New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

The Panthers have had a wild ride at quarterback this season and are now on their third quarterback of the season. Cam Newton limped through the first two games of the season with a foot injury that was worse than he let anyone know, costing them a pair of winnable games that were decided by a combined 9 points. Newton then shut himself down for the good of the team and backup Kyle Allen went on to win his next 4 games, making the Panthers look like a borderline contender going into their week 7 bye.

The wheels have fallen off for the Panthers since that bye week though, as they rank 31st in first down rate differential over that stretch at -7.20%. The offense, which ranks 21st in first down rate over that stretch at 34.99%, hasn’t been their biggest problem, as their defense has fallen from a 33.97% first down rate allowed over their first 6 games (7th in the NFL) to a 42.19% first down rate allowed over the past 9 weeks (31st in the NFL), but their offense has been carried by running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore and Allen was responsible for 18 giveaways over a 8-game stretch, leading to him being benched for 3rd round rookie Will Grier before last week’s game in Indianapolis.

Grier’s debut went about as bad as possible, as he completed 27 of 44 for 224 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 3 picks and led the Panthers to just a 26.76% first down rate in a 38-6 loss to the Colts, who entered last week ranking just 22nd in first down rate allowed. Grier struggled in the pre-season as well, leading to the Panthers naming Allen the backup going into the season. Grier will get another shot in the Panthers’ season finale, which isn’t a bad idea because the Panthers used a relatively high pick on him and need to evaluate him in game action, but he’s unlikely to be much better in his 2nd start, especially with top wide receiver DJ Moore out for this game after missing most of last week’s game. The defense also hasn’t gotten any better since firing head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and the team seems to have somewhat mailed it in. Overall, they rank just 30th in my roster rankings.

The Saints, meanwhile, are on the opposite end of the spectrum, tied for the best record in the NFC at 12-3 with a shot at a first round bye. Making that even more impressive is the fact that quarterback Drew Brees missed close to 6 full games with injury. Backup Teddy Bridgewater was able to squeak out some wins in games in which their defense played at a high level, but their offense has been significantly better with Brees on the field this season, moving the chains at a 34.15% first down rate with Bridgewater on the field (most similar to the 24th ranked Lions on the season) and a 41.52% first down rate with Brees on the field (most similar to the 2nd ranked Chiefs on the season). 

The Saints’ offense has been especially good in recent weeks, ranking only behind the Ravens with a 43.36% first down rate over their past 6 games. Their defense took a big hit a couple weeks ago when defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport went down for the season and they’ll also be without safety Marcus Williams this week, but the Saints have more than enough offense to compensate and look like one of the top few Super Bowl contenders going into the post-season. They should be able to take care of business against a hapless Panthers team in their final post-season tune-up.

Unfortunately, the Saints are 13-point road favorites in this game, up from 10.5 on the early line a week ago. While the Saints should win this game pretty easily, there’s definitely uncertainty over whether or not they’ll play a complete enough game to cover this large spread, especially with Williams out. There’s also uncertainty in this game because, due to tiebreakers, the outcome of this game will only affect the Saints’ seeding if the Packers lose as heavy favorites to the Lions.

If the Packers win and Seahawks defeat the 49ers on Sunday Night to win the NFC West, the Saints would move into the 2nd seed in the NFC regardless of the outcome of this game because they currently have a one game lead and a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Seahawks. If the 49ers win that game, the Saints would be stuck in the 3rd seed regardless of the outcome of this game because the 49ers have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints. 

Saints head coach Sean Payton has said he will treat this as a real game, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pull his starters in the 2nd half if the Packers are up big on the Lions because that will render this game meaningless. That would allow the Panthers to potentially get a backdoor cover even if they get dominated when the Saints’ starters are in the game. For that reason, I’m taking the Panthers, but this is a no confidence pick because of all the uncertainty.

