Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans: 2021 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (11-7) at Tennessee Titans (12-5)

The Titans finished with tied for the best record in the AFC and won the AFC’s #1 seed on tiebreakers, but they overall did not have as impressive of a season as some other teams in the AFC. Their 12-5 record is supported by a 6-2 record in one-score games and their +65 point differential ranks just 11th in the NFL, despite the fact that they have a +4 margin in return touchdowns, giving them an extra 28 points. Return touchdown margin is not predictive week-to-week, especially since the Titans finished with a -3 turnover margin, and, if not for those four return touchdowns, the Titans would rank just 13th in point differential at +37. 

The Bengals, meanwhile, rank 8th with a +84 point differential, despite having a worse record than the Titans. If you include their playoff victory over the Raiders and exclude their week 18 loss to the Browns where they rested their starters, that point differential becomes +96. Despite that, the Bengals are underdogs of 3.5 points here in Tennessee, which is more significant than you might think, with about 1 in 4 games decided by 3 points or fewer. 

That line expects the Titans to be significantly better than they have been in the regular season, as a result of their improved health on offense. The Titans’ offense had significant injury issues in the second half of the season, but wide receivers AJ Brown (three games missed) and Julio Jones (four games missed) and offensive linemen Rodger Saffold (two games), Taylor Lewan (two games), and Nate Davis (three games) have all returned after missing time, while feature back Derrick Henry (ten games) is expected to rejoin the lineup this week to complete this offense.

However, even at full health, I don’t have the Titans worth being favored by this many points over the Bengals, as they had just a +32 point differential through eight games before Henry and company went down. On top of that, there is no guarantee that Henry is at full strength in his first game back. We’re not getting a lot of line value with the Bengals, but my calculated line has the Titans favored by just 2 points, so the Bengals definitely have a good chance to cover this spread. There isn’t quite enough here for the Titans to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: It looks like Henry will split carries with Dont’a Foreman if he plays, which drops my calculated line a little to 1.5, while simultaneously this line has moved up to 4. I think there is enough here for a bet on Cincinnati, who were the better team in the regular season in all of the more predictive metrics, including schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, in which they held a 2.5-point edge. Even if the Titans are healthier, it’s hard to get this line all the way up to 4, especially since the Bengals still hold the edge in my roster rankings even with the Titans’ offense close to full strength, as Joe Burrow has shown significant improvement as the season has gone on and, now with his knee injury clearly in the rear review, has broken out as a legitimate top level quarterback.

Tennessee Titans 24 Cincinnati Bengals 23

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +4

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (11-5) at Houston Texans (4-12)

The Titans lost to the Texans by nine points in Tennessee a few weeks ago, but that was a very fluky game in which the Titans won the first down rate battle by 9.47% and the yards per play battle by 2.25 yards per play, but lost because they lost the turnover margin by five, which is not predictive at all. In fact, teams that lose the turnover battle by 5 against a divisional opponent on average have a turnover margin of -0.1 in a same season revenge game.

The Texans have won four games, but they are still arguably the worst team in the league, as they have had some non-predictive things go their way in three of their four wins, with the exception being a week one win at home against a terrible Jaguars team, when the Texans were starting veteran Tyrod Taylor and had a much healthier offensive line. In their second win over the Jaguars a couple weeks ago, Texans lost the first down rate battle by 8.02%, only winning the game because they overperformed on third down (10/18 vs. 3/14), which is not as predictive as early downs.

In their upset win over the Chargers, the Texans won the turnover battle by 3, but lost the first down rate and yards per play battle by 2.86% and 0.49 against the Chargers. Meanwhile, in the Texans’ losses, they are getting outscored by 18.33 points per game. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play, the Texans still rank 32nd on offense, 30th on defense, and dead last in mixed efficiency, about three points behind the second worst team.

