NFL Week 1 upset picks: How the Bills beat the Jets


Welcome to another season of our weekly Upset Watch. Each week we'll write about a possible upset in an NFL game with a line of at least three points. We also write a Cover Watch about an additional game where a significant underdog has a strong chance to cover. These picks are based on Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, in particular our current DVOA ratings (explained here) and, early in the season, our DVOA projections.

Last season, Upset Watch went 9-6 straight up, which is pretty good since every team was at least a 3-point underdog. Cover Watch finished 8-6-1 against the spread.

Week 1 usually brings plenty of upsets to the NFL. Nobody knows for sure just how good teams will be in 2019. Despite all the advanced statistics we have, even our Football Outsiders preseason projections are going to be off a good amount.

For our first Upset Watch of the season, we'll go to the AFC East. The line has these two teams as even on a neutral field, but there are some reasons to believe that Buffalo can pull out a season-opening victory on the road.

Upset Watch: New York Jets (-3) vs. Buffalo Bills

These teams split their two games in 2018, but each team won in a very different way.

In Week 10, the Bills demolished the Jets 41-10 at MetLife Stadium. I would love to be able to tell you what Josh Allen did against the Jets in this game, but he didn't play. That game was the mysterious "greatest start of Matt Barkley's career," where the Bills signed a longtime veteran off the street and got 232 passing yards with two touchdowns out of him with no picks and only one sack. On the other side, it was Josh McCown -- not Sam Darnold -- throwing two picks with only 135 passing yards.

Four weeks later, the two teams met again in Buffalo, and this time we finally got to see the Darnold-Allen matchup that both Jets and Bills fans hope we'll be watching for a long time. The Jets won that game 27-23, with a last minute-touchdown drive. Darnold had a good game: 170 yards on just 24 pass attempts, one touchdown, one pick and no sacks. After adjusting for the quality of the Bills' pass defense, this was 29.2% more efficient than average, according to Football Outsiders' passing DVOA.

Allen, on the other hand, had a poor passing performance: 18-of-36, 206 yards, two picks and three sacks with no touchdowns. That was worth minus-53.3% passing DVOA.

Ah, but the secret to a Buffalo win over the Jets is found in Allen's other statistics: He ran nine times for 101 yards and a touchdown. There were six scrambles and three planned runs. Allen had six first downs, including the touchdown and one 12-yard scramble that converted a third-and-10.

The Jets' defense had major problems last season with quarterbacks running the ball, allowing a league-high 9.0 yards per carry on QB runs and ranking second in the league in DVOA allowed. (Miami, the team with the worst defensive DVOA against quarterback runs, hosts Baltimore and Lamar Jackson in Week 1. Oof.) Allen kept last season's game close with his legs, and if the Jets let him get loose, his running ability will cause them serious problems this Sunday, too.

When Allen throws, the Jets hope that the arrival of John Brown in free agency hasn't fixed 2018's problems throwing deep. Last season, the Jets ranked just 27th in defensive DVOA against deep passes (16 or more yards in the air). But the Bills were even worse on offense, ranking 30th in offensive DVOA on these passes.

How about when the Jets have the ball? Well, this will be the unveiling of Le'Veon Bell, who is supposed to dramatically improve a Jets running game that ranked 30th in DVOA last season. But there are two more important names for the Jets' running game: new left guard Kelechi Osemele and new center Ryan Kalil. Last season, the Jets were dead last in adjusted line yards, our metric that measures runs by different lengths to try to separate the blocking from the running backs. Jets runners were stuffed for a loss or no gain on a league-leading 26% of runs. Meanwhile, the Bills' defense ranked 10th in adjusted line yards and No. 1 in stuffing opposing runners with a similar 26% of runs.

A lot of fantasy players are putting an emphasis on Robby Anderson, who broke out with touchdowns in three of the Jets' final four games last season, but Tre'Davious White should be able to mostly shut Anderson down. White ranked ninth last season in yards per pass allowed, according to Sports Info Solutions charting, and the Bills overall were seventh in DVOA against opposing No. 1 receivers. Shutting down Anderson would leave Darnold dependent on receivers from the slot, but the Bills were eighth in DVOA against slot receivers last season.

We write a lot about how defense tends to regress to the mean more than offense. The Jets are certainly hoping this is true if they want to start the season off with a win, because the Bills were our No. 2 overall defense last season, behind Chicago. If the Bills can summon that kind of defensive performance again, Allen's legs and new receiving corps might be enough to give Buffalo a Week 1 upset victory.

Cover Watch: Tennessee Titans (+5) at Cleveland Browns

Analytics writers throw around the term "regression" an awful lot. Normally we're talking about "regression toward the mean," the idea that many statistics tend toward average over time. But the dictionary definition of regression is "a return to a former state." That kind of regression also exists within analytics, as teams and players tend to move both toward average and toward previous performance.

Both types of regression play a role in why the Football Outsiders projections for 2019 have Tennessee better and Cleveland worse than conventional wisdom.

For Cleveland, the issue is defense more than offense. On the offensive side of the ball, the Browns should be able to overcome regression with continued second-year improvement by quarterback Baker Mayfield and the addition of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. But the defense was average in 2017 before improving in 2018, and we have it likely to regress back to average in 2019. Yes, the Browns added some exciting defensive talent such as Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson, but they also lost talent behind the defensive line, including Jabrill Peppers and Jamie Collins.

For Tennessee, regression might actually help quarterback Marcus Mariota. He has declined in the past two seasons in both ESPN QBR and Football Outsiders' passing DVOA, but he's likely to rebound a little bit in 2019, which leads us to a more positive forecast for the Tennessee offense. It helps to get back veteran tight end Delanie Walker from an injury that cost him most of last season. Receiver Corey Davis should also continue his improvement in his third NFL season.

The other thing to watch for in this game: Did Cleveland improve on its tackling issues from last season? Led by Derrick Henry's 55, the Titans' offense led the NFL in broken tackles in 2018. Cleveland's defense ranked dead last in the number of broken tackles it allowed.