Upset Watch Week 15 2020

Another great week of upsets has passed, and with only three to go, we are making the most of our opportunities that are left in the 2020 regular season. Here's which underdogs we're tipping in week 15.

Upset Watch

17 Dec, 2020

Week 14 was great - but it could have been even better. We were 3/3 on our Sunday upset picks, with the Bears, Eagles and Washington all winning. Hell, we even had the Dolphins to cover +7, and they managed to do so against the Chiefs, leaving our only miss as the Jets to cover against Seattle.

But the last two games didn't go our way. We were high on the Browns to beat the Ravens, which they so very nearly did in one of the best games of the season. Ultimately though, we were denied, and the Steelers didn't show up against the Bills.

But on balance, a very good week in week 14 for us. Remember, the odds on underdogs are so high that if you can get 2-3 right, especially when the odds are stacked against them, as in the case of the Eagles, you can easily make a profit every week.

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Now, let's get on with Upset Watch

 

Methodology:

Last week we cautioned that underdogs get more scarce as the season goes on. If you ever wonder why you read this column, it's probably because we predicted 3 of the 4 underdog victories last week, Chicago, Philly and Washington. We only missed on Denver.

This week, there are projected to be just 4 upsets once again (4.1, to be precise), based on the average over the last 7 years. In fact, in 2017 there were precisely zero upsets, which skews some of the data. For that reason, we'll be picking 5 upset winners (an average of 4.86 over the 6 other years), with 7 underdog covers.

This week is going to be tricky. All but one of the spreads are +3 or above, so there aren't many 'close' games to pick. That's going to make our selections even harder than normal, so let's see what we can find...

 

Week 15 Picks

 

Underdog Wins

The underdogs will win these games outright

 

LA Chargers (+3) @ Las Vegas

In a difficult week, we look for good matchups, and this one is a serendipitous meeting of a team that has a glaring weakness, and a team that can exploit it. 

Let's be blunt about the Raiders: Their season is about to end in the next week or two, primarily because they've lost 3 of their last 4, the 4th being a win against the Jets that was as close as a team can get to losing against the Jets. If we're trying to understand who the Raiders are, they're a team that has lost it's way so badly that if they lose tonight, their playoff hopes are shattered.

And I believe they will lose. The Raiders rank 25thn in the league in passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. Their defense is a disaster, hence the firing of their Defensive Coordinator last week. They have just 15 sacks on the season and have allowed 30.1 points per game, 30th in the league. The Chargers have a high-powered passing attack, and well documented coaching issues. They also have a crucial piece of their puzzle back in Austin Ekeler, and I think they will run and pass all over the Raiders tonight.

 

New England (+2) @ Miami

The only game of the week under +2.5 (our hot zone for upsets), it's the Patriots heading into Miami. Around this time last year, I picked Miami to upset the Pats in an end of season matchup, and they duly obliged. This year, I think the opposite will happen.

The Pats have actually been playing ok football of late and have won 4 of their last 6 games. I think the Dolphins matchup very badly against teams that want to run the ball on them and commit to that strategy. Teams like the Broncos, Bills and yes, the Patriots in week 1, have all ran the ball hard in pursuit of a win. They also narrowly avoided defeat against another rushing QB in Kyler Murray, when they scraped a win in Arizona in week 9.

One of the beauties of this Patriots team is how utterly unpredictable they are. The league's worst passing offense had 350+ yards against the Seahawks and Texans (and lost both games). In this one, I think it'll be a little more predictable, and they'll be helped by injuries to the Dolphins such as TE Mike Gesicki that threaten to derail what has been a great season for them.

 

Chicago (+3) @ Minnesota

Excuse me while I throw up at the prospect of this one. I try to be objective about the Bears, and over the years that has - contrary to what you'd expect - led me to a healthy cynicism about what they will do in any give situation. Favorites? I know the Bears can blow it. Underdogs? Don't worry, they can underwhelm even in defeat.

This year's Bears have been slightly different. They have both good and bad days, in fact some days they're both. I think the Bears are significantly better than the Vikings on defense, and while they're not particularly strong against the run, one of the issues that Minnesota has is that they're incredibly clear about their intentions. If you can stop Dalvin Cook, you will get a shot at winning against them.

