Welcome to week 5’s Upset Watch, which this week has a boisterous, triumphant tone, as our methodology for picking upsets was validated with some surprises last week.
We touched on it in the Tampa Bay @ LA Rams blurb last week, but it’s important to remain neutral about a team’s chances of covering when picking vs the spread, so as not to subconsciously assume the favorite will always have the best chance to cover.
Psychologically, it’s just that bit easier for us to imagine offenses running wild and scoring touchdowns unanswered, than it is to imagine good teams not showing up against bad teams, as happened last week. Most importantly, we must remember that the points spread is set to equalize the two teams. In theory, it should lead to something akin to a 50-50 pick.
If we shake ourselves out of the bad habits regarding underdogs, we get more success. That’s why each week Upset Watch shows you the true stats about who covers, and when. We’ll tell you what the average is for underdog and favorite covers each week, both historically and over the current season. We’ll also tell you if those teams tend to be at home, on the road, against a big or small spread, and combinations of all of the above.
So read on for this week’s methodology
Week 5 is one of the low points in the early season for underdogs. Traditionally, we see less upsets in this week than any other week than most (6.2 average), but why?
Well, one reason could be quite simple - bye weeks. This means that in 2013, 15, 16 and 17 there were only 14 games played in this week. This week, there are 15, as there was in 2014 and last year.
As a percentage, it is clear that upsets trend at around 50%, with two very big outliers in 2014-15.
With this in mind, an average number of upsets would be around 7.5 this week, but how has 2019 progressed? Should we round our number up to 8, or down to 7?
Underdog covers in 2019: 39/63 = 61.90%
Home covers in 2019: 22/63 (34.92%)
Road covers in 2019: 41/63 (65.08%)
Home favorites in 2019 vs spread: 13-30 (30.2%)
Road Underdogs in 2019 vs spread: 30-13 (69.8%)
Road favorites in 2019: 11-9 (55%)
Home underdogs in 2019 vs spread: 9-11 (45%)
Home underdogs with spread 4 or less straight up: 4-6-1 (40%)
Home underdogs with spread 4.5 or more straight up: 0-9 (0%)
Home underdogs with spread 4 or less ATS: 7-4 (63.6%)
Home underdogs with spread 4.5 or more ATS: 2-7 (22.2%)
Road underdogs with spread 4 or less straight up: 12-8 (60%)
Road underdogs with spread 4.5 or more straight up: 7-16 (30.4%)
Road underdogs with spread of 4 or less ATS: 13-7 (65%)
Road underdogs with spread of 4.5 or more ATS: 17-6 (73.9%)
Underdog covers are very much up in 2019. Currently hitting at 61.9%, with an average of 9.3 per week, even in last week’s 15 game schedule. There is something to be said for following this trend, but we would also expect that to trend back towards the mean at some point this season, but let’s stick with it until that trend begins.
Where will those underdogs come from? Well road underdogs with a spread of 4.5 or more make up 75% of covers this season, so let’s start there. That is a pool of 4 teams, Atlanta, the Jets, Denver and Indy. Rather than trying to find the game that we think won’t cover from that bunch, we’re going to pick all of them and play the numbers. That’s 4 covers
Road underdogs are going to be the crux of this, and 65% of teams with smaller spreads on the road also win. This is a bigger pool, including the Rams, Arizona, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Cleveland. We’d expect at least 4 of those teams to cover and win, with a fifth cover and loss. That’s 9.
We know that home dogs over 4.5 are very poor indeed this season, with no straight up wins at all and only 2 covers this season. Let’s avoid those and focus on the last game that gives us shivers, the Steelers as +3.5 dogs to the Ravens. That one is our x-factor, and we’ll delve further into the stats that matter in that one.
There is one further x-factor - the London game between Oakland (‘home’) and Chicago (‘road’). We’ll treat that as entirely separate from the main pool, as that trip is effectively a road game for both teams.
So here’s this week’s slate:
Upset Watch Picks Week 5
LA Rams (+1.5) @ Seattle
These two teams played out two classic encounters last season, with the Rams winning both 36-31 in LA and 33-31 in Seattle. Those games came at the peak of the Sean McVay-Jared Goff combination, and that seems like a long time ago right now.
What we can say, is that the Seahawks, while off to a fast start for the first time since Russell Wilson became a starter, are not infallible and the Rams put up a lot of points. I see a Rams victory here, and were it not for some basic mistakes last week, I think they’d be favored.
Arizona (+3) @ Cincinnati
This is tough, but the Cardinals are a better football team. Were they able to get into the end zone, they would be more effective, but they will not get a better chance than against the Bengals, who arguably should be underdogs in this one. The Cardinals seem to prefer being underdogs to being favored, which will help them this year as they’re likely to be underdogs pretty much every week from here on in...
Atlanta (+5) @ Houston
Ew. This one we HATE, but the methodology says, go with the road team as 4.5 or more underdogs. Sure, the Falcons have lost a number of games now which indicate Matt Ryan may be in the slump of his career, but there is still hope. They are moving the ball, and eliminating basic turnovers will see them through against many opponents.
The Texans? Well, they don’t seem to like scoring many points on the road, averaging 14.5, a figure that gives any team hope.
Baltimore (-3.5) @ Pittsburgh
This one gives me fits. 40% of home teams with spreads of 4 or less have won their games this year. Are the Steelers about to become another? I think they can be. Mason Rudolph is arguably close to being a minor upgrade on early-season Big Ben, and the Ravens looked a little overmatched against the Browns of all teams. You can certainly sense the confidence coming back to the Steelers.
