Every Friday during the NFL season, ESPN betting analysts Doug Kezirian (1-0 last week, 9-9 overall), Joe Fortenbaugh (3-2, 16-25), Anita Marks (5-5-1, 24-33-1), Preston Johnson (0-0, 8-13), Mike Clay (1-1, 10-6) and Tyler Fulghum (4-3-1, 14-17-1), sports betting deputy editor David Bearman (3-0, 14-6), Seth Walder (5-1, 21-12) of ESPN analytics and Aaron Schatz (1-4, 16-21-1) of Football Outsiders will tell us what they like from Sunday’s slate.
Note: Lines courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill as of Wednesday.
8:20 p.m. ET game
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (-7.5, 43.5)
Schatz: There’s no question that the Cowboys offense should struggle with third-stringer Ben DiNucci starting at quarterback, not to mention the team’s offensive line woes. But in the race to get to 43.5 points for the game, that’s going to be offset by the weakness of the Cowboys’ defense, which ranks 30th in the league in DVOA. Don’t forget that the Eagles’ defense also hasn’t played up to its usual standard this season — Philadelphia ranks 16th in defensive DVOA. And these are two of the faster offenses in the league in terms of pace this season. More plays means more points.
Pick: Over 43.5
Marks: The Eagles at +1 is the second leg of my “bad teams teaser.” The Cowboys have yet to cover a spread this season, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend, considering their third-string quarterback is expected to get the start Sunday night. Dallas is turning the ball over at an exceptional rate (a league-high 16 on the season). The Eagles are getting healthier, and I expect a huge game for quarterback Carson Wentz against a horrible Cowboys defense.
Pick: Eagles +1 as part of 3-team teaser with Bucs and Chiefs
1 p.m. ET games
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (-3.5, 46.5)
Fortenbaugh: The lookahead line had Baltimore as a 6-point favorite, too high with how reliable this Pittsburgh team has been. The point spread now sits at or around Baltimore -3.5, too low considering the spot the Ravens find themselves in. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh is 10-2 straight up and 9-3 against the number coming off a bye week, covering the spread by an astounding 8.6 points per game. These are two terrific teams, but Baltimore is at least 1.5 points better in my power rankings, at home and coming off a bye. I see value in laying only 3.5 points, especially after the humiliation the Ravens suffered against the Chiefs the most recent time we saw them on national television.
Pick: Ravens -3.5
Johnson: Both the point spread and the total have dropped 2.5 points since opening at Ravens -6, 49. My raw projection for this matchup is Ravens -4.1. I would consider Baltimore, despite all the talk you will hear this week about division rivals being familiar with each other and always playing close games.
The best defense quarterback Ben Roethlisberger & Co. have faced was the Broncos, who almost beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Broncos are ranked seventh in defensive DVOA. The Steelers’ other opponents this season: Giants (19th in DVOA), Texans (29th), Eagles (16th), Browns (24th) and Titans (17th). The Ravens are ranked third in that category, and they’re the only team the Steelers will have faced ranked top six in success rate against both the pass and the run.
You can’t devise a game plan to attack the Ravens’ defense where they are weak because they’re elite in every way. I think this will be a wake-up call for the Steelers’ offense. This is one of the reasons we’ve seen the total come down as well, but I’m still not getting involved at 46.5. I do think the -3.5 on the side is worth a bet.
Pick: Ravens -3.5
Marks: Thanks to the Titans, the Ravens are coming off a bye to face the Steelers. Meanwhile, the Steelers are facing the Ravens after a very physical game against the Titans. Go figure! Harbaugh will have these birds ready with an exciting new addition to their defensive line, Yannick Ngakoue, who will make sure Big Ben is in for a long day. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has had two weeks to improve his passing game, which will be needed against this very good Steelers rush defense. I’m waiting to see if this line falls to -3 before kickoff, but I will still grab it at 3.5.
Pick: Ravens -3.5
Kezirian: This line opened with Baltimore as a 6-point favorite but now the value is with Baltimore at -3.5. The Ravens certainly disappointed backers with their first high-profile game, losing at home to Kansas City. However, they have dominated all their other opponents and enter this contest off a bye. Roethlisberger has rejuvenated the Steelers after they saw some abysmal QB play following his injury last season, but he also can be a bit reckless with the football. He threw three interceptions last weekend and cannot afford a similar performance against a tough Baltimore defense. The Ravens rank first in blitz percentage, and that pressure will likely force turnovers from the veteran QB. I have to side with the well-rested home team.
