Welcome to Upset Watch, where I guide you through every game on the slate and pick the most likely upsets using trends and historical data. So far this season we've been hot, picking the Broncos to beat New England, the Eagles to beat the 49ers and the Raiders to beat the Saints, among many others.
Last week we hit on two big wins - the Lions and 49ers, and could have had a third if Tennessee had made a game-tying Field Goal. We also hit on Carolina to cover. Remember, upsets generate big odds, so if you hit on a couple each week, you're in the money!
Week 8 is... well, it's not great. On average just 2.7 underdogs have won in week 8 over the last 7 years, making it far and away the worst week of any in the season. In fact, there haven't been more than 3 wins in a week since 2014, so while there's something to be said for picking underdogs more regularly, week 8 may not always be the best time.
Why does this happen? Well, week 8 has fewer games, generally (14 this week) and by this stage of the season, a number of teams are all but done. That lends itself to fewer underdogs having the fight to cause an upset where there's a clear difference.
However, one factor really does make a huge difference - the spread. This week sees the biggest spread all season (and likely to remain so all year) as the Chiefs play the Jets at home. Apart from that? The spreads are relatively low, and that correlates heavily to underdog wins. Even in week 8, this historical trough of underdogs, around 35% of teams with a spread of +3 or less win.
The good news is that as always, covers track much better and we're still expecting 6 in the week, so that's 3 winners and 6 covers. Who will they be? Read on!
The underdogs will win these games
Pittsburgh (+4) @ Baltimore
Ok, the big one! Pittsburgh head into this having beaten a Tennessee team that are genuine contenders for a deep playoff run. They follow it up with this DOOZY of a divisional matchup against Baltimore that would essentially give the winner a foot in the door of the playoffs.
What do I like about Pittsburgh here? Well, the fact that Baltimore haven't played anyone with the same caliber of defense, and that's not a small difference. So far the Ravens have taken on six teams who on average allow 27.9 points per game. The Steelers? They're third in the league with 18.8 points per game allowed. They also rank no.2 vs the run, which, need I even mention, is the only offense the Ravens have. Seriously, they rank 31st at passing the ball.
The Ravens haven't been a dominant team so far, they struggled against the Eagles and could even have lost that game. I don't think you can overstate how similar the two teams are, but also how well the Steelers match up against the Ravens' strengths.
Las Vegas (+2.5) @ Cleveland
The 3-3 Raiders blow hot and cold, but when they face a team like Cleveland, that's a good matchup. The Browns allow an awful lot of passing yards (30th) and that's exactly where the Raiders are strong. Neither team has much of a defense, which could mean this is the type of game where the lead changes hands a lot, but I really think the Raiders have a vastly improved team recently and even in defeat, have looked capable of moving the ball. I am very skeptical of the Browns and their ability to defend the deep ball, which has become something of a go-to for Derek Carr now that Nelson Agholor has established himself.
Can the Browns win this? Sure, but if the Raiders cut out the sloppy mistakes, they should be able to control this one. Again, the Browns have profited from the gift that keeps on giving - the NFC East - as their main opponents so far.
New England (+3.5) @ Buffalo
The Patriots are a difficult sell right now, but they are - on their day - a top-10 defense and specifically they defend the pass well. The Bills have no ground game at all and don't defend the run very well, in fact if you think back to that game two weeks ago against the Chiefs, the defining image was of the Kansas City Running Backs taking 8-10yds at a time.
The Patriots are always dangerous when people write them off. Sure they don't have Brady, but this is an extraordinarily good matchup for them to have off the back of a soul-destroying loss against the 49ers. The Bills have been sketchy in the Red Zone and I think that if ever there was a team that the 32nd ranked pass offense (TM) in the league could look at as a viable win, it's Buffalo.
The favorites will win these games, but the underdogs will cover
Tampa Bay @ NY Giants (+10.5)
I like the Giants defense, I think it's been let down by a disaster of an offense and somewhat unfairly put in a position where it is on the field way more than necessary. At 10.5pts, I think they're good value. The Giants are essentially 'Bears-lite'. ie: they don't have a great offense but their defense can cause enough issues to prevent a blowout. They've only lost by more than 10 points once this season, against San Francisco, and I peg the Bucs as the kind of team that will not enjoy the expectation of an overwhelming victory.
Minnesota (+6.5) @ Green Bay
This is predicated largely on Dalvin Cook's ability to suit up on Sunday. If he's in, the Vikes are capable of pushing the Packers in what is always an interesting matchup. The Packers have had the best of it recently and the Vikings are not in a great place, but I just like the Vikings to keep this closer than people think with a very determined effort at making the ground game a focal point. They can't do anything else well and last week's acknowledgement by Kirk Cousins and Mike Zimmer that the QB play has been the reason they are in this position was important. They simply can't keep making mistakes and this may be Cousins's last chance to prove he can at least manage Minnesota's gameplan the way he did in narrow losses to Tennessee and Seattle.
