Archive for December, 2017

Week 17 Picks

Posted: 12/31/2017 by levcohen in Football

I anticipated a crazy Week 16, because it’s been a crazy week in the past and because it seemed like the ingredients were in place for some bizarre results. I was wrong, as just three short underdogs notched upsets. The Browns remained winless, and the teams that were supposed to roll did just that (with the exception of the Panthers, who left it late before winning by three). This resulted in my first really bad week in a while. I went:

10-6 straight up… 153-87 on the season
5-9-2 against the spread… 125-105-10
6-9-1 on over/unders… 122-113-5

0-3 on upset picks… 23-35 on the season

I can say with some certainty that Week 17 will be weird, because Week 17 is always weird. You never quite know which teams with nothing to play for will show up. We do know that the Rams, Steelers, and Chiefs, three playoff teams with little or nothing to play for, will rest their starters. The Eagles, another team with nothing to play for, will start theirs but will likely pull them at some point. News coming out of Jacksonville is that the Jags, who are locked into the #3 seed, will treat this like a normal game anyway, because they don’t want to go into the playoffs on a two game losing streak. Then there are all the teams who are already out of the playoff race. Which teams will fight for their coaches? With so many coaches already rumored to be on the way out (I don’t remember this for sure, but I can’t imagine we knew in the past with certainty that coaches would be fired heading into the games), will their teams have any incentive to play hard? Here’s a list of the teams whose coaches are all-but fired:
Detroit (this was a surprise, but was reported last night)
Indianapolis
Arizona (Bruce Arians will step down, according to reports)
Chicago
Cincinnati (I’ll always be skeptical until it’s official, but it really does seem like Marvin Lewis will be gone)

That’s in addition to the Giants job, which is already open, and a bunch of other possibilities. I’ll be interested to see how those teams play today.

Another crazy thing about Week 17 this year: all of the games are being played in the afternoon. In the past, the NFL has scheduled a Sunday Night Football game between two teams who are sure to be playing for a playoff spot or a division title or something. This year, though, that isn’t possible: the best chance would have been Atlanta-Carolina, but while the Falcons will be playing for something assuming a Seattle win earlier (win and Atlanta is in), the Panthers would have nothing to play for if the Saints were to win earlier on. So every meaningful matchup is contingent on at least one other game, which is why this schedule makes sense and should be fun. Here’s a quick list of playoff and seeding scenarios:

  • The Vikings will clinch a BYE with a win
  • The Saints will clinch their division with a win
  • The Panthers will likely be the #5 seed but could jump with a win and a New Orleans loss
  • Atlanta is in with a win
  • Seattle is in with a win and an Atlanta loss
  • The Patriots clinch the #1 seed with a win
  • Baltimore is in with a win
  • Tennessee is in with a win
  • Buffalo is in with a win AND a Baltimore loss OR a win and losses by Tennessee and the Chargers
  • Los Angeles is in with a win AND losses by Buffalo and Tennessee OR a win, a Tennessee loss, and a Baltimore win.

Not actually that complicated. Basically, the meaningless games are being played at 1:00 (the Vikings and Patriots are the only teams on the list above that are playing early, and they are double-digit favorites at home), while seven of the nine late afternoon games are meaningful (and an eighth features Jimmy G, so there’s that). This week is more about motivation than about any specific individual matchup. It should be a fun afternoon.

Green Bay Packers (7-8, 7-8 against the spread) at Detroit Lions (8-7, 7-7-1):
Spread: Lions favored by 7
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: Even a month ago, it seemed plausible that this would be a game with huge playoff implications, one that could potentially be a play-in game. But alas, both of these teams have absolutely nothing to play for, and in fact Detroit’s probably about to fire its head coach. The Lions should still beat a Green Bay team that was just shut out with Brett Hundley at quarterback. I’m sure the Packers hope this will be Hundley’s last start for them, because the first few haven’t gone particularly well. This spread seems too low, because the Packers are really bad. Lions win 28-20.
Lions cover
Over

Dallas Cowboys (8-7, 7-7-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (13-2, 10-4-1):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 3.5
Over/under: 40
My prediction: This requires a total guess, because nobody knows just how seriously the Eagles will take this game. My prediction: not very seriously. The most interesting thing about this game might be the debut of rookie cornerback Sidney Jones. The Eagles loved him so much that they took him in the second round even after he tore his Achilles’ at his senior day. Cowboys win 24-17.
Cowboys cover
Over

Houston Texans (4-11, 6-8-1) at Indianapolis Colts (3-12, 7-8):
Spread: Colts favored by 5.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: The Texans are resting DeAndre Hopkins here, removing the one real threat on their offense. The Colts, meanwhile, still have T.Y. Hilton and a team that’s actually played pretty well recently even with a lame-duck coach. This spread seems a bit high, but spreads are always wacky in Week 17, so I’m not too put off by it. I expect the Colts to come out strong and to win 24-13.
Colts cover
Under

Chicago Bears (5-10, 7-6-2) at Minnesota Vikings (12-3, 11-3-1):
Spread: Vikings favored by 12
Over/under: 38.5
My prediction: The Bears are averaging 15 points per game on the road this year. I’m confidently taking the under on that number here. The Vikings are going to roll here and will leave no doubt about the #2 seed in the NFC heading into the later games. Minnesota looks like a force to be reckoned with going into the playoffs. Vikings win 30-7.
Vikings cover
Under

New York Jets (5-10, 8-5-2) at New England Patriots (12-3, 10-5):
Spread: Patriots favored by 15
Over/under: 43
My prediction: The Jets have been solid at home this year but not very good on the road. The Patriots need to win this game and will. The spread may be too high, though, because the Patriots could potentially rest their starters if they go up big early. Then again, it is the Patriots, who cover spreads at an incredible rate, so the spread probably isn’t too high. I would never bet on this spread. Patriots win 31-13.
Patriots cover
Over

Washington Redskins (7-8, 7-8) at New York Giants (2-13, 6-9):
Spread: Redskins favored by 4
Over/under: 40
My prediction: I picked the Giants to go into Arizona and win last week. After their lethargic performance last week, I’ve lost all confidence in them and will not be picking them here. Jay Gruden has a lot to prove here, as he may or may not be on the hot seat. Kirk Cousins has a lot to prove with a big new contract right around the corner. We got our weekly story about the dysfunction in the Giants’ secondary (with safety Landon Collins calling corner Eli Apple a “cancer,” and others calling Apple the worst teammate ever). Give me Washington. Redskins win 27-10.
Redskins cover
Under

Cleveland Browns (0-15, 3-12) at Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3, 7-8):
Spread: Steelers favored by 5
Over/under: 38
My prediction: The Steelers are resting all of their key players, which is why the spread isn’t 17+. I’m very tempted to pick the Browns against their backups, but I think it’s about time I learned my lesson about the Browns. I’m going to pick Pittsburgh’s backups to triumph 21-13 (of course, this will now be the week that Cleveland wins).
Steelers cover
Under

