Upset Watch: Week 16
21 Dec, 2017 by Shaun Lowrie
As the season moves into the last few weeks, we're looking for patterns and trends that will help us stay on the right side of upsets. I'll outline below a concept I'll be using called 'Expected Upsets'
First off, let's use this handy chart to tell us how many upsets there have been each week of the NFL season so far:
As we can see, the season (as usual) started with a flourish of underdogs triumphing against the slightly ridiculous expectations of the media and fans. I mentioned earlier in the season that the average power rankings showed that certain teams (Tampa Bay, New York Giants, Denver) were overrated in the preseason, and this led to the usual 'OMG HOW UNPREDICTABLE IS THE NFL?' spiel by week 6, when 9 underdogs triumphed. For the record, in week 6, here's who was favored and who won (underdog winner in bold)
As you can see, some of the problems were those lingering overrated teams such as the Bucs, Broncos and Raiders being favored in situations where today, it'd be extremely close. There were genuine upsets of course, but people are slow to divest themselves of their allegiance to a 'fancied' team or a dark horse contender who they think will come good.
Anyway, we need more information, let's break it down one step further and see how many of those upsets occured at home and on the road:
Road upsets were happening at an average of 4.7 per week over the first 6 weeks of the season. Over the last 5? just 1.8. That means in practical terms, we should be banking on two or less road upsets per week at this stage of the season.
Conversely, home upsets have remained relatively stable throughout the year at exactly 2 per week. As you can see above, week 3 was a massive outlier, with no fewer than 6 home wins by underdogs, but this season 12 of the 15 weeks have seen just 1 or 2 home dog wins.
My calculations are that by week 16, we should be selecting 2-3 home dogs and 1-2 road dogs, and no more than 4 total upsets, as opposed to the 5 we have picked throughout the season.
Since week 6, we have seen only 2 weeks where more than 5 upsets have occurred, which means if you can nail 2/4, your other 12 picks should yield you on average at least 10 more wins each week. If you went 12-4 each week, you'd be happy, right?
Next week I'm going to do some big-time ATS and power rankings analysis for your perusal. I hate being too dry in this column, but sometimes you do have to go math-heavy in order to explain why we shouldn't hold rigidly to a system just because it's yielded results earlier in the season.
Last week's results:
Top 6 + Bottom 5
Part of the reasoning for the above detour was to show that while my overall form is still going well, the likelihood of getting upsets right diminishes when there are on average less than 5 per week. Last week I picked 6 upsets, and I was fortunate that of the two that actually happened, I was on the Chiefs at home against the Chargers. I was also lucky/unlucky that the Steelers only managed a push against New England because despite everyone 100% knowing what the catch rule is, everyone still pretends they don't know what the catch rule is when it doesn't benefit the team they want to win...
Top 5 + Bottom 5
I'm now at the stage of the season where 64 units is probably too many to lose... I'd need to finish with an average of 3 wins vs the spread in the next two weeks to finish negatively on the year, which - even accounting for the almighty jinx I have just placed on the column - I don't think is likely, particularly as we're now adjusted to take favorites.
Ok, less dry, more... wet... whatever. Let's not go there. Here's the upset picks for week 16:
Week 16 Upset Picks:
1 - New York Giants (+3.5) @ Arizona
This one is a gloriously good spread. The Giants are in a mini-renaissance and the Cards are careering towards an ugly situation with coach Bruce Arians. Drew Stanton is back at the QB helm for Arizona, while Eli Manning is playing (rightly) like he has something to prove for the Giants.
Also, I get the impression that the Cardinals are starting to shy away from risking their best players, while the Giants have the look of a lean, hungry team that knows jobs are on the line for next season. They have been in something of a rhythm together. I really don't think the Giants secondary - as bad as it can be - will be torn apart by Stanton. I expect at least one QB change for Arizona in this game.
2 - Jacksonville @ San Francisco (+4)
How many times do I have to say the 49ers are underrated? Hey, they've been my pet underdog pick for a number of weeks now, and they've delivered.
I get that the Jags are very hot right now, but they're also likely safe as at least a wild card team in the AFC playoff race. Even if they don't win, the Titans losing vs the Rams would be enough to clinch the AFC South.
And you know what? I think they'll underrestimate the 49ers and again struggle on a long road trip. They very rarely play west coast games, but remember they lost in Arizona on a similar travel time, and they are in a prime upset position. To me, you take the 49ers and the points here.
3 - Minnesota @ Green Bay (+9)
SHOEHORN PICK: I am dubious about this one, but our statistics say we need at least 2 home dogs, and that means the choices are... not good. By this stage of the season, any home underdog likely has some fundamental flaws as the reason.
As such, I've gone with the team that has the best coach, the biggest spread, and are playing a divisional rival at home, in prime time. That's the type of thing that motivates players to avoid an embarrassing loss. I still think, if I'm brutally honest, that the Packers may struggle to win, but it's a big spread considering that Brett Hundley was actually playing decent football until his 1 week hiatus to make way for Aaron Rodgers.
4 - Atlanta (+5.5) @ New Orleans
I love this game. You know what annoys me? We have 4 outright dud prime time TV games this week, and the two most meaningful games will happen in the middle of Christmas Eve. Boo I say, boo.
Between this one and the Seahawks/Cowboys game, I think we'll know the NFC playoff picture by the end of Sunday.
The Falcons are playing well, have won 5 of their last 6, and have a massive amount of motivation. This win would clinch a playoff spot for them, although it should be noted that ultimately, the NFC South, as I mentioned a few weeks back, should send 3 to the playoffs.
