New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl LIII Pick

New England Patriots (13-5) vs. Los Angeles Rams (15-3) in Super Bowl LIII

By their standards, the Patriots had a down season. They finished with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since 2009 and were legitimately blown out in a few games. They lost as many games by double digits (3) as they had in the previous 3 seasons combined and their 34-10 loss to the Titans was their biggest loss since 2014. They also didn’t go on one of their typical late season runs, actually winning more games in their first 8 games (6) than their final 8 games (5). From week 9 to 15, they went just 2-3, starting with that loss to the Titans in week 10, which was their latest loss by that many points since back in 2000 before Brady became a starter.

They also showed stretches of dominance though, especially at home, where they went a perfect 8-0, with 6 of 8 wins by double digits. Their only home wins that were within double digits came against division winners in the Chiefs and Texans and they would have had the ball with a 14 point lead late in the 4th quarter against the Texans if not for a muffed punt that led to a late Houston touchdown.

They weren’t nearly as good on the road, but picked up another two double digit wins on the road against the Jets and Bills, giving them 8 double digit wins in the regular season, tied with the Saints for most in the NFL. They won in Chicago, where the Bears otherwise won all of their regular season home games en route to a 12-4 record. All in all, the Patriots went 4-0 against playoff qualifiers, the only playoff qualifier to have a perfect record against fellow playoff qualifiers.

The Patriots played down to their level of competition some this season, particularly away from home, but they’ve always brought their best for big games in the Brady/Belichick era, going a ridiculous 39-13 against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including an unfathomable 15-1 since 2010. That’s not even skewed by early season matchups where records don’t mean as much, as they are 17-5 against teams with a better record than them in week 11 or later, including 8-2 in the post-season. For comparison, the league average winning percentage against a team with a better record is 38.3%.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that they were able to beat the Chargers and Chiefs, who both finished 12-4, to advance to the Super Bowl, where they now face the 3-loss Rams. Granted, their win over the Chiefs was close to a 50/50 game that could have gone either way, but their game against the Chargers was over by halftime. They showed their top level for much of the season and securing a first round bye allowed key veterans like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to get healthy for another playoff run. Now with another week off, I wouldn’t want to bet against them right now, especially only getting 2.5 points. The Patriots have been close to an auto-bet with Brady under center as underdogs or favorites of less than 3, going 52-24 ATS and 47-29 straight up.

The Rams will present a tough test though. Their offense hasn’t been the same since Cooper Kupp went down with a torn ACL, as they had a first down rate of 46.09% in the 8 games he played, as opposed to 39.60% in the 10 games he missed, but that’s still an impressive rate and they should have a healthier Todd Gurley after a week off, giving them a one-two punch at running back of Gurley and talented replacement CJ Anderson. They’ve also been much better defensively with cornerback Aqib Talib on the field, allowing a 33.10% first down rate in the 10 games he played, as opposed to 43.29% in the 8 games he missed.

Both teams have plenty of standout players, with Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Andrew Whitworth among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Rams and Julian Edelman, Trey Flowers, and Stephon Gilmore among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Patriots. You could argue these are the two best coached teams in the league, with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels on one sideline, facing off with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips on the other. Ultimately, it’s just going to come down to execution, which I know isn’t much of an analysis, but the talent gap between these two teams isn’t much. I’m going with the Patriots because I trust their experience over the experience of the Rams, who are in just their 4th playoff game with Jared Goff and McVay. I probably wouldn’t bet this on a normal week, but it’s the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots 31 Los Angeles Rams 24

Pick against the spread: New England -2.5

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

The Patriots won in convincing fashion at home over a strong Chargers team last week, wrapping up an undefeated 9-0 home record, but now they have to go on the road (where they are 3-5) and travel to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game. The common narrative seems to be that they will continue to struggle on the road and, as a result, they are underdogs in a game started by Tom Brady for the first time since week 13 of the 2014 season.

The statistical difference between the Patriots at home and on the road has been very significant this season, beyond even what the records show. At home, 7 of those 9 wins came by double digits, with the only exceptions coming against the Texans and the Chiefs, a pair of AFC division winners. They have a first down rate differential of +9.65% at home. For comparison, the Bears finished 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +6.64%. On the road, however, they have a first down rate differential of -5.29%. For comparison, that would have ranked 29th in the NFL over the course of the season, most comparable to the Washington Redskins.

Fortunately for them, home/road differentials tend to be random more than anything. Over the past 30 seasons, teams with a home winning percentage of more than 90% and a road winning percentage under 50% are 40-36 straight up on the road in week 11 or later and are 21-12 ATS as road underdogs. The Patriots have been incredible at home since 2001, going 141-26 straight up, but they are also 99-49 on the road, including 24-15 ATS and 20-19 straight up as road underdogs. Any time you’re getting points with the Patriots, even against the most dominant of teams, they are worth a bet, as they tend to rise to the occasion against tough opponents, going a ridiculous 38-13 straight up against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including 7-2 in the post-season.

