Every Friday during the NFL season, ESPN betting analysts Doug Kezirian (2-0 last week, 6-8 overall), Joe Fortenbaugh (3-4, 11-20), Anita Marks (3-7, 14-23), Preston Johnson (1-1, 7-10), Mike Clay (1-1, 9-4) and Tyler Fulghum (4-2, 8-9), sports betting deputy editor David Bearman (2-1, 10-5), Seth Walder (3-1, 12-10) of ESPN analytics and Aaron Schatz (1-4, 13-15-1) of Football Outsiders will tell us what they like from Sunday’s slate.
Note: Lines courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill as of Thursday.
8:20 p.m. ET game
Los Angeles Rams (-3.5, 51.5) at San Francisco 49ers
Fortenbaugh: After making back-to-back trips to the East Coast to play the Eagles and Bills in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, the Rams returned home in Week 4 to grind out an ugly 17-9 win over a terrible Giants team. I want you to keep that performance in mind entering Week 6, because the Rams had to travel east yet again last weekend to play Washington and now must visit division rival San Francisco on Sunday, making this a precarious spot for Los Angeles. The 49ers are off a humiliating 43-17 blowout loss at home to the Dolphins, so you know you’re going to get a good week of practice from the defending NFC champions. You’re also going to get a ton of public money on the Rams, which is generally a side I like to oppose.
Pick: 49ers +3.5
Johnson: If the Dolphins scoring 43 in Santa Clara wasn’t evidence enough of the 49ers’ struggling and depleted defense, I don’t know what is. Now they face a Rams offense that ranks third in the NFL in success rate and fourth in DVOA. I expect Jimmy Garoppolo in his second week back to have a much better showing as well, and we should get an optimal Kyle Shanahan game plan off of the embarrassing Dolphins home loss. Shanahan and Sean McVay are two of the most brilliant offensive minds in the business. I expected this total to be lined closer to 54, so at 51.5 it appears to be a buy low for me on a San Francisco offense that is being dismissed after one bad Jimmy G start.
Pick: Over 51.5
Walder: Upon first glance, this looks like a shoo-in bet. Cooper Kupp ranks 88th in air yards among the 95 wideouts with 75 targets or more this season. He’s running lots of short outs and short crossing routes from tight formations in that Rams offense. None of that screams long receptions. But there is one hiccup: YAC. And Kupp’s demonstrable ability to get a lot of it.
NFL Next Gen Stats has an expected YAC model, and Kupp has beaten it every year of his career, including this one. But even if we generously added Kupp’s 1.8 YAC over expectation this season to his air yards per target total — generous because it’s a career-high — he’d still rank … 79th in air yards per target.
Pick: Kupp longest reception under 23.5 yards
Fulghum: The Rams are 4-1 this season, but all of those victories have come against NFC East opponents. If you’re not yet ready to buy into the Rams being back, that is completely reasonable. That being said, Los Angeles is the fourth-best team in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, which accounts for strength of opponent. The Rams beat those four NFC East teams by an average of almost 12 points per game.
Now, they get a wounded and desperate 49ers team coming off an embarrassing loss to the Dolphins. In a divisional game, anything can happen, but I think the Rams have enough horsepower on both sides of the ball to win by more than a field goal on the road.
The 49ers’ defense is absolutely wrecked by injuries. If Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman were playing, I’d bet this game differently. But they’re not, and McVay should have no trouble staying in his playcalling groove against this defense. The Niners are a pass-funnel defense made less effective by the injuries mentioned above, which is why I’m bullish on Jared Goff going over his passing total.
McVay said RB Cam Akers would get a “larger workload” after looking spry against Washington last week. Therefore, I’m fading Malcolm Brown and buying into increased opportunity for the rookie out of Florida State.
On the other side, the Rams’ defense, now coordinated by Brandon Staley, has been a nightmare to throw against. The Rams are allowing just 5.46 net yards per pass attempt this season (best in the NFL), own a 11.0% sack rate (second best in the NFL) and are allowing teams to convert only 35.0% of third-down chances (third in the NFL). Aaron Donald will put pressure on whoever is passing for the Niners, and TE George Kittle will see a lot of shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey. If the Niners are going to move the ball on this defense, it will be Shanahan’s run game led by Raheem Mostert doing the damage.
Pick: Rams -3.5, Brown under 27.5 rushing yards (-115), Akers over 30.5 rushing yards (-115), Goff over 272.5 passing yards (-115), Kittle under 62.5 receiving yards (-115)
1 p.m. ET games
Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings (-4, 54.5)
Schatz: Looking at play-by-play efficiency, the Vikings are a lot better than their record this year. In fact, they rank 11th so far in our DVOA ratings, including eighth on offense and 15th on defense. The Vikings have played their best offense when down by more than a touchdown, but our research has shown that performance is still predictive for the future.