New Orleans Saints 31 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina +13

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at Indianapolis Colts: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-9) at Indianapolis Colts (6-8)

The Kyle Allen era in Carolina got off to a great start, as the 2018 undrafted free agent won his first 4 starts after taking over for an injured Cam Newton week 3, but things have gone south in a hurry. Since that 4-game winning streak, the Panthers have lost 7 of 8 games to fall out of playoff contention completely. Over that stretch, they have the 3rd worst first down rate differential in the league at -4.42%. 

The offense actually hasn’t been the problem, as they’ve had a 36.65% first down rate over that stretch, 11th in the NFL, but their defense, which ranked 7th in first down rate allowed at 33.97% in the first 6 games of the season, but has fallen to 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.07% over the past 8 games. The Panthers fired head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera a couple weeks ago, but it hasn’t seemed to make a difference in two games against the Falcons and Seahawks.

After firing their head coach a couple weeks ago, the Panthers are now benching Allen for third round rookie Will Grier. Even though the offense hasn’t really been the problem, it’s understandable why the Panthers would make this decision. Allen hasn’t played well, with the offense being carried by feature back Christian McCaffrey and #1 wide receiver DJ Moore, and, in a lost season, it’s worth giving Grier a shot. 

I don’t have high expectations for Grier though. He struggled in the pre-season, losing the backup job to Allen as a result, and could also be without starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel after he picked up an injury at practice this week. The Panthers are also in a tough spot this week, playing a meaningless non-conference matchup before a big divisional home matchup against the Saints to close out the season next week. Teams are 20-42 ATS since 2016 before being 7+ point home underdogs and the Panthers are 10.5-point home underdogs on the early line.

This isn’t an easy matchup for the Panthers either, on the road in Indianapolis. The Colts are just 6-8, but they’ve played better than their record has suggested, ranking 16th in first down rate differential at -0.17%. They got blown out against the Saints last week, but before that their only loss by more than a touchdown came against the Titans in a game in which the Colts were about to take the lead in the 4th quarter before a blocked kick returned for a touchdown. I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Colts this week because they could be flat after getting eliminated from post-season contention last week, but I think they’ll be more focused because they were just blown out, so they should be able to take care of business against an inferior team in a bad spot.

Indianapolis Colts 26 Carolina Panthers 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -6.5

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (10-3) at Carolina Panthers (5-8)

The Panthers got off to a 4-2 start, but they’ve been an entirely different team since their week 7 bye, ranking 29th in first down rate differential over that stretch at -5.60% and losing 6 of 7 games. First time starting quarterback Kyle Allen has regressed since a hot start to the season, but the offense hasn’t been the problem, as they’ve ranked 13th in first down rate at 35.67% since week 7. The problem has been the defense, which ranked 7th in first down rate allowed at 33.97% before their bye, but has fallen to 31st in first down rate allowed at 41.27% since their bye. The Panthers fired head coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ron Rivera a couple weeks ago, but it didn’t seem to make a difference in the Panthers blowout loss in Atlanta last season.

That being said, I actually kind of like the Panthers this week, as 6-point home underdogs against the Seahawks. The Seahawks have 10 wins, but they haven’t blown teams out, with just one of their wins coming by more than a touchdown. Their average margin of victory is just 5.60 points per game and 6 of their wins have come by 6 points or fewer, relevant given this line is 6. Overall on the season, the Seahawks rank 13th in point differential at +20 and 17th in first down rate differential at -0.55% and could easily be 8-5 right now if not for missed makeable field goals in wins over the 49ers and Rams. If that were the case, they’d be fighting for a playoff spot and likely would not be favored by 6 points on the road against the Panthers.

The Seahawks have been even worse in recent weeks, ranking 25th in first down rate differential since week 7 at -3.05%, only about two and a half percent better than the Panthers over that stretch, as much as Carolina has struggled. The Seahawks also come into this game very banged up, with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney out and fellow defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and cornerback Shaq Griffin considered true question marks. I have this line calculated at Seattle -3, so we’re getting enough line value with the Panthers for them to be worth betting at home this week.

