New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

I have been expecting to bet on the Saints this week, but things got thrown into flux on Saturday when it was announced that not only Alvin Kamara, but the Saints’ entire running back room will be out due to COVID protocols, in a situation reminiscent of the Broncos playing without quarterbacks and the Browns playing without their top-4 wide receivers earlier this season. Both of those teams not only lost, but failed to cover. I think this is a different situation though, for a couple reasons.

For one, running back is one of the more replaceable positions. On top of that, the Saints have players at other positions, wide receiver Ty Montgomery and quarterback Taysom Hill, who have the versatility to move to running back if needed. And perhaps more important, the Saints are a much more complete and talented team than the Broncos or Browns were. The pre-season #1 team in my roster rankings, the Saints haven’t been quite as dominant as expected, but that is largely due to the fact that they have been dealing with key injury absences all season. 

Despite that, they rank 2nd in the league with a +4.47% schedule adjusted first down rate differential and are one of two teams, along with the Buccaneers, to rank in the top-10 both on offense in first down rate (4th) and on defense in first down rate allowed (7th). They started 1-2, but have won 10 of 12 games since, as they typically do after slow starts, going 4-17-1 ATS since 2010 in weeks 1 and 2 and 93-58-7 ATS in week 3-17. They’ll be more depleted this week than usual, but I still have them 7th in my roster rankings with Montgomery and Hill as their running backs and I still have this line calculated at New Orleans -9, shifted down from -10.5 earlier this week. 

The oddsmakers’ line has shifted appropriately, going from -6.5 to -5, but it was undervalued to begin with. The Panthers have been competitive in most of their games, with 11 games decided by one score or less, including 8 of their 10 losses, despite a relatively tough schedule, and they rank 17th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.30%, but they’ve largely overachieved their talent level this season and are further depleted by missing key players in this matchup. Already without feature back Christian McCaffrey and left tackle Russell Okung on offense, the Panthers will also be without McCaffrey’s backup Mike Davis, who has played well as the feature back in McCaffrey’s absence, and they’ll be without their top defensive player Brian Burns. 

Overall, I have the Panthers 25th in my roster rankings, without the players they are missing, and I wouldn’t expect them to be that competitive this week with a Saints team that is still one of the better teams in the league, even without some key absent players. I’m not as confident in the Saints as I would have been earlier this week at -6.5 when the Saints still had their running backs, but at -5, the Saints are still worth a bet.

New Orleans Saints 24 Carolina Panthers 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at Washington Football Team: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (4-10) at Washington Football Team (6-8)

On defense, the Washington Football Team has consistently been one of the best teams in the league this season, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.26%. Their offense struggled mightily earlier this season, but, when they turned to Alex Smith under center and got their offensive line back together healthy, they improved significantly on that side of the ball, leading to a 4-1 stretch where their only loss came by 3 points. 

Unfortunately, the injuries have started to pile up on that side of the ball. Their offensive line is still together, but they lost feature back Antonio Gibson in week 13 and then quarterback Alex Smith in week 14, forcing Washington to start an underwhelming backfield of Dwayne Haskins and Peyton Barber. Gibson could be back this week, but Smith is not expected to start, still at less than 100%, and Haskins will be playing without Washington’s #1 wide receiver and only downfield weapon in Terry McLaurin.

Given their struggles on offense, Washington will be very reliant on their defense in this game, which is a concern, because defensive performance is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance. It’s far from a guarantee that Washington will continue being as good as they’ve been defensively going forward, especially with injuries starting to pile up on that side of the ball. Overall, Washington ranks just 24th in my roster rankings, which is a significant drop off from where they were a few weeks ago.

That being said, we are still getting a little bit of line value with Washington, who are even at home with the Panthers. The Panthers have been competitive in most of their games and rank a decent 21st in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.90%, but they’ve overachieved their talent level and are in even worse shape this week missing their best defensive player in Brian Burns, falling to 27th in my roster rankings. My calculated line is just Washington -1.5, so we’re not getting enough line value for Washington to be worth betting, but they are my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Washington Football Team 26 Carolina Panthers 24

Pick against the spread: Washington PK

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (4-9) at Green Bay Packers (10-3)

Earlier this week, I was expecting to be picking the Panthers in this game and possibly even betting on them. The Panthers are just 4-9, but they’ve played a lot of close games, with only two of their nine losses coming by 8 points or fewer, relevant given that this line is 8.5. That’s despite the fact that they’ve faced a relatively tough schedule, the 6th toughest schedule in the league in terms of opponents schedule adjusted first down rate differential. 

