Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

The Rams’ offense had serious injury issues last week against the Cardinals, but things seem to be getting better quickly. Running back Cam Akers, who struggled while playing at less than 100% last week, was not listed with an injury designation this week and, while fellow running back Darrell Henderson remains out, Akers should be healthy enough to be an effective lead back, with Malcolm Brown being a capable running back behind him. 

The Rams will also get #1 wide receiver Cooper Kupp back from one-game COVID absence and, probably even more importantly, they’ll get stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth back from a 7-game absence. The big question though is the health of quarterback Jared Goff, who sat out last week after thumb surgery. Goff reportedly practiced this week and threw the ball well, but he should be considered less than 100% even if he does suit up and there’s a possibility we’ll see unproven backup John Wolford for some or all of this game. 

The quarterback situation is a concern because the Rams haven’t been a particularly good offense this season overall, even with minimal injuries beyond the absences mentioned above, only one of which (Whitworth’s) was longer than a game. On the season, the Rams rank 21st in first down rate over expected at -0.36% and I would expect them to be even more below average now, given their quarterback situation. 

The Rams’ defense has been dominant, leading the league with a -5.05% first down rate allowed over expected, but defensive performance is much less consistent week-to-week than offensive performance. If the Rams’ don’t get a dominant performance from their defense, they could be in a lot of trouble and there’s no guarantee they’ll get one, given the inherent game-to-game inconsistency of defensive performance.

The Seahawks, in many ways, have been the opposite. Their defense struggled mightily earlier in the season, but they’ve been significantly improved in recent weeks, due in part to the inherent inconsistency of defensive play, but also due to the return of top cornerback Shaq Griffin and top safety Jamal Adams, as well as the addition of top edge rusher Carlos Dunlap at the trade deadline. Now they rank 15th in the league in first down rate allowed at +0.28% and they’re more talented than that suggests when Griffin, Adams, and Dunlap are on the field together

That gives the Seahawks a great compliment for an offense that has remained strong throughout the season, ranking 6th in first down rate over expected at +2.05%. They’re also getting healthier on offense, as left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Brandon Shell will return, giving the Seahawks’ their full offensive line healthy together for the first time since week 4. I’m going to leave this as a low confidence pick at -3 for now, but only because I want to see what happens with this line when Goff is announced as the starter, which seems like it will be the case. If this line drops below 2.5, the Seahawks are an easy bet and, even if it stays put at 3, I could be talked into betting Seattle.

Update: I don’t expect this line to go down to 2.5 anymore because the news on Goff on gameday isn’t as good as it was earlier in the week, when it seemed likely that he would play. Now reports suggest he may only be active as an emergency backup, meaning unproven backup John Wolford would be likely to play all or most of this game. If that turns out to be the case, this line may shoot back up to 3.5-4.5. I think that’s more likely than a drop to 2.5, so I’m going to lock in -3. Even if Goff is able to play, it would likely be at less than 100% and I like getting the Seahawks as mere field goal favorites against a banged up Goff or his backup Wolford.

Seattle Seahawks 23 Los Angeles Rams 17

Pick against the spread: Seattle -3

Confidence: Medium

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

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Washington Football Team (7-9)

The Washington Football Team has made the post-season at 7-9, just the third time in NFL history a team with a losing record has made the playoffs. Washington’s record and the fact that they only qualified for the playoffs because they’re in a terrible division in the NFC East has caused them to be seen as an illegitimate playoff team by some, but Washington actually could have had 9 or 10 wins fairly easily, as their went 0-3 in games decided by 3 points or fewer, including a pair of games against the Giants in which they lost by 4 points combined, despite winning the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, as a result of a combined -6 turnover margin in those 2 games. 

Turnover margin is highly inconsistent week-to-week and Washington was +2 in turnovers other than those 2 games, so it’s not hard to see how Washington could easily be 9-7 right now (not even including a near victory against Detroit). If Washington was 9-7, I think they would be getting a little bit more respect going into the post-season, especially since they are 5-1 in games started by Alex Smith, with the one loss being that loss to Detroit. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington ranks 10th at +1.57%, which is also in line with roughly a 9-7 team.

