Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)

This was the toughest call of the week for me and the only one of the four games I didn’t lock in with a bet earlier this week. There is a lot of history that suggests Tom Brady and the Buccaneers should have the edge over Drew Brees and the Saints. Not only does Brady have the obvious edge in post-season success, 31-11 with 9 Super Bowl appearances vs. 9-8 with 1 appearance, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win.

Overall in his career, Brady is 54-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 42-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 40-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 22-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 19 of 28 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers did go 2-1 ATS as underdogs this year.

That one loss was week 1 against the Saints in New Orleans, when the Saints won 34-23 as 3.5-point favorites, but that was the Buccaneers’ first game of the season and they actually won the first down rate battle by +6.31%, with the Saints largely winning because of a +3 turnover margin and a return touchdown, which is not predictive week-to-week. The Saints beat the Buccaneers more convincingly week 9, winning the game 38-3 and the first down rate battle by +9.96%, but that game looks like an outlier for two teams that were largely equal this season overall, with the Saints ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.59% and the Buccaneers ranking 3rd at +4.45%. 

All that being said, we’re not getting the line value needed to bet the Buccaneers confidently, especially with Tom Brady now being 43 and away from New England, facing off with a team that has played him well this season. The Buccaneers are only field goal underdogs, which is exactly where I have them calculated, with the Saints having slight homefield advantage with some fans in the stands and having a slight edge on the field as well. Even though these two teams were about even this season, the Saints did that at much less than 100% throughout due to injury. 

Brees (4 games missed), feature back Alvin Kamara (1 game), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games), Trey Hendrickson (1 game), and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (3 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), among other minor players, all missed time with injury this season and are expected to play this week. 

The Saints entered the season atop my roster rankings and are only slightly behind the Packers right now, ahead about 1.5 points ahead of the Buccaneers. I’m taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes purely because of Brady’s history in these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t bet them at this number. If the line moves off of 3, I would reconsider, as a field goal Saints win is probably the most likely outcome of this game, but this is a low confidence pick for now.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cleveland Browns (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

After the Browns’ upset victory in Pittsburgh last weekend, I was expecting them to open as 7 or 7.5-point underdogs in Kansas City this week. When they opened as 10-point underdogs, I was surprised, leading to me locking this line in early, and I am even more surprised it hasn’t moved off that number since. I knew the Chiefs were a team the books could inflate the line on, but this is more than I was expecting. 

The Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and only lost one meaningful game all season, but they weren’t the dominant team their record suggests they were in the regular season, especially down the stretch, when their last seven wins all came by one score or loss, with the Chiefs failing to cover the spread in any of those games. Some of that was due to garbage time, but, considering this line is as high as it is, garbage time, and the possibility of a backdoor cover even if this game isn’t close throughout, is very relevant to this pick.

Even dating back to earlier this season, the Chiefs have just five double digit wins all year, with three of them coming against teams that finished 5-11 or worse and one of them coming against a Patriots team that was starting a backup quarterback. Their week 3 win over the Ravens was their only double digit win over a capable opponent this season, so I don’t know why the Chiefs would be expected to blow out the Browns, especially since the Chiefs have not played as well since that early season matchup with the Ravens. The main reason for that is the absence of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, a massive blow to this offense that hasn’t gotten enough discussion.

The general narrative is that Patrick Mahomes and the skill position players on this offense are so good that the Chiefs’ offense is invincible, but the Chiefs actually finished the season 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate behind the Buffalo Bills, who were ahead of them by a pretty decent margin (+4.71 vs. +3.65%), and the Chiefs were noticeably worse after Schwartz went down in week 6, leading to many of their close late season contests. All of this is true even if you ignore the Chiefs’ week 17 performance when they rested their stars in a meaningless game. 

The Chiefs’ defense has always been somewhat shaky and finished this season 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.88%, and, as good as Mahomes and his skill position players are, the Chiefs’ concerns on the offensive line and on defense can’t be ignored as they head into the post-season. They’re obvious a top Super Bowl contender, but they’re far from a lock to even make it back to the big game. Their 6th ranked finish in schedule adjusted first down rate differential also shows them to be an obvious contender, but not the juggernaut the general public seems to think they are and the oddsmakers have priced them as.

