New York Jets at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (2-13) at New England Patriots (6-9)

The Patriots have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league this season. They’ve beaten quality teams like the Dolphins, Raiders, Cardinals, and Ravens, with the first two coming by double digits. They have a 45-0 win over the Chargers and have also kept it close with the Seahawks and Bills. At the same time, they lost their rematch to the Dolphins and badly lost their rematch to the Bills. They also have double digit losses to the Rams and 49ers and have lost to the Texans and Broncos, while almost losing to the Jets, before pulling out a mere field goal win. 

There also isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to their inconsistency, as their loss to the Texans came in the middle of a 4-1 stretch, while their recent 3-game losing streak (Rams, Dolphins, Bills) has come after probably their most complete game of the season against the Chargers. Their schedule hasn’t been easy and they haven’t been horrible all things considered, ranking 22nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.76%, but they’ve been very tough to predict week-to-week.

In terms of variance, the Patriots rank 5th in the NFL and their inconsistency is even worse than that suggests, as most teams that rank high in variance have had injury problems throughout the season that have caused them to not have the same personnel available to them every week, which hasn’t really been the case for the Patriots. The best explanation I have for their inconsistency is that they’re a bottom-third team talent wise that is more likely to exceed their talent level and play surprisingly well than your average bottom-third team because of their coaching edge.

Given that, it’s hard to ever bet them confidently, but it seems like the Patriots’ stock is so low now after their recent 3-game losing streak that they are a reasonably safe bet, now favored by just 3 points over the Jets, after being favored by 9 points on the early line last week. Everyone saw them get blown out by the Bills on Monday Night Football, but the Bills are arguably the best team in the league and, even if the Patriots don’t play their best game, they should be able to win this game by at least a field goal against one of the worst teams in the league.

Massive line movements like that almost always tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. The Patriots’ injuries are starting to pile up, with key offensive linemen David Andrews and Shaq Mason and talented edge defender Josh Uche now sidelined after playing last week, joining top running back Damien Harris and top cornerback Stephon Gilmore as key players to go down in recent weeks, so some line movement was justified, but the Patriots still rank a somewhat respectable 24th in my roster rankings, while the Jets rank 31st.

The Jets have won back-to-back games after losing their first 13 games of the season by a ridiculous 16.15 points per game, but I don’t think they’re suddenly a drastically improved team, as they seemed to catch the Rams off guard more than anything and last week they faced a Browns team that was missing several key players on offense, including their top-4 wide receivers. Teams also tend to be overrated after wins as big home underdogs like the Jets got last week, covering at a 43.1% rate after a win as home underdogs of 3.5 or more. 

Like the Patriots’ loss to the Bills, the Jets win last week shouldn’t have led to a line movement of more than a point or so. I’m not saying this line should still be at 9, after the results of last week and the Patriots’ injuries, but I still have it calculated at New England -5, so we’re getting decent line value with the Patriots. The Jets have also seen injuries start to pile up in recent weeks, something that has been overlooked because of their mini winning streak, most notably the absence of their top defensive player Quinnen Willliams, who went down for the season after the win against the Rams week 15.

I hate betting on a team that has been as tough to predict as the Patriots, but even in one of their worst games of the season, they were able to beat the Jets in New York by a field goal, so they should be able to win ugly again at home if they have to and the Patriots’ obvious coaching edge gives them a better chance of winning this game easily than most teams with an underwhelming roster. The most likely outcomes of this game, in order, are a close Patriots win, a not so close Patriots win, and then a close Jets win, so I like my chances at New England -3.

New England Patriots 23 New York Jets 17

Pick against the spread: New England -3

Confidence: Medium

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (11-3) at New England Patriots (6-8)

After back-to-back dominant offensive performances against top level defenses in the Steelers and Broncos, the Bills have jumped actually pretty far ahead of the Chiefs for the #1 rank in first down rate over expected (+4.89% vs. +3.87%). The Chiefs still lead the conference in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but only slightly (+3.32% vs. +3.29%) and only because of the Bills’ defensive struggles, as the Bills rank just 25th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.60%.

Defensive performance is much less predictable week-to-week than offensive performance, but beyond the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance, the Bills are also healthier than they’ve been all season on defense and they are much more talented on paper than their overall season performance, so I would say they’re much more likely to be improved going forward than your typical 25th ranked defensive unit. If they can even be a middling group defensively going forward, this team should be considered one of the top few contenders for the Super Bowl, as their offense should continue playing at a dominant level.