The Panthers themselves rank a respectable 20th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.65%, led by an offense that has been one of the more efficient in the league this season, ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.61%. The Packers are 10-3, but their defense has been a problem this year, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.56%, so I was expecting the Panthers to be able to keep it relatively close in a shootout, especially since this isn’t a great spot for the Packers, ahead of a much tougher game against the Titans, while the Panthers have a much easier game on deck against Washington.

Unfortunately, the Panthers are in much worse injury shape than I was expecting earlier this week. Not only is feature back Christian McCaffrey set to miss yet another game, but they could also be without starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel, starting left tackle Russell Okung, and top defensive tackle Zach Kerr, the latter of whom has yet to be cleared to return from COVID, which caused him to miss last week as well, a game in which he was badly missed.

The Packers, meanwhile, are about as healthy as you can be this late in the season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them give the Panthers just their third multiscore loss of the season. In fact, I’m taking the Packers for pick ‘em purposes for now, pending the Panthers’ inactives. If the Panthers get good injury news, I will flip to Carolina, but I don’t envision myself betting on them even if all of their questionable players play because they could be subject to in-game setbacks.

Green Bay Packers 33 Carolina Panthers 24

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -8.5

Confidence: None

Denver Broncos at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (4-8) at Carolina Panthers (4-8)

The Broncos have been a tough team to predict this season, as they’ve played within one score of teams like the Titans, Steelers, and Chiefs, while beating teams like the Dolphins and Patriots, but they’ve also lost 4 times by at least 18 points and in only one of those instances they weren’t allowed to use a real quarterback. The reason they’ve been so unpredictable is twofold. For one, they are led by their defense, which ranks 4th in first down rate allowed over expected at -3.37%, and defense is inherently a more inconsistent and unpredictable side of the ball. 

On top of that, not only has their offense struggled with a -4.55% first down rate over expected (31st in the NFL), but their quarterback play has been so bad at times that they haven’t had a chance to even be competitive in games, as they lead the league with a 5.13% interception rate. They’ve been better with Drew Lock in the lineup, but only by default, as his 4.39% interception rate is still higher than any other team in the league and by quite a bit over the next team (3.88%). 

The Broncos had one of their good performances last week, as their defense held the Chiefs in check and their offense didn’t make major mistakes and allowed the game to stay close in a 22-16 loss against the defending Super Bowl champs, but if there was ever a time to predict a bad performance from this team it would be this week, as they’ve effectively been eliminated from post-season contention and just lost what amounted to their Super Bowl in Kansas City on Sunday Night Football last week. I don’t expect them to give their best effort for a fellow 4-8 team, particularly a non-conference opponent like the Panthers.

I thought I would like the Panthers more earlier this week, as they seemed to be getting healthier coming out of their bye, with starting left tackle Russell Okung (6 games missed), starting left guard John Miller (2 games) returning before the bye and top cornerback Donte Jackson (2 games) returning this week, but a COVID outbreak not only disrupted their week, but it will force them to be without top wide receiver DJ Moore and top defensive tackle Zach Kerr, which are both big losses. We’re not getting any line value with the Panthers are -3, so, while I still am taking the Panthers, it’s only because I expect a poor performance from the Broncos.

Update: The Broncos will surprisingly be without stud left tackle Garret Bolles due to COVID concerns. With him and Graham Glasgow both out, the Broncos will be without their two best offensive lineman, further crippling one of the least’s worst offenses. The line has moved to Carolina -4 to compensate, which is a little high given the Broncos’ talented defense and the players the Panthers are missing, but I’m still on the Panthers for a no confidence pick because the Broncos could easily be flat for this game.

Carolina Panthers 19 Denver Broncos 14

Pick against the spread: Carolina -4

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at Minnesota Vikings: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (4-7) at Minnesota Vikings (4-6)

The Vikings are just 4-6, but there is plenty of reason to believe they’ll be better going forward. Not only have they faced an above average schedule thus far, but a lot of the metrics they’ve struggled in are ones that are very unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, including a league worst 96.00% field goal percentage against, a net -21.2% 4th down conversion rate, and a -4 turnover margin, which is primarily due to their 31st ranked fumble recovery rate (37.50%) and Kirk Cousins’ interception rate (4.00%) being over double his interception rate in his previous 5 seasons (1.90%). 

