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

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Championship Pick

Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

These two met back in week 9 in New Orleans, but a lot has changed since then. At the time, the Rams were favored by a couple points, despite being the road team, because they were an undefeated 8-0 and seen as the early Super Bowl favorite. That changed when the Saints pulled the upset and subsequently went on to win 7 of their next 8 meaningful games, while the Rams went “just” 5-3 over the second half of the season. As a result, the Saints were able to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC before week 17, despite being a game and a half back of the Rams going into their week 9 matchup.

The Saints’ strong play is a big part of the reason why they overtook the Rams in the NFC, but the Rams also regressed a little bit down the stretch, particularly on offense after they lost slot receiver Cooper Kupp. The Rams still have a talented duo of receivers in Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but Kupp had been Jared Goff’s most effective receiver over the past 2 years. Goff completed 72.4% of his 152 targets to Kupp for 1,504 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a ridiculous 124.5 QB rating. Kupp has missed 9 games in total including playoffs, but was also knocked out of 3 games with injury this season. In the 5 games he started and finished, the Rams had a 46.96% first down rate. In the 3 games he was knocked out, the Rams had a 44.72% first down rate. And in the 9 games he missed entirely, the Rams had a first down rate of 40.54%.

That’s still a good number and would have ranked 6th in the NFL over the course of the season, but they’re not quite the dominant offense they were going into the previous matchup, one of the five games Kupp started and finished (45.76% first down rate in a 45-35 loss). Their passing game in particular has fallen back to earth. Goff completed 71.8% of his passes for an average of 10.33 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the 5 games Kupp started and finished, but just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the 9 he’s missed completely. They’re still a strong offense, but they’re more reliant on the run than they were when Kupp was healthy.

Fortunately for them, the Saints also are missing a key player from the first matchup, with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins going down with a torn achilles early in last week’s win over the Eagles. Outside of Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, Rankins was probably the Saints’ best defensive player this season, so that’s a big loss. Not only does losing him significantly hurt their chances of slowing down Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson on the ground, but he had a productive year as pass rusher as well, totaling 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 32 hurries on 450 pass rush snaps (10.2%).

On top of that, the Rams also have cornerback Aqib Talib healthy, which they didn’t have in the first matchup. In 6 games in which Talib has played more than half the snaps, the Rams have allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.45% rate, as opposed to 40.12% in the 11 games in which he was inactive or limited. The Rams faced a pretty easily schedule in those 6 games (Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Dallas), but it’s not hard to imagine how the return of the 6-1 209 Talib could have an impact in a rematch of a game in which the 6-3 212 Michael Thomas went for 12/211/1. I still have the Saints a little higher in my roster rankings, but I don’t think we’re getting enough line value here to bet on the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Los Angeles Rams 30

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Dallas Cowboys (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

The Cowboys are the weakest of the remaining 8 playoff teams. Their offense has been better since acquiring Amari Cooper during the bye, picking up first downs at a 35.98% rate in 10 games with him, as opposed to 33.81% in 7 games without him, but their defense has gone in the other direction. Before the bye, the Cowboys ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.59% rate in 10 games since.

After overachieving on defense early in the season, they’ve largely fallen back down to earth in recent weeks, but they’re still considered an elite defense by many because they played their best game on primetime against the Saints. Even with that week 13 upset win over the Saints included, the Cowboys are allowing 22.3 points per game since the bye. They’ve been winning, going 8-2 in their last 10, but all of their wins have been by 8 points or fewer and they are somehow even in point differential over those 10 games. I don’t give them much of a shot to win this game in Los Angeles against the Rams, especially if slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Blake Jarwin are both unable to go after not practicing all week.