Let’s take advantage of that with the 10-point underdog Browns. The Browns may not cover this spread if they play like they did last week, when they won by 11, but were largely gifted the game by the Steelers committing 5 turnovers (the Chiefs had 16 giveaways all season) and lost the first down rate battle by 9.71%. However, the Browns are getting reinforcements, with stud left guard Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward returning to give the Browns a boost on both sides of the ball. The Browns aren’t quite at 100% right now with right tackle Jack Conklin questionable and likely to play at less than full strength with a hamstring injury and key defensive end Olivier Vernon out for the season, but compared to earlier this season, the Browns are much healthier. 

Stud running back Nick Chubb (4 games missed), key right guard Wyatt Teller (5 games), #1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1 game), starting left tackle Jedrick Wills (1 game), dominant left guard Joel Bitonio (1 game), starting tight end Austin Hooper (3 games), edge defender Myles Garrett (2 games), top cornerback Denzel Ward (5 games), starting cornerback Kevin Johnson (4 games), and safety Ronnie Harrison (5 games) have all missed time with injury and are all expected to play this week, for the first time together since early this season. That also doesn’t include a rib injury to quarterback Baker Mayfield that slowed him significantly earlier this season that he is well past at this point.

The Browns rank just 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential on the season at -1.53%, but they’re noticeably better on offense, ranking 11th in first down rate over expected at 1.17%, which is the significantly more predictive side of the ball, and a lot of their bad performances were earlier this season when they were not as healthy as they are now. My calculated line has the Chiefs favored by just 5 points, so I love the Browns at +10. Even if this isn’t a close game throughout, they have a great shot at a backdoor cover in garbage time, but I expect this game to be as competitive as the Chiefs’ recent games have been.

Kansas City Chiefs 38 Cleveland Browns 34

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +10

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Rams (11-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Rams have injury concerns on their offense heading into this game, but that has been the case for most of the second half of the season. After a mostly healthy first half of the season, stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth’s knee injury in week 10 started off a stretch where the Rams not only were without their top offensive lineman for 7 games, but they also were without their starting quarterback Jared Goff, his top receiver Cooper Kupp, and their feature running back Cam Akers for stretches and both Goff and Akers were limited for stretches as well. 

This week, Goff and Kupp are likely to play at less than 100%, but only left guard David Edwards is legitimately questionable for this game among key Rams players, meaning this could actually be the first time the Rams have had their normal starting lineup on the field on offense at the same time since before Whitworth got hurt in week 10. Even if some players are less than 100%, that’s at least an improvement over what they’ve had in recent weeks, especially Whitworth’s re-addition, which had a massive impact in the Rams’ first round upset of the Seahawks.

The Rams aren’t an overly impressive offense, but they haven’t been all season and they still lead the league in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.64%. Their offense ranks just 22nd in first down rate over expected at -0.95%, but their dominant defense has carried them, not just leading the league in first down rate allowed over expected at -5.59%, but by a wide margin over the 2nd ranked Steelers (-4.39%). 

Defensive performance is not as consistent week-to-week as offensive performance and the Packers have the obvious edge on that side of the ball, as well as a complementary defense, but the Rams’ defense is too good for them to be underdogs of this many points in Green Bay. My calculated line has the Rams at +4, so I liked the line value we were getting with them as touchdown underdogs earlier this week when I locked them in. I’m not sure I would bet them at +6.5 against a Packers team that is legitimately one of the top-3 Super Bowl contenders and that will have the benefit of at least some fans in this game, but they should still be the right side for pick ‘em purposes at that number.

Update: This line is back to a touchdown but that’s because the Rams will surprisingly be without both Kupp and David Edwards, which is a hit for this offense. I have already locked this in, but I wouldn’t be as confident in the Rams at that number without Kupp and Edwards in the lineup. They’re still the pick for pick ’em purposes though, because of the dominance of their defense. My calculated line is now Green Bay -5.

Green Bay Packers 24 Los Angeles Rams 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +7

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Buffalo Bills (14-3)

This line favors the Bills by just 1.5 points in Buffalo, where the Bills will have the benefit of at least having some fans in the stands, suggesting that the odds makers and the public view these two teams about even, perhaps even favoring the lower seeded Ravens slightly. I think this line is mispriced. The Ravens have been great on 3rd and 4th down on both sides of the ball, allowing the 2nd lowest 3rd/4th down conversion rate in the NFL while converting 3rd/4th downs at the league’s 3rd highest rate, which has powered them to a 11-5 record and a second round playoff appearance.

