Well, we're at the end of another regular season, and while Upset Watch will continue into the playoffs, it's a good time to do a season recap. Here are some of our highs and lows of the 2020 season.
Someone asked what our season record is. Well, assuming you put $100 on each of our selections this season (money line for winners, ATS for covers) you'd now be up $1249 overall.
I guess that's why most of you read this column, because you already get how profitable picking underdogs can be, but for the uninitiated, picking 'dogs accurately means that every pick you get right is worth at least double your money. Some of those big underdogs? They're worth 4-5x your money, so unlike picking vs the spread traditionally, your capacity to rapidly make money is huge.
This week's historical analysis calls for 4.6 Wins and 8.0 Covers - or 5 wins and 8 covers. As always in week 17, one of our core factors to look at is who is sitting, and who has something to play for. At this time of year, it's critical not to underestimate the impact of motivation. Some teams are dead and buried, while others have shown spirit. We know who they are, so let's see which teams tick the upset box...
The underdogs will win these games outright
NY Jets (+3.5) @ New England
What's to play for? Remnants of pride.
Players sitting? Possibly Cam Newton for the Pats, nobody for the Jets.
You know what's important here? The Jets have way more motivation to stick it to the Pats, than the Pats have ability to blow out the Jets. Make sense? It should. The Jets are one of the few franchises that still care about something so petty at this stage of a busted flush of a season, and they're also the only AFC East team that hasn't had a chance to put the boot into the Patriots while they're down.
And one other odd dynamic: Sam Darnold has only played the Patriots twice in three seasons. He lost 38-3 and 33-0. You think he might have some motivation here? Meanwhile, the Patriots are still persisting with the remnants of Cam Newton at QB, despite the clear evidence that this experiment is over. Cam will earn a serious bonus if he plays over 80% of the snaps on Sunday, perhaps that's the only reason to keep a guy who has thrown 10 interceptions and 5 touchdowns this season.
Get the Jets in case Stidham is named starter and that line changes.
Las Vegas @ Denver (+2.5)
What's to play for? Nothing.
Players sitting? None yet.
This would be my pick of the week, if you're counting. I think the Raiders are a shadow of the team that was in midseason playoff contention. Derek Carr is still injured, yet the Raiders intend to start him. Meanwhile, Drew Lock and the Broncos had chance after chance to beat the Chargers and failed, yet again failing to meet their paltry season average of just 19.7 points per game.
It's hard to tell which team is worse here, but the Broncos are more fun, they go deep often and they take big chances. This is an upset, if it happens, there can be no doubting that the Raiders are a better team on paper and for long periods of the season have been a good football team, but were it not for the last-second should-have-lost pass against the league's worst team in week 13, they would be on a 6 game losing streak.
LA Chargers @ Kansas City (+3.5)
I've moved this around from a cover to an outright 'upset'. The 1-win Chiefs are going to be unpredictable, but with a bye week assured next week, they will be in holiday mode. As much as that may favor the Chargers, I don't think we should underestimate the Chiefs with Chad Henne. I had originally hoped for Patrick Mahomes to get a few series and a two score lead before being pulled, but that is not happening. Instead, it'll be Henne, who is a credible backup with the ability to drag the Chiefs backups to a win. You know how deep the receiving corps is, now I think there's a perfect opportunity for the likes of Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman to get some serious playing time.
Atlanta (+6) @ Tampa Bay
What's to play for? Bucs can clinch the 5th seed (and a WC game vs the NFC East champ). Atlanta... nothing.
Players sitting? None.
I hate the Bucs here, and I don't think people should sleep on the Falcons, who have lost their last 4 games by a combined 15 points, which may not sound great, but they were against the Chiefs, the Bucs, the Saints and the Chargers - in other words, three playoff teams. It may sound obvious, but they are knocking on the door of a victory.
And while the Bucs have motivation, I think it feeds into a factor that has become surprisingly influential recently. The Falcons have become... an ok defense! They rank 13th in points allowed since week 13, and have held 4 of their last 5 opponents under 21 points.
Oh, and if you want a prop here, please, please get on Matt Ryan to score a rushing or receiving TD. He loves a trick play in week 17.
New Orleans @ Carolina (+6)
Sunday Update: I have moved this to the 'Upset' category and demoted the Eagles. The Saints are beset by injuries and Covid issues, and the Panthers were a team that I mentioned earlier in the week that ordinarily, I would have picked in this spot. The loss of Alvin Kamara and the rest of the Saints running backs from Sunday's game was the tipping point for me. I think combined with the Saints D line potentially not wanting to exert too much before the playoffs, it's a good spot for Carolina.
