Don't Bet on the Bills; Don't Count out the Lions
The Buffalo Bills opened as 17-point home favorites against the Houston Texans in Week 4.
A 17-plus-point spread is a rare bird in the NFL. There have been just 62 spreads that wide since 1978. There probably weren't very many in the 60 years before that, because scoring averages (and therefore expected margins of victory) were far lower. Favorites are just 25-34-3 ATS in games with 17-plus-point spreads, which hints that the Texans might be the shrewd play on Sunday. The favorites are 57-5 straight up in those games, but Texans fans can take some solace in the fact that the last upset came very recently, when the Dolphins beat the Patriots in December of 2019.
A huge mid- to late-season spread is one thing, after both teams have shown their hands for that year and one of them has suffered some injuries/setbacks. A huge spread in September is another. Only 10 games have merited 17-plus-point spreads in September since 1978. Three of them occurred in 2019. All of those involved the AFC East and, directly or indirectly, the incomparable Adam Gase:
- The Patriots covered an 18-point spread in a 43-0 romp over the Dolphins on September 15, 2019.
- The Patriots failed to cover a 20.5-point spread in a 30-14 romp over the Jets the very next Sunday on September 22, 2019.
- The Cowboys covered a whopping 22-point spread in a 31-6 romp over the Dolphins on that same Sunday: September 22, 2019.
Gase left the Dolphins for the Jets in 2019, so the three largest September spreads since 2013 involved either his new team or the smoldering crater of his old team. Those were the only times the Patriots were 17-plus-point September favorites in the Brady-Belichick era. You would think they would have been extreme early-season favorites more frequently in the 2010s based on sheer reputation, but it took Gase to spike the punch with PCP.
Anticipating that the spread might drop, I widened the search a bit and found 16 examples of 16-point September spreads. (Sure enough, the spread was Bills -16 at press time). Favorites were just 6-8-2 ATS in these games, so Bills wagerers should remain a little uneasy.
There have been two straight-up upsets by 16-point September underdogs in living memory, one of them recent. The Bills upset the 16.5-favorite Vikings by a 27-6 final score on September 23, 2018. Rookie Josh Allen rushed for two touchdowns in that game. Kirk Cousins lost a pair of fumbles. Some benighted souls bet on a team with Cousins at quarterback to win by more than two touchdowns in September. Life is a rich tapestry.
The other true upset came in 1978, when the Baltimore Colts beat the Patriots 34-17 as 17.5-point road dogs on Monday Night Football. Someone named Bill Troup started at quarterback for the Colts. All-purpose back Joe Washington (later John Riggins' change-up in Washington) was truly all-purpose, catching a touchdown pass, throwing one, and returning a kickoff 90 yards for the game-winner. And there's video of it! Maybe Phillip Lindsay, Rex Burkhead, or Danny Woodhead can do this for the Texans on Sunday.
What? Woodhead is not on the Texans roster? Are you sure?
Walkthrough isn't touching a 16-point spread in September. The Texans may be more of an impact crater than even the worst of the Adam Gase wreckage, and the Bills have put their Week 1 worries well behind them, but if a 30-14 blowout doesn't result in a payout in an NFL game, I'm gonna look elsewhere. (And rooting for Davis Mills to lead a fourth-quarter backdoor cover rally is crazy sauce). Still, that 17-point spread illustrates both the house and the public's faith in the Bills and anti-faith in the Texans. Early-season flukes and upsets are in the rearview mirror, the wheat is separating from the chaff, and we are entering the portion of the year when we know what's going to happen on Sunday. Some of the time, anyway.
Your traditional Wednesday roundup of early-week news bytes.
Chiefs Plan to Sign Recently-Reinstated Wide Receiver Josh Gordon
The Chiefs' cake may not be fully baked this year, so they're adding some frosting. But seriously, Gordon could be effective in the Sammy Watkins role for about three or four games, which is how long Sammy Watkins was typically effective in the Sammy Watkins role.
Panthers Trade Tight End Dan Arnold and a Third-Round Pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for Cornerback CJ Henderson and a Fifth-Round Pick
The Panthers get a replacement for injured Jaycee Horn. Arnold gets Tim Tebow's old locker. This is one of those trades that's interpreted as a huge win for the Panthers because they are 3-0 and everything they do is magical. They just traded a regular from an offense running low on firepower for another team's headache, losing the draft pick exchange to boot.
Broncos Wide Receiver KJ Hamler Out for the Season With an ACL Tear
The 2021 Broncos are one skill-position injury away from reverting back into the 2017-2020 Broncos.
49ers Cornerback Josh Norman Dealing with Bruised Lungs
The ancient eldritch horror that has chased Jason Verrett for his entire career happened to be in the neighborhood.
