Welcome back to another year of Upset Watch. The last few years, we've helped our readers understand how to use the most important stats in the NFL, and as we progress this season, you'll be privy to information that is not available on any other website. We've got the last 20 years of NFL play by play data in our database, and now we're ready to use it in anger...
But first, a word about Pickwatch in 2019
As you will no doubt have noticed, we've made massive improvements to our UI. This was a big shift for us and I'm pleased to say the feedback has been almost universally positive, with literally one person out of hundreds of positive comments demanding that we revert to 2012's version of the site. If you're familiar with websites changing, or human beings in general, you'll know this is a big success.
We've fundamentally changed the site because we wanted your experience with the basics - the picks - to be better, and we wanted to be able to offer more depth to the stats we provide. On top of that, we know that you're always looking for an edge to make the best picks you can, and we've got some huge new features coming to support you with that.
Pickwatch Pro is the biggest change to how Pickwatch works. We have refined our best data to give you insight into two crucial areas:
Where you are weakest at picking, we show you the best users and experts to improve your performance each week
Predict player TD markets using our tested data model
Both of these services are going to cost you just a few dollars a month (you'd pay hundreds for picks elsewhere that have no statistical basis...), and can make you an awful lot of money. Last year, using the Player TD model that analyzes red zone, playcalling, tagrgets and conversion rates, I personally turned $100 into many thousands of dollars by being able to bet on which players were undervalued by the bookmakers at key positions. Each week during the season I'll be delving into this data to give you the best tips on which players will get into the end zone. No messing around, just good data and tips.
Our Pick recommendations feature will essentially match-make you with other users who are good at what you are bad at, allowing you to follow their picks and improve. For example, if you just can't pick the Cardinals on the road, we'll match you with the guy who picks them right 100% of the time. We know that many of our users have better records when picking individual teams than the NFL experts we track, and now it's time to harness that power so we all get more picks right and win more money.
Not only that, but Pickwatch Pro also allows downloads of historical data in excel, removes all google ads from the site, and we'll even throw in a free t-shirt for our first 1,000 subscribers.
Pickwatch Pro will be launching in the next few weeks, if you want to reguster your interest for our introductory membership period, feel free to get in touch via our intercom button in the bottom right of the page. We'll give you a priority heads up when we're ready to go.
In the meantime, let's talk more about Upset Watch in 2019
The return of Upset Watch
Last season we integrated 20 years worth of play by play data into our database. At some point in the next few months, this will be available via our matchup hubs section for you to peruse and even use to create your own stat views, but the purpose for Upset Watch has been simple - we wanted to bring in more stats and translate them into meaningful outcomes for you.
This season we'll be using those stats to again predict the thing that experts, fans and even teams struggle to do - the upset.
There are two types of upsets we're looking for, straight-up and against the spread. Straight-up is where the underdog wins, ATS is where they cover the points spread.
One of the most startling pieces of information that truly should bring into focus why this article is needed, is that last season, the public continually backed favorites to an irrational degree. Here's a table that shows how few underdogs the public chose to cover the spread based on:
In translation, the average person will pick an average of just 3 underdogs to cover the spread per week, yet the stats tell us that on average, 7 games each week finish with the underdog covering the spread. Incredibly, no matter how many times this is mathematically demonstrated, the average fan will simply always gravitate towards the idea of a favorite covering than an underdog staying in contention (or even winning!)
That's why each week, we tell you the number of upsets that have happened on average each year, how many we forecast, and which games we think are most likely to see an underdog cover or win.
With that in mind, here's week 1's breakdown:
Number of upsets
This is always an interesting week that - much like week 17 - has it's own slightly weird dynamics in play that we need to be aware of. In week 1, the most important part is that teams are also very likely to win outright as much as they are to cover. This is because not only do fans tend to underestimate whether a team can cover, but they also don't realize how good or bad any team is, which leads to a bunch of 'shock' upsets as preseason forecasts are thrown out of the window...