One to watch:
Pittsburgh (+10) @ Cleveland
What's to play for? Steelers can clinch no.2 seed, Browns
Players sitting? Ben Roethlisberger for Pittsburgh (Mason Rudolph starts), Possible COVID-19 related issues for the Browns, minor outbreak at their facility.
I think this is definitely worth a shot because of the unique circumstances the game may be played under. The line is all wrong anyway (take Pittsburgh to cover) and the Steelers really do need that bye week, perhaps more than the Browns will actually realize, but the main reason you should get on the Steelers, is because there's every chance that the Browns are about to become another pandemic hotspot and be forced to change their game plan considerably later on in the week.
There is conflicting information about the severity of the situation, but getting the Steelers at +10 vs the spread or +380 money line is a good deal that sets you up nicely if you'd like to then cover that bet with a Browns win should their odds get better, thus guaranteeing you some profit with either result.
As for the game itself... Rudolph has been quite bad as a starter when called upon, but I have a feeling Baker Mayfield will be playing short-handed, which may make this a more even contest than it looks on paper. The Browns, as motivated as they are, will also need to overcome the fact that they have flattered to deceive on numerous occasions this year so far. Mayfield is talented, but any time he is talking about a game, it's a bad sign. The way the Browns are approaching this - as a playoff game - sounds like overkill, and when the Browns have placed a weight of expectation on this team, it has generally been underwhelming.
I do have concerns about the Steelers run defense, but I think Pittsburgh will be more motivated than most to ensure they don't allow another division rival slip into the playoffs without a fight.
The underdogs will cover the spread in these games, but the favorites will win
Jacksonville (+14) @ Indianapolis
This is a surprising pick, I'm sure, but I'm mostly concerned about this large spread in week 17. It's too high, and it is frankly a minefield given how nervy the Colts will be while playing for the last playoff place (and needing others to lose).
Now of course, there's every chance they simply keep handing the ball off to Jonathan Taylor and stomp all over the Jags, but there is a really good chance that the Colts play within themselves for large portions, and even if they get a lead, it's entirely likely that the Jags get some garbage time against the Colts backups and make this unnecessarily close.
But really, this is one of those where there's more logic for the Colts to play bad football (as they did against Houston, Cincinnati, Cleveland and - you guessed it - the Jags.
Green Bay @ Chicago (+5)
Eek. Can the Bears get over the line? I am dubious, and I think it doesn't help that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers seem intent on getting Rodgers an MVP title. As meaningless as this game may seem to Green Bay given the expectation that New Orleans will beat Carolina, they are very much the type of team that would enjoy consigning their closest rivals to a .500 season and missing the playoffs.
But with all that in mind, the Bears are going to play this game hard and keep it close. It wouldn't be a huge shock if they won, given that the Packers are likely to ease up in the second half and rest Rodgers - even if he doesn't want to. Ultimately, I think Mitch and the Bears may come up a few points short, which would be incredibly appropriate after a wild, unpredictable season.
The favorites will win and cover these games
Miami @ Buffalo (-1.5)
The Bills are way too good for Miami right now. The Dolphins have slumped considerably of late, in fact Tua Tagovailoa has been distinctly underwhelming so far, with 3 sub-100 yard passing games since he became a starter, finally being yanked for Ryan Fitzpatrick last week in a desperate attempt to stem the bleeding. Tua is safe, but he is uninspiring, and with the Bills wanting to clinch the second seed in the event that Pittsburgh loses to Cleveland, they have at least as much motivation to put their rivals into a tricky playoff spot.
Baltimore (-13) @ Cincinnati
The Ravens are likely to go full throttle throughout this game, and while I don't like this spread at all, the Ravens are slightly more comfortable than some of the teams facing 'gimme' games this week. They can afford to lose and still make the playoffs if Cleveland and Indy lose, but they will have every motivation to do what they did to the Bengals back in week 5, a 27-3 demolition.
Minnesota (-6.5) @ Detroit
I don't like this pick at all, but the chances are that Matthew Stafford doesn't play, and that makes it hard to pick anyone but the Vikings, despite Dalvin Cook's absence due to the death of his tragically young father this week. As much as this one could go back and forth, the Lions will likely be playing with David Blough at some point in this game, and that is probably a significant sign that the Vikings are ahead by a big enough score to warrant such a last-ditch move.
Dallas (-3) @ NY Giants
This is my first reserve as far as upsets go. The Giants have a great defense but can't score any points. The Cowboys are the complete opposite, putting up an average of 32.3 points over their last 3 outings but having a porous defense.
