Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals: 2021 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)

I don’t normally lock games in this early in the week and this is especially risky given the NFL’s COVID protocols, but neither of these teams has any significant questionable players according to the early practice report and like the Raiders enough as 6-point underdogs that I want to take the risk and lock it in early because sharp action is likely to drop this line throughout the week (it started at 6.5 yesterday). At first glance, the Bengals might seem like an obvious choice, as they beat the Raiders by 19 in Las Vegas earlier this season and, despite their identical records, the Bengals also have a significant edge in point differential at 84 vs -65, with the Raiders going 7-2 in one-score games, including 4-0 in overtime. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

While the Bengals may have won by a score of 32-13 in the first matchup, the Raiders outgained the Bengals by 1.80 yards per play. The reason for that is the same problems the Raiders had for much of the season, as they lost the turnover battle by one and performed poorly on third down on both sides of the ball, allowing the Bengals to convert 8 of 16, while converting just 1 of 7. On the season, the Raiders have the 27th ranked turnover margin in the league at -9, while ranking 22nd in third down conversion percentage and 15th in third down conversion percentage allowed, which is in large part to blame for their 23rd ranked point differential.

Fortunately for the Raiders, turnover margin is not predictive week-to-week, nor is underperforming on third downs, which the Raiders are, as they actually rank 15th on offense and 8th on defense in schedule adjusted efficiency, a metric based on yards per play and first down rate differential, much more metric predictives week-to-week. The Bengals, meanwhile, rank just 16th on offense, 20th on defense, and 18th in mixed efficiency, behind the 9th ranked Raiders. 

This game is in Cincinnati, but homefield advantage is only worth a couple points at most now and could actually work against the Bengals for spread purposes, as home favorites are 6-16 ATS since 2002 when making their first career playoff start, which Joe Burrow is. Even if they don’t win this game outright, the Raiders should keep this game close and my calculated line has the Bengals as just 2.5-point favorites. I would still like the Raiders at +5.5, but I want to lock in 6 before I can’t anymore.

Cincinnati Bengals 24 Las Vegas Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +6

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) at Las Vegas Raiders (9-7)

It’s hard to make a call on this game because the Raiders have a pair of key players whose status for this game is legitimately questionable, stud tight end Darren Waller and top cornerback Casey Hayward. This game is essentially a play-in game for the playoffs, so both will make every effort to play and, if both play, the Raiders should be able to cover this spread as 3-point home underdogs. The Raiders’ point differential (-68) is much worse than the Chargers’ (+18), despite these two teams having the same record, but the Raiders have been hurt by a -11 turnover margin (3rd worst in the NFL), which is not predictive week-to-week. 

What is also not predictive week-to-week is that the Raiders have underperformed on third and relative to their early down performance. The Raiders rank 15th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 9th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but are just 25th in third down conversion percentage and 21st in third down conversion percentage allowed. In terms of schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, which is more predictive, the Raiders rank 11th overall, just behind the 9th ranked Chargers.

If Hayward and Waller do not play, however, the Chargers might actually be the right side, especially since they tend to play well away from home, where they lack a homefield advantage anyway. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2017, the Chargers are 22-15 ATS on the road, as opposed to 15-22 ATS at home. For now, I am going to assume that one of Waller or Hayward will play in this game and take the Raiders, but this is a no confidence pick and I probably won’t be betting on the Raiders either way, given the Chargers’ road prowess.

Update: Both Waller and Hayward are in so this is now a low confidence pick.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Las Vegas Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +3

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Indianapolis Colts: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (8-7) at Indianapolis Colts (9-6)

The Colts have two key questionable players for this game, with starting quarterback Carson Wentz and stud right tackle Braden Smith still yet to clear COVID protocols. This line favors the Colts by 7.5, suggesting the oddsmakers expect at least Wentz to play in this game, as this line would likely drop significantly if he were ruled out and backup Sam Ehlinger had to start. I think we are getting line value with the Raiders at that number even if Wentz and Smith play though, as my calculated line with Wentz and Smith favors the Colts by just 4.5 points (3 points with only Wentz). 