Pick: Ravens -3.5
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (-3.5, 43)
Bearman: Normally, this is where we say: Prime spot for the Patriots, they are down and counted out and facing a division rival trying to take over and pass the torch … you have to take the Patriots and Bill Belichick, etc., etc. Well, that was a great narrative for years but I am flipping the script. This team and dynasty are dead and died when TB12 took his talents to Tampa Bay. They are not your dad’s, grandfather’s or brother’s Patriots anymore. This edition of the Patriots is 24th in total offense, 17th in total defense and 26th in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.
The Bills are actually the real deal (forget the Jets game). Buffalo attempted eight field goals and had a bad turnover in Jets territory. That should’ve been a 35-10 score. The Patriots got killed by San Francisco at home, and it was worse than the final score. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen should be able to take advantage of a Patriots secondary that is allowing 8.15 pass yards per play, 29th in the NFL. The Bills lost two close one-score games to the Patriots last season with Tom Brady there, and one of the games turned after Allen left with a concussion.
If this wasn’t a Belichick-led Patriots team, this line would be closer to 5 or 6 the way the two teams are playing. Buying down to 3 if you can is a steal. To me, the Patriots or Belichick as a ‘dog notes mattered when you had Brady and Belichick. It’s all noise now. This is not the same team, as we saw last weekend.
Pick: Bills -3.5
Schatz: David sort of stole my thunder by using my Football Outsiders numbers, but I’ll say the same thing; the gap between these two teams is far larger than this line indicates. In particular, the Patriots are showing no ability to pass the ball. They are seventh in DVOA running, but 30th passing. That makes it tough for them to come back from a deficit in the second half, which is problematic since they rank 31st in offensive DVOA in the first half of games. There are really only two reasons you can go Patriots in this game. First, you believe that Belichick is simply incapable of losing four games in a row. Second, you’re worried that rain and wind will keep things close — in which case, just buy this line down to three points and you’ll be protected against a game that comes down to a field goal battle.
Pick: Bills -3.5
Walder: I’m deviating on my weekly Stefon Diggs pick here because this line is sort of shocking to me. Diggs’ expected completed air yards per game — based on the Buffalo wide receiver’s targets and NFL Next Gen Stats’ expected completion probability model — is 55.6 thus far this season, second-best among all receivers. Diggs has vastly overperformed that, but even if we expected him to catch passes at a league-average rate going forward, that level of opportunity would push him over this prop on average with just a few yards after the catch. But of course, we don’t expect Diggs to be just average at catching passes — his catch percentage over expectation has significantly exceeded average in every season since 2016, when Next Gen Stats data began.
Pick: Diggs over 57.5 receiving yards
New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs (-19.5, 48.5)
Schatz: Maybe you expect Patrick Mahomes to go ham against the poor overmatched Jets. But would you believe it if I told you that the Jets actually cut opposing passing touchdowns by 11%? That’s because they’re always losing so badly. They increase opposing rushing touchdowns by 31% instead. So let’s go under on this prop for Mahomes, who has more than two passing touchdowns only twice (Weeks 1 and 3) this season. I assume the Chiefs quarterback will hand the ball off to Le’Veon Bell when Bell scores those big revenge touchdowns.
Pick: Mahomes under 2.5 passing TDs (-170)
Marks: I’m calling this my “bad teams teaser” of the week. KC at -9.5 is the first leg. The Chiefs will destroy this Jets team that averages almost 100 fewer passing yards a game than its opponents and have yet to encounter the likes of Mahomes. Good luck with that! As for game script, I envision Andy Reid teeing up Bell to rush for 100 yards against his former team.
