New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-2) at Carolina Panthers (6-7)

If not for concerns about the health of Cam Newton’s throwing shoulder, the Panthers would be a big play this week. They’re on a 5 game losing streak after starting 6-2, but they could have easily won any of their past 4 games, losing each of them by a touchdown or less and winning the first down rate battle in all 4 games. On the season, they still rank 10th in first down rate differential at 2.44% and could easily be around 8-5 right now if not for a few snaps.

The Panthers lost by 1 in Detroit, in a game in which they missed a field goal, an extra point, and a 2-point conversation late when they didn’t trust their kicking unit to tie the game. They lost by a field goal at home to the Seahawks, but outgained the Seahawks by 1.9 yards per play in a game in which the Panthers missed another field goal, threw a red zone interception, failed on a 4th down, and allowed the Seahawks to go 2 for 2 on 4th downs. They lost by a touchdown in Tampa Bay in a game in which they outgained the Buccaneers by 1.5 yards per play, but lost the turnover battle by 3. And last week they had 22 first downs to 12 for the Browns, but allowed 3 plays of 50+ yards in a 6-point loss.

Cam Newton isn’t at 100%, but the Panthers have still played well enough to win in recent weeks. The Panthers have just one loss all season by more than a touchdown and that came on the road on a short week in Pittsburgh, relevant with this line at 6.5. However, it’s still going to be very tough for them to keep it close in a likely shootout with the Saints with Cam Newton obviously not playing his best right now. The Saints have shown they are vulnerable on the road in recent weeks, losing in Dallas and starting slow in Tampa Bay, but they are still the best team the Panthers have faced this season and Newton has 8 interceptions in his last 5 games, after 4 in his first 8. I might bet the Panthers at +7, but not at +6.5.

Sunday Update: The Panthers will also be without stud defensive tackle Kawann Short this week. Between that and Cam Newton’s injury, I’m dropping this to a no confidence pick. The Panthers are better than their record and should be fully focused for a do or die game, but the Saints are a dominant team that can exploit the Panthers’ injuries.

New Orleans Saints 33 Carolina Panthers 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6.5

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at Cleveland Browns: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (6-6) at Cleveland Browns (4-7-1)

The Panthers are on a 4-game losing streak after a 6-2 start, but they’ve actually won the first down rate battle in each of their last 3 games. The Panthers lost by 1 in Detroit, in a game in which they missed a field goal, an extra point, and a 2-point conversation late when they didn’t trust their kicking unit to tie the game. They lost by a field goal at home to the Seahawks, but outgained the Seahawks by 1.9 yards per play in a game in which the Panthers missed another field goal, threw a red zone interception, failed on a 4th down, and allowed the Seahawks to go 2 for 2 on 4th downs. And then they lost by 3 in Tampa Bay in a game in which they outgained the Buccaneers by 1.5 yards per play, but lost the turnover battle by 3. If not for a couple plays, they could have easily won any of those games, but instead they are 6-6 and going to Cleveland desperately in need of a win.

Even though they’ve been better than the final scores have suggested recently, I’m not so sure they’re going to get that win this week. The Browns have been better defensively since getting stud linebacker Joe Schobert back from injury and they’ve been better offensively since plugging running back Nick Chubb into the lineup and getting rid of head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. They lost by 16 in Houston last week, but were more competitive than the final score suggested, as they actually won the first down rate battle by 7.17%, losing the game primarily because of a -4 turnover margin and a return touchdown by the Texans. Even with the Browns banged up, with top cornerback Denzel Ward and possibly top defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi out with injury, I still have this line calculated at even.

That’s not a ton of line value, but it suggests the Browns should be the pick at +1.5. The Browns are also in a much better spot, as the Panthers have to turn around and play an even tougher game against the Saints next week. Road favorites are 22-44 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs and the Panthers are 6.5-point home underdogs on the early line. Even though the Panthers are only road favorites of a point and a half here in Cleveland, the logic still stands and teams are 34-63 ATS in general since 2012 before being home underdogs of 6 points or more. There is not quite enough here for the Browns to be worth betting against the spread given the players who are injured, but they should be the right side in this one.

Cleveland Browns 26 Carolina Panthers 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +1.5

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (6-5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-7)

The Panthers, once 6-2, are losers of 3 straight, but they could have easily won each of their past two games. The Panthers lost by 1 in Detroit two weeks ago, in a game in which they missed a field goal, an extra point, and a 2-point conversation late when they didn’t trust their kicking unit to tie the game. Last week, they lost by a field goal at home to the Seahawks, but outgained the Seahawks by 1.9 yards per play in a game in which the Panthers missed another field goal, threw a red zone interception, failed on a 4th down, and allowed the Seahawks to go 2 for 2 on 4th downs.

