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Thanksgiving NFL picks: Best bets for all three games

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

You are sure to see several betting trends bandied about before the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day extravaganza, but one that particularly jumps out at is how well the favorites have done on this day. Since 2006, when the league added a third game to the holiday slate, favorites are 31-16 against the spread on Thanksgiving Day, covering by an average of 4.4 points per contest.

But the poor season-long performances by NFL favorites this year suggest that trend might not continue on Thursday, when the Buffalo Bills are heavy favorites against the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys are heavy favorites over the New York Giants, and the Minnesota Vikings are narrow favorites against the New England Patriots. Underdogs have been strong all season (a 90-67-5 record against the spread, for a 57 percent cover rate). Underdogs getting three or more points are especially noteworthy, covering 61 percent of the time by an average of two points per game.

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A couple of other team-specific trends of note:

  • The Dallas Cowboys have covered the spread on Thanksgiving only once in the last 11 seasons (vs. Washington in 2018).
  • The Detroit Lions have been an underdog in 11 of their last 15 Thanksgiving games and have covered in only three of those contests, including last year’s 16-14 loss to the Chicago Bears as 2.5-point underdogs.

Now on to the games, and our picks.

Buffalo Bills (-9½) at Detroit Lions, 12:30 p.m. Eastern, CBS

Neil’s Pick: Buffalo Bills -9½

I’m not going to overthink this one. The Bills are producing 7.6 more points per game than expected based on the down, distance and field position of each play both for and against them, per data from TruMedia. Only the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs have been better this season. The Lions, meanwhile, are generating 6.2 fewer points per game than expected; only the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans have been worse this season.

Other underlying stats, like net success rate (the rate of down series that create either another first down or a touchdown) and net yards per play also heavily favor Buffalo.

Matt’s pick: Buffalo Bills team total under 31½ points

Something is wrong with Bills quarterback Josh Allen, and his issues started even before he suffered an elbow injury in a Week 9 loss to the Jets. Over the past four games, Allen has completed only 60.5 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns, six interceptions and a 74.1 passer rating. He’s also been sacked 11 times. In his first six games, he completed 67 percent of his passes, with 17 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 109.1 passer rating. He took only nine sacks over that span. The Lions defense has been something of a sieve, but they have six interceptions and six sacks over their past three games, all wins.

New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (-9½), 4 p.m. Eastern, Fox

Neil’s Pick: Under 45½, playable to under 41

Neither of these offenses are particularly efficient. Dallas is averaging 2.1 points per drive this season (ranking 11th) and the Giants are slightly below average, scoring just under two points per drive (17th). The Cowboys are very good defensively (allowing 1.5 points per drive, third best) while New York is average (1.9 points allowed per drive, 16th).

Add in short rest for both teams and I believe this will be a low-scoring game, perhaps even dipping into the low 30s. Not only would I play the under total as is, I would also look for some alternative lines at plus money, such as under 40½ +162 (wager $100 to win $162).

Matt’s pick: Dallas Cowboys -9½

The Giants were enjoying a charmed season, with every bounce going their way. And then came Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions, in which Daniel Jones threw two interceptions, Saquon Barkley couldn’t take advantage of a bad Lions rushing defense and — perhaps most importantly for our purposes here — a worrying number of starters went down with injuries.

Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (knee), right tackle Tyre Phillips (neck), center Jon Feliciano (neck), wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson (knee) and cornerback Fabian Moreau (ribs) all departed during the Lions loss, and the short week gives them a condensed recovery time. (Robinson, among the Giants’ leaders in receptions, is done for the season, and Jackson, New York’s top cornerback, is out on Thursday). Keeping within range of a Cowboys’ offense that is starting to hum might be a lot to ask.

New England Patriots at Minnesota Vikings (-2½), 8:20 p.m. Eastern, NBC

Neil’s Pick: New England Patriots +2½

Let’s look at some stats for these teams without identifying them and then decide which should be favored. Team A is ranked ninth in net yards per play, 12th in net success rate and seventh in expected points added per game. Team B is ranked 28th, 24th and 21st in those categories, respectively. If you adjust the offensive numbers by eliminating turnovers, Team A is scoring 2.7 points per game more than expected while Team B is scoring 2.3 points per game fewer than expected.

As you might have guessed, New England is Team A while Team B is Minnesota, encouraging me to not only take the underdog Patriots +2½ points but also on the money line at +120 or better.

Matt’s pick: Under 42½

Both of these teams have taken advantage of easy schedules, with the Vikings’ lone impressive win coming in fluky fashion against the Bills and the Patriots beating the likes of the Lions, Browns, Jets (twice) and Colts over their recent 5-1 run. Both teams also are dealing with significant injuries on their offensive lines, with starting center David Andrews and left guard Isaiah Wynn likely to miss the game for New England and Christian Darrisaw and Ezra Cleveland battling injuries for Minnesota. The Patriots have won their last two games despite scoring only one offensive touchdown, and the Vikings couldn’t find the end zone in a blowout loss to the Cowboys. With Bill Belichick coaching on a short week against a rookie coach with a nonelite quarterback, I think the Patriots can keep the Vikings off the scoreboard, and New England’s offense has been stuck in neutral of late. It all adds up to a low-scoring game.