The Chiefs have been a dominant team on offense this season, finishing the regular season by far #1 in first down rate at 45.18% (Rams are 2nd at 43.05%), but they’ve been far from dominant on defense. They finished the season ranked 24th in points per game allowed at 26.3 and were even worse in first down rate allowed at 42.20%, worst in the NFL. Against playoff qualifiers, their defensive numbers were downright ugly, as they allowed 36.0 points per game and a ridiculous 46.54% first down rate in 6 regular season games against playoff qualifiers (2-4).

The strength of this defense is its pass rush, which led the league in sacks, led by edge rushers Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (9 sacks) and interior rusher Chris Jones (15.5 sacks). Combined with their explosive offense, their pass rush has allowed them to dominant weaker opponents. They go up big early with their offense, forcing their opponents to pass more than they’d like (most pass attempts against in the league), which allows their pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. That same formula hasn’t worked as well against tougher opponents, who have been able to exploit their weaknesses against running games and quick passing games. The Patriots both rode of those to victory last week, so it’s not hard to imagine them following a similar formula this week in Kansas City.

The big exception to the Chiefs’ defensive struggles this season came against the Colts last week, in a game in which the Chiefs held the Colts to a 30.19% first down rate in a blowout 31-13 win. However, when you look at their whole season, last week’s performance looks like a fluke, especially when you consider there wasn’t any personnel change that was made between last week’s game and a month ago, when they allowed 67 points combined in a 2-game stretch against the Chargers and Seahawks.

The one player who could boost this defense is Eric Berry, who is expected to play through a heel injury this week, after sitting out the previous 2 games, but he’s played just 99 snaps since week 1 of 2017, so it’s unclear how much having him active will benefit the Chiefs. Unless the Chiefs suddenly became a different defense overnight or Eric Berry can somehow return to Pro Bowl form by Sunday, I like the Patriots’ chances of pulling the upset and they’re a great bet if you can get the full field goal.

New England Patriots 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New England +3

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)

I’ve been high on the Chargers all year and, with the Bears eliminated, the Chargers now rank 1st among remaining playoff teams on the season in first down rate differential at +5.24%. Since week 10, they rank 3rd at +6.04%. Making this even more impressive is the fact that they have next to no homefield advantage in Los Angeles, where they struggle to attract home fans, even when playing well. Outside of Los Angeles, they are a perfect 9-0, covering the spread in 8 of 9 games and winning by an average of 9.11 points per game. That is a trend that actually dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 37-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have been pretty underwhelming statistically for a playoff team. They have a +2.67% first down rate differential on the season, 2nd worst among remaining playoff teams, and they didn’t go on their normal late season run this year either, with a +2.68% first down rate differential since week 10, 4th worst among remaining playoff teams. That being said, I’m hesitant to bet too heavily against the Patriots, who are not a team I want to underestimate in the playoffs, even with them giving 4 points to a Chargers team that has been statistically better almost across the board this season.

This is still a talented Patriots roster, one that has underachieved for stretches of the season, but also has shown signs of dominance, with 8 double digit wins and a 4-0 record against playoff qualifiers. If Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski can be healthier off of a bye, this is still a very scary team, especially at home, where they are undefeated this season with an average margin of victory of 16.25 points per game.

Normally home/road disparities are random more than anything (for example the Patriots were 14-1 on the road in 2016-17 before going 3-5 this season), but the Patriots have been dominant at home for close to two decades, going 140-26 since 2001, including 112-18 against the AFC. On top of that, they are a ridiculous 36-12 against teams with a better record than them with Tom Brady under center and they should be more than up to the challenge of taking on an elite Chargers team. Four points isn’t a huge cushion, but I do want to put a small bet on the Chargers, even though I do ultimately expect the Patriots to pull out the victory.

New England Patriots 24 Los Angeles Chargers 23

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +4

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at New England Patriots: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (4-11) at New England Patriots (10-5)

I bet on the Patriots as 13-point favorites last week at home against the Bills. They nearly covered, holding a 24-6 lead with 2 minutes left in the game before allowing the backdoor cover, but I never really felt comfortable with that bet during the game. Both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski seem to be playing at less than 100% and part of the reason the Patriots didn’t cover is because Brady was pulled with 7 minutes left in the game, an unusual move by Bill Belichick. Gronkowski also played less than his normal snaps and was frequently subbed for on run plays for blocking tight end Dwayne Allen.

The Patriots are in a similar spot this week, as 13-point home favorites, about to go into a first round bye if they can take care of business, a much needed first down bye for a team that can still be dangerous if healthy. They’re not healthy right now though, so I’m hesitant to take them, but the Jets are not the Bills, who have a legitimately good pass defense, which contributed to the Patriots’ passing game struggles. The Jets’ offense has been better in recent weeks, since Sam Darnold returned from injury, but the same could be said of the Bills with Josh Allen before last week.

Unlike the Bills, the Jets’ defense has gone in the other direction since Darnold’s return. They rank 31st in the NFL in first down rate allowed over the past 4 weeks at 41.38% and the obvious culprit is the absence of linebacker Darron Lee, who was suspended for the final 4 games of the season. Lee helped hold Patriots running back James White to 1 catch on 5 targets in the previous meeting between these two teams and also helped on Rob Gronkowski, who was limited to 3 catches.

