Upset Watch 2019 Week 17

It's the final week of the season, and the normal dynamics go out of the window as teams draft in backups and start to think about the playoffs and beyond. We're here for the week 17 upset watch to show you where the smartest money is.

Upset Watch

27 Dec, 2019

Upset Watch 2019 Week 17

Well,we’re here, at the end of another regular season. Of course, Upset Watch will be with you throughout the playoffs, with all of our valuable information to help you with your picks in the postseason, but the end of the regular season is very special for us as it represents the end of our user contest!

This year we started with a user contest to find the best picker, and the field comes down to just a few users now in both straight up and ATS. In the straight up contest, Qfx84 and arnold60 will duel it out, with arnold60 needing a 5 unit swing to claim the crown. In the ATS contest, offpapman has a healthy 34 unit lead and needs to hold steady to avoid punter711 or any of the pack behind winning.

A note on these games, they’ll be changing next season to make the results more accurate and the stakes a little harder to game. There’ll be a limit on the number of games you can assign 5 unit stakes to, making you think seriously about how much you believe in each pick. We’ll also be adding over/under and player props to our picking games.

More on this over the postseason, but for now, let’s get on with the week 17 analysis, which is always more fun than any other week of the season!


Average underdogs graphic

Yeah, it’s one of those weeks. Week 17 yields a dead on 50% underdog cover rate over the last 6 seasons. That’s good for the 4th most over the whole season.

What sets week 17 apart more than anything is the issue of teams not playing starters, particularly where there’s plenty of motivation for the opponents to exact a modicum of revenge at the end of a losing season. Who can forget the 5-10 Dolphins upsetting the 12-3 Patriots in 2016? Nothing about it has to make sense, it’s just week 17. The trick for us is to find out when teams are likely to ease off and allow a cover, and when they’ll put the foot down on a divisional opponent.

So what’s our logic here? Well, when the spread gets over 4.5, teams are 34-34-1 over the last few seasons. There’s no advantage to either favorite or underdog, but we can break that down a little more to find the real areas of success. The problem? There are no true patterns in the spread. Big or small, it’s pretty much 5-50, so we’re going to avid reliance on our usual tactics of certain road underdogs. Instead, we’re going with the team’s situations.

Our questions are simple: Are the respective teams in or out of the playoffs? Are the starters playing? If yes, how long for?

Since 2013, teams in the playoffs are 32-21-1 against teams not in the playoffs, good for 59.3%. Let’s get more meaningful though, because they’re 12-5 when the spread is in double figures, or 71%. That’s more like it. We have 4 games that fit the bill this week, and we’ll take 3 of them.

What’s extremely rare is for a playoff team to face a non-playoff opponent and have a small spread. Out of 96 games played over the last 6 seasons in week 17, only 3 teams have been in such a situation. This week? One team, the Bills will face it. Those teams are 2-0-1 so we’ll add them into the mix.

But we still need 4 teams. What about the dead rubbers? Those games where neither team has anything to gain, in fact there may well be a sneaky incentive to lose. How do favorites do then? Well, actually… not that well. They’re 12-21 in that time, 64%. That logic applies to 5 games this week, and we’ll take 3 of them.

Our last game? Well read on for our final selection as we break down what happens when playoff team meets playoff team…

Atlanta (+1) @ Tampa Bay

This is one of the few games this week that can be taken at face value. Two non-playoff teams, who as we have already deduced, may be inclined to lose more than win. This one certainly falls into the category of games we’d be looking at very heavily in any case.

The Falcons are hot right now, having won their last 3 games and beaten the 49ers in that run. The Bucs? Their big game against the Texans last week on Saturday was a complete dud, and Jameis Winston’s inability to stop throwing interceptions may just be too much for Bruce Arians… but the big thing is that if both teams turn to their backups - and it’s likely they will for various reasons, who would you have? Ryan Griffin of Tampa Bay, or Matt Schaub of Atlanta?

The choice is clear for us, it’s Atlanta

Falcons win and cover

Chicago (-3) @ Minnesota

Interesting dynamic here - a playoff team as an underdog in week 17. Doesn’t happen very often, but in this case there’s also something else to note. I looked at every ATS loss teams have suffered in the 13 games where that scenario has occurred since 2013. In each of the 6 losses, a backup QB was playing for the playoff team, and in some cases, it was the third-stringer. Sean Mannion, Mark Sanchez, Connor Cook, Brock Osweiler, Nate Sudfeld, Ryan Lindley… it’s not quite a who’s who of franchise QB’s. In every single win, the playoff team played it’s starting QB.