Let's start on the basis that 48% of the games this season will be underdog covers. With that in mind, we'll be predicting 8 ATS underdog covers, and 5 underdog victories outright.
We'll also be making those final covers that are still a loss a big spread of more than 6 points. Why? Because the average points spread in the last 6 years for games that ended in an outright victory for the underdog was 3.93, while the average of games that ended in a cover for the underdog but a victory for the favorite outright was an average spread of 7.06.
As you can see, just three games under 6 points have finished with a cover/loss, and in fact one of those was a cover/tie last season.
We'll also use methodology with our other picks. 67% of underdog covers of any kind are road underdogs, so we'll lean heavily towards those. We'll also want 1/3 of our full upsets to be big spreads, so that means:
7 underdog wins vs the spread Of the underdog wins, 5 will be road underdogs, 2 home underdogs 5 of the 7 are upset wins outright Our two loss/covers will be a spread over 6 points
So let's pick'em!
Week 1 Picks
1: (Upset of the week) Tennessee (+5.5) @ Cleveland
*Underdog cover 1/7 *Road underdog cover 1/5 *Outright underdog winner 1/5 *Cover/loss underdog 0/2
Fact: The Browns haven't won a week 1 game since 2004. That's not to say this is the same team, of course it isn't, but just... two thousand and four...
I feel quite strongly that the Browns have yet to prove that they are legit. They're one of the worst value picks in football at this point, because they are favored by way too many points here and picked by far too many people to win the Super Bowl.
The Titans are oddly undervalued at the moment. With Marcus Mariota semi-healthy last season, theyh finished the season 6-2 before Blaine Gabbert came back in to stink things up. Derek Henry is healthy, Mariota is arguably the most healthy he's been for 3 years, and the addition of Adam Humphries will be crucial to keeping the team moving from the WR position.
I think we're all curious about the Browns and how good they are. It's right to be optimistic about their chances of winning with Baker Mayfield, but I have many more questions about how they can handle being favorites, how Freddie Kitchens will deal with being responsible for the long term repercussions of his actions, and how they will handle the scrutiny that comes with big-splash names like Odell Beckham Jr.
I'm taking the Titans as an under-the-radar pick this week, but this game will tell us a lot about the Browns too.
2: Denver (+1.5) @ Oakland
*Underdog cover 2/7 *Road underdog cover 2/5 *Outright underdog winner 2/5 *Cover/loss underdog 0/2
How do you explain that Raiders offseason? Mayock? Antonio Brown? I'd say it's a weird one, especially when you add those two to the Jon Gruden cluster... experiment.
The big x-factor here is Broncos coach Vic Fangio. I think he will be quite direct in trying to get the team playing good defense and having a strong rushing attack that takes the weight off his Quarterback's shoulders, based on his days in Chicago. He has a young coaching staff but a good roster to work with, particularly on defense. Whatever happens, he is the type of coach who plays to his players' strengths and focuses on good fundamentals.
That matters a lot against the Raiders, who despite Gruden's addition, have struggled mightily. They finished 2018 with a whimper, losing 35-3 to the Chiefs, and there is no denying that Derek Carr has seriously regressed in recent years. Last year, the Raiders didn't have a 300 yard passing game after week 4, and in that time, they had no fewer than six games where they didn't reach 200yds passing. That is not a good thing...
The addition of Brown is a tinderbox waiting to happen, with the Raiders not being able to get the passing game going, the over/under on the meltdown that ends Carr's tenure as starter is around 5-6 games into the season.
I think it starts on Sunday.
3: LA Rams @ Carolina (+3)
*Underdog cover 3/7 *Road underdog cover 2/5 *Outright underdog winner 3/5 *Cover/loss underdog 0/2
The Rams are certainly not your average Super Bowl losers, but I think the Panthers are seriously undervalued with a healthy Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen in their lineup. Add Curtis Samuel at WR into the mix, and I think they can be a renewed force in 2019.
The Rams... well their drop-off in 2018 after their bye week in 'Mexico' (narrator: It wasn't in Mexico) was astounding. They limped to the finish and promptly suffered the kind of Super Bowl meltdown that may very well become a craeer defining moment for many of the players and coaches on the Rams right now.
