Upset Watch Week 1 2020
Upset Watch is back for another season of predictions and underdog picks, guiding you through the week 1 slate and looking for unexpected winners.
8 Sep, 2020
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand we're back.
Welcome, fellow Pickwatch friends, that was a pretty rough offseason.
First of all, we all hope you're well. That used to be something that people just said out of courtesy, but I think it's fair to say that the meaning of such banal politeness has changed considerably over the last 6 months. We truly hope you are ok.
For those of you who have never used Pickwatch before, welcome! Upset Watch is my weekly column that picks the most likely underdog winners and covers from the upcoming slate. We use a combination of different data to make our picks, including:
Trends in ATS covers and upsets across recent seasons
Recent team performance against similar teams to their next opponents
Team stats and general trends.
There are of course more, but you get the idea. Roughly a third of NFL games end in the underdog winning outright, and around half end in the underdog covering the spread, and yet we do not see this reflected well in picks that people make. Instead, people favor the favorite, so that's something this column seeks to put right.
Upset Watch aside, it's a new season and we hope that you like our new features! I won't bang on about them here too much, but we've added private pools for you and your friends, a new Pickwatch virtual currency that mimics the ups and downs of using real money when you make picks, a bigger than ever $10,000 prize pool for our contest, and a new stats section with all the data we have, plus depth charts, injuries and rosters...
We've already had feedback that has helped us in numerous ways. We'll be adding a 'submit' button rather than auto-saving your picks. We've opened up the fan contest picks to make them viewable by everyone until the latter stages of the season (when it becomes a competitive advantage to know your opponent's picks!) and we're working on some cool features to launch during the season to improve private leagues and our main pages.
Of course, we'll be tracking every NFL expert we can find, with some exclusive picks coming in and some awesome data that you can use to help make your own picks.
Ok, so let's deal with the elephant in the room: Covid has caused some issues, it will continue to mess with the NFL and likely all of our lives, but that said, I am quietly confident that somehow, we'll get at least 80-90% of the NFL schedule complete on time.
If you want a prediction, we here at Pickwatch have banked on the season being erratic. We think multiple games will be cancelled and moved to future weeks, and we also are working on the assumption that the NFL may run out of time to play all of the offending games.
But our sincere hope is that we get a whole season in, no matter whether fans can attend or not. We would all like life to go back to normal, but if it doesn't, we'll still be here and covering everything for you.
With the aforementioned situation in mind, week 1's methodology will sometimes differ. We'll have to factor in a lack of home field advantage and a lack of familiarity. What is a team's roster turnover? How will rookies do?
But for the most part, we anticipate that teams will be working in largely the same conditions they always have. If anything. limiting teams almost exclusively to their hotel rooms will probably help some road teams.
So our first question, is how many upsets do we usually get in week 1? The answer is 5.1 straight up underdog winners, and 7.3 Underdog covers.
That's where you roughly need to be with your picks - 5 upsets and 7 dogs to cover. That's the easy bit. The hard bit is figuring out where underdogs do their best work. Is it the big surprises, or are they winning the closer matchups?
The Stats for week 1 (since 2013)
Home underdogs: 37 Home underdog wins: 10 (27.0%)
Road underdogs: 73 Road underdog wins: 26 (35.6%)
% of underdog wins = Road 72%, Home 28%
What does this tell us? that of our 5 underdog picks, between 3 and 4 should be road teams.
The spread is another factor we can use to determine where our probability increases.
Number of games under +3.0 spread: 45 Underdog wins under +3.0 spread: 22 (48.8%)
Number of games over +3.0 spread: 65 Number of underdog wins over +3 spread: 14 (21.5%)
So we're starting to figure this out. You can also see that the number of underdog wins becomes even greater as we go down, with under 2.5 generating more upsets than favorite winners (57%).
Our underdogs are taken care of, but we'll also be looking for 2 teams to cover who don't win (bringing us up to our 7 covers). What's the breakdown there? Well those events are rarer. Only 20 of the 76 games have finished that way, but again, it's on the road that teams thrive.
Of the 20 road covers by underdogs, 14 were by road teams, and the average spread was +7, as opposed to +4.34 in games that underdogs lost and failed to cover. In fact 16 of those games had a spread of over 6 points.
Interpretation? We need some high end road underdogs to maximize our chances of getting covers.
So our final methodology will be:
5 upset winners - 4 road, 1 home, 4 under 3.0, 1 over 3.0.
7 underdog covers
2 high spreads (6.0 or higher)
With that in mind, let's pick!
HOU (+9) @ KC (HOU cover, KC win)
So this falls into one of our 'cover but not win criteria of a great big road spread. I think this is a very generous spread for week 1, in fact this would be a generous spread if the Chiefs were playing against a bad team from last season, let alone a team that had them on the ropes in the Divisional round of the AFC playoffs last season...
SEA (-1.5) @ ATL (SEA win and cover)
Seattle look one of the more complete teams in the NFC this season, I have them tipped to run San Francisco pretty close for the NFC West title. Atlanta are certainly no pushovers, hence the spread, but there seems to be some momentum behind the Seahawks. Of course Russel Wilson is the decisive factor in a slow starting team, but a 2 or 3 point victory is par for the course for Seattle early in the year.
NYJ @ BUF (-6.5) (BUF win and cover)
This is one of those where you have to tell yourself to stick to the system and try not to let your heart rule your head. I don't like the Bills much, they're certainly not scoring enough points as a unit to justify the spread (19.6 points per game in 2019) but the Jets... well, they're the Jets.
