cover, I like the Falcons at home a good amount because I think they’re the slightly better of these two teams right now.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -1.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-6) at New Orleans Saints (9-1)

The Saints have had an incredible 3-week stretch. They started as home underdogs week 9 against the Rams, but ended up winning that game by 10, handing the Rams their first loss and putting themselves in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the NFC. They then had a pair of potential letdown spots, going on the road to Cincinnati week 10 after that big win over the Rams and then playing a sub-.500 Eagles team at home week 11 with this divisional clash looming just 4 days later, but they won both games by a combined 78 points, becoming the third team in the past 30 years to win back-to-back games by 35+ points.

There are reasons to like the Falcons in this one as 13-point underdogs. Quarterback Matt Ryan is playing as well as he ever has and should be perfectly capable of getting a backdoor cover late against a Saints defense that has been inconsistent this season. They also almost beat the Saints in Atlanta earlier this year and are in a good spot in a same season divisional rematch. Divisional road underdogs are 68-40 ATS since 2002 in the regular season against a team that previously beat them as underdogs.

Despite that, I’m taking the Saints, who are playing well enough right now to be favored by two touchdowns in this one. The Falcons gave up 43 points in the first matchup and their defense remains one of the worst in the league with linebacker Deion Jones still sidelined. This could be a blowout that gets out of hand early, like the Saints’ past two games. Matt Ryan and this Falcons offense could keep it somewhat competitive, but I’d feel comfortable having the Saints in this one for pick ‘em purposes.

New Orleans Saints 38 Atlanta Falcons 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -13

Confidence: None

Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons: 2018 Week 11 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (4-5) at Atlanta Falcons (4-5)

Both of these teams are pretty banged up. The Falcons are missing starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen for the season, while recently activated linebacker Deion Jones is at least a week from returning for the first time since week 1. Without those three, the Falcons have ranked dead last in first down rate allowed at 44.04%. On offense, they are without starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco and starting running back Devonta Freeman, which has led to an inconsistent running game. Another MVP caliber year from Matt Ryan has kept this offense among the better in the league, ranking 7th in first down rate at 40.58%, but this passing game can’t carry this team to the playoffs by itself.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, could be without both starting guards Connor Williams and Zack Martin, though the latter is expected to continue playing through his knee injury. Already without center Travis Frederick since the pre-season, this offensive line is not nearly what it once was, leading to an offense that ranks just 21st in first down rate at 34.55%. Their defense has been what’s kept them respectable, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.57%, and they are coming off of a strong performance in Philadelphia, despite their defensive injuries. They have a great #1 cornerback in Byron Jones, #1 edge rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence, and two great every down linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, so they’re still one of the better defenses in the league even with a few starters missing.

On paper, I have the Cowboys a couple spots ahead of the Falcons, so we’re getting some line value with the Cowboys as road favorites of more than a field goal. It’s only a half point, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, including 1 in 6 by exactly a field goal, so it’s a very significant half point. The Cowboys are also in a slightly better spot. Both of these teams have to play again in 4 days on Thanksgiving, but the Cowboys get to host the Redskins, while the Falcons have to go to New Orleans, which is much more difficult.

Favorites typically don’t cover before being underdogs if their opponent will next be favorites, going 53-89 ATS since 2014, and that’s especially true before being double digit underdogs, which the Falcons are on the early line (+11) in New Orleans. You have to go back 30 years to get a good sample size, but teams are just 21-52 ATS in that spot. The Cowboys should be able to keep this close and have a good chance to pull the upset and steal one on the road.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Atlanta Falcons 23 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Dallas +3.5

Confidence: High

Atlanta Falcons at Cleveland Browns: 2018 Week 10 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-4) at Cleveland Browns (2-6-1)

This line has moved significantly since the early line last week, as the Falcons have gone from being 1-point favorites to now being 6-point favorites. That’s a 5-point line movement that moves through key numbers of 3 and 4, the kind of line movement typically reserved for quarterback injuries. The reason for that is the Falcons blowout win in Washington last week, but that win isn’t as impressive as it looks at first glance because the Redskins are nowhere near as good as their record at 5-3. They have a negative point differential at -12, despite a +7 turnover margin, and rank 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.42%. They also happened to basically lose their entire offensive line to injury in the game.

The Browns didn’t play that well at home for the Chiefs last week, but it was good to see their offense perform well in their first game without Hue Jackson or Todd Haley. New offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens is a former running backs coach and he’s put more of an emphasis on running the ball with talented rookie lead back Nick Chubb and also getting pass catching back Duke Johnson more involved in the offense to combat their lack of depth and experience at wide receiver.

The Browns’ defense is also getting better, with safety Damarious Randall likely returning from a one-game absence, cornerback Denzel Ward returning after getting hurt early in last week’s game, and linebacker Joe Schobert likely returning from a 3 and a half game absence. Schobert was playing at a high level before going down and their recent defensive struggles have coincided with his absence, so his return, even if he’s not quite at 100%, will be huge for this defense. They lost fellow linebacker Christian Kirksey for the season last week, but he had not been playing well of late.

With the Browns getting closer to full health, the Falcons should not be favored by this many points on the road against them. This is not the same Falcons team as recent years, with Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Devonta Foreman all on injured reserve. Prior to last week’s win over the mediocre Redskins, they played close games at home against the Buccaneers and Giants. Their offense is strong, but even after last week’s win, they still rank dead last in first down rate allowed at 43.85%. I like the Browns’ chances of keeping this one close and give them an outside chance at pulling the upset.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Cleveland Browns 31

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +6

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Washington Redskins: 2018 Week 9 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (3-4) at Washington Redskins (5-2)

The Redskins were on my overrated list at the beginning of the week, just because I didn’t think their 5-2 record was indicative of how they’ve played. They’ve benefitted from a 3-0 record in games decided by 7 points or less and a +7 turnover margin, but turnover margins are highly inconsistent week-to-week, so they can’t keep relying on that to win them close games, and they rank just 22nd in first down rate differential at -0.91%.

Given that, I was shocked when they opened as mere 1.5-point home favorites over a banged up Falcons team. The Redskins are not as good as their 5-2 record, but they still have a solid team. The Falcons, meanwhile, are incredibly banged up on defense, missing safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and linebacker Deion Jones, three of their best defensive players from a defense that had the 3rd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2017.

As a result, they rank dead last in first down rate allowed, giving up a first down or touchdown on 45.18% of defensive snaps. They’ve allowed 180 first downs and 26 offensive touchdowns through just 7 games, which puts them on pace for 411 first downs and 59 offensive touchdowns allowed on the season, both of which would be the most since the 1981 Baltimore Colts. Their offense has played well, ranking 8th in first down rate at 40.27%, but that’s not enough to keep up with what their defense is allowing (28th in first down rate differential) and they aren’t healthy on that side of the ball either, with running back Devonta Freeman and starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco out indefinitely.

This line suggests the Falcons are better than a solid Redskins team, but they haven’t shown that in recent weeks, with their only recent wins coming by a combined 8 points against the Buccaneers and Giants. I have the Redskins 4 points better than the Falcons in my rankings right now, suggesting they should be favored by about a touchdown. The Redskins have a big injury with left tackle Trent Williams injured, but backup Ty Nsekhe has played alright in his absence in recent years and the Redskins also get a big mid-week addition with safety HaHa Clinton-Dix coming over in a trade with the Packers, in the middle of arguably the best season of his career. In a game where they basically just need to win to cover, the Redskins are an obvious Pick of the Week choice in a 13-game week.

Washington Redskins 27 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Washington -1.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week