That said, I think this is one upset too far. The Ravens I see going back to the formula that has won them a lot of games, and getting Lamar Jackson running early and often to open up the passing game. Remember, if 40% of home dogs win in these circumstances, then 60% lose...
Buffalo @ Tennessee (-3)
With Josh Allen in the concussion protocol, we have to lean towards the Titans. This one is a good matchup of defensive teams that have erratic, unreliable QB’s. Matt Barkley has proved to be less of a downgrade than we would have said years ago when the Eagles drafted him and he looked atrocious, but he is a significant step down in terms of their gameplan with Allen that has been effective for some time now. The Titans are bad as favorites and tripped up against a backup in Gardner Minshew a few weeks ago, but they get our vote as they seem to have turned a corner offensively.
Chicago (-5) vs Oakland (London)
These games are always strange, but a little context - since 2010, there have been 5 games in London with spreads over 5 points, and the favorites are 4-1. I do have reservations about the Bears with a backup QB in Chase Daniel, but arguably, the Raiders without Vontaze Burfict at linebacker are in worse shape.
Also, we’ll be at this game, so feel free to say hello if you see us wearing Pickwatch hoodies!
Jacksonville (+3.5) @ Carolina
This could be our pick of the week. In week 2, I described Gardner Minshew as someone ‘nobody has heard of’ and was rebuked for it on twitter by one of our users. I hold my hands up, this was wrong, Minshew is legit. The Jags are close to being better under him than they could have been with Nick Foles, and there have been flashes from Minshew that suggest he is way more than just a backup.
On the flip side, Kyle Allen is likely not the answer for the Panthers. I’d like to see him use his legs a little more, because the Panthers’ offense is becoming entirely reliant on Christian McCaffrey.
Minnesota (-5.5) @ NY Giants
This one has us struggling, much like the favorite Vikings. It’s the ultimate test of methodology over gut feel, as the Vikings have struggled mightily, while the Giants appear resurgent. It’s an awfully big spread for a road team to cover, but again, no home underdog with a spread of over 4 has won a game this year, and only 2/9 have covered. Clearly, this is a contender for an upset, but we’ll stick with our methodology at this point.
New England (-15) @ Washington
Like the Giants, the Redskins can probably get somewhere if they are galvanized by rookie Dwayne Haskins, or even backup Colt McCoy, but the stats are stacked against them. The Patriots may have floundered last week against the Bills, but an angry Patriots team against a Redskins unit that has looked bereft of confidence is a mismatch and a half.
NY Jets (+13.5) @ Philadelphia
This one is tougher than it looks. As we explain below in the Indianapolis blurb, the big spread is not necessarily something that has worked for the favorites this season, Miami’s opponents excepted. That makes me inclined towards the Jets even if our methodology didn’t explicitly say ‘pick the damn Jets, dummy!.
Given how frequently road favorites with bigger spreads are covering, and how unconvincing the Eagles have looked at times this season, this one could be interesting. Remember, we don’t win games like this because we convince ourselves that Luke Falk will come out and make an awful mess of his bedsheets, but he is not the only player on this team, and the Jets are a quietly good defense at the moment, with a strong running game and a creative offensive coach. Don’t get too carried away, but they could even do the unthinkable...
Tampa Bay (+3) @ New Orleans
Do we trust the Bucs? No. Do we trust New Orleans? Maybe we should. They have disproved the idea that they were entirely reliant on Drew Brees, and now find themselves back in the favorites column for the first time since his injury. What we have seen from tampa Bay, however, is the ability to thrive as underdogs. Now that their offense is clicking, they’re a big time threat to the NFC South.
Denver (+6.5) @ LA Chargers Of all of our method-based picks this week, this one feels the worst. The Chargers just got Melvin Gordon back, they have the league’s leading receiver, and they are coming off a 30-10 win at home against the Dolphins. The Broncos have lost their star linebacker and haven’t won a game yet.
Sigh. The thing is, the more my gut says not to pick them, the more I remember that ‘gut’ is exactly why bookies win. ‘Principles’ are what get us consistent victory year on year, so forget what you think you know, and back the Broncos in a divisional game.
Green Bay (+3.5) @ Dallas
This one feels like one the Packers won’t win, but will scrape a 1 point loss from. It has the makings of a classic game, between two teams who both need to bounce back from defeats last week to potential NFC playoff contenders. I think a defensive showdown will ensue and that increases the chance of a narrow margin of victory for either team. A Dallas win of 20-19 in the dying moments would be the type of game I foresee. Famous last words...
Indianapolis (+11) @ Kansas City
This is my pick of the week. The Chiefs, whisper it, are beatable. Sure, Indy lost last week against the Raiders, but this spread is exactly the kind of thing that we should be getting behind. Here is a list of teams that have had spreads greater than 10 this season: Miami (3), the Jets, and Arizona. The latter two both covered, meaning that if we exclude Miami, those double-digit spreads aren’t so good for favorites. Forgetting that for a second, my point is of course, that the Colts are far better than any of those teams and this spread is way out of kilter.
Cleveland (+3.5) @ San Francisco
I really like the 49ers, but this one has that eternal road bias and it’s too good to miss. The Browns always have a chance to put up big numbers and have done so now a few times this season. The 49ers have had an early bye week that could well be as disruptive as it is helpful, and they face a Browns team on good form.