After a 4-1 set of Thanksgiving weekend picks, we’re back to one spread pick column for Week 13. After said solid week, we’re 35-22-3 (61.4 percent) on the season. We’re 72-58-4 (55.4 percent) against the spread overall through 12 weeks, and on over/unders we’re 90-65-3 (58.1 percent). In Week 12, said picks we were 6-4-1 and 11-4, respectively, with our third-consecutive lock of the week (New England (-16) getting us to the window.
Each week provides an exciting slate of games, along with the knowledge generated from an additional week’s worth of PFF data. We’re going back to the well in picking Atlanta, New Orleans, Seattle and Pittsburgh against the spread (we’ve been successful doing so at least once in each case this season), while opting for only one over/under (even though we were 2-0 on them last week). While we’re taking three favorites, unlike last week none of the spreads are more than a touchdown long (meaning we’ve left New England off of our slate this week).
Each of the five feature picks below comes with a point/counterpoint analysis, including a deeper dive into our “Lock of the Week” that is heard on the PFF Preview Podcast that comes out each Friday morning. The Lock of the Week is 9-3 so far (75.0 percent). For the remainder of our spread and over/under picks, check out PFF Elite and the PFF Elite Facebook Group. For our thoughts on Thursday Night Football’s spread and over/under, follow us at @PFF_George and @PFF_EricEager on Twitter each week. The Thursday night graphics have been 9-2 (81.8 percent) so far this season (we did not pick last night’s game in Dallas (thank goodness).
Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons (-3)
Pick: Falcons 26-21 (Falcons cover)
Point (George Chahrouri): Case Keenum (80.4 – 13th) is fine and all, but you are not going to convince me that Keenum v Matt Ryan should be even money on a neutral field. Ryan holds the No. 2 ranking among quarterbacks this season (89.8 grade) and has overcome some terrible interception luck (as I clumsily wrote about when we took the Falcons over Dallas as our lock of Week 10). Stat Ryan’s numbers are starting to reflect how well he’s throwing the ball. Since Week 8, Ryan has nine big-time throws (T-sixth) and zero turnover-worthy plays (first) while leading the league in adjusted completion percentage, putting 81.5 percent of his aimed passes on target. This includes the deep ball that eluded him for most of the first half of the season, he’s completed 52.2 percent of 20-plus yard throws since Week 8 (second) after just 17.4 percent from Week 1-7 (last). As great as Keenum has been for the Vikings, it’s time for him to regress a little bit, so far he’s completing the highest rate of targets contested at the catch point and Atlanta has allowed the second-lowest percentage of contested targets to end up complete. In the words of Atlanta’s finest: “peace up, A-Town Down” – Dirty Birds dance over the Vikings.
Counterpoint (Eric Eager): Falcons CB Desmond Trufant (allowing only 0.79 yards per coverage snap) is still in concussion protocol, while their nickel back Brian Poole (allowing only 9.5 yards per catch in coverage) is struggling with a back injury, leaving Atlanta possibly without two of their top three cornerbacks in a game against Adam Thielen (third in yards per route run) and Stefon Diggs (first in passer rating on his targets). Keenum, despite many rumors of his pending demise, has generated a 100.0 passer rating or better in each of the last three games, and is more than capable of taking advantage of their potential edge in the passing game. On the other side of the ball, the Vikings defense is second in our defensive rating system, meaning they have the requisite talent to match wits with Atlanta’s second-highest rated offense. While both George and I like Atlanta in this spot, neither of us would be surprised if the Vikings made this a competitive game.
Kai Forbath Memorial Extra Point: While the Vikings proved us wrong last week in covering three points against the Lions on Thanksgiving, it wasn’t for lack of Kaiser Forbath and the Vikings special teams trying. Minnesota had two place kicks blocked legally and one blocked (and returned for a touchdown) nullified by an offsides penalty on Detroit. While none of this ended up mattering against the Lions, Atlanta is likely too good for the Vikings to leave points on the field and still come out on top.
Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals (over/under 45)
Pick: Rams 23 – 17 (the under hits)
Point (EE): While the Rams have an explosive offense, five of their last seven games have gone under 45 points (their first four games all went over this total). Some of these totals have been in blowout wins for them (i.e. their 33-0 win against the Cardinals in London), while other games (like their game a week ago against an explosive Saints team) simply played out as a slow, lower-scoring game (until the Saints scored a late touchdown to push it to 46). The Cardinals offense is the second-worst unit in our offensive rating system, while their defense has only one starter with a PFF player grade below 72.9 through 12 weeks. With the Eagles, Seahawks and Titans coming up on their schedule, this might be a tough spot for the Rams, which could lead to the tight, low-scoring game that would be conducive to the under here.
Counterpoint (GC): Last week we saw the opening act of ‘David' Blaine Gabbert (the “t” is silent), he put up a 105.6 passer rating on throws 10-plus yards downfield against a Jaguars defense that had allowed a league best 32.2 rating on such throws entering the game and he did so with a moustache that cannot be described accurately by my limited vocabulary. Seems a little foolish to bet against a guy with that type of magical power and this week he gets a Rams defense that ranks fifth in the NFL allowing a passer rating of just 68.0 on throws 10-plus yards past the line of scrimmage. With Blaine pulling touchdowns out of hats on one side, the vulnerability shifts to Jared Goff and the Rams potent play action attack – Goff is averaging 10.9 yards per play action pass (second) while having those play action targets contested at the second-lowest rate in the league (this is where you remember that Sean McVay was 12 when you graduated college and is more mature than you and all your friends combined). The Cardinals defense has been susceptible to the play-action pass this season, giving up the third-highest completion rate off the play fake. Take the under, then go for a four-hour walk.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints (-4.5)
Pick: Saints 26 -20 (Saints cover)
Point (GC): There are many bandwagons to jump on at the moment, but I am more than happy to stay firmly planted on the one rolling down Bourbon Street. This matchup is all about the difference in the passing game. Let’s start with Drew Brees – he’s torched defenses from a clean pocket to the tune of a 114.3 passer rating (first) and will face a Panthers defense that has allowed the ninth-highest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks whom are not under pressure. Brees has enjoyed a clean pocket on 88.1 percent of his dropbacks this season (most) and the Panthers rank 14th in defensive pressure rate while also having to blitz a ton to get there. Alvin Kamara was drafted 15 million spots lower than Leonard Fournette and 12 million below Christian McCaffrey – Kamara Obscura has forced eight more missed tackles as a receiver than Fournette and McCaffrey combined.