The Titans have gone 5-2 in one-score games and are not the same offense without Derrick Henry, but Henry has not been their only absence in recent weeks and, aside from Henry being out, the Titans are as healthy on offense as they’ve been since Henry went down, with their whole offensive line back together and their top two wide receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones in the lineup. They’re healthier than they were the first time they played the Texans and if they win the first down rate and yards per play battle by large margins again, that should translate on the scoreboard this time. This line is high, favoring the Titans by 10 on the road, but my calculated line is Tennessee -11.5 and the Texans have nine double digit losses this season, so there’s at least enough here for the Titans to be worth taking for pick ‘em purposes.

Tennessee Titans 24 Houston Texans 13

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -10

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (8-7) at Tennessee Titans (10-5)

The Dolphins started the season 1-7, but have since won seven straight games and have become a trendy sleeper pick. It’s understandable why, as the Dolphins seem to have a knack for getting better as the season goes under third-year head coach Brian Flores, starting 0-7 in Flores’ first season in 2019 before going 5-4 in their last 9 games, and starting 1-3 in 2020 before going 9-3 in their last 12 games. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

For one, the Dolphins were not as good as their 10-6 record suggested last year, as they faced a very easy schedule and they benefited from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+11), opponent’s field goal percentage (3rd lowest at 73.91%), and 3rd/4th down conversion rate allowed (33.02%), which was actually lower than the 34.07% conversion rate they allowed on 1st/2nd down (4th highest in the NFL). On top of that, the Dolphins’ winning streak this year is largely the result of them having a very easy schedule.

During their 7-game winning streak, the Dolphins have faced just two teams with a record better than 5-10, one being the Baltimore Ravens, who were in a near impossible spot playing on a short week after an overtime game, a spot in which teams have covered just 3 out of 28 times historically, and the other being the New Orleans Saints last week, who were starting a fourth string quarterback behind a skeleton crew offensive line, also a near impossible situation. Aside from the Saints and Ravens, the other five teams the Dolphins have beaten on their winning streak are a combined 21-54. 

Despite the easy schedule on their long winning streak, the Dolphins are still negative in point differential and, in terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, they have been even worse as, not only have they faced a relatively easy schedule overall, but they have significantly overperformed expectations on third downs on offense, ranking 13th in third down conversion rate, but just 30th in both first down rate and in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency. Over-performing on third downs tends not to be sustainable long-term and, while the Dolphins do rank 11th in schedule adjusted efficiency on defense, their poor offensive rank drags their overall mixed efficiency down to 26th in the NFL.

The Dolphins’ schedule gets tougher this week, as they take a trip to Tennessee. The Titans’ 10-5 record is in part due to a 5-2 record in one-score games and they haven’t been nearly as good on offense since losing feature back Derrick Henry, averaging about a yard per play less in the seven games since he got hurt, but they have gotten back top wide receiver AJ Brown, starting left tackle Taylor Lewan, starting left guard Rodger Saffold, and starting right guard Nate Davis, who have all missed time in recent weeks as well, so they are still significantly healthier than they have been even if Henry remains out. 

The Titans might also have wide receiver Julio Jones available for this one, another key offensive player who has missed time recently, but he is still in COVID protocols, as is Denico Autry, a key player on the defensive side of the ball. My calculated line even without Jones and Autry in the lineup favors the Titans by 4.5, so we are getting line value with them as 3.5-point favorites either way, but, at the same time, even if Jones and Autry play, I don’t see there being enough line value for the Titans to be worth betting on unless this line drops to 3, as a field goal win by the Titans is definitely a strong possibility.

Tennessee Titans 24 Miami Dolphins 19

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3.5

Confidence: Low

San Francisco 49ers at Tennessee Titans: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (8-6) at Tennessee Titans (9-5)

The Titans have a better record than the 49ers, but more predictive metrics like yards per play and first down rate show the 49ers to be a significantly better team, especially when you take into account that they have faced a tougher schedule than the Titans. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on yards per play and first down rate, the 49ers rank 8th, 10th, 24th, and 7th respectively in offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, while the Titans rank 21st, 12th, 22nd, and 21st respectively.

The 49ers are also in a better injury situation than the Titans. They’re still far from 100%, missing their two best cornerbacks, their three best running backs, and several other contributors, including defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. However, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Williams, linebacker Fred Warner, and safety Jimmie Ward are all among their most important players and they have all some missed time and since returned, which has allowed this team to play some of their best football in recent weeks. 