Meanwhile, the past two Vikings losses came by just one point apiece to very good Seattle and Tennessee teams. Atlanta, on the other hand, is a total mess on defense, and we still don’t know when Julio Jones is going to be healthy enough to get back into the lineup. The Falcons are 25th in DVOA so far this year, rated lower than Minnesota in all three phases of the game.
Pick: Vikings -4
Clay: Nov. 11, 2019. That’s the last time Kirk Cousins threw for 280 yards in a game. That game required a 20-0 halftime deficit by Minnesota, which led to Cousins having to attempt 35 passes in the comeback win. The Vikings are 1-4 this season and, despite the deficits, the closest Cousins has come to 280 yards is 260 against Houston in Week 4. Minnesota is operating the league’s game-script-adjusted run-heaviest offense, which has allowed Cousins an average of 27.8 pass attempts and 226.4 yards per game. Despite playing five full games, 22 quarterbacks have attempted more passes and 19 have more yardage.
Cousins does have an excellent matchup this week against a Falcons defense that has allowed at least 313 passing yards in every game this season, but note that all five of Atlanta’s opponents are on the pass-first side of the league in terms of playcalling. Minnesota wants to run the ball and is a four-point home favorite against 0-5 Atlanta. Expect the Vikings to have enough success on the ground that Cousins won’t need to throw enough to come close to 280 yards. This will go sour quick if Atlanta jumps out to a lead, but if things go roughly as expected, anticipate a line closer to 217 yards on 27 attempts.
Pick: Cousins under 279.5 passing yards (-115)
Baltimore Ravens (-7.5, 47.5) at Philadelphia Eagles
Kezirian: I love backing Baltimore because I know the Ravens will be prepared and bring their best effort. Plus, since they already have a loss and are chasing the Steelers in the AFC North, the Ravens know they must continue to rack up wins and not overlook any opponent. Philly did some nice things against Pittsburgh last weekend, but the Eagles are still a class behind the elite, which includes the Ravens.
Pick: Ravens -7.5 and Ravens/Dolphins teaser
Johnson: This one is straightforward. QB Lamar Jackson missed multiple practices last week leading up to the Bengals game. During the game Sunday, Jackson rushed only twice (and neither were designed running plays). Two rushing attempts are the fewest for Jackson in a game since he took over as the starter in 2018. It’s apparent that Jackson isn’t 100% healthy, and while he could still get near this number with a few scrambles on broken plays, the limited designed runs for him should keep it under the total this week.
Pick: Jackson under 53.5 rushing yards
Bearman: The Ravens’ defense showed how strong it can be against a subpar opponent last week, holding rookie QB Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ offense to 205 total yards and 3.2 yards per play. Baltimore travels to nearby Philly ranked sixth in the NFL in defensive yards allowed and fifth in rush defense. Four of the five Ravens games have gone under the total, and the one game that did go over was because of a garbage-time Dwayne Haskins Jr. TD with two minutes left.
Enter the struggling Eagles offense, ranked in the bottom half of most offensive categories. Despite putting up a season-high 29 points last week at Pittsburgh, the Eagles are 23rd in scoring at 23.6 points per game. They continue to be hit by injuries across the board and will struggle against this Ravens defense. While the Ravens’ offense is capable of putting up points to scare us on the total, it has let the foot off the gas in all four wins this year. They’ve jumped out to early first-half leads in all four wins, averaging under 12 PPG in the second half. This one should look the same as the Browns, Texans, Washington and Bengals games, with Baltimore up early and coasting.
Pick: Under 47.5
Marks: Carson Wentz is in for a long day without a healthy offensive line and against a Ravens defense that blitzes almost 50% of the time. Travis Fulgham will not have the same success against the Ravens’ secondary as he did last week against the Steelers. Teams are averaging less than 5% of red zone plays per game against the Ravens. I’m teasing the Ravens down to 1.5 with Washington.
Ravens tight end Mark Andrews has seven end zone targets already this season and has a juicy matchup against an Eagles defense that has allowed five touchdowns to opposing tight ends through five games.