At first glance, a 7.5-point spread seems fair, given that the Raiders have a +71 point differential and the Colts have a +104 point differential, but these two teams are much more even than that suggests. While the Colts have faced a relatively easy schedule and have benefited significantly from a +14 turnover margin, which is not a predictive metric, the Raiders have faced a tougher schedule and have a -9 turnover margin. The Raiders also have largely underperformed on third and fourth downs relative to their early down performance, which tends to even out in the long run. 

The Raiders rank 14th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 7th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but are just 26th and 14th respectively in third and fourth down conversion percentage and just 24th and 31st respectively in both third and fourth down conversion percentage allowed. In terms of schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, the Raiders rank 11th overall, actually slightly ahead of the 12th ranked Colts.

The Raiders haven’t been as good on offense since losing top wide receiver Henry Ruggs and stud tight end Darren Waller, but they haven’t been bad on offense either and still have an above average defense, while the Colts will at least be without left tackle Eric Fisher this week. I want to lock this in right now because it sounds like the Raiders will get their key COVID questionables (Casey Hayward, KJ Wright, Darius Philon, Denzel Perryman, and Cory Littleton) back today, while Wentz and Smith are truly questionable, so I don’t expect this line to get any higher. Unless the Raiders don’t get those players back, the highest my calculated line would go is 4.5 and, if Wentz and Smith are both out, I would have the Raiders favored by 1.5 points. This is a high confidence pick and a Pick of the Week candidate.

Update: Wentz and Smith are playing for the Colts, but I don’t have any regrets about making this a high confidence pick, as the Raiders will have all of their COVID questionables available for this game.

Indianapolis Colts 24 Las Vegas Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +7.5

Confidence: High

Denver Broncos at Las Vegas Raiders: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (7-7) at Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

The Raiders are 7-7, but they have a 4-2 record in one-score games and a 3-0 overtime record, so they could easily have a couple more losses. On top of that, their point differential of -75 is significantly worse than would be expected for their record and ranks just 25th in the NFL overall. That would normally suggest they are worse than their record, but they have faced a tough schedule overall and have largely underperformed on third and fourth downs relative to their early down performance, which tends to even out in the long run. 

The Raiders rank 15th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 9th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but are just 28th and 16th respectively in third and fourth down conversion percentage and just 27th and 30th respectively in both third and fourth down conversion percentage allowed. In terms of schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, the Raiders rank 15th overall. Their offense has been noticeably worse since losing top wide receiver Henry Ruggs and stud tight end Darren Waller, but they still have an above average defense and are still better than their point differential.

The Broncos have a much better point differential at +42, but rank just 18th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency. The Broncos are also dealing with a key injury absence as veteran starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is out with a concussion and will be replaced by inconsistent young backup Drew Lock, who will almost definitely be a significant downgrade. Despite the Raiders having the higher schedule adjusted mixed efficiency and a healthy starting quarterback at home, this line is even. 

Not only is that line too low, but it’s also the exact same line as the early line a week ago, despite the Bridgewater injury, which came in a Broncos home upset loss to the Bengals. The oddsmakers and public clearly were not impressed with the Raiders narrowly winning in Cleveland against a COVID depleted team last week, but that game would not have been as close if the Raiders had not lost the turnover battle by two, which is not a predictive metric. In terms of first down rate and yards per play differential, which are much more predictive and are the basis for efficiency ratings, the Raiders had the edge by significant margins. 

My calculated line has the Raiders favored by 3.5 points, so we are getting a lot of line value with them on an even line, line value that would increase in the somewhat likely case that talented Raiders cornerback Nate Hobbs gets cleared from the COVID list before this game. I am not locking in a lot of games until gameday morning because of all of the COVID uncertainty this week, but this is one I’m comfortable betting now because neither team is having much of a COVID outbreak and the line value is too significant.

Las Vegas Raiders 21 Denver Broncos 16

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas PK

Confidence: High

Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (6-7) at Cleveland Browns (7-6)

Earlier in the week, the Raiders were 6.5-point underdogs and I liked them a lot at that number. That line swung from favoring the Browns by just a field goal on the early line and I typically like fading significant week-to-week line movements, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. In this case, the line movement was due entirely to the Raiders getting blown out 48-9 by the Chiefs last week, but the Chiefs are one of the best teams in the league and teams tend to bounce back after a blowout loss, covering the spread at a 58.2% rate all-time after a loss by 35 points or more, in large part because they tend to be undervalued, which the Raiders were as 6.5-point underdogs in Cleveland.

