By Ryan Daly – Betting/Broncos Writer
Week 4 means we’re almost a quarter of the way through the season and we can start to separate the contenders from the pretenders. I’m going to try to keep these breakdowns brief as our team has done a great job previewing all of these games over at nflfansuk.com.
New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills (+7)
Game total – 41.5
This one is a battle of two elite defenses. In fact, I have both these defenses in the top five in the league and that’s not just a reflection of who they’ve played; I expected as much heading into the season. As I’m sure you’ve read in every other preview for this game, the Patriots are the first team in the Super Bowl era to not allow a passing or rushing touchdown in each of the first three games of a season. Bill Belichick has an all-time regular season record of 90-30 (.750) against the AFC East as the head coach of New England heading into this one. Patriots dominate the head-to-head in this one but I think they’ll be made to work hard.
I’m having a little trouble evaluating the Patriots, given who they have played (their opponents so far have a combined record of 0-9). Tom Brady has been pressured the second-least among quarterbacks who have played more than 15 snaps so far this year (14.7% of dropbacks). They have also run the third-most plays in the red zone and are yet to run a play inside their own 10-yard line. One worrying development for the Patriots is the loss of full back James Develin – Develin played 36% of snaps last year which is four times the league average for his position. He is mostly used out of 21 personnel sets (two backs, one tight end) with Sony Michel, who will be affected most by this. Michel had Develin as a lead blocker on an overwhelming majority of snaps last year – without Develin last week, Michel had nine carries for 11 yards. I’d be looking for James White and Rex Burkhead to eat into Michel’s work over the coming games.
Josh Allen has had a decent start to the season, throwing for 750 yards and three TDs while adding 105 yards on the ground and another to TDs through three games. Allen has progressed as a passer with his completion percentage going up from 53% last year to 64% this year, whilst he’s sixth in Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) adjusted completion percentage metric at 81.35%. He is still throwing into some dangerous windows – PFF says he has a turnover worthy play rate of 5.2% (fourth highest). He has struggled to throw the ball downfield with a league-worst passer rating of 34.6 on 20-plus-yards throws.
The defenses are the big factor here though. The Patriots are first in total defense – first in rushing and in passing defense. They have been extremely impressive on third down: Pittsburgh were held to three third-down conversions from 12, Miami converted two of 15 while the Jets didn’t convert a single third down out of their 12 opportunities. This is one of the best secondaries in the league, with All-Pro and shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore who had an NFL-best 29 forced incompletions in 2018, Devin McCourty, who ranked as the eight-best corners in coverage (83.3) last year, and even backup and undrafted surprise JC Jackson forced a 42.0 passer rating when QBs threw his way last year. The Buffalo defense is every bit as good, ranking sixth in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency metric. They also have an elite secondary with Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde patrolling back there.
All of this is to say the ‘under’ was my best look here. It’s been hammered down from 44 right down to 41.5, which is a real shame. I still can’t see this one getting out of the 30s if I’m honest. I see this one being around 20-13 in favour of the Patriots. One prop I like here is over 3.5 total field goals at 2.5 on Bet365.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Detroit Lions (+7)
Game total – 54.5
Patrick Mahomes playing in a dome for the first time in his NFL career folks: you know this one is going to be fun. It seemed almost impossible but somehow Mahomes and this Chiefs offense look even better this year – through three games, the QB has 1,195 passing yards, 10 TDs, no interceptions with a 71.9% completion rate and 134.9 passer rating – all that is absolutely ridiculous. As good as Mahomes is, Andy Reid has been absolutely masterful in charge of this offense. As a nod to how good he is at scheming receivers open, Mahomes has the second-lowest percentage of throws into tight coverage windows in the league – behind only Drew Brees. The Chiefs have scored 25 points in 25 straight games – that is the longest streak in NFL history, while this year through three games, they have started the fourth quarter with an average lead of 17.3 points. They also rank third in the league for points per possession (3.26). I feel like this could be a big game for tight end Travis Kelce considering Detroit tend to use man-to-man coverage and Kelce is a mismatch for anyone one-on-one. Kelce is averaging 11.9 air yards per target and is creating at least 3 yards of separation on 32% of targets, second among tight ends with at least 15 targets.
The Chiefs defense has stepped up a little this year, especially in coverage. Through three games, this defense has an overall coverage grade of 72.3 from PFF (ninth in the league). Kendall Fuller and Charvarius Ward are among the 31 best corners in coverage and tackling, while only two interior linemen have pressured QBs more than Chris Jones.
In the interests of speeding things up, I’m not going to say much about Detroit here because they are outmatched all over the field and I don’t give them much of a chance. They have had four different 100-yard receivers through three games so they are doing a decent job of spreading the ball around but they have been frighteningly average by nearly every metric I could name and have been rather fortunate to be unbeaten so far. One thing that I should mention is they have been impressive in coverage – according to NextGen stats, no team has forced QBs to throw into tighter windows than the Lions and they have allowed the least amount of separation to oppose receivers, partly down to how much man coverage they play. There is the possibility Darius Slay, their best corner, misses this one through injury though, which would be a huge blow.
So I’m with the Chiefs here. Again, the line has moved from –6.5 to –7 but I would still be with the Chiefs at that number. I’m surprised that this actually isn’t a double-digit spread here, to be honest. Like I said, I’m also all over Kelce for this one due to the coverage tendencies of Detroit: over 80.5 receiving yards at 1.83 (Bet365).
So now that we have got my two best looks out of the way we can go quickfire through the other looks I liked.