Pick: Ravens -1.5 teaser with Washington, Andrews TD
Washington at New York Giants (-2.5, 42.5)
Marks: The Giants are favored here because of their performance against a horrible Cowboys defense, but the reality is that only 10% of the Giants’ red zone plays have resulted in seven points on the board. The wrong team is favored here, and I’m going to tease Washington up with the Ravens and sleep like a baby tonight! Whether it’s Kyle Allen or Alex Smith, they are both an upgrade from Dwayne Haskins Jr., and Washington has more playmakers with Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson and Chase Young.
Pick: Washington +8.5 teaser with Ravens
Schatz: The biggest problem with picking Devonta Freeman to rush for a lot of yards is the Giants’ offensive line, which ranks dead last this year in adjusted line yards. Meanwhile, the Washington defense ranks eighth in ALY allowed. Freeman has just 93 rushing yards in his two Giants starts. As for receiving, Freeman does have 35 and 27 receiving yards in those two games, but the Giants generally distribute the ball to different backs in the passing game. Dion Lewis, with the same target share as Freeman, has just 9 receiving yards in the past two weeks combined. And Freeman’s 10.3 yards-per-reception average this year is a lot higher than the 4.6 and 6.9 he had in his final two years with Atlanta.
Pick: Freeman under 76.5 rushing/receiving yards
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3, 51)
Marks: I’m fading the Steelers defense this week after I saw the Eagles’ skeleton crew put up 29 points against them. Travis Fulgham … who?! Pittsburgh is 4-0, but whom has it played? The Giants, Broncos, Texans and Eagles. The Browns will field the best offensive line the Steelers will have faced this season. Cleveland is first in rushing offense and fourth in scoring. I expect Odell Beckham Jr. to be active against a Steelers defense that gives up a lot of explosive plays, which is Odell’s wheelhouse.
Pick: Browns +3
Schatz: Pittsburgh is just ninth in our DVOA ratings despite being 4-0, dragged down by a heavy adjustment for schedule. But Cleveland is just 17th despite being 4-1. The Browns are somewhat being dragged down by their performance in Week 1, when they got crushed by Baltimore, but even last week in their win against Indianapolis, they ended up with a lower DVOA rating. Indianapolis had a higher play success rate with more yards per play than the Browns. This is an awesome battle in the trenches when Cleveland has the ball, as the Browns rank first in adjusted line yards and third in pass block win rate, while the Pittsburgh defense is also first in adjusted line yards and ranks second in pass rush win rate. But the Pittsburgh passing game (ninth in DVOA) against the Cleveland pass defense (19th) is where the mismatch is, as the Browns will struggle to cover Pittsburgh’s deep receiver group with their cornerbacks not named Denzel Ward.
Pick: Steelers -3
Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans (-3, 52.5)
Fortenbaugh: After drubbing the previously unbeaten Bills by 26 points on national television, the betting public will be lining up to back the undefeated Titans against the underwhelming Texans. Good, because that creates some value for me in siding with Houston. Tennessee is operating on a very short week, having just played on Tuesday night, so that’s a big edge for interim coach Romeo Crennel and a Texans squad that finally scored a win in Week 5 over the lowly Jaguars. Remember, Houston opened the 2020 campaign against the Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers, who are a combined 12-2. How many teams in the league were going to navigate those waters with tremendous success? I’m still weary of Tennessee, which owns three wins by a grand total of just six points over teams with a combined record of 3-11 (Denver, Jacksonville, Minnesota).
Pick: Texans +3
Kezirian: I’m opposite my buddy on this one. Joe raises fair points, but I have liked this Tennessee team all season. I picked the Titans to win the AFC South and feel they are a much better offense with WR A.J. Brown back from injury. I just like their toughness, and Mike Vrabel has done a wonderful job getting the most out of it. Meanwhile, Houston has been shaky all year and finally picked up its first win last week at home against lowly Jacksonville. That hardly instills confidence the Texans can go to Tennessee and keep it close.
Pick: Titans -3
Chicago Bears at Carolina Panthers (-1.5, 45)
Kezirian: I am going to keep riding this Carolina team. The Panthers have won three straight and continue to impress under rookie coach Matt Rhule. Plus, Teddy Bridgewater is 30-9 against the spread, which unsurprisingly ranks best all time among quarterbacks with at least 15 starts. Chicago has a frisky defense and deserves credit for its 4-1 start, but the Panthers are better coached and more buttoned up on both sides of the ball.
Pick: Panthers -1.5
Marks: Let’s be honest … Nick Foles is an upgrade from Mitchell Trubisky. RB David Montgomery is having an impressive season and has a very favorable matchup against a Panthers defense that can be had by ball carriers in the passing game. Carolina’s defense is dealing with a number of injuries, and I envision Montgomery, Allen Robinson II and Darnell Mooney taking advantage of this favorable matchup.