For perspective, the Vikings have won just once this season by more than a touchdown. The last time these two teams met, Nick Foles was at QB for Chicago and they were a lot worse on offense as a result. Since Mitch Trubisky returned to the lineup, the Bears average over 30 points per game and I think that the Vikings are more vulnerable on defense than people generally perceive. I'm taking the Bears.

 

Cleveland @ NY Giants (+5)

Weather. The mortal enemy of the Cleveland Browns this season. At kickoff on Sunday the temperature will be somewhere around 36F, which is not good for a Browns team that has been underwhelming in cold weather.

The Giants are very strong against the run - 7th overall - and stand a good chance of stopping - or at least slowing down - the Browns potent run game. Cleveland have dramatically improved over the last two games and scored 40pts in each of their last two outings. That's something that the Giants simply won't achieve, but it must be noted that no team has scored more than 25 points against the Giants in 8 games, and they've held better offenses than the Browns in check.

In the end, this will come down to Daniel Jones. My instinct is he shouldn't be playing, either on performance or injury, take your pick. But New York have won 4 of their last 5 and the Browns are prone to complete offensive meltdowns at times. This will be a good acid test of their ability to be consistent.

 

Philadelphia (+6) @ Arizona

Two in a row? Let's be honest, it doesn't sound particularly likely, but the Eagles are a different team with a QB who doesn't hold onto the ball too long, who doesn't expose himself to unnecessary sacks, and who can shift this team's strength towards a run game that is their best chance of success.

The Cardinals have fallen off lately. Even last week against the Giants, they were largely ineffective for long stretches, and it is clear that the season is taking it's toll on Kyler Murray's health. Murray is now without a TD in 4 games, after scoring in all but one of the Cardinals' previous games this year.

The Cardinals hate it when teams run on them. They lost the preceding three games before last week against teams that did exactly that, putting up 6 touchdowns and an average of 131 yards on them. The Eagles are way more accomplished at running the ball with Hurts in charge of the offense. Don't be surprised to see them mirror the success of Murray, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen in how they use Hurts from here on in.

 

Underdog Covers

The underdogs will cover the spread in these games, but the favorites will win

 

Detroit (+10.5) @ Tennessee

This one stands out as a very achievable line. The Titans have started to score points again, but the Lions have done so all season long and are in the habit of making games tight against good teams. They'd have beaten this spread against the likes of Green Bay, Indianapolis and New Orleans, so the Titans are not assured of a blowout simply because they're very likely to win. The Lions have proven themselves able to lose almost any game, but Tennessee doesn't love teams that throw the ball on them, and I think that's the only option Detroit has left at this stage. It may not be close, but it doesn't need to be.

 

Carolina (+8) @ Green Bay

Let's be clear about this, the Panthers would have given up an ATS loss against a spread this big just twice all season, both against the Bucs. Almost every game they've played, they've been in. That includes Kansas City, New Orleans, Minnesota and Arizona. They're an extremely well-balanced team, and they're a few pieces away from being really good.

I think Green Bay win here. They are the best offense in football, statistically, but they are not infallible, and a dreary winters day in Wisconsin is not necessarily going to favor an all-out assault on Carolina. I fancy this one to genuinely go down to the wire, and it was a close call on whether it sneaked into the 'upset' category...

 

 

Favorite wins

The favorites will win and cover the spread in these games

 

Buffalo (-6) @ Denver

I believe in Josh Allen. The Bills are legitimately very very good. There, now that I've said that, we can all feign surprise when the Broncos inevitably come from nowhere and beat Buffalo.

In all seriousness, the way Allen and the Bills have moved the ball over their last few games has been mesmeric for long periods, taking momentum away from opponents at key points of the game, maintaining drives and building rhythm. The Broncos have largely been the opposite of that and have been pretty haphazard under Drew Lock's signal-calling. The next few games are critical for Lock, but this spread is a couple of points away from an underdog cover for me. 

