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Handicapping the big Thanksgiving weekend games

Jeff Fogle
VSiN City newsletter

A special holiday edition of the VSiN City newsletter takes you through the Thanksgiving Weekend with previews of Vikings/Lions (Thursday), Alabama/Auburn (Saturday), and Saints/Rams (Sunday). Let’s get to the football feast!

Thanksgiving NFL: Minnesota now a 3-point favorite in Detroit after another “sharp attack”
Last week, respected money hit the betting marketplace hard on New England over Oakland, Philadelphia over Dallas, and Atlanta over Seattle. It was as if top Super Bowl threats personally called sharps on the phone to say “it’s go time!”

Minnesota has been bet with similar enthusiasm by informed money in its Thanksgiving Day battle with the Detroit Lions. On opener near pick-em is all the way up to -3, which is VERY strong support for a road favorite against a divisional rival that’s also in the playoff hunt. 

Minnesota (8-2) at Detroit (6-4)
Las Vegas Line: Minnesota by 3, total of 44.5
Estimated Market Power Ratings: Minnesota 84, Detroit 78 

We’ve updated our estimate of “market” Power Ratings from Tuesday to account for this line development. Minnesota is now at 84 on our scale (very close to Super Bowl caliber), while Detroit drops down to roughly .500 caliber. Maybe 85 and 79 is the better combination (teams must be six points apart if you use the standard three points for home field advantage). 

Yards-per-Play
Minnesota: 5.7 on offense, 4.7 on defense (vs. #13 ranked schedule)
Detroit: 5.3 on offense, 5.6 on defense (vs. #10 ranked schedule)

Accumulating a plus 1.0 differential in this stat vs. roughly league average schedule is excellent. And, last week’s numbers were 6.2 to 4.5 against the potent Rams. The market respects this stat, particularly when the differential is keyed by excellent defense. The Lions would likely rise to equilibrium against a league average schedule…which is consistent with .500 caliber. 

Key Passing Stats 
Minnesota: 7.5 yards-per-pass attempt, 15 TD’s, 5 interceptions thrown
Detroit: 7.7 yards-per-pass attempt, 19 TD’s, 5 interceptions thrown

The Vikings started the year as one of those “conservative grinder” type teams that would likely have to win with defense and a running game. Climbing up to 7.5 yards-per-pass while only throwing five interceptions is a big deal in that context. It brings versatility when tested, and allows the Vikings to rally from behind if needed. Case Keenum has progressed nicely with his supporting talent. Good stuff from the Lions here as well, with marks that will keep them competitive vs. most opposition. 

Pass Defense 
Minnesota: 6.5 yppa allowed; 10 TD’s allowed, 8 interceptions
Detroit: 7.3 yppa allowed; 12 TD’s allowed, 11 interceptions

Minnesota claims the edge on pass defense, though it all mostly comes out of the wash in terms of TD passes allowed and picks. It’s tougher to move the ball on this new version of the purple people eaters. Detroit does a good job of denying TD passes once offenses get close. 

Impact Defense 
Minnesota: 29% third down pct-allowed, 12 takeaways, 27 sacks
Detroit: 36% third down pct-allowed, 19 takeaways, 21 sacks

That’s certainly championship caliber defense from the Vikings, who force a lot of punts even if the takeaway count isn’t very impressive 10 games into the season. They are going to make like very difficult for opposing QB’s, as Jared Goff can attest. The fact that this unit is relatively FRESH is also a big deal, and a possibly cause for the big sharp investments. Within the past month, Minnesota has enjoyed a bye, and a virtual bye against Cleveland (0-10). A lot to like about Detroit too…and a reason they might sneak into a Wildcard berth against one of the friendlier remaining schedules in the NFC. 

The “market score” off a line of 3 and 44.5 is Minnesota 23.75, Detroit 20.75. That might be a challenging climb for the Lions…who have a conservative approach AND a short preparation week for an “early” Thursday kickoff against a difficult defensive test. Unless the Vikings relax too much off the big win over the Rams, they would seem to control their own destiny in terms of keeping the Lions at 20 or below. Obviously, there’s less value now than earlier in the week with any approach focusing on the Vikings.