The Raiders’ point differential of -77 is much worse than their record, as they have been blown out on several occasions, including last week. That would normally suggest they are worse than their record, but they have faced a tough schedule overall and have largely underperformed on third and fourth downs relative to their early down performance, which tends to be the kind of thing that evens out in the long run. The Raiders rank 16th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 9th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but are just 31st and 17th respectively in third and fourth down conversion percentage and just 27th in both third and fourth down conversion percentage allowed. 

However, the Browns have since had a large COVID outbreak among their players and coaches, forcing this game to be pushed back from Saturday Night Football to Monday Night Football and causing the Browns to be without several key players, as well as members of their coaching staff. Their situation is not as bad as it would have been if they had to play Saturday, but they will be without their top two quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Case Keenum, starting left tackle Jedrick Wills, starting tight end Austin Hooper, top wide receiver Jarvis Landry, talented edge defender Jadeveon Clowney, primary slot cornerback Troy Hill, and starting safety Ronnie Harrison.

As a result, this line has shifted all the way to favoring the Raiders by a field goal on the road, a massive 9.5-point mid-week shift. That seems to be an overreaction as the Browns have a competent third quarterback in Nick Mullens, who has been serviceable (87.2 QB rating) across 16 career starts and has been with the team on the practice squad for a few months, while the rest of their losses aren’t damaging enough for this line to shift like this. 

The Browns still have feature back Nick Chubb, talented backup D’Ernest Johnson, and the most talented interior offensive line in the NFL, allowing them to lean on their running game in a big way, while their defense still has edge defender Myles Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward, safety John Johnson, and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, probably their four best defensive players on a defense that ranks 7th in schedule adjusted efficiency. Their offense, meanwhile, ranks 17th in schedule adjusted efficiency, in large part due to their offensive line and running game, as their passing game has been below average for most of the season, with Mayfield struggling through injuries for most of the year. 

The Raiders have also not been the same on offense since losing top wide receiver Henry Ruggs and stud tight end Darren Waller, while their defense will be without two of their top three cornerbacks, with both Trayvon Mullen and Nate Dobbs out for this game. Missing those key players, the Raiders don’t deserve to be favorites of a field goal on the road against a team with a still competent roster, even given the circumstances. 

My calculated line actually still has the Browns favored by a point at home. I don’t want to bet them, given that they are missing multiple coaches as well and had a chaotic week with minimal practice, while the Raiders will still be motivated to bounce back from last week’s blowout loss, but the Browns are the pick for pick ‘em purposes, as we are getting a full field goal with them and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they pulled the upset and won straight up.

Las Vegas Raiders 24 Cleveland Browns 23

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +3

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (6-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-4)

The Raiders are 6-6, but their margin of victory in their six wins is just 7.0 points per game, as opposed to a margin of defeat of 13.3 points per game in their six losses, leading to the Raiders having a point differential that is worse than their record at -38. That normally suggests that the Raiders are not as good as their record, but the Raiders have also significantly underperformed on third and fourth downs on both sides of the ball, which tends to even out in the long run. 

The Raiders rank 16th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 9th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, but just 30th in third down conversion percentage, 24th in fourth down conversion percentage, 20th in third down conversion percentage allowed, and 26th in fourth down conversion percentage allowed. Those metrics figure to improve going forward, allowing the Raiders to be more competitive in their games than their point differential would suggest. Most casual bettors can see their point differential easily, but the fact that they are likely to improve on key downs going forward is not as easily seen and, as a result, the Raiders have become slightly underrated.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, they have a very tough matchup this week, going into Kansas City to face the Chiefs. Some wrote the Chiefs off after their 3-4 start, but their defense was always likely to improve significantly when they got healthier, while their turnover issues were highly likely to stop. That’s exactly what has happened as their defense has not just gotten healthy, but also has added key edge defender Melvin Ingram from the Steelers, and, as a result, has gone from being one of the worst defenses in the league to start the season to one of the best in the best few weeks, while their turnover margin, -11 through their first eight games, has jumped to +6 over their past four games. 

