Well, it’s official. I stink. I was 4-12 against the spread last week as I frantically mixed bad decisions and bad luck like a Benihana chef. The Bears and Patriots came up just short, Lovie Smith owns me and the Vikings did it to me again, winning but not covering by a point for the second straight week.
At least Chargers coach Brandon Staley was trying to get the Colts cover for me on Monday night. He is the best, going for it on fourth down up 10-3 in the third quarter against a team that can’t score. The Chargers converted and got the win and cover, but’s hard to have much faith in Staley and the Chargers come playoff time — even with the return of Mike Williams and the boost that it gave Justin Herbert.
We’re rolling with the Dolphins over the Patriots, Eagles over the Saints, Giants over the Colts and (double-take) the Cardinals over the Falcons as our best bets this week. What do we have to lose besides more of our pride?
Last week: 4-12 against the spread. There will be no miracle finish to .500. Just a lot of tough losses, much like the Raiders team I follow around. Maybe it’s contagious.
Season record: 109-126-5 ATS (Plays of the week were 1-3 last week and 20-25-3 overall)
All odds are from BetMGM and are locked when the pick was made. Click here for live odds.
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The Titans couldn’t protect Malik Willis against the Texans last week, and now they get the Cowboys. Plus, the game doesn’t mean anything to Tennessee, as they will be playing the Jaguars for the AFC South title next week and will likely be resting Derrick Henry, who is doubtful with a hip injury.
Among QBs who have started three or more games in a season since 2000, Willis has averaged the fewest pass attempts per start (16.33) and passing yards per start (78). He also has the third-worst EPA per dropback out of those 500 QB seasons featuring three-plus starts.
While the Cowboys’ pass rush has actually hit a snag of late, their offense has hit its stride. They rank first in points per drive (3.02) since their bye week, after ranking 17th (1.93) before the bye.
The pick: Cowboys -11
Tip of the cap to J.J. Watt, who is going out while still playing well. His 9 1/2 sacks are his most since 2018, and he’s tied for 11th among defensive linemen in tackles for losses that aren’t sacks (6) and sixth in passes defensed.
He will be chasing down Falcons rookie QB Desmond Ridder, who is very raw but at least knows who his go-to guy is. Rookie receiver Drake London has accounted for 35.1 percent of the Falcons’ targets in Ridder’s two starts. The next closest Falcon is Olamide Zaccheaus at 17.5 percent. The Falcons are still trying, by the way.
Quarterback Colt McCoy cleared the concussion protocol and is back for the Cardinals. That and a decent defense should be enough to give Watt one last win.
The pick: Cardinals +3.5
The Lions came crashing back down to earth last week, as they were steamrolled by the Panthers. The Bears should also be able to run all day on the Lions just like the Panthers did.
And the Lions’ running game, meanwhile, has gotten bad. Since Week 9, they rank 25th in EPA/rush, 21st in rushing success rate (36.4 percent) and 27th in yards before contact/rush (1.27). Compare that to ninth in EPA/rush, 12th in rushing success rate (41.7 percent) and third in yards before contact/rush (2.14) from Weeks 1 through 8.
Amon-Ra St. Brown will likely shred the Bears secondary, but we’re still taking the points. The Bears — who have made some big moves this season under new GM Ryan Poles — owe us for last week, staying close against the Bills until the very end.
The pick: Bears +6
Are we sure Russell Wilson was healthy when he came back to play the Rams on Christmas? He looked terrible after having made some strides against the Chiefs three weeks ago. The embarrassing loss to the Rams was the feather that broke Nathanial Hackett’s back and the over-his-head coach was finally fired. Wilson was sorry he didn’t play better for him.
The Chiefs finally covered a big point spread last week (they were 0-3 as double-digit favorites). Since their Week 8 bye, the Chiefs rank 17th in defensive DVOA. Before that, they ranked 26th. During the Patrick Mahomes era, the best a Kansas City defense has ever finished in defensive DVOA is 14th in 2019.
Make it two big covers in a row for great pass blocker Orlando Brown Jr. and the Chiefs.
The pick: Chiefs -12.5
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Tua Tagovailoa is out with another concussion, and that’s pretty scary stuff. Teddy Bridgewater has been OK when he has played and he has some nice weapons to work with. The Dolphins are the 20th team ever to have two receivers gain 1,260 yards and Tyreek Hill has been part of three of those duos, per Football Perspective. (The 2018 Chiefs and 2020 Chiefs are the other two.)