Unfortunately, this line has moved significantly from last week, favoring the Bills by a touchdown on the road in New England, as opposed to Buffalo -4, which is where this line was last week on the early line, before Buffalo’s nationally televised blowout victory over the Broncos. We’re actually getting a little bit of line value with the underdog Patriots in this game, as my calculated line is just Buffalo -6. Overall, the Patriots have been a slightly above average team this season, ranking 13th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.82%, but they’ve been very inconsistent, beating teams like the Ravens, Cardinals, Raiders, and Dolphins (split) and playing the Bills and Chiefs close, while losing to teams like the Broncos and Texans. 

In terms of variance, the Patriots rank 2nd in the NFL, which is rare for a team that hasn’t had a ton of injuries that would cause them to be so inconsistent. The Patriots are slightly diminished this week, missing their top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but still rank a respectable 17th in my roster rankings, so we’re getting slightly line value. I can’t be confident in them at all, given that we’re getting minimal line value and they’ve been so inconsistent, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Buffalo Bills 30 New England Patriots 24

Pick against the spread: New England +7

Confidence: None

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (6-7) at Miami Dolphins (8-5)

The Patriots have been a tough team to predict this season because they’ve been one of the most inconsistent in the league, ranking 4th in the league in variance, only behind three teams that have had a lot more injury problems and, as a result, have started drastically different lineups at different points at this season, explaining a lot of the variance. The Patriots had some injuries earlier in the season when they lost by double digits to the 49ers and Chiefs and lost to the Broncos in upset fashion and they’ve been better in recent weeks, knocking off quality teams like the Ravens and Cardinals and blowing out the Chargers, but, even still, the Patriots have also lost to Houston during their recent stretch and were blown out by the Rams last week.

Overall, the Patriots have been a little bit above average. They have about an even point differential (-2), despite facing one of the tougher schedules in the league, and in terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they rank 12th at 0.86%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 12th, now healthier than they were earlier this season during their most disappointing stretch. 

The Dolphins, meanwhile, have a couple more wins, but haven’t been as good overall. They’ve played a relatively easy schedule, with half of their wins coming against the three worst teams in the league (the Bengals, the Jaguars, and the Jets twice). Of their eight wins, just two have come against teams that currently have a winning record, a 3-point victory over the 7-6 Cardinals (who the Patriots also beat) and a win over the 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 generally benefited from metrics that are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, in addition to their easy schedule. The Dolphins lead the league in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 60.00%, rank 8th in fumble recovery rate at 58.06%, and they have a +10 turnover margin, which ranks tied for 2nd in the NFL. As counterintuitive as it may seem, going against teams with impressive turnover margins this late in the season actually tends to be a smart move. Turnover margins are very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, as a result, 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.

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which is much more predictive, the Dolphins are a middling team, ranking 17th at +0.37%, behind their opponents, the New England Patriots. That is even better than their roster rankings, suggesting they’ve actually outperformed their talent level to get to this point. They rank 23rd in my roster rankings and, while they could move up if key questionable players like linebacker Kyle Van Noy, guard Ereck Flowers, and tight end Mike Gesicki suit up, if several of those players are unable to play, I am probably going to end up betting on the Patriots, even if we aren’t getting much line value with them as 1.5 point road underdogs. This is a low confidence pick for now (my calculated line is New England -2), but I may have an update when inactives are released.

Update: Van Noy will play for the Dolphins, but that’s where the good news ends on the Dolphins’ injury report, as not only will Gesicki and Flowers both be out, but the Dolphins will also be without their top-2 wide receivers Devante Parker and Jakeem Grant. Already thin in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, the Dolphins figure to have a tough time consistently stringing together drives in this game, even against a middling Patriots defense. The Patriots will be without running back Damien Harris, but they’re deep enough at running back that Harris’ absences won’t be a huge deal.

The line has dropped to New England +1, but I would lock this in ASAP in case the line shifts further. Also, I didn’t mention this earlier, but it’s worth noting that Bill Belichick is 45-33 ATS as the head coach of the Patriots off of extra rest, which the Patriots will have after playing on Thursday Night Football last week. And then there is Bill Belichick’s history of dominance against rookie quarterbacks like Tua Tugavailoa. If the Patriots hadn’t been so inconsistent and unpredictable this season, I would make this a high confidence pick.

