Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2019 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

The Vikings qualified for the post-season, but they finished the season just 1-4 against fellow playoff qualifiers, tied with the Bills for worst among playoff qualifiers. Their one win came against an Eagles team that only qualified because they play in the NFC East, while their losses came against the Packers twice, the Seahawks, and even the Matt Moore led Chiefs, back when Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury. Making this even more concerning is Kirk Cousins’ well-documented struggles in big games. Cousins’ 7-15 record in primetime games (6-15-1 ATS) is well known, but his record in all games against teams with a winning record is even worse. 

Dating back to his first year as a starter in 2015, in games against teams entering with a winning record, excluding any games in week 3 or earlier when a team’s record might not mean much, Cousins’ teams are just 7-21, including just 3-10 since joining the Vikings. His ATS record of 10-17-1 ATS isn’t horrendous, but he’s just 3-9-1 ATS since joining the Vikings. There isn’t much to go off in terms of Cousins’ post-season history, as this is just his 2nd career playoff start, but it’s not a stretch to say his struggles against tough opponents will probably extend into the post-season and his lack of post-season experience could also work against him, facing a quarterback/head coach duo with 14 career playoff starts together in Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

In addition to having significant post-season experience, the Saints are also playing about as well as any team in the league right now. Since Drew Brees’ return from injury in week 8, the Saints rank 3rd in first down rate at 42.03% and 2nd in first down rate differential at +6.61. Their offense has been even better in recent weeks, with a 44.62% first down rate in their past 6 games and a 46.59% first down rate in their past 4 games, both best in the NFL over that stretch. 

It might seem improbable that the Saints can continue that rate going forward, but the Saints had a 43.48% first down rate last season in Brees’ 15 starts and at one point had a 45.69% first down rate through 11 games before slowing down late in the season, possibly due to an aging Drew Brees getting tired at the end of a 16-game season. This season, Brees’ injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as the missed time seems to have him fresher at the end of the season. Now fully past the injury, Brees seems to be heating up just in time for the playoffs. 

The Saints’ defense finished just 15th in first down rate allowed at 35.04% and they lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, pair of key defensive linemen, with injury late in the season, but the Saints have more than enough on offense to compensate and they still have plenty of talent on defense. This line is pretty high at New Orleans -7.5, so there isn’t quite enough here to confidently bet on the Saints, especially since a Kirk Cousins backdoor cover seems somewhat likely, but New Orleans should be the right side.

New Orleans Saints 34 Minnesota Vikings 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans: 2019 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (10-6) at Houston Texans (10-6)

The Bills and Texans both went 10-6 in the regular season, locking in their seeding at 10-5 with a week left to go in the season and resting starters in an eventual meaningless week 17 loss. The Texans faced a much tougher schedule though, with an opponents winning percentage of 53% (6th in the NFL) vs. 47% (28th in the NFL) for the Bills, who didn’t fare well against tougher competition in general. 

The Bills went just 1-4 against playoff qualifiers and that one win came over the Marcus Mariota led Titans back in week 5, a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals in a 7-point loss. All in all, the Bills had just a -2.05% first down rate differential against opponents who finished with a .500 or better record. The Texans, meanwhile, went 3-3 against playoff qualifiers (3-2 if you exclude a meaningless week 17 loss to the Titans), including wins over the Chiefs and Patriots.  

The Texans have been underwhelming in recent weeks, but they get a much needed boost on defense with JJ Watt returning from an 8-game absence. With Watt back in the lineup, I have the Texans 3 points better in my roster rankings than the Bills, so we’re getting good value with the Texans being favored by just 2.5 points at home. The Bills are also starting a first time playoff starter under center in Josh Allen. First time playoff starters are 14-32-1 ATS since 2002. 

