After Thursday Night Football set the league back a few decades, we’re onto the weekend slate. Last week, less was more, as we only picked three games but had our first undefeated week of the season at 3-0. After a rough stretch, our third “Lock of the Week” hit, and it wasn’t really close, with the Carolina Panthers winning outright at home as an underdog against the Baltimore Ravens. We’re going back to that well again, betting against what we feel is an overrated Baltimore squad with Big Ben and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Our models rely heavily on our PFFELO rating system for the NFL, along with game information like where the game is played, how far a team has to travel, etc. We also fold in opponent-adjusted PFF grades into our machine learning algorithm to factor in roster changes and possible asymmetric mismatches that can occur through the course of a game.
After Carolina (+2.5) last week, we are now 17-11-1 on our “Lock of the Week” picks since the start of 2017 (60.7%), with five win totals still pending. Our Lock of the Week will be featured on the Sports Illustrated Gambling Show with our pick (visit PFF Greenline to see this week’s pick) this week. The analyses here will involve a point-counterpoint between the two of us for all five picks, using perspectives that only the PFF grades and data can provide. Follow us on Twitter at @PFF_Eric and @PFF_George, and for some podcast commentary on some of these picks, and the process that goes into them, give the PFF Forecast a listen. We will have a special Monday morning podcast each week with look ahead lines for the upcoming week.
Prediction: Ravens 25 – 23 (the Steelers cover)
Point (Eric Eager): The Ravens, at one point in time, possessed what was viewed as the league’s best defense and a rejuvenated Joe Flacco. They busted out to a 3-1 start and rebounded from a loss to the Browns with a 21-0 win against a Titans team many had not yet viewed as a fraud. I think the market sees the last two weeks of play by Baltimore as an unlucky loss against a good Saints team and an off week on the road to what has become a good Carolina team.
We see it a bit differently. Joe Flacco is who he has lately always been, generating only 0.04 EPA per pass play through the season’s first eight weeks. His supporting cast, which shined at times earlier in the year, has not done him many favors – turning each air yard into an average of just 0.80 actual passing yards. Their defense has regressed now that the slate isn’t the Bills, Broncos, Browns and Titans and have surrendered an early-down EPA per pass play of +0.09, which is in the bottom half of the AFC. Ben Roethlisberger, whose offense is generating 0.14 EPA per dropback and whose supporting cast is generating 1.01 passing yards per air yard, has been leading an increasingly-efficient offense under Randy Fichtner and should be able to score enough points to avoid their Week 4 fate.
Counterpoint (George Chahrouri): As a joke, I was going to try and write this paragraph about why not having Le’Veon Bell was going to derail the Pittsburgh offense, but I figured everyone would take it seriously. So I will point out the fact that James Conner has been better than Bell in just about every way. Conner is making a tackler miss once every 4.2 tackle attempts this season (Bell was 7.6 last season), and he has gained 5.8 yards per play (over a yard more than Bell in 2017). The reason to fear a Steelers collapse is Big Ol' Ben. Roethlisberger is not having a great season. In fact, he’s earned a worse grade than Joe Flacco this season. Saying that the better quarterback is getting points will require some faith that Roethlisberger regresses to his mean, as he did in the latter half of 2017 when he and Jimmy Garoppolo (moment of silence) earned the best PFF grade per snap at the position from Week 10 on. The Ravens defense is solid and ranks second in our defensive rankings, so there is certainly a path where the Ravens defense plays another beauty and stifles the superior offense.
Note: This number moved from +3 to +2.5 since the recording of the Sports Illustrated Gambling Show Thursday
Prediction: Vikings 27-23 (the Lions cover)
Point (GC): How can you not love a team that just traded away their best player? It’s hard to imagine Golden Tate’s departure from Detroit not having an impact, after all, no wide receiver forced more missed tackles after the catch than Tate did during his tenure with the Lions. Tate has earned my respect on and off the field, but the Lions do have a solid receiving corps, and this move actually raises every Lions player slightly up the totem pole of coolness. This renewed sense of swag along with the high-level of play Matthew Stafford has put together makes five points seem like a real gift. Stafford’s big-time throw rate ranks second the NFL, and Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, and Kerryon Johnson are all excellent weapons in the passing game. The Vikings could be without Xavier Rhodes and Stefon Diggs and they are coming off a huge loss to the Saints on Sunday night. They might win, but it will be a close one.
Counterpoint (EE): We have yet to be on the Vikings’ side this year – and for good reason. That said, there were low-key impressive components to their loss to the Saints Sunday night, not the least of which was their ability to hold Drew Brees and company to under 150 yards passing despite substantial injuries to their linebackers and secondary. Matthew Stafford has been Matthew Stafford this year, but without Golden Tate, it will be interesting to see how much he’ll be able to lean on Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones if the Vikings (allowing -0.25 EPA per early-down run plays) get him into long-yardage situations.
On the other side, Kirk Cousins is tied with Drew Brees for the least amount of dropbacks that earned a negative grade (roughly 8%). However, his negative plays have been memorable and are the reason his dropbacks have only netted the Vikings 0.02 EPA, a number that is the same as Oakland’s David Derek Carr. We’re likely going to see some upward reversion to those numbers, in which case, the Vikings offense could take off and cover this number easily at US Bank Stadium.
Prediction: Falcons 25-24 (Falcons cover)
Point (EE): We can’t quit the Falcons, and after backing Washington last week as a slight road favorite, we’re going to fade them as a short home dog. Alex Smith has not been a quarterback of the caliber of Matt Ryan this season (or really any season) and has an equal number of dropbacks that earned a big-time throw designation as a turnover-worthy play designation. Ryan, on the other hand, has twice as many big-time throws as turnover-worthy plays and has generated 0.28 expected points added per dropback.