CHI (+3) @ DET (CHI win and cover)
This is more like it. The first game that fits our criteria for an underdog outright win, and it's the... oh god it's Chicago. Long time readers will know I am a lifelong Bears fan, but I don't let this impact my selections (at least not in a positive way...). There is however, a very good case for this. It is +3, which is not a meaningless number to us because anything +3 or under is a play for us.
GB (+2.5) @ MIN (GB win and cover)
Bingo. Our second 'must play' of the week is the Packers on the road in Minnesota. This one is easier to get behind - we have the Packers winning the division anyway. We also have the Vikings struggling. I mentioned in my column that the Vikings are reed thin at Safety, but they were also swept by the Packers last season and I remain unconvinced by their offense.
MIA (+6.5) @ NE (MIA win and cover)
Yes! Three on the spin, as my pick for a big unexpected winning season, the Dolphins, take on the Patriots in Foxboro. You can't overstate how different this game is without Tom Brady (oh yeah, that guy!). The Pats will certainly not hold the same mystique as they once did, particularly for a Miami team that has an unusually good habit of upsetting them anyway. The right callas are being made in South Florida, we like this as the big upset of the week.
PHI (-5.5) @ WAS (PHI win and cover)
If you've read the aformentioned preseason preview article, you'll know I'm pretty down on the Eagles. Unfortunately, as much as I think they'll struggle this season, it probably won't be against the... Washington team. I think the team formerly known as the 'skins is in a better spot now, but ultimately this spread is just a little low. If it was over 6.5, I'd probably have taken Washington. More on Philly next week...
LV (-3.5) @ CAR (LV win and cover)
Oh hey Las Vegas. You know when the Rams and Chargers moved to LA, it really didn't take much adjustment because of the NFL's previous LA dalliances, but Las Vegas? That one isn't really sinking in yet. The Raiders are still somewhere in between where they need to be and where they were, but they probably have an early season edge on a team in Carolina who I believe will certainly exceed their 5.5 projected wins on Draftkings.
IND (-8) @ JAX (IND win and cover)
This is a bit of a banana skin, but the Jags may be this season's Dolphins, a team that needs to establish itself as a bottom feeder, before teams come in woefully unready. The Colts, as much as I am down on them this year overall, can probably serve the Jags a pretty heavy loss without too much trouble.
CLE (+8) @ BAL (BAL win, CLE cover)
Ah, now we're back in business. Cleveland against the Ravens. The Browns actually won the corresponding game last year, a 40-25 road victory. That may not be on the cards this season, but the Ravens aren't infallible. They actually started 2019 1-4-1 in their first 6 games, and the one they won was the season opener against the corpse of the Miami Dolphins.
LAC (-3.5) @ CIN (LAC win and cover)
You know how much I want to pick the Bengals here? So much. The reason I'm not is that Joe Burrow has every chance to be a good QB for the Bengals, but starting your first game after a dysfunctional offseason is really not ideal preparation. I think the Bengals might start slowly, but grow into Burrow as much as he grows into them. Conversely, I feel like this may be a false dawn for the Chargers...
TB (+3.5) @ NO (TB win and cover)
Ah, now this is it. Game of the week, Tom Brady on the road against Drew Brees. Look, the signs are there with Brees, people desperately don't want to see them, but this team is on the ragged edge and if they don't manage a winning season, just remember who called it... The Bucs are just stacked. There's a point where you have to just acknowledge that there is only so much that fate, other teams, or luck can do to stop a team this well stacked. Oh, and they fall into our low road spread underdogs wheelhouse, so it doesn't matter what we think, we're picking 'em.
ARI @ SF (-7) (SF win and cover)
Ok so this was a legitimate consideration, but why didn't we go with this as a cover? Because the 49ers were ridiculous in the last half of the season (34 TD's in their last 10 games) and the Cardinals were absolutely not good. I mean they were bad. They were the worst defense in the league by some way. And this league has the Jets in it. They have to do more to prove they're able to hang with the big boys.
DAL (-3) @ LAR (DAL win and cover)
I'm glad the Cowboys aren't arbitrarily going to be picked against based on our data, because I would be very unhappy picking against them right now. This is a complete team, I'd go as far as to say the best team in the NFC. The Rams... eh... not so much. I thought they were possibly an outside bet for the NFC West, but they just don't stack up well and I'm still wary about Jared Goff's regression.
PIT @ NYG (+5.5) (NYG win and cover)
Ah yes, our home underdog winner. I am massively unconvinced by Ben Roethlisberger and this year's Steelers. I'll say this, they have a great defense again, but we learned last season that without some fairly remarkable QB play, they're just not that good. I think the signs were certainly there even before Ben's injury, that he was slowing down. He started last season so badly that it would have been an interesting conversation had he carried on with a 55% completion %.
Meanwhile, New York. Oh how lacking in trust I am. Not as much as Joe Judge mind you, that guy called out his team for playing soft in practice a day before final cuts were made. I'm going to say that they're secretly dark horses and I think they'll come in second place in the NFC East, but whether that is 2 games or 6 games behind the Cowboys...
TEN (-2.5) @ DEN (TEN win and cover)
The Titans and Broncos are two of the biggest mysteries of this season. Were Tennessee a fluke? Or is this the real deal, a team that will play everyone hard and shock teams until they are recognized as legit? I think they are, but this game will be a great test. They're helped by the injury to Von Miller, which sets the Broncos back some way. They aren't a great pass rushing team and they'll need to be to win. That said, I like Drew Lock a lot, they have a great young receiving corps and a good RB tandem. They can win some games, I just... don't think it's this one.
That's my underdog picks for the week. If you're in a state where sports betting is active (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, New Jersey, West Virginia) you can take our 5 underdogs and get almost a $1200 return on a $10 parlay.