And now to Carolina. It’s just funny to see Cameron Newton and his physical receiving corps try to complete passes at this point – last week Newton completed a stunning 8-of-20 when throwing from a clean pocket with a league-high 21 percent of those overthrown. My hypothesis is that Cam is so used to looking at himself in the mirror with hats that add about 15 inches to his height that he expects all his targets to also stand 6-foot-11. Newton was the least accurate passer a season ago which seems to support my logical claim, and the recent thumb injury may only be exacerbating the issue. Cam’s finger and his thumb in the shape of an “L” on his forehead/hat Sunday afternoon – we could all use a little change, geaux Saints.
Counterpoint (EE): While I think we both like this pick equally, there is some concern about the Saints possibly missing Terron Armstead (69.7), Marshon Lattimore (92.7) and Coby Fleener (71.3). The Panthers are fifth in our PFFELO rating system for a reason, boasting substantial playmakers in Luke Kuechly (93.2), Kawann Short (90.9) and Thomas Davis (83.7) in the middle of their defense, while Devin Funchess (286 receiving yards the last three games) and McCaffrey (151 yards rushing over that same stretch) have improved steadily on the other side of the ball. Having won 5-of-6 road games so far this season, the Panthers will not be an easy out in this one.
Philadelphia Eagles at Seattle Seahawks (+6)
Pick: Eagles 24 – 20 (Seahawks cover)
Point (EE): At some point the Eagles need to reach the top of their market, and we’re betting that this week is that week. While Carson Wentz has been fantastic through 12 weeks, Seattle’s Russell Wilson has basically the same PFF grade (85.5 versus 85.7), with arguably less infrastructure. That said, Seattle’s receivers have one of the most underappreciated stories of the season so far, with Wilson having substantial success throwing to Doug Baldwin (99.0 passer rating on his targets), Paul Richardson (122.1) and Jimmy Graham (eight touchdowns). If their improving offensive line (10th in pass blocking efficiency since Week 7) can keep Brandon Graham (11.1 pass-rushing productivity) and Fletcher Cox (11.6 – second among defensive tackles) away from Wilson for enough plays, Seattle should be able to put up enough points at home to cover this big spread at home.
Counterpoint (GC): The Wentz Wagon has reached capacity so I do not have to spend a single minute on it to make the case for Philly. The best unit in this game may very well be the Eagles’ defense and they get a couple of matchups that could ruin a lot of Seattle’s offense in a hurry. Cox and Graham will see the vaunted right side of the Seahawks offensive line that consists of Mark Glowinski (30.8 pass-block grade – last among RGs) and Germain Ifedi (73.2 – 19th of 41 RTs). Even when Wilson isn’t running for his life, he will be throwing into some very strong coverage – the Eagles are allowing a league-low passer rating of 57.5 against quarterbacks throwing from a clean pocket since Week 8. Getting married doesn’t appear to be an option for moving through this defense, sorry Russ.
Pick: Steelers 24 – 17 (Steelers cover)
Point (GC): It’s trend time. This one should escape absolutely no one – Andy Dalton is playing on Monday Night when he knows that every football fan the world round is watching him and only him. I can just hear Gruden now, “Sean, WHO are the Cincinnati Bengals? Is it time to give young A.J. McCARRen the keys to this offense – I just don’t know, Sean.” You are in trouble when the venerable Jon Corona calls in from his beach to ask who your team is. That being said, the matchup that gives the most promise to expand the margin is a Steelers passing game against a Bengals defense that we have ranked far lower than might be expected thanks in part to a relatively light schedule. William Jackson (83.2 – 24th) shut down Antonio Brown the last time these two met (4 target, 0 catches, 2 passes defensed) and I would bet that Antonio (93.9 – first) will be looking for some pay back coming off back-to-back monster 12-target, 10-catch games. Big Ben has been rolling as well, with a 124.0 passer rating on throws 20 or more yards downfield over the last two weeks. Steelers by a TD with the Gruden Grinder™ going to Juju Smith-Schuster because he will have an awesome block on some random second quarter run and Jon will realize how fun it is to say his name.
Counterpoint (EE): Against the spread, at least, the Steelers have had difficulty with consistency this season, especially on the road. They struggled to cover the spread as visitors in Cleveland, Chicago, and Indianapolis, and needed late-game heroics last week against a short-handed Packers to even win the game outright as 14-point favorites. None of the aforementioned teams are as good as the Bengals, who are 3-0 against the spread the last three weeks. With Joe Haden (80.8) out the past two weeks for the Steelers, opponents have been able to throw on them – utilizing receivers far less talented than A.J. Green (2.40 yards per route run, fifth among wide receivers) to take advantage of the likes of Artie Burns (71.3) and Coty Sensabaugh (79.6) on the outside. If the Steelers offense struggles at all against a Bengals defense allowing just 4.8 yards per play (fourth best in the league), this cover could be dicey for Pittsburgh in Paul Brown Stadium.