It’s not hard to see how struggling in those aforementioned metrics has led to the Vikings losing otherwise winnable games, as they were a failed 4th down conversation away from clinching the game in Seattle and lost by 1 to the Titans in a game in which the Titans made 6 of 6 field goals, including a trio from 50+ yards and a 55-yard game winner. The Vikings could easily be 6-4 right now if they had held on to win those two games and that doesn’t even take into account that they won the first down rate battle in losses to the Packers, Falcons, and Cowboys. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Vikings rank 7th at +1.83%, which lines up with my roster rankings, in which they rank 11th. We’ve seen the Vikings go 3-1 since their 1-5 start, largely due to regression in those aforementioned metrics, and I would expect to see that continue going forward.

The Panthers are also better than their record though, ranking 18th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.24%, as they’ve faced a tough schedule and have only lost by more than one score twice, both against the Buccaneers, who rank #1 in schedule adjusted first down rate differential. My calculated line is Minnesota -4, so we’re not getting any real line value with the Vikings at -3.5. There also aren’t any relevant situational trends in this matchup, so which side I take for pick ‘em purposes is going to be solely dependent on the eventual status of some players who are questionable to suit up. 

For the Panthers, it’s starting left tackle Russell Okung and starting right guard John Miller, who could return from absences of 6 games and 2 games respectively to bolster this offensive line, while the Vikings have their top wide receiver Adam Thielen uncertain, after a week of inconclusive and conflicting COVID test results. I’m taking Minnesota for now, but I’ll almost definitely have an update before gametime. If Thielen can manage to get cleared and the Panthers don’t get their offensive linemen back, I’ll be more confident in Minnesota, but if the opposite of that happens, I’ll probably flip to Carolina.

Update: It’s all bad news on the injury report for the Vikings, with Thielen out and both Okung and Miller back for the Panthers, giving them a fully healthy offensive line for the first time in weeks. This line has shifted to Minnesota -3, which is right where I have this calculated, but I think I’m going to side with the Panthers slightly. A push is probably the most likely outcome.

Minnesota Vikings 30 Carolina Panthers 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina +3

Confidence: None

Detroit Lions at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (4-5) at Carolina Panthers (3-7)

Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater remains a gametime decision officially, but this spread has been posted at Detroit -2.5 in some places, a steep dropoff from Carolina -3, where this line was last week on the early line, so it definitely seems like the odds makers don’t expect Bridgewater to be to play. Even if Bridgewater doesn’t play, I like the Panthers at +2.5, so I’m making this pick now so the line doesn’t have a chance to move if Bridgewater can in fact go, after taking all of the first team reps in yesterday’s walkthrough. 

If Bridgewater was fully healthy and this line was still 3, I would say that line would be about right. The Panthers are basically a slightly better version of the Lions and the Panthers have at least some limited homefield advantage with fans in attendance, so giving them the full field goal would be appropriate. However, it’s hard to justify a 5.5-point swing for Bridgewater’s absence, especially given that there is still a chance Bridgewater can go and given that Lions quarterback Matt Stafford will be at less than 100% himself, playing through an injured thumb.

The Panthers have key absences beyond the quarterback position, but left tackle Russell Okung and Christian McCaffrey are missing their 6th and 8th game respectively, so not having those two isn’t anything new, and, while cornerback Donte Jackson and guard John Miller are missing their first game of the season, they are less important absences than Okung and McCaffrey. The Lions are also missing key players with top wide receiver Kenny Golladay, top edge defender Trey Flowers, slot receiver Danny Amendola, and every down running back DeAndre Swift missing their 5th, 3rd, 1st, and 1st games of the season respectively. 

Given that the Lions are almost as banged up as the Panthers and that the Panthers have been the slightly better team all season and that the Panthers are at home, it’s hard to justify the Lions being favored by 2.5 points. That doesn’t mean I’ll be betting on the Panthers. In fact, with the amount of uncertainty in this game, it’s hard to justify the Panthers as anything more than a no confidence bet, as they likely will be starting a completely unknown quarterback in XFL star PJ Walker and, even if they don’t, they’ll be starting a much less than 100% Teddy Bridgewater, but even with Walker in the lineup, this line is off, so the Panthers are the pick at 2.5 either way.