Carolina Panthers (11-4, 9-6) at Atlanta Falcons (9-6, 6-9):
Spread: Falcons favored by 4
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: I’d like to nominate the Atlanta Falcons as this season’s most frustrating team. They should be really good. They have so much talent, and after they banked a few lucky wins early on and then began improving, it seemed like they were headed to the playoffs. But then, after lucky three point wins over New Orleans and Tampa Bay, they laid an egg in the rematch against the Saints, leaving them in a must-win situation against a motivated Panthers team in Week 17. Guess what? I’m picking them anyway. I know the Panthers are on a roll, and I know they can potentially win the division, but the Falcons will be more desperate, and I can’t envision them falling out of the playoffs. The Panthers have struggled to guard #1 receivers this year, so it could be a big game for Julio Jones. Falcons win 27-20.
Falcons cover
Over

Kansas City Chiefs (9-6, 9-6) at Denver Broncos (5-10, 4-10-1):*
Spread: Broncos favored by 3
Over/under: 37.5
My prediction: The Chiefs will rest Alex Smith, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and likely Kareem Hunt. That means the debut for highly touted first round pick Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. That’s reason enough to be intrigued by this game. Mahomes has a lot of talent, but he’s also very raw, and I’m not sure I trust him to go into Denver and win in his first start. But guess what? After the horrendous performance I saw out of Denver last week, I’m going to pick KC anyway. I think they’ll rally around their rookie quarterback and go into the playoffs on a high. Chiefs win 23-20.
Chiefs cover
Over

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5, 9-6) at Tennessee Titans (8-7, 6-9):
Spread: Titans favored by 2.5
Over/under: 41
My prediction: This spread opened at Tennessee -6, as the expectation was that the Jaguars, who have absolutely nothing to play for, would rest their starters against the Titans, who have absolutely everything to play for. Midweek, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone stated unequivocally that not only would the Jags start their best players, they would be “all-in” today. Clearly, Vegas finds that hard to believe, because a Jacksonville team with everything to play for would be clear favorites in Tennessee. The Titans, after all, have lost three straight games after an uninspiring 8-4 start. Miraculously, Tennessee still controls its own destiny. The Titans also match up decently with Jacksonville. They are a run-first team (even without DeMarco Murray, who will miss this game) that doesn’t rely on one or two star receivers. Against Jacksonville, which is #1 in DVOA against the pass (and #1 against top receivers by a country mile) and #29 in DVOA against the run, that can work. In fact, it did work in Week 2 in Jacksonville, when the Titans won 37-16 in their best performance of the season. And I, like Vegas, am not convinced that the Jags will really go all-out for this game. It also just feels right for this Tennessee team to sneak into the playoffs at 9-7. Another added layer: if the Titans win, these two would almost certainly play again next week in the playoffs. So the Jags may want to play conservatively. Titans win 23-17.
Titans cover
Under

San Francisco 49ers (5-10, 9-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-4, 9-6):
Spread: Niners favored by 5
Over/under: 44
My prediction: This spread is wonky because the Rams are resting Jared Goff and Todd Gurley. They apparently don’t care whether they finish with the #3 seed or the #4, and for good reason. The #4 seed might actually be better because it would make it more likely that the Rams would go to Philadelphia in Round 2 than Minnesota. Anyway, we’re robbed of what would have been a fascinating game between Jimmy G’s Niners and one of the best teams in the NFC. Now, I have absolutely no idea what this game will look like, largely because I have absolutely no idea how LA’s backups will play. Niners win 27-21.
Niners cover
Over

Buffalo Bills (8-7, 9-6) at Miami Dolphins (6-9, 5-9-1):*
Spread: Bills favored by 2.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: The Bills must win this game. The Dolphins have nothing to play for. Hence, the Bills are favored. That, I think, is the logic here. But guess what? I don’t think the Bills are very good, and I’m pretty sure the Dolphins are going to try hard in this one as they look to end their disappointing season on a high. This could be a huge game for Kenyan Drake against a Buffalo team that has struggled mightily against the run (30th in DVOA). I just don’t think the Bills deserve the benefit of the doubt here. Dolphins win 21-17.
Dolphins cover
Under

Oakland Raiders (6-9, 5-8-2) at Los Angeles Chargers (8-7, 7-6-2):
Spread: Chargers favored by 7
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: This seems similar to last week, when the Chargers were favored by seven in New York and beat the Jets by exactly a touchdown. While that was a one score game, it never really seemed like the Chargers were going to lose that game. I expect more of the same in a game they must win against a team with no stakes. The Raiders have looked good defensively of late, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that their last five games have come against Brock Osweiler, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Dak Prescott, and Nick Foles. Four of those guys are struggling, and the fifth, Alex Smith, put up 268 yards passing in a 26-15 win. Philip Rivers is having a good year, and I expect him to expose Oakland’s defense. Chargers win 31-17.
Chargers cover
Over

Arizona Cardinals (7-8, 5-9-1) at Seattle Seahawks (9-6, 6-8-1):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 8.5
Over/under: 38
My prediction: The Seahawks kept their playoff hopes alive last week in a really weird game against the Cowboys that they didn’t really deserve to win. They had 136 total yards and just 15 first downs and still won 21-12, thanks in large part to their opportunistic defense. I think they’re giving too many points here against a stingy Arizona defense. It’s likely to be Bruce Arians’s final game with the Cardinals, and I think they’ll play a strong game for their coach. The Seahawks just haven’t clicked recently, and I don’t expect that to change here. They’ll win, but it’ll be a slog. Seahawks win 19-17.
Cardinals cover
Under

New Orleans Saints (11-4, 8-7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11, 5-10):
Spread: Saints favored by 6
Over/under: 49
My prediction: This spread opened at nine, then quickly dropped. Perhaps people realized that the Buccaneers have actually played pretty well recently. Sure, they’ve lost five straight games, but they were competitive in all five and have lost the last three by three apiece. Surprisingly, they’ve already decided to retain head coach Dirk Koetter next season. Can they spoil New Orleans’s party at home? I think it’s possible. Sure, the Saints can sow up the division title with a win, but I still expect them to keep a lid on Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and Michael Thomas, their three best skill-position players. They’ll do the minimum required to win the game, and it may end up costing them. Saints win 23-20.
Buccaneers cover
Under

Cincinnati Bengals (6-9, 8-7) at Baltimore Ravens (9-6, 9-5-1):
Spread: Ravens favored by 9
Over/under: 40
My prediction: The Bengals played much better than I expected last week, as they rebounded from two straight embarrassing performances to beat the Lions pretty convincingly. Now, they head to Baltimore to play a rival in a game the rival must win. Nothing could possibly go wrong for the Ravens here, right? Baltimore’s won five of six games, but their win over the Colts last week was a little too close for comfort. After that performance, it’s easy to forget that most of these wins have come rather comfortably. That explains why the spread is so high. I’ve seen the Bengals quit too many times this season for me to expect them to remain competitive for this whole game. Ravens win 24-13.
Ravens cover
Under

