Upset Watch 2019 Week 16
It's week 16, one of the prime targets for upset-watchers in an NFL season. With over half the games projected to be covered by the underdogs, here we are to guide you through a big weekend of football picks, straight up and against the spread.
20 Dec, 2019
Welcome to week 16’s penultimate regular season Upset Watch.
We’re so glad you’re enjoying our new Game Hubs, they are progressing nicely (weather is our next big addition to it) but the big stuff? That’s what we’re plotting in anticipation of next season. Based on your feedback, we’ve identified key areas to improve them, and it’ll yield some exciting changes for next season.
We’re also working to get more articles on the site and a few more fantasy football tools in our locker. Picking games and winning in fantasy football are often interwoven, and we have developed some really cool data-led ways for you to maximize your chances of winning in both.
Anyway, ramble aside, it’s a huge week in the NFL, where divisions and playoff challenges will be decisively won and lost in many cases. Who do we like? See below!
Week 16 stats
Week 16 is one of the big weeks of the NFL season for underdog covers. With half of the games expected to be covered by the ‘dogs, we need to keep an open mind about exactly how good those favorites are.
In our favor this week is that there are 8 (Eight!) games with road underdogs and big spreads. We’re going to choose 6 of those games, with 2 more from the home dogs with small spreads.
Houston (-3 if Hyde plays) @ Tampa Bay (+3 if Hyde does not play)
There’s an interesting dynamic when it comes to tanking. How do you convince Jameis Winston, a guy who is playing for his career as a starter in Tampa, to play badly? Every incentive is there for him to play as well as he possibly can, even if perversely, the team would prefer a few close losses and a higher draft pick to get out of their current situation.
Well, in this case, the Bucs have been ‘fortunate’ and their top three receivers on the season are all on injured reserve, with Chris Godwin and Scottie Miller joining Mike Evans on the sidelines after last week’s game. This leaves the rejuvenated Breshad Perriman and OJ Howard as Winston’s primary options. That, in a nutshell, is not good.
And here’s the thing, the Texans? They have an awful pass defense. They give up the 28th most yards in the league, have no pass rush, and only 7 interceptions all season (28th again). In a nutshell, the Bucs should be in a great position here.
But here’s the thing. Some teams need to win by stopping opponents through the air, but the Texans aren’t one of them. The Chargers (ranked 8th at the time), Falcons (2nd), Chiefs (1st), Patriots (8th) and Titans (9th over their last 3 games) have all fallen to the Texans, despite having a huge passing advantage.
The conclusion? The Texans don’t really mind if you put up big passing numbers, they can still beat you. They need to get the ground game going though, and that’s why the availability of Carlos Hyde (Questionable, ankle) dictates this play. If the Texans have their lead back, I’ll take them at -3. If not, I’ll take the Bucs +3.
Buffalo (+6.5) @ New England
You all know by now that with teams over +4.5 on the road covering at a crazy rate this season, I’m taking the road dog here. Period. But what is nice in this case is that there’s plenty of reason to suggest the Bills will not only cover, but make life exceptionally difficult for the Patriots this week.
The Bills fall into that grey area of teams that people overlook when discussing the best in the NFL, but it’s worth considering that back in September, they started the Pats’ trend of not scoring many points against decent teams. The Pats average 26 points per game in 2019, but against winning teams? 17.3 points per game. The Pats have even beaten the likes of the Eagles and Cowboys, but have they played well? Not really. Stout defense has seen them through.
And the Bills? Well they’ve won 4 of their last 5, and stayed within a score of the Ravens. They’ve lost just twice this season by a score of more than 6.5pts, and the way the Patriots are playing, they aren’t trending upwards on that front.
I see this being a real statement moment in the AFC East, and the biggest signifier that the Brady-Belichick era of eternal dominance is over.
Bills cover and win.
LA Rams (+6.5) @ San Francisco
We’re working on color-coordination for our charts, but handily, the football gods have smiled on us with a blue road team and red home team.
Both of these teams scare the living crap out of me if I’m honest. The Rams? Well, Jared Goff Jared Goff’d me out of a place in my long term dynasty league, but the bigger worry is that they gave up big points for the first time in forever. The Rams had not given up more than single digits in any of their last 4 games, and hadn’t given up more than 20 points since week 5.
And yet, when they’ve played teams who can score, they have lost. The Seahawks, Bucs, Ravens and Cowboys have all beaten them, the Steelers and 49ers (both leaning heavily on their defense) have also turned them over. They’ve generally beaten teams that… well… are in the doldrums. Sure the Bears are 7-7 now, but they were 4-5 and playing with a QB at his lowest ebb in Mitch Trubisky. The Falcons were 1-5 when the Rams blew them out on the road.