Houston’s Deshaun Watson is in just his 2nd playoff start after losing at home to the Colts in his playoff debut last season, but even that one game of experience seems to matter, as there isn’t a similar trend for a quarterback’s second start. Watson struggled in his debut last season and could watch Josh Allen, a lesser quarterback, do the same this year. I would expect the Texans to win and it might not be close depending on how badly Allen struggles, so the Texans are worth a large bet in a game they basically just need to win to cover.

Houston Texans 24 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Houston -2.5

Confidence: High

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: 2019 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Tennessee Titans (9-7) at New England Patriots (12-4)

This is a tough game to predict. If I were basing this pick solely off how these teams have played recently, the Titans would be an easy choice. Since turning to Ryan Tannehill under center following their week 6 loss in Denver, the Titans are 7-3 and have a +4.51% first down rate differential, 4th among qualifying playoff teams over that stretch. Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team to victory either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.89% first down rate over Tannehill’s 10 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries. Tannehill and the offense carried this team, picking up first downs at a 42.39% rate in Tannehill’s 10 starts, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season, and Tannehill finished the season with a 117.5 QB rating that led the entire NFL.

I don’t expect Tannehill to be quite as good going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league, but the Titans have plenty of talent around Tannehill on offense and any drop off from Tannehill and the offense could be compensated for by a defense that is getting healthier. They’re still without cornerback Malcolm Butler and outside linebacker Cameron Wake, but they get top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence this week. Jayon Brown (2 games), Jeffery Simmons (7 games), and Jurrell Casey (2 games) are other key players who have missed time with injury and have since returned. They ranked 4th in the NFL in first down rate allowed through the first 6 games of the season and, though I wouldn’t expect them to be quite that good going forward, the arrow is pointing up on defense for the Titans with Jackson returning.

The Patriots, meanwhile, had some dominant performances early in the season and have a +5.06% first down rate differential on the season that ranks 3rd among qualifying playoff teams, but you’d have to go all the way back to week 5 to find a stretch of time in which they are better than +2% in first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule. The Titans have been better than +2% in every week since Tannehill took over. If these were normal circumstances, I would have this line calculated at New England -2, suggesting the Titans have a good chance of pulling the upset.

However, these are not normal circumstances, as Tannehill will be making his first career playoff start on the road in arguably the toughest place to play in the NFL. Quarterbacks are 14-32-1 ATS since 2002 in their first career playoff start and Tannehill has the added challenge of going into New England, where the Patriots have won 84% of games since 2001, and facing a quarterback/head coach duo that is making their 41st post-season start together. Brady is 48-19 ATS at home in his career unless he’s favored by a touchdown or more, including 6-2 ATS in the post-season. On top of that, the Patriots are 43-14 ATS since 2000 off of a loss unless they are favored by a touchdown or more. After last week’s shocking home loss to the Dolphins, the Titans are just 5-point favorites in this game.

Even the way the Patriots ended the season, statistically they had a better regular season this season than last season, when they went on to win the Super Bowl. Last year, they finished outside the top-10 in both first down rate and first down rate allowed. This year, their defense led the NFL in first down rate allowed by a wide margin, even when adjusted for schedule. They don’t have Gronk or a first round bye this year and the AFC is tougher than last year with both Kansas City and Baltimore playing at a high level, so they might not necessarily make another Super Bowl run, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they came out in the first round and looked much better than they have in weeks. I expect a particularly strong performance from their defense against a quarterback making his first career playoff start. This is a no confidence pick because the Titans could easily win this game if the Patriots look like they have in recent weeks, but I’m taking New England for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 23 Tennessee Titans 17

Pick against the spread: New England -5

Confidence: None

2019 Regular Season Pick Results

2019

Total Against the Spread: 130-118-8 (52.34%)

Pick of the Week: 12-3-2 (76.47%)

High Confidence Picks: 18-11-1 (61.67%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 34-34-2 (50.00%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 64-48-5 (56.84%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-37-1 (48.63%)

No Confidence Picks: 31-33-2 (48.48%)

Upset Picks: 22-19 (53.66%)

