Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)

One of the biggest betting edges I’ve discovered over the years is the lack of week-to-week correlation between turnover margins. The winner of the turnover margin wins the game about 80% of the time, but turnover margins have no predictability week-to-week. Teams that lose the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.0 the following week, while teams that win the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.1 the following week. You can test this at killer sports for yourself if you’d like, but this holds true regardless of what a team’s turnover margin was the previous week. For this reason, I use first down rate as my primary evaluative stat, as it has much more week-to-week correlation and minimizes the impact of turnover margin and other inconsistent metrics on an evaluation of a team.

The Falcons are a great example of this in action. Through their first 8 games of the season, the Falcons had a -0.29% first down rate differential, but were just 1-7 due in large part to a -12 turnover margin. Since the bye, the Falcons are +5 in turnover margin and, as a result, have won 5 of 7 games. Their first down rate differential has improved slightly, as they are at +3.16% over those 7 games, but the big difference has been turnover margin. They’re still negative in turnover margin on the season at -7, but now at 6-9, their first down rate differential of +1.14% on the season (in the NFL) is much more in line with their record. 

I do make a few exceptions to the inconsistent turnover margin rule. One is the Patriots, who have proven to be the exception to most rules over the past two decades and have consistently won the turnover battle throughout the Brady/Belichick era. Since 2000, they have a +210 turnover margin and the next closest team is at +95. Another exception is Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston, who has consistently been among the league leaders in giveaways in his 5 seasons in the league. 

In 69 career starts, Winston has 136 combined interceptions and fumbles, 31 more than any quarterback in the league over that stretch. The Buccaneers are more than just their quarterback, but it would make sense that they would have a negative turnover margin with a quarterback like Winston under center. Since Winston entered the league in 2015, the Buccaneers have the 4th worst turnover margin in the league at -33, including -11 this season (5th worst in the NFL).

That’s not to say that Winston doesn’t bring a lot to the table that is good, as he has a career 7.74 YPA average, including 8.15 YPA this season, 5th in the NFL, which has led the Buccaneers to a 37.02% first down rate, 12th in the NFL, but after 5 years in the league it’s clear that he’s just more turnover prone than the average quarterback. Making matters even worse, Winston is playing this game at less than 100% through an injured thumb and without his top-2 wide receivers. 

The Buccaneers have the edge over the Falcons in first down rate differential this season (+2.20% vs. +1.14%) and their defense has been significantly better since week 7, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.33% over that stretch, due to the return of edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the emergence of several young defensive backs in what was once the worst secondary in the NFL, but my roster rankings have the Falcons ranked slightly higher than the Buccaneers, which I think is more accurate. The Falcons have also faced a significantly tougher schedule this season, with a 56% combined opponents winning percentage (highest in the NFL), as opposed to 50% for the Buccaneers.

All that being said, we’re actually still getting some line value with the Buccaneers this week, as this line is even, suggesting the visiting Falcons are about 2-3 points better than the hometown Buccaneers. My calculated line is Tampa Bay -2. Winston’s turnover proneness is a problem, but as I’ve mentioned he also does a lot well, even at less than 100%, and the Buccaneers’ defense has actually been downright stifling over the past few weeks, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.59% over the past 6 games. The absences of wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are obviously significant, but the Falcons are missing key players like wide receiver Calvin Ridley, cornerback Desmond Trufant, and defensive ends Takkarist McKinley and Adrian Clayborn. There’s not enough here to bet on the Buccaneers confidently, but they should be the right side.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay PK

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9) at Atlanta Falcons (5-9)

The Jaguars won last week in Oakland, snapping a 5-game losing streak, but they weren’t impressive. Not only did they lose the first down rate battle by 3.04% in a game that could have gone either way, but the Raiders are also one of the worst teams in the league, ranking 29th in the NFL on the season in first down rate differential. That win doesn’t change my opinion of the Jaguars and, prior to last week’s win, the Jaguars were the 3rd team in the past 30 seasons to lose 5 consecutive games by 14 points or more, so they still have a lot of problems. 

Their offense has been terrible all season, ranking 30th in first down rate on the season at 31.40%, and their defense has been especially bad since trading Jalen Ramsey after week 6, ranking 30th in the NFL in first down rate allowed over that stretch at 40.49%. As a result of their struggles on both sides of the ball, they have a -10.24% first down rate differential since week 6, worst in the NFL over that stretch by a large margin, with their opponents last week the Oakland Raiders having the second worst at -7.33%. 

The Falcons, meanwhile, have the same record as the Jaguars, but have been better than their record suggests and significantly better than the Jaguars, ranking 17th in first down rate differential at -0.38%, despite facing the league’s toughest schedule (58% opponents winning percentage). The Falcons started the season 1-7 before their week 9 bye, but their biggest problem was the turnover battle, as they had -0.29% first down rate differential but a -12 turnover margin. Fortunately, turnovers tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis and they’ve been +6 in turnover margin since the bye. 

