Week 13 NFL Picks Against the Spread, Some Notes on Picking Games, and a Look at Some of This Blog’s Picks

Record last week: 4-3. Season history to date: Week 11 (4-2-1). Week 10 (3-3). Week 9 (3-3). Continue reading

Brief Recap of Week 11 NFL Picks

Week 11 record ATS, including Thursday Night Football’s Bills Dolphins Debacle (we here picked the Bills, who lost solidly):  4-2-1

Notables: On the one hand, this blog declared “If there is going to be an upset pick, this is it. And the Saints, so dominant at home, lose their 2nd straight here.” Despite being favored by 7-8 points over the Bengals. Who thrashed the now 4-6 Saints, 27-10.

Not only that, someone finally got a real NFL football to the Bengals jersey wearing fan that Bengals Tight End Jermaine Gresham initially tried to give one to during the game, only to have it snatched away by another greedy fan.

Backup Drew Stanton in at quarterback of not, this blog also questioned why the Arizona Cardinals, at 8-1, weren’t at least getting the benefit of the doubt facing a Detroit Lions team that had to come back at the very end each game to win its last three in a row.

Arizona was at home for this game. And didn’t need to come back at the very end of its last three games to win. And while the Cardinals haven’t been dominant, they’ve been solid. (Except, again, this come from behind win against the Chargers in week 1 that, though nice, the Chargers enabled a little bit, as the link helps show.)

Arizona is the ultimate “team” right now:  Probably not the best in the NFL, but they play together as a group of guys that really play together, as a team, and with passion as a team.  Get any team in the NFL to do that, and they’ll immediately be better. (Even Oakland.)

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On the other hand, week 11 picks here also suggested the Eagles seemed almost as good as the Packers, and might be as good.  Clearly, week 11 appeared to offer up some solid info to the contrary.

And, true to form, this blog was wrong on the Panthers once again: Picking them against the Saints a few Thursday nights ago, and, in one of the worst mistakes made on here, suggesting back in Week 7 – NFL Football Strategy’s Inaugural week of picks (which at least, if somewhat spuriously, did outright call the upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars over the Browns) – that the Panthers would play the Packers tough in week 7:

They didn’t.

While they didn’t lose quite as badly as the Eagles last week, or the Bears the week before (finishing off the second half of a nice stretch where they were the first NFL team since the clearly now defunct 1923 Rochester Jeffersons to give up 50 or more points in successive games), it wasn’t close, either. (This blog did pick them against the spread in week 8 against the Seahawks; but the Panthers lost both the lead and the game late in a low scoring close game at home to the very same Seattle Seahawks, for the third year in a row now.)

Okay, to be technical, the call last week on the Panthers wasn’t “wrong.” They were at +2, and lost by 2, 19-17; so it was a tie or push  And their normally fairly reliable kicker Graham Gano did miss a 46 yard field goal near the end that would put them ahead 20-19, with 1:22 remaining.

But 46 yard field goals are missed somewhere near a quarter of the time. The miss didn’t come at the “real” or practical end of the game either.  \

Along with why it was still a fairly long field goal attempt, this might have been in part because the Panthers played that game to lose near the end. Clearly they wanted to win; but their unnecessary turtling up play near the end lessened, rather than increased, their chances.

And had the Panthers made that field goal, Atlanta, trailing by 1 point, would have had the ball last, with time for a hurried but reasonable field goal drive; which under quarterback Matt Ryan, they’ve been successful at multiple times.

The Panthers also got the ball back for a few seconds again just a minute later, at the very end of the game: And in 21 seconds managed to go from their own 16 yard line to the Panthers 45.

Then, with one second left on the clock, the Panthers managed to line up and try a 63 yard field goal attempt for the wild win as time expired.  A successful field goal would have tied the old record and been a yard shy of the new for the longest ever – set just under a year ago by Matt Prater of the Broncos  (in Denver, where in the thinner air the ball does travel farther). Wild, huh?

But long field goal drives usually have a lower arc and are easier to block. And this one was blocked.

So, yeah, the game was a push. And though sketchy on taking the Panthers (as expressed last week)  even if was a “pick ’em” game this blog probably would have taken them anyway (blogs make picks, remember that). So it feels like a loss even if it officially goes down here as a tie.

The interesting thing is that with the 7.5 point favorite Saints playing a fired up Bengals team and losing, a share of the NFC South division lead was up for grabs between the winner of this wild 3-6 Falcons and 3-6 Panthers contest. And the Falcons grabbed it. The Panthers did not.