That being said, it’s hard to be confident in the Rams as 7-point favorites. They have 7 wins by more than a touchdown this year, but 6 of them came against the Raiders, Lions, Cardinals, and 49ers, among the worst teams in the league. The Chargers are the only non-cellar dweller they’ve beaten by more than a touchdown, with teams like the Broncos, Packers and Seahawks (twice), comparable caliber teams to the Cowboys, all keeping their games against the Rams close. I only have this line calculated at Rams -7.5, so I can’t be confident in the Rams at -7 and I may switch this pick to the Cowboys if both Beasley and Jarwin are able to go. A push also seems like a strong possibility.

Los Angeles Rams 26 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -7

Confidence: None

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (4-11) at Los Angeles Rams (12-3)

The 49ers are just 4-11, but they’ve been much better since turning to Nick Mullens under center. They have moved the chains at a 36.87% rate in Mullen’s 7 starts, as opposed to 35.17% in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts. More important, Mullens has committed just 7 turnovers in 7 games, while Beathard committed 10 in 5 games, and the 49ers are 3-4 in his 7 starts, as opposed to 0-5 in Beathard’s 5 starts.

Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis anyway and the 49ers have been killed by the turnover margin all season, ranking dead last in the NFL at -21. Beathard’s turnovers weren’t the only problem, as a capable defense that ranks 17th in first down rate allowed on the season somehow didn’t force a single takeaway for 6 games until forcing 2 last week against the Bears, who ironically rank 2nd in the NFL in turnover margin (yet another example of turnover margins being unpredictable).

Unfortunately, it seems like the public is catching on with the 49ers, as they are just 10.5 point underdogs in Los Angeles against the Rams. I know injuries have started to pile up for the Rams, with wide receiver Cooper Kupp, running back Todd Gurley, and safety LaMarcus Joyner all sidelined, but I still think this line would have been at least two touchdowns a couple weeks ago. I’m still taking the 49ers, but I wouldn’t recommend betting any money on them.

Not only are we not getting enough line value with the 49ers anymore, but they also haven’t played on the road in about a month and have been at home for 5 of Mullen’s 7 starts. In his only two road starts, the 49ers got blown out by the Seahawks and Buccaneers. Home/road disparities tend to be inconsistent in the long run, but I am concerned taking an inexperienced quarterback with no history of success on the road against a Rams team that still has a ton of talent.

Los Angeles Rams 26 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +10.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (11-3) at Arizona Cardinals (3-11)

The Cardinals were blown out last week in Atlanta, losing by 26 points to a team that had previously lost 5 straight games. That was probably in part due to the Cardinals not being totally focused, with this much bigger game against the Rams on deck, but, even if they’re fully focused this week, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll cover this spread. This spread is huge, with the Cardinals being 14-point home underdogs, but it’s justifiable given the talent gap between these two teams.

The Cardinals rank dead last in first down rate differential at -7.22% and might be even worse than that suggests, given all of their injuries. They are missing their top-3 offensive linemen, DJ Humphries, Mike Iupati, and Justin Pugh, their top receiver Christian Kirk, starting defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, and every down linebacker Josh Bynes, among others. On the season, 6 of their 11 losses have come by at least two touchdowns. The Rams don’t have that many blowout wins (4 wins by 14 points or more), but that’s in part due to a tough schedule. Those blowout wins came against the Raiders, Cardinals, 49ers, and Lions, all among the worst teams in the league, so they’ve taken care of business whenever they’ve had an easy matchup like this.

The Rams should also be fully focused for this game, as their schedule gets way easier to close out the year, facing the 49ers next week after this game against the Cardinals. 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. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have another tough game in Seattle next week and it’s proven to be very tough for inferior teams to hang with superior teams with another tough game on deck. Underdogs of 7+ are just 31-50 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 7+ again, including just 4-14 ATS if their opponent will next be favorites of 7+ again. I don’t want to make a bet on this game without confirmation that Todd Gurley will play for the Rams after missing practice all week, but I will revisit this if he ends up playing.

Final Update: Todd Gurley is expected to play and, while we won’t know for sure until later this afternoon, I want to lock this in now in case the line jumps from 14. The Rams have blown out every terrible team they’ve faced this season and that trend dates back to last season as well, when they went 3-0 against teams that finished 5-11 or worse, winning those 3 games by an average of 32.3 points per game. Without an upcoming distraction on the schedule for the Rams, I don’t expect this to be close.