New England Patriots 20 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: New England +1

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (6-6) at Los Angeles Rams (8-4)

The rule of thumb in games where both teams are on short rest is to bet the favorite, especially in non-divisional games. It makes sense that more talented, better coached teams would be at even more of an advantage in a tough situation like a short week, especially if they aren’t facing a divisional opponent that is familiar with them, and it’s also backed up by numbers, as teams are 60-37 ATS as non-divisional favorites on a short week over the past 30 seasons. The Rams are favored by 5.5 in this non-conference matchup, so they fit the trend, but the trend only makes sense if you can justify the team being favored by as many points as they are, which is hard to do, as these two teams are much closer than this line suggests. 

This game is in Los Angeles, meaning it’s technically a home game for the Rams, but they won’t have any fans in the stadium, so homefield advantage really is beneficial only for travel purposes and the Rams will actually have traveled more recently than the Patriots, as they were in Arizona last week facing the Cardinals, while the Patriots will be in their second straight game in Los Angeles, having faced the Chargers last week, which should also cancel out the circadian rhythm problem that east coast teams have against west coast teams in night games. I would maybe give the Rams a half point for homefield advantage, so for this line to be right, the Rams would have to be 5 points better than the Patriots, which doesn’t seem accurate.

The Rams have definitely had the better defense this season, ranking 2nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.62%, only behind the Steelers, while the Patriots rank 15th at +0.36%, but defensive play is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and my roster rankings suggest that, while the Rams have a good defense, they have overplayed their talent level, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see them regress at least somewhat going forward. 

If that happens, the Rams will be more reliant on their offense, which ranks 15th in first down rate over expected at +0.58% and is still missing a key player in left tackle Andrew Whitworth. That injury has been overlooked because the Rams have gone 2-1 in his absence, but one of their wins came against a Cardinals defense that is one of the worst in the league, their other win came in Tampa Bay in a game in which the Rams had a mediocre offensive performance in a good situation spot, while their loss came at home against a middling 49ers team.

The Patriots, meanwhile, are just 6-6, but they’ve been better than their record, especially on offense. They have a positive point differential at +19, despite a relatively tough schedule and some early injury and COVID absences, and they rank 11th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.20%, including 8th in first down rate over expected at +1.55%. Their offense isn’t flashy, but they’re very efficient on the ground with both running back runs and quarterback runs and they have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL, even with Isaiah Wynn injured. 

The Patriots also don’t get blown out often, with just one loss by more than one score with Cam Newton in the lineup. They kept it within 5 points in Seattle and in Buffalo and have beaten quality teams like the Cardinals, Raiders, Ravens, and Dolphins, so it’s hard to see how the Rams would be expected to win by 6 points in what amounts to a neutral site game, as the Rams are more or less comparable in caliber to the aforementioned six teams that the Patriots have played competitively this season. 

I have these two teams about 1.5 points apart, giving me a calculated line of Los Angeles -2, so we’re getting significant line value at +5.5, as about 28% of games are decided by 2-5 points. This might be my Pick of the Week if this game were later in the week, but there may be others I like more, so I’m keeping this as “just” a high confidence bet. Either way, I like the Patriots a lot this week, as they continue to be underrated, while the Rams’ offensive issues have been overlooked.

Los Angeles Rams 24 New England Patriots 23

Pick against the spread: New England +5.5

Confidence: High

New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (5-6) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-8)

The Chargers are just 3-8, but it’s well-known that they have been competitive in most of their games, even against good teams, as they’ve only lost one game by more than one score all season, including near victories over the Chiefs, Saints, and Buccaneers. However, their offense hasn’t been all that impressive, ranking 24th in first down rate over expected at -1.29%, which is a concern because offensive play is much more consistent week-to-week than defensive play. 

The Chargers rank 9th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.55%, but aren’t guaranteed to be that good going forward, especially given that they are missing key players due to injury, including stud defensive end Melvin Ingram and top linebacker Denzel Perryman and that they traded away talented slot cornerback Desmond King at the trade deadline. They could also be without top cornerback Casey Hayward and Melvin Ingram’s replacement Uchenna Nwosu, who are both considered questionable for this game.