The Panthers won the first down rate battle in both games, +5.98% in Detroit and +11.53% against Seattle. On the season, they have a first down rate differential of +2.11%, 12th in the NFL, and that number is significantly better if you ignore their blowout loss in Pittsburgh, in game in which the Panthers were caught off guard by a strong team on the road on a short week. The Panthers are just 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but still are 6-5, as a result of 4 wins by more than a touchdown. They could easily be 7-4 or 8-3 right now, in which case this line would likely be higher than 3.5 in Tampa Bay.

While the Panthers are a solid team, the Buccaneers are a mediocre bunch. Their offense has moved the ball well, thanks in large part to arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL. They have picked up first downs at a 42.90% rate (4th in the NFL) and they lead the league with 3,914 passing yards (on pace for an NFL record 5,693 on the season). However, they’ve also started two historically turnover prone quarterbacks this season in Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston and have the most giveaways in the league with 29.

Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and the Buccaneers are unlikely to continue losing the turnover battle at the rate they have been (a league worst -21 through 11 games), but the Buccaneers have two gunslinging quarterbacks that take risks downfield, a style of play that lends itself to a lot of turnovers. It’s part of why they’ve gotten so many yards through the air this season, but there are also obvious downsides.

The Buccaneers have also been hurt significantly by the injury bug. Their receiving corps is one of the best in the NFL at full strength, but they’re missing both tight end OJ Howard and wide receiver DeSean Jackson with injury, so they’re far from at full strength. They are also expected to be without starting right tackle Demar Dotson. Defensively they’re getting healthier, with safety Justin Evans and linebacker Lavonte David due back this week, after defensive end Vinny Curry returned last week, but they’re still without linebacker Kwon Alexander and they could be down their top-3 cornerbacks with injury. Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart have already been ruled out, while Brent Grimes is highly questionable after sitting out Friday’s practice.

Their defense has been horrible all season, ranking 31st in first down rate allowed at 42.18%, but they’re even worse when they’re missing starters. Even at full strength, their offense just isn’t quite good enough to keep up with what their defense is allowing most weeks, especially if the offense commits several turnovers. The Buccaneers rank 17th in first down rate differential on the year at +0.72%, but they’re not nearly as good as that suggests right now.

The Buccaneers are also in a tough spot, with the Saints coming to town next week. Teams are 22-44 ATS since 2014 before being home favorites of 7 or more (Tampa Bay is +11 on the early line), as big upcoming home games tend to be a distraction. With back-to-back tough home games, the Buccaneers might not be as focused this week as they need to be to pull an upset over a significantly more talented opponent. There’s not quite enough here for the Panthers to be worth betting, but I’d change my mind if this line dropped down to 3 before gametime.

Update: Carolina -3 has popped up in some places, so, as I said I would, I’m making this is a medium confidence pick.

Carolina Panthers 30 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24

Pick against the spread: Carolina -3

Confidence: Medium

Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers: 2018 Week 12 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (5-5) at Carolina Panthers (6-4)

A couple weeks ago, the Panthers were 6-2 and were seen as one of the better teams in the league, but they got blown out in Pittsburgh and then lost in Detroit to a last place Lions team, dropping them down to 6-4. As a result of last week’s loss in Detroit, this line shifted from Carolina -4.5 to Carolina -3, a significant shift, given that about 1 in 6 games are decided by a field goal exactly. I think that line movement is an overreaction, as the Panthers would have won that game in Detroit if not for issues in the kicking game, which had not been an issue for them previously.

This line probably would have been closer to 6.5 or 7 a few weeks ago, before Carolina’s blowout loss in Pittsburgh. That was obviously a bad loss, but the Steelers are a legitimately good team and the Panthers were likely just caught off guard on the road on a short week against a strong team. The Panthers also been much better at home than on the road this season, going just 1-4 on the road, but 5-0 at home, with an average margin of victory of 9.8 points per game. Home/road variances tend to be random more than anything, but the Panthers have definitely been better this season than they’ve shown in the past couple weeks. Now back at home, they’re underrated as mere field goal favorites over the Seahawks.

This line suggests these two teams are about even, but I have the Panthers a few points better than the Seahawks, who have been an average team at best this season, ranking just 21st in first down rate differential at -1.93%. The Panthers, meanwhile, rank 13th at +1.24%, despite an underwhelming couple of weeks. I think this line should be closer to the -6.5 or -7 it likely would have been a couple weeks ago. The Panthers are a smart play this week as field goal favorites.