Final Update: Both Ansah and Griffin are inactive for this game, along with Clowney. Those are three key players on this defense and my calculated line drops to Seattle -2 without them. Despite that, this line has moved up to 6.5 in some places, so I’m raising the confidence on this pick.

Seattle Seahawks 33 Carolina Panthers 31

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6.5

Confidence: High

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

Washington Redskins at Carolina Panthers: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (2-9) at Carolina Panthers (5-6)

This was one of the toughest games of the week to decide. On one hand, the Panthers have struggled in recent weeks with Kyle Allen falling back to earth after surprisingly playing well in his first few starts of the season and, as a result, they probably shouldn’t be favored by double digits against anyone, even the Redskins. Dating back to week 7, the Panthers have a first down rate differential of -7.81%, 29th in the NFL over that time period. I still have them calculated as 7.5-point home favorites this week against one of the worst few teams in the league, but we’re getting line value with the visitors.

On the other hand, the Redskins are in a tough spot as big underdogs before being big underdogs again. It’s tough for an inferior team to keep it close against a superior team with another tough game on deck, as teams are 29-59 ATS since 2002 as underdogs of 10 or more before being underdogs of 10 or more again. The Redskins are currently 14.5-point underdogs on the early line for next week’s matchup in Green Bay with the Packers and, in a lost season, might not bring their best effort for this game with a tougher game on deck. I’m taking the Redskins for pick ‘em purposes, but this is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week and a push is a strong possibility.

Carolina Panthers 20 Washington Redskins 10

Pick against the spread: Washington +10

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-5) at New Orleans Saints (8-2)

The Saints surprisingly lost at home to the then 1-7 Falcons a couple weeks ago and it wasn’t even really close, with a final score of 26-9. However, the Falcons were better than that 1-7 record suggested, entering that game 18th in first down rate differential at -0.29%, and the Falcons have also since gone on to defeat the Panthers 29-3, so that loss doesn’t look so bad anymore, especially since the Saints were able to follow it up with a convincing 34-17 win in Tampa Bay last week. 

With Drew Brees back under center, the Saints are currently the top team in my roster rankings. Their defense has been solid all season, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 34.00%, and their offense has been significantly better in games started by Brees than it has been in games started by Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater led this offense to a 34.15% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 23rd ranked Panthers on the season, while Brees has led this offense to a 38.10% first down rate, which is most comparable to the 10th ranked Colts on the season. Their offense could have even more room for upside, as they had a 43.48% first down rate in Brees’ starts last season. Even if this offense doesn’t improve any further, the Saints are arguably the only team in the league with both a top-10 offense and defense. 

The Panthers, meanwhile, have struggled mightily in recent weeks, with backup quarterback Kyle Allen unsurprisingly falling back to earth after a surprisingly strong start to the season. After Allen won his first 4 starts, the Panthers have lost 3 of 4, with their only win in that stretch coming against the Titans in a game they lost the first down rate battle by 3.95%, winning by 10 in a game the Titans missed 3 makeable field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. On the season, the Panthers rank just 22nd in first down rate differential at -2.59%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 22nd. With the Saints at the top of my roster rankings, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -14, so we’re getting good line value with the Saints as 10-point home favorites.

Unfortunately, the Saints are in a much worse spot than the Panthers this week, which hurts their chances of covering. While the Saints have a rematch with the Falcons in 4 days on Thanksgiving, the Panthers have arguably their easiest game of the season on deck, at home against the Redskins, a game in which they are expected to be 9-point favorites. Underdogs of a touchdown or more are 64-41 ATS since 1989 before being favorites of a touchdown or more. The Saints will be favored next week as well, but there could still be some split focus with a team that just defeated them on deck, especially before a short week (favorites cover at just a 44% rate before a short week). The Saints should still be the right side, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet on it. If this line drops and/or cornerback Marshon Lattimore is active for the Saints, I may reconsider.

New Orleans Saints 34 Carolina Panthers 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

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