Oakland Raiders @ Indianapolis Colts (-6.5)
Game total – 46.0
I have gone with the over 46.0 points for this one. The Raiders are in the midst of a brutal travel schedule here, having played in Minnesota last week, now Indianapolis, then London next week with two road games at Packers and Texans after that.. Rough!
The Colts have lost a few key players on defense to injury including Darius Leonard and Malik Hooker. The downside for the over is the injury to TY Hilton, who looks likely to miss this one too. I still think the Colts offensive line dominates here while the tight ends can cause Oakland’s undersized defense a lot of problems. The Colts are fourth in the league in offensive success rate (52%) while the Raiders are eighth (51%). I would lean towards the Colts on the point spread here too; however, the injuries on defense put doubt in my mind as to whether they will cover so it’s the points total for me. Look for Eric Ebron’s targets to have an uptick here if TY Hilton is out (which looks likely). Ebron has been targeted four times in each of the last two weeks and caught three on both occasions. We can get over 3.5 receptions at 2.25 (Bet365).
That’s all I have for the 6pm slate. I couldn’t find anything else that jumped out at me so let’s move on to the later games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Los Angeles Rams (-9.5)
Points total – 49.0
I think this spread is still a bit wide, although it would have been nice if it was still +10 for Tampa. Looking at who the Rams have played so far – an injured Cam Newton, the Saints without Drew Brees and the Browns, who have looked putrid so far. Jamies Winston realised last week that he should probably be throwing to his best receiver when Mike Evans caught 8-of-15 targets for 190 yards. In his last two games, Winston has thrown for 588 yards, four TDs and one INT, and seems to be showing at least some improvement game to game. The offensive line is a concern considering he has been sacked seven times in those two games.
The Bucs outgained the Giants 499-384 last week. They had 24 first downs to the Giants’ 17 and won the time of possession battle 33:12 to 26:48, and they would have won but for a brutal missed field goal at the very end of the game. Wide receiver Chris Godwin is questionable for the Bucs but I still think they can keep this one relatively close. Cooper Kupp had a great day against the Browns last week, catching 11 of 12 targets for 101 yards. He looks to be the WR1 in this offense and I’m happy to take them over 74.5 on his receiving yards total against this Bucs secondary.
Minnesota Vikings @ Chicago Bears (-1)
Points total – 38.5
An interesting point I came across while looking at this game was that Mitchell Trubisky was drafted ahead of DeShaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes… That’s crazy! We should let them know how stupid they are for doing that…
Anyway, the points total and spread on this one should tell you all you need to know: this is going to be a low-scoring, tight slugfest. Each of these teams is coming off a win after the Vikings destroyed the Raiders 34-14 and the Bears eased to a road win in Washington 31-15. Dalvin Cook has had an electric start to the season, leading the NFL in rushing with 375 yards and four touchdowns. Cook is the only player in Vikings history (and the 15th players in NFL history) to start the season with three straight games of 100 yards rushing. The Vikings’ seven rushes of 20-plus-yards are tied for third-most in the NFL through the first three weeks of a season since 1991. Mike Zimmer is in his element with this offense – they have run the ball 103 times; that’s the third-most in the league this year and the most in Vikings history through three games since 1988. However, the Bears have allowed just one 100-yard rusher in regulation (not including OT) over their past 37 regular-season games. One thing is certain: if the Vikings are close to the goal line, they will be giving Dalvin Cook the ball so the only thing that I can see of interest here is a Dalvin Cook TD at even money
Dallas Cowboys @ New Orleans Saints (+2.5)
Points total – 47.5
I backed the Saints last week against Seattle and despite the fact they won, I was not impressed with Teddy Bridgewater – 177 yards and two TD passes isn’t anything to write home about, considering Andy Dalton took apart that Seattle secondary. Teddy hasn’t been throwing the ball downfield much, averaging fewer air yards per attempt and per completion than any other QB this year, with 75.4% of his passes travelling 10 yards or fewer. If he can’t throw deep on this Cowboys defense, which is probably most vulnerable on the back end with Chidobe Awuzie giving up a couple of plays, then I can’t see the Saints being able to move the ball.
It’s hard to judge this Dallas defense, given their opponents to date, but they have strength upfront in DeMarcus Lawrence and an extremely exciting linebacker group in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. If the Cowboys can get Ezekiel Elliott going early, I think they can take control of this one. Elliott has 21 games with 100+ rush yards since 2016. That’s the most in the NFL and just think of how many games he has missed in that time! Dak Prescott has started the season on fire; in fact, PFF has Prescott ranked as the second-best QB in the league through three weeks. Prescott has been especially effective on play-action, going 30-for-37 with 409 yards and a passer rating of 137.5. He has been very good throwing the deep ball too with an adjusted completion percentage of 68.9% on deep passes, ranking fifth in the league. The loss of Gallup is a blow but I think that’s one they can overcome. I think we will really see an Ezekiel Elliott-heavy game plan here for the first time this year and I like him to cover his receiving total of 21.5
Patriots/Bills under 41.5
Raiders/Colts over 46
Point spread treble – Chiefs –7, Bucs +9.5, Cowboys –2.5 pays 6.11/1 (Bet365)
TD scorers – Rex Burkhead (3.25), Eric Ebron (2.75), Dalvin Cook (evs)
Patriots/Bills over 3.5 field goals (2.5)
Kelce over 80.5 receiving yards
Ebron over 3.5 receptions (2.25)
Kupp over 745 receiving yards
Zeke over 21.5 receiving yards