Pick: Chiefs -9.5 as part of three-team teaser with Bucs and Eagles
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (-6.5, 54)
Bearman: What we saw in Week 1’s Packers blowout in Minnesota was very surprising in the moment, but weeks later both teams have stayed the course. Green Bay continues scoring and winning, and the Vikings can’t stop anyone. What we have here is one of the best offenses in football (Packers are eighth overall, 10th in rushing, 14th in passing) vs. one of the worst defenses (Vikings are 28th overall, 22nd in rushing, 29th in passing) in football. In the 2020 NFL, offense wins that battle. For those with short memories, the Vikings allowed 40 points last weekend to the dead-in-the-water Falcons and were the first team all season to not challenge a comeback against them. For those with longer memories, the Packers won and covered both matchups with the Vikings last season when Minnesota was good. I would lay the 6.5, tease the 6.5 and ride the Packers.
Pick: Packers -6.5
Marks: The Vikings are ready for the season to be over, which was made evident with the trade of their best pass-rusher to the Ravens. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will continue his MVP tour against a Vikings secondary that is 29th in passing yards per attempt. Green Bay is second in points scored per game, and wide receivers are accounting for 65% of the offensive touchdowns against Minnesota. Davante Adams and the Cheeseheads will roll.
Pick: Packers -6.5
Los Angeles Rams (-4, 46) at Miami Dolphins
Fortenbaugh: I love this spot for the Dolphins. Miami is coming off a bye week, with a dynamic rookie quarterback who has produced no tape with which the opposition can study. Additionally, Los Angeles is coming off a Monday night game and traveling to the East Coast for the fourth time in seven weeks. Beside all the talk about Tua Tagovailoa, take note that the Dolphins’ defense has been better than expected this season — in fact, the unit is currently second in the NFL in opponent yards per point, trailing only the Ravens.
Pick: Dolphins +4
Bearman: To borrow a line from our buddy Doug, this is a classic numbers vs. narrative game with the Rams traveling west to east for a 1 p.m. ET start after a Monday Night Football game and facing the Dolphins off their unscheduled bye week. For those counting at home, research from our ESPN Stats & Information department says this has never happened before. And it wasn’t scheduled; the Dolphins had their bye then only after all the other games were moved around. So on one hand (for the narrative), do you trust a team traveling 3,000 miles to the other coast on what amounts to five days of rest vs. a team with 13 days of rest, which happens to be starting its prized top draft pick for the first time?
As for the numbers, the Rams have been a good team in 1 p.m. ET windows (9-3 ATS under Sean McVay), but none has come after playing MNF. This season alone, they destroyed Philly, were getting destroyed at Buffalo before a late rally, and beat up on Washington, all in that window. Historically, West Coast teams playing MNF and then in the early window the following Sunday on the East Coast are 12-14-1 ATS since 2000. This is a first for Rams.
On the Dolphins’ side, they are 4-0 off byes over the past four seasons, only one of which was under this current Brian Flores regime. It’s Tua time, which will be somewhat of a boost, and QBs getting their first start are 11-4 ATS since last year. The Dolphins also have covered 12 of their past 17, dating back to last season.
I like the points at home here against what I hope will be a tired Rams team. This is their fourth East Coast trip in eight weeks. At some point, travel gets to you, right? The NFL so far has avoided this type of matchup, but as with everything else over the past seven months, COVID-19 changes plans.
Pick: Dolphins +4
Walder: Out of all the longest reception under bets I’ve been making, Cooper Kupp’s depth numbers are probably the most stark relative to the line. Among wide receivers, his 6.7 air yards per target and 7.1 yards downfield at 3 seconds, per NFL Next Gen Stats, are among the lowest of all wideouts. Even if we look at only passes beyond the line of scrimmage — to filter out those little pitch-passes and screens — he is still is near the bottom of the list. The complicator here is Kupp’s run-after-catch ability, which has exceeded expectations according to the NGS model by somewhere between 1 and 1.7 yards per reception every season of his career. Still, I think the under is likely worth it.
Pick: Kupp longest reception under 22.5 yards
Fulghum: The Rams have to travel to the East Coast again for another 1 p.m. ET kickoff. I have no idea what they did to get four East Coast trips for early kickoffs in the first eight weeks of the season. That scares me a little, but McVay teams have been dynamite when traveling to the East Coast for early kickoffs.
Both of these defenses have been really good this season — the Dolphins’ surprisingly so, but that’s mostly against the pass with Byron Jones and Xavien Howard. Their run defense is dead last in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. The Rams, on the other hand, have one of the league’s best rushing attacks, keyed by a solid offensive line and RB Darrell Henderson — the highest-graded player at the position according to Pro Football Focus.
