Week 10 in the NFL is not a week for close games. As of Wednesday night, every single game on the schedule had a line of at least three points. That means every game this week is eligible to be chosen as our Upset Watch for the week. But for the game that we think is the most likely upset, you have to wait all the way to the end, when Monday Night Football airs on ESPN.
Lines courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, as of Thursday morning.
Upset watch: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (-3)
Nationally televised games can do a lot to influence our perception of NFL teams. Most fans, when they think of the New York Giants right now, think of their embarrassing 34-13 loss at home to Philadelphia four weeks ago, nationally televised on a Thursday night. When they think of the San Francisco 49ers right now, they think of last week’s 34-3 drubbing of Oakland, also on national television on a Thursday night.
But those aren’t the only games those teams have played over the past month. Most fans aren’t thinking of the fact that three of the Giants’ past four losses came by a touchdown or less, including narrow road losses to NFC South contenders Carolina and Atlanta. They aren’t thinking of the fact that San Francisco had lost six games before that huge win over Oakland, including twice — TWICE! — to the otherwise winless Arizona Cardinals.
At Football Outsiders, we try to measure teams by looking at their entire resume, every game they’ve played that season. If you look at the entire resume for both teams thus far the 2018 season, the New York Giants have been a little better than the San Francisco 49ers. Right now, the Giants are 25th in our DVOA ratings. San Francisco is 26th. The 49ers have been the better defense, but the Giants have been better on offense and on special teams.
Of course, there was one significant difference between the 49ers last week and the 49ers before that, and that’s new quarterback Nick Mullens. Mullens was phenomenal in his first game as a starter, with a 76.6 QBR. That rating would tie Mullens as the third-best starter in the league this year! But it was also just one game from an undrafted third-string quarterback who had never played a regular-season snap before. Is it more likely that Mullens will continue to play at this level? Or is it more likely that Mullens will play more like C.J. Beathard, who had 43.4 QBR (27th among qualified quarterbacks) before he got injured and was replaced by Mullens? Even if Mullens truly is better than Beathard over the long term, an undrafted quarterback is a lot more likely to play closer to that 43.4 number in a larger sample size.
San Francisco’s preference for 12 and 21 personnel will help the Giants to hide some of their depth issues at cornerback. The Giants also rank sixth in DVOA against tight ends, an important strength given the large role George Kittle plays in the 49ers offense.
One crazy quirk of the Giants defense this year: New York ranks 31st in DVOA on first downs and 30th on third downs, but has been the No. 1 defense in the league on second downs. (By comparison, San Francisco’s offense ranks 19th on first down and 28th on both second and third downs.)
On offense, the Giants will need to get away from being somewhat right-handed in the passing game. Both Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard have been targeted more often on the right side of the field but the 49ers are weak on the left side — when teams have gone towards Ahkello Witherspoon’s side, rather than Richard Sherman’s side.
San Francisco’s defensive front may be a good solution to the Giants’ problem of getting yards before contact for Saquon Barkley. The 49ers are just 21st in adjusted line yards on defense, and they stuff opposing runners for a loss or no gain on just 15.1 percent of carries, which ranks 28th in the league.
Finally, look for the Giants to have gain a small field-position advantage from special teams. The Giants are one of the league’s top teams on kickoffs and punts this year, while the 49ers are one of the worst teams on kick and punt returns.
One final note: the Giants are coming off their bye week, which should be worth an additional point or two advantage. However, that may not be the case since the 49ers, having played last Thursday, are coming off something of a “mini-bye” that also gave them extra preparation time for this game.
Cover watch: Cincinnati Bengals vs. New Orleans Saints (-5.5)
In that same vein, that “coming off a bye week” advantage could also play a role in this week’s “cover watch” pick, as the Bengals have had an extra week of prep and rest before hosting the New Orleans Saints.
This game is a lot closer than you might expect. The DVOA gap between New Orleans (seventh) and Cincinnati (17th) is roughly 12.5 percentage points. That’s sizeable, sure, but home-field advantage, on average, is worth around 17 percentage points.
Obviously, it’s a problem that the Bengals will be missing star receiver A.J. Green for this game. But how much of a problem is it against the Saints’ porous pass defense? New Orleans ranks dead last in DVOA against both No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers. They also rank 32nd against deep passes of 16 or more yards through the air, so perhaps this is finally the John Ross breakout game everyone has been eagerly awaiting for a year and a half.
However, the Bengals also have some weaknesses they’ll need to overcome in order to win (or even just cover) this game. The Bengals rank 28th in DVOA against running backs in the passing game, not a very good weakness to have against a team that employs Alvin Kamara. And it’s hard to imagine the Bengals will get much pressure on Drew Brees when they rank just 31st in pressure rate (23.3 percent) while the Saints offense is third in lowest pressure rate allowed (22.0 percent).
This is also not likely to be a big game for Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon. The Saints may be 29th in DVOA against the pass, but they are third against the run, and while they rank 27th in efficiency against running backs in the passing game, they don’t allow a lot of volume. The Saints give up less than the NFL average of 46 receiving yards per game to running backs.