So this one has the simplest equation: If Kirk Cousins plays, as he did for Washington in 2016, throwing 3 touchdowns in the first quarter before departing later for Colt McCoy, then yeah, we’re taking the Vikes. If not? We’re on the Bears.

The latest? Profootballtalk reported in the last hour that the Vikes will sit Cousins and other starters. We’re on the Bears.

Chicago win and cover

Cleveland (-2.5) @ Cincinnati

This game very much falls into the dead rubber bracket. The Bengals can’t even get any worse, and this will likely just be a swansong for Andy Dalton. I don’t envision him getting pulled under any circumstances, given that the team will likely draft a replacement for him and happily cut ties at the end of the season. It’s been a good run for the red rifle in Cinci, but he can start somewhere else, and I’d expect him to come out and try way too hard, as is his M.O.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, it’s all a bit strange isn’t it? Multiple players want out, the head coach… may be back? We don’t know. It’s likely that Baker Mayfield will play the majority of the game, but to what avail? The Browns appear to be going backwards at this point. A final week win may stay the execution, but Freddie Kitchens is on an incredibly short leash in the dawg pound.

Browns win and cover

Green Bay @ Detroit (+12.5)

The first of our big spread upsets this week. The Lions have lost all three of their last three games by double figures, and the Packers are playing for a bye IF the Saints lose. There should be no doubting, therefore, that the Packers will come out and go for the kill rather than playing backups at almost any point of this game unless they can assume victory and no chance of a Panthers upset.

But this +12.5 spread is a little too much for us. In the main, the Packers have been deeply averse to putting up big numbers. They’ve put up more than 30 points just once since week 8, against the New York Giants. The Lions are extremely beatable, but they score some points with David Blough under center, not many, but enough to trouble teams in ways they shouldn’t.

Packers win, Lions cover.

Indianapolis @ Jacksonville (+4)

A true no-hoper game. I thought the Colts would roll over last week but the Panthers and Will Grier really did go all out with the red carpet last week, and the Colts duly rolled them over without even conceding a touchdown.

The Jags? Now they’re not great, but this has all the makings of a complete shambles of a game where Brian Hoyer makes a lot of throws for the Colts, and Gardner Minshew keeps the game interesting. I think the Jags have enough to get this done, and I particularly think the Colts will heed caution in playing their starters after a season that had promise until they saw the consequences of injuries to key players.

Jags win and cover.

LA Chargers @ Kansas City (-9)

This one sucks. The Chiefs will play their starters, but likely their fate will not be decided in this game, and if the Patriots are winning and the Texans losing, they may well pull Patrick Mahomes.

The Chargers are in what I’d wager will be Anthony Lynn’s swansong from the team. A hallmark of the team’s failure this season has sadly been Lynn’s decision-making in the final third of the field. The weird thing is that the Chargers’ roster looks good, but in so many ways, they are extremely conservative and fail to make use of their best weapons. Keenan Allen has just 2 touchdowns since week 3 of the season, and Austin Ekeler, the most dynamic runner that the team has, is relegated behind Melvin Gordon despite Gordon largely underwhelming since his return from self-imposed exile.

But these games are made for players who want to go out on a high. Philip Rivers has quite clearly implied that this could well be his swansong, and Gordon is playing for a big contract next year. I think there’s every chance that the Chiefs get ahead and Rivers draws the Chargers within 2 scores at the last minute. I just don’t think the spread is quite generous enough to give the Chargers the cover.

Chiefs win and cover.

Miami (+16) @ New England

We’ve been here before. In 2016, the Dolphins welcomed the Pats into town for a season finale and duly upset them, even with Tom Brady playing pretty much the entire game.

This season, we’d expect nothing less than Brady in there the majority of the time, but there’s something beautiful about how Ryan Fitzpatrick has played in Miami on a team that everyone had written off, and I can’t help rooting for him to not only cover, but go for a big upset here. He has the tools to work with and the Patriots really are hugely reliant on their defense to keep things out of Miami’s reach.

I think this is one of the games where resting peripheral players will contribute more towards the result than resting the starting QB. The Pats know all about how important Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower are, and it’ll be those veterans who we’d expect to see leave the game early, if they even suit up at all. Sure, the Pats want to win and the seeding could be in doubt if KC were to win and the Pats lose, but the Pats will likely reach a point where they want to put many of these players on a pitch count.

