With Week 12 of the NFL season in the books, we will start planning our attack into Week 13. But before we dive headfirst into the card, let’s do a quick recap of last weekend’s top selection.
The Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers under 47 points got us to the window on Sunday. There were ebbs and flows throughout the game, but Ben Roethlisberger’s interception with 1:07 left in the fourth quarter sealed the Broncos 24-17 victory. It would be naive to say that we weren’t on the receiving end of a little luck with Roethlisberger’s late-game mistake. But I do think the fake field goal for a touchdown at the end of the first half by Pittsburgh and the 97-yard touchdown to start the second half from Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster put us in that precarious position to begin with and forced us to survive. However, a win is a win, and we will try to take that momentum with us into the betting card for Week 13.
The slate this week isn’t one of my favorites I have ever seen, and in reality, it makes me thankful that I am on the handicapping side and not the bookmaking front. Sportsbooks are going to have some massive liabilities on their hands. The Colts, Panthers, Broncos, Rams, Chiefs, Falcons, Patriots and Chargers are all being bet heavily by the public and will turn into significant decisions for the books.
Professional handicappers will most likely end up on the opposite end of those teams at the right number, but the two that catch my attention would be the Detroit Lions (+10) over the Los Angeles Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers (-3) over the Los Angeles Chargers. Jim Bob Cooter hasn’t done a great job as the Lions offensive coordinator, but the Rams can’t stop anyone right now defensively, and the number is overinflated based off of the Rams-Chiefs game from two weeks ago. Most places are taking in between 80-90 percent of their wagers on Los Angeles, so there is a chance we could see this number drift to 10.5. I am just playing the waiting game right now and will bet it if I can get a +10.5.
As far as the Steelers (-3) over the Chargers is concerned, the lookahead line for this game had Pittsburgh at -4.5, and I think we are seeing an overreaction to the market because of Pittsburgh’s road loss last week. The public being on a road dog usually doesn’t end well for them, and it is even more worrisome with Chargers running back Melvin Gordon ruled out with an MCL sprain. The Chargers are the number one team in the NFL in explosive run plays, and the loss of Gordon isn’t adequately accounted for in my opinion. I am pausing on placing a wager at this moment and will be trying to grab a -3 with cleaner vig attached to it.
Cleveland Browns (+4.5) versus the Houston Texans (-4.5) O/U 47.5
The Houston Texans (-4.5) versus Cleveland Browns (+4.5) has seen some interesting movement since the number was posted. The Texans started as a 4.5-point favorite and quickly got bet up to -6.5. However, that number has been taken back down to -4.5 at some books at the time of writing this article and -5 at other places.
I think this game presents a compelling case of sharp gamblers being on different sides of the aisle on this one. For starters, I want to preface this by saying that movement on a wager does not mean sharp action. Lines can move from a plethora of different conditions. Smart money coming in is one of them, but it is far from the only thing that will drive a line.
There are a couple of reasons I believe different credible parties have taken this number. While Houston is getting nearly 60% of the wagers, the bet slips have been somewhat steady across the week. That usually can let us discount public action as being an option of why the line is moving. The second opinion is that the game has seen sudden and sharp movements when it has shifted between numbers. The books moved the price quickly from -4.5 to -6.5 and then proceeded to almost immediately get off of +6.5 once it got there. That is almost surely the result of one of two things. Either one group steamed the number up to where they wanted it to be and then took the Browns, or what I think is most likely based off a handful of reasons; some sharp bettors quickly grabbed Houston at -4.5 and once it reached +6.5 for Cleveland, another group found value in the number and shot it back down.
And in reality, it would make sense to see “wiseguys” conflicted on this game. The Texans have an eight-game win streak but have probably been an overrated team mathematically during that stretch, and the sharp bettors have been ahead of the market on Cleveland’s rise from the ashes, but at what point is the value gone in betting them?
The number is currently stuck in the dead zone right now, which is probably a better sign for people who have grabbed Cleveland at +6.5 than the ones who have the Texans at -4.5. The reason I say this is that most of the times when a number doesn’t instantly jump up to seven points when it is in this range, it most likely will trend down for the rest of the week. That is not always the case, but once we have dipped down past -6, the next key number to land directly on would be -4. There is some minimal value in -5, but the range of 4.5-5.5 doesn’t make a massive difference usually. With the number drifting down, I don’t see why it would change unless wiseguys jump in late on Houston.
