It seems like we get reminded every year how wild and unpredictable the National Football League can be, and 2018 is no exception.
We’re just two weeks into the season, and already the Pittsburgh Steelers are on the ropes (more on them later), Ryan Fitzpatrick looks unstoppable, the Dolphins stand alone atop the AFC East and four teams have three digits in their record (a tie to go with wins and losses).
The key when making NFL predictions remains to anticipate the wild and crazy before it happens. So while power numbers and statistical rankings always play a role in NFL handicapping, so does analyzing situational spots, motivation levels and regression potential.
I’ve focused more on the latter when coming up with these NFL predictions for the week, loving a lot of the value we’re seeing on some underrated squads as well as fading teams that are simply overhyped at this point.
All odds that are referenced in this article were taken from BetOnline.ag at 1:15 p.m. eastern on September 20, 2018. These odds may have changed since the time of this writing.
1. New York Jets +3 (+102), Thursday, 8:20 p.m. eastern
Has there ever been this much public interest in the Cleveland Browns? After drafting Baker Mayfield first overall and being featured on Hard Knocks over the summer, the Browns were one of the most popular Over bets on the NFL’s 2018 season win totals. And after giving the Steelers and Saints all they could handle in the first two weeks, Cleveland is a popular bet this week to earn its first victory since 2016.
But while the Browns could easily be 2-0 at this point, the fact is that they’re 0-1-1. Yes, they’re tremendously improved, but they still seem to find a different way each week to lose football games. In Week 1, Cleveland had opportunity after opportunity to beat the Steelers but failed to cash in on a Ben Roethlisberger fumble late in overtime, having its attempt at a winning field goal blocked. Last week, the Brownies led by nine points with nine minutes to go in regulation, regained the lead with 1:16 left on the clock (on a fourth-down 47-yard TD bomb, no less), then allowed the Saints to go back in front before missing a potential game-tying field goal at the end.
Does that sound like a team that you actually want to lay points with? I’m certainly not. With a 3-point spread on this game, oddsmakers are projecting that this contest will also go right down to the wire. And if it does, I’d much rather have the points in my pocket with the visiting Jets than laying with the Browns. New York may have looked mediocre last week, but that was in a big letdown spot following a huge Monday Night Football victory in Detroit.
Going back on the road for this game, look for the Jets to get back to the basics that delivered them that big opening-week win. And while the road team is always at a big of a disadvantage for Thursday Night Football because of the already-short week, New York to Cleveland’s a really short trip that shouldn’t play a factor. J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets plus-3 for me in this spot.
2. New Orleans Saints +3 (-113)
The Saints have been one of the bigger surprises in the NFL so far this season, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. New Orleans was torched for 48 points in Week 1 by Fitzpatrick and the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who pulled off the outright upset as 9.5-point dogs and became instant enemies of most Survivor pool contestants. Then, last week in a great bounceback spot against the hapless Browns, the Saints trailed midway through the fourth quarter, gave up a go-ahead touchdown in the dying minutes and were lucky to beat Cleveland by three.
If the Saints’ defense is going to get lit up by Fitzpatrick and allow a fourth-down go-ahead touchdown bomb to Tyrod Taylor, what chance does it have against the potent Atlanta offense? That’s the way most people are thinking, at least, as Atlanta laying just a field goal at home to the unimpressive Saints looks too good to be true. But before we go along with the crowd, let’s remove recency bias from the equation. Yes, New Orleans has looked pretty mediocre through its first two games. But the Saints entered the year as one of the favorites to win the NFC, and two ugly games doesn’t change the potential and ability of this squad. New Orleans is chronically a slow starter under head coach Sean Payton (this is the Saints’ fifth consecutive 0-2 start, including last year’s playoff campaign), but that only makes the Saints more focused and urgent in their first road contest of the year.
This line has dropped a point since BetOnline opened Atlanta -4, giving us an indication of where the sharp money is on this contest.
I’m with them on the Saints, although I do advise waiting until the weekend to see if the line bumps back up to +3.5. If you like New Orleans, however, make sure to keep an eye on this spread because I could also see this number dropping below a field goal, losing us a lot of value in the process.