Of greater concern is that the 49ers have been putting up points on good defenses. They rank second in the league in points scored, but I think there’s a strong chance this one is a close one that the 49ers win and don’t cover. We always take the underdog anyway in this scenario on the road, but the 49ers have struggled as big favorites, they’re 0-5-1 this season vs spreads over 5 points, and at 6.5? This is a big tempter.
Rams cover, 49ers win.
Jacksonville @ Atlanta (-7)
These two teams both pulled off upsets last week as big spread underdogs against Bay area teams on the road (not that we ever mention but you should be all over those picks generally) but that prompts a conundrum. If you have two good underdogs, who do you pick when they play each other?
Well in this case, the Falcons are clearly the better offense and I think when you consider how well they played against the 49ers, one of the best defenses in football, it’s a huge credit to them at this point of the season. Matt Ryan simply does not know how to quit, and he’s dragging his team kicking and screaming along with him.
It’s also worth noting that while the Falcons were very convincing last week, the Jags should actually have lost (they’d still have covered) if not for a diabolical call by the refs in Oakland ruling Derek Carr out of bounds, despite him sliding inbounds. That allowed Gardner Minshew a shot at a win that should never have occurred, and the rest… it’s history.
The Falcons are the 4th best passing unit and the Jags just don’t seem able to hang with them if they can get Jones and Hooper going.
Falcons win and cover.
Baltimore (-9.5) @ Cleveland
It is genuinely terrifying to look at that spiderweb and consider how good the Ravens are. Is this the best team of the decade? They’re up there. As Joe Manniello pointed out on twitter, the Ravens aren’t even a bad passing team, their yards aren’t great, but their effectiveness and efficiency? chef’s kiss
Oh and the Browns? Well they’re in a bit of a calamitous moment where things could get really ugly. I often think that if you want a team or player to perform badly, you merely have to suggest that they’re currently on course to have a job next year, and the only way that won’t happen, is with a complete implosion, which is never going to happen, definitely not. Enjoy your day!
That implosion, that calamity, is unfolding in Cleveland. The Browns lost in Arizona last week and looked all at sea for portions of the game. Baker Mayfield, as much as it’s a cliche, is regressing badly, if he even had a position to regress from. The receiving duo of OBJ and Landry was always going to be a huge issue given their close friendship and desire to win and as we wrote in week 1, the big personalities and bigger expectations were a recipe for disaster for the Browns:
That sense of foreboding was sadly true and it’s hard to see how the Browns progress with the Freddie and Baker show now.
Curiously, the Browns did knock off the Ravens in week 4 (40-25). The Ravens have since reversed their key weakness, the run game. That is also the Browns’ key strength, and the only area they fall within the top 10 in yards and TDs.
The Browns have knocked over a couple of good teams, but by and large, they’ve also lost to them. Heavy losses to New England, San Francisco, Tennessee and 1-score defeats to the Rams, Seahawks and Steelers tell their own story.
With revenge on the cards, we’re going Ravens win and cover.
New Orleans (-2.5) @ Tennessee
The Saints are a nightmare when it comes to covering. I’ve been on the wrong side for the last 2 weeks, but I think the Saints may cover back to back games for the first time since week 8.
The Titans are very much still a good team, they shouldn’t be ruled out at all. Last week’s result against the Texans though, it was mildly flattering and they were never close to covering their -3 spread. The Saints have hit form at the right time and even against San Francisco, they were still hugely impressive in defeat.
Can the Titans hang with them? Not for 2.5pts. Saints to win and cover.
Carolina (+6.5) @ Indianapolis
We like this. The Colts are a classic shutdown team. Remember when Peyton Manning got injured and they just quite clearly tanked as hard as humanly possible to get Andrew Luck? With playoff hopes now extinguished, they’ll be a prime candidate to maximize their position in the 2020 draft by tactically losing a couple of games.
The Panthers? They’re in the same boat, but they’ve made a cardinal error (named after the post-Warner Arizona teams that started literally anyone they could find in the building at QB in late season games) in actually putting a player in who may want to win and prove he is the answer to their QB situation. It’s tanking 101 to not give guys this chance until week 17 when they play half the game with second-stringers.
Instead, there’s a bit of a shot for Grier here. The Colts’ strength lies in their run defense, not their passing defense, so against a mediocre secondary and pass rush, he may get slightly more time and opportunity than normal. The Panthers are first in rushing TD’s, but their play has been hampered by Kyle Allen’s sub-par play for a few weeks now.