Washington is led by their defense, which ranks 3rd in the NFL in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.36%. That’s somewhat of a concern because defensive play is much more inconsistent week-to-week than offensive play and Washington’s offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.79%, but Washington’s offense has been better in recent weeks. Not only because Alex Smith has been their best starting quarterback this season, but also because their offensive line is at full strength and playing at a high level in recent weeks. That helped them stay competitive even in the two games Alex Smith missed with injury down the stretch.

Unfortunately, Smith’s injury situation seems to be getting worse, not better, with Washington looking likely to rotate Smith and Taylor Heinicke at quarterback in this one, to keep Smith fresh. Heinicke even took most of the first team reps in practice on Thursday, though Smith is still expected to be able to go in a limited capacity. Heinicke is probably better than either Kyle Allen or Dwayne Haskins, Washington’s other quarterbacks besides Smith this season, and Washington’s offensive line should be a big help for him, but, of further concern, their feature back Antonio Gibson and top wide receiver Terry McLaurin are also playing at less than 100% through injuries, though they’re both in better shape than Smith. The injury uncertainty of their three most important offensive skill position players makes it tough to be confident in Washington.

What also makes it tough to be confident in Washington is that their opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are legitimately one of the best teams in the league and, while they might not quite justify being 8-point favorites over a capable Washington team, they come close to it, so we’re not getting the kind of line value with Washington that we could need to bet them in their current injury situation. Like Washington was better than their 7-9 record, Tampa Bay was also better than their 11-5 record, as their 5 losses all came against playoff qualifiers, including 3 losses by 3 points or fewer. 

Overall, Tampa Bay finished 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.46% and they were one of just two teams in the league (New Orleans) to finish in the top-10 in both first down rate over expected and first down rate allowed over expected. Their defense carried them early in the season and, though they had some expected regression on that side of the ball, they still finished 5th at -2.77%, while their offense improved as the season went on and Tom Brady got more familiarity in this offense and more consistency from his receiving corps, leading to them finishing 9th at +1.69%. My roster rankings also support the Buccaneers being seen as a top contender, ranking Tampa Bay 3rd among playoff qualifiers. We’re still getting some line value with Washington (my calculated line is Tampa Bay -6.5, with Washington’s injury uncertainty factored in), but not nearly enough to be confident in them in their current injury situation.

Update: Smith has been ruled out and this line has jumped to 10 in response. I don’t think Heinicke is a big downgrade from a banged up Smith and he’s played better than all of Washington’s other non-Alex Smith quarterbacks, so I like Washington against the spread little more at the new line, though not nearly enough to bet on them.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Washington Football Team 16

Pick against the spread: Washington +10

Confidence: Low

NFL Against The Spread Pick Results (2013-2020)

2020 Regular Season

Total Against the Spread: 130-122-4 (51.59%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 16-12 (57.14%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 39-34-1 (53.42%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 65-52-2 (55.66%)

Low Confidence Picks: 46-38 (54.76%)

No Confidence Picks: 19-32-2 (37.25%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 18-18 (50.00%)

2019

Total Against the Spread: 134-125-8 (51.74%)

Pick of the Week: 12-3-2 (80.00%)

High Confidence Picks: 20-11-1 (64.52%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 35-36-2 (49.30%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 67-50-5 (57.26%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-40-1 (46.67%)

No Confidence Picks: 32-35-2 (47.76%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 22-21 (51.16%)

2018

Total Against the Spread: 154-102-11 (60.16%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-13-2 (61.76%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 41-27-1 (60.29%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 72-46-4 (61.02%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-28-1 (55.56%)

No Confidence Picks: 47-28-6 (62.67%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 25-17-1 (59.52%)

2017

Total Against the Spread: 139-120-8 (53.67%)

