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Best plays on NFL season win totals

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly) 

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Derek Carr
© Imagn

For the last three weeks in “Point Spread Weekly,” I’ve been detailing methods I use to make NFL predictions. I typically rely on analyzing free-agent additions and losses, adjusting my power ratings and running them against the schedule, then breaking down the statistical traits of teams that tend to improve or decline each season. Having completed this, I am ready to finalize my season win total wagers. Feel free to send your comments, kudos or objections to steve@vsin.com.

Best-Bet Over Teams

These are the teams on which I would recommend betting Over the season win total:

Arizona Cardinals (FanDuel win total: 7)

The Cardinals averaged 22.6 PPG last year and added one of the league’s premier playmakers in WR DeAndre Hopkins, which should help GM Steve Keim address defensive needs in the draft. If I had such an award, I might name Arizona my ultimate surprise division winner.

Carolina Panthers (FD WT: 5.5)

I’m not a huge believer in the Year 1 success of the college coach ascending to the NFL, but I do like the players this team brought in, with QB Teddy Bridgewater, LT Russell Okung and WR Robby Anderson the big names. If new OC Joe Brady has anywhere near the impact he had at LSU last year, this will be an easy Over. After going from 11 to seven to five wins the last three years, are the Panthers due for the 4.8-win bounce that teams in that pattern normally enjoy?

Dallas Cowboys (FD WT: 9.5)

Several systems suggest Dallas could be in line for at least a few more wins in 2020. At 8-8, the Cowboys actually outscored teams by 113 points last year. That is more characteristic of an 11-5 or 12-4 team. Dallas also had a negative turnover differential. I love the hiring of Mike McCarthy, a highly underrated coach who was incredibly successful in Green Bay before things unraveled. He is an innovative offensive mind who apparently spent his year away from football studying new concepts. The offense is superb, and the defense should be much better up front. This is a top NFC contender. 

Los Angeles Chargers (FD WT 7.5)

If there was one team in the NFL whose record undersold its competitiveness last year, it was the Chargers. They were 5-11 despite being outscored by only 0.5 PPG on average. This was due in large part to a worse than -1.0 turnover ratio per game and losing nine games by eight or fewer points. Sure, this team lost QB Philip Rivers and RB Melvin Gordon, but Los Angeles was due for a change in both spots, and the defense is what should carry the Chargers in 2020 anyhow. You’ll find them on many of the improvement systems in my changeover story in this “PSW.”

New England Patriots (FD WT: 9)

Let’s be honest. For as much as Tom Brady’s signing with the Buccaneers is perhaps the biggest-name free-agent loss in NFL history, the 2019 Patriots probably would have been nearly as good with a journeyman quarterback running the show. New England consistently stripped Brady of his weaponry in recent years and became a more defense-oriented team. That unit allowed a league-best 14.1 PPG last season. The Pats also led the league with six blowout wins of 20-plus points. I’m not sure any other AFC East teams are ready to unseat New England just yet, Brady or not.

New York Giants (FD WT: 5.5)

I may be on the short list of people who are actually optimistic about the Giants’ chances. I love the fact that this franchise is finally moving on from Eli Manning, as I think loyalty to him despite his late-career shortcomings was an anchor to growth. Unfortunately, it cost them perhaps the league’s most talented wide receiver a year ago. They still have RB Saquon Barkley, though, and I believe QB Daniel Jones has achievable potential this season. The defense also should be better with some help arriving in free agency. Now make the No. 4 draft pick count.

New York Jets (FD WT: 6.5)

The Jets completely rebuilt their offensive line this offseason after ranking second to last in the NFL in rushing yards last year and fourth to last in sacks allowed. This was obviously needed, which leaves me wondering why oddsmakers think this team will be worse than last year. New York won seven games in 2019, and this year’s wager total is 6.5? Quarterback Sam Darnold had a 13:4 TD:INT ratio in the last eight games last year, when the Jets went 6-2. Things are pointing up for this franchise, not down.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (FD WT: 9)

Two weeks ago in “Point Spread Weekly,” I explained why the Buccaneers were expected to be better even before signing Tom Brady. I stick to that story. This franchise has great offensive weapons in place and has secured some key defensive improvements. The Bucs had major turnover problems last year and still outscored their opponents. Much of this and more makes Tampa Bay a legitimate NFC contender for 2020.

Slight-Lean Over Teams

These are the teams I believe will go Over their season win totals but don’t feel as strongly as others to make a Best Bet:

Cleveland Browns (FD WT: 8.5)

If any team needed to wipe its slate clean for 2020, it was Cleveland. Gone are a couple of key linebackers, which is a concern, but more importantly absent is the mountain of expectations that met the Browns at this time a year ago. They succumbed to that, obviously. This is a talented team, and I see this season as one in which they seriously contend for a playoff spot.