How will they respond? Well... they pretty much have the exact same team on offense, but for some reason they have become fixated on adding past-their-prime players such as Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews to their defense. I just don't like this team on the road against Ron Rivera and Cam Newton, because when the Panthers were firing last year,k they went in 6-2 before Cam got hurt. They promptly lost their next 6 games before deciding it was very much not worth risking Newton's long term health.
Looking beyond the headlines, a home underdog like Carolina in a week like this? Let's just say I think 2018 may have influenced this spread a little too much...
4: Detroit @ Arizona (+2.5)
*Underdog cover 4/7 *Road underdog cover 2/5 *Outright underdog winner 4/5 *Cover/loss underdog 0/2
Our second home underdog is in Arizona, where the Cards and Kyler Murray will take on the very beatable Lions.
The Cards are an unknown quantity, albeit I will say that Murray as a QB is exactly the type of 'win somehow' player that this Lions team will hate. They finished last season with a flattering win against Green Bay's second string, but in meaningful games, they finished the season 2-7, losing to the likes of Chase Daniel, Josh Allen, Mitch Trubisky and Russell Wilson. In other words, Murray probably couldn't have a more favorable matchup to start with.
Meanwhile the alarm bells should be sounding loud and clear for Matt Stafford. His run of 14 straight sub-300yd games to finish last season is a huge worry for a player who broke 5,000 yards at one point in his career. That was back in the days of Calvin Johnson, and while Kenny Golladay may be a good player, nobody is Megatron. The Lions seem a spent force, and playing out time with Stafford may erode his value even further.
I don't make the Lions favorites here, and the Cardinals should actually win.
5: Pittsburgh (+6) @ New England
*Underdog cover 5/7 *Road underdog cover 3/5 *Outright underdog winner 5/5 *Cover/loss underdog 0/2
Ohhhh here we go again.
Is this year the year Brady falls off a cliff? Almost certainly not. It'll be a good 30-40 years before he buries Belichick and assumes the reigns as coach.
But is this Patriots team in good shape? No. The panic moves at o-line, the injuries, the loss of Gronk... this is a team with a real problem and solving it is going to be hard for Belichick and Brady. They finished last season utterly reliant on playmakers like Gronk and Edelman, yet here we are with one gone and the other hobbled. Brady was of course stellar, but he can't do it alone (despite contrary evidence in the past).
The Steelers are in the complete opposite boat. They were weighed down by a big name (AB) last season who hindered their ability to flourish. Like Brady, Roethlisberger is not in his prime, but his playmakers are. Like the Saints, the Steelers have a super-talented roster and a guy who is on the down-slope, but that combination can win you many games in the NFL.
I think the Steelers are being overlooked because of Cleveland, but they can sneak this win, in fact, they did exactly that last season against a far more talented Patriots team...
6: Baltimore @ Miami (+7)
*Underdog cover 6/7 *Road underdog cover 4/5 *Outright underdog winner 5/5 *Cover/loss underdog 1/2
LET THE GREAT TANK BEGIN!
I don't believe for a single millisecond that Brian Flores is stupid enough to throw any football games for a better draft pick next season, so let's start right there. I don't think he's wired that way and I think most importantly of all, the pressure he'd be setting himself up for (assuming the Dolphins didn't just fire him regardless) would be enormous in 2020. Imagine working many years as a minority in a world where minority coaches are clearly not given many opportunities, and throwing that away by deliberately losing at the behest of... who?
I don't buy it, not until everyone knows they're dead.
So are the Dolphins good? No. Do you need to be good to beat the Ravens? Well... um... do we even know? Don't forget they tried desperately to avoid Lamar Jackson throwing the ball last year, and now we have him and the Ravens talking about how great he is at this. WARNING WARNING WARNING. Yeah, that's my warning alert, what of it?
