Steve O'Rourke: Underdogs won the day in week three but expect NFL favourites to bite back this weekend

18 min

When I’m having a bet on the NFL, I like to leave it to the last minute so I have all the information at hand before taking a position. I’m not sure if that’s earned or cost me money in the long term but I know for a fact it saved me money this weekend.

In total, underdogs went 12-4 against the spread, and eight won straight up. And while the likes of the Jacksonville, Washington, and Bears covering wasn’t as shocking as some of the officiating on display in week three, few would have picked them to win outright in any of those games.

Signs that it might be a strange week started on Friday night when NFL player after NFL player took to social media to condemn the statement made by US President Donald Trump in which in called any athlete taking a knee during the national anthem a ‘son of a bitch’ and suggested they should be fired.

Then, Sunday morning reports emerged of teams struggling to take a unified approach to their protest. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, spent four hours in a meeting before opting to remain in their dressing room during the Star Spangled Banner. Hardly ideal preparation for an up-and-coming Titans team, especially in Tennessee.

The Seattle Seahawks, for example, spent four hours in a meeting before opting to remain in their dressing room during the Star Spangled Banner. Hardly ideal preparation for an up-and-coming Titans team, especially in Tennessee.

Jacksonville Jaguars players lock arms and kneel down during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at Wembley last Sunday.

Thankfully, my three tips last week — betting the over in Ravens @ Jags, under in Steelers @ Bears and the Chiefs to cover -3.5 on the road to the Chargers — all came up, but I’d be lying to you if I said any of those games actually went exactly the way I was expecting.

The good news is that this week doesn’t, on paper at least, appear to have as many trap games for Moneyline bettors this week, while there are some very tempting lines to dig your teeth into.

Sky Game 1 – New Orleans Saints @ Miami Dolphins (London) – 2.30pm

There’s an interesting quirk to NFL games in London that’s worth keeping in mind when having a bet on the remaining three fixtures this year. In the past seven match-ups, dating back to 2015, the designated home team has won four with the points total going over. In the two in which the designated road teams won, the points total fell under.

If you think my math is off, the other game was, of course, a tie between Washington and Arizona.

It’s also worth noting that only twice — the Giants in the very first game and the Lions in 2014 — in the history of 18 NFL London games has the straight-up winner failed to also win against the spread.

Dolphins running back and London born Jay Ajayi (23) can expect to see plenty of the ball at Wembley.

These two teams will come into Sunday’s early kick-off in very different moods.

Not only did the New Orleans Saints record their first win of the season last Sunday, but they did so against a divisional rival that came into the game undefeated. However, despite the result, it’s not like the Saints have solved their biggest problem.

According to Football Outsiders, Dennis Allen’s defense still ranks 31st out of 32 teams — only New England is performing worse — in terms of defensive DVOA and they rank last of all using the same metric when it comes to defending the pass. This week, they face a Dolphins team coming off the back of a rough loss to the New York Jets and only managing 280 yards and 12.5 points per game in their two outings so far. Jay Cutler was particularly atrocious in that game, completing less than 60% of his passes for 220 yards, a pick and a garbage time score. The Dolphins could well turn to London-born Jay Ajayi in this game but he’s going to have to do a lot better than his 16 rushing yards on 11 attempts against the Jets.

While a repeat of that performance by Miami through the air and on the ground will certainly help the Saints defense improve, nobody’s tuning into this game to watch that side of the ball. Instead, the focus will be on the burgeoning relationship between Drew Brees and Michael Thomas. The former Ohio State wide receiver had seven receptions on eight targets against the Panthers, going for 87 yards and a touchdown.

Perhaps because of Thomas’s emergence as the new Brandin Cooks in New Orleans, the Saints go into this game as -2.5 point favourites. I think they’ll justify this

I think they’ll justify this favouritism and cover in a scrappy enough affair so the under (49.5) looks very appealing too.

Steve’s Pick: Tennessee Titans @ Houston Texans – 6 pm

Before the start of the season, I’d have earmarked the two games between the Titans and Texans as defining which side would come out on top in the AFC South. That might still be the case, but the home team on Sunday will need to show a vast improvement if they’re to be considered serious playoff contenders.