Mac Jones, meanwhile, will be screaming at his coaches and teammates despite being mediocre himself. He ranks ninth in pass attempts on plays featuring a WR/TE screen (63), but he’s 19th in yards/attempt (5.41) and EPA/dropback on these plays. Maybe Bill O’Brien can save the day. Yeah, I typed that sentence.
The pick: Dolphins +3
Colts fans thought it couldn’t get worse than hiring a guy as coach off his couch with only high school experience. Well, that guy, Jeff Saturday, played a mummified guy at quarterback last week who either got sacked or threw interceptions. Man, Nick Foles was awful. (Then again, he never expected to play.)
The Colts now rank last in the NFL in point differential (-109; -7.27 per game). Since 2000, only two Colts teams have had a worse point differential on a per-game basis: 2017 (-8.81) and 2011 (-11.69).
Only Josh McDaniels has lost to Saturday and the Colts, and Brian Daboll is no McDaniels. And Derek Carr is no Danny Dimes.
The pick: Giants -6
It doesn’t look like Jalen Hurts will be back and it doesn’t matter. Gardner Minshew was fine last week in a close loss to the Cowboys, and the Saints are worse and have a banged-up secondary.
Minshew might get pressured more than you think because of the absence of Lane Johnson (who will be back for the playoffs). The Eagles’ splits with and without Johnson last season (where it would have ranked across the entire 2021 season in parentheses):
• With: 34 percent pressure rate allowed (16), 2.43 yards before contact per carry (1)
• Without: 46.7 percent pressure rate allowed (32), 1.6 yards before contact per carry (10)
The Eagles — the rare Super Bowl contender in the mix for a top-10 draft pick — need to win to rest some starters next week, and stacking the box and forcing Andy Dalton to beat you is always fun.
The pick: Eagles -6.5
The Bucs held on to beat the Cardinals last week, and they wouldn’t have beat anybody else except a team quarterbacked by Trace McSorley. The Bucs can’t score and have hit the under 11 times, tying for a league high and the most instances in Tom Brady’s career. His only other time hitting the under 11 times was with the 2018 Patriots.
But the old man can still sling it with the game on the line. The Buccaneers rank ninth in EPA per play when in no-huddle situations and 29th when they’re not.
The Panthers still have playoff dreams because they’re playing small ball with Sam Darnold: 34.1 percent of his throws have not traveled past the line of scrimmage. That’s up from 20.9 percent during the previous four years of his career.
The betting line has been bet down by four points, and I don’t trust Darnold. Plus, the Bucs should be able to run the ball and if it’s close, the old man will pull it out.
The pick: Buccaneers -3
This one appears too easy, as the Commanders have a much better defense and will be able to run the ball against the Browns. Carson Wentz is starting again for the Commanders and that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, especially if he learns the obvious lesson to throw more to Terry McLaurin. McLaurin was targeted on 27.6 percent of his routes with Taylor Heinicke, compared to just 15.2 percent with Wentz before that.
As for the Browns, they are a mess and it’s hard to have much hope for the future, let alone Sunday. Deshaun Watson ranks 41st out of 42 qualified QBs in EPA per dropback since coming back from his suspension. That’s ahead of only Colt McCoy. Previous Browns starter Jacoby Brissett ranks 12th.
The pick: Commanders -2
I need to stop messing with Lovie Smith. The Texans have covered three in a row and are 3-0 against the boy wonder, Trevor Lawrence. In fact, since 2020, the Texans are 5-0 versus the Jags (4-1 ATS) and 5-37-1 against the rest of the league.
The game also doesn’t mean much to the hot Jaguars, who need to beat the Titans next week to win the division.
The pick: Texans +4.5
The Derek Carr era is over after nine years and the Jarrett Stidham era is here for the Raiders for two weeks. He will have a painful day behind an overmatched offensive line against tackle monster Nick Bosa and this tough 49ers defense.
The Raiders defense will be without injured Chandler Jones and Denzel Perryman and it wasn’t good with them. The 49ers will have plenty of explosive plays running and throwing the ball (their explosive pass rate with Brock Purdy is 15.7 percent and actually up from when they had Jimmy Garoppolo — 15.6 percent). Since Week 13, Purdy is tied for 10th in completions of 20 or more yards with 10, putting him ahead of Brady (9), Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Aaron Rodgers (all 8), among others.