2018

Total Against the Spread: 154-102-11 (59.74%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (61.76%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-13-2 (61.11%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 41-27-1 (60.14%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 72-46-4 (60.66%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-28-1 (55.47%)

No Confidence Picks: 47-28-6 (61.73%)

Upset Picks: 25-17-1 (59.30%)

All-Time (Since 2013)

Total Against the Spread: 975-828-55 (53.96%)

Pick of the Week: 73-43-5 (62.40%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 466-340-23 (57.60%)

Upset Picks: 154-172-1 (47.25%)

2019 Week 17 NFL Picks

Pick of the Week

CIN +3 vs. CLE

High Confidence Picks

LAC +9 @ KC

Medium Confidence Picks

IND -4 @ JAX

NYG +4.5 vs. PHI

DAL -11 vs. WAS

Low Confidence Picks

DEN -3.5 vs. OAK

SEA +3.5 vs. SF

BAL +2 vs. PIT

NE -16 vs. MIA

TB PK vs. ATL

No Confidence Picks

MIN +3 vs. CHI

CAR +13 vs. NO

DET +12.5 vs. GB

NYJ +1.5 @ BUF

LAR -6 vs. ARZ

TEN -10 @ HOU

Upset Picks

BAL +110 vs. PIT

CIN +135 vs. CLE

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (5-9-1) at Los Angeles Rams (8-7)

The Rams have had a very disappointing 2019 season. After going 13-3 and representing the NFC in the Super Bowl last year, the Rams sit at just 8-7 and have been eliminated from the playoff race entirely ahead of week 17 this year, with their season officially ending in a heartbreaking last second loss in San Francisco last week. There are still a lot of positive takeaways from this season though. 

Their offense hasn’t been as good as it’s been in past years, ranking just 15th on the season with a 36.37% first down rate, after finishing last season 3rd at 43.02%, due to a complete dropoff in offensive line play and quarterback Jared Goff’s inability to make good decisions and good throws under pressure, but they’ve been impressive defensively. They rank 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.87%, and they have been even better since acquiring cornerback Jalen Ramsey and putting breakout player Troy Hill into the starting lineup opposite him during week 7, ranking 5th in the NFL with a 32.44% first down rate allowed over that stretch. 

The Rams end their season with a home game against a last place Cardinals team. The Cardinals won in Seattle last week in a big upset, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds, as the Seahawks entered that game with the worst point differential ever for a 11-3 team and were missing their two best defensive backs, their best offensive lineman, and their best defensive lineman. Just a few weeks earlier, the Cardinals were demolished at home by the Rams in a 34-7 game, one of four games they’ve lost by at least 17 points this season. On the year, the Cardinals rank 28th in first down rate differential at -4.44% and have a -74 point differential that suggests their 5-9-1 record is an accurate representation of how they’ve played.

Under ordinary circumstances, we’d be getting significant line value with the Rams as just 6-point home favorites over the Cardinals, but the Rams are probably not going to give their best effort this week after having their disappointing season ended in heartbreaking fashion last week. In fact, we might not see anything close to the Rams’ full strength lineup this week, as Rams head coach Sean McVay has been the most cautious coach in the league when it comes to not risking his key players’ health in meaningless games. 

In 3 years with the Rams, he’s rested key players in meaningless games every chance he’s gotten, whether it’s pre-season games or week 17 games when the Rams’ seeding has been locked in. This is the first time the Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention in the McVay era, but it stands to reason he might have a similar approach this week, at the very least with players that are less than 100% with injury. The aforementioned cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill, which has been a huge part of their defensive success, has already been ruled out and there’s speculation that running back Todd Gurley among others could also be held out, which adds a lot of uncertainty to this game. 

Also adding uncertainty is the injury to Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray got in limited practices this week through a hamstring injury and would probably play if this game mattered, but the Cardinals could be cautious with nothing to play for and hold him out, which would force overmatched backup Brett Hundley into action, a significant dropoff. Even if Murray does play, he might not be as effective because mobility is a big part of his game. With all this uncertainty, I have no idea how to make a pick on this game, but I’m taking the Rams for pick ‘em purposes for now. There’s a good chance I update this write-up before gametime.