As a result, the Falcons have gone 4-2, including wins on the road in New Orleans and San Francisco, despite their first down rate differential only being slightly better in those 6 games than it was before the bye (+0.12%). Assuming they play turnover neutral football, which should almost always be assumed about most teams, the Falcons shouldn’t have much trouble at home against one of the worst teams in the league. 

This line, favoring the Falcons by 7.5, suggests a large talent gap between these two teams, but I think this line should be even higher, with my calculated line being Atlanta -11. We’ve lost line value with the Falcons going from 6.5-point favorites on the early line last week to 7.5-point favorites this week, but I still like the Falcons enough to bet on them. If this line drops back down to a touchdown before gametime, I’ll probably increase this bet.

Atlanta Falcons 31 Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (4-9) at San Francisco 49ers (11-2)

The 49ers got a huge win last week in New Orleans in arguably the game of the year in the NFL thus far. With head-to-head wins over the Packers and Saints, the 49ers are in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the NFC if they can hold off the Seahawks for the division. Unfortunately, that game did not come without losses for the 49ers, as they will be without cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams, defensive end Dee Ford, defensive tackle DJ Jones, and center Weston Richburg for at least this week, some of them for an extended period of time. They join safety Jaquiski Tartt, defensive end Ronald Blair, and linebacker Kwon Alexander on the sidelines. 

The 49ers have dealt with key injuries pretty much all season, but this is the most banged up they’ve been at once and, as a result, they enter this game just 7th in my roster rankings. They also might not bring their best effort this week, playing a 4-win Falcons team in between a huge win against the Saints and a divisional matchup with the Rams. The Falcons have been better since their bye, but the 49ers probably won’t take them as seriously as some of their recent opponents like the Ravens and Saints.

With that in mind, I like the Falcons a good amount this week. The Falcons are dealing with some key injuries as well, losing wide receiver Calvin Ridley and cornerback Desmond Trufant for the season last week, but they’re in much better shape injury wise than the 49ers and they’re better than their 4-9 record suggests. On the season, they rank 18th in first down rate differential, but have been held back by a -7 turnover margin, which tends to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

During their week 9 bye, the Falcons were just 1-7 with a -12 turnover margin, but a -0.29% first down rate differential. Since that bye, their first down rate differential is largely unchanged at -0.18%, but they’re +4 in turnover margin and, as a result, have won 3 out of 5 games. It’ll obviously still be tough for the Falcons to win straight up on the road against the 49ers, even with the 49ers at much less than full strength, but we’re getting 11 points of cushion with them, so they definitely don’t have to win to cover. My calculated line is 7.5, so we’re getting enough value with the visitors for them to be worth a bet.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +11

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-7) at Atlanta Falcons (3-9)

When these two teams met a few weeks ago, the Panthers were favored by 4.5 points at home, but ended up getting blown out by a final score of 29-3. Now in the rematch, the Falcons are favored by a field goal at home, suggesting these two teams are about even, whereas the previous line suggested the Panthers were a couple points better. We’re not getting as much line value with the Falcons as we were in the previous matchup, but this line is still off. 

The Falcons have lost back-to-back home games since the previous matchup, first to the Buccaneers and then to the Saints, but they actually won the first down rate battle against New Orleans, despite missing their top-2 receivers in terms of yards per game, Julio Jones and Austin Hooper. Both of those players will return this week, the latter from a 3-game absence. On the season, the Falcons are actually about even in first down rate differential, ranking 18th in the NFL at -0.29%. Their 3-9 record is largely the result of their -11 turnover margin (4th worst in the NFL), but turnover margins don’t correlate week-to-week, so the Falcons aren’t necessarily going to continue losing the turnover battle going forward. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, have also lost back-to-back games since the previous matchup, but that’s part of a larger trend for this team, as they’ve completely bottomed out over the past couple months after a 4-2 start. Since the start of week 7, only the Raiders and the Jaguars have a worse first down rate differential than the Panthers, who are at -7.22%. Their one win during that time frame came against the Titans in a game in which the Panthers lost the first down rate battle but won by 10 because the Titans missed 3 field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. 

On the season, the Panthers rank just 23rd in first down rate differential at -2.56%, despite facing a much easier schedule than the Falcons (58% opponents win percentage vs 51%). With Jones and Hooper back and the Panthers trending downwards, I have this line calculated at Atlanta -8. A trip to San Francisco on deck looms as a potential distraction (teams are 24-49 ATS as favorites before being double digit underdogs since 2008), but the Falcons are a great value at -3 and bettable at -3.5 as well.

Atlanta Falcons 31 Carolina Panthers 24

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3

Confidence: High

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-8)

Both of these teams underperformed expectations last week, with the Saints barely escaping with a last second, game winning field goal as 10-point home favorites over the Panthers and the Falcons losing at home by 13 to the Buccaneers as 4-point favorites. That’s not surprising though, as favorites tend to underperform before a short week (44% cover spot all-time). Both teams came into last week playing pretty well too. The Falcons have just three wins all season, but two of them came in upset fashion in back-to-back weeks prior to last week, with the Falcons beating the Saints and Panthers by a combined score of 55-12. The Falcons have also played better than their 3-8 record suggests, entering this game 18th in first down rate differential at 0.22%.