Pick: Rams -4, under 46, Henderson over 76.5 rushing/receiving yards (-115), Jared Goff under 34.5 pass attempts (-110), Kupp over 5.5 receptions (+105), Tagovailoa under 231.5 passing yards (-115)
Tennessee Titans (-5.5, 53.5) at Cincinnati Bengals
Schatz: Quarterback Joe Burrow has very impressive rookie stats, but they’re accumulated in large part by volume rather than efficiency. The Bengals rank second in the league in pass plays this season (behind only Dallas), but they rank just 28th in overall offensive DVOA, including 24th passing the ball. That makes it harder for the Bengals to pick on Tennessee’s weakness in the secondary; even there, Tennessee’s rank of 19th in pass defense DVOA is probably better than you’re expecting. On the other side of the ball, the Titans’ offense (third) is far superior to the Bengals’ defense (26th).
Pick: Titans -5.5
Marks: This is not a great matchup for Burrow and his offensive line. Burrow will be running for his life. Meanwhile, Derrick Henry will be running all day against a Bengals defense ranked 28th against the run. The Titans are averaging three red zone touchdowns per game, and I expect a plethora of trips to the red zone for Tennessee on Sunday.
Pick: Titans -5.5
Fulghum: Burrow is dropping back to throw more than any QB in the NFL during his rookie campaign. The Titans are a team that struggles to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks, and that should raise the floor and ceiling of the Bengals’ offense.
On the other side, the highly efficient Titans offense should have little trouble getting whatever it wants on the ground and through the air against a Bengals defense that is very forgiving.
Pick: Bengals +5.5, over 53.5, Henry over 100.5 rush yards (-115), Burrow over 40.5 pass attempts (-115)
Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns (-2.5, 51)
Fulghum: The Raiders and Browns are jockeying for position in the second tier of the AFC behind Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Kansas City. The Week 8 matchup hints at points for both offenses due to offensive strengths aligning with defensive weaknesses. The Browns love to run the football — only the Rams have run the ball more this season — and the Raiders’ defense has been hammered by opposing backs to the tune of 4.9 yards per carry and 160.5 all-purpose yards per game. With Odell Beckham Jr. out for the season, Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski is further incentivized to lean on Kareem Hunt and his O-line.
On the other side, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has been remarkably productive and consistent throwing the football this season. The addition of Henry Ruggs III has pushed Carr to be more aggressive downfield, and it is paying off. The Browns are stout against the run (3.7 YPC to enemy running backs) but have allowed the fourth-most fantasy points per game and fourth-most TD passes to opposing QBs.
Pick: Over 51, Carr over 249.5 pass yards, Darren Waller over 56.5 receiving yards, Josh Jacobs under 75.5 rushing yards, Baker Mayfield under 31.5 pass attempts, Jarvis Landry over 4.5 receptions
Marks: The Browns are dealing with a number of injuries on their defense, to say nothing of losing Beckham on offense. Jon Gruden and Carr are coming in hot after a loss to the Bucs and will be ready to get back into the win column. Offenses are averaging 13 red zone plays per game against the Browns, which Carr should take advantage of with the variety of talent at his disposal.
Pick: Raiders +2.5, Raiders ML (+125)
Indianapolis Colts (-2.5, 50) at Detroit Lions
Walder: I don’t want to say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but … that’s kind of what’s going on here. It’s not just that I’ve made this pick a couple times and it hit so I’m back at it again. It’s that the logic has held and the line has held, so I’m sticking with it. The Lions’ T.J. Hockenson’s air yards per target and depth at 3 seconds are simply average for a tight end, and he runs vertical routes at a slightly below average rate for a tight end. All three of those numbers would be well below average if we included wide receivers. So given all that and that his target quantity (31 on the season over six games) isn’t anything spectacular, this line still seems high.
Pick: Hockenson longest reception under 18.5 yards (-125)
4 p.m. ET games
Los Angeles Chargers (-3, 44) at Denver Broncos
Johnson: Should we respect rookie quarterback Justin Herbert so much already that the Chargers are laying three points in Denver?
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