Update: Bridgewater is out, so this line has jumped to +3. I was willing to take the Panthers without Bridgewater for pick ’em purposes at +2.5. +3 is a much more intriguing number, especially with the Lions also down their top defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand, in addition to all of the aforementioned absences. My calculated number is Detroit -1 and that’s with a very conservatively low grade on the unproven Walker, who we didn’t even get a pre-season to evaluate this year. If Walker can surprise in his first career action, the Panthers could easily win this game straight up.

If I had any confidence in Walker I would recommend a bet at +3, as the Lions only win by more than a field goal this season came against the lowly Jaguars in a game in which the Lions were much healthier than they are now. Instead, I’m leaving them as a low confidence pick, but feel free to bet Carolina if you feel like taking a chance on a completely unknown commodity. The money line is intriguing as well at +135.

Carolina Panthers 27 Detroit Lions 26 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Carolina +3

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) at Carolina Panthers (3-6)

The Buccaneers were embarrassed in a 38-3 loss to the Saints last week, losing the first down rate battle by 8.73%. I thought that win was more about the Saints though, as the Saints are arguably the top team in the league on paper when healthy and they showed it in a big way. I was expecting the Saints to come in, give the Buccaneers a game, and at least cover the 4.5-point spread. Obviously a 35-point win goes far beyond giving the Buccaneers a game and a 35-point loss to anyone is a concern for a team, but it’s definitely worth noting that the Buccaneers still rank 2nd in the NFL in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.61%, even with that game factored in.

The Buccaneers’ offense gets the attention, but their defense has led the way with a -4.38% first down rate allowed over expected that ranks 2nd in the NFL, while their offense ranks 17th in first down rate over expected at +0.23%. Defenses tend to be more unpredictable on a week-to-week basis than offenses and the Buccaneers’ defense is not quite the same without the injured Vita Vea, but any regression from their defense could be compensated for by an offense that should be better with top wide receiver Chris Godwin healthy after missing four games and free agent signee Antonio Brown working into the mix after his first game back from suspension last week. 

It’s also worth noting how well Tom Brady has played after a loss in his career, going 44-22 ATS, including 34-10 ATS when not favored by a touchdown or more and 21-6 ATS after a loss by 10 points or more. There is no precedent for how Brady performs off of a loss by 35 points because he’s never lost by that many points in his career, but it’s safe to say he’ll be fully determined to avoid back-to-back bad outings and that we should get a much better effort from his team this week.

This line didn’t shift as much as I would have hoped, following that blowout loss, with the Buccaneers going from 6.5 point favorites on the early line last week to 5.5 point favorites this week, but I have this line calculated at Tampa Bay -8.5, with the Panthers having minimal fans and homefield advantage for this one, so we’re still getting good line value. I would expect the Buccaneers to bounce back and win this one with relative ease, so they’re a strong bet at 5.5.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -5.5

Confidence: High

Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (3-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-1)

It might go without saying, but the Chiefs are on an incredible run right now. Dating back to last year’s bye, a 16-game stretch including the post-season, the Chiefs have just one loss and 12 wins by double digits and have a first down rate differential of +5.44% over that stretch. They have a competent opponent this week with the Carolina Panthers coming to town, but the Panthers have some injury issues and I have the Chiefs as likely to get another double digit win, with a calculated line of Kansas City -10.

That is exactly where this line is, but the Chiefs are also in a great spot, as big home favorites before a bye. Since 2010, home favorites of 7+ are 34-18 ATS before a bye. The Panthers, meanwhile, have back-to-back tough games, which typically makes it tough for a team to play as well needed to keep it close against a superior opponent. The early line has the Panthers as 6.5 point home underdogs against the Buccaneers next week and teams are 114-208 ATS since 2010 before being home underdogs of 4.5 or more, including 38-72 ATS as underdogs of a touchdown or more. The Panthers will need to be fully focused in this one, but they may have an eye on next week as well. This isn’t a big play, but I don’t see this being close.