Los Angeles Rams 34 Arizona Cardinals 13

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -14

Confidence: Medium

Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) at Los Angeles Rams (11-2)

The Eagles have been the most disappointing team in the league this season, going 6-7 a year after winning the Super Bowl. After losing to the Cowboys for the second time in 5 weeks last week, the Eagles are effectively 3 games out of the division lead with 3 games to go. The wild card is still an option, but they’d need to win out and get help. The long-term outlook for this franchise looks good, as most of their losses have been close (6 of 7 by 7 points or fewer) and many of their problems have been injury related, but in the short-term they could easily get blown out this week.

The Eagles have mostly played close games this season, but the injuries have piled up for them at the worst time, ahead of one of the toughest games of their season, a game they need to win to stay alive in the playoff race. Already without their top-3 cornerbacks, starting safety Rodney McLeod, starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, every down linebacker Jordan Hicks, and rotational defensive end Derek Barnett on defense, the Eagles will be led on offense by Nick Foles this week, with Carson Wentz sidelined with a back injury. Wentz has disappointed this season playing through injury and this offense as a whole ranks just 15th in first down rate, but Foles could still be a noticeable downgrade.

On the other side, not only are the Rams are a strong opponent, but they are in a great spot, with no upcoming distractions. Up next on their schedule is a trip to Arizona, where they are 11.5-point road favorites on the early line, and teams are 50-33 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites of 7 or more. On top of that, favorites of 7+ are 84-51 ATS over that same time period before being favorites of 7+ again, as superior teams tend to take care of business against inferior teams when they don’t have any upcoming distractions on their schedule. They’ll also benefit from being a west coast team in a night game against an east coast team, a spot in which teams cover at a 65% rate historically, due to differing internal time cycles.

We aren’t getting any line value with the Rams as 13-point favorites and Nick Foles is a high variance quarterback that could play well in a do or die spot for the Eagles, so I wouldn’t recommend betting this game, but I like the Rams’ chances of winning by at least two touchdowns. They have just 5 wins by more than 10 points this season, but they’ve also played a very tough schedule, playing a projected playoff team in 7 of 13 games and getting double digit wins in 5 of the other 7 games against opponents with a losing record like the Eagles. I expect them to get another one, but 13 points is too high to bet confidently.

Los Angeles Rams 31 Philadelphia Eagles 16

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -13

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Rams at Chicago Bears: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (11-1) at Chicago Bears (8-4)

The Bears lost last week in New York to the Giants, but I don’t really hold that against them that much. The Giants have been playing better football over the past month and the Bears were starting a backup quarterback in a terrible spot, with this huge home game against the Rams on deck. They were nowhere near 100% last week, but they still won the first down rate battle by 4.35%, taking the game to overtime, despite losing the turnover battle by 2. Because of that, the Bears remain #1 in first down rate differential on the season at +6.73%, despite playing with a backup quarterback for two games. Their 8-4 record is good, but they’ve been even better than that suggests, as all 4 of their losses came by less than a touchdown (by a combined 14 points) and they won the first down rate battle in 3 of those 4 losses.

Bears starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky is not even listed on the injury report this week, after practicing in full all week, and I expect a much better effort from the Bears in a much bigger game. The Rams are obviously a tough opponent and they’re better defensively with Aqib Talib back, but I don’t think they deserve to be favored by a full field goal here in Chicago. The strength of schedule difference between these two teams worries me, as the Bears have had the easiest schedule by DVOA, while the Rams have had the 9th toughest, but even with that taken into account I have this line calculated about even. Chicago isn’t worth a huge bet, but I think they have a good chance to win straight up and I like getting field goal protection at +3.

Chicago Bears 24 Los Angeles Rams 23 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Chicago +3

Confidence: Medium