The Patriots are almost an opposite team from the Chargers, ranking 9th in first down rate over expected at +1.72% and 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.53%. You might not think of them as a good offense because of their passing game issues, but they have a strong offensive line and versatile running game, with both power running back Damien Harris and quarterback Cam Newton finding success on the ground. That formula won’t work against every team, but it should be effective against a team like the Chargers, especially with the Chargers missing their top linebacker. 

The Patriots’ defense has been a problem this season, but defensive play is very inconsistent week-to-week and I trust Bill Belichick and company to make the right defensive adjustments as much as any coaching staff in the league. Belichick should particularly be at an advantage this week against a rookie quarterback, a situation he is 15-4 straight up in throughout his career. The Patriots are the more talented overall team and matchup well with the Chargers on both sides of the ball, so they should be favored by at least a couple points, rather than being slight underdogs. This isn’t a big bet, but there’s enough line value here for the Patriots to be worth betting and I may increase this bet if it turns out Hayward and/or Nwosu can’t play.

New England Patriots 23 Los Angeles Chargers 20 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: New England +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Arizona Cardinals at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (6-4) at New England Patriots (4-6)

The Patriots are just 4-6, but they appear to have made the right decision to move on from Tom Brady and not guarantee him 50 million dollars for his age 43 and 44 seasons in 2020 and 2021 like the Buccaneers did. Brady is having some success in Tampa Bay, but he has a much better team around him with the Buccaneers and likely would not be having the same success in New England. In fact, there is an argument to be made that the Patriots would be worse off with Brady than with Cam Newton, even before taking into account that Newton is making next to nothing, allowing the Patriots to maintain long-term financial flexibility and shorten the length of their rebuild.

After ranking just 21st in the NFL in first down rate last season with Brady, the Patriots rank 8th in first down rate over expected this season at +1.84%. The Patriots have a better offensive line and running game this season, but they also don’t have their only consistent veteran wide receiver in Julian Edelman, who will miss his 5th straight game. The Patriots don’t have much of a passing game this season, but it’s unlikely it would have been much better with Brady throwing to these unproven receivers and Newton’s running ability at least gives this offense another dimension to make up for their lack of a downfield passing game. Overall, the Patriots’ offense hasn’t been the problem. 

The big problem is their defense, which led the league in first down rate allowed by a wide margin last season, but has fallen to 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.80%. That’s understandable, given that 6 of their top-11 in snaps from last year’s defense are no longer with the team, either leaving in free agency, trade, or opting out. Even with their defensive struggles though, they’ve been better than their record suggests, as they’ve played a tough schedule and have gone just 2-4 in one score games. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Patriots rank a middling 19th at +0.04% and they could easily be better than that going forward, because they’re healthier now than they’ve been and because offense is much more predictable and consistent on a week-to-week basis than defense. If their defense can even be middling going forward, this won’t be an easy team to face. My roster rankings are even more generous, ranking them 12th. The Patriots have had a couple stinker performances in recent weeks, nearly losing to the Jets and losing to the Texans, but they were in a bad spot in both of these games, before and after a big upset victory over the Ravens. Coming off of last week’s loss, I would expect much better focus from New England this week.

Instead, it could be New England’s opponents who aren’t totally focused, with the Cardinals potentially looking ahead to a key divisional matchup with the Rams next week in Arizona. The Cardinals are a very similar team to the Patriots, with their defense significantly lagging behind their offense, and these two teams rank about even in my roster rankings. We’re only getting a point and a half with the Patriots as home underdogs, so there isn’t enough here for the Patriots’ money line to be worth betting without any fans in the stands, but these two teams are about even except for the spot and with the Patriots in the better spot, I would expect them to sneak out a close victory, so the Patriots should be the better side for pick ‘em purposes. The money line at +110 is worth a small bet, as the Patriots should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game straight up and my calculated line is New England -1.5.