Upset picks:
Dolphins over Bills
Chiefs over Broncos

Advertisements

College Football Playoff Semifinal Picks

Posted: 12/30/2017 by levcohen in NCAA

The fourth annual College Football Playoff begins on New Year’s Day. Alabama’s in it for the fourth time (that’s 100% of all CFP’s, for those keeping track at home). Clemson’s making a third consecutive appearance. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that those two are in it. One positive for those who like change: we’re guaranteed a January 8th final with one school not named Clemson or Alabama, because those two teams are playing in the semifinal. I like the way this lines up: the dynasties on one side, Oklahoma (made one previous CFP appearance, lost its only game) and Georgia (first CFP appearance) on the other side. The implementation of the Playoff hasn’t solved the apparent randomness of the rankings — this year, the big question was whether a one-loss Alabama team without a conference championship or many impressive wins would make it over a two-loss conference champion Ohio State squad — and it still seems kind of silly that a few people have the power to decide which four teams have a chance to win a national championship. But I must admit that the two semifinal matchups are juicy. In a year without a clear #1 team, it seems likely that we’ll get some close games. Here are my picks for the Jan. 1 semifinals:

Rose Bowl — #3 Georgia vs. #2 Oklahoma:
Spread: Georgia favored by 2.5
Over/under: 60.5
My prediction: On the surface, it’s the classic SEC vs. Big 12, strength against strength matchup. The Sooners have an explosive offense that’s led by Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. Mayfield has thrown for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns (with just five picks). Oklahoma averages 8.3 yards per play, miles ahead of #2 UCF (7.5). Mayfield has risen to the occasion consistently this season; he played a near perfect game to beat Ohio State on the road, threw for 598 yards and five touchdowns at then-#11 Oklahoma State, and threw seven touchdowns and zero picks in two wins over a very good TCU team. Simply put, he’s the best quarterback on the best offense in the country. He’s apparently come down with some illness over the past few days, but it doesn’t sound serious. I think we should go into this game assuming that Mayfield will bring his A-game. He’ll need to, because he hasn’t faced a defense like Georgia’s. The Bulldogs allow 4.3 yards per play, which is seventh-best in the nation (although worse than both Alabama and Clemson). That’s miles better than any Big 12 team. And while Georgia probably doesn’t have the all-around defensive talent that either Alabama or Clemson has, they have plenty. Linebacker Roquan Smith is a likely top-15 pick, and the defense has other future NFL players. They’re not a sack-happy team (6.44% sack rate, 55th in the nation), but they still limit opposing quarterbacks to the fifth-lowest passer rating in college football. Aside from a blowout loss at Auburn, which they avenged in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia’s defense gave up more than 19 points just once. But the Bulldogs didn’t face many good quarterbacks (there aren’t many in the SEC), and Missouri’s Drew Lock did have a good game against this defense. I don’t think Georgia is going to be able to bother Oklahoma’s offense much. The Bulldogs have looked sound defensively, but OU is a different animal. I haven’t even mentioned the run game, which averages 5.6 yards per carry (13th in the nation) and has three players who ran for more than 500 yards this season.

Oklahoma is going to put up points. Georgia needs to keep up. Luckily for the Bulldogs, they’re not clueless offensively. They rely heavily upon a three-headed monster at running back. Nick Chubb is the primary back, a good all-around runner who’s a future late-first or early-second round pick. Once Todd Gurley’s backup, the senior has quietly racked up 1,175 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s now up to 4,599 yards and 42 touchdowns in his career. Not bad! Chubb is under-appreciated, though, because Georgia’s other two running backs are flashier. Sony Michel might be the fastest player I’ve seen this year. He’s run for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 131 attempts, which means that roughly 10% of his attempts turn into TDs. For someone who’s far from a goal-line back, that’s insane. And freshman D’Andre Swift is also very fast and also very good. He’s averaging 8.2 yards per carry and iced the SEC Championship Game with a 62-yard touchdown run. As a team, Georgia ranks ninth in the country in yards per carry, 10th in rushing yards per game, and 10th in percentage of yards that come on the ground (60.7%, and a lot of the schools in front run triple-option offenses, aka run-always offenses). They clearly don’t want to ask true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm (2,173 yards, 21 TDs, five picks) to do too much. Fromm never threw the ball 30 times in a game. If he gets over 30 in this one, it won’t be a good sign for Georgia. Can the Sooners force the game into Fromm’s hands? Well, their run defense isn’t particularly good. They’re allowing 4.0 yards per carry, 44th in college football. But the defense did step up down the stretch, giving up just 17 points (and 3.5 yards per carry) against TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game. They also gave up just 16 points against Ohio State in that September win. So far, the Sooners’ defense has stepped up when it has had to. In a close game, the defense will have to do it once or twice on Monday, and I think it will. Oklahoma’s biggest flaw is its pass defense, and I don’t think Fromm will be good enough to exploit it. I like Mayfield and the Sooners to beat Georgia in a close one. Oklahoma wins 35-31.

Sugar Bowl: #1 Clemson vs. #4 Alabama:
Spread: Alabama favored by 3
Over/under: 47
My prediction: For the third straight year, the Tigers and Crimson Tide will meet in the College Football Playoff. It’s obviously no coincidence that these two teams keep playing each other in high-stakes games. They’ve been two of the best programs for years, and that remains the case this season. I think it’s pretty clear that the winner of this game will be favored to beat Georgia or Oklahoma. These are the two most talented teams in college football. Alabama has three-to-five probable first round picks — including likely top-10 selections Minkah Fitzpatrick and Calvin Ridley — and Clemson has at least two. Both teams are very strong defensively. Clemson has the most talented and deepest pass-rush in the country, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Their two best players may well be Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, both of whom may leave for the NFL after this season. Clemson ranks second in college football in sack rate (10.57%) and third in overall yards per play against (4.1). The defense got 11 sacks in a 14-6 win over Auburn and held Miami to three points in the ACC Championship Game. They’ll be licking their lips heading into a game against a quarterback who hasn’t proven that he can perform against elite defenses. Hurts plays well in cupcake games, but here’s a look at his performances against elite defenses since he became the starter last year: 10-19 for 107 yards and a pick at LSU last year; 7-14 for 57 yards against Washington in the semifinal last year; 13-31 for 131 yards against Clemson in the final last year; 10-18 for 96 yards against Florida State this year; 11-24 for 183 yards against LSU; 12-22 for 112 yards against Auburn. To be fair, Alabama did manage to win four of those games anyway, but they also lost two, so Hurts really has cost the Crimson Tide in big games. I’m not sure any of those defenses were playing as well as this Clemson one is. The Clemson defense I saw against Miami was airtight, particularly against the pass. I think Alabama has to run early and often. And Alabama does have a good running game, one that’s very similar to the one that gashed Clemson for 221 yards and three scores last year. If Alabama wins, it’ll be largely thanks to Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, each of whom can wear down the defense and break a big run. Hurts, by the way, is also a major threat on the ground. I’m sure Clemson will scheme to keep him in the pocket and force him to pass the ball, but he’s a very talented player who can capitalize on the smallest lapse in concentration.

