Upset Watch 2019 Week 15
Lamar Jackson runs into town to face a big spread... oh and the New York Jets. Can he overcome the big spread... sorry the New York Jets defense, on his way to a victory? Sorry, let me rephrase that: 'WHO WILL WIN TONIGHT'S CLOSE MATCHUP?'
12 Dec, 2019
Upset Watch is back for week 15, and guess what is here: GAME HUBS!
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You won’t see a bigger mismatch this week. Oh wait, yes, you absolutely will, but we’ll come to that tomorrow.
Something to bear in mind, only one team this season has covered by this amount of points on a Thursday night game, the Patriots back in October who thumped the Giants by 21, but the slightly more balanced nature of TNF games does make it less susceptible to the blowout.
I don’t think we treat this one differently to a Sunday game, and if that were the case, I’d be all in favor of the Ravens. They would have covered this spread an incredible five times in 2019 alone, and it’s abundantly clear now that this is the team that someone must beat in order to win the Super Bowl.
But what are the two teams’ strengths and weaknesses? Well, the Jets have one very clear advantage over most teams, their run defense, and you likely didn’t need me to tell you that the Ravens have a great running attack featuring Mark Ingram and Lamar Jackson, so who wins? Well let’s see the Ravens against strong run defense, and the Jets against running QBs…
Well, worryingly, in an age where Ryan FItzpatrick can legally be called a ‘running QB’, the Jets have been actually… pretty good. They lost by 1 to the Bills on opening weekend, before beating Dak Prescott and the Cowboys in a big upset at Metlife. Daniel Jones was shut down in the game against the Giants too. There’s a chance the Jets are actually really good at stopping rushing QBs… \
But the Ravens have ran the ball effectively against the Patriots (4th) and the Texans (3rd) on the way to huge wins. Against the Texans they put up 256 rushing yards and against the Pats 210, with Jackson scoring 2 rushing TDs. What swings it for me is that they have also had success through the air whenever the rush has been taken away.
On a short week, try to imagine what your worst nightmare is as a defensive coach. The Jets are about to find out.
The Lions eh? Here is one of the key stats that you need to know about them: They’ve failed to cover an incredible 8 straight games, as favorites, as underdogs, at home, on the road… they’re a disaster
The crazy thing is, the Bucs, well they give people a chance. Last week we took the Colts in what ended up being a topsy-turvy back and forth game that the Bucs won, but the Bucs have a -10 turnover differential and a league worst 23 interceptions from Jameis Winston is primarily responsible. This week? The Lions rank 31st in INT’s, taking away the one crumb of comfort for a Lions team bereft of much hope.
The Packers are super unreliable. They’ve alternated wins and losses vs the spread for the last 6 weeks, and that theroetically makes this one a cover, but there are bigger factors at play. The weather in Green Bay? It’ll get as low as 15F during the game on Sunday, does that favor the Packers?
Well, with Aaron Rodgers, yes. They’ve played 5 seriously cold weather games in the last three seasons, and they’ve lost all of the ones started by DeShone Kizer and Brett Hundley, and won the two started by Rodgers. This season he’s played in cold weather more than most, and is currently on a 5:0 TD:INT run, with a 103.5 passer rating.
The Bears aren’t slouches, they’ve won even with Mitch Trubisky in the cold weather, but not in the same way. They’re heavily, heavily reliant on their defense, Trubisky playing just two extremely cold weather games in his career and throwing a single TD pass while being sacked 6 times. He does tend to check it down and run in these games.
This one could be tight, but the Packers will likely win and cover in my view.
A road dog with a big spread is something we take out of principle, but in this case, the Broncos have earned it. They’re playing well, covering 5 of their last 6 as underdogs, and this is one of the biggest spreads they’ve faced all year.
The Chiefs certainly aren’t shy of covering either, with 4/6 in their last 6, but they’ve slowed down on the points in the latter part of the season, and that gives Denver a half chance here, as the Kansas City cold may again help slow down the passing game.
It’s unusual, but the Chiefs really aren’t hugely better than the Broncos in reality. The spiderweb tells it’s tale, that the Broncos actually outperform the Chiefs in every area except passing yards, but on that note, the Broncos have an excellent passing defense, ranking 6th in yards allowed and 5th in TD’s allowed. Can they slow down Mahomes? I believe so
KC win, Denver cover
One of the best games of the week is a low key affair. The AFC South is up for grabs and both of these teams will know that a win likely sees them in the AFC playoff picture and could be the difference between survival and not.
I mean, not literally. That’s not what is at stake here. It's not a wildlife documentary.
But it’s still incredibly tense for both teams. It may feel unusual for the Texans to be underdogs here, but the Titans have very much earned their favorite status. They outpace the Texans in every statistical category except passing yards and rushing yards, but they’re pretty much equal in the latter, and the Titans have a very different passing attack under Ryan Tannehill, who averages around 250yds over his games this season.