The Titans, on the other hand, have not been playing their best football in recent weeks, primarily on offense, in large part due to injuries. After averaging 5.49 yards per play through the first eight games of the season (most equivalent to 17th in the NFL), the Titans have seen that average drop to 4.51 yards per play (most equivalent to 31st in the NFL) over the past six games, a stretch in which feature back Derrick Henry has missed every game, talented wide receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones have missed three games each, and starting left guard Rodger Saffold has missed 1 game. 

Brown and Jones will play this week, with the former returning from his 3-game absence for the first time, but Saffold and Henry remain out, while talented left tackle Taylor Lewan will join them, meaning they will still be down their most important offensive player and a pair of talented offensive linemen for this matchup. Unfortunately, we’ve lost all line value with the 49ers in the past week, with this line shifting from even on the early line last week to now favoring the 49ers by 3.5 points, a significant swing given that about 1 in 4 games are decided by three points or fewer. 

The weird part is there isn’t an obvious factor that caused that shift. The 49ers won big over the Falcons last week, but the Falcons are one of the worst teams in the league, while the Titans’ loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh likely would have gone the other way had the Titans not lost the turnover battle by 4 in a 6-point loss. Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so it’s very likely the Titans will have a better turnover margin in this matchup. On top of that, none of the injuries that have occured in the past week for these two teams are significant enough for this line to shift like this.

Most likely, this line shift is the result of the public and odds makers catching up to how good the 49ers are, after a stretch in which they were regularly underrated and, as a result, covered in five of their past six games. My calculated line is exactly where this line is at San Francisco -3.5, so we’re not getting any value with either side as a result of that massive line movement. I am still taking the 49ers for pick ‘em purposes, but this could easily be a field goal win by the 49ers, so I can’t be confident in them.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -3.5

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1)

The Steelers are 6-6-1, but they haven’t been nearly as good as their record. While their six wins have come by just a combined 26 points, with none by more than one score, four of their six losses have come by multiple scores, with the only exceptions being games in which they still lost the first down rate and yards per play battles by 12.24% and 3.1 respectively against the Chargers and 2.22% and 1.4 respectively against the Vikings. On the season, the Steelers rank just 28th, 26th, 20th, and 27th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency.

The Titans aren’t as good as their record either, as they have gone 4-1 in one score games and have not nearly been as good on offense since losing top wide receiver AJ Brown and feature back Derrick Henry, but they have the better record at 9-4 and, even if they aren’t as good as their record, they are still clearly the better of these two teams because the Steelers aren’t as good as their record either. Despite that, the Titans are underdogs of 1.5 points in Pittsburgh, suggesting the odds makers and the public view the Titans as only marginally better than the Steelers, if they view them as better at all. 

My calculated line has the Titans favored by 2.5 points and you could justify favoring them by the full field goal on the road, as the Steelers are legitimately a well below average team overall, not performing well in any of the three phases of the game. This is one matchup where neither team has been affected by positive COVID tests this week and with the line having already swung in Pittsburgh’s favor, I don’t expect to get a better number with the Titans, so this is a bet I want to lock in now. The money line is the best value, but the Titans are worth a bet against the spread as well at +1.5.

Tennessee Titans 20 Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) at Tennessee Titans (8-4)

The Titans don’t have a lot of blowout wins, as their 8-4 record is powered by a 4-1 record in one score games, and their offense has been significantly worse since losing feature back Derrick Henry and top wide receiver AJ Brown, while their defense remains without would-be starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Caleb Farley, expected starting edge defender Bud Dupree, and key run stuffing defensive lineman Teair Tart. 

However, the Titans will at least get wide receiver Julio Jones back this week, while the Jaguars are the type of team the Titans should be able to beat by multiple scores, even when not at 100%, as the Jaguars are 2-10, rank 30th in the NFL with a -140 point differential, and have seven losses by multiple scores. My calculated line has the Titans favored by 10, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with them as 8.5-point favorites, but not nearly enough to bet them confidently.