Incidentally, I used our play-by-play data to find the single worst play of the season so far. They had to be losing yards, from a good position, in a crucial game situation. Step forward, Kyle Allen…
Panthers cover, Colts win.
Cincinnati @ Miami (+1)
YES! It’s well documented how bad these two teams are, but only one of them can officially be the worst team in the league this season. Even if the Giants and Redskins fall below them as a result of this game, the season will be remembered for how badly these two teams have played.
Looking at the game stats, the only thing that jumps out is the single top-10 stat that either team has, the 5th ranking for the Bengals in passing TDs allowed. The main thing that is clear, however, is just how similar they are.
Look at their makeup - they pass lots even though they aren’t that good at it. They don’t hold onto the ball much because their offenses are bad, and they have huge ball security issues. Their defenses are similarly poor.
This one will come down to the Dolphins being able to score when it counts. Their red zone percentage being higher, that really matters. They’re actually somewhat better than their season-long stats suggest, and so…
Dolphins cover and win
Pittsburgh (-3) @ NY Jets
This was a contender for upset of the week, because it has the feel of a game that could genuinely go either way, but when you delve beneath the surface? The Steelers are the only rational pick I’m afraid.
What stands out is how well each team does against teams similar to their opponents. The Steelers? They’ve lost a bunch of games, but who to? The Bills, Browns (alright…), Ravens, 49ers, Seahawks and Patriots. Only one of those teams indicated any kind of banana skin like symptoms against lesser opponents.
When you’re reliant on your defense, it kind of helps against bad teams more than good. The problem for the Jets is that they’ve only beaten one decent team all year, the Cowboys, way back in week 6. Their only wins since have been against Washington, Oakland, the Giants and Miami. Hardly a who’s who of powerhouse football.
So in a move that will shock nobody at all, I’m taking the road Steelers
Steelers win and cover
NY Giants @ Washington (-2)
Haskins and Jones sound like a detective duo from the 80’s, and in many ways, I'd rather watch that than what will unfold on Sunday at Dan Snyder's Miserydome. I also think that it's possible an 80's TV detective duo could be better at football than Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins.
There’s something a little… perverse about the Giants deciding to go back to Jones for this game after Eli Manning had arrested a losing slump of 8 straight games in relief of the rookie. I think part of it was the horrible reality that if he won this game - as he had every chance to - then logically, he would also start the season closer against Philly, where he had frankly, every chance of being beaten heavily in his final game.
Instead, they’ve thrown Jones back out there against a Redskins team that has picked up of late. Dwayne Haskins seems to be getting it at QB, Terry McLaurin looks like a potential star, and their defense? It’s not horrible. That’s about as nice as I can get here.
My one question is ‘how much of Saquon Barkley’s production is intrinsically tied to Eli at QB? My assessment?
Redskins win and cover
Detroit (+7) @ Denver
Oh god. I hate this. I don’t want to pick it, but all of the stats kind of imply that the Lions could cover this, including that the Broncos are hugely anaemic on offense.
What this may come down to is the cold, or rather… the lack of cold. I would fear gravely for David Blough in the frozen waste of Mile High in December, but Sunday’s forecast? A balmy 64F. We may even see short sleeves for genuine reasons instead of misplaced machismo.
The Lions can actually move the ball with David Blough. He’s not super good with ball security (2 INT’s and a fumble last time out against the Bucs) but it’s a bit strange because there was a point in that game where against all odds, they were within a score at the start of the 4th quarter. Let me put that into perspective for you, the league’s best passing offense, against a bottom-5 passing defense, and Blough managed to keep them in it until the very end.
I see this as much about that Denver offense not scoring, as much as about the Lions winning of their own accord. It has all the makings of a can-miss game, there’s no doubt about that much
Broncos win, Lions cover.
Oakland (+7) @ LA Chargers
Oh this. I can’t think of a game more dispiriting than two homeless teams with an almost uncanny ability to pull a loss from the jaws of victory dukeing it out in the late window when Scott Hanson has reached the point where he’s doing a bunch of ‘tap into the endzone’ like highlights - SPONSORED BY AMAZON PRIME! Because Amazon Prime exists and without such marketing, I would be oblivious. I shouldn’t say that, because Amazon are great and providing the prize funding for our yearly contest in the form of tax-free Amazon vouchers, but hey ho.
Anyway, we have to be very careful here. The last 5 games of both teams have been full of disappointment, but standing out quite vividly is that the Raiders offense has completely imploded. They really can’t run or pass the ball anymore, and even when they’re moving it, for some reason they’re unable to score.
There is a problem here, in that my inclination here is to say that the Chargers have performed badly against good teams lately, but honestly, they are a far superior team. They also rank evenly vs the Oakland rush and better against the Oakland pass on defense, and I think on that basis, we’re cutting the Raiders from our ‘+4.5 or over road dogs’ picks this week.