Saturday College Football: Stat preview of #1 Alabama (11-0) at #6 Auburn (9-2)
Everyone’s been waiting for the Iron Bowl…which took on extra luster when Auburn obliterated then #1 Georgia two weeks ago. Alabama (-4) has been the best team in the nation in “market” Power Ratings all season. Auburn is playing very well of late, and has a shot to crash the Final Four if they can win out. 

Yards-per-Play
Alabama: 7.1 on offense, 3.9 on defense (vs #63 schedule)
Auburn: 6.6 on offense, 4.4 on defense (vs #36 schedule)

The collapse of the SEC depth-wise has hurt strength of schedule for both teams. Alabama has dominated a soft schedule to the tune of plus 3.2 yards-per-PLAY…a stunning late season differential. Auburn did visit Clemson early in the season, and obviously drew Georgia in cross-divisional SEC action. That’s still left them with an impressive plus 2.2 differential vs. a top 40 schedule (according to Jeff Sagarin of USA Today). If you equalized the slates, Alabama would still be superior. But…a line of -4 or -4.5 on the ROAD is possibly a bit high for the picture YPP is painting. 

National Rushing Rankings
Alabama: #7 per carry, #7 per game; #1 per-carry defense, #2 per-game defense
Auburn: #26 per carry, #18 per game, #9 per-carry defense, #16 per-game defense

These are very similar teams stylistically. It’s hard to know how much of the edge above comes from Alabama playing the softer schedule. Maybe if the Crimson Tide had to play road game at Clemson, and Auburn didn’t…we might be looking at near equality. Plenty of athletes on both sides of the point of attack for both teams. 

Passing Stats
Alabama: 9.1 yards-per-attempt, 22 TD’s, 2 INT
Auburn: 9.2 yards-per-attempt, 18 TD’s, 4 INT

Again, very similar. It’s funny that Jalen Hurts is being celebrated as a guy who should get more Heisman chatter, while Jarrett Stidham was a disappointment who didn’t explode the way people expected. Hard to tell them apart in those numbers. Probably just a slight edge to Alabama once you mentally adjust for the Clemson factor. 

Impact Defense 
Alabama: 31% third down pct-allowed, 19 takeaways, 30 sacks
Auburn: 33% third down pct-allowed, 17 takeaways, 32 sacks

The clone-ish-ness continues in this element. It’s almost as if Auburn said to itself “if you can’t beat ‘em, play just like ‘em” once rules changes made it tougher for Gus Malzahn’s offense to make substitutions at speed. Both teams pressure the quarterback and take the ball away. Alabama is plus 7 in turnover differential this season with only 12 giveaways. That could matter because turnover avoidance is a very big deal in huge road games like this. That could be the ultimate tie-breaker…Auburn is slightly more likely to have a high impact mistake against Alabama’s defense.  

Should be a great game. This particular set of stats is suggesting that Alabama -4 or -4.5 would make more sense for a neutral field line rather than a road game at Auburn. Could come down to turnovers or a special teams’ return. Maybe we should say it this way, if it’s NOT a good game because Alabama dominates…then the Crimson Tide really are well clear of the rest of the college field, and the Final Four tournament may be a disappointment. That would suggest Alabama has a gear they only call on when needed. If this is a thriller in line with the stat indicators, the Final Four could be fun no matter who ultimately qualifies.   

Sunday NFL: New Orleans Saints and LA Rams are both fighting for a first-round bye in loaded NFC brackets
The LA Rams flunked a test last week, losing 24-7 as a plus 2.5 underdog at Minnesota. But they’ll have a chance to at least partially make up for that at home this week when the New Orleans Saints come calling. Both of these teams currently lead their divisions in the NFC. They sit in the #3 and #4 spots in the brackets because Philadelphia is clear of the field, and Minnesota owns a tie-breaker over the Saints thanks to a Week One head-to-head victory. (The Vikes would obviously hold one over the Rams too if they end up tied.)

We’ll get a great sense of postseason potential from watching this game. The Rams really can’t be taken seriously for the Super Bowl if they lose again. Remember that they also lost at home to Seattle earlier this season.

New Orleans (8-2) at LA Rams (7-3)
Las Vegas Line: LA Rams by 2.5, total of 53.5
Estimated Market Power Ratings: New Orleans 84, LA Rams 83 

New Orleans looked very much like a Super Bowl threat two weeks ago in Buffalo. Though, that may have been catching the Bills in the early stages of an implosion. Still, if you give Drew Brees a strong running game and an effective defense, he’s capable of taking his team very far. That would also give the Saints a chance to win outdoors in cold weather at Philadelphia if that’s an eventual postseason battle. 