However, the Bills’ offense has been better on both 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th downs, particularly on 1st/2nd down when the Bills rank 2nd in conversion rate and the Ravens rank all the way down at 27th, but the Bills are also better on 3rd/4th down when they rank 1st. Even on defense, which is by far the Bills’ weaker side of the ball, the Bills have the edge on 1st/2nd down, ranking 24th while the Ravens rank just 28th, though the Ravens have obviously been significantly better on 3rd/4th down defensively, ranking 2nd while the Bills rank 12th.

That’s all important to mention because offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance and because performance on 1st/2nd down is much more predictive than performance on 3rd/4th down. The Bills’ offense has had the obvious edge on early downs and they have the overall edge in my roster rankings as well, as their defense has gotten significantly better down the stretch due to better health, particularly with linebacker Matt Milano returning to the lineup in week 13. The Bills should be favored by at least 4.5 points, if not more, in this one, so we’re getting great value with them as mere 1.5-point favorites. This is one of three games I locked in earlier this week, and though the line hasn’t really moved, I’m still happy I locked this in because I like the Bills a lot this week. 

Buffalo Bills 27 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -1.5

Confidence: High

2021 NFL Head Coach Openings – Rankings and Predictions

1. Los Angeles Chargers 

Pros – Young franchise quarterback, talented roster, cap space to be aggressive in free agency

Cons – Ownership, lack of fanbase

The Chargers are one of the only two teams on this list with the most valuable asset in the NFL, a young franchise quarterback, Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Justin Herbert. However, unlike the other team the Texans, the Chargers have talent on the rest of this roster as well and, because their franchise quarterback is on a cheap rookie deal, they have the financial flexibility to add more talent this off-season, entering the off-season with the 9th projected most cap space in the league. 

There are concerns about the ownership and the lack of fanbase (once fans are allowed back in stadiums), but all of the available jobs have their warts and the Chargers’ job looks to be the clear best of the bunch. That is likely to be the consensus among head coaching candidates as well, so the Chargers could have their pick of the bunch. 

No head coaching candidate has been more popular than Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who has interviewed for every available position after three seasons coordinating the league’s most explosive offense in Kansas City with Pat Mahomes and Andy Reid, so he could have his pick of jobs. A pairing between him and Herbert and the Chargers would make a lot of sense.

Prediction: Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

Pros – #1 pick, tons of cap space

Cons – Weak roster

The Jaguars may seem like an unattractive opening, given that they finished with the worst record in the league last season, but this was always part of a long-term rebuild and the Jaguars are armed with an extra first round pick and a lot of cap space to build their roster and, of course, because they were the worst team in the league last season, they get the right to draft Trevor Lawrence, once of the top quarterback prospects in decades. 

This could be a quick rebuild and any head coach who takes this job will have relatively low expectations to start. Compared to the other options, there is a lot to like here. Multiple reports suggest the Jaguars are locked onto former college championship winning head coach Urban Meyer and are waiting on his decision to come out of retirement, at age 56.

Prediction: Urban Meyer, Former Ohio State University Head Coach

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Pros – Good players on both sides of the ball, ownership/front office, #6 pick, quarterback?

Cons – No financial flexibility, likely need to cut players, quarterback?

The Eagles are late to the game after somewhat surprisingly firing Doug Pederson earlier this week and they’re a complicated case overall. Probably more than any team on this list, the Eagles are a well-run organization from top to bottom and, despite their record last season, they have a lot of individually talented players. They also have a premium draft pick by virtue of their record last season, picking 6th overall. However, they’re already far over next year’s cap before re-signing free agents and may need to let some very talented players go, or further sacrifice depth on a top-heavy roster.

Then there is the matter of their quarterback situation, which could be viewed as either a positive or a negative depending on the incoming coach’s view of this team’s quarterback options. Some may see Carson Wentz as an exciting reclamation project who, prior to last season’s disastrous performance, had always been a capable starter and at times an MVP candidate, and some may see 2020 2nd round pick Jalen Hurts as an exciting young quarterback prospect, but the Eagles don’t seem to have a clear plan at the position and wouldn’t be able to get appropriate value for either quarterback if they were to move on right now. 

The Eagles may be a little behind, but they can still get a good offensive coach to help resolve this situation, with Arthur Smith or perhaps Joe Brady looking like strong early options. I have Brady going elsewhere, but Smith would still be a strong hire. In two seasons as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, Smith unlocked Derrick Henry as a feature back, coaxed a mid-career breakout out of Ryan Tannehill, and orchestrated one of the best offenses in the league in back-to-back seasons. Only 38, Smith is an exciting young candidate that is in high demand this off-season.