I think there's an interesting psychological dynamic going on here, and that is that the Saints have dominated most of the season, but seem to have emotionally lacked the stability you'd like in a big-time Super Bowl contender over the last couple of weeks. First they blew up against Atlanta, paving the way for this decider, and then last week... well anyone who watched them against the Jets would likely use the term 'unconvincing'.
I think this one will be settled by a field goal or two, max, and therefore we take Atlanta, as they have a great kicker and a psychological edge.
The rest of this week's slate (blurbs throughout Thursday evening):
5 - Cleveland @ Chicago (-6.5)
Oh god. I don't know what to say here. Look, the Bears are playing ok, and like the 49ers, have been a somewhat reliable source of upsets themselves, but the Browns.... oh look, I just don't see them winning the last game of the season against Pittsburgh, and I think they're going to be as motivated as you've seen them all season.
The scary thing is, they've had chances to cover and win all season long, they've just found ways to completely blow them.Once the rot sets in, the team implodes. God I hate this pick more than the Packers pick, but... no, I can't do it. I can't pick them. I'm going with Chicago.
6 - Seattle @ Dallas (-5)
This one is just outside the potential upsets for a reason. The Seahawks have completely lost all momentum and are on the brink of losing their run of playoff appearances. The loss to the Rams was a huge blow, and while they might find the Cowboys easier going in some ways, They have lost 3 of their last 5 and 2 straight. I mentioned it in week 12, but they are really struggling to put up big points in the second half of the season.
7 - Buffalo @ New England (-12)
The only reason this is in 7th place is that 12 points is an awful lot, even with the Patriots likely to be in no mood to offer any Christmas cheer to their divisional rivals. Actually does Belichick do Christmas? I would imagine he hasn't seen a proper Christmas lunch in what, 40 years? Just when you thought you couldn't dehumanise him any more...
I'm still taking the Pats though.
8 - Miami @ Kansas City (-10.5)
Again, the Dolphins blow so hot and cold that it's crying out for them to cover, but I felt like last week was the defining week in both these teams' seasons. The Chiefs put up back-to-back wins with a reasonably hard-fought win against the Chargers, and follow up with their 3rd home game on the bounce.
Meanwhile, Miami was busy being Miami again and remembering that their season is over. I just think the Chiefs almost opened up since the Jets game and can likely put up enough points that Miami will struggle to compete.
9 - Pittsburgh (-9) @ Houston
It says everything about this week that this is so high. I really, genuinely don't think Houston will win, yet here we are. I guess you could argue that the Steelers will have to adjust to no Antonio Brown... but that's not enough is it? The Texans are awful...
I was tempted by this spread more than any other as the Steelers haven't covered in 4, and 5 of their last 6. However, the Texans have not only lost 4 straight, but failed to score more than 16 points in any of them. That means there's a possibility Pittsburgh only needs between 21 and 25 points to win and cover. I like that.
10 - Tampa Bay @ Carolina (-10)
I just don't think the Bucs are very good. There. I said it. Also, I have consistently underrated the Panthers and they deserve some support. This is their biggest spread of the year, but they have covered 9.5 in New England and beat the Bucs by 14 points in week 9.
11 - LA Chargers (-7) @ New York Jets
This spread has a lot of people backing the Chargers, and I can see why. The Jets were Josh McCown's team, and without him... I guess they put up an admirable fight in New Orleans, but something tells me this is going to be a difficult game for Bryce Petty and his O-line.
12 - Detroit (-4.5) @ Cincinnati
Cincinnati are so bad, I mean this spread should legitimately be double figures because they are consistently getting blown out. Fun fact: This will be their third straight NFC North game, and they lost the last two by 33-7 and 34-7. My guess is this does not go well. It's a shame because I used to like Marvin Lewis, but he is quickly becoming another Jeff Fisher in a world of Sean McVays.
13 - LA Rams (-7) @ Tennessee
Speaking of McVay, the Titans are terrible and he's about to take a team of potential Super Bowl winners into town to deliver a beat down. 7 points is very kind to the Titans, I think this one gets out of hand.
14 - Denver @ Washington (-3.5)
This was an interesting one, but the statistics really don't favor the Broncos at all. They have two victories in the last two weeks in fortuitous circumstances. First, against the Jets, Josh McCown got injured, and then second against the Colts, Trevor Siemian got injured. Those two QB injuries sure did help them out in very different ways.
Actually if I were Kirk Cousins, I'd be worried I could be next. But no, I like the Skins, even the beat up Skins who are limping to the end of the season.
15 - Indianapolis @ Baltimore (-13.5)
Speaking of the Colts, one of the other ways the Broncos got lucky was that they were playing them. They have failed to cover 4 straight spreads, and haven't scored more than 20 points in 7 weeks. The Ravens are not only a killer defense who can make the Colts look terrible, but they're scoring a lot too, in fact they have only scored less than 20 points once (16 vs Minnesota in October) since week 4. Again, this feels like one that could get out of hand.
16 - Oakland @ Philadelphia (-9)
The Raiders aren't very good against good teams, and they've only covered once on the road all season - in week 1 against Tennessee. I don't know how I feel about Nick Foles, but as I pointed out on Twitter, his performance last week was actually better than Carson Wentz's performance against the Giants earlier in the season. There isn't much indication that there'll be a substantial drop-off just yet, so I was wrong about him last week, and anyone who throws 4 TD's and 0 INT's as a backup deserves credit in the form of our confidence.
Shaun Lowrie is the founder and editor of Pickwatch, a site designed to give you a new perspective on experts in the NFL media by tracking their performance when picking games or predicting draft picks, team performance, or player potential. You can contact him at [email protected] or on twitter at @pickwatch