The good news is that, though JJ Watt has been relatively quiet this season — he has just three tackles for a loss and zero sacks through the opening three weeks — but he loves playing the Titans, recording 15.5 sacks against them, more than he has against any other team in his career. He did, however, miss Houston’s last home game against Tennessee, but Jadeveon Clowney, more than made up for his absence with two tackles — one for a loss — a sack and two quarterback hits in a 27-20 win in October 2016.

For the Titans, it’s worth remembering that until their week two victory over Jacksonville this season, they were riding an 11-game road losing streak in the division. When you consider how poor the Colts and Jaguars have been over the past two seasons, that’s not great.

The Titans duo of Marcus Mariota and Derek Henry will look to test the Texans Defense.

Their record in Houston isn’t much better having failed to claim a victory there since New Year’s Day in 2012 when Matt Hasselbeck was still the quarterback, but a win Sunday would put them in a strong position to make the postseason with three of their remaining four divisional games to take place in Tennessee.

Key to their two wins on the bounce has been their second-half performances. In 12 drives across the third and fourth quarters against the Jaguars and Seahawks, Marcus Mariota and company have scored seven touchdowns, kicked two field goals and run down the clock twice. Remarkably, they were forced to punt just once in those four quarters.

The majority of their second-half success has come on the ground, racking up 121 second-half rushing yards against Jacksonville and 152 against Seattle (compared to 58 and 43 in the respective first-halves of each game).

Tennessee being only -1.5 point favourites has more to do with the recency bias of how closely the Texans ran New England in week three than it does the Titans’ steady improvement in play or how poorly Houston played over the first two weeks. This is also a game where you might consider taking the over (43.5) — especially with the visitors averaging nearly 29 points per game this year — but I’d suggest caution as their average total against Houston has been 15.7ppg in the last 10 meetings.

Sky Game 2 – Oakland Raiders @ Denver Broncos – 9.35pm

Speaking of divisional games that could go a long way to deciding which team is playing meaningful football in January, the 9.25pm slot gives us a tasty AFC West battle between the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos.

Both teams are coming off bad losses though perhaps Oakland — and, declaration of interest here, I’ve been suffering disappointing Raiders performances since their last year in Los Angeles — have more questions to answer after completely flopping against Washington in front of a US prime-time audience last weekend.

Their much-vaunted offense, which averaged more than five touchdowns per game through two weeks, completely disappeared with Derek Carr managing to complete just 19 of 31 pass attempts for a score and two picks.

Worse still was the rushing attack which combined for 32 yards on 13 attempts as the Silver and Black went 0 for 11 on third down attempts. This put huge pressure on a defense that, while not quite good, had actually been performing ahead of expectations this season with Karl Joseph the second highest graded defensive back through two weeks of the season, per Pro Football Focus. But they were on the field too long — Washington dominated time of possession 38:06 to 21:54 — and were made to pay.

Denver put in a slightly better performance against the Buffalo Bills in their week three match-up but still came out on the wrong side of a 26-16 defeat in a game in which they were three-point favourites. They can point to their run defense, however, as a positive note. After holding the 2016 rushing leader Zeke Elliott to just eight yards on nine carries in week two, they continued that trend by holding another top-five rusher from last year, LeSean McCoy, to 21 yards on 14 attempts.

Raiders receiver Amari Cooper can expect plenty of targets from QB Derek Carr vs the Broncos.

The question for the hosts if whether or not they can take advantage of the Raiders weakness against the pass. Trevor Siemian has a completion rate of just 54.7% against Oakland, compared to his career average of 60% completions and while the Raiders are particularly susceptible to giving up big plays, the Broncos quarterback completed just 12 passes of 21-yards or more last season — on 39 attempts — and it’s worth noting that he didn’t complete any at all in eight of his 14 games.

Despite the fact the Broncos last three times at home last season — admittedly two of those defeats came against teams that contested the Super Bowl — and are coming off the back of a bad beating in Buffalo, -3 seems like a fair line, especially against an Oakland outfit travelling across country for a road game two weeks in succession. Unlike the other two, however, I can see this game going over the 46.5 point total.

Click here for Matchbooks Latest NFL markets