Prediction: Arthur Smith, Tennessee Titans Offensive Coordinator

4. Houston Texans 

Pros – Deshaun Watson

Cons – Weak roster, no first round pick, lack of financial flexibility, ownership/front office, Deshaun Watson?

I alluded to the Texans’ situation earlier, but I didn’t include the added wrinkle that the Texans don’t have their own first round pick this year and that star quarterback Deshaun Watson may want out. Add in the questions around their front office and ownership, their cap situation (7th least projected cap space in the league), and a roster that is arguably the league’s worst outside of the quarterback position and there are a lot of concerns about this opportunity.

So why do they rank ahead of other opportunities with so many cons and just one pro (who may want out)? Because Watson is that good. When you have a superstar quarterback like that in the prime of his career, other things tend to fall into place much more easily. Even if the Texans are forced to trade Watson, he would command a king’s ransom including multiple premium picks, which, along with the cap space freed up by moving Watson, would allow the Texans to adequately rebuild the rest of this roster long-term.

The Texans seem to be focused on the short-term in their coaching search, interviewing several older former head coaches like Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, and Marvin Lewis. They seem more likely to hire a steady hand that has experience being in playoff races to assure their veterans they plan on continuing to try to compete, rather than rebuilding with a young head coach. 

Caldwell is reportedly the favorite for the job. He’s an unexciting hire who has never really moved the needle as a head coach in his first two opportunities with the Colts and Lions, but he’s guided talented teams and has a winning record overall, including playoff appearances in 4 of 7 seasons (2-4). 

A football lifer, Caldwell, 65, coached in some capacity at the NFL or collegiate level for 41 straight seasons from 1977-2017, including a stint as Wake Forest’s head coach and pair of Super Bowl victories, as the Colts quarterbacks coach and then as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. Caldwell unretired for a year to be an assistant in Miami in 2019, before sitting out 2020, and seems likely to be willing to return a third time in 2021, for the right opportunity.

Prediction: Jim Caldwell, Former Detroit Lions Head Coach

5. Atlanta Falcons

Pros – More talented than 4-12 record, #4 pick

Cons – Aging roster, limited financial flexibility

The Falcons went just 4-12 last season, but their four losses in which they had a 95% chance to win in the 4th quarter, their 2-8 record in one score games, and their -18 point differential suggest this is a team that is a lot more talented than that record. That record also gets them the 4th overall pick. However, they have a relatively old roster without a lot of financial flexibility (3rd least cap space in the league) and might max out as a .500 team with this roster. 

The Falcons seem committed to keeping highly paid stars Matt Ryan and Julio Jones as they go into their mid-30s, so the incoming head coach will be expected to compete relatively quickly, which is possible, but not given, with this roster. The Falcons can add to this roster with their high draft pick, but they could also use the pick on a quarterback with an eye on the future, as Ryan is going into his age 36 season and isn’t getting cheaper. 

Hiring a young offensive coach may make that more likely and reports suggest they’re down to either Arthur Smith or divisional rival Joe Brady, who coordinated an overachieving Panthers offense in his first season as an NFL offensive coordinator, after coordinating a record setting offense at the college level with LSU in 2019. Also experienced as an assistant with fellow division rival New Orleans, Brady has an impressive resume for a 31-year-old and seems likely to get a shot at a head coach job, if not this off-season then within the next couple years.

Prediction: Joe Brady, Carolina Panthers Offensive Coordinator

6. New York Jets 

Pros – #2 pick, cap space

Cons – Ownership, weak roster, quarterback situation

This job would have been a lot more attractive had the Jets held on to the #1 overall pick and had the rights to select Trevor Lawrence. The Jets still have the #2 pick and the cap space to add to this roster this off-season, but they have an unfavorable ownership situation and they have the kind of roster where the cap space they have and the #2 overall pick don’t seem like enough to turn this around quickly. 

The #2 overall pick plays into the uncertainty at quarterback, where the Jets will have to decide between keeping 2018 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, guaranteeing him 25 million for injury in 2022, and trading away the #2 pick for more draft assets, or using the #2 pick on his replacement and trading Darnold for lesser draft assets. Darnold is only going into his age 24 season and could still develop into a starter somewhere else, while any quarterback they take #2 overall would not be a sure thing, but Darnold’s contract situation is much less favorable than a rookie’s and passing on a franchise quarterback in the draft could easily come back to haunt them as well. Whoever the quarterback is, the Jets will undoubtedly have to do more to support them in 2021.