Nobody was quite sure what Clemson’s offense would look like post-Deshaun Watson. The answer: definitely different, and definitely worse, but not as bad as I expected. Quarterback Kelly Bryant doesn’t have the same talent as a passer that Watson does. His numbers are fairly pedestrian: 2,678 yards, 13 TDs, six interceptions, 7.4 yards per attempt. But he’s enough of a threat to open up the running game for star freshman running back Travis Etienne, who’s turned 103 carries into 744 yards and 13 TDs (12.6% TD rate) and sophomore Tavien Feaster (103 carries, 659 yards, seven touchdowns). Unfortunately for Clemson, the Tigers don’t have as much talent as the Crimson Tide do in the run game. And Alabama is giving up just 2.8 yards per carry, best in the nation. Even in Alabama’s lone loss, they didn’t give up much on the ground — Auburn ran for just 3.4 yards per carry and had a long of 16 yards. This is a defense that didn’t give up big plays on the ground even with three starting linebackers out due to injury. Those three linebackers? They’re all healthy now. I’ve been impressed by Kelly Bryant this year, but I don’t think he’ll get much going against a healthy Alabama defense. Alabama rarely turns the ball over and usually wins the special teams battle, so I’m going to pick them to win 24-17.

Week 16 Picks

Posted: 12/24/2017 by levcohen in Football

I think Week 16 is often the time that weird stuff happens. You never quite know which bad teams have quit or which playoff teams will put up stinkers. Last season, the Browns notched their lone win in Week 16. The Cardinals went into Seattle and beat the playoff-bound Seahawks. The 2-12 Jaguars put up 38 points against the Titans. Two years ago, the 14-0 Panthers lost their only game of the year (bar the Super Bowl, obviously). The Jets beat the Patriots, the Rams won in Seattle, and the Ryan Mallet-led 4-10 Ravens knocked off the Steelers. Notice a trend: almost all of these surprises came in divisional matchups. A lot of weird stuff happens when the two teams involved know each other intimately and have played once before this season. That’s something to keep in mind heading into this week.

Cleveland Browns (0-14, 3-11 against the spread) at Chicago Bears (4-10, 6-6-2):*
Spread: Bears favored by 6
Over/under: 37
My prediction: I still remain convinced that the Browns will win a game this season. This is their best chance to do it. The Bears are 0-7 straight up as a favorite under John Fox. The Bears have nothing to play for, as Fox is on his way out. I expect the Browns to play aggressively in the snow. Bottom line: the Bears won’t want to be there, and I think the Browns might. Give me Cleveland. Browns win 18-14.
Browns over
Under

Detroit Lions (8-6, 7-6-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-9, 7-7):
Spread: Lions favored by 3
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: Generally, I don’t like to pick a mediocre team giving points on the road. But I think this is a good matchup for the Lions. The Bengals are one-dimensional offensively: they are explosive when throwing the ball to A.J. Green and that’s about it. The Lions have a great cover corner in Darius Slay, who’s tied for ninth in PFF rating at CB (88.3 rating). The Bengals have been playing terribly of late and can be exploited through the air. The Lions, meanwhile, need this game to keep their playoff hopes alive. Lions win 26-20.
Lions cover
Over

Los Angeles Rams (10-4, 9-5) at Tennessee Titans (8-6, 5-9):
Spread: Rams favored by 6
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: I’m out on the Titans. Have been for weeks. But this is a very dangerous game for the Rams. They’re coming off of a huge, season-defining (?) win in Seattle. They put up 42 points against the Seahawks and ended all discussions about who the best team in the NFC West is. But they’re a young team and could be susceptible to a dip in performance after a huge win like that. And the Titans, for as bad as they’ve been recently, are squarely in the playoff race and have been good at home this season. They’ve won five straight home games after falling to the Raiders in Week 1. In the end, I’m going to pick the Rams to win a close one, but this is a pick made without much confidence. Rams win 23-21.
Titans cover
Under

Miami Dolphins (6-8, 5-8-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-6, 8-6):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 10.5
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: The Chiefs made a statement last week in their win over the Chargers. Their offense looks much improve since Andy Reid relinquished play-calling abilities, and this is a nice spot against a Miami team that’s all-but out of the playoff race. With all that being said, I still don’t trust the Chiefs enough to lay more than 10 points. Chiefs win 27-17.
Dolphins cover
Over

Buffalo Bills (8-6, 9-5) at New England Patriots (11-3, 9-5):
Spread: Patriots favored by 11.5
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: This is the first of the divisional matchups, and, I think, the least likely to get weird. The Bills could keep it close, but I just don’t think they have enough offensive firepower to win the game. An added layer: it’s the rematch of the game which featured Rob Gronkowski’s dirty hit on Tre’Davious White. I think there may be some bad blood coming into this one. Again, I think this spread is probably too high. The Bills are a solid team with a chance to make the playoffs. Patriots win 24-17.
Bills cover
Under

Atlanta Falcons (9-5, 6-8) at New Orleans Saints (10-4, 7-7):
Spread: Saints favored by 5.5
Over/under: 52.5
My prediction: I’m somewhat unimpressed by the Saints’ performance against the Jets (they really let New York hang around) but am thoroughly unimpressed with Atlanta’s recent performances. I know they beat the Saints a few weeks ago, but that was at home, it was unconvincing, and it came in a game that Alvin Kamara left in the first quarter. Kamara’s healthy now, the Saints are home, and I expect them to show that they’re the better team. Saints win 30-20.
Saints cover
Under

Los Angeles Chargers (7-7, 7-6-1) at New York Jets (5-9, 8-5-1):
Spread: Chargers favored by 7
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: The Jets have remained frisky, as their 8-5-1 record against the spread indicates. They’re 4-3 straight up at home. But they now have Bryce Petty starting at quarterback, and I still don’t have much confidence in Bryce Petty. Plus, I’m not going to lose confidence in the Chargers based solely on their performance last week. I still think they’re a good team, and I expect them to win this game. Chargers win 27-13.
Chargers cover
Under

Denver Broncos (5-9, 4-9-1) at Washington Redskins (6-8, 6-8):*
Spread: Redskins favored by 3
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: Call me crazy, but give me some Brock Osweiler! Osweiler was really good last week against the Colts in relief of Trevor Siemian. Who knows what he’ll be able to do after a week and a half of preparation? I’m joking (sort of), but I do like the Broncos in this game. I like the way they’ve responded (finally) to their long losing streak, as they’ve rattled off consecutive wins against non playoff teams. The Redskins are another non playoff team, and I think the Broncos can keep the streak going. Broncos win 21-20.
Broncos cover
Over

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10, 4-10) at Carolina Panthers (10-4, 9-5):
Spread: Panthers favored by 10
Over/under: 47
My prediction: This is another divisional game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this one gets interesting. The Buccaneers are a bad team, but they’ve been playing relatively well recently and had a real chance to beat the Falcons last week. The Panthers, meanwhile, have been rolling offensively, but I still think they’re susceptible to an upset. I’m going to go the other way, though. I think the Bucs played their hearts out last week, and I’m not sure they’ll be up for a road game in Carolina six days later. Panthers win 30-13.
Panthers cover
Under

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4, 9-5) at San Francisco 49ers (4-10, 8-6):
Spread: Jags favored by 4
Over/under: 43
My prediction: How good is Jimmy Garoppolo? I think we might find that out this week. If he can take down Jacksonville, I’ll be fully convinced. The Jags are superb against the pass, with two of the best cornerbacks in the league and a matching top pass rush. For as good as Jimmy G has been, he’s had trouble getting the ball into the end zone, and he doesn’t have much of a supporting cast. Plus, it’s pretty hard to pick against Blake Bortles at this point. The man is on fire! Jaguars win 24-14.
Jaguars cover
Under