Pick of the Week: 11-6 (64.71%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-11-3 (65.63%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 33-34-1 (49.25%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 65-51-4 (56.03%)

Low Confidence Picks: 44-38-4 (53.66%)

No Confidence Picks: 30-31 (49.18%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 19-25 (43.18%)

2016

Total Against the Spread: 130-127-10 (50.58%)

Pick of the Week: 11-6-0 (64.71%)

High Confidence Picks: 12-17-2 (41.38%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 42-26-4 (61.76%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 65-49-6 (57.02%)

Low Confidence Picks: 34-40-2 (45.95%)

No Confidence Picks: 31-38-2 (44.93%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 26-25 (50.98%)

2015

Total Against the Spread: 124-138-5 (47.33%)

Pick of the Week: 9-8 (52.94%)

High Confidence Picks: 14-11 (56.00%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 35-36-1 (49.30%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 58-55-1 (51.33%)

Low Confidence Picks: 36-45-2 (44.44%)

No Confidence Picks: 30-38-2 (44.12%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 16-30 (34.78%)

2014

Total Against the Spread: 150-113-4 (57.03%)

Pick of the Week: 9-7-1 (56.25%)

High Confidence Picks: 9-11 (45.00%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 57-31 (64.77%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 75-49-1 (60.48%)

Low Confidence Picks: 36-32-2 (52.94%)

No Confidence Picks: 39-32-1 (54.93%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 19-25 (43.18%)

2013

Total Against the Spread: 148-110-9 (57.36%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 25-10-1 (71.43%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 32-26 (55.17%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 67-42-2 (61.47%)

Low Confidence Picks: 39-28-3 (58.21%)

No Confidence Picks: 42-40-4 (51.22%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 27-31 (46.55%)

All-Time (Since 2013)

Total Against the Spread: 1109-957-59 (53.68%)

Pick of the Week: 82-48-6 (63.08%)

High Confidence Picks: 138-96-9 (58.97%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 314-250-10 (55.67%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 534-394-25 (57.54%)

Low Confidence Picks: 305-289-15 (51.35%)

No Confidence Picks: 270-274-19 (49.63%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 172-192-1 (47.25%)

2020 Week 17 NFL Picks

Pick of the Week

CIN +14 vs. BAL

High Confidence Picks

WAS -3.5 @ PHI

Medium Confidence Picks

SEA -7 @ SF

NO -5 @ CAR

DET +4 vs. MIN

NE -3 vs. NYJ

Low Confidence Picks

KC +4 vs. LAC

BUF -1.5 vs. MIA

NYG +1.5 vs. DAL

GB -4 @ CHI

LAR +3 v. ARZ

No Confidence Picks

TB -6.5 vs. ATL

HOU +7.5 vs. TEN

JAX +14.5 @ IND

DEN +2.5 vs. LV

PIT +9.5 @ CLE

Upset Picks

NYG +110 vs. DAL

Las Vegas Raiders at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (7-8) at Denver Broncos (5-10)

The Raiders lost last week in crushing fashion, kicking what they thought was the game winning field goal with 19 seconds left in the game, only to allow the Dolphins to go 49 yards in one play with no timeouts left to get into position to kick their own game winning field goal, ending the Raiders’ faint playoff chances and effectively their season. Despite that loss, the Raiders have gone from being underdogs of 2.5 points on the early line last week to being 2.5 point favorites this week. That might be confusing at first glance, but when you look at how the Raiders played last week, it’s more understandable. 

Despite losing the game, the Raiders actually won the first down rate battle by 8.25%. They lost the game because they committed the game’s only turnover and because they went a ridiculous 0 for 10 on 3rd down and 1 of 2 on 4th down. Despite their futility on 3rd and 4th downs, the Raiders still managed 23 first downs in the game, meaning they picked up 22 first downs on first or second down. That’s very encouraging to see because performance on those downs tends to be more predictive. That they moved the ball as effectively as they did on first and second down and still lost makes that loss all the more crushing, but it helps their projection going forward, as they go into the final game of their season, so it’s understandable that this line would move. 

