Each week during the 2021 NFL season, Sports Info Solutions will highlight the spread of three games including Monday Night Football.
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (+2.5)
The Packers are riding high after shutting out the Seahawks and spoiling Russell Wilson’s (seemingly hasty) return. That game might as well have been called the Off-Target Bowl, with Aaron Rodgers throwing an accurate ball only 56% of the time and Wilson not even cracking 50%.
In fact, even if you exclude throws under pressure, Wilson was STILL under 50%. And if you go a step further and only include throws shorter than 15 yards (because Wilson was actually fairly aggressive downfield in that game), he was still the least accurate passer of the week.
This is mostly to say that we should be pumping the brakes on the Packers defense, who did yield only 34 points total against the Cardinals and Chiefs in the previous two games. Jaire Alexander isn’t likely to be back in the fold for this division matchup, and they’re heading into a matchup with Justin Jefferson coming off nine catches for 143 yards and the ever-threatening Adam Thielen, whose production over the last four games is about the same as Jefferson’s.
Kirk Cousins has been quietly efficient this year, trailing only Kyler Murray in Independent Quarterback Rating (IQR; think Passer Rating but removing non-competitive throws and accounting for things outside the passer’s control like drops). Minnesota should be able to get the running game going as well, as they’re one of the heaviest zone-blocking teams in the league and the Packers have allowed the second-highest rate of positive EPA plays against zone blocking.
If you’re playing the Packers side of this, you’re at least in part banking on Rodgers’s ability to bounce back after a bad performance. A lot was made about duds against the Bucs last year and against the Saints in Week 1 this year, and Rodgers was dominant in the follow-ups (79% completions, 7 TD, 0 INT).
The Titans haven’t missed a beat with Derrick Henry out, so temper any expectations about Green Bay missing Aaron Jones, especially given that A.J. Dillon trails only Kareem Hunt in Total Points Earned per carry this year (minimum 50 carries).
Dallas Cowboys at Kansas City Chiefs (-2.5)
Well, guess the Chiefs are back. That was a fun little run we had there. The spread suggests that we’re not all the way back to preseason expectations, but without a game like Kansas City just had against Las Vegas, the Cowboys might have been favored in this spot coming off a blowout win.
Maybe it’ll take more than one outburst against the Raiders to allay concerns. But there were encouraging signs beyond the observation that the Raiders used single-high coverages quite a bit.
Patrick Mahomes was more aggressive (13.9 ADoT) and successful (158.3 IQR) than he’s been all year when the Raiders ran two-high coverages, and that was all while being pressured more than half the time. He’s had multiple better games against single-high coverages in 2021 than he did in Week 10, but he’s just seen much less of it over the course of the year.
The whole two-high-killing-the-Chiefs narrative seems kind of odd, anyway, given that they were great against those coverages versus Philadelphia and struggled offensively against the Packers—who employed single-high coverages the vast majority of the time—two weeks ago. It didn’t help that the receivers caught fewer on-target passes than any game in the last month-plus and Mahomes was fairly inaccurate even on quick-hitters.
If we see a Trevon Diggs / Tyreek Hill matchup, expect fireworks. Diggs has lined up outside most of the time and Hill has lined up in the slot most of the time, so it might not be a lot, but more than 60% of Diggs’ targets when lined up in the slot have been either a “boom” play (+1 EPA for the offense) or a “bust” play (-1 EPA). Hill also produces quite a bit more big plays from the slot than from out wide, as you might not be surprised to discover.
This game could go a long way towards advancing Dak Prescott in the MVP conversation, because narratives matter and a good game against a public team (albeit one with a questionable defense) is likely to move the needle. Prescott is currently +700 to win the award, so he’s not a long shot by any means.
About that questionable defense…the Chiefs have allowed 16 points per game in their last five games after allowing 33 per game in the first five. Part of that is just facing fewer explosive offenses. Part of the improvement has come because of the same tactical change that everyone’s been talking about as a way to defend the Chiefs: more two-high and less single-high.
Through five weeks, the Chiefs used Middle of the Field Closed (MOFC) coverages much more than Middle of the Field Open (MOFO), and were bottom-five in the league in Positive% on those plays.
Since then, the relationship has flipped, and while they’re not exactly world-beaters with the middle of the field open, we’ll take it when you were putting up historically bad numbers prior.
New York Giants (+10.5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Just as the key to betting the Packers is betting on Rodgers and betting the Chiefs is betting on Mahomes, betting on the Bucs in this game depends quite a bit on whether you think Tom Brady is falling apart, or if it’s just a matter of getting used to missing some key weapons.
Any way you slice it, Tom Brady had two of his worst games as a Buc his last two times out. (Incidentally, his three worst games by Total Points Earned per play are all against the Saints. Keep that in mind for Week 15.)
Since Antonio Brown’s injury a few weeks ago, the Tampa offense has gotten much more conservative. Brady’s expected snap-to-throw time based on the depth of his drops is two-tenths of a second faster the last three games, and his average throw depth has dropped more than a yard per attempt.
When an offense gets more conservative, you usually see a drop in total production but less pressure on the quarterback and more accurate passes. It’s true, Brady’s been pressured a comfortable 15% of the time over the last three games, compared to 25% prior. But he’s been less accurate on shorter throws (and throws under less pressure), which is a concern.
The biggest area of the field in which Brady’s suffered is passes 15 yards or shorter between the numbers. On those passes, Brady has been a bottom-five passer according to Total Points since Week 7. Prior to that point, he was one of the best in the NFL in that split (while also throwing that direction more than anyone).
Let’s not ignore the guys on the other side of the field, though. The Giants are coming off a bye and have won two of three, playing the Chiefs tough in their one loss in that span.
They absolutely laid waste to the Panthers in Week 7, pressuring Sam Darnold half the time and sacking him six times. That somewhat warps the pass rush numbers they’ve put up. But their back-end has done a great job irrespective of that production. On plays with a clean pocket, they’re top five in the NFL since Week 7 in Points Saved in coverage after ranking in the bottom 10 through six weeks of the season. We know about James Bradberry, but Adoree’ Jackson hasn’t allowed even 10 yards in a game in coverage since Week 5.
If Brown or Rob Gronkowski make it back for this game, it might be a different conversation. But for now, the Giants might just be frisky enough to back with—well, as much confidence as you can have in a team quarterbacked by Daniel Jones.