You know the NFL season is really clicking into gear — and Thanksgiving is just around the corner — when we reach the last of the bye weeks. The four teams missing from the schedule this Sunday are the Panthers, 49ers, Jets, and Colts — though you could argue the league is only really missing Carolina. The Dolphins and Bucs were also supposed to be off this week, but Hurricane Irma back in week one put paid to that and, instead, they’ll go head-to-head.
But are bye weeks helpful to NFL punters?
Over the past 10 seasons, 22 of the 32 NFL teams have a .500 record or better following their week off.
This is a similar record to teams coming off a win (21 with a record of .500 or better) and much better than the record of teams trying to bounce back from a loss (12 with a record of .500 or better).
As you’d probably expect from the best quarterback/coaching combination the league has ever seen, the Patriots have the best record coming off a bye, winning 80% of those games since 2006. At the other end, the Raiders have won only 27.3% of their games after a bye over the same time period.
Those statistics involve straight-up wins, but it’s also worth noting that — over the same 10-year period — the average NFL team has beaten the spread by approximately 0.7 points in the week following their bye. That includes teams as bad as Carolina — who are an average of 7.1 points per game away from covering (no other team is worse than -4.8) — and teams as good as the Rams — who have covered by an average of 8.5 points per game.
This season, however, teams have not been as good following their break. Just 12 of the 28 teams have secured a win straight-up, while things are even grimmer against the spread with only eight of the winners covering and just two teams — the Texans and Chargers — managing to at least make up for their on-the-field loss with a win against the spread.
Indeed, the average team coming off a bye fails to cover/win against the spread by approximately 1.4 points.
That’s something to bear in mind over the next two weeks.
New England Patriots (7-2) @ Oakland Raiders (4-5) (Mexico) – Sunday, 9.25pm
I normally start with a 6 pm game but the Oakland Raiders are coming off a bye and, as we’ve already seen, the Silver and Black traditionally struggle after a break. However, there are many other factors at play in this one, not least the fact it will be played, not in the Oakland Alameda Coliseum, but rather in the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
This will be Oakland’s second game in Mexico, having secured a scrappy victory over the Texans in the same venue last season as they reached the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. After an earthquake killed more than 200 people and flattened buildings near the stadium in September, there was talk that this game would move but it goes ahead as planned and — if last year is anything to go by — the Raiders will enjoy the lion’s share of support for this ‘home’ game.
On the field, week 10 was a very good week for Oakland, despite the fact they didn’t play. The Chiefs were on a bye too — so couldn’t extend their lead at the top of the AFC West — and all the other contenders for the final AFC Wildcard spot — the Bengals, Bills, Broncos, Chargers, etc — all lost. But to capitalise, the offense that has really struggled since week two will have to find form against a New England defense that, after giving up over 31 points per game in their first four, has failed to concede more than 17 points in any of their past five games.
The Patriots do have their own challenges coming into this game, however. For a start, Estadio Azteca sits some 7,200 feet (or 2,195m) above sea level, meaning it will be a second high-altitude game in seven days following their trip to Denver last weekend.
To acclimatise, they’ve stayed in Colorado and had three days of practice and meetings at the Air Force Academy which is also situated well above sea level.
After five games at home in their first eight, this is quite the unique road trip for Tom Brady and company.
Give the strange set of circumstances, I’m not sure how you handicap a game like this but the Patriots are 6.5 point favourites. There’s a compelling argument that you should always back the team that must win over the team that should but the Raiders — the win over Kansas City aside — have shown no signs they can live with the AFC’s best teams this year so I’ll be backing New England. The under on the points total (50.5) is also very tempting with the high altitude meaning both teams might have no choice but to take their foot off the gas late on.
LA Rams (7-2) @ Minnesota Vikings (7-2) – 6pm
The NFC is so much better than the AFC isn’t it? Or, at least, the top of the National Football Conference is better than its American equivalent. This is a really interesting game in the sense that, as well as both teams have played this season, a loss could put their place at the top of their respective divisions in jeopardy.
No team has scored more than the LA Rams 296 points this season and, through nine games, the fact they are averaging just 2.2 points short of five converted touchdowns a game is very impressive.
Indeed, the improvement in Jared Goff and Todd Gurley, in particular, this year is a damning indictment of the Jeff Fisher coaching regime that only managed 224 points all of last season as they went 4-12.
And not only do the Rams have the most potent offense in football, but they also sit atop Football Outsiders Defensive DVOA rankings, but few would argue they’re the best team in football. One reason for this is the fact they’ve only beaten two teams — the Cowboys and Jags — with a winning record and their seven victories have come against teams with a combined record of just 23-42. The other reason is the fact they’ve already dropped two games at home to Seattle and Washington and face four legitimate Super Bowl contenders in their next five games.
One of those is Minnesota who, despite being 7-2 and leading the NFC North, have something of a quarterback controversy on their hands.
In terms of completion percentage (64.9) and quarterback rating (92.6), Case Keenum is having the best season of his career and yet, I suspect, one or two losses — or even bad performances — and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will yank the former Ram for the returning Teddy Bridgewater.
Should Bridgewater complete his comeback and lead Minnesota to Super Bowl glory in their own stadium, it would be the greatest sports story ever told. However, a great deal of their success this year is to do with their defense which, despite missing Everson Griffen, put a beating on Washington last week. Ranking fifth against the rush in DVOA, they could cause Todd Gurley lots of problems this week too.
The Vikings go into this game as -2.5 point favourites and I’m very keen on their chances. Despite the fact the Rams are a high-octane offense, I also think the quality of defense on show from both sides means the game will be under the generous 46 point total.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-1) @ Dallas Cowboys (5-4) – 1.30am
NFL.com’s Dave Dameshek has a fantastic idea called the ‘Jenga Theory’. It is, as you can imagine, based on the block-removal game of the same name and positions that, if you remove the wrong player from an NFL team — non-quarterback because that’s cheating — the whole roster collapses.
For Dallas, you could make a compelling argument that future Hall of Fame left tackle, Tyron Smyth, All-Pro linebacker, Sean Lee, or the best young running back in the league, Zeke Elliott, is the Jenga piece whose removal would see the team collapse. And Dallas might be without all three of them in a game that could well put the NFC East to bed.
The Falcons’ Adrian Clayborn had a phenomenal six sacks against Dallas last week, with four of those directly attributable to Chaz Green, Smith’s replacement at left tackle. When Sean Lee was in the game, Atlanta had -2 yards on four run attempts but, after he left at the end of the first quarter with a hamstring injury, they rushed for 134 yards on 30 carries and a score — and that was without starter Devonta Freeman for most of the game. And when Elliott has played this season, he has averaged 97.8 yards per game but Alfred Morris leads the Cowboys with just 53 last week.
For Philadelphia, this has been a dream season to date as they’ve taken advantage of a relatively easy schedule and put away bad teams.
Their two wins over Washington and five-point victory over the Panthers will look really well at the end of the season. Carson Wentz has not missed a beat since losing Jason Peters — someone I would have considered a Jenga piece — and their eighth-ranked defense is in the top-10 against the pass and the rush. This has all the makings of a special season.
Philly are -3 in this game and I’d be happy to take them all the way up to -5 in all honesty, even on the road. The points total of 48 is interesting but I’ll take the over as, in a divisional rivalry, if the Eagles get ahead, they won’t be afraid to run up a score.