Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-10)

The Falcons have had a disappointing season and will be watching the post-season from home, but they’ve played better in recent weeks thanks to the return of dominant every down linebacker Deion Jones. Key defensive players suffering significant injuries early in the season is the primary reason for their disappointing year, as they ranked dead last in first down rate allowed at 43.02% through 11 games, but they’ve allowed a first down rate of 35.54% in 4 games since Jones returned.

Their offense has been strong throughout, ranking 9th in first down rate at 39.40%, as their strong passing offense has made up for an inconsistent running game, so if Jones had stayed healthy all year there’s a good chance the Falcons would at least still be in the playoff hunt right now. Over the past 4 weeks, they rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +3.40%. Despite that, they are 1.5-point road underdogs in Tampa Bay against a mediocre Buccaneers team, as casual bettors may not realize how important Jones is to this defense.

The Buccaneers rank 18th in the NFL in first down rate differential on the season at -0.16%, which is decent, but they start one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league, they rank 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.00%, and they are missing two key offensive playmakers in wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end OJ Howard. Over the past 4 weeks, they are just 24th in first down rate differential, as injuries have started to pile up.

It’s not just a talent gap between these teams either, as the Buccaneers probably won’t be at their best with head coach Dirk Koetter expected to be let go after the game. Koetter seems to know he’ll be gone and has even said he’s going to try to get 3rd string quarterback Ryan Griffin in the game because he hasn’t gotten a chance to play yet, so it doesn’t sound like they’re treating this as a normal game. Even if Jameis Winston can keep this game close, the Falcons would likely pull ahead when Griffin comes in. I like the Falcons a lot this week.

Atlanta Falcons 26 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +1.5

Confidence: High

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (5-9) at Carolina Panthers (6-8)

The Panthers got off to a great start to the season, starting 6-2, but they’ve been in freefall ever since, losing 6 straight to effectively eliminate themselves from the post-season. Most of those losses were close, with five straight losses by a touchdown or less, and they won the first down rate battle in four of those close losses, so they could easily have 8-9 wins right now if a few snaps went differently, but with their season essentially over, the Panthers have decided to shut injured quarterback Cam Newton down for the season.

Newton getting shut down caused this line to shift to Atlanta -3, after originally being Carolina -3 early in the week (and Carolina -6 on the early line last week). Originally I liked Atlanta a lot at +3, because this isn’t a good spot for the Panthers, sandwiched in between two huge games against the Saints, but Newton has been part of the problem lately, throwing at least one interception in all 6 of the Panthers’ losses, including 6 in the past 3 games, so I think this line shifted way too much for his absence.

The Falcons are still an average team at best and the Panthers have played a lot of close games (7 of 8 losses by a touchdown or less), even with underwhelming quarterback play in recent weeks. New starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke is a complete wild card, with 5 career pass attempts in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2015, and we’re not getting nearly enough points to bet on the Panthers confidently with him under center, but I like the Panthers for pick ‘em purposes now that they’re getting a field goal.

Final Update: Kawaan Short was ruled out Sunday morning with a calf injury, after surprisingly playing through it last week against the Saints. That’s yet another big loss for the Panthers, who also placed linebacker Shaq Thompson on injured reserve this week. The Falcons, meanwhile, have played better defensively since getting linebacker Deion Jones back a few weeks ago. This is still a no confidence pick, but I’m changing sides.

Atlanta Falcons 24 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3

Confidence: None

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