Five points of line movement (from +2.5 to -2.5) seems like a lot, but neither line crosses the key number of 3, so it’s not overly impactful line movement. In addition to how the Raiders played last week, the Broncos also lost their top defensive lineman Shelby Harris to injury, which is a big blow to an already injury plagued Broncos defense. The Broncos are very reliant on their defense, which ranks 8th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.20%, to cover for an offense that ranks just 31st in first down rate over expected at -3.86% and if their defense can’t perform up to their usual level because of injury absences, the Broncos would have a tough time beating most teams, so it’s understandable they’re no longer favored in this game.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, despite how they played last week, they’re still well below average in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, ranking 23rd at -1.53%. The Raiders’ 7-8 record isn’t bad, but 6 of their 7 wins have come by 10 points or fewer, while 4 of their 8 losses have come by 16 points or more, giving them a -45 point differential. Their one win by more than 10 points came against these Broncos in week 10, but that was a game in which the Broncos lost the turnover battle by 5, something that is highly unlikely to happen again this week, given the inconsistent nature of turnover margins. The Raiders only won the first down rate battle by 2.31% in that game, despite the final score being 37-12. I have the Raiders calculated as 1-point favorites in this rematch in Denver, so we’re getting slight line value with the Broncos at +2.5, but not nearly enough to take them with any confidence.

Las Vegas Raiders 26 Denver Broncos 24

Pick against the spread: Denver +2.5

Confidence: None

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (10-5) at Buffalo Bills (12-3)

This is one of the toughest calls of the week because no one seems to know what the Bills are going to be doing with their star players. Like Pittsburgh, Buffalo is locked into either the 2 or 3 seed in the AFC, so there is speculation that they could follow the Steelers’ lead and rest their starters week 17. Adding evidence to this speculation is the fact that the Bills rested starters in week 17 of last season, though that came in a situation where the Bills were locked into the 5 seed. 

This situation is a little different for a couple reasons, so I’m not so sure we won’t see the Bills try in this one. For one, the Bills may still want the #2 seed, which they would clinch with a win over the Dolphins and a loss by Pittsburgh’s backups in Cleveland. The Steelers don’t seem to see a big difference between the 2 and 3 seed, but the Bills may see it differently. The Bills’ first playoff game next week will be their first home playoff game in 25 years and, unlike the Steelers, the Bills will be allowed to have limited fan attendance at their playoff games. 

Seeing as it’s been so long since they’ve hosted a playoff game, they may be motivated by the opportunity to host two, which they would if they got the #2 seed and won the first playoff game, while landing the 3 seed would force them to go to Pittsburgh in the 2nd round (assuming both teams win in the first round). They wouldn’t have to deal with any road fans in Pittsburgh if they had to play there, but they could desire to play in their home stadium in a way that the Steelers don’t seem to. On top of that, they may want to get Josh Allen another chance to prove himself in the MVP race. All of this is speculation, of course, but there are reasons why the Bills won’t necessarily follow the Steelers’ lead and give their stars the week off before the playoffs to avoid potential injury.

This line, favoring the Bills by 1.5 points, seems to suggest that there is a chance that the Bills play their stars, but that they probably won’t play the whole game. This line was Buffalo -5.5 on the early line last week and a mere 4-point swing doesn’t seem to suggest that Allen and company won’t play beyond the first series, but the odds makers clearly aren’t treating this as a normal game either. If this was a normal game and the Bills were favored by 5.5, I likely would have been all over the Bills, as the gap between these two teams is much bigger than these records suggest. 

Four of the Dolphins’ wins have come against the three worst teams in the league, the Jets (twice), the Jaguars, and the Bengals, while just two of their wins have come against teams with a .500 or better record, a 3-point victory over the 8-7 Cardinals and a win over the 9-6 Rams in which the Dolphins managed just 8 first downs and 145 yards of offense and primarily won because they had return touchdowns of 78 yards and 88 yards, which certainly is not sustainable every week. 