The Saints, meanwhile, are one of the top teams in the league, despite their upset loss to the Falcons a few weeks ago and their close call against the Panthers last week. They only rank 13th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +1.71%, but their offense has moved the chains at a 5.30% higher rate with Drew Brees under center rather than backup Teddy Bridgewater, so with Brees back healthy the Saints are as complete as any team in the league. They’ll be without left tackle Terron Armstead in this matchup, but still have the top spot in my roster rankings without him. 

Despite that, we’re getting some line value with the Falcons as 7-point underdogs, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -4.5. However, the Saints have added motivation to win and avenge their previous loss, while the Falcons might not be totally focused in a lost season against an opponent they’ve already beaten once. Divisional road favorites of 3+ are 36-25 ATS since 1989 in a same season, regular season rematch against a team that beat them previously as home favorites. There’s also uncertainty on the Falcons’ side with top receiver Julio Jones not practicing all week. Even if he is active, he might be less than 100% and at risk of reduced snaps or in game setbacks. The Falcons are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but I wouldn’t bet on them.

New Orleans Saints 33 Atlanta Falcons 28

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +7

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-7) at Atlanta Falcons (3-7)

The Falcons were just 1-7 coming out of their bye week two weeks ago, but they were better than that record suggested, as they ranked 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%. Since the bye, the Falcons have won their past two games as big road underdogs against divisional opponents by scores of 26-9 over the Saints and 29-3 over the Panthers. As a result, they now rank 16th in first down rate differential at +0.83%. 

Unfortunately, we’re not getting much line value with the Falcons anymore, especially against a Buccaneers team that is also better than their 3-7 record (18th in first down rate differential at -0.65%). Now favored by 4, the Falcons were favored by 2.5 on the early line a week ago and prior to the New Orleans game I imagine this line would have been around even. Considering 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer, including 1 out of 6 by exactly a field goal, that’s a pretty significant shift. I have this line calculated at Atlanta -4.5, so we’re not getting any real line value with the Falcons.

With that in mind, I like the Buccaneers a little bit this week, since they’re in a much better spot. While the Buccaneers have a non-conference game on deck against the last place Jaguars, the Falcons have another game against the Saints, this time in Atlanta on Thanksgiving on a short week. Favorites only cover at about a 44% rate before Thursday Night Football and teams are also just 40-71 ATS since 2016 before being home underdogs of 4.5 or more (Atlanta is +5.5 on the early line). There isn’t enough here to bet on the Buccaneers, but they should be the right side.

Atlanta Falcons 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +4

Confidence: Low

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (2-7) at Carolina Panthers (5-4)

At 2-7, the Falcons have one of the worst records in the NFL, but peripheral stats have always suggested they’ve played better than the outcome of their games would suggest. Over the past couple weeks, the outcomes of their games have significantly improved, as they pulled off a massive upset as 13.5-point underdogs in New Orleans last week and prior to that they played a competitive game against the Seahawks with backup quarterback Matt Schaub under center. 

The Falcons won the first down rate battle by +8.57% and +6.89% respectively in those two games and now rank 16th on the season in first down rate differential at +0.65%, which aligns with my roster rankings, which have them 18th. They have the league’s worst turnover margin at -12, but that’s largely because of a 31.82% fumble recovery rate (2nd worst in the NFL) and turnover margins are unpredictable on a week-to-week basis anyway. If they can play turnover neutral football the rest of the way, they could easily continue pulling upsets in the second half of the season.

The Panthers, on the other hand, have a turnover margin of +4. They haven’t overly benefitted from turnovers, but, even with a positive turnover margin, they have a negative point differential at -3. They have a 5-4 record, but rank 23rd in first down rate differential at -2.55%, a few spots behind the Falcons, which is also consistent with my roster rankings, which also have them 23rd. The Falcons have some injury concerns on offense, with tight end Austin Hooper and running back Devonta Freeman both out, but the latter was not playing well at all and they get a big re-addition on defense with cornerback Desmond Trufant returning from a 4-game absence. The Panthers, meanwhile, will be without starting cornerback Ross Cockrell and could also be without fellow starting cornerback Donte Jackson. 

The Falcons are also in a significantly better spot. While the Panthers have a much bigger game in New Orleans next week, the Falcons get to return home and face a much easier Buccaneers’ squad. Underdogs are 69-34 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are met in this game. On top of that, divisional home favorites are just 29-64 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs. The Panthers could easily overlook the Falcons this week with arguably the toughest game of their season on deck and if that happens the Falcons could easily catch them off guard and pull the upset this week.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost some line value with the Falcons since last week, with the Falcons going from +7 on the early line to +4.5 this week, but I have the Falcons a couple points better in my rankings and I have this line calculated at even as a result. About 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer, so we’re still getting good protection in case the Falcons can’t pull the upset, but I like the Falcons chances of winning straight up as well, in such a great spot. This is my Pick of the Week.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Carolina Panthers 27 Upset Pick +175

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +4.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week