LA Chargers @ Denver (+3.5)
A narrow victory here for the Chargers. I think these two teams are pretty close and the spread is not a particularly accurate reflection of where they are. Justin Herbert is a future Matt Stafford-type of guy, he has the arm and the moxy to get the Chargers where they need to be in the next few years, but he is raw and learning to play in the NFL. His counterpart on the Broncos, Drew Lock, is similar, with perhaps a little less upside. Regardless, the Broncos have a good passing defense and last week's mulligan against the Chiefs in the snow aside, they can hold teams down defensively and keep them within striking distance. A field goal victory for the Chargers? Sure, but I think this will be tighter than a TD.
The favorites will win and cover these games
Atlanta @ Carolina (-2.5)
I wanted to pick this game as an Atlanta upset but I can't - the Panthers are playing really good football and I like what they're building. Regardless of Christian McCaffrey's status, I think they will be way too powerful for the non-existent Atlanta defense. They're quietly racking up yards on offense (9th most in the league) and have confidence from their last meeting just 3 weeks ago, where they stymied the Falcons. I like the Panthers to cover here.
LA Rams (-4) @ Miami
Another game I liked. Can I see Tua Tagovailoa surprising the Rams? Sure. They're not exactly reliable as a favorite, but on defense? It's not really a fair contest and while we can't know whether Tua will supercharge the 11th ranked Miami offense or hinder it, we can be fairly sure that the Rams will bring a lot of heat on him and force him into uncomfortable positions. The Miami defense isn't a pushover and I don't see this being a blowout, but right now I am half a point in LA's favor.
NY Jets @ Kansas City (-19.5)
Now this one definitely didn't nearly make it into the upsets category. Do I need to explain? No. Instead let me tell you that the Jets have not only failed to score (average of 14.2 points per game, dead last) but also failed to stop other teams scoring. Their average loss this season has been almost 17 points, and that's against 'pretty good' offenses like the Cardinals, Colts and Dolphins, each of whom would have covered this spread. The chances are that the Chiefs offense has the ball an awful lot - just check out the inefficiency of the Jets from our game hub head to head stats...
Indianapolis @ Detroit
I think this will be a difficult game for Detroit. They aren't firing on offense and really struggled against the Falcons to get much going. Does that mean they're terrible? No. Does it hurt when you're playing a top-5 defense in the NFL and arguably the most well-rounded, ranking 2nd vs the pass and 3rd vs the rush? Yes. I can't see either team putting up huge points in the game, but the Colts are at their best when not allowing pressure, the Lions don't generate a pass rush and I can easily see Indy getting out into a quick lead that tightens up in garbage time.
Tennessee (-6) @ Cincinnati
A bad matchup for the Bengals. The Titans have not got a great defense but Cincinnati just can't run the ball and that is a real problem. They're also extremely profligate and struggle to get the ball into the end zone even when they get into the final third of the field. At some point, that Titans +8 turnover ratio is going to get to +10 or higher in this game. I think this will be the blowout of the week.
San Francisco @ Seattle (-3)
Conversely, this one could be very close indeed. I like the Seahawks but San Francisco match up well against their pass-first offense, which will be even more of a focal point because the Seahawks currently don't have a healthy running back. The problem for the 49ers is that Seattle has arguably been more convincing when going away from the run game and embracing the pass. The 49ers also have RB concerns of their own and while the Seahawks are very weak against the pass, this isn't a major concern against a San Francisco team that simply doesn't pass all that much and ranks 24th in pass play %. The Niners are finding a way to win, they just may find it's not the way to beat Seattle...
New Orleans (-4) @ Chicago
You see what I mean about these spreads? They're pretty tempting. The Bears beat every other team in the NFC South, including the vaunted Bucs on a Thursday night game, but the truth is that the Bears are falling apart and can't pass or run the ball, ranking last on the ground and 25th through the air. In fact, as has been well documented, the Bears were actually better off offensively with Mitch Trubisky as starting QB than they have been with Nick Foles. Meanwhile, the Saints certainly aren't exactly their old selves, but 4 points is a generous offering against a team that has scored 20pts just once in the last three outings (and that was exactly 20).
Dallas @ Philadelphia (-7.5)
I don't see any way Andy Dalton plays this week. He's still in the concussion protocol and ultimately, the Cowboys know this season is already over. If Ben DiNucci was only meant to play in an absolute disaster scenario, then come on down, Ben, because that's exactly what you've walked in on. The Cowboys have the worst defense in the NFL, and this year, that's quite a statement. Teams are scoring 34.7 points per game on them, and in the last two? They've scored 10 and 3 points. Meanwhile, the Eagles are actually trending slightly upwards and are 2-2 in their last 4 outings. Perhaps most encouragingly, they hung around with the likes of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Francisco, indicating there is perhaps more to come in the second half of the season.
After all, the least you can say for all of the NFC East is that they get to play twice against each other.