New England Patriots 33 Arizona Cardinals 31 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: New England +1.5

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Houston Texans: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (4-5) at Houston Texans (2-7)

The Patriots pulled off the upset last week, beating the Ravens last week by final score of 23-17. That was a shocking result to people who left the Patriots for dead after a four game losing streak and a near defeat to the Jets, but I wasn’t overly surprised. Not only were the Ravens missing key players that made them much less than the dominant team we’re used to them being over the past year or so, but the Patriots were also much better than most people thought. Of their five losses, only one of them was a game in which they were uncompetitive and they could have easily picked up victories on the road in Seattle and Buffalo, to go with their double digit home victories over capable teams in the Dolphins and Raiders.

People are taking the Patriots more seriously after last week’s win over the Ravens, with this line shifting from favoring Houston by 2.5 to favoring the Patriots by 1.5, but line movement within the field goals like that isn’t all that valuable and I think the Patriots are still underrated. The Patriots rank 13th first down rate differential at +0.74% and that’s despite the fact that their starting quarterback dealt with illness and possibly injury for a couple weeks, their top cornerback Stephon Gilmore missed 3 games, and they’ve had a variety of injuries on the offensive line. With Newton healthy, Gilmore back in the lineup, and their offensive line being one of the best in the league now back at full strength, the Patriots rank 8th in my roster rankings, so they’re no pushover.

Even better for the Patriots’ projection going forward, their problems have been primarily concentrated on defense, which is the much more inconsistent side of the ball, as they rank 6th in first down rate over expected, but just 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected. Even on sheer regression, I would expect this Patriots’ defense to be better going forward, but getting players like Gilmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy (returned last week) back from injury and having Bill Belichick as head coach/de facto defensive coordinator makes it even more likely that we’ll see better defensive play from them going forward. If that’s the case and their offense can remain efficient with Newton, a strong offensive line, a strong running game, and Jakobi Myers stepping up as a downfield target in the passing game, this could be a dangerous team the rest of the way, even if it’s possibly too late for them to climb back into a playoff spot.

Given that, the Patriots should be favored by more than 1.5 points here in a matchup with a Texans team that ranks 29th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -3.43%. The Texans have lost to quality opponents in all of their losses, but they haven’t been overly competitive with those quality opponents and their only two victories have come against the Jaguars, the second one coming in a competitive game in which the Jaguars had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion late. My roster rankings have them significantly higher than that and they could be better going forward if they can underachieve less than they have, but they also aren’t well coached and even if they do play up to their talent level, they’re just 18th in my roster rankings, so they’re a good amount behind the Patriots. 

Much like all of the Texans other games against quality opponents, the Texans are likely to lose this one and it possibly won’t be competitive. The Texans will have some fans in the stadium, which will give them somewhat of a boost, but in a game the Patriots basically just need to win to cover, I like their chances of covering a good amount. The one thing that concerns me with betting the Patriots is they could be a little flat after such a big win last week (teams cover at a 41.3% rate after a home upset victory as underdogs of 5 points or more), but there is still enough here for the Patriots to be bet confidently.

Update: Laremy Tunsil will be out for the Texans with an illness, which is a huge blow to the Texans’ offense. This line has climbed to 1.5 or even 2 in some places, but as long as this line is under a field goal, I like the Patriots a lot this week.

New England Patriots 30 Houston Texans 24

Pick against the spread: New England -1.5

Confidence: High

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (6-2) at New England Patriots (3-5)

The Patriots have gone just 3-5 in their first season without Tom Brady, at one point losing four straight games for the first time since 2002 and only snapping that losing streak by squeaking out a field goal win over the Jets last week. Things haven’t been quite as bad as they sound though. The Patriots have lost a lot of close games, going 1-3 in games decided by one score or less and, if you exclude a game in which they were within a score of the Chiefs with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter despite starting a backup quarterback, the Patriots are 2-1 on the season in games decided by more than a touchdown. The Patriots have also faced an above average schedule and, when adjusted for schedule, have a -0.92% first down rate differential that is only slightly below average. 

Even better, the Patriots’ issues have primarily been on the defensive side of the ball this season, as they rank 10th in first down rate over expected at +1.25%, but just 23rd in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.17%. The defensive side of the ball tends to be the much more inconsistent side of the ball and the Patriots’ offense, while not being the passing game we’re used to from them, is still pretty effective at moving the chains, especially on the ground, and has one of the best offensive lines in the league. 