And now at 3-6 those big Cats sit one game back of first place. (Stranger things have happened, but one can imagine that neither of the two wild card spots is coming out of the NFC South this season.) Meanwhile, in the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers, and defending Super Bowl Champ Seattle Seahawks both sit at 6-4; with both 3 full games behind the now 9-1 Cardinals.

While at the same time, the 4-6 Rams, who as 10 point underdogs flat out upset the Denver Broncos last week (this blog’s proprietor is feeling might upset at not picking the Rams in that game on here), sit in last place that division.

Hopefully there’s no grumbling at the end of the season about this: That’s the way sports goes. To be the champion beat everybody else anyway. All other opportunities are gifts.

Also, the NFL structure seems fair and sensible. And, no matter how the NFL did it, there’d always be grumbling. So something “not working out fairly” (as almost happened last season to an unprecedented degree” in a wild NFC West finish) is going to be ever present. And though it is often argued, really isn’t a good argument to change the set up if it otherwise makes good sense, as the current one does.  (Roger Goodell, are you listening? Please don’t expand the playoff format, lose the key value of earning byes and late field playoff position battles, and further dilute the value of making the playoffs.)

Week 12 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Week 11 record ATS, including Thursday Night Football’s Bills Dolphins debacle (this blog picked the Bills):  4-2-1

Most of the recap of week’s 11 picks – with some extra analysis on the Panthers Falcons game, and a brief comparison of the NFC South (where the top two teams are tied for the division lead at 4-6) and the NFC West (where the bottom dweller lags well behind at 4-6) – is now here.

One of the notes worth re-mentioning from last’s week’s picks:

If there’s going to be an upset pick, this is it. And the Saints, so dominant at home, lose their 2nd straight here.”

Despite ultimately being a favorite in the game by 8 points over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints lost 27-10 for their second straight home loss.

One of the bloke’s I deeply admire – I just can’t remember who, so it would be foul to throw out a name (I WILL find it an update) on “Around The NFL” this week proclaimed the Saints will not lose 3 in a row at home, because “they never have under Sean Payton.” (It might have been Jamie Dukes, now that I think about it, and he’s pretty good with his overall football analyses I think.)

But the fact they never have lost three in a row doesn’t mean they won’t now. Also since they haven’t lost twice in a row that often under head coach Sean Payton (they’ve been a very good team under him and quarterback Drew Brees, AND have won a lot more at home than on the road on top of that) they haven’t been in a situation where they even could lose 3 in a row that much to begin with.  Even less, when considering that the team they face for their possible and unprecedented 3rd straight home loss, is pretty good.

See picks below. Hopefully by the time you (and I) arrive there, I will have a clue to this one of many wild and fantastic NFL match-ups this week – the Baltimore Ravens at the New Orleans Saints. But the game does present at least a reasonable chance of the Saints hitting that home trifecta.

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As always, the following picks are either for the purposes of earning enough funds through legitimate wagering in Vegas to start a large non profit organization to find a cure for cancer, or post-facto bragging rights.

But don’t count on this week’s picks too heavily. Several of last week’s picks – most notably the Bengals, who had a very good chance to win that game outright and were getting a touchdown plus – were somewhat easy calls. And even the week before – where this blog had a few huge calls (winning by a lot, and twice calling the Jets upset of the Steelers outright), and a few closes losses for a miserable 3 – 3 – was somewhat easier.

This week, is not.

Chiefs (-7.5) at Raiders

This is a long standing rivalry. The Chiefs know how to win. And after seeing Oakland battle Denver super tough for nearly a full half two weeks ago (batting down a remarkable 5 Peyton Manning passes at the line in the short time span) before, well, completely falling apart, and then putting up a decent game last week against a Chargers team that saw the return to their lineup of Ryan Matthews, Manti Te’0, and Melvin Ingram, they know Oakland can in theory battle with them a little bit.

But at 0-10, and playing Denver tough for a half, and ultimately making it a somewhat close game with San Diego, is not enough. They are likely to give their best effort again.  And this game almost smells of upset. But one would think the Chiefs can sniff that same scent, and do not want to lose a division game.

Close call, but:

Pick: Raiders 

Also (nearly) always, the rest of this football weekend’s picks will be updated later in the week, or weekend prior to Sunday’s games.

(11-23-14) Updated – Voila:

At 1-0 on the week so far, following last week’s 4-2-1, we could just call it a wrap and finish up a a second straight above .500 week ATS. But let’s tangle with a few of these, including the toughest game of all: The aforementioned Saints, taking on that iconic black bird that is evermore.