One interesting caveat - Tannehill is yet to put up back-to-back big passing games, but he is playing well even in those games. The Titans rank 4th in the NFL in rushing TD’s and 8th in rushing yards, so they are well suited to take advantage of the Texans’ 19th ranked run defense. Apart from that, the Titans are simply the better team, as hard as that will be for people to stomach in a game that will be 50-50 in peoples’ minds.
Titans win and cover.
You think I’m betting against the Dolphins now? Even with Eli Manning back in at QB for the Giants?
Yes, this is a real barn-burner of a game. I think it’s going to be fun, because these two teams? They ain’t good. Look at our game hub for this game and you’ll see a sorry tale of two inept offenses and extremely poor defenses. They give up an average of 58.5pts per game between them, so take the over (46.5) because they’re also very much capable of sporadically putting up points.
The Dolphins are covering machines, and they also know how to win. Last week they lost by a single point against the Jets in the same stadium, and they have a great chance to put a downer on Eli’s triumphant return to the starting lineup with a road win.
Look at that. The Patriots are - as expected - better in every department than the anaemic Bengals. A loss last week to Cleveland restored the Bengals back to their rightful place as utterly irredeemable this season. They’re the worst team in the NFL, and when Andy Dalton plays badly, they don’t have anything much going for them.
The Pats beat up bad teams. That’s their makeup. In Cricket, we call that a ‘flat track bully’, and it sums up the way the Patriots are great when the going is easy, and have failed to cover in 4 of the last 5 games against winning teams.
They’d have covered this spread seven times this season in their seven games against bad losing teams (PIT (kinda), MIA, NYJ, WAS, NYG, NYJ again, CLE), and the Bengals? They’re exactly who you want when you need to be… well, on to Cincinnati.
Pats win and cover.
This is a real banana skin for the Eagles. The Redskins have covered their last three games on the bounce, and the spread here is enticing against a team that has conversely failed to cover their last 4.
What are the Redskins actually good at? Running the ball? Kind of. They’re 20th in the league. Stopping the pass? They’re good, and they also rank 7th in sacks and 3rd in interceptions. There’s no doubting that the Redskins can cause the Eagles problems on defense, but it’s on offense that I see them struggling.
Dwayne Haskins has looked anything but assured, despite his two wins. The ‘skins rank dead last in points and passing yards, and 31st in passing TD’s. By our offensive metrics, they rank outside the top half of the NFL in every category (oh, except fumbles lost. Well done chaps).
As much as they have a chance to stop Philly, the Eagles have every incentive to get this thing back on track. With the NFC East up for grabs, I think this will be a blowout for the Eagles
Eagles win and cover.
A tale of two mediocre defenses. The x-factor? It’s clearly the Seahawks offense, which is heavily predicated on establishing the run.
Can the Panthers actually stop it? Well, no in short, they rank 29th in rushing yards allowed and 32nd in rushing TD’s allowed. They lost their last game by 20 points and have covered just once in their last five games (losing all 5). The Panthers actually have a good defense vs the pass, but the Seahawks simply don’t need it. We always bet against home big-spread underdogs because to earn anything over 4.5pts, you have to be genuinely bad.
Seahawks win and cover.
The Jags are beneficiaries of our golden rule of picking big spread underdogs. They’re also beneficiaries of their own and Oakland’s inability to cover the spread recently. Jacksonville haven’t covered their last 5 and Oakland haven’t covered their last 4.
What immediately stands out is that both teams are inept at covering their opponents’ strengths. Although, we use the term ‘strengths’ with a liberal application as neither is a powerhouse in any department. Anyway, the Raiders can’t stop the pass, and the Jags can’t stop the run. It’s a tragic tale as old as time itself, but who wins?
Well neither team excels offensively, let’s start there. The Jags in particular are 28th in points and their red zone efficiency is truly appalling, but the Raiders can’t stop the pass and despite their horrific scoring, they’re actually pretty good through the air. I think the traditional view of the Jags is as a run-first team, and arguably they should be if they had a good coach, but they don’t, so here we are, passing 62.1% of the time with a 6th round rookie.
Ultimately, this comes down to the fact that the Raiders have truly failed to score big points for a while, putting up just 12.5 on average over their last 4 games. I think they win, but the Jags cover in a nail-biter.
This looked like a tough game to pick on paper, but there really isn’t much for the Cards to cling to here. The two teams are headed in opposite directions, with the Browns fighting for pride and the Cards losing their last 6. They wouldn’t have covered this spread in any of those games, either…
We often focus on stats here, but I want to make one eye-related observation. Kyler Murray is a dynamic playmaker, but he has very much hit the rookie wall at this point.
He’s really not helped by the worst passing defense in football, or the bizarre playcalling that sees the team run just 37.5% of the time with a good running back like David Johnson pretty much benched at this point, but the fear and confusion on last week’s final drive, with a chance of a long-shot comeback win still very much possible, told a story of a kid who needs to take a step back and breathe.