 

Houston @ Indianapolis (-7)

I wouldn't be surprised if DeShaun Watson doesn't finish this game. The Colts have been brutal all season and figure to run the ball hard on the 31st ranked run defense in the league. Indianapolis has remade it's offense into what I'd call a much more balanced attack in the back end of the season, with just one game under 100yds rushing since week 8. It's no surprise that 3 of the Colts' 4 losses this season were also 3 of the 4 occasions that they failed to get 3 figures in rushing yards.

 

NY Jets @ LA Rams (-17.5)

I think the Rams defense will score on Sunday. I considered bringing this one into the cover category, but last week's finger-burning by the Jets, who lost by 37pts, suggests that they'll need to earn some trust. 

In ordinary times, I'd consider this a very odd game to pick. These two teams seem to be rapidly accelerating away from the 'corridor of uncertainty' however, with LA showing glimpses of their Super Bowl runner-up season 2 years ago at times. I think they'll win this easily, the only question is how many garbage-time points the Jets can run up...

 

Tampa Bay (-6.5) @ Atlanta

If this were +7.5 I'd take the Falcons. The problem here is that they have little to lose, and that will make them less likely to settle for a low scoring defeat. I think it's highly likely that Atlanta gets a chance to win this game, I just also think they'll blow it and instead of kicking the field goals they need to keep it closer than a score, they'll end up trying to get a win that is going to be difficult against a Tampa Bay team that is finally clicking.

Seattle (-5.5) @ Washington 

If Alex Smith were playing healthy, I'd consider this a potential upset, but the likelihood is he'll be playing through pain to a degree that may even keep him out of the game. If Dwayne Haskins plays, we've all seen what that means. The safe bet here, even despite their trials and tribulations over the last 6 weeks, is to take Seattle at what could well look like a very generous spread if Smith doesn't play.

 

Jacksonville @ Baltimore (-13)

The Ravens haven't shown a propensity for blowouts in the back end of this season, which gave me pause for thought. That has to some degree been dictated by the caliber of opposition, however. For example, the teams they'd have beaten this spread against are the Cowboys, Bengals, Colts, Washington, Houston, and Cleveland (in week 1). 

I like Gardner Minshew and what he brings to the Jacksonville offense, but that list is a clear indicator that when the 30th ranked run defense comes to town, they're going to spend an awful lot of time in their own half. I think a big Ravens victory is likely here.

 

Kansas City (-3) @ New Orleans

So close! Obviously this was an upset candidate, and is probably a good bet for a Super Bowl matchup in February... assuming the Super Bowl is played in February... ahem.

But I can't get behind the Taysom Hill experiment, even with a weak KC run defense. I think against good teams like the Chiefs, New Orleans have a difficult time of it. Their schedule has been extremely kind, and only 3 of their opponents this season currently have a winning record today.

And two of the Saints' three losses? You guessed it, they came against the teams with winning records. I thought they were largely awful for long stretches last week in defeat against the Eagles, and while Kansas City have sometimes allowed teams to stay close to them this season, I think teams have to be at their best offensively to hang with this Chiefs team, and that isn't the Saints.

San Francisco (-3) @ Dallas

Another contender for the underdog win pile, but I'm stayin with San Francisco here. They are now close to elimination from the NFC wild card race, and only 3 wins and a lot of very lucky losses for other teams can help change that.

But despite that, they're playing well enough to win. Their rushing attack has a golden opportunity to run all over the Cowboys and their league-worst run defense, which is one of the defining factors in how they can win games. This team, it ain't cut out for a pass-first game.

The Cowboys probably have a more credible path to the postseason, which could well influence how they play in this game, but I don't think they can cope with a 49ers defense that has remained strong all season despite having very little complimentary play from their offensive counterparts.

 

Pittsburgh (-11.5) @ Cincinnati

I spent all season saying that the Steelers were overrated, and as soon as I jump on the bandwagon, what happens? They go and lose two in a row. Well I'm staying on that bandwagon because the Bengals are TERRIBLE.

There's really not a lot to analyze here. The Bengals are marginally better at running the ball, but when they do run, it'll be into the arms of the best defense in the NFL. The Bengals have put up more than 10 points in just one of their last 5 games, which is a quite incredible stat that overlaps even the Joe Burrow injury.

The reverse fixture resulted in a 36-10 steamrollering by the Steelers, and since then, the Bengals have got systematically worse across the board. That spread is amazingly generous.