Analytics have already drastically changed the way baseball is played, and now we’re starting to see them have a huge impact on the National Football League as well.
Outside of Jason Garrett in Dallas, NFL coaches are getting more and more aggressive going for it on fourth-and-short, even in their own territory. We’re also seeing coaches getting creative and aggressive when it comes to going for two points instead of kicking the convert, with Giants coach Pat Shurmur the latest to take massive heat for a failed two-point conversion attempt Monday night when a single point would have moved New York within 7 points of Atlanta.
Why does this matter for making NFL predictions? Well, because they might start having a drastic impact on the way we bet on NFL games. Over the years, we’ve been trained to respect 3 and 7 as the biggest key numbers in football because they’re by far the most common margins of victory in the NFL. But now that coaches are going for two where they’d normally have gone for one, the significance of 3 and 7 may decrease while the difference between 1 and 2 on a point spread could become a lot bigger.
With that in mind, I’m going with very short favorites for two of my three NFL predictions this week. In fact, I’ve even decided to take the potential for late-game drama out of the equation entirely by limiting one of my plays to the first half only. Read why below, along with my other two predictions for Week 8 in the NFL.
1. Miami Dolphins +7.5 (-115) over Houston Texans (Thursday, 8:20 p.m. eastern)
Next to Kansas City and the Rams, Houston looks like the hottest team in the NFL right now. After an 0-3 start, the Texans have won four straight, including a 20-7 romp last week in Jacksonville that moved Houston into first place in the AFC South. But while the vibes might be a lot better in Houston right now than they were a month ago, the Texans’ run of success ranks among the most fraudulent four-game winning streaks you’ll ever see.
Last week’s win over Jacksonville was the most decisive and impressive of the bunch, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The Texans’ comfortable win may have had more to do with Jacksonville’s ineptitude on offense and overall implosion, considering that the Jags benched QB Blake Bortles and then had a fight in the dressing room after the game. Houston didn’t really do that much on offense once again, gaining just 15 first downs. If the Texans didn’t win the turnover battle 3-0, that game would have been a lot closer, even with the Jacksonville offense being as bad as it is. Houston star QB Deshaun Watson is clearly limited by his lung injury (he had to ride a bus to Jacksonville last week as the team was concerned about his safety in the high altitude of a plane), limiting the explosiveness and potential of this Texans attack.
So I’ll gladly take over a touchdown against the Texans with almost anybody right now, and Miami certainly fits the bill. The Dolphins are catching more points than they normally might because of the presence of Brock Osweiler at quarterback, replacing the injured Ryan Tannehill. But as much as NFL fans love to mock Osweiler based on his previous performance (with good reason, I might add), Brock’s actually been pretty good in his two starts with the Fish. Two weeks ago, he threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns in an OT win over the Bears. And last week, Osweiler was 22 of 31 for 239 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions versus Detroit despite being under constant pressure from the Lions’ pass rush. Osweiler will be especially motivated to perform here against the Texans, a team that not only gave up on him after signing him to a huge contract but has also taken shots at him since he left.
Miami’s badly banged up on the offensive and defensive lines, but Houston’s got its share of injuries as well, not the least of which is to its most important player in Watson. A short week for Thursday Night Football means that neither team will be feeling that great physically anyway, and the 2.5 hour flight from Miami to Houston shouldn’t be a huge factor that hurts the road team here. This may be more of a fade of the Texans than a confident play on Miami, but I’ll challenge this overrated Houston squad (2-10 ATS in its last 12) to win a second straight game by a comfortable margin. Give me the Dolphins +7.5 here.
2. Baltimore Ravens 1st Half -0.5 (-110) over Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m. eastern)
The Ravens and Panthers were on opposite ends of stunning fourth-quarter comebacks last week. Baltimore saw a 17-7 fourth-quarter lead slip away in a 24-23 home loss to the Saints (capped by legendary kicker Justin Tucker’s inexplicable miss of an extra point that would have tied the game with 24 seconds left), while the Panthers rallied from a 17-0 deficit in the final frame to shock the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles 21-17 in Philadelphia.