Seattle Seahawks (8-6, 5-8-1) at Dallas Cowboys (8-6, 7-6-1):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 4
Over/under: 47
My prediction: Are the Seahawks done? People seem to think so. The Cowboys are getting the lion share of the bets in a game that each team has to have to keep their season alive. Part of that, of course, is the fact that Zeke Elliott is back for the Cowboys, and most people think that Zeke will be a cure-all for the Cowboys’ problems. This is a team that’s won three straight games, but their last win came in Oakland by only three points. I’m torn here. I know the Seahawks have been griping at each other, but that’s happened before, and Seattle usually comes back with a big performance the next week. I’m going to hedge and pick the Cowboys to win but Seattle to cover. Cowboys win 27-24.
Seahawks cover
Over

New York Giants (2-12, 6-8) at Arizona Cardinals (6-8, 4-9-1):*
Spread: Cardinals favored by 3
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: The Cardinals are starting Drew Stanton at quarterback. I don’t know if he’s an upgrade over Blaine Gabbert or a downgrade, but I do know that the Giants will not be scared of Drew Stanton. Unfortunately, the Giants have been terrible defensively against pretty much every quarterback they’ve faced this season. On the other hand, their offense woke up last week against the Eagles, as Eli Manning unleashed his short passing game in a near-upset. I get the feeling that the Giants are going to win this game. I know the Cardinals are a tough home team, but Eli’s not going to be phased on the road. Giants win 24-17.
Giants cover
Over

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3, 6-8) at Houston Texans (4-10, 6-7-1):
Spread: Steelers favored by 9
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: Antonio Brown is out, but I don’t think it’ll matter in this game. The Texans are dead, and the Steelers have enough talent to win this game on the strength of their defense and running game. Steelers win 24-10.
Steelers cover
Under

Oakland Raiders (6-8, 5-8-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (12-2, 10-4):
Spread: Eagles favored by 9
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: The Eagles can clinch the #1 seed with a win tomorrow night. I think they’ll do just that. The Raiders are another team who could have a coach who’s about to get fired. They’ve played below their talent level all season long, and they still rank 32nd in defensive DVOA (granted, they’re not worst by much). I think the Eagles will win this big as they continue to adjust to life without Carson Wentz. Eagles win 31-17.
Eagles cover
Over

Upset picks:
Giants over Cardinals
Browns over Bears
Broncos over Redskins

Quick Saturday Game Picks

Posted: 12/23/2017 by levcohen in Football

Like last week, there are two Saturday games this week. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance that neither one will be competitive.

Indianapolis Colts (3-11, 6-8 against the spread) at Baltimore Ravens (8-6, 9-4-1):
Spread: Ravens favored by 13
Over/under: 41
My prediction: The Ravens have been playing very well recently. They’re 5-2 in their last seven games, with losses at Tennessee by three points and at Pittsburgh by one. They have a +107 point differential in that span. Their wins have almost all come by a good margin — their only victory this year by less than 13 came against Houston. According to Football Outsiders, they’re now the fourth best team in football. I’m not that bullish on them, but I do think they’re a good team that should beat Indy rather comfortably. I’ll give the Colts some credit for keeping a lot of games close, but they have a coach who’s likely to be fired after this season and a 1-6 road record (including blowout losses to the Rams, Seahawks, Titans, and Jaguars). They’ve yet to play well on the road against a potential playoff team, and I expect that trend to continue. Ravens win 27-10.
Ravens cover
Under

Minnesota Vikings (11-3, 10-3-1) at Green Bay Packers (7-7, 7-7):
Spread: Vikings favored by 8.5
Over/under: 41
My prediction: It’s back to being the Brett Hundley show in Green Bay, which tells me pretty much everything I need to know. The Vikings are just a really good all-around team, and I don’t think a slip-up is likely here. Vikings win 27-17.
Vikings cover
Over

Week 15 Review

Posted: 12/21/2017 by levcohen in Football

There’s no Thursday Night Football this week and next week, which is a window into what should be the future. TNF is stupid. Players are tired, games are wacky, and everything just gets messed up. Thursday is supposed to be the players’ second full day of practice of the week, not game day. I don’t think a single player like it, and it’s another example of the NFL unabashedly putting money over everything else. But I don’t see that changing anytime soon, because the players hold very little clout and get almost nothing from the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Here are some takeaways from Week 15:

  • Are people sleeping on the Jaguars? I know people have been talking about their defense all year, and I know there have been a ton of articles about Blake Bortles’s recent strong play. But people still seem to be penciling the Patriots and Steelers in to the AFC Championship Game. I agree that that’s the most likely matchup, but the Jags have a great chance. They have a +165 point differential — one point behind the Rams, who lead the league — which shows just how dominant they’ve been this season. They have five wins by at least three touchdowns and have allowed just single digit points seven times. Now, things obviously won’t be that easy in the playoffs, but they do have the type of team that causes New England problems. They have a dominant pass rush and two lockdown corners. Tom Brady’s been hit more in the last few weeks than in any similar stretch of time in years. He’s also 40-years-old. Plus, Jacksonville has a good enough offense to move the ball on this Pats defense. They’ve scored 105 points in the last three games. I don’t know if this Bortles stretch is for real, but the fact is that you don’t need a great offense to have success against the Patriots’ defense. Oh, and the Jags can definitely go into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers, because they already have: 30-9 in Week 5.
  • The Cowboys should be thanking their lucky star (get it?) that they squeaked out a win last week. Playing against a bad Oakland team that’s 32nd in defensive DVOA and clearly ready for the season to end, the Cowboys mustered just 20 points, with Dak Prescott throwing two picks and no touchdowns. The Raiders likely would have won the game had Derek Carr not stretched the ball out toward the goal line before losing it. It was another gift-wrapped win for Dallas, and the Cowboys now get Ezekiel Elliott back. The good news for Cowboys-haters: they’re still long shots to make the playoffs, because the other teams in the wild card hunt have kept pace. The Falcons are a game ahead and have a head-to-head win, so the Cowboys need one of the three NFC South teams currently in the playoffs to lose out. Even if that happens, the Lions can make the playoffs over the Cowboys if they win out. So Dallas’s odds are still very slim.
  • The Panthers are dangerous. After struggling offensively over the first half of the season, they have the second best offensive DVOA in football since Week 10. They’re 10-4 and will clinch a playoff spot with a win in either of their last two games. A few reasons the rest of the NFC should be worried about them: Cam Newton is back to running the ball a ton (65 yards per game in the last six); Luke Kuechly is healthy; key pass-rusher Charles Johnson will return from a PED suspension soon; somehow, Julius Peppers is still a stud; it’s a really well-rounded team that can win shootouts (33-30 over the Patriots) and tough, low-scoring games (9-3 over the Bills, 20-17 over the Falcons). Right now, it looks likely that the Panthers will play at New Orleans in the wild card round. I wouldn’t be too confident about that matchup if I were the Saints, even though New Orleans has already beaten Carolina twice.
  • The Niners are 3-0 with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and played spoiler last week against the Titans. Now it’s time to see how good Jimmy G really is. The Niners host the Jags this week before playing the Rams in Week 17. That’s two of the toughest games you could draw up. It’s worth remembering that San Francisco has very little skill position talent, so I won’t hold it against Garoppolo if he struggles. If he excels, though, and keeps the Niners in those two games, San Francisco will know they have something special.
  • Tennessee’s final two opponents are the same: LA and Jacksonville. This game against the Rams doesn’t matter as much for tie-breaker purposes because it’s a non-conference game, and the Titans will still almost certainly be in if they lose this week and beat Jacksonville. But they’re seven point underdogs this week and will likely again be underdogs next week as they play a Jags team that still has a shot at a BYE. It’s been a bad season for Marcus Mariota and the offense, but they still have time to salvage the season. By the way, there’s a decent chance that the Titans will make the playoffs even if they drop their last two and go to 8-8. All they would need is: the Chiefs, Patriots, and Jets to take care of business at home this week and the Dolphins to do the same against Buffalo next week. An 8-8 Titans team fresh off a four game losing streak in the playoffs… Who wouldn’t want to see that?