As bad as their near loss to the Jets was, the Patriots actually exceeded expectations on offense with a 39.47% first down rate against a Jets defense that isn’t hapless, ranking 20th in first down rate allowed over expected. The problem was their defense surrendered a 40.91% first down rate to an offense that had been anemic all season, but defensive issues are easier to fix week-to-week and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is one of the best of all-time at defensive adjustments. It’s also very possible the Patriots got caught looking forward, facing a last place Jets team before this Sunday Night Football game against Baltimore. I would expect a better effort this week.

The Patriots’ schedule gets harder this week as the Ravens are obviously a much tougher opponent than the Jets, but not as much as you might think. This once dominant Ravens offense ranks just 27th in first down rate over expected at -1.86% and, while they are better than that on paper, they are also missing their top-2 offensive linemen from last season in Marshal Yanda and Ronnie Stanley and, with defenses catching on to how to defend this offense, it looks less and less likely that the Ravens will consistently find their 2019 form again this season. 

The Ravens have still played well defensively this season, ranking 9th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.94%, but defensive play is much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and the Ravens are missing a pair of key players this week with defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Jimmy Smith sidelined. Given all that the Ravens are missing, this line is too high at a touchdown.

I’m going to bet the Patriots at least a little bit at +7, but unfortunately the Patriots have listed 17 players questionable this week, including cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, who missed last week’s game against the Jets and may be needed if this defense is going to bounce back, so I’m leaving this as a small bet until we get more clarity before gametime. This could easily end up being a higher confidence pick though, depending on injuries.

Baltimore Ravens 27 New England Patriots 24

Pick against the spread: New England +7

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at New York Jets: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (2-5) at New York Jets (0-8)

With the Patriots falling to 2-5 in their first season without Tom Brady, there has been a lot of talk that the Patriots made a mistake not trying harder to bring Brady back. However, I don’t know how this would have gone much differently even with Brady, minus Cam Newton’s brief bout with COVID that caused him to miss the Kansas City game and may have disrupted his next couple weeks. We saw Brady with this receiving corps last season and they were not a good offense, ranking 21st in first down rate, despite a much easier schedule than this season, when they rank 13th in schedule adjusted first down rate. It’s not like they were an offensive juggernaut and lost Brady and now they’ve fallen off a cliff. Brady looks good in Tampa Bay, but he has one of the best supporting casts in the league.

By far the biggest reason for their struggles winning games this season has been their dropoff on defense, which has fallen from being by far the top defense in the league by first down rate allowed to ranking just 16th in schedule adjusted first down rate allowed. Defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent year-to-year and week-to-week than offensive performance, but for the Patriots, the reason for their dropoff is clear. Of their top-8 players in terms of snaps played from last year’s defense, just two (Devin McCourty and JC Jackson) were active for last week’s loss in Buffalo.

The Patriots have still been better than their record though, as they rank 18th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at 0.18% and have been competitive in all but one of their losses. Both of their wins have come by double digits against competent opponents, but they are 0-3 in games decided by one score or less, which doesn’t even include a Kansas City game that was close throughout and that the Patriots easily could have won if they didn’t have to start a backup quarterback.

This week, the Patriots could get one of their top players back, with top cornerback Stephon Gilmore returning to practice after missing his first game of the season last week, and the Patriots also get a much easier matchup, going to New York to face a Jets team that has been the worst team in the league this season and that won’t have the benefit of any fans in the stands. The Jets also won’t have quarterback Sam Darnold due to a re-aggravation of his shoulder injury and, while he doesn’t been great this season any by stretch, he’s still been measurably better than washed up backup Joe Flacco, with whom this offense has been utterly inept this season, including one of the worst offensive performances I’ve seen in a while against the Dolphins in his most recent start.

The Jets are getting healthier in other areas, including wide receiver, but they still rank dead last in my roster rankings and they also rank last by a significant margin in schedule adjusted first down rate differential this season, at -8.78%. Not only have they not won a game, but they haven’t even come particularly close, with their closest loss coming by 8 points and their average loss by 18 points. This line jumped from 7 and 7.5 to 9.5 when the Darnold news was announced, but I have this line calculated at New England -12, as the Patriots are at least a middling team that should be able to handle the Jets like everyone else has. 