Chargers win and cover
Dallas (-1.5) @ Philadelphia
The battle for the NFC East, and these two teams are carbon copies. Both should be doing better, both are seriously struggling to put together a run to get them over the line. Between them, the only 3 game win streak is from the Cowboys in weeks 1-3, since then? Both teams have traded wins and losses in clumps, never managing to separate from each other. Now? They must fight… TO THE DEATH.
First, let’s address THAT backdoor cover by the Eagles. I cheered. I loved it, but it wasn’t just lucky, it was outrageously improbable. Not only did Dwayne Haskins have to toss the ball behind him mid-sack rather than get any type of forward pass off, but somehow, nobody from either team managed to recover the ball while being touched by another in the scrum for the ball, and then even more far-fetched was old faithful Nigel Bradham staggering into the end zone while almost being tackled.
Everything about it was perfect, but it turned a narrow 3pt victory with 26 seconds to go into a ‘convincing’ 10pt affair. Let’s make no mistake here, the Eagles very nearly lost that game. To the Redskins.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys were dismantling the Rams in Dallas, and I should point out how good that Rams defense has been again. The Cowboys put up 44 pts and crushed them. Look at this offense…
There is no other way to put this - the Cowboys are one of the NFL’s best teams, and it is only a combination of bad luck and inability to handle teams with a good run defense that has stopped the…
Wait… a good run defense? The Eagles have a good run defense! How about if I told you that of the Cowboys’ 7 losses, 6 of them came against a team in the top 16 rushing yards against them? New England, Buffalo, Chicago, New Orleans, even the Jets!.
But I think with the carrott firmly in sight, the Cowboys will make a big push this week to cement the division. Sweeping the Eagles would do that, losing would mean the end of Jason Garrett (if it is not already decided, which it likely is…) and a bunch of teams breathing a heavy sigh of relief about not facing Dallas in the postseason.
Dallas win and cover
Arizona (+9.5) @ Seattle
This is our big cover of the week. The Seahawks are close to the finished article offensively, but defensively? Nope. Pete Carroll himself admitted today that the close victories of this season have given him plenty of anxiety, and he’d be ok with a few blowouts. The Seahawks haven’t won by more than a score in their last 10 games, inf act the last one was the reverse matchup against the Cards.
I know, I know, if they beat the Cards that badly then… but the Cards have developed into a team that scores points, even in defeat. Look at their games this season and the only bad defense they haven’t put points up against is… well, Seattle back in September. We can’t really read so much into the aforementioned Rams defense shutting them down, or the previously noted Steelers defense limiting them to 717 points, or… you get the idea.
Some games are more relevant than others, and while I do think that the Seahawks will win from a position of comfort (don’t be surprised if they get 2-3 scores up at some point), the Cards will get the garbage time scores needed to keep this one close. Kinda.
Seahawks win, Cards cover.
Kansas City @ Chicago (+6)
What a fun game. The Bears and Chiefs are kind of opposites, as you can see from the spiderweb. Unfortunately some of that is because the Bears aren’t really that good at much on offense, but still...
The worry for Chicago here is that they are really strong on rush defense, but the Chiefs don’t actually run very much. In fact, they run just 37.4% of the time, 27th in the league. All of their offense stems from the pass, where the Bears are… they’re ok. They’re pretty good.
There is a big x-factor in this game though. Matt Nagy.
These two teams know each other inside out, but the Bears have an extra incentive to keep things interesting on Sunday as the master (Andy Reid) heads into town to face his protege. My suspicion is that the Bears will make use of every trick in the book, and if there’s one team guaranteed not to tank on Sunday, it’s Chicago.
That said, the Chiefs will win, the Bears will cover.
Green Bay (+5.5) @ Minnesota
The game of the week on twitter, at least. Green Bay fans sure know how to rag on Kirk Cousins. Cousins has not ever won on Monday Night Football, but as I pointed out last night, that’s… well kind of a red herring. Cousins is actually pretty good on MNF.
I think that this one really rests on who these teams have beaten in 2019. The Packers have been imperious against good opposition, the Vikings have largely been middle of the pack. Minnesota look set to take on Green Bay without Dalvin Cook (simultaneously hurting my fantasy super bowl chances) and it’s hard not to think that a spread of +5.5 is ludicrous even with Cook, let alone with a third string running back.
The Vikings have been convincing in victory, but these two teams are incredibly well matched and I think a field goal margin is enough for me. I also think that the Packers and their +14 turnover differential have a lot to say in this one and for that reason…