Update: Murray is playing for the Rams, but there’s no indication of how long the Rams will play starters for. I’m leaving this as is.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Arizona Cardinals 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -6

Confidence: None

Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8)

One of the biggest betting edges I’ve discovered over the years is the lack of week-to-week correlation between turnover margins. The winner of the turnover margin wins the game about 80% of the time, but turnover margins have no predictability week-to-week. Teams that lose the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.0 the following week, while teams that win the turnover battle by 4, on average, have a turnover margin of about +0.1 the following week. You can test this at killer sports for yourself if you’d like, but this holds true regardless of what a team’s turnover margin was the previous week. For this reason, I use first down rate as my primary evaluative stat, as it has much more week-to-week correlation and minimizes the impact of turnover margin and other inconsistent metrics on an evaluation of a team.

The Falcons are a great example of this in action. Through their first 8 games of the season, the Falcons had a -0.29% first down rate differential, but were just 1-7 due in large part to a -12 turnover margin. Since the bye, the Falcons are +5 in turnover margin and, as a result, have won 5 of 7 games. Their first down rate differential has improved slightly, as they are at +3.16% over those 7 games, but the big difference has been turnover margin. They’re still negative in turnover margin on the season at -7, but now at 6-9, their first down rate differential of +1.14% on the season (in the NFL) is much more in line with their record. 

I do make a few exceptions to the inconsistent turnover margin rule. One is the Patriots, who have proven to be the exception to most rules over the past two decades and have consistently won the turnover battle throughout the Brady/Belichick era. Since 2000, they have a +210 turnover margin and the next closest team is at +95. Another exception is Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston, who has consistently been among the league leaders in giveaways in his 5 seasons in the league. 

In 69 career starts, Winston has 136 combined interceptions and fumbles, 31 more than any quarterback in the league over that stretch. The Buccaneers are more than just their quarterback, but it would make sense that they would have a negative turnover margin with a quarterback like Winston under center. Since Winston entered the league in 2015, the Buccaneers have the 4th worst turnover margin in the league at -33, including -11 this season (5th worst in the NFL).

That’s not to say that Winston doesn’t bring a lot to the table that is good, as he has a career 7.74 YPA average, including 8.15 YPA this season, 5th in the NFL, which has led the Buccaneers to a 37.02% first down rate, 12th in the NFL, but after 5 years in the league it’s clear that he’s just more turnover prone than the average quarterback. Making matters even worse, Winston is playing this game at less than 100% through an injured thumb and without his top-2 wide receivers. 

The Buccaneers have the edge over the Falcons in first down rate differential this season (+2.20% vs. +1.14%) and their defense has been significantly better since week 7, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.33% over that stretch, due to the return of edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul from injury and the emergence of several young defensive backs in what was once the worst secondary in the NFL, but my roster rankings have the Falcons ranked slightly higher than the Buccaneers, which I think is more accurate. The Falcons have also faced a significantly tougher schedule this season, with a 56% combined opponents winning percentage (highest in the NFL), as opposed to 50% for the Buccaneers.

All that being said, we’re actually still getting some line value with the Buccaneers this week, as this line is even, suggesting the visiting Falcons are about 2-3 points better than the hometown Buccaneers. My calculated line is Tampa Bay -2. Winston’s turnover proneness is a problem, but as I’ve mentioned he also does a lot well, even at less than 100%, and the Buccaneers’ defense has actually been downright stifling over the past few weeks, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed at 29.59% over the past 6 games. The absences of wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are obviously significant, but the Falcons are missing key players like wide receiver Calvin Ridley, cornerback Desmond Trufant, and defensive ends Takkarist McKinley and Adrian Clayborn. There’s not enough here to bet on the Buccaneers confidently, but they should be the right side.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay PK

Confidence: Low