3. New England Patriots/Baltimore Ravens 6-Point Teaser (-110)
Could the Patriots possibly lose two in a row? Sure, anything’s possible, but history suggests it’s extremely unlikely. New England has long been the best team in the NFL to back off a poor performance, going 43-18-1 against the spread in its last 62 games following a straight-up loss. Part of that is being a point spread-covering monster in general (the Pats are 37-18-2 ATS in their last 57 overall, probably because so many New England haters love to bet against them), and part of that is because Bill Belichick still clearly knows how to get his team’s attention when he wants to.
Meanwhile, Detroit’s a mess. Don’t let that 3-point loss last week in San Francisco fool you. The 49ers led that game by 17 points with nine minutes left in regulation before letting their foot off the gas and allowing the Lions to get the backdoor cover (not that I’m bitter or anything). The Leos don’t run the ball effectively at all, a trend that is nothing new to Detroit fans (it’s now been 70 games since a Detroit running back ran for 100 yards in a game). If you can’t stay balanced offensively against Belichick and company, you have no chance, which might explain why New England has won the past four meetings by a combined margin of 61 points.
So why not the Patriots on the point spread here? That’s actually a good question, and I don’t blame you one bit if that’s the way you want to go. Personally, I’m not always that comfortable being on the same side as the public, and I can only see New England money coming in this one. However, I really don’t see a way that the Patriots lose this game either. That’s why I’m going to use New England in a 6-point teaser, moving the Pats down to where they simply have to win the game to hold up their end of the bargain on my ticket.
There are a lot of great candidates to use as the second leg of a teaser this week, but my favorite is the Ravens at home to Denver. Just like I’m not really interested in laying 6.5 points on the road with the Patriots, I’m not eager to lay 5.5 points (or any sort of margin) with the Ravens, even if they’re at home. But, just like New England, I also don’t see Baltimore losing the game outright. The Ravens will have had nine days to lick their wounds following their Thursday Night Football humiliation in Cincinnati, and coach John Harbaugh isn’t far behind Belichick when it comes to rebounding from a loss.
Denver’s playing its first road game of the year and might be the least impressive 2-0 in the NFL right now, barely beating the Raiders last week. The Broncos were 2-0 at this point last year as well, then went into Buffalo and lost. This Denver team is certainly better than last year’s, but I see the Broncos falling to 2-1 this week as well.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers +1.5 (-107)
Apologies for the cliche, but it’s must-win time in Steeltown. Pittsburgh enters Week 3 already 1.5 games behind the Bengals in the AFC North, also trailing Baltimore and tied with Cleveland for last at 0-1-1. That can’t sit well with Pittsburgh fans, who already aren’t happy with team management for how it’s handled the Le’Veon Bell situation. Throw in Antonio Brown’s Houdini act at practice this week, the Pittsburgh offensive line’s outspoken comments against Bell and the fact that it looks like head coach Mike Tomlin is losing control of his team, and the Steelers need a victory in the worst way.
But that doesn’t mean they get it. Look, the Steelers have a reputation for being a power in the AFC, but their play over the last few years hasn’t really backed it up. Sure, Pittsburgh can put up points with the best of them, especially when Bell is in the lineup. But the Steelers’ proud defense has been gashed repeatedly in recent contests, including last year’s AFC Divisional at home to the plodding Jaguars offense, then again last week at home against Chiefs’ wunderkind quarterback Patrick Mahomes – who was making just his third career NFL start, and second on the road.
While all the pressure is on Pittsburgh here, the Bucs come in loose and confident. We all know Fitzpatrick’s bubble is going to burst eventually, but there’s no reason to think it ends this week against this Steelers defense. It’s been a long time since Tampa Bay fans legitimately had something to be excited about going into a prime-time matchup, and I think the Bucs fans bring the noise in a big way, disrupting a Pittsburgh offense that isn’t nearly as potent when it’s on the road.
Want more reasons to bet Tampa Bay in this spot? Just look at the line movement. Oddsmakers knew people would line up to bet Pittsburgh here, yet kept the line under a field goal when they opened it on Sunday. And even at +2.5, sharps saw enough value in the Bucs to come in on Tampa, dropping the line to pick ’em at some shops within a couple of days.
This looks like a classic Pros vs. Joes betting situation with the professionals on Tampa and the public on the Steelers, and I know which side I’d rather be on. I certainly don’t want to be backing a Steelers team that is now just 1-7 ATS in its last eight outings, a huge indicator that they’re a massively overrated squad.