Patriots favored against Falcons in Super Bowl rematch

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It’s rare that the New England Patriots and Tom Brady are laying so few points at home, but then again, it’s been even longer since the Pats were dead last in the NFL in defense.

In a rematch of last season’s Super Bowl, if not necessarily a preview of this season’s, the Patriots are three-point favorites for Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons with a 56.5-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

There have been only four games dating to 2009 when the Patriots were favored by 3.0 or fewer points in a regular-season home game, and they are 4-0 straight-up and 3-0-1 against the spread in that small sample. Counting Super Bowl LI, the Falcons are 0-5 SU and ATS in their last five games against the Patriots according to the OddsShark NFL Database.

The Patriots are 14-3 SU in their last 17 night games, but only 2-2 in the last four.

The Falcons, who are 3-2 SU and 2-3 ATS, are still a top-5 offense with QB Matt Ryan at the controls but have not shown the same dynamism they did while winning the NFC in 2016. New England has been dismal in coverage, ranking last in the NFL in yards per game (440.7) and yards per pass (8.6) allowed. Two of its top three cornerbacks, Stephen Gilmore (concussion) and Eric Rowe (groin), are iffy to play.

The Patriots might be stretched too thin to cover three-wideout looks with WRs Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel; after all, this is a unit that was last seen allowing 354 yards to the New York Jets’ Josh McCown.

One reason why Atlanta is 9-2 SU and ATS in its last 11 road games is due to the stability of the 1-2 punch of RB Devonta Freeman and RB Tevin Coleman. One way to beat the Patriots is to outscore them, and Atlanta would seem to be capable of such if it curbs its turnover problems.

The Patriots, who are 4-2 SU and 2-4 ATS, are No. 1 in the NFL in total offense and passing yards thanks to Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Brandin Cooks and slot WRs Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan. The Falcons defense is allowing just 6.1 yards per pass, but it has not been making many disruption plays (12 sacks and only three takeaways), which teams need a few of against the Patriots in order to get Brady out of rhythm.

New England is 5-0 SU and ATS in its last five games against Atlanta but, of course, that required an epic combination of collapse and comeback during the Super Bowl. In the present, the Patriots offense is a little pass-heavy, ranking 21st in the NFL in yards per rush while relying mostly on RB Mike Gillislee. That’s unlikely to strike much fear into the hearts of Atlanta.

The game has the highest total of the week, but the total has gone over in 19 of the Falcons’ last 24 games and has also gone over in all three of the Patriots’ home games this season. The total has gone over in the Patriots’ last five games at home against teams with winning records.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.