This isn’t a good spot for the Patriots, with a home game against the Ravens on deck, as road favorites cover at a 38.7% rate over the past 30 seasons before being home underdogs, but with the Patriots on a 4-game losing streak and needing a win just to keep their season alive, I would expect them to be focused for this one. I would probably need Stephon Gilmore to be active for the Patriots to be worth betting, but they are the pick for pick ‘em purposes regardless.

New England Patriots 21 New York Jets 9

Pick against the spread: New England -9.5

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (2-4) at Buffalo Bills (5-2)

I had a lot of confidence in the Patriots last week. The Patriots started 2-1, easily defeating capable teams in the Raiders and Dolphins and coming up just short on the road in Seattle. Then their COVID outbreak happened, costing them starting quarterback Cam Newton for a game in Kansas City that it looked like the Patriots would have won had Newton been able to play and then the following week costing them significant practice time and several offensive linemen from an already injury plagued group, leading to the Patriots’ upset home loss to the Denver Broncos. 

With a healthy offensive line and a normal week of practice, I expected the Patriots would bounce back to their early season form, but instead they had easily their worst performance of the year, getting blown out at home 33-6 by the 49ers in a game in which the Patriots lost the first down rate battle by 6.58% and really didn’t do anything well on either side of the ball. Making matters even worse, the Patriots have been bit by the injury bug over the past week. The Patriots’ offensive line is much more complete than it’s been for most of the season, but they’ll be without their top-2 wide receivers this week from an already thin group, as well as several other questionable players, most notably top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who seems unlikely to play after a mid-week injury.

Given the disparity between how the Patriots played early in the season and how they’ve played recently, it’s tough to know what to make of this team, but it seems like the general public is completely ignoring their early season success and just focusing on their recent struggles, leading to them being 4-point underdogs in Buffalo against a Bills team that will have minimal homefield advantage and that was also better early in the season than they’ve been in recent weeks. The Bills started 4-0, with competitive wins over quality teams like the Raiders and Rams, but then they lost back-to-back games by multiple scores against tougher opponents in the Titans and Chiefs and last week they had trouble with a Jets team that had previously lost by at least 9 points to every team they’d faced all season. 

The Bills obviously have a better record than the Patriots, but they’re much closer together than their records suggest in terms of point differential (-4 vs. -28) and first down rate differential (+0.60% vs. +0.51%), even though the Bills have played a below average schedule, while the Patriots have faced one of the toughest schedules in the league. When schedule adjustments are taken into account, the Patriots actually have a significant lead in first down rate differential, ranking 11th at 1.65%, while the Bills rank 23rd at -1.11%. Of course, if the Patriots come out and play like they did last week again, it won’t matter than they’ve been better statistically than the Bills this season, just like it didn’t matter that they had a statistical edge over the 49ers going into last week, but I don’t expect the Patriots to come out flat like that in back-to-back weeks, especially since this is a must win game for the Patriots against a division rival.

In fact, if either of these teams comes out flat again this week like they did last week, it’s likely to be the Bills, as the Bills still were able to pick up the win last week because of their easy competition and would still hold a healthy divisional lead even if they lose this game. This isn’t to say the Bills are going to look past the Patriots, who they’ve been trying to get past for years, but the Bills have another tough game on deck against the Seahawks, while the Patriots get the Jets next, so the Patriots are much more likely to be fully focused than the Bills, especially given the results of last week. 

Underdogs cover at a 62.7% rate before being favorites when their opponents will next be underdogs and all three of those are likely to be the case in this one. On top of that, teams are 115-67 ATS as underdogs since 1989 before being road favorites of 4 or more, which the Patriots will be in New York next week (-7 on the early line). There is too much injury uncertainty for me to lock in a bet on the Patriots now, but if their inactives list is favorable and/or the Bills’ isn’t, the Patriots are worth a bet this week. I will have an update before gametime most likely.

Update: Gilmore is out for the Patriots, but I was expecting that. The bigger news is that their other questionables are playing, most importantly JC Jackson, who will be their new #1 cornerback in Gilmore’s absence, while the Bills will be without safety Micah Hyde. Despite that, this line has dropped to 4.5, likely due to the Gilmore news, so the Patriots are worth a bet this week. The Bills haven’t been much better than the Patriots have been lately and the Patriots played better against tougher competition earlier in the year.

Buffalo Bills 24 New England Patriots 23

Pick against the spread: New England +4.5

Confidence: Medium