The Jets did beat the Bills in Buffalo a few weeks ago without Lee, but the Bills won the first down rate battle in that game by 2.66% and had one of their better offensive weeks of the season. On the season, the Jets rank 31st in the NFL in first down rate differential at -6.09%, only ahead of the Cardinals. We’re getting some line value with the Patriots, so they should be the right side this week, but I’m hesitant to bet on them because they could pull Brady late and allow the backdoor cover again.

New England Patriots 27 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (5-9) at New England Patriots (9-5)

The Patriots have lost back-to-back games for the second time this season, but that’s been a very rare occurrence for them in recent years. In fact, this is just the 8th time the Patriots have done so in the past 15 seasons. Even rarer is the Patriots losing 3 in a row, as that hasn’t happened since 2002. The Patriots need to do more than just win here to cover as 13-point home favorites, but history suggests they should be able to do that as well. Not only have they won their last 9 games after back-to-back losses, but they’ve also covered in 8 of those 9 games. All in all, the Patriots are 49-26 ATS off of a loss in the Bill Belichick era.

The Patriots have also been a lot better at home than on the road this season. Home/road disparities tend to be random more than anything, but the Patriots have been dominant at home for two decades (138-26 since 2001 with a +10.93 points per game margin) and they’ve played noticeably better overall this season than they’ve shown in their last two road games, so they’re a little undervalued right now at New England -13. The Bills have played significantly better offensively since getting quarterback Josh Allen back from injury a few weeks ago, but their defense is not as good as it was a couple weeks ago, with stud every down linebacker Matt Milano and talented slot cornerback Taron Johnson now out for the season.

With those two players out, I have this line calculated at New England -17. That might seem high, but the Patriots have won 4 of their 6 home games by at least two touchdowns, with the only exceptions being the Texans and Chiefs, who are currently the top-2 teams in the AFC. The Bills are obviously not on that level and even that Texans game could have been a two touchdown win if not for a 4th quarter muffed punt when the Patriots were set to get the ball back up by 14.

The Bills will give their best effort this week in a game they may be viewing as their Super Bowl, but the Patriots should be fully focused as well, off of back-to-back losses, with only an easy home game against the Jets on deck. Favorites of 7+ are 58-36 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 7+ again, as superior teams tend to take care of business without upcoming distractions. I expect that to be the case in this one, though I’m keeping this at a medium confidence pick because of the Josh Gordon suspension.

New England Patriots 30 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: New England -13

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1)

For the second straight year, the Patriots have lost in Miami the week before a critical late season matchup with the Steelers. Unlike last year, when the Patriots were outplayed pretty much from start to finish in Miami, this year they played well enough to win, losing on arguably the craziest walk off touchdown in recent memory. The Patriots bounced back in Pittsburgh last year and I expect the same from them this year. That’s typically what they do after a loss anyway, going 49-25 ATS in the Bill Belichick era after a loss, with just 5 instances of back-to-back losses in the past 10 seasons. That record is 27-5 ATS as underdogs or favorites of less than 3 and they are 62-31 ATS as underdogs or favorites of less than 3 overall since 2000.

The Patriots have not played well on the road this season, but home/road disparities tend to be random more than anything. For example, prior to this season, the Patriots were 14-1 in their previous 2 seasons on the road, only losing last year in Miami. Pittsburgh is a place where the Patriots have had a lot of success all-time anyway and the Steelers have not played as well in recent weeks. Running back James Conner could return this week, but even if he does both he and Ben Roethlisberger will be playing hurt. I have this line calculated at -3 and this is a situation where the Patriots usually thrive, so they’re a strong bet if you can get them at less than 3. Even at -3, they have a good chance to at worst push.

New England Patriots 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 27

Pick against the spread: New England -2.5

Confidence: High

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (9-3) at Miami Dolphins (6-6)

When this line was New England -10 on the early line, I was thinking about taking the Dolphins. The Patriots have not nearly been the same team on the road this season and they’ve historically struggled in Miami, including last year, when they lost as 11-point favorites in Miami in this exact same situation, right before a much bigger game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Patriots face again next week. There’s obviously a huge talent difference between these two teams, but 10 points seemed like enough cover to play with.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost line value in the last week, with this line shifting to 7.5. It’s not really clear why, as New England beat the Vikings by two touchdowns last week, while the Dolphins almost lost at home to the Bills, but maybe the oddsmakers just realized the line was too high last week. The Dolphins will also be without their top cornerback Xavien Howard with injury, a big loss against a team like the Patriots, but this line doesn’t seem to take that into account.

With that in mind, I’m actually going to flip to the Patriots, even in a tough spot. Five of the Dolphins’ six losses have come by more than a touchdown, while all of their wins have come by 8 points or fewer. They rank 29th in first down rate differential, 24th in point differential, and, while their offense is better with Ryan Tannehill back, he doesn’t appear to be 100% right now. It’s also typically not smart to go against the Patriots late in the season without a good reason, as they are 67-42 ATS in the final 8 games of the regular season with Tom Brady under center. This is a no confidence pick, but the Patriots are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 24 Miami Dolphins 16

Pick against the spread: New England -7.5

Confidence: None