That has led to the Chiefs winning five straight games to put themselves very much in the mix for the top seed in the AFC at 8-4 and it’s possible we haven’t seen their best play as a team yet, as their offense has not been as good in recent weeks, with the defense largely carrying the team. If their offense can return to form, that will make this team even more dangerous and, with the return of right tackle Lucas Niang giving them a healthy offensive line for the first time in several weeks, it’s very possible we could see their offense take a step forward this week. As crazy as it sounds, despite their record and winning streak, the Chiefs still seem a little underrated, as they easily could be considered the Super Bowl favorite at this point, given their track record.

The Chiefs do have another game in a few days, as they’ll play the Chargers in a key divisional game on Thursday Night Football next week, and favorites cover at just a 41.7% rate before Thursday Night Football, but the Chiefs are also in their third straight home game, a 55.2% cover spot all-time, which cancels the other trend out somewhat. My calculated line is exactly where this line is, favoring the Chiefs by 9.5 points, so we’re also not getting any line value with either side. As a result of that and the lack of a situational trend edge, it’s very hard to be confident in either side in this game, but I am taking the Chiefs for pick ‘em purposes purely because I’d rather not go against them right now, even if the Raiders are also an underrated team. If this line was 10, I would probably be on the Raiders though; that’s how close this one is for me. 

Kansas City Chiefs 27 Las Vegas Raiders 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -9.5

Confidence: None

Washington Football Team at Las Vegas Raiders: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Washington Football Team (5-6) at Las Vegas Raiders (6-5)

Washington has won three straight games to get their record up to 5-6, despite the fact that they have faced one of the toughest schedules in the league this season. However, there is more reason for concern with this team this week than there has been in recent weeks, as their three game winning streak has been largely the result of them finally having their offensive line healthy and playing well, which is no longer the case.

In this game in Las Vegas, Washington will be without their starting center and possibly their starting left guard, with all of their capable reserves also out with injury, which could leave them with two big holes upfront. Washington doesn’t have enough skill position talent to compensate for poor offensive line play and their defense isn’t good enough to compensate for their offense not playing well, especially with their two talented edge defenders Chase Young and Montez Sweat both out.

The Raiders have an injury concern as well, as tight end Darren Waller is expected to be out, leaving their offense without by far their best offensive playmaker, which especially hurts since they already lost top wide receiver Henry Ruggs for off-the-field reasons. However, I feel like this line takes into account the Raiders’ injuries much more than Washington’s, even though Washington is missing more key players. This line favors the Raiders by just 1-point, but as the slightly better team and the home team, the Raiders should be favored by at least a field goal. This is a small play, but I like the Raiders in a game in which they basically just have to win in order to cover the spread.

Las Vegas Raiders 20 Washington Football Team 17

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas -1

Confidence: Medium

Las Vegas Raiders at Dallas Cowboys: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (5-5) at Dallas Cowboys (7-3)

In non-divisional Thursday games like this, typically a home favorite is at a significant advantage. It’s very tough for an inferior team to go on the road on a short week and play a superior team that is not in their division that they don’t have familiarity with and, as a result, non-divisional road underdogs cover at a 65.0% rate on Thursday when both teams are on short rest. That would seem to favor the Cowboys, who are 7.5-point home favorites over the Raiders, but that line is too high, so I can’t bet them confidently. 

This line was just a touchdown a week ago, which is a bigger shift than you might think, as about 1 in 10 games are decided by exactly seven points. That’s despite the fact that the Cowboys lost and failed to cover against the Chiefs. The Cowboys are healthier than they were a week ago, with left tackle Tyron Smith set to return from a 2-game absence and CeeDee Lamb, who missed most of the loss to the Chiefs, likely to join him, but Lamb was expected to be healthy a week ago and this line movement seems to mostly be the result of the Raiders’ big home loss to the Bengals last week.

That result did not look good for the Raiders on the scoreboard, as they lost at home by 19, but they actually won the yards per play battle by 1.8 yards per play. The final score was largely the result of the Raiders losing the turnover battle and converting just 1 of 7 third downs, but third down conversion rates and turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent and non-predictive on a week-to-week basis, especially compared to things like yards per play and first down rate. 

The Raiders have a negative point differential (-39) on the season at 5-5, but they have a much bigger than average disparity between their 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th down performance on both sides of the ball, which should even out in the long run. In terms of overall efficiency (based on yards per play and first down rate), the Raiders rank 19th, 7th, and 25th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively. The Cowboys, meanwhile, rank 3rd, 18th, and 21st. 