Matt Nagy Says that Andy Dalton, Justin Fields and Nick Foles are All Potential Starters in Week 4 Against the Lions
Yet folks think Dan Campbell's press conferences are hilarious.
Jalen Hurts Describes Monday Night's Eagles Loss by Saying 'When You Take a Deuce, You Don't Sit There and Look at it. You Flush it.'
Teammate DeVonta Smith is too skinny to even sit there.
Walkthrough Tank Watch: Detroit Lions
Every Wednesday, Walkthrough will check in on one of the NFL's worst teams to determine what's going wrong, what (if anything) is going right, and what (if anything) they can do to start heading in the right direction.
The Lions Story So Far: The Lions replaced nerdbully stereotype Matt Patricia at head coach with Crom, Lord of the Orcs. For good measure, they also replaced overmatched Belichick hanger-on Bob Quinn with longtime Rams executive Brad Holmes. Homes and Dan Campbell have fumigated the franchise of most of its Patriots wannabe mildew. But the Lions have been more pesky than effective through a trio of losses, including Sunday's 19-17 heartbreaker against the Ravens.
What's Going Wrong? Not as much as you might think, and nothing unexpected:
- The Lions' starting wide receivers might not make the practice squad of a playoff team.
- Overall team speed is a problem on both sides of the ball. The Ravens would have steamrolled the Lions if Marquise Brown extended his arms instead of trying to make Willie Mays basket catches on multiple deep shots. The Lions deactivated Jamie Collins last week because they hope to trade him, but no one wants a linebacker who runs like a nose tackle. Collins was released on Tuesday.
- Jared Goff throws outside the numbers as if the numbers are a quarter-mile away and up a steep hill. He also has trouble handling slippery balls.
Is Anything Going Right? More than you might think.
- The Lions running game is downright excellent. Their offensive line would look much better if they weren't always trailing and/or if Goff had anyone to throw to in the quick game.
- T.J. Hockenson is awesome.
- Campbell is more of a Buddy/Rex Ryan type than the tinpot Ditka impersonator I pegged him for. The Ryans were very good at galvanizing the locker room and using their personas to draw criticism away from their players, and their teams often enjoyed playoff success before the shtick grew stale.
What Needs to be Done? Not much can be done right now. But here are some suggestions.
- Churn the Bottom of the Roster: The Lions should make the most of being near the top of the waiver claims list. Contenders will be releasing players in the weeks to come that might be good enough to start for the Lions, particularly at wide receiver. The last regime wasted roster space on Danny Amendola types while buried in last place. The current regime appears to be smarter than that.
- Clean up Fourth Downs: The Lions are 2-of-7 on fourth down conversions, with a handful of failures in non-desperate situations. They also committed false starts on two fourth-and-1 conversion attempts against the Ravens, forcing them to punt both times. A team that runs the ball as well as the Lions should be able to convert fourth-and-short more frequently.
- Embrace the Slobberknocker Silliness, for Now: After the Lions intercepted Lamar Jackson while trailing by two points late in the fourth quarter, they took the field with three tight ends and Goff completed a 24-yard pass to Darren Fells. So be yourselves, fellas: flood the field with tight ends, block like Neanderthals protecting their sacred hunting ground, turn every game into a potential trap. It's not an effective long-range plan for success, but it'll help the Lions scratch at some wins and a lot of dignity until some playmakers on both sides of the ball arrive.
So How Bad are the Lions? They're better than the Jets, Jaguars, and Texans, certainly, and are probably on par with the Giants. (A Giants-Lions all-star team, coached by Campbell and his staff, could probably win 11 games). They're not the best 0-3 team in the NFL, unfortunately, due to the awesome cosmic power of Carson Wentz.
What's Next? The Lions could manage at least one upset in their upcoming two-game road trip to face the Bears and Vikings.
The bigger question is whether they can clear their over-under on wins, which fell from 4.5 to start the season down to 3.5 this week. The Falcons in December are the closest thing to a gimme on their schedule now that the Bengals are clearly non-pushovers, so futures wagers may simply be a bad play. (More on those in a moment). But keep an eye on the Lions to cover every week. And don't be surprised if the whole "improved team culture" thing turns out to be more than just a boilerplate new-regime storyline.
Walkthrough Prop Watch: NFC South/AFC West Futures
Every Wednesday, Walkthrough will handicap the field in an NFL awards race or some other type of futures bet.
The AFC West is shaping up to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, especially with the Chiefs sputtering at the start of the season. The NFC South is full of intrigue, thanks to the Panthers' hot start and the Buccaneers' loss to the Rams. So Walkthrough searched the futures market in search of bargains, or at least insights.