The Jets may be passed over by some of the best coaching candidates, but they could still get a good candidate from division rival Buffalo. Daboll has only interviewed with the Chargers aside from the Jets and, though the Chargers seem to like Daboll, I have them going elsewhere in this scenario, leaving the Jets to get the guy responsible for helping develop Josh Allen into a franchise quarterback. The Jets would be hoping he could do the same in New York, either with Darnold or a rookie like Justin Fields or Zack Wilson. Daboll, 45, also has experience on Bill Belichick’s staff in New England and on Nick Saban’s staff at the University of Alabama, winning championships in both spots.

Prediction: Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills Offensive Coordinator

7. Detroit Lions

Pros – Some good players, #7 pick

Cons – Ownership, mediocre roster, limited financial flexibility

The Lions aren’t the worst team on this list, but it was hard to find big pluses for them. They do have some talented players in Matt Stafford, DeAndre Swift, TJ Hockenson, Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Trey Flowers, as well as pending free agent Kenny Golladay and they have the 7th overall pick to add to this team, but they don’t have a lot of financial flexibility, even before re-signing or franchise tagging Golladay, and they may be maxed out with their current roster. 

Injuries were a big part of the problem for this team in 2021, most notably Golladay and Flowers, leading to a 5-11 finish, but, even with better health in 2021, it’s hard to see this as much better than a middling team. They could opt to rebuild, using the 7th overall pick on a quarterback and either sitting him for a year or trading Stafford to get draft compensation and financial flexibility to build around their rookie quarterback, but it wouldn’t be a quick rebuild. 

Robert Saleh, 41, is one of the most in-demand young head coaching candidates, coordinating a dominant 49ers defense to a Super Bowl appearance in 2019 and then arguably doing a better job in 2020, when the 49ers still finished in the top-10 in most defensive metrics, despite missing half of their roster. He could probably get a better job than this, but he’s been rumored to Detroit because he’s from the area and they could certainly use his defensive minded coaching after fielding arguably the worst defense in the league last season.

Prediction: Robert Saleh, San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator

Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Chicago Bears (8-8) at New Orleans Saints (12-4)

Coming into the season, the Saints ranked a clear #1 in my roster rankings and were my pre-season Super Bowl pick (over Baltimore). The Saints weren’t a consistently dominant team this season, but they consistently played well overall, despite missing various key players with injury at different points in the season. They went 12-4 and finished 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.34%, even though quarterback Drew Brees (4 games missed), feature backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray (1 game missed each), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games) and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore, among other minor players, all missed time with injury.

All of the aforementioned players are expected to be available in this one. The Saints aren’t at full strength, but they’re much closer to it than they were for most of the season and they’re closer to it than most teams at this point in the season. They aren’t the #1 team in my roster rankings, but they’re only slightly behind Green Bay, with their most notable absence, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, causing them to fall slightly behind the Packers. They should be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl of any of the wild card weekend teams, as long as they continue staying reasonably healthy.

Making matters even better for the Saints, they have a relatively easy first round matchup, with the 8-8 Bears coming to town. In schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Bears are about as you’d expect from an 8-8 team, ranking 13th at +0.17%, but, unlike the Saints who are balanced on both sides of the ball, ranking 8th in first down rate over expected and 6th in first down rate allowed over expected, the Bears are heavily reliant on their defense, which ranks 7th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.30%, while their offense ranks just 26th in first down rate over expected at -2.12%

That’s a concern because defensive performance is much less predictive and predictable week-to-week than offensive performance. The Bears also have injury concerns on defense, most notably the potential absence of stud linebacker Roquan Smith, who has been a big part of their defensive success this season. The Bears’ offense has been better in recent weeks with Mitch Trubisky under center, but he’s struggled in their only two games against competent defenses over that stretch, both double digit losses to the Packers, while his other games have come against defenses ranked 26th (Vikings), 29th (Jaguars), 30th (Texans), and 32nd (Lions) in first down rate allowed over expected. 