So all that information puts us in a position that we need to try and figure out what side is the right side based on statistical data. The Texans are an exceptional defensive unit, ranking fourth in defensive efficiency and second in run defense but have struggled offensively, ranking 21st in offensive efficiency and 28th in rushing offense. A portion of those offensive numbers can be attributed to early-season struggles based on quarterback Deshaun Watson starting the year still wary of the ACL injury that he suffered last season, but a predictable play-calling pattern from head coach Bill O’Brien caused his young QB to be pressured on 43.2 percent of dropbacks.
The combination of Watson getting pressured and being afraid to scramble out of the pocket prompted the Texans to go winless in their first three games. O’Brien was eventually smart enough to realize that running back Lamar Miller needed to be infiltrated into the offensive schemes and made a more concerted effort of getting the 27-year-old the ball. But it is not just the willingness to get Miller involved that has helped; it is also the formations that the Texans have been calling to disguise run or pass. Forty-two percent of their plays are run out of a “12” personnel grouping, which means one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. This eliminates the classic three wide receiver sets that most teams run and keeps them more balanced and less predictable.
O’Brien has also used Miller as a wild-card in other situations. He has lined up the running back in the slot or out wide on 11 percent of his snaps. That isn’t at the frequency of the Saints with Alvin Kamara (24.7 percent) or James White of the Patriots (20 percent), but it’s right around the same territory of what the Rams do with Todd Gurley (12.4 percent). These misdirections and bulkier packages have enabled Watson to be hit only 14 times in his last five games. A cleaner pocket will allow any quarterback to have success and Watson getting healthier mixed with the ability to dissect plays before being bombarded by the defense has allowed the Texans to outproduce whatever their current metrics are saying.
Now let’s look at the Browns, who are experiencing a renaissance of their own. Since Cleveland fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Baker Mayfield has thrown nine touchdowns with only one interception, completing 68 percent of his passes, and running back Nick Chubb has averaged 115 yards in those three contests with one score. But the most impressive part of their current run is that the offensive line has not allowed a sack in 125 consecutive snaps and Mayfield has only been hit twice in November.
While all those statistics are impressive and I do think Cleveland is trending towards becoming the real deal, we do need to look at the past three units that the Browns have faced. You can’t discredit performances against a weak defense, but Cleveland has been able to exploit the Chiefs, Falcons and Bengals in those matchups. And once again, this is to take nothing away from them because you can only beat who is in front of you, but when you look at the main thing each of those teams struggles to maintain, it is opposing running backs. All three units rank in the bottom four when it comes to defending the run, and Cleveland has been using their run game to open up Mayfield through the air.
The Texans only allow 42 percent of run plays to grade out successfully, which is the fourth best percentage in the NFL, and they are also second in the league when it comes to preventing explosive runs or passes. I think a couple of critical factors can be taken away from those statistics. Most notably is that Cleveland will need to gameplan differently for the game on Sunday. It doesn’t look like they will be able to rely on the run early and that is going to force Mayfield to have to make throws right from the start of the game.
It doesn’t mean that the 23-year-old won’t be able to make the passes, but without the ability to execute explosive plays, he is going to have to hit them over and over again if the run game doesn’t show up. Cleveland grades out dead last in the NFL in power success, which is essentially the ability to convert on third and short or fourth and short with a run.
Mayfield is well on his way to becoming the Browns first QB they can trust since 1995. And it is possible he continues to roll, but I am in the camp that I want to see a rookie quarterback and rookie running back go on the road and do it against a top-five defense before I ignore the fact that the Browns just picked up their first road win in three years last week. The Texans defense ranks seventh in adjusted sack rate, and I think Mayfield could find himself in a different position this week of scrambling around and forcing throws.
With the number trending down, I am in no rush to make the wager until I think it has reached its floor. Part of gambling is making sure you get the best numbers you can and not forcing bets in if the time isn’t ready yet. If you can grab a -4.5 with clean vig, I am ok with putting it in now. But if you don’t have that number, I would wait and keep an eye on the market. However, it is essential to get it in before it reaches -6 if it does end up going back up. That is where the first extremely key number comes into play.