Since Baltimore is more likely to come out with a lot more intensity early, that’s one reason I’m on the Ravens in the First Half only here. There’s a bigger reason that I’m limiting this Baltimore bet to the first 30 minutes, though, and it’s purely statistical.
If you’re a Carolina fan, seeing your team struggle early and come on strong late is nothing new. That’s been the Panthers’ mantra all season, being a team that starts slowly before finishing with a flourish. Carolina has scored 43 more points in the second half this season than it has in the first half, while its defense has allowed 12 fewer points in the second half than the first. That adds up to a +55 point differential over 6 games, meaning that the Panthers have been approximately 10 points per game better in the second half this season.
Baltimore’s splits are nowhere near as exaggerated. In fact, the Ravens have been virtually identical in first and second halves from a point total perspective, outscoring opponents 254-211 in first halves and 253-212 in second halves. But if the Ravens are going to win this game as I expect them to, they’re going to have to do the bulk of the legwork in the opening two quarters. Joe Flacco’s having a bounceback season, but he isn’t the ideal quarterback to overcome a second-half deficit on the road, especially against a team that tightens up down the stretch.
Taking Baltimore in the first half only means that we also gain a point of value on the spread, now needing Baltimore to simply have the lead in order to cash our ticket. The difference between -1 and -2 on an NFL point spread may not seem like a lot, since both are under the key number of 3. But as we saw last week, there’s no guarantee on these extra points anymore, and more and more NFL head coaches are passing up the chance for a game-tying convert in order to go for two and the win (ala Mike Vrabel last week in London). By playing the Ravens on the first half line, I’ll protect myself against any potential for late-game shenanigans backdooring the spread, back the hungrier team early and avoid betting against the Panthers when they’re typically at the strongest.
3. San Francisco 49ers -1 (-110) over Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. eastern)
Games like this are precisely why the NFL needs gambling. If it weren’t for the opportunity for us to bet on the result, who in their right mind would be interested in this clash of awful NFC West teams who have a combined record of 2-12? (If that’s not bad enough, Arizona’s only win this year came against the 49ers, meaning that these teams are a combined 1-11 against any other team in the league.) Thankfully, the recent legalization of sports betting across America means that the NFL can drop the ridiculous facade of being anti-gambling and simply embrace the fact that their league is stronger because of us bettors.
But in spite of their identical records (technically, Arizona is ahead of the Niners in the NFC West standings by virtue of its Week 5 win in San Francisco), I think the 49ers are clearly the better of these two teams. That’s indicated in this betting line, with oddsmakers making San Francisco a one-point favorite despite being the visiting team. Since home field is typically weighted at 3 points, that means the bookies view San Francisco as 4 points better than Arizona on a neutral field and would favor the Niners by a touchdown if this game were played at Levi’s Stadium. That’s a 4-point adjustment on what San Fran was laying just three weeks ago, when the 49ers were just 3-point home favorites versus the Cards.
This line is also based on how much the 49ers dominated Arizona in their first meeting three weeks ago. Don’t let the Cardinals’ 10-point win in that game fool you. San Francisco moved the ball with ease throughout, racking up 33 first downs while limiting the Cardinals to just 10. The 49ers more than doubled Arizona in yards (447-220) but were undone by five turnovers, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Arizona also scored on a 75-yard pass play, which is a lot flukier and hard to replicate than a well-executed drive down the field.
Arizona’s had extra time to prepare, and the offense may come out fired up after the Cards fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy following the loss to Denver. But that move may also further divide a team that is already tearing apart at the seams, with star corner Patrick Peterson reportedly saying that he “desperately” wants out of Arizona. The 49ers are motivated to avenge their loss three weeks ago to the Cardinals, and I fully expect them to do just that. Look for the road team to cover the spread for the sixth straight time in this series and for San Fran to improve to 10-3 ATS in its last 13 visits to Arizona.