When it comes to the AFC East, the New England Patriots tower over the rest of the field. Against divisional opponents since 2002, the Patriots have been at least seven-point favorites 50 times, yet they are just 24-24-2 against the spread. That record will change on Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
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: 4-5
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (-6.5)
Pick: Miami Dolphins +6.5
The Patriots opened as a 9.5-point favorite at home to the Dolphins at the Westgate SportsBook on Sunday afternoon before their loss to the Detroit Lions later that night. As of Thursday morning, the spread has dropped to 6.5 points in favor of New England.
Most are not yet willing to concede the AFC East crown to any one but the Patriots just yet, but it is important to acknowledge that while many of the primary players and coaches are the same, this isn’t the same team we’ve seen in recent years.
For example, the 2018 Patriots are scoring a below-average 1.7 points per drive (22nd) and have produced a red-zone touchdown on less than half of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line (42 percent, 14th). Perhaps more concerning is they have been forced to go three-and-out on 44 percent of their drives; only the Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills have been worse this season.
This is also the first time New England has a negative point differential heading into Week 4 since 2008, a year they missed the playoffs. Additionally, that was a year in which it went 1-2 against divisional opponents at home, a rarity for this team since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000.
Miami certainly has its flaws, but our system isn’t the only one bullish on them this season.
Football Outsiders ranks them as the fifth-best team in the NFL (Patriots are 8th) after accounting for preseason projections and the second-best team when looking solely at efficiency, adjusted for opponents, in 2018. New England, by comparison, ranks 23rd. Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, a per-game scoring estimate adjusted for strength of schedule, implies the Dolphins (plus-7.6 SRS) are 26-point favorites over the Patriots (minus-18.3 SRS) on a neutral field.
And if you are going to discount Miami’s 3-0 record for “only” beating the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and Oakland Raiders, the ninth-easiest schedule per Football Outsiders, it might be equally fair to discount the 3-0 Los Angeles Rams, who have defeated the second-easiest schedule in 2018. Yet the Rams are Super Bowl LII favorites and the Dolphins are given little chance to beat the Patriots.
Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders (-2.5)
Pick: Cleveland Browns +2.5
Cleveland’s Myles Garrett is the league’s top-ranked edge rusher and teammate Larry Ogunjobi ranks 18th among 63 qualified interior lineman per the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Those two, plus defensive end Chris Smith, give the Browns a formidable pass rush that can make life very difficult for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
Carr, like most quarterbacks, is struggling when facing pressure. His completion rate drops from 85 to 46 percent under pressure this year and his passer rating has an even worse decline from 105.7 to 32.1, essentially the difference between a Pro Bowl-caliber passer and something worse than an incomplete pass (39.6 rating). And this isn’t a fluke of small sample sizes: Carr saw his passer rating drop from 100.5 to 40.8 under pressure last year as well.
Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons (-5.5)
Pick: Cincinnati Bengals +5.5
Don’t put all the blame of last week’s loss by Cincinnati on the shoulders of quarterback Andy Dalton. Yes, he threw four interceptions but Pro Football Focus ranked Dalton as the second-best passer of the week behind the Rams’ Jared Goff. Why? Because in their view Dalton’s intercepted passes weren’t turnover-worthy throws. They also rate Dalton (No. 5 overall) higher than Atlanta’s quarterback, Matt Ryan (No. 18).
In addition, the Bengals appear to have the better defense. Football Outsiders lists the Falcons at No. 30 for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, taking into account preseason expectations, a measure of a team’s efficiency after comparing its success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent, while the Bengals check in at No. 15. Atlanta has also allowed 21 more points than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each play. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has allowed six more points than expected.
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.
Note: I’d avoid wagering on the 49ers-Chargers matchup due to San Francisco losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending knee injury.