Yards-per-Play
New Orleans: 6.4 on offense, 5.4 on defense (vs. #9 ranked schedule)
LA Rams: 6.0 on offense, 5.3 on defense (vs. #27 ranked schedule)

You can see why “the market” rates the Saints as the superior team (an underdog priced below the value of home field advantage). They have a better YPP differential while playing the much tougher schedule. That soft schedule for the Rams turned out to be an important red flag warning before the Vikings game. Jared Goff was much less scary against a quality opponent. The Saints have been lousy in this particular stat for so many years that it’s hard to accept this new level of performance. What could Brees have done with a 5.4 caliber defense slowing down opponents throughout his career? 

Key Passing Stats 
New Orleans: 8.2 yards-per-pass attempt, 15 TD’s, 5 interceptions thrown
LA Rams: 8.3 yards-per-pass attempt, 16 TD’s, 4 interceptions thrown

Great stuff here. It’s a tribute to young Goff that he’s almost a dead ringer for veteran Brees in his passing line. Though, fixing the strength of schedule differential would sneak Brees back to superiority. The fact that both Goff and Carson Wentz have gotten the hang of interception-avoidance this early in their careers is a great sign for long-term success. They’ve climbed the learning curve quickly. Goff REALLY needed a new head coach right when he got one. 

Pass Defense 
New Orleans: 7.0 yppa allowed; 14 TD’s allowed, 10 interceptions
LA Rams: 6.8 yppa allowed; 12 TD’s allowed, 12 interceptions

Very similar numbers again. Probably a dead heat once you tweak for schedule. Both defenses will allow passing yardage in the middle of the field. This stat league-wide is showing that a lot of playoff caliber teams are limiting the number of TD passes they allow (helped by a historic low tide in QB quality in the bottom half of the NFL).

Impact Defense 
New Orleans: 42% third down pct-allowed, 13 takeaways, 27 sacks
LA Rams: 39% third down pct-allowed, 19 takeaways, 28 sacks

This is where the Saints have to be concerned. They aren’t getting third down stops as often as the other top defenses…and that takeaway count is very low for this deep into the season. Just 1.3 per game? That’s not going to scare people in the playoffs…and it’s not going to set up the cheap points you often need to survive January coin flips. The Rams looked surprisingly outmatched in Minnesota (451 yards allowed on 6.2 YPP with no takeaways or sacks), which might mean they’ve been creating defensive illusions against a soft schedule. Does that mean they’ll be outmatched again here? 

New Orleans is in the “basic strategy” teaser window at plus 2.5, which means taking them at plus 8.5 in six-point teasers makes sense because those additional points cross the key numbers of 3 and 7. You can be sure sharps will be using the Saints that way if they’re still getting plus 2.5, plus 2, or plus 1.5 this weekend. If the line rises to 3, New Orleans will be a popular straight bet at the key number. 

NBA: Updated estimate of “market” Power Ratings
Even though this is a special Thursday edition for the holiday, it’s still the day of the week that we update our estimated “market” Power Ratings for the NBA. You regulars know how these work. They’re a bit more erratic day-to-day in this sport because of injuries, schedule dynamics, and other factors that can sometimes inspire line moves in the hours before tipoff. Here’s our best shot at how it looks this week. 

92: Golden State
85: Houston
84: Cleveland, Boston
83: Oklahoma City
82: Toronto, Washington, Minnesota 
81: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Portland 
80: Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, Denver
79: Orlando, LA Clippers
78: Indiana, Memphis
76: New York, Utah
75: LA Lakers 
74: Brooklyn, Dallas
73: Atlanta
72: Chicago
71: Phoenix, Sacramento

Boston continues to be an amazing story. Who knows what its record will be once we dive deeper into the NBA after college football winds down. Philadelphia has become a nice sleeper. NBA twitter is abuzz about several teams, which means the back two-thirds of the season will be worth your attention if you’ve mostly just been skimming through pro hoops developments during the football months. 

Happy Thanksgiving! Have a great holiday weekend. We’ll see you again Monday morning to crunch all the numbers from the full NFL slate. That puts us back on our usual schedule until another holiday pops up. 

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