12-4 straight up… 143-81 on the season
11-4-1 against the spread… 120-96-8
6-10 on over/unders… 116-104-4

1-3 on upset picks… 23-32 on the season

When Rudy Gobert first got hurt, I basically wrote them off as playoff contenders. They were 5-7 and clearly struggling to replace the scoring void left by the departures of Gordon Hayward and, to a lesser extent, George Hill. In the stacked (or not so stacked, as we’ve found out) Western Conference, I didn’t think the Jazz would be able to stay close enough to the playoffs to get back into the race when Gobert returned. Well, he missed 11 games, and the Jazz went 7-4 in those games. You may be thinking: fine, that looks nice, but it’s a super small sample size. What if the Jazz just needed some time to figure things out and would have gone on this run even had Gobert been healthy? Well, in Gobert’s five games back on the court, the Jazz went 1-4. Then he got hurt again, playing just two minutes in Boston in a surprising 107-95 win. The Jazz are now 8-5 in games that Gobert’s missed (counting the Boston game as a miss) and 6-11 in the games he’s played. Do the advanced stats bear out that they’ve improved without him? If so, why? Can they keep it up? The last question is important because Gobert will likely miss at least another three weeks with a PCL sprain. We’ll learn a lot more about how real this is and about whether the Jazz are playoff contenders very soon.

First of all, it’s clear from Gobert’s counting numbers that he hasn’t been quite the same player this year. He’s averaging 11.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, down from 14 and 12.8 last season. His block numbers, by the way, have stayed almost identical on a per-minute basis. Given that he’s just 25-years-old, it seems far more likely that the injuries have hindered him than that he’s suddenly started declining. The more advanced individual numbers suggest that he may be just a shade worse this year, but certainly nowhere near bad enough to tank a lineup. His usage rate is almost exactly the same as it was last year. So is his assist rate. He’s been somewhat less efficient, but still rates in the 79th percentile among big men in terms of points per shot attempt (including free throws as attempts) per Cleaning the Glass. His rebounding rate is lower but still very good, and he’s still an elite shot blocker. He also continues to draw fouls at an elite rate. Last year, that portfolio was enough to make Gobert an unbelievably effective center. He had a +8.1 net rating last year. When he was on the court, the Jazz scored 108.7 points per 100 possessions and allowed 100.6. When he was off it, they scored 104.6 and allowed 107.5. In terms of team success when he was on the court versus when he was off it, Gobert was in the 98th percentile among big men. This year, it’s been a very different story. Gobert has a -4.6 net rating. When he’s been on the court, the Jazz have scored just 96.5 points per 100 possessions and allowed 101.1. When he’s been off it, they’ve scored 110.9 and allowed 103.1. In other words, the Jazz have been a top-five offense and a top-five defense when he’s been off the court. They’re still a top-10 defense when he’s on the court but are by far the worst offense in the league (as things stand, the Kings rank 30th in points per 100 possessions at 100.5).

A lot of this is probably down to bad luck. I think the fact that the Jazz have actually been better defensively without Gobert is a total fluke. Not only is his block rate the same but he’s also been just as menacing as ever (hence the nickname “Stifle Tower”). He’s always been elite at keeping teams from finishing at the rim and especially at keeping teams from attempting shots at the rim. That hasn’t changed. Opponents shoot at the rim just 30.4% of the time when he’s on the court against 35.5% when he’s off. That differential puts Gobert in the 96th percentile (all of this is courtesy of Cleaning the Glass). But teams are shooting 39.2% from three against the Jazz when Gobert’s been on the floor. Excluding end-of-quarter heaves and garbage time, that mark would rank fifth in the league. But the real reason Gobert’s defensive numbers don’t look great is that the Jazz have been caught in transition way more than usual with him on the floor. His numbers in the halfcourt are great — the Jazz give up just 86.9 points per 100 halfcourt possessions when he’s been on the court, 94.5 when he’s been off. Gobert has clearly continued to make an impact there. But a full 17.9% of Gobert’s defensive possessions have come in transition. That puts him in the fifth percentile in the NBA. The difference between his number and the team’s when he’s been off the court (13.2%) is huge. Opposing teams have also been surprisingly effective in transition with Gobert on the court, but I’m more willing to attribute that to random variance connected to a guy who’s played just 17 games.

You know what leads to a lot of fastbreaks? Bad offense, be it bad shots or turnovers. And Rudy Gobert has turned the ball over A LOT this year. He’s averaging 1.9 turnovers per game, which is a lot for a center and particularly a center who doesn’t handle the ball all that much. The Jazz have turned the ball over 18.2% of the time with him in the game and just 14.3% without him. That’s bad offense. Also bad offense: the fact that the team has shot just 33.2% from three with Gobert on the floor. Utah’s eFG% (accounting for the difference between twos and threes) is 48.7% when he’s on the floor and 55.4% when he’s off. To put that in perspective, the Bulls are last in the NBA with a 48.7% eFG. That is, er, not good.

A lot of it has to be luck. There’s no way the Jazz can be a top-three team with Gobert off the court and a bottom-five team with him on it. Period. But I do think the Jazz should be concerned. Most of Gobert’s success last year came with Hayward beside him. The duo played 2,165 minutes together (easily the most that any Jazz duo played together) and fit beautifully. Gobert also fit well on both ends with point guard George Hill, whose departure was quieter than Hayward’s but who was a very valuable piece of the offensive puzzle. This year’s Jazz are less able to play around Gobert. It’s not unworkable by any stretch. But put Gobert and Ricky Rubio on the court together and you’re going to need three shooters around them. If you throw Derrick Favors in too, you’re going to have real problems. That’s been born out. The Jazz have averaged just 89.3 points per 100 possessions when the trio of Favors-Rubio-Gobert has been on the floor. That’s beyond atrocious. The question about whether Gobert and Favors can play effectively together has been a longstanding one. I’ve generally thought that the answer is no, but last season especially the numbers didn’t bear that out, although Favors missed a lot of time due to injury. I’m positive that you can’t play Gobert, Favors, and a non-shooting guard together. And while Rubio’s shooting more this year, he’s not shooting better (29% from three).