The Cowboys’ offense is mostly healthy, but their defense is worse than that suggests right now, with their two best edge defenders, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, both out with injuries, a big absence. Given that, they don’t deserve to be more than touchdown favorites against a decent at worst Raiders team. My calculated line has the Cowboys favored by 5.5 and, while that doesn’t take into account that the Cowboys are in a great spot, I have a hard time justifying this line. The Raiders aren’t worth betting on either, but they should be the better side in this one from a spread perspective.

Update: CeeDee Lamb will apparently not be playing, as, even though he participated in the walk through yesterday, he will not have enough time to clear the concussion protocol on a short week. I want to bump this confidence up to low confidence before the line moves off 7.5. Having Tyron Smith back healthy will help, but the Cowboys will be without their two top wide receivers in this game, which will obviously effect their offense in a negative way.

Dallas Cowboys 30 Las Vegas Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +7.5

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Las Vegas Raiders: 2021 Week 11 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (5-4) at Las Vegas Raiders (5-4)

Both of these teams are 5-4, but the Bengals hold a significant edge in point differential, +33 vs. -20. That normally would suggest that the Bengals are the better team, but that doesn’t take into account strength of schedule, which Cincinnati has had among the weakest. In schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency, the Raiders rank 18th, 4th, and 26th while the Bengals rank 24th, 15th, and 17th. 

Despite that, the Bengals are favored here in Las Vegas. It’s only by a point, but it comes a week after the Raiders were just 2.5-point home underdogs against the Chiefs, so it’s a bit of a surprising line. The Raiders lost big to the Chiefs last week, but the Chiefs are a much better team than the Bengals and were due for a big game. That loss also puts the Raiders in a good spot this week, as teams tend to bounce back from big home losses as underdogs, covering the spread at a 59.0% rate as home underdogs the week following a loss by 14 points or more as home underdogs. 

The week prior to last, the Raiders lost to the Giants, but the Giants are better than their record, were at home, and the Raiders still won the first down rate and yards per play battle, with the game swinging on the turnover margin, including a pick six, both of which are much less predictive than first down rate and yards per play. The public has noticed that the Raiders have not had good results in their two games without Henry Ruggs, but I don’t think it’s as bad as the final scores have looked and I don’t think Ruggs is as irreplaceable as the general public seems to think he was, so we’re getting some value with the Raiders, who are also in a good spot, back at home after a bad home loss. This isn’t a big play, but the Raiders should be the right side, both as a money line pick and against the spread.

Las Vegas Raiders 24 Cincinnati Bengals 20 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +1

Confidence: Medium

Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders: 2021 Week 10 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (5-4) at Las Vegas Raiders (5-3)

This game is a tough call. On one hand, the Chiefs have played better than their 5-4 record, while the Raiders have played worse than their 5-3 record. The Chiefs’ biggest issues are they have faced one of the toughest schedules in the league (8th highest opponent’s DVOA), they have had one of the worst turnover margins in the league (2nd worst in the NFL at -9), and they have had one of the worst defenses in the league (31st in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency). 

The Chiefs offense has continued to rank among the best in the league on the season, ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency, as they also have one of the best special teams (1st in special teams DVOA) and their other issues should resolve themselves going forward, as turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, the Chiefs’ defense has gotten significantly healthier since earlier this season and has played better in recent weeks as a result, and their schedule eases up relatively going forward. The Raiders, meanwhile, have faced a below average schedule, but they have had to go to overtime to win twice and have just a +7 point differential, while ranking 14th, 4th, and 26th in schedule adjusted efficiency on offense, defense, and special teams respectively. 

However, it seems like the public and the odds makers see things the same way, as the Chiefs are favored by 2.5 points on the road in Las Vegas. Given that, I am actually going to be taking the Raiders in this one, as I am actually a little bit concerned about the Chiefs’ offense, which, even though it ranks among the best in the league in yards per play and first down rate on the season, has slowed down significantly in both metrics over the past few weeks, coinciding with injuries at the running back position and on the offensive line. My calculated line has the Chiefs favored by 1.5, so we’re hardly getting any line value with the Raiders, but they would be my pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Kansas City Chiefs 26 Las Vegas Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas +2.5

Confidence: None