Trubisky did lead the Bears to 30+ points in each of those 4 games, but he’s yet to prove he’s anything more than an upgrade over Nick Foles, which isn’t saying much. Of all of the playoff qualifiers, I have the Bears ranked last in my roster rankings, coming in about a half point below average overall. I have the Saints with a 9.5 point advantage, which gives us a calculated line of New Orleans -11, with the Saints at least having some fans in advantage for this matchup. Unfortunately, this line is up to New Orleans -10, with the public recognizing how lopsided this matchup is, but the Saints should still be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, even if there isn’t enough value here for the Saints to be worth betting.

New Orleans Saints 27 Chicago Bears 15

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Cleveland Browns (11-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Earlier this week, I was expecting to bet on the Browns. I had the Browns as the slightly better of these two teams, but the Steelers were being favored by a field goal at home, where they wouldn’t have any homefield advantage. The Steelers won one more game than the Browns this season, despite not even trying in their week 17 matchup with the Browns with the division locked up, and the Steelers have the edge in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+0.93% vs. -1.12%), but the Browns’ issues were primarily concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 27th in first down rate allowed over expected at +2.14%, while the Steelers’ issues were primarily concentrated on the offensive side of the ball, ranking 30th in first down rate over expected at -3.56%. 

Offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance, which was a good sign for the Browns’ chances going forward, compared to the Steelers. The Steelers did beat the Browns easily in their first matchup this season, winning 38-7 in week 6, and then last week the Steelers’ backups came within a 2-point conversion of tying the game late in a 24-22 Browns victory, but those scores don’t tell you the whole story. 

In the first matchup, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was playing at far less than 100% through an injury and he was missing stud running back Nick Chubb and key right guard Wyatt Teller. In the second matchup, the Browns actually won the first down rate battle by 6.18% and led 24-9 late before Pittsburgh converted two 4th downs and stopped the Browns on a 4th down attempt of their own, to make the final score look closer than the game was throughout. The Browns seemed to be underrated, with casual fans putting a lot of stock in the first two matchups between these teams. 

The Browns also seemed to be getting healthier, with stud running back Nick Chubb (4 games missed), key right guard Wyatt Teller (5 games), #1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1 game), starting left tackle Jedrick Wills (1 game), starting tight end Austin Hooper (3 games), edge defender Myles Garrett (2 games), top cornerback Denzel Ward (4 games), and safety Ronnie Harrison (5 games) all looking likely to play this game after missing significant time earlier in the season. Unfortunately, that changed very quickly.

Most of the aforementioned players will still play, but Ward is considered a gametime decision and Harrison is out due to COVID protocols, as is left guard Joel Bitonio, who is just as important to this offensive line as Teller, who could be playing at less than 100%. Also possibly at less than 100% is right tackle Jack Conklin, who didn’t practice at all on Friday. The Browns also lost talented starting defensive end Olivier Vernon to a torn Achilles and also won’t have head coach Kevin Stefanski and some key assistants. 

Despite all that, I could still be talked into taking the Browns, as this line has shifted appropriately by 3 points, favoring Pittsburgh by 6. My calculated line now has the Steelers favored by 2.5 or maybe 3 points, with the Steelers having nominal homefield only and being just 2 points better than the Browns in my roster rankings, even with the Browns at less than 100%. I’m not going to place a bet on the Browns just yet, but when I have confirmation of who is playing in this game for Cleveland, I may decide to place a bet at +6. The Steelers won half of their games by fewer than 6 points this season, including matchups against the Broncos, Cowboys, and the COVID depleted Ravens, so the Browns could definitely keep this game close, even if they can’t pull the upset.

Update: The Browns won’t have Denzel Ward or fellow cornerback Kevin Johnson this week, but they will have cornerback Terrance Mitchell, linebacker Malcolm Smith and right tackle Jack Conklin, who were all listed as questionable, while safety Ronnie Harrison, originally out after a positive COVID test, was confirmed to be a false positive and will play. With all of the Browns’ Sunday COVID testing out of the way, I feel comfortable placing a bet on the Browns at +6, which I am locking in now because the lines have dropped to 5 and 5.5 in some places.

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 Cleveland Browns 20

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +6

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans: 2020 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Tennessee Titans (11-5)

Both of these teams finished at 11-5 and qualified for the post-season, but they also both finished with negative schedule adjusted first down rate differentials, with the Titans ranking 21st at -0.91% and the Ravens ranking 25th at -1.64%. First down rate tends to be one of the most predictive metrics because it minimizes the impact of outlier plays and other metrics that aren’t predictive week-to-week, like turnover margins, missed field goals, narrow victories, return touchdowns, etc.