His eyes were never downfield, and his instinct to run played right into the hands of the Steelers defense who were like a Madden player knowing their opponent’s tell. Whenever Murray rolls out (and he has to at 5’8”) the Browns will be ready for him. They’re a sneaky good passing defense, and I don’t think that changes on Sunday
Browns win and cover.
If by the size of a man’s spiderweb chart shall ye know him, then this is verily a game of kings.
Seriously though, compared with some of the games this week, this is a potentially great one. The Chargers are a big time passing offense, the Vikings love to run. Both are middle of the pack on defense.
That’s when we start looking for the real edge here. Turnovers are the first port of call, and that most certainly favors the Vikings (+5) against the ghost of Rivers past who has thrown 15 INT’s already this season. I think that is where the game truly hinges, on the Vikings hassling Philip Rivers. The Vikings really shut down the run, which will actually be a factor as the Chargers have been atrocious without a running game all season long.
But all is not lost for the Chargers. They face an opponent in the Vikings who struggle in the pacific time zone, losing 4 of the last 5 under Mike Zimmer, and their only win coming against the dismal 2015 Raiders. This is a good Vikings team, but they do tend to play to type, and I think the Chargers have an edge here.
Chargers cover and win.
The Rams and Cowboys are victims of their own potential greatness and inevitable sporadic mediocrity. Almost carbon copies of each other, the real differences are in the details. For example, the turnovers. Is Jared Goff coming out of his slump? Sure, why not, but with a 28th in the league 15 interceptions, it is only a matter of time before the Cowboys add to their meagre 5 this season.
I have a theory when weakness plays weakness in the passing game - always err on the side of the defense when it comes to interceptions. They’re usually victims of scheme and opponents taking care of the ball rather than an inability to make a play. When a team throws interceptions, they do it because their QB is liable to make bad decisions and other teams capitalize. That, in a nutshell, is Goff. The Cowboys will add to those 5 INT’s on Sunday.
Backing Dallas last week was a mistake, but they are ruthlessly efficient on third down and they move the ball extremely well behind a league-best offensive line. I think it’s only a matter of time before this team, playing good fundamental football, gets a bit of luck an confidence.
Cowboys upset win and cover.
Ah Atlanta. Oh dear.
Calvin Ridley exiting for the year last week pretty much puts the cherry on top of a season to forget in Georgia. Dan Quinn will likely be gone in December to add to the sense of flux around the team, but they aren’t utterly bereft of positivity. In fact, they’ve won 3 of their last 5 and this is a very enticing spread, even when we would have taken it out of principle as a big-spread-road-dog(™)
The 49ers don’t like being favorites like this. They have faced 6 spreads of -5 or over this season, covering just once. As much as they’re a great team, they seem to prefer being under the radar as underdogs, where they are 5 from 5 this season against the spread. They should win this, but I pointed out last week that they aren’t quite as formidable as legend has it. With just a single INT in their last 6 games, there’s a real sense that the Falcons can air it out here and keep it close, if not get a win.
We’re taking the niners to win, but the Falcons to cover.
Let’s hear it for the Steelers, who somehow are 8-5 after a tumultuous season of QB ineptitude. Their spiderweb says it all - great defense, downright nasty offense. What concerns me if I’m Pittsburgh, however, is that the Bills are turning into a real contender.
The Steelers have a defense that ranks 1st in rushing TDs allowed, 1st in sacks, 2nd in interceptions, and 2nd in fumble recoveries, against an offense that just grinds you down. The problem for the Steelers is not so much whether they can hold Buffalo in check, but whether they can keep pace on offense.
Duck Hodges has turned things around, sure, but he’s done so against a league worst Cardinals passing D, and the Browns/Bengals unholy duo. In none of those games did he look like a guy who would feel comfortable against a third ranked passing defense, and ultimately I just don’t think the Steelers will be able to keep pace with Josh Allen and more importantly, Devin Singletary.
Bills cover and win.
Oh guys, what the hell happened last week? We had a great week overall (thanks to our game hubs primarily, which guided most of our thinking) but these two teams let us down, and must now fight to the death in a gladiatorial bout for our amusement.
Alternatively, the NFL decreed that these two teams should play on Monday Night Football, and who are we to argue?
The Colts have really trailed off and face elimination with a defeat in prime time. They’ll need to win out and hope that the Texans and Titans go 1-2 in that time, otherwise, it’s curtains I’m afraid. Again, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not a Bond villain, they will be allowed to live if they lose.
The two teams are remarkably similar. Neither team holds a huge defensive edge, but the Saints take much better care of the ball. That +11 turnover differential rests on a league-leading 2 fumbles lost all year, and a solid offensive line that has seen their QBs sacked just 21 times so far. Perhaps most tellingly though, the Saints can really air it out, and the Colts may really struggle against a string rushing defense (5th in the league) given their major strength is on the ground.
The problem here is that we almost always take big spread road dogs because they are unfairly given a few extra points. I just can’t back a team that relies on the run as heavily as the Colts (4th most rushing plays in the league) against a team who can stop exactly that type of team.
Saints win and cover.