Gobert is definitely still a cornerstone for this team. The point of this post is not to say otherwise. But I do think it’s fair to start thinking about what time of team the Jazz are building around him. Rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell is a great fit. He’s a high usage guard who can create off the dribble, stretch the floor, and feed Gobert lobs. It’s also nice to have a sweet-shooting 25-year-old guard like Rodney Hood, although the Jazz would probably feel more comfortable if he weren’t option #1 or #2 every night. A lineup with Mitchell, Hood, Rubio, Joe Ingles (who is very good, by the way. He’s a 46% three point shooter who also averages 4.2 assists and plays solid defense), and Gobert is intriguing offensively. That lineup has played a grand total of nine minutes together this season, but it has a +11.4 net rating in those nine minutes! I do think that the Jazz can make the playoffs this year. It helps that the West is weaker than I expected (thanks largely to OKC’s failings and injuries to Memphis and the Clippers), but I also just like the talent on this team. In the long-term, though, the Jazz need to do some shuffling, and I’m sure they know that. Mitchell was a great get for them and is a potential star player. You can build a team around Mitchell and Gobert, with Hood, Ingles, and maybe even a few other players on this team as good role players. It remains to be seen where — if, even — Dante Exum fits into this. There were whispers about Exum being set for a breakout season before he hurt his shoulder. His career has been marred by injuries, but he’s a 22-year-old ex-#5 overall pick, so he will get his chances. I know the Jazz just signed Rubio, but I would be looking to trade him if I were them. I just don’t think he adds enough to make that shooting playable with Gobert. And Favors would be a great trade chip if that type of player still had much value in the NBA. In the end, the Jazz want what a lot of teams want: a stretch four who can guard multiple positions and knock down threes. There’s a reason the new-age power forward has become such an important position.

The bottom line is that the Jazz have been much better without Gobert on the floor this year. A lot of that is luck, some of it is slightly worse play from Gobert, and some of it is fit issues with Favors and Rubio in particular. I hope the Jazz can continue to play well without their big man before finding a way to make all the pieces fit when he returns. I want this team to make the playoffs.

Week 15 Picks

Posted: 12/17/2017 by levcohen in Football

The bad news: last night’s game between the Chiefs and Chargers sorely disappointed. The Chargers looked like the old Chargers, and the game was all-but over early in the fourth quarter. The good news: there are some games coming today that should help make up for that. I love nothing more than to be able to toggle between two excellent games in the 4:00 time slot. I don’t mind there being some bad games early on because the quantity of 1:00 games makes up for that, but the late afternoon games can be a slog when they aren’t good matchups. This week, we get Patriots-Steelers and Rams-Seahawks, two premier matchups. Plus, we get a nice little sprinkle of Jimmy G at home against the Titans. Can Jimmy and the Niners win their third straight game and play spoiler against the Titans? Delightful. The earlier games are not as exciting, with one notable exception: Aaron Rodgers returns for Green Bay as the Packers play in Carolina. The latest report today was that Rodgers’ broken collarbone is not yet 100% but that the Packers decided he was ready to play anyway. Nothing can go wrong here, right? The games tonight and tomorrow night aren’t great, but they do both include NFC wild card hopefuls.

Miami Dolphins (6-7, 5-7-1 against the spread) at Buffalo Bills (7-6, 8-5):
Spread: Bills favored by 3.5
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: I was shocked by Miami’s performance against the Patriots last week. Sure, the Pats have a stinker or two every season, and this certainly qualified as a stinker, but the Dolphins capitalized and played a really good football game. I don’t think they’re going to have a repeat in Buffalo. It’s hard for me to believe that they — and I’m talking mainly about Jay Cutler — will seamlessly transition from playing the Patriots in Miami on Monday Night Football to playing in 25-degree weather in Buffalo. The Bills are a really tough home team, and they get Tyrod Taylor back for this game. The key for the Bills will be to slow down Kenyan Drake, who’s been running extremely well. The Bills haven’t been great against the run this year, but I’m not yet confident enough in Drake to predict that he’ll carry his team to a victory in Buffalo against a team that still has a great chance to make the playoffs. Bills win 27-13.
Bills cover
Over

Baltimore Ravens (7-6, 8-4-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-13, 3-10):
Spread: Ravens favored by 7
Over/under: 42
My prediction: The Browns have been competitive recently while also managing to not only lose but also fail to cover spread after spread. That takes some skill to do. I’m sick of picking the Browns to cover only to see them give up a late touchdown and lose by two scores. I don’t think this will be a particularly well played game, but the Ravens have improved and should handle business, even on the road (where they’re 3-4). One thing to watch: the Ravens have relied heavily upon their run game recently, but the Browns are actually first in DVOA against the run. Is that a mirage, or will Joe Flacco have to take matters into his own hands today? If it’s the latter, I think the Browns have a chance to make this game interesting. Ravens win 23-10.
Ravens cover
Under

Philadelphia Eagles (11-2, 10-3) at New York Giants (2-11, 5-8):
Spread: Eagles favored by 7.5
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: The Nick Foles era begins (er, continues after a long layoff) in New York against a coach-less team with nothing to play for. The Eagles can clinch the #1 seed in the NFC with two wins in their final three games, and have everything to play for. Nothing can go wrong, right? I’d be very careful about penciling in a win for the Eagles. Divisional games in December are always tough (unless you’re playing the Browns), especially for the road team. I think Foles is decent, and the Eagles have a solid team around him, but I think the spread is a few points too high. The Eagles will lean on their running game and win the game, but it won’t be pretty. Eagles win 20-16.
Giants cover
Under

Cincinnati Bengals (5-8, 7-6) at Minnesota Vikings (10-3, 9-3-1):
Spread: Vikings favored by 12
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: It’s never a good sign when, right before your team is set to play a really tough road game, news leaks that your coach is going to leave after the season. That’s the situation the Bengals currently find themselves in. This is a good matchup for Minnesota’s defense. They can unleash their pass rush against an offensive line that gives up a lot of pressure. They can plug Xavier Rhodes on A.J. Green, stack the box against Joe Mixon, and dare Andy Dalton to beat them. I don’t think he will. Vikings win 31-13.
Vikings cover
Over

New York Jets (5-8, 7-5-1) at New Orleans Saints (9-4, 7-6):
Spread: Saints favored by 16
Over/under: 47
My prediction: Vegas is not too excited about Bryce Petty. That might have something to do with the fact that Bryce Petty is horrible. Last year, he averaged 6.1 yards per attempt and threw three touchdowns and seven interceptions. There’s a reason the Jets thought 38-year-old Josh McCown was a far superior option to Petty. The Saints have stumbled recently, but I’ve still been very impressed by their secondary. Marshon Lattimore has been elite as a rookie, and Ken Crawley has developed into a very good corner in his own right. The Saints picked Matt Ryan off three times last week and were unlucky to lose in Atlanta. On the other side of the ball, the Jets just got handled by Denver’s offense, and they’re giving up 25 points per game on the road. The spread is high enough that it’d be dangerous to bet on it, but I’m going to pick the Saints to win and cover. Saints win 31-13.
Saints cover
Under