Beyond those two return touchdowns, the Dolphins have benefitted from other metrics that have little predictive value, ranking 3rd in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 73.91%, 8th in fumble recovery rate at 57.14%, and leading the league in turnover margin at +11. Recovering fumbles and opponents missing field goals are not replicable skills, while turnover margin is very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis as well. Teams with a turnover margin of +10 or more in week 15 or later, on average, have a +0.64 turnover margin over the final 3 games of the season, leading to them covering the spread at just a 46.2% rate in those games.

Overall, the Dolphins rank 19th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.41%, which is a more predictive stat. That lines up with my roster rankings, which also have the Dolphins 19th. The Dolphins have also been slightly better offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center than Tua Tugavailoa, but, with Fitzpatrick on the COVID list, Tua will have to play this whole game. Making matters worse, his top-two wide receiver Devante Parker and Jakeem Grant are questionable and likely would be limited at less than 100% if they did play.

The Bills, meanwhile, rank 5th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.50%, 5th in my roster rankings, and may be even better than that suggests. Offense is the more predictable and predictive side of the ball and the Bills have absolutely dominated on that side of the ball this season, leading the league with a +4.83% first down rate over expected that dwarfs the 2nd place Chiefs, who are “only” are +3.63. The Bills’ defense has been an issue, allowing a +1.33% first down rate over expected, 26th in the league, but, beyond the inherent unpredictability of defensive play, there is plenty of reason to expect the Bills to be better than that defensively going forward, now that they are much healthier than they were earlier this season. After the Chiefs, the Bills look like the clear 2nd best team in the AFC. 

My calculated line would have them favored by 9 points over a middling at best Dolphins team if this was a normal game. Given that, I’m inclined to take the Bills this week, as this line is 7.5 points lower than where it should be without clear confirmation that the Bills will be resting starters and not taking this game seriously. It’s hard to wager any money on a game this uncertain, but unless I hear that the Bills will be resting their starters for the full game, I am going to be on the Bills at -1.5 for a low confidence pick.

Buffalo Bills 23 Miami Dolphins 20

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -1.5

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-5) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-10-1)

The primary stat I use to handicap games is schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which tends to be more predictive than other stats because it minimizes the impact of stats that tend to be less predictable on a week-to-week basis, like turnover margins, return touchdowns, missed field goals, big plays, and third and fourth down conversion rates. It also takes into account level of competition. One thing that stands out when looking at this stat is the Ravens, who lead the league with a +130 point differential, but rank just 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.81%. 

Part of that is because the Ravens have played a significantly below average schedule, but beyond that a deeper dive into the numbers is needed. The Ravens had a stretch earlier this season where they lost 4 of 5 games, but one of those games was a game in which the Ravens were missing seemingly half their team due to COVID protocols and the Ravens have won 4 straight games since. Upon closer look into those 4 games, the reasons why the Ravens rank so much lower in first down rate than points start to show.

In their first win, they played the Cowboys and actually lost the first down rate battle by 2.63%, despite winning the game by 17. The Cowboys picked up 29 first downs in that game, but had one play over 20 yards and missed 3 field goals, so their first downs didn’t translate to many points against the Ravens. In their second win, it was a close game down to the wire against the Browns and the Ravens won the first down rate battle by just 0.93%. In their third win, they won the first down rate battle by 9.57%, but against Jacksonville, who ranks dead last in the NFL.

Last week, they beat the Giants by 14, but lost the first down rate battle by 0.21%. The Giants had trouble sustaining drives because they went just 1 for 10 on third down and 1 for 3 on fourth down, while the Ravens went 8 for 11 on third down and didn’t have to attempt a fourth down, but third and fourth down performance tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and it’s very concerning to see that the Giants got 22 of their 24 first downs on first and second down, as performance on those downs tends to be more predictive. 

