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Thursday Night Football Preview: Patriots at Rams

TNF Week 14 2020

My last TNF article was my first ever Tuesday Night Football preview article and now Week 14 is another first for me: my first week of doing TWO preview articles. Got to look ahead after being three minutes away from correctly predicting the Ravens-Cowboys score last night (Ravens 27-17 was the prediction). This week two of the top passing defenses go head-to-head when the New England Patriots travel to the west coast to play the Los Angeles Rams. With both passing offenses expected to struggle in this game, it will be crucial for the team that wins this game to establish an efficient and effective run game. The Patriots, in particular, are a one-dimensional offense. A lack of talented pass-catchers has led to the Patriots relying on Newton’s rushing ability paired with Damien Harris. The Rams are a pass-happy team with a mediocre quarterback in Jared Goff. The Patriots’ defense just shut out rookie Justin Herbert, who was playing exceptional football in his rookie season. How well will Goff fare against a defense that continues to improve each week under Bill Belichick?

– THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL PREVIEW –

New England Patriots (6-6) at Los Angeles Rams (8-4)

Spread: Rams -5 | Over/Under 44.5

Vegas Odds

New England Patriots are 4-2 ATS in their last 6 games and 6-1 ATS in their last 7 games against the Los Angeles Rams. The Patriots are 4-1 straight up in their last 5 games and 6-0 in their last 6 games against the Rams. That plays nicely if you’re leaning towards the Pats, as they are 5 point underdogs according to Sports Betting sites. The total has gone UNDER in 4 of the Patriots’ last 5 games and gone UNDER in 8 of their 12 games this season. The total has gone UNDER in 5 of the Patriots’ last 6 games against NFC West opponents.

Los Angeles Rams are 4-2 ATS in their last 6 games and are 0-5 ATS in their last 5 games against AFC East opponents. The Rams are 9-4 straight up in their last 13 games. The Rams are 6-2 straight up in their last 8 December games and 4-12 straight up in their last 16 games played in Week 14. The total has gone UNDER in 7 of the Rams’ last 9 games and gone UNDER in each of the Rams’ last 5 games at home. The total has gone UNDER in 5 of their last 7 games played against the New England Patriots.

Quarterbacks

Cam Newton, as a passer, has struggled this season. Throwing out unpressured throwaways and dropped passes from receivers, Newton’s true passer rating is 75.0 (No. 32) and the catchable pass rate of his passes is 73.7-percent (No. 31). He has completed 58.8-percent of his deep ball passes, but has only attempted 17 deep ball passes (No. 32). Newton and his 6-5, 248 lb frame is still able to stand tall in the pocket and complete passes under pressure (51.0-percent, No. 5). However, his lack of accuracy is concerning especially since his receivers average 1.76 yards of target separation (No. 3) before the pass is thrown to them. Newton’s success as a fantasy football quarterback (18.4 fantasy points per game, No. 13) is because of his running ability. Newton is third in the NFL in rushing yards (435) and leads quarterbacks in carries (106), red zone carries (35), and rushing touchdowns (11).

Jared Goff is coming off of his fourth QB1 week of the season and second QB1 performance in the past three weeks. When looking at Goff’s advanced stats, two things stand out. One is his 71.9-percent (No. 4) play-action completion percentage and the other is his receivers averaging 4.27 (No. 7) yards after the catch per target. Establishing the run will be crucial for Goff to use his two most useful skills as a passer. Despite only completing 30.2-percent (No. 30) of his deep throws, Goff still slings it at a high rate (43 deep throws, No. 170). Goff either lacks awareness or is a courageous gunslinger. He has 26 plays deemed dangerous by PlayerProfiler or plays that could have resulted in a turnover.

Running Backs

Damien Harris has been quite the revelation for the New England Patriots’ offense. Harris is explosive (7 breakaway runs, which are 15+ yard runs), elusive (28.5-percent juke rate, No. 13), and can create per touch (1.75 yards created per touch). His rushing ability is shown by his second-highest true yards per carry (4.9), which takes away blocked yards by offensive lines. Harris’ role in the passing game is minimal (2.1-percent target share), but is averaging 13.0 yards per reception and 1.33 yards per route run. Despite the good receiving stats from Harris, James White’s role as the pass-catcher is still safe. White’s 18.3-percent target share and 2.30 yards per route run are both in the top-3 among running backs.

Cam Akers’ 52 snaps last week represent 32-percent of his 2020 season total. Darrell Henderson (18) and Malcolm Brown (13) received significantly fewer snaps than their rookie teammate. In using last week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals as a guide on expected roles, Akers will be utilized more as a between the tackles grinder (21 carries, 1 target on 25 routes run), while Henderson is used as a change of pace back (3 carries, 3 targets on 10 routes run). Akers’ 4.5 YPC is impressive when considering that he faces an average of 7.3 (third-most) defenders in the box. Akers can excel on the ground because of his ability to get away from defenders (25.0-percent juke rate, No. 22) and create yards (1.39 yards created per touch, No. 19).

Wide Receivers

There’s only one wide receiver to talk about for the New England Patriots in this matchup. Jakobi Meyers’ 24.7-percent target share is the primary reason to highlight him in this game. That’s the 12th-highest rate among all wide receivers. He also dominates the air yards in New England with a 36.9-percent (No. 12) air yards share in 2020. Yards per route run is a stat that correlates to wide receiver talent. This season Meyers is SEVENTH in the NFL in yards per route run with 2.41. To put that in perspective, here are the players ahead of him in that category: Davante Adams, Corey Davis, Justin Jefferson, Julio Jones, Kenny Golladay, and A.J. Brown. Next player below Meyers? That would be Tyreek Hill. Meyers is in great company. Meyers’ teammates Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry figure to draw outside coverage from Darious Williams and Jalen Ramsey respectively since Meyers is the primary slot receiver for the Patriots.