With the Titans, it’s easy to understand how they finished negative in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, despite their record. The Titans played one of the easiest schedules in the league and still needed to go 7-2 in games decided by one score or less in order to get to 11 wins. The Titans also benefited significantly from turnovers, leading the league with a +11 turnover margin, a very impactful, but largely non-predictive metric. Teams with turnover margin of +10 or better manage just a +0.05 turnover margin per game in the playoffs, so the Titans won’t be able to rely on that again this week. 

For the Ravens, the reasons they finished negative despite their record aren’t as immediately apparent as it is with the Titans. The Ravens did benefit from a below average schedule, but they are negative in first down rate differential even before schedule is taken into account (-0.58%) and they led the league with a +165 point differential, despite only having a +4 turnover margin, so they didn’t benefit from winning a high percentage of close games or from consistently winning the turnover battle.

Upon further analysis though, you can see that the Ravens played drastically better on 3rd and 4th down than they did on 1st and 2nd down, allowing them to lead the league in point differential despite a negative overall first down rate differential. The difference in their 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th down performance is enormous and it happens on both sides of the ball. On offense, the Ravens rank just 27th in first down conversion rate on 1st/2nd down, but 3rd on 3rd/4th down, while their defense ranks 28th on 1st/2nd down and 2nd on 3rd/4th down.

3rd and 4th down are more impactful downs, obviously, but how a team performs on 1st and 2nd down is much more predictive week-to-week and, likewise, there is little week-to-week or year-to-year correlation that suggests that teams can consistently exceed their 1st/2nd down performance on 3rd/4th down. In the long run, performance by down tends to even out. The Ravens were also really good on both sides of the ball on 3rd/4th down last season, but the key difference is they were really good on 1st/2nd down as well. 

In 2019, the Ravens’ offense ranked 1st in conversion rate on both 1st/2nd down and 3rd/4th down, while their defense ranked 4th on 1st/2nd down and actually “slipped” to 9th on 3rd/4th down. This year, the Ravens have struggled on early downs on both sides of the ball, but have greatly exceeded expectations on 3rd and 4th downs, which is unlikely to continue, especially against tougher competition. 

My roster rankings suggest the Ravens are better than their first down rate differential suggests, but even in my roster rankings the Ravens rank just 8th among qualifying playoff teams, so this is clearly not the dominant team they were last season. They have been hurt by expected regression from their defense, their offense being less novel, and the absence of arguably their most important three offensive players in 2019 aside from Lamar Jackson, with right guard Marshal Yanda retiring and left tackle Ronnie Stanley and tight end Nick Boyle getting hurt.

The Titans haven’t been a dominant team overall this season either, but the good news for them is their issues have been primarily concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, which is much less predictable and predictive than offense. The Titans have had one of the best offenses in the league overall, ranking 4th in first down rate over expected at +2.16%, but their defense has been one of the league’s worst, allowing a +3.06% first down rate over expected, 2nd worst in the NFL, which is why they’re negative in schedule adjusted first down rate differential. 

If the Titans’ defense be can even a little bit better than they’ve been and their offense can continue playing at the level they’ve played at, the Titans are going to be a tough team for anyone to face and the inherent unpredictability of defensive performance gives the Titans a much higher ceiling than how they’ve played so far this season. The Titans are dealing with injuries upfront with linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Jayon Brown both out for the season, but their secondary got a boost when they acquired slot cornerback Desmond King from the Chargers at the trade deadline and they got a bigger boost when #1 cornerback Adoree Jackson returned from injury a few weeks ago. My roster rankings suggest they’re better on that side of the ball than they’ve performed thus far and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see them be at least somewhat more capable on that side of the ball in the post-season.

The Ravens’ talent level and common sense suggest the Ravens aren’t the 25th best team in the league like they’ve ranked in schedule adjusted first down rate differential, but even on a talent basis I have these two teams about even, so we’re getting great line value with the Titans as more than a field goal underdog at home with at least some fans in the stands. In fact, my calculated line has the Titans favored by a field goal. The average bettor likely expects the Ravens’ 3rd and 4th down dominance and the Titans’ defensive woes to both continue, but history suggests that isn’t necessarily going to be the case, so let’s take advantage of that. I love the Titans this week and would make this my Pick of the Week if this was a normal week. 

Tennessee Titans 34 Baltimore Ravens 31 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +3.5

Confidence: High