Regardless, the Dolphins have been good enough recently to win. It’ll be a deeply unpopular and against-the-grain pick, but I’m taking…

Dolphins win and cover.

New Orleans (-13) @ Carolina

Whatever the opposite end of the spectrum is for upsets compared to say, the Dolphins’ chances of beating the Patriots, this is it. These two teams are headed in radically different directions.

The Panthers last week showed so much of what has made them ineffective in the latter part of the season. Third round rookie Will Grier was ineffective, sure, but that fabled Defense that at one point was on a par with the best in the league a few years ago is a shadow of it’s former self. Luke Kuechly is the only remaining part of a team about to enter a deep, root and branch transition that will make Bruce Jenner’s change seem like he changed from a round neck t-shirt to a v-neck in comparison. Everything is up for grabs in this one (the Panthers, not Caitlyn…) and only Kuechly and Christian McCaffrey look like they aren’t on the block.

The Saints couldn’t be any different. They are so comfortable, they’re bringing in lost souls like Janoris Jenkins and Antonio Brown for help. Is that because they’re desperate? No, they’re so comfortable that they know that they can handle players who are stupid and/or troublesome and if they don’t work out, they haven’t lost anything.

Drew Brees will play all this game unless it’s massively in hand. The Saints only need a Packers loss or a 49ers loss (more on that later) to guarantee a bye in the first round of the playoffs, and they have the perfect opponent for it.

Saints win and cover.

NY Jets (+1) @ Buffalo

This is a beauty of a game. The Bills are suffering for two reasons - one is that they lost to the Patriots in primetime and people have overreacted, the other is that people are guessing that they won’t play their starters very much.

The Jets are probably one of the chippier teams in this regard than most though, especially with Adam gase in charge. They know the value of a really disgustingly facile and hollow victory when they’ve spent a season roaming around the bottom of the league. They sure can stop the run though, ranked second in the league, which neatly syphons off the Bills’ best chances of success.

Jets win

Philadelphia @ NY Giants (+4)

I think there’s a real, very tangible sense that the Giants could pull off a big upset this weekend and rock the Eagles in a way that they will remember for a while. Not only are they playing good football, but the Eagles are likely without one of their key weapons, Zach Ertz.

Even if Ertz plays, it’s likely at sub-100%, and that hurts a team that has relied on him for a while now as the main outlet of QB Carson Wentz. Ertz has led the team in receptions every season since 2015, and he is an irreplaceable part of what the team does. The Eagles are not a powerhouse offense and although they’ve had the odd moment this season, losing Ertz would be huge.

What I think will be particularly influential, however, is the difficulty in knowing that Dallas are likely to win their game against the Redskins, and if the Eagles lose, would take the division by virtue of having won more divisional games. I don’t know if this Eagles team is built to handle such pressure right now, and while I think a Cowboys victory is far from absolutely guaranteed, it will still be the Eagles who face the most pressure.

Giants win

Pittsburgh (-2) @ Baltimore

Now this one is where you have to understand how big the Ravens’ reliance on Lamar Jackson is. Sure, there are a bunch of other players out there and losing Mark Ingram is another huge blow, but the reality is that when Jackson hasn’t been in, Robert Griffin III has been largely ineffective, even against some of the worst passing defenses in the league. Discounting the week 1 blowout of the Dolphins, and since then Griffin is 6/11 for 0 TD’s and 1 INT in very limited spot duty. There’s no way of knowing how that will translate into a full game, but there’s a lot for Griffin to handle without the Ravens’ best players around him.

The Steelers, however, will be playing every available hand. Hey, maybe they’ll even dump Duck Hodges and go to Paxton Lynch half way through this one if they’re losing. Don’t count against it. The Steelers know that they have to not only win, but rely on a Titans loss. Neither is guaranteed, but I think their half of the deal will be easier against the Ravens’ backups.

Steelers win and cover.

Tennessee (-3.5) @ Houston

The Texans are really not playing for much in this game, and you do suspect that after a pretty gruelling win against the Bucs last week, they’ll be happy to get out of this one and give Deshaun Watson a chance to be healthy next week when he seeks to put right his 0-1 playoff record incurred last year at the hands of the Colts.

The Titans, like the Steelers, couldn’t have more to play for. They know that a win is all they need to get through to the postseason and they do have the tools to do it. The Texans, even when at full strength with 100% motivation, are one of the worst passing defenses in the league (rank 28th) and struggle to get sacks. They’ll be resting all of their key players, even if they’re pretending they won’t right now.

Titans win and cover.