Tennessee Titans 23 Jacksonville Jaguars 13

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -8.5

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (8-3) at New England Patriots (7-4)

Normally, I like to go against significant week-to-week line movements like the one in this matchup, with the Patriots moving from 3-point favorites on the early line last week to 7-point favorites, but in this case, this is just the line catching up with how good the Patriots are. Not only are the Patriots on a 5-game winning streak, but they have covered the spread by at least seven points in each game, with an average margin about 19.8 points higher than the spread. 

With their losses coming by one point, two points, and in overtime, the Patriots are legitimately a few plays away from being 9-2 or 10-1 right now, while their only one score wins came in a game in Houston in which the Patriots were missing most of their offensive line and a game in Los Angeles in which the Patriots were up by 10 before a garbage time touchdown cut the margin to 3. They also led the league with a +123 point differential entering this week.

Meanwhile, the Titans have needed to go 4-1 in games decided by a field goal or less to get to 8-3 and their +37 point differential is more in line with a team that is about 6-5. On top of that, the Titans’ offense has struggled mightily since losing running back Derrick Henry for an extended period of time with an injury. The Titans are 2-1 in three games without Henry, but one of their wins came in a game in which their defense had two pick sixes, which is definitely not something the Titans can rely on doing every week, while their other win was a near loss at home to a Trevor Siemian led Saints team that was also missing Alvin Kamara and multiple offensive line starters.

Meanwhile, their loss came last week at home against the Texans. The Titans likely would have beaten the Texans if not for a -5 turnover margin, which is a highly non-predictive metric, but the Texans are one of the worst teams in the league and have lost by double digits in six of their other nine games, a margin that the Titans likely would have had trouble reaching even if they played turnover neutral football. All in all, the Titans have averaged just 4.55 yards per play in their past three games without Henry, down from 5.49 yards per play in their first eight games of the season with Henry. This week, the Titans will also be without top wide receiver AJ Brown, after already being without fellow talented starting wide receiver Julio Jones, leaving them basically devoid of proven playmakers around Ryan Tannehill on offense.

Despite having a 8-3 record, the Titans shouldn’t be considered more than an average team in their current state, while the Patriots are one of the top few teams in the league. Given that, not only is this 7-point spread justified, but my calculated line has the Patriots favored by nine points. There isn’t quite enough here for this game to be bettable, but I have no problem laying this many points in this matchup for pick ‘em purposes and if this line drops below a touchdown, I may consider placing a bet.

New England Patriots 23 Tennessee Titans 14

Pick against the spread: New England -7

Confidence: Low

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: 2021 Week 11 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (1-8) at Tennessee Titans (8-2)

Expected by many to be the worst team in the league this season, the Texans surprisingly won their week one game by double digits, but everything has been downhill since then. Their win no longer looks impressive, as their opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have proven to also be one of the worst teams in the league and, on top of that, the Texans haven’t won since, losing 8 straight games with most of them not being close, averaging a margin of defeat of 18.3 points.

The Texans are coming off their bye week and got starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor back from injury in their last game before the bye, for the first time since week 2, but the Texans still lost to the lowly Dolphins even with Taylor back in the lineup. It was primarily Taylor’s strong play that led the Texans to their week one victory, but the career journeyman can’t be counted on to play that well for an extended period of time and, while he was out, the Texans lost left tackle Laremy Tunsil to injury, knocking out arguably their best player and one of their few building blocks. At least until Tunsil returns, it’s hard to find situations where the Texans would be worth picking.

This seems like one of them though. The Titans are 9-2, but most of their wins have been close, with just two of their wins coming by double digits, relevant considering they are 10-point favorites in this matchup. Their offense also isn’t nearly as good without injured feature back Derrick Henry and, to a lesser extent, injured wide receiver Julio Jones. The Titans have won both of their games without Henry, but their offense did not perform effectively in either. 