Looking back even further reveals a similar pattern. Their one win during the stretch in which they lost four of five came against the Colts by 14 points, but the Ravens lost the first down rate battle by 0.26%. The Colts primarily lost because they went 2 of 12 on third down, 2 of 4 on 4th down, and gave up a return touchdown. The Ravens’ last win before that rough stretch came by 2 against the Eagles in a game in which the Eagles won the first down rate battle by 2.99%, but went 3 for 12 on 3rd down, 1 for 3 on 4th down, and lost the turnover battle by 1. 

In total, the Ravens are just +3 in turnover margin and +1 in return touchdown margin on the season, but they lead the league in opponent’s field goal percentage allowed at 65.22% and have played significantly better on third and fourth down than first and second down, which are both metrics that have less predictive value. The Ravens pick up 3rd downs at a 47.37% rate and 4th downs at a 64.71% rate, while allowing 35.16% and 45.71% respectively. 

This is actually an overall improvement over last season, when they picked up 3rd downs at a 48.29% rate and 4th downs at a 60.71% rate, while allowing 38.16% and 33.33% respectively, and they were a much better team overall last season, particularly on offense, before they lost Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda, and Nick Boyle and before the league started figuring out how to defend this offense better. Last year, they were far and away the top team in the league in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but it has been much more of a struggle this season, leading to them ranking 26th. 

The Ravens are much more talented than the 26th best team in the league on paper, as they rank 11th in my roster rankings, but any way you look at it, they’re not nearly as good as they were last season. They’re totally overvalued as 14-point road favorites in Cincinnati, against a Bengals team that has played better on both sides of the ball in recent weeks and has slightly moved out of the league’s cellar, ranking 28th in my roster rankings. The Bengals also will have at least some homefield advantage with fans in the stands.

My calculated line is Baltimore -7, so we’re getting great line value with the Bengals, who are also in a good spot, as 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. Between that and the line value, there is a lot to like about Cincinnati this week, who should be able to keep this relatively close even if they can’t pull the upset. I’m making this a high confidence pick and even considering it for Pick of the Week, which I will announce Sunday morning.

Update: The Bengals will be my Pick of the Week. This is in part because the Ravens will be without some key questionable players (cornerback Jimmy Smith, edge defender Yannick Ngakoue, center Patrick Mekari, and wide receiver Willie Snead), but also because the other pick I was considering (Washington) saw significant late line movement. Both Cincinnati and Washington are strong picks if you locked in Washington when I did, but Cincinnati will officially be my Pick of the Week.

Baltimore Ravens 24 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +14

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (8-7) at Los Angeles Rams (9-6)

The Rams had a chance to clinch the division last week with a win in Seattle, but instead that game went about as bad as it could, as not only did the Rams lose, but they lost their starting quarterback Jared Goff, among other players who won’t be available for what is now a must win game against the Cardinals, as a loss and a Bears win against the Packers would lead to the Rams being out of the playoffs in a three way tie at 9-7. 

In Goff’s absence, the Rams will start 2018 undrafted free agent John Wolford, who has never thrown an NFL pass, and he’ll be without the benefit of running back Darrell Henderson, possibly running back Cam Akers, and wide receiver Cooper Kupp, on an offense that has already been without stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth for the past 6 weeks. The Rams ranked just 20th in first down rate over expected at -0.11% before their recent injuries and, while they’ve been carried by a defense that ranks 1st in first down rate allowed over expected at -5.07%, defensive performance is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance.

All of a sudden, the Rams have gone from having a chance to clinch the division in week 16 to being underdogs in a game they may need to win to stay alive. This line has shifted from Los Angeles -4 on the early line to Arizona -3 this week, but I think that is a little much, especially with the Cardinals dealing with some absent skill position players as well (Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, Chase Edmonds). The Rams still rank 22nd in my roster rankings because of their defense, while the Cardinals rank 16th without the players they are missing. My calculated line favors Arizona by just 1 point, though that’s not enough line value to get me to bet on a quarterback as unproven as Wolford. 

Arizona Cardinals 20 Los Angeles Rams 19

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +3

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