So, we’re in a “better quarterback getting points” situation, meaning that to back the Breadsticks we’re going to need to find a compensatory edge for them. While they now have an impressive safety duo in D.J. Swearinger (90.9 overall grade) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (83.5), good offense beats good defense and the Falcons have too many options in Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper in the passing game. Running the ball and stopping the run are noise, so back the PFFalcons here.
Counterpoint (GC): Tell me if you’ve heard this story before: Mr. Ryan comes to Washington in need of a big victory for his team. As history so eloquently showed us, this does not end well for Mr. Ryan. Matty Ice has been excellent this season, but with his struggles imminent in D.C., the Falcons defense may have to step up. That should be enough to send you running. The Falcons pass defense has allowed the fourth-highest EPA per pass play this season, which is just what Little Alex Smith needs. Smith has not been spectacular by any stretch but Jay Gruden’s offense and the playmakers on that offense have propelled him to a 108.2 passer rating from a clean pocket so far this season (14th). The Spreadstick defense has also performed well this season, ranking fifth in our defensive power ranking and EPA allowed per pass play. There is usually no way I would ever advise caution with the better quarterback and offense getting points, but that's the same rules just don’t seem to apply in D.C.
Prediction: Patriots 31-24 (Patriots cover)
Point (EE): We’re back to 2017, where we consistently backed New England, who are top five in our PFFELO power rankings, laying points at home. While the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, they have been in the bottom half of the NFC in terms of early-down success throwing the ball. While the knee injury could have a lot to do with that trend, we might also see that a combination of coaching and supporting cast is finally catching up to one of the best ever to play the game.
The Packers appeared to empty the tank against the Los Angeles Rams, with rookie Jaire Alexander (82.0 overall grade) coming back from an injury to play one of the better games a rookie defensive back has ever played. Will they be able to get back to that level of play on the other side of the country, minus Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and against the best coach/quarterback combination in NFL history? My bet is no.
Counterpoint (GC): Go to YouTube dot com and type in “Aaron Rodgers.”
Prediction: Cowboys 23-19 (Titans cover)
Point (GC): Maybe there is something I’m missing here. Perhaps Amari Cooper is actually a great quarterback that Jon Gruden decided to hide at wide receiver. Maybe the Titans have injuries to every member of their starting offense. Six and a half points is more than twice what this line should be, given that each quarterback has been pretty mediocre and both defenses have earned top-five spots in our defensive ranking. Marcus Mariota has suffered through a myriad of injuries and enters this game with a stat line that would make many cringe, including a league-low 76.6 passer rating from a clean pocket and a turnover-worthy throw rate that is worse than everyone except Josh Allen and Jameis Winston. So why should you take the Titans? Even if Mariota is to continue playing one-handed, the Titans are good enough to cover this spread against a Cowboys offense that looks more El Paso than Dallas. Dak Prescott’s dropbacks have been worth the 25th-most EPA per play, even worse than the one-handed Iron Chef Marioto. Tess, Witt and Boog will open the game talking about the Cooper addition and will close out in silence when Coach Vrabel uses math to his advantage, which will force the network to cut the mics.
Counterpoint (EE): I feel like Michael Jackson is spinning in his grave over what Marcus Mariota was trying to pull off on his right hand over the past few weeks. The King of Pop was also likely laughing at the idea that the 3-1 outfit from Nashville was being disrespected by being “only” short favorites against the Bills in Orchard Park to start their losing streak. The Titans are not a good team and are only successful on 46.5% of early-down passes and 33.3% of early-down runs. This has put the Iron Chef into poor situations at times, and he has delivered over twice as many turnover-worthy plays as big-time throws and posted a negative EPA on all dropbacks. While he has a far higher ceiling than Dak Prescott, and the bye is likely to help the Titans more than it will help Dallas health-wise (but not receiver-wise), Dallas’ defense has been one of the league’s best and might abate such improvements for a week.
Prediction: Saints 30-28 (Saints cover)
Point (GC): This is really hard for me to write. As a kid born in the 90s who once rocked Sean McVay’s haircut as a 15-year-old unable to catch a single break, I see his success each Sunday as retribution – a win for all of us who have fought to overcome adversity. But it is important to face facts. Drew Brees is having the best season of any quarterback. He has earned the highest PFF grade, 76% of his throws are on the receiver’s frame or perfectly placed (1st), and he has made the second-lowest rate of turnover-worthy plays. He also has a coach who might not get the same praise that McVay does, but has been every bit his equal from a playcalling and decision-making standpoint. No coach has gained more expected points going for it on 4th down this season. The best non-quarterback in this game is not Todd Gurley, it’s Michael Thomas, who’s caught 90.6% of all his targets so far this season, which leads all NFL players (yes even running backs). The Rams are great, but to say they are 4.5 points better than the Saints on a neutral field is just about as crazy as voting Todd Gurley for MVP.
Counterpoint (EE): This number has moved from the Rams +1/+1.5 to the Saints -1.5/2 back to the Rams at their current number of -1.5. Marcus Davenport, who has shined of late with three sacks, a hit and five hurries the last three games, is out for this game, while Rams star slot receiver Cooper Kupp appears to be in. I’m not sure that should move the number much, but as we saw with NFC Defensive Player of the Week PJ Williams trying to cover Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (8-9 for 114 yards, two touchdowns AND THE PICK) last week, the Saints have substantial issues in coverage that the addition of Kupp will likely highlight. While home-field advantage for the Saints is substantial, there is a chance that the combination of coaching and defense will be such an advantage for the Rams that it can overcome the one the Saints have at quarterback. I’m not betting on it, though.