The Dolphins aren't tanking. The Ravens aren't sure of what they are. The Ravens are -7 road favorites. Even if they win, I think underestimating the Dolphins and a savvy, Belichick-tree coach like Flores would be insane.
7: Buffalo (+3) @ New York Jets
NO NO NO. NO. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. That's me channelling Michael Scott.
The Bills can do this, they really can. Hey, they won the corresponding game 41-10 last season and that was with matt Barkley at QB.
The Jets lost 9 of their last 10 (admittedly, the one win coming in Buffalo) and frankly, were very much trending in the opposite direction. Sure, Adam Gase is now the head coach, but he put up 17 and 21 points in his two games against Buffalo last year, vs a rookie QB and first year HC.
Put simply, the trends are not in favor of the Jets, and the Bills may be quietly better than they were expected to be...
8: Cincinnati (+9.5) @ Seattle
*Underdog cover 8/7 *Road underdog cover 6/5 *Outright underdog winner 5/5 *Cover/loss underdog 3/2
Such spreads make me nervous. The impact of Doug Baldwin (Seattle) and AJ Green (Cinci) being out kind of offsets this one a bit. Seattle are notoriously slow starters, and they haven't dramatically improved their offense over the offseason, with the likes of DK Metcalf, Jaron Brown, Chris Carson and Will Dissly the playmakers.
Russel Wilson is simply the guy who will get you a win, but he'll... um... make it 'interesting'. His last 3 years, he's failed to win a single game by a 10pt margin in the first two gamjes of the season, and that may be a small sample size, but it's worth noting that this is exactly what Wilson does. He does everything he can, but without Baldwin, or any other playmakers of note, how can he win by 10 points?
The Bengals are a new team, they shouldn;t be judged on the past, but most impotantly, anyone and everyone should be nervous of a spread this large, this early. Just one team in the last 6 years (Philly on the road to the Jags in 2014) (THE JAGS) have covered a spread greater than 8 points. Now a banged up, shell of a team like Seattle is supposed to do so?
No dice. They may find a way to win, but Cinci are worth crossing the Rubicon for and erring on the side of more, rather than less upsets in week 1.
The rest, in order of likelihood of an upset:
9: Indianapolis @ LA Chargers (-7)
I just can't back the Colts yet, but this was very, very close to making the roll of upsets, and I'd urge everyone to be very careful about backing the Chargers. They are without their bell-cow RB, they are up against a savvy backup in Jacoby Brissett who has now been given a free shot and a new contract. The guy is not going to be worried and he is going to cause hell for them. I also have a hot player TD tip for this game that I'll share in Friday's 'Best Bets' column...
10: San Francisco @ Tampa Bay (-0.5)
The 49ers are 0-12 in their last 12 visits to the East coast. The Bucs... they're ok. This isn't a knock on the 49ers who may start well, but I like the idea of Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay. He has a good record, knows his opponents from his time in Arizona, and didn't lose a game to the 49ers in the final 3 years of his tenure there.
11: Houston @ New Orleans (-7)
The spread worries me, but the Saints beat good teams last season, and Houston really didn't. They beat up on poor opponents and they need a big test. Maybe this is it...
12: Washington @ Philadelphia (-8.5)
Flip side of that big spread argument? When a team enters the season with no QBs and about 5 RBs, you know it's going to be bad. The Eagles have many questions this season, but this is a mismatch.
13: New York Giants @ Dallas Cowboys (-7)
The Giants are probably not as bad as they seem on paper, but this isn't a team getting better. They started last season badly and I think this one is going to get worse before it gets better...
14: Green Bay @ Chicago (-3)
Card-carrying Bears fan here, but the Bears have improved in key areas (notably RB) and start as de facto favorites for the NFC North with bookmakers.
15: Atlanta @ Minnesota (-4)
The Vikings are a better team than the Packers in my eyes. This is one of the games of the week in matchup terms, but that doesn't mean an upset is more likely.
16: Kansas City (-4) @ Jacksonville
Again, the Jags are a stern test for the Chiefs, but they are not significantly better they were last season. Nick Foles is still Nick Foles, miracles aside.