Green Bay Packers (FD WT: 9)

As much as I believe the Packers will be hard-pressed to match their success of 2019, the season win total represents a four-game decline. I think that is overstating it, especially since QB Aaron Rodgers is still in the fold and Green Bay is expected to be favored by at least two points in all eight home games. Plus, who in the NFC North really improved enough to make this big of a dent in the Pack’s 2020 prospects?

Indianapolis Colts (FD WT: 8.5)

On paper, the Colts will play what is viewed to be the easiest schedule in the league, and if that simplicity is front-loaded, this team has a real good chance of gaining some key early momentum with QB Philip Rivers. Signing DT DeForest Buckner and CB Xavier Rhodes are also very good moves. 

Tennessee Titans (FD WT: 8.5)

I recognize that the Titans lost some key pieces in free agency, including RT Jack Conklin, but it’s hard to envision a scenario in which they drop more than a couple of games from last season. While true that momentum is hard to re-establish in the NFL, and Tennessee rode that wave hard down the stretch, coach Mike Vrabel preaches a physical style that would seem to be somewhat repeatable.

No Opinion

These are the teams on which I have no definitive opinion for 2020:

Chicago Bears (FD WT: 8)

Chicago has shown a tendency lately to go wildly Over or Under expected win totals. Last year was a step backward for QB Mitch Trubisky, and this team’s win total rests with him. 

Cincinnati Bengals (FD WT: 5.5)

In anticipation of landing QB Joe Burrow with the top pick, the Bengals invested $100 million-plus on the defense in free agency. Signs of improvement are there, but this team still won only two games last year, and even a noteworthy four-game bump would raise it to only six. That might be a good first year-goal for the Burrow era.

Denver Broncos (FD WT: 7.5)

Denver has made some pretty good additions in the offseason, highlighted by G Graham Glasgow and RB Melvin Gordon. The defense is one of the league’s better units, but I’m just not sure the offense is good enough to reach 8-8.

Detroit Lions (FD WT: 6.5)

The Lions were 3-4-1 with QB Matthew Stafford in the lineup last year, 0-8 without him. At 106.0, he had the highest passer rating of his career in that half-season. His healthy return should be more than enough reason for optimism, but it sure looks like Detroit is the No. 4 team in the NFC North.

Kansas City Chiefs (FD WT: 11.5)

There’s so much to like about the defending Super Bowl champs, but I simply am not a fan of betting the biggest numbers to go Over. You’re just one key injury from having your bet wiped out. Regression shows that Super Bowl champs fall back only 1.3 wins on average. Assuming QB Patrick Mahomes stays healthy, all signs point to at least another 12-win season.

Miami Dolphins (FD WT: 6)

As of now, the Dolphins have signed 10 players in free agency, seven of whom are potential starters. Things could go a lot differently for Miami in 2020 because of it. My studies have shown that the worst of the worst teams typically improve naturally, and the Dolphins had a -10 turnover differential and NFL-worst minus-188 score differential. Even if improved, were they fortunate to win five games last year?

New Orleans Saints (FD WT: 10.5)

The disappointing playoff losses continue to add up for the Saints, as it’s been heartbreak for three straight seasons. How long can a team continue to endure those gut-wrenching endings? This season will be a real test for New Orleans. On paper, there’s no real reason to think this team won’t be as good or even better in 2020. I’m just not confident enough to bet it.

Philadelphia Eagles (FD WT: 9.5)

I’m not as big a Carson Wentz fan as the average NFL analyst. But in the games I was able to watch Philadelphia closely in 2019, I was impressed by the physicality. Some valuable pieces were added to the defense in the offseason, but this offense doesn’t approach the level of Dallas’, so I have the Eagles behind in the NFC East race.

Slight-Lean Under Teams

These are the teams I believe will go Under their season win totals, but I don’t feel as strongly as others to make a Best Bet:

Atlanta Falcons (FD WT: 7.5)

The Falcons seem stuck in a holding pattern, and this year’s free-agent losses and gains are virtually equal, in my opinion. A third straight 7-9 season in the NFC South wouldn’t surprise me, which could lead to a franchise reshuffle. I like the other three division teams’ prospects much more.