Robert WoodsSince Week 6, Stephon Gilmore has allowed 50 or fewer yards in each game, including a spectacular performance last week while primarily covering Keenan Allen. This is a contrast to his rough start of the season where he allowed over 50 yards in each game in weeks 1-4. Robert Woods expects to receive Gilmore’s primary attention, which is not good news for Woods. If you look at Woods’ game logs, then you see that his great games came against teams with bad cornerbacks guarding him for the most part. When going against top-tier corners Woods puts up pedestrian numbers. Darius Slay? 2 catches for 14 yards. James Bradberry? 6 catches for 35 yards. Jason Verrett? 4 catches for 29 yards. Kyle Fuller? 3 catches for 22 yards. I’m fading Woods this week, despite coming off of three straight top-24 performances in fantasy. Cooper Kupp is the play here. The Patriots’ other top cornerback, J.C. Jackson, primarily stays on the outside, so Kupp (slot rate: 54.2-percent) expects to see most of his action against lesser coverage talents. He receives a 24.5-percent (No. 13) target share, including a 25.0-percent share of the Rams’ red zone targets. Kupp also leads wide receivers with 463 yards after the catch. With Woods occupied with Gilmore, Kupp should be the primary option in the passing game of this game.

Tight Ends

On the season, New England Patriots’ starting tight end Ryan Izzo has one game with more than 5 fantasy points. Despite running 160 routes (No. 35 among tight ends), his 13 receptions are No. 46 at his position and he has failed to score a touchdown this season. It’s worth noting that rookie Dalton Keene played on 34-percent of the Patriots’ snaps last week, his first game action since spraining his knee back in Week 8. Much like Izzo, Keene wasn’t involved in the offense, but it affects Izzo’s playing time since he’ll no longer play 90+ percent of the offensive snaps as he had in three of the previous four games.

Tyler Higbee was a popular late-round option at tight end in fantasy drafts. He finished as TE1 back in Week 2 with 28.4 fantasy points. That performance represents 31.5-percent of his 11-game fantasy production. Last week, Higbee had his first touchdown since Week 2 and ran a season-best 30 routes. Higbee has played on 77.6-percent (No. 16) of the Rams’ offensive plays, but finds himself blocking more than running routes evidenced by his low 53.2-percent (No. 28) route participation. His teammate, Gerald Everett, has been targeted more than Higbee the past three weeks. Everett’s athleticism is shown with his 206 (No. 7) yards after the catch on the season and has the ability to get open, creating 2.66 (No. 2) yards of target separation.

Defense/Special Teams

The New England Patriots’ defense has hit its stride and put up an absurd 31.0 fantasy points in last week’s 45-0 shutout win over rookie quarterback Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers. The Patriots pressure the opposing quarterbacks 27.2-percent of their dropbacks this season. That’s the second-highest rate, only behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even more impressive, the pressure is generated despite finishing in the bottom quarter of the league in blitzes per quarterback dropback rate. Bill Belichick, a defensive coach, has a disciplined defense that doesn’t miss many tackles (67, fifth-fewest). The Patriots’ discipline is also shown by the fact that the 18 first downs given up by defensive penalty are second-fewest in the NFL. The Patriots allow the fourth-fewest air yards, allowing only 1435 on the season. Only three teams have surrendered more passing touchdowns and the Patriots are second in interceptions with 14. Their rushing defense is middle of the pack in yards allowed, touchdowns, and first downs allowed.

Despite blitzing at a higher rate than the New England Patriots (26.1-percent), the Los Angeles Rams, are in the bottom-third in the league in pressure rate (21.4-percent). The Rams’ defense leads the league in air yards allowed by 200 yards (1211). The 7.2 average depth of target allowed by the defense is second-fewest in the NFL. The Rams have twice the amount of sacks (36) than the Patriots (18). The Rams’ defense is first in passing yards allowed (2379) and third in rushing yards allowed (1117). Their defense has allowed a score on 29.2-percent of drives, which is the third-best rate among defenses. The Rams are tied for the lead in the NFL in passing touchdowns allowed (14). The Rams excel at getting crucial stops; they allow the second-lowest third-down conversion rate (35.3-percent). The Rams do have a weakness on special teams though. They struggle with allowing yards on returns, allowing the third-most yards per punt return (15.5) and the second-most yards per kick return (28.7).

Final Thoughts

The Patriots’ 3:03 average time per drive is the second-highest in the NFL and the average starting driving position of their own 25.8-yard line is the fifth-lowest in the league. The Rams’ 1.58 average points scored per offensive drive is the second-lowest. One offense will run at a slow pace and not have great field position, while the other defense struggles to score points. Both defenses excel at stopping the pass, so look for both teams to rely more on their rushing offenses. The Rams have the advantage on defense as a slightly better pass defense and significantly better rushing defense. The Rams have the advantage in the passing game on offense, but the Patriots do not showcase their passing offense opting to utilize Cam Newton’s rushing ability combined with Damien Harris in the backfield. Because of Newton’s mobility, the Patriots have the advantage on the ground. I expect the game to be a slow-paced, defensive game, so give me the UNDER. 5 points is a weird number for spreads and since the Patriots have covered 4 out of the 5 games they were Vegas underdogs and won 3 of those games straight up, I’ll choose the underdog to win straight up. Patriots 23-20.

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