There have been some surprises during the first two weeks of the season. The Cincinnati Bengals have their first 2-0 start since 2015 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to win their third straight as underdogs. The Dolphins, meanwhile, look like one of the rare favorites that could cover the spread this week, which has been something of an anomaly through two weeks. Favorites are just 14-17-1 (45 percent) against the spread this season.
Our league-projection formula helps determine how often one team should beat another based on its actual and projected win rates. That gives us win probabilities for every game, as well as an implied margin of victory — helpful for picking games against the spread.
The process of creating proprietary point spreads is done by computer but there is an eye-test element involved, so not all games with the highest edge will be featured every week. With that in mind, here are this week’s prime picks against the consensus point spreads from multiple sports books in Vegas.
Prime pick success rate: 3-3
Pittsburgh Steelers (-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers +1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will get to work his magic against a below-average pass-coverage unit on Monday Night Football.
The Steelers have two players — cornerbacks Joe Haden and Morgan Burnett — receiving positive pass-coverage grades from the game charters at Pro Football Focus but that’s largely negated by teammate Cameron Sutton, who has allowed 3.5 yards per snap in coverage this season, the second-most in the NFL among qualified cornerbacks.
Perhaps Pittsburgh’s pass rush can make up the difference, but Tampa Bay’s offensive line has allowed just 15 pressures this season, the eighth-fewest in 2018, leaving Fitzpatrick a clean pocket more often than not. Not that it has mattered much: Fitzpatrick’s passer rating from a clean pocket (138.3) is lower than his rating under pressure (153.3) this year.
Cincinnati Bengals at Carolina Panthers (-3)
Pick: Cincinnati Bengals +3
Bengals starting running back Joe Mixon is expected to miss time with a knee injury but Gio Bernard is a capable replacement. The 27-year-old averaged over 100 yards from scrimmage in December and has developed chemistry with quarterback Andy Dalton over the years: Bernard has caught 221 out of 295 passes from Dalton (75 percent) for 1,928 yards and eight touchdowns, resulting in a 96.5 passer rating. Dalton’s passer rating to star wideout A.J. Green, by comparison, is 90.3.
Carolina, meanwhile, has struggled to get its offense on track, and has produced just an average rate of points per drive (1.8). Cincinnati, on the other hand, scores 2.9 points per drive, the third-most in the NFL.
Oakland Raiders at Miami Dolphins (-3)
Pick: Miami Dolphins -3
Without Khalil Mack, the Raiders have no pass rush. Without a pass rush, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill could pick apart their defense. Since 2006, in a clean pocket, Tannehill throws 85 percent of his passes on target with a 20-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Under pressure those numbers decline to 59 percent and 3-to-5. His passer rating also is noticeably better when not harassed, 107.6 to 60.5, which is roughly the difference between how well Pro Bowl quarterback Alex Smith and rookie DeShone Kizer performed in 2017.
The three games above represent my best plays of the week because my analysis shows the point spreads are the most divergent from what I expect to happen once the teams take the field. One reason the house wins so often is because bettors try to make too many plays when the odds aren’t in their favor. This makes trying to pick every single NFL game something of a fool’s errand. The odds should be in my favor in the three games above, which is why I think they’re worth a bet. Below you’ll find our chart predicting the betting edge for every game.
New York Jets at Cleveland Browns (-3)
Pick: New York Jets +3
New York Giants at Houston Texans (-6)
Pick: New York Giants +6
Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings (-16.5)
Pick: Minnesota Vikings -16.5
Indianapolis Colts at Philadelphia Eagles (-6)
Pick: Philadelphia Eagles -6
Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens (-5)
Pick: Denver Broncos +5
Green Bay Packers (-3) at Washington Redskins
Pick: Green Bay Packers -3
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars (-6.5)
Pick: Jacksonville Jaguars -9
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons (-3)
Pick: Atlanta Falcons -3
San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs (-6.5)
Pick: Kansas City Chiefs -6.5
Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams (-7)
Pick: Los Angeles Rams -7
Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks (-1.5)
Pick: Dallas Cowboys +1.5
Chicago Bears (-6) at Arizona Cardinals
Pick: Chicago Bears -6
New England Patriots (-6.5) at Detroit Lions
Pick: New England Patriots -6.5
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