Teddy Bridgewater will have a much more difficult time this week against a Bears defense that is allowing fewer than two touchdowns per game. I’m teasing the Bears with a Colts team looking to rebound this week.
Pick: Bears +7.5 teaser with Colts
Marks: The unfortunate loss of RB Tarik Cohen to a torn ACL has played into Montgomery’s opportunity to shine, and he has taken advantage. He is now playing almost 90% of the offensive snaps and has a juicy matchup against a Panthers defense that is one of the worst in the league in yards per carry and rushing points allowed.
Pick: Montgomery over 86.5 rushing and receiving yards
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots (-9.5, 45)
Fulghum: Welcome back, Cam Newton. Having been removed from the league’s Reserve/COVID-19 list, Newton walks back into a juicy matchup against a Broncos defense that is allowing the seventh-most rushing yards per game to opposing quarterbacks.
The Broncos defense has been ravaged by injury, losing five starters from its front seven. Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense will take full advantage of this mismatch and put points on the board at home.
Meanwhile, QB Drew Lock is back for the Broncos and will test his luck against Bill Belichick’s defense. Good luck with that. 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore will be back from the Reserve/COVID-19 list for the Patriots, and the Broncos are still dealing with injury issues to their pass-catching corps. Oh, and Melvin Gordon III might not play after being charged with DUI earlier in the week.
The Broncos’ offense likely won’t be adding too much to the scoreboard in Foxborough.
Pick: Patriots -9.5, under 45
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (-8, 46.5)
Marks: I’ve been impressed with QB Joe Burrow this season, but unfortunately he is playing behind a subpar offensive line and is in store for a long day against a Colts defense that can create pressure only rushing four. It’s also very difficult to bounce back after a physical game against the Ravens’ defense. I expect the Colts to win the turnover ratio, and I’m teasing the Colts down to -2 with the Bears, counting on both defenses to dominate each matchup.
Pick: Colts -2 teaser with Bears
Marks: Trey Burton is finally healthy and is becoming a much larger part of the Colts’ offensive scheme. Mo Alie-Cox is dealing with a knee injury, and the Colts’ wide receiving corps is dealing with health issues, so Burton is leading the tight end room in routes and targets. Six targets, five catches for 33 yards in Week 5? Over 2.5 catches this week is a walk in the park.
Pick: Burton over 2.5 catches
Detroit Lions (-3, 54.5) at Jacksonville Jaguars
Bearman: A true planned bye week has turned into a luxury this year, and the Lions actually had one last week, unlike the teams moved into bye weeks a few days out because of COVID-19. Why is this important? Well, the Lions, a team that does not have many pretty ATS stats over the years, are 7-1 against the number coming off a bye since 2012. As Preston Johnson hit on in his market watch piece, the Lions, while not among the upper half of NFL teams, are better than their 1-3 record indicates. They beat a good Cardinals team and blew big leads against the Bears, Saints and undefeated Packers. A play here and there and the 1-3 record could be 3-1.
So why lay points with a team that blows leads? Those were against teams that are a combined 10-4 — not the Jaguars. After a promising start (win over Indy and last-second loss to Tennessee), the Jags are where we thought they’d be — at 1-4, losers of four straight. In all four losses, the Jags allowed at least 30 points, and the opponents weren’t a who’s who of big offenses in the Dolphins, Bengals, Texans and Titans. Fresh off a bye, QB Matthew Stafford and WR Kenny Golladay should feast on a Jags secondary that is allowing an NFL-high 8.7 pass yards per play. It’s on the road, but that hasn’t meant much this year, as road favorites are winning at a 56% clip this season. I might be asking myself on Sunday why I laid on the road with the Lions, but hopefully the Jaguars will answer that for us all.
Pick: Lions -3
Walder: Among the 127 wide receivers and tight ends who have run 75 routes this year, T.J. Hockenson ranks 109th in air yards per target and 112th in average depth on routes three seconds into a play. While those numbers make him average for a tight end, this line seems high for that position. Plus, he’s only averaging a total of 23.4 expected air yards per game (based on Next Gen Stats’ expected completion model).
Pick: Hockenson longest reception under 18.5 yards
4 p.m. ET games
New York Jets at Miami Dolphins (-8.5, 47)
Kezirian: Don’t need to say much here. The Jets stink and have not covered all season. They are an absolute train wreck, and the only thing that’s changed is they’ve released Le’Veon Bell and coach Adam Gase is no longer calling plays. However, QB Joe Flacco is expected to start again after a weak showing last Sunday.
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