They beat the Rams convincingly on the scoreboard, winning by 12 for one of their two double digit wins on the season, but the Titans also gained just 3.5 yards per play and it would have at least been a much closer game if the Titans’ defense did not get two pick sixes, which won’t happen every week. That game was then followed up last week to a near loss at home to the Saints, who were missing several key offensive players. They should move to 10-2 with a win here, but I would question if their offense can be effective enough to win this game by double digits, even against a terrible Texans defense. 

My calculated line still suggests we should take the Titans, but the Titans are also in a terrible spot, with a much bigger and tougher game against the Patriots on deck next week. Favorites of a touchdown or more cover at just a 42.5% rate all-time before facing an opponent with a winning percentage that is 50% higher or more than their current opponent’s winning percentage and that is the case in this matchup. I definitely would not recommend betting the Texans, but this seems like a rare case where they make a little bit more sense for pick ‘em purposes, as the Titans are likely to look completely past the Texans, on a long winning streak, with a huge matchup on deck.

Tennessee Titans 23 Houston Texans 14

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans: 2021 Week 10 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-3) at Tennessee Titans (7-2)

The Titans won in their first game without Derrick Henry last week, an impressive upset victory in Los Angeles against the Rams, but there is still a lot of reason to be concerned, after this offense managed just 3.5 yards per play. The Titans won’t be able to get two pick sixes in the same game every week like they did against the Rams and it looks likely that their offense will be taking a big step back without Derrick Henry. Making matters even worse, they seem likely to be without talented wide receiver Julio Jones, who re-aggravated his hamstring injury in practice this week. However, somehow the Titans are only 3-point home favorites against the Saints, so it’s not as if they are overrated, at least not any more than the Saints are. 

The Saints are 5-3 and have one of the best defenses in the league, but their offense is in even worse shape than the Titans’ offense, as the Titans still at least have a solid quarterback and a legitimate #1 receiver. The Saints, meanwhile, are starting a backup quarterback in Trevor Siemian, with a receiving corps that is one of the least experienced in the league, without expected #1 receiver Michael Thomas, stud left tackle Terron Armstead, and now they are without talented feature back Alvin Kamara, which is almost as big of a loss as Henry. My calculated line has Tennessee favored by 5, so we’re getting line value with Tennessee -3, though not quite enough to bet this confidently.

Tennessee Titans 19 New Orleans Saints 14

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Low

Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Rams: 2021 Week 9 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (6-2) at Los Angeles Rams (7-1)

A week ago, this line favored the Rams by 4.5 on the early line, but the line has since shifted to 7.5 points. Normally I like to fade significant week to week line movements like this, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week or play, but, given the circumstances, that movement seems warranted, as the Titans lost feature back Derrick Henry for an extended period of time with an injury, while the Rams added talented edge defender Von Miller from the Broncos in a trade. 

We are getting a little bit of line value with the Titans, as the Rams have been a little overrated in recent weeks and my calculated line has the Titans at +7, but there is too much injury uncertainty on both sides to take either side confidently right now. The Rams will get left tackle Andrew Whitworth back from a one-game absence this week, but their newest addition Von Miller is not a lock to play with an injury of his own, while quarterback Matt Stafford and starting wide receiver Robert Woods didn’t practice all week. Stafford is expected to play, but may not be 100%, while Woods seems legitimately questionable and would likely be limited if he did play.

On the Titans’ side, they’ll get starting wide receiver Julio Jones back this week, but they could be without fellow starting wide receiver AJ Brown, while left tackle Taylor Lewan is questionable to return from a two-game absence. With key players truly questionable on both sides (Miller and Woods for the Rams and Lewan and Brown for the Titans) it’s hard to pick either side confidently and my final pick will almost definitely come down to who has the better final injury report. Either way, I don’t see myself betting this game unless the final injury report is really skewed in favor of one team or another and the line doesn’t move. I’m taking the Titans now for a no confidence pick, but I will almost definitely be doing an update on this before gametime.

Update: Brown and Woods are both expected to play, but we don’t have confirmation on Lewan and Miller yet. If Miller plays and Lewan doesn’t, I may change this pick to the Rams, but it would be a no confidence pick either way.

Los Angeles Rams 31 Tennessee Titans 24

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +7.5

Confidence: None