Baltimore Ravens (FD WT: 11.5)

Typically, offenses that rely on new, unfamiliar concepts have relatively short shelf lives as sharp defensive coordinators become keen on stopping them. Such is a concern for me with Baltimore, as is a natural return to normalcy. What effect does last year’s early playoff exit have on this team’s psyche? I have many systems suggesting a drop of four wins or more from last year’s 14-2 record.

Jacksonville Jaguars (FD WT: 5)

After the 2017 season, the prospects for Jacksonville were certainly different from what they are now. In fact, the defense was one of the most respected units in the NFL. But gone are several huge names, including DT Marcell Dareus, DE Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye and CB Jalen Ramsey. Quarterback Gardner Minshew was a pleasant surprise, but players like that often regress in Year 2 with a season of tape for defensive coordinators to study.

Minnesota Vikings (FD WT: 8.5)

My overwhelming thought as I analyzed the Vikings’ prospects is that this looks like a franchise that missed its window to win a Super Bowl. Some creative contract building over the years caught up to Minnesota in the offseason, and the list of defensive losses is enormous, including CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Trae Waynes and DE Everson Griffen. Oh, and the Vikings traded one of their biggest playmakers in recent years in WR Stefon Diggs. I have a hard time being optimistic about the Purple and Gold.

Pittsburgh Steelers (FD WT: 9)

Though a limited sample, in the two games QB Ben Roethlisberger started in 2019, he had a career-low 66.0 rating and the team was 0-2. As much as Pittsburgh fans probably don’t want to admit it, Big Ben’s best days are likely behind him, and it doesn’t make sense that this franchise is making moves centering on his return as a key part of the equation. I don’t see a complete dropoff, but this doesn’t look like a plus-.500 team.

San Francisco 49ers (FD WT 10.5)

The average Super Bowl loser drops 3.3 wins the next season. For that reason and many of the same ones that led me to back Kansas City in February, I am forecasting that the 49ers will struggle to maintain last year’s success. The defense, which lost two top run stuffers in DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day, was a different unit in the first half (12.8 PPG) of last season than the second (26 PPG). 

Best-Bet Under Teams

These are the teams I believe are good bets to go Under their season win totals:

Buffalo Bills (FD WT: 8.5)

I can’t get over the fact that the Bills won 10 games while scoring fewer than 20 PPG. The average next-season drop for teams that do this is about 3.6 wins. Until a consistent downfield passing attack is developed, I can’t back Buffalo.

Houston Texans (FD WT: 7.5)

My feelings about Houston taking a big step back go beyond the ludicrous trade of WR DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans won 10 games despite being outscored last season, and their eight close wins are a telltale sign of a team headed for a decline. Let’s not forget, the last time this team took the field, it was outscored 51-10 in a three-quarter span by the Chiefs, a potentially sobering hangover effect.

Las Vegas Raiders (FD WT: 7.5)

A lot of cool things are going on with the Raiders as they venture into their first season in Las Vegas, but I don’t see a honeymoon similar to the one the NHL’s Golden Knights got in their first year in Sin City. The Raiders were outscored by 106 points last year and didn’t win even a single game by double digits. They suffered only a minus-2 turnover differential for the season. They were fortunate to win seven games, and now the win total is even higher. Reasonable upgrades were made to the defense in the offseason, but the offense was virtually ignored beyond the signing of QB Marcus Mariota. And that unit averaged fewer than 20 PPG.

Los Angeles Rams (FD WT: 8.5)

I spoke on last week’s “Point Spread Weekly” show of my opinion about the Rams. I believe this team is clearly headed in the wrong direction, and it seemed to start with the 2019 Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, in which Bill Belichick seemingly left a blueprint for the rest of the league to follow in controlling coach Sean McVay’s offense. Making matters worse, the Rams lost a lot on defense in the offseason.

Seattle Seahawks (FD WT: 9.5)

Since winning the Super Bowl in Pete Carroll’s fourth year, the Seahawks have battled the problem most champions face — holding on to their players. Every year this team seems to get ravaged in free agency, though  this year’s losses were minimal. Even so, Seattle was very fortunate to win 11 games last year, outscoring opponents by only seven points. The Seahawks enjoyed a %plussign turnover differential and set a 28-year record for most close wins with 10 by eight or fewer points. This team has a glowing resume of one ready for a fall. 

Washington Redskins (FD WT: 5)

Historically, one of the worst combinations a team can have in moving to the next season is a positive turnover ratio and brutal results. It’s the true definition of a bad team. Washington had a +1 turnover differential in 2019 yet was outscored by 169 points in going 3-13. New coach Ron Rivera has inherited a mess, and it’s hard to find a worse team in the league right now. In what I think will be an improved NFC East, the Redskins have little to no shot of competing.

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