As you can see, these two teams couldn't be more opposite in every way. In fact, another way they are opposites is in the way that the Cowboys have rallied to a 3 game winning streak, while the Giants have fallen to a 3 game losing streak. Can you see where I'm going here? The Giants have reverted back to their woeful offensive struggles of the early part of the season, averaging a measly 12.4 points over their last 5 games. I can't back them until they actually score some points.
Tennessee (-7.5) @ Houston
The reverse of this matchup earlier in the season was actually an incredible game, with the Titans winning 36-42 in overtime after Houston pushed them to the limit.
The Texans are one of the great enigmas of the season. They've been bad, but in spurts, they've actually played ok football. They're 4th in the league in passing yards and DeShaun Watson has thrown just 6 interceptions (2nd in the league), but since Will Fuller was suspended, they've lost 4 straight and looked battered and bruised. There's a strong possibility that Watson doesn't play much in this game, and that coupled with Tennessee's desire to ice the division, would seem to point towards a clear Tennessee cover.
Arizona (-1) @ LA Rams
So then. John Wolford. AAF fans (remember when we did the AAF?) may remember Wolford, he was player of the week in week 1 for Arizona (The Hotshots, that is). Ironically, this week, he may well be Arizona's player of the week again, as they seek to secure their playoff place with a win that would eliminate the Bears.
Jared Goff's absence isn't the only one for LA. They're missing Cooper Kupp because of Covid and Cam Akers is yet to practice this week. The Rams are in short, beaten up and limping over the line. There's still a small chance they could actually end up out of the playoffs entirely, should they lose and Chicago win.
Arizona have been poor for the last month, but I think they can just about scrape a win against half of the Rams. What comes next if they make the playoffs is anyone's guess...
Seattle (5.5) @ San Francisco
Please, let us see Josh Rosen!
I was discussing the Rosen situation with a few friends this week, with a general consensus that his situation is incredibly unusual. Here we have a guy who was drafted tenth overall, who played mediocre football on a bad Cardinals team, was traded after a season, given half a shot at beating out the actually-quite-good Ryan Fitzpatrick in Miami, and now finds himself taken from the Bucs' practice squad to backup CJ Beathard in a season finale for San Francisco.
Let me put it this way, that first season in Arizona, he threw 11 TD's to 14 INT's. That's not great, but for a rookie in a dreadful Arizona team. He was sacked 45 times in 14 games, because he had an offensive line made out of thin air.
I guess my point is... he didn't really do much that any other rookie doesn't do. His completion percentage was better than Jalen Hurts right now and not out of the realms of current starters like Sam Darnold this season. In fact, in his first year, he actually had a better completion percentage than Josh Allen, and a similiar TD:INT ratio.
And there's something else super-weird about this. The Bucs practice squad? Really? This is a league where Jeff Driskel gets a backup gig, where Tyrod Taylor who has been statistically worse than Rosen over a longer period, gets a starting gig. Why was no team willing to put Rosen in a QB room as a backup and treat him as a reclamation project, given the likes of Jameis WInston and Drew Lock, interception machines, are given chance after chance?
Anyway, Seattle will win, and if Rosen plays, he likely has almost no chance to win with whatever is left of San Francisco's team, but he is a classic example of a weird anti-Charlie Whitehurst effect. The only plausible reason that Whitehurst was consistently given a job as a backup in the NFL for a decade - despite multiple attempts at starting that went terribly wrong - was because he had been a backup in the NFL for so long.
For Rosen, the fact that he has flamed out as QB of two of the worst teams he could possibly have played for during that period is apparently enough to justify him never being given a chance to even hold a clipboard, and there's something pretty sad about that.
Still, he's doing better than Christian Hackenberg at least...
Washington (-2) @ Philadelphia
What's to play for? Washington can win the NFC East with a win.
Players sitting? None, but Terry McLaurin and Alex Smith are questionable to return from injury for Washington
Oh what a week for Washington. Is there a more dysfunctional franchise in the league? The name debacle, the sexual harassment lawsuits, cutting your no.1 pick from the previous year because he went to a strip club, playing 4 QB's (and counting)...
I have big worries over Smith returning from injury early in order to replace Haskins. I think it's likely that Taylor Heinicke starts this game, and that McLaurin doesn't play either. Those two players have been the ultimate difference between the WFT winning and losing games, so their loss tilts this in favor of an Eagles team who have spluttered since their shock win against the Saints in week 14.
Sunday Update: I have moved this to the favorite win category. I don't like the Eagles and their injury situation, it looks an awful lot like a tank from a coach who is secure, so with Smith now looking likely to start (albeit I doubt he will finish) against a Fletcher-Cox-less Eagles D, I'm on Washington.