Kansas City Chiefs 38 Carolina Panthers 24

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -10

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (1-6) at Carolina Panthers (3-4)

Coming into the season, I had the Falcons as the better of these two teams and on paper they have more talent, but the Panthers have actually outplayed them by a pretty significant amount. The Panthers have faced a tough schedule overall and have been competitive in every game, with their only loss by more than one score coming against a dominant Buccaneers team in a game in which the Buccaneers won the yards per play battle, only narrow lost the first down rate battle (+1.28%), and had the game within one score late in the 4th quarter before a meaningless touchdown, despite losing the turnover battle by 2. The Falcons, who the Panthers already defeated in Atlanta back in week 5, have been the easiest opponent on the Panthers’ schedule thus far and the Panthers won the first down battle by 4.76% in that 7-point win.

The Panthers have especially outplayed the Falcons on offense, even though that should be a strength for the Falcons. On the season, the Panthers rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate and that’s even more impressive when you consider they’ve faced the 5th toughest schedule of defenses, including a trio of top defenses in the Buccaneers, Chargers, and Bears. Including schedule adjustments, the Panthers rank 2nd in the league in first down rate over expected at +3.14%. By comparison, the Falcons rank 24th in first down rate over expected. 

The Panthers haven’t fared as well on defense, where they rank 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.56%, but offensive stats tend to be much more consistent and predictable week-to-week and the Falcons have just a narrow edge over the Panthers on defense, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.43%, as they haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball. It’s true the Falcons are three improbable blown lead away from being 4-3, but they needed to win the turnover battle against the Cowboys by 3 to gain their big lead in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 10.19% and they also lost the first down rate battle to the Lions and in their one win, against the the Vikings. 

Their only first down rate battle win came against the Bears, despite not having a particularly tough schedule, and, on the season, they rank 29th in first down rate differential over expected at -2.70%, significantly behind the 14th ranked Panthers (+1.58%). The Panthers also have the edge in yards per play differential (+0.5 vs -1.0), point differential (-6 vs. -23), and DVOA (+0.6% vs. -13.8%), although when Football Outsiders’ pre-season projections are factored in, the Falcons have the narrow edge in DVOA (-4.9% vs. -6.3%). That last part and the Falcons’ higher level of talent on paper concern me about betting on the Panthers, because by all indications, the Falcons should be better than them, but that hasn’t been the case thus far this season. 

The Falcons have had injury problems this season and have gotten healthier in recent weeks, even since their week 5 matchup with the Panthers, as they’ll have Julio Jones in the lineup this time around, while the Panthers may be going the other way, without left tackle Russell Okung and a few lesser players on the defensive side of the ball. However, it’s also a possibility the Panthers get feature back Christian McCaffrey back from injury this week, which would obviously be a big boost. 

For now, I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick and this line may change from Carolina -2.5 if McCaffrey is active, but even if it does I may consider betting the Panthers, as long as the line doesn’t exceed 3. Favorites typically are at a big advantage on Thursdays and there’s a good argument to be made for the Panthers being significantly better than the Falcons if McCaffrey can go. I will have an update if needed. I am also locking in the below picks for this week before the lines move. I will have full write ups for those picks with the others as usual this weekend.

MIN +7 @ GB

IND -2.5 @ DET

Update: McCaffrey is out, but I wasn’t really expecting him to play this week and the spread has dropped to 1 as a result. I am comfortable with the Panthers at that number as they have significantly outplayed the Falcons this season, particularly on the more predictable side of the ball.

Carolina Panthers 31 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina -1

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (3-3) at New Orleans Saints (3-2)

Contrary to pre-season expectations, these two teams have actually been pretty even this season. The Saints rank 9th in first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule at +2.08%, but the Panthers aren’t far behind at +1.08%. However, the Panthers have outplayed their talent level, particularly on defense, and could regress somewhat going forward, while the Saints typically start slow, have had a lot of injury absences thus far this season, and are still one of the most talented teams in the league when closer to full strength.

Given that, I was expecting to take the Saints in this one, even as 7.5-point home favorites over a capable Panthers team that has been competitive in all of their games, but the Saints are going to be without their top-2 wide receivers this week. They have gotten tight end Jared Cook, defensive end Marcus Davenport, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore (among others) back from injuries that cost them time earlier this season, but I like the Panthers chances of keeping this one close enough to cover.

New Orleans Saints 31 Carolina Panthers 26

Pick against the spread: Carolina +7.5

Confidence: Low