Washington (+10.5) @ Dallas

Is this a potential upset? Is it even an upset now, if Dallas lose a game they were supposed to win?

Well, in this case, because it’s the Redskins, yeah it would be, but a Redskins cover? Not so much, They’re 5-2 vs the spread when it’s in double figures this season, a damning statistic when you consider that after this game, they’ll have faced that type of scenario 50% of an entire season.

It’s crazy that the Redskins arguably have an even better shot with their backup QB in on Sunday. Case Keenum is one of the more serviceable backups getting a run-out this week, and with a big free agency period looming for a player who has bounced around the league the last few years, it’s another timely opportunity to go out there and throw the ball around with abandon. He’ll be missing leading receiver Terry McLaurin which is, no doubt, a huge loss, but the Redskins aren’t going to win this game, they’re just going to make it interesting late on.

Cowboys win, Redskins cover.

Arizona (+6) @ LA Rams

There was no spread on this one for a while, but the Rams are currently -6 and that feels off, particularly given our stats that say how difficult teams find it in this scenario. LA are entering a huge rebuilding phase next season, and you have to think that 2020 will define Jared Goff as a QB and Sean McVay as a coach. On their day, they’re unbeatable, but McVay has attached his cart to the wrong horse in Goff.

Not only has he betrothed the Rams to Goff in the long haul, but it’s also meant that Todd Gurley will likely not get paid, and McVay’s questionable approach to the quarterback’s weapons at key positions leaves a lot of question marks.

The Cardinals are coming off two upset victories on the bounce, having knocked off both the Seahawks and Browns. Since they turned to Kenyan Drake, the team has massively changed course and now ranks in the top half of the league in rushing yards, one of the Rams’ key weaknesses on defense. The Cardinals are quite a tonic for a passing team struggling, but they’re also really good at moving the ball. Recently, they’ve gone from being ineffective in the red zone, to decisive and good.

The big x-factor here is Kyler Murray. If he plays, we’re taking the Cards +6. If he doesn’t, I think this spread will move a lot and… well it’ll probably still be pretty close after watching Brett Hundley put up a Murray-esque performance last week against Seattle to win the game.

Arizona cover, LA Rams win.

Oakland @ Denver (-3.5)

You know, I’m big on Denver at the moment. Last week was the first time since week 6 that they’d been favored in a game, and they won. It was also their first spread that exceeded -2.5 this season, and a ten point margin showed exactly how much potential they have. Drew Lock may very well be the future of the Broncos and has certainly provided the impetus they were lacking on offense with Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen in the team.

This week the Raiders come to town, and they’re just HORRIBLE. They haven’t scored more than 24 points since week 4 against Indy, and only twice all season. That’s actually pretty amazing when you consider that it’s essentially three touchdowns and a couple of field goals to beat the league average, and yet here they are unable to move the football well.

A lot of this really does fall on Derek Carr. I’m not sure where Carr is right now but if I were ranking the QBs top to bottom, he’d be comfortably in the danger zone between 16-24 of players who could be replaced. They’d be foolish to go too gung-ho into such a situation (remember how bad the Raiders have been for pretty much all of the 2000’s) but there can be no doubt that he doesn’t seem able to outplay his surroundings.

I don’t think the Broncos are free-scoring. But they have gone to around 23 points per game in the last few weeks with Lock under Center, and I think that will continue this week against a Raiders team that looks anaemic on offense.

Broncos win and cover.

San Francisco (-3) @ Seattle

We’re taking the favorites here. The 49ers have a ton to play for including a very simple ‘win and in’ scenario that guarantees them the no.1 seed in the NFC with a win, and leaves them with the no.5 seed if they lose. The Seahawks have a lot less to play for, with their chance to get a bye gone, they can only get as high as the no.3 seed with a win on Sunday.

The Seahawks are being forced into playing backups on Sunday, because of injuries at key positions. It was quite an eye-opener last week to watch the team struggle so mightily against the Cardinals D that had been so ineffective against the pass all season, and if Russell Wilson was hoping for a fillup before the start of the playoffs, a matchup with the 49ers (1st in passing yards allowed) would be right at the bottom of desired games.

I think the 49ers will play hard in this one and their path is incredibly simple. They’ve been good in areas that they’ve not received much attention such as being 2nd in rushing yards, 3rd in rushing TDs, and 3rd in passing TDs. They’re essentially a top 5 offense on their day, if a little unconventional. Given the state of flux Seattle is in, it’s hard to back them for an upset.

49ers win and cover.