Carolina Panthers 27 Seattle Seahawks 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina -3

Confidence: High

Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions: 2018 Week 11 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (6-3) at Detroit Lions (3-6)

The Lions look on their way to a lost season at 3-6, in their first year under head coach Matt Patricia. The Lions went 9-7 in each of the past two seasons, but did not play like a 9-7 team in either season, finishing 28th in first down rate differential in 2016 and 26th in 2017. Now ranking 25th at -3.54%, the Lions have not been able to pull out late, close victories this season like they have in years past and it shows in their record.

They’ve also had injury issues. Franchise tagged defensive end Ezekiel Ansah is going into his 3rd game back after missing 6 games with injury earlier in the season, while #1 cornerback Darius Slay returns from a one game absence, but they placed talented right guard TJ Lang on injured reserve and will also be without starting wide receiver Marvin Jones and key run stuffer A’Shawn Robinson in this one. They also traded key slot receiver Golden Tate for a third round pick at the trade deadline, which hurt this offense significantly.

The Lions have never had much success against good teams like the Panthers anyway, going 19-38-2 ATS and 19-40 straight up against teams with winning records since Matt Stafford’s first full season as starter in 2011. Most recently, they went 1-11 between 2016 and 2017 against eventual playoff teams. They beat the Patriots and Packers this year, but the Patriots were not in mid-season form at that point (they lost to the Jaguars the week before), while the Packers would have won if Mason Crosby hadn’t had the worst game of his life (and the Packers might not end up as a playoff team anyway).

All of this being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lions kept this game close at home. This line is pretty high at -4.5, given that about 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer. The Panthers’ only win on the road this season came in a game in which they trailed by 17 points in the 4th quarter and I think this line is just a little bit too high. I can’t take the Lions with any confidence, but they are my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Carolina Panthers 24 Detroit Lions 20

Pick against the spread: Detroit +4.5

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2018 Week 10 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (6-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2-1)

Typically the rule of thumb for betting Thursday Night Football is to take the home team as long as they are comparable to or better than their opponents and as long as it’s not a division game. Non-divisional home favorites are 33-15 ATS all-time on Thursday nights. That makes a lot of sense, as it’s very tough for a team to travel on a short week and face an unfamiliar opponent unless you happen to have a significant talent advantage over that opponent. That favors the Steelers here on Thursday Night Football.

The line movement favors the Steelers as well, as this line has shifted from 6.5 on the early line last week to 5 where it opened to now down to 3.5 in some places. Unfortunately, I still don’t think we’re getting a good line with the Steelers, unless this line happens to continue falling to an even field goal, which I think is unlikely. I have these two teams about even right now, suggesting the Steelers should be favored by a field goal at home. They have a bigger homefield advantage on a short week, but there’s just not enough here for the Steelers to be worth a bet.

Pittsburgh Steelers 31 Carolina Panthers 26

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -3.5

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: 2018 Week 9 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-2)

The Buccaneers have had a crazy season under center. With regular starter Jameis Winston suspended for the first 3 games of the season for an off-the-field violation, they started veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and watched him carry them to victories against the Saints and Eagles, a pair of 2017 division winners. He then struggled in a week 3 loss to the Steelers, but initially kept the job over Winston when he returned week 4, before getting benched midway through a week 4 blowout loss in Chicago.

Winston then started the next three games, with mixed results, and was ultimately benched for Fitzpatrick midway through last week’s loss in Cincinnati, a game in which Fitzpatrick led them back from down 18, only to watch his defense allow a game winning field goal at the other end with time expiring. Fitzpatrick will remain the starter this week and could potentially start for the rest of the season. Winston’s 20.992 million dollar salary for 2019 becomes guaranteed if he gets injured, so they may be hesitant to play him as long as Fitzpatrick plays reasonably well.

Fitzpatrick has been the better of the two all in all this season and, while he’s always had turnover issues, the Buccaneers have so much talent in the receiving corps that the gunslinging Fitzpatrick is likely to continue to put up big yardage numbers.  The Buccaneers also get a boost on defense this week, getting both defensive end Vinny Curry and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy back from two game absences. Even with them out there, they have defensive issues, but they will obviously be welcome re-additions to this defensive line.

They face a tough opponent this week in Carolina, but they’ve been competitive in tough games in recent years and 10 of their 15 losses over the past couple of seasons have come by 6 points or fewer (relevant considering this line is 6.5). The Panthers are also in a tough spot because they have to turn around and play another game in Pittsburgh in 4 days on Thursday Night Football. Favorites are just 49-71 ATS since 2012 before Thursday Night Football and favorites of 6+ in general are 31-59 ATS since 2008 before being underdogs of 6+ (Pittsburgh -6.5 is the early line). I’d like the Buccaneers more if we were getting a full touchdown, but they should be able to keep this one close against a team that might not give its best effort in a look ahead spot.

Carolina Panthers 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +6.5

Confidence: Medium