Did we mention that most of the fans in Las Vegas will be wearing red?
The pick: 49ers -10
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The Zach Wilson era is also over, and everybody is really excited about Mike White. And part of that is how bad Wilson was. There were 56 QBs drafted in the first round during this century that have started at least 20 games. Among that group, Wilson ranks 53rd in EPA per dropback, ahead of only Blaine Gabbert, Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell.
Now, while the Jets still have a path to the playoffs, I am not sure about White as a road favorite in Seattle The Seahawks have been on a steep downward trajectory but I still have faith in Geno Smith — who is not regressing. While his completion percentage has dropped from 73.1 percent (Weeks 1-9) to 67.7 percent (since Weeks 10), his off-target rate has actually dropped — from 6.7 percent (tied for best in league from Weeks 1-9) to 5.2 percent (best in the league since Week 10). Part of that is Seahawks receivers have dropped eight passes since Week 10.
The pick: Seahawks +1.5
The Packers’ unconvincing resurgence continues, and even though I am not sure how they stop Dalvin Cook and Danielle Hunter is finally emerging, I can’t possibly pick the Vikings again.
Green Bay ranks eighth in pressuring the quarterback, and Kirk Cousins is actually better at holding up this season than he has ever been.
Cousins has been hit more than any QB in the NFL this season, and has a 51.3 percent completion rate under pressure with 7.46 YPA, 14.53 yards per completion and is throwing at or past the sticks 54.5 percent of the time. Compare that to a 49.8 percent completion rate from 2018 to 2021, with a 5.96 YPA, 11.97 yards per completion, and he threw at or past the sticks 44.7 percent of the time.
Still, if the Vikings are 3.5-point underdogs, they will lose by 4. Rodgers only needs one good knee to get the win.
The pick: Packers -3.5
We mentioned earlier how much better the Chargers are with Williams. Here are Herbert’s stats when he has both Williams and Keenan Allen: 77.8 percent completion rate, 7.94 YPA, 35.3 percent first down rate (would rank ninth), 49.6 percent success rate (would rank fifth).
When he doesn’t have one or both of those guys, the numbers drop to a 65.6 percent completion rate, 6.41 YPA, 29.2 percent first-down rate (would rank 28th), 43.3 percent success rate (would rank 23rd).
Baker Mayfield, meanwhile, doesn’t have those kinds of weapons and will be facing a team that cares this week, unlike last week’s rout of the Broncos. Since their Week 8 bye, the suddenly well-rounded Chargers defense ranks 12th in EPA per drive. Since Week 14, the start of their current three-game winning streak, they rank second. The Rams should be looking ahead to a crazy offseason anyway.
The pick: Chargers -6.5
It was a nice moment for the Steelers, getting the last-minute win over the Raiders to honor the late Franco Harris at home on a blustery Christmas Eve. But it probably doesn’t happen if the Raiders’ Jones and Perryman don’t get hurt, as their defense had Kenny Pickett and Najee Harris under wraps — I don’t care what Mike Tomlin says.
The Ravens are a much different animal than the Raiders and their defense is peaking. Since joining the Ravens in Week 9, Roquan Smith ranks second among linebackers in splash plays (29). (Splash plays are defined as sacks, TFLs, pressures leading to throwaways, stuffs for no gain, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, pass breakups, stops on third and fourth downs.) Smith ranks first in snaps per splash play (13.2) among 51 qualified linebackers who have played 350 or more defensive snaps since Week 9.
The Ravens won’t need Lamar Jackson back to beat the Steelers.
The pick: Ravens -2.5
The Bills finally pulled away in a game late and covered a big spread last week, while the Bengals let the Patriots back into a game that was a blowout at one point.
The Bills are moving the ball around more, which is good if you are big fans of Isaiah McKenzie and Dawson Knox, but not great if you’re a fantasy owner of Stefon Diggs. He accounted for 29.6 percent of Buffalo’s targets from Weeks 1 to 10, which ranked sixth. Since then, his target share has dropped to 24.2 percent, which ranks 20th. Psst, Bills, throw the ball more to Diggs.
The Bills have never really recovered from the loss of Von Miller, though, and Burrow should have enough time — even with the loss of La’el Collins — to match Allen’s production and then some.
The pick: Bengals +1.5
— TruMedia research courtesy of NFL editor Aaron Reiss.
(Graphic: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo of Mike Williams: Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images)