You should compare the over-unders and my thoughts with theFootball Outsiders Playoff Odds report. That said, our predicted wins have a frustrating habit of lining up almost perfectly with the over-unders. (It's almost as if the house uses proven, well-vetted analytics much like our own. Hmmm…)
Let's start in the NFC South:
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Over 12.5 (-120), Under 12.5 (-100)
- New Orleans Saints: Over 9.5 (-115), Under 9.5 (-105)
- Carolina Panthers: Over 8.5 (-145), Under 8.5 (+120)
- Atlanta Falcons: Over 6.5 (-110), Under 6.5 (-110)
Walkthrough doesn't want to sound judgmental, but the type of person who wagers on Tom Brady to succeed probably also has some other frontrunner tendencies, while the type of person who wagers on Tom Brady to fail is probably miserable and broke. Put another way: Brady and Buccaneers boosters have probably already blown their wads on various preseason Super Bowl and playoff props, while the rest of us are content to just let nature take its course.
The Panthers over-under and moneyline suggest house ambivalence: here's an enticing number that we don't really want you to play. The Panthers don't have to be legitimate playoff contenders to get to six wins simply by sweeping the Falcons and beating the Giants. Another win in the NFC East and one more against either the Vikings or Patriots gets them to eight, with multiple paths to victory before winter comes and the Buccaneers and Bills show up to restore law and order. Even odds would make the Panthers +8.5 tasty. At -145, they're not worth the risk.
The Saints are much more enticing at a closer to even payout, even though they face a steeper climb than the Panthers. The Saints get the Giants next week, the Falcons twice, and the Jets later in the year. That's six wins. Their head-to-head loss to the Panthers aside, the Saints demonstrated against the Packers and Patriots that they can beat competitive opponents under adverse conditions. Walkthrough can easily envision a Saints road win in Seattle in Week 7 and trusts the Saints at home against Buffalo on Thanksgiving more than the Panthers in Buffalo in December. Is banking on Jameis Winston any less sensible than banking on Sam Darnold? You get the idea. The Saints may not be a great play, but they're the best play in the NFC South.
As for the Falcons: not today, Satan! The house is trying to tempt me to go under 6.5, but those dirty f*ckers in Atlanta will end up scratching out six more grimy raunchfests like that nightmare in the Meadowlands last Sunday. Friends don't let friends wager on the Falcons.
NFC South Division Winner Moneylines:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: -300
New Orleans Saints: +350
Carolina Panthers: +850
Atlanta Falcons: +4000
A lousy payout, schmuckbait, bigger shmuckbait, and a punchline waiting to write itself.
Now onto the AFC West:
- Kansas City Chiefs: Over 11.5 (+110), Under 11.5 (-130)
- Denver Broncos: Over 10.5 (-125), Under 10.5 (+105)
- Los Angeles Chargers: Over 10.5 (-120), Under 10.5 (+100)
- Las Vegas Raiders: Over 9.5 (-125), Under 9.5 (+105)
The big news here is that you can take the Chiefs to go 11-3 or better the rest of the way at +110. The Chiefs still face all four NFC East teams and the weaker half of the AFC North, plus five games against the AFC West and the Bills and Titans as their at-large opponents and the Packers as their 17th game rando. There are lots of wins on that slate. But are there 11 of them? Our projections don't love their chances.
The Broncos have faced the easiest schedule so far this side of UNLV basketball circa 1988, so they feel overvalued at 10.5 wins. Our projection system loves them, but our projection system isn't aware that they are running out of healthy wide receivers. An upcoming Ravens-Steelers-Raiders-Browns slate will help them find their level. If you are a Broncos skeptic (or Chiefs fan with the jitters, which may be the same thing), take the under now.
The Raiders, on the other hand, have already beaten three decent to great opponents and have some easier games marbled through their future schedule. Walkthrough is a bigger believer in 10-7 Raiders than 11-6 Broncos at this point, though again: the Playoff Odds report disagrees.
The Chargers were preseason darlings for many and generated a lot of buzz with last Sunday's upset of the Chiefs. They look to both our projections and Walkthrough like a .500-caliber team with a brutal schedule that benefited from lots of unforced errors against a divisional powerhouse. That over is far too rich, especially when strapped with a negative moneyline. The under is more appealing, but it just feels ghoulish to wager on the perpetually star-crossed Chargers to lose games.
AFC West Division Winner Moneylines:
We'll take the Chiefs and even odds, thank you very much. The fact that the house/public is more confident in the Chargers after two narrow wins and a narrow loss than the Raiders after three narrow wins (two against traditional conference powers) is surprising, but it plays into Walkthrough's theory that far more people talk about the Chargers than actually watch them.