Arizona Cardinals (6-7, 4-8-1) at Washington Redskins (5-8, 5-8):
Spread: Redskins favored by 4
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: The Redskins have been sneaky bad. I’ve said consistently that they’re pretty decent, and yet here they are at 5-8, losers of six of their last eight games. The weird thing is that I still think that Kirk Cousins has played pretty well. The Redskins have suffered a lot of injuries this year, and they’ve lost their last two games by 41 combined points, but those games were both on the road. I think they’re a resilient bunch, and they should win this game against a terrible Arizona offense. Redskins win 26-16.
Redskins cover
Over

Green Bay Packers (7-6, 7-6) at Carolina Panthers (9-4, 8-5):*
Spread: Panthers favored by 3
Over/under: 47
My prediction: I think it’s basically impossible to pick this game. I have no idea how Rodgers will look. I have no idea whether he’ll be able to last the whole game. I have no idea how the Panthers will play, because it’s impossible to ever know how the Panthers will play. But I feel pretty strongly that the Panthers are overrated. They’re a below average offensive team and have given up 27 points per game in the last three weeks. They’re coming off a huge win against the Vikings and have won five of six games, but for some reason I still don’t really trust them. Also, I’d rather be rooting for Rodgers than against him. Something tells me he’s going to be a pretty big upgrade over Brett Hundley. Packers win 27-24.
Packers cover
Over

Houston Texans (4-9, 6-6-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4, 8-5):
Spread: Jaguars favored by 10.5
Over/under: 39
My prediction: This is a horrible game. The Texans are starting T.J. Yates at quarterback after the fiasco that was the handling of Tom Savage’s concussion. Yates looked decent last week, but it’s difficult to imagine him performing too well against Jacksonville’s #1 defense against the pass. In Jalen Ramsey (PFF grade of 94.1) and A.J. Bouye (90.9), the Jaguars have two of the top four cornerbacks in football this year per PFF. It’ll be interesting to see if they can handle DeAndre Hopkins, the third rated wide receiver (behind just Antonio Brown and Julio Jones). These teams played way back in Week 1, which was before Deshaun Watson was inserted into the lineup. In that game, Hopkins made some noise, but it was all for naught; the Jags won 29-7, forcing four turnovers and racking up 10 sacks. That was the start of #Sacksonville. There could be more sacks coming, as the Texans have remained incapable of protecting their quarterbacks. But with Leonard Fournette out, I don’t know if the Jags will produce enough offense to cover this spread. If Yates starts throwing picks, all bets are off. But I expect the Texans to have a relatively conservative gameplan and to keep this game close. Jaguars win 20-13.
Texans cover
Under

Los Angeles Rams (9-4, 8-5) at Seattle Seahawks (8-5, 5-7-1):*
Spread: Seahawks favored by 1
Over/under: 47
My prediction: I know the Rams blew a lead last week against a backup quarterback, but I was actually pretty impressed with their offense. I expected them to struggle against a strong front seven as they’d done earlier in the year, but they ran the ball effectively and had no trouble moving the ball for most of the game. That’s relevant, of course, because they’re facing another solid front seven today, this time on the road. There’s one problem: K.J. Wright is missing the game for Seattle while Bobby Wagner is a game time decision. That’s really bad news for the Seahawks, because this LA offense is a handful. Seattle’s ninth in defensive DVOA against the run and I think they’d have a good chance to slow down Todd Gurley and LA at home at full strength, but I don’t know if they can do it without Wright and I’m positive they can’t do it without Wagner. Russell Wilson will put up points and it’ll be a good game, but when push comes to shove I don’t think the Seahawks will be able to stop the Rams down the stretch. That, by the way, is not a sentence I imagined I’d be writing before the season. Rams win 24-21.
Rams cover
Under

New England Patriots (10-3, 8-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2, 6-7):
Spread: Patriots favored by 2.5
Over/under: 53.5
My prediction: You might be wondering why the Patriots are favored against the Steelers. Here are two reasons: the Patriots are always good, but they’re especially dangerous after a loss. They’re 6-0 straight up and against the spread in their last six games following a loss. They also have had Pittsburgh’s number during the Brady/Belichick era (10-3 straight up, 9-3-1 against the spread), even though the Steelers have generally been very good. As the over/under would indicate, all signs point to this being a high scoring game. The Steelers have slumped defensively and looked to take a huge step back without Ryan Shazier. Meanwhile, the Patriots have been bad defensively all year, allowing teams to rack up yards and getting bailed out by redzone turnovers. And these teams are first (NE) and third (PIT) in offensive DVOA. The Steelers are obviously a very talented team, and they’ve played very well offensively of late. It’s going to be hard for the Patriots to slow down Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. But I can’t pick against Brady and Belichick here. I expect the Patriots to slow down this game and to make every possession count. In that type of game (heck, in any type of game) I trust Brady more than Ben Roethlisberger. Patriots win 28-23.
Patriots cover
Under

Tennessee Titans (8-5, 5-8) at San Francisco 49ers (3-10, 7-6):*
Spread: Niners favored by 2.5
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: Through two starts, Jimmy Garoppolo has exceeded my expectations. Despite consistently facing pressure and having very little skill position talent to throw to, he’s averaging nine yards per attempt and has racked up 645 yards. More importantly, San Francisco is 2-0 in his starts. I’m not going to say I trust this 3-10 San Francisco team, because I don’t, but I do know that I want to keep picking against Tennessee. I just don’t think Tennessee is very good, especially on the road. Here are there performances in their last six road games: 57-14 loss to the Texans, 16-10 loss to the Dolphins, 12-9 win over the Browns, 40-17 loss to the Steelers, 20-16 win over the Colts, 12-7 loss to the Cardinals. That’s not good! With all that being said, I just have a gut feeling that the Titans are going to pull this one out. They’ve been playing better defense, and San Francisco isn’t very good. I’m going to swallow hard and trust my gut. Titans win 21-17.
Titans cover
Under

Dallas Cowboys (7-6, 7-6) at Oakland Raiders (6-7, 5-8):*
Spread: Cowboys favored by 3
Over/under: 46
My prediction: This is a game I very much want to avoid. These are two really poorly coached teams, squads that need nearly everything to go right to have a real chance to win. The spread feels a bit off. I think everyone agrees now that the Raiders aren’t very good, but people are forgetting that the Cowboys aren’t that great, either. Raiders win 27-20.
Raiders cover
Over

Atlanta Falcons (8-5, 6-7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9, 3-10):
Spread: Falcons favored by 6.5
Over/under: 48.5
My prediction: The Falcons are a very popular public team this week. In fact, they’re the most popular public team. It makes sense. They’re giving less than a touchdown against a Tampa Bay team that has all-but quit on their season. But I actually think people are sleeping a little bit on Tampa’s spoiler potential. Five of their nine losses have come by five points or fewer, and this is a good spot for them. They’re home, it’s a Monday Night Football game, and it’s against a divisional opponent that roasted them a few weeks ago. Plus, the Falcons haven’t exactly been clicking on all cylinders. Since Julio Jones put up 253 yards and two scores against the Buccaneers, the Falcons have scored 29 combined points against the Vikings and Saints. This is an easier matchup and should be a higher scoring game, but I don’t think Jones and the Falcons will run away with this one. Falcons win 28-25.
Buccaneers cover
Over

Upset picks:
Raiders over Cowboys
Rams over Seahawks
Packers over Panthers
Titans over Niners