Ravens (+3.4) at Saints (Monday Night Football)

Two teams who have been very successful under the current respective head coaches and quarterbacks, and both of whom tend to be significantly better home teams than road teams.

The Saints are in a weaker division, and are 4-6, but don’t be fooled by their record. They lost a close game (by a point) against Detroit in week 7, where they actually outplayed Detroit, who needed a break or two at the end to pull out the win.  They lost two games in overtime (against Atlanta in week 1, 37-34, and 27-24 in week 10 against a desperate, if still Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis less San Francisco 49ers).  And possibly lagging a little bit on the fact that Browns are competitive this year, they lost 26-24 to a Browns comeback at the end of the game in Cleveland in week 2.)

And it’s possible the Ozzie Newsome magic has worn off a little bit, and the Ravens really aren’t that good after their long stretch of competitive – and post season competitive -seasons.

And of course the wild card in this game is that the Saints are playing at home.

This will come as sacrilege, as I’m personally a huge Drew Brees fan. I don’t know him, and the rush to presume things about people good and bad is rampant in human nature, but Brees appears to be a truly remarkable guy. And he’s an phenomenal quarterback:

But he’s not always quite as clutch in tough games as some of the other greats, and if some pressure can be gotten to him, he doesn’t always tend to respond as well as a few other quarterbacks. And while the Saints win their share of close games, on average I would take Flacco (who truly has been “Joe Cool” more often than not) – not that he’s at Brees’ level – in a close game at the end.

So getting 3.5 points, particularly in an NFL where – due to a flurry of reasons, but most notably the continual tweaking of the rules under commissioner Roger Goodell to favor offenses, and most notably passing, over defenses – where very high scoring games are occurring with more frequency – is not really a big deal in this game. Still, just to follow up on the Saints last week, and given that this is a heavyweight bout between two seasoned teams looking at a tough road ahead, take them, as, though the odds may be slightly against, the Saints could hit that third straight loss.  We’ll know late Sunday Afternoon.  This is truly one of several fantastic match-ups on the weekend:

Pick: Ravens
Titans (+11) at Eagles

Tennessee played tough against Pittsburgh last week, on Monday Night Football where Pittsburgh, under Ben Rothlisberger, has been dominant for years.  The Steelers were missing a few key players – including Safety Troy Polamalu –  but it was still a better effort by the Titans, who may finally be creeping towards decency.

If they are, and even though we should expect a  strong bounce back after last week’s embarrassment in Green Bay from the seemingly very well coached Philadelphia Eagles, the Titans stand a strong chance of putting up a game here.

Despite my call that the Titans offseason coaching switch (even if they provided their prior head coach, Mike Munchak, a theoretical “out” towards remaining if he fired most of his coaching staff)  was an ill thought out move, it wasn’t clear new head coach Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t at least alsodecent coach. But if by this point the Titans can’t battle in this game, that would, on top of a dismal downturn season – represent more solid evidence in that direction.

Here’s rooting for Whisenhunt, another good football game, and perhaps a sneak surprise that the team from Tennessee has finally clawed its way out of that bottom rung of bad teams. (Though I  hate to pick against Sanchez, who I’ve always thought was a bit underrated; but Philly can still win by 10.)

Pick: Titans

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

Last season, in a remarkable final stretch to close out the season for the powerhouse NFC West, a desperate Arizona Cardinals team somehow managed to go into Seattle in week 16 and hand the Seahawks their first home loss ever under then second year quarterback Russell Wilson.

But this year, the defending Super Bowl champs are 3 games behind the Cardinals, have their backs against the wall, and are locked in a tough second place battle with San Francisco – who just got back defensive lineman extraordinaire Aldon Smith, who may still get back linebacker Navorro Bowman before the season ends, and who will probably see Defensive Tackle Glenn Dorsey return to action next week.

And Seattle has still very rarely lost under Wilson at home.  Motivation, especially for good teams with character – and the Seahawks have exhibited this – matters.

In short, this is near or just about a playoff  game for the Seahawks, who simply can’t afford to lose a division match-up, let alone against the front-runner. They also have a lot of pride riding on the line; and by knocking off the division leading champs – Carson Palmer or no Carson Palme – and jumping back into the race, they can show they still legitimately belong.

Still, Arizona is a football team.  They’re a unit. And while they could easily lose by 10 or 14 here, and are at a disadvantage with Palmer sidelined for the duration of the season, they don’t seem like the type of team, under second year head coach Bruce Arians, to just cruise on the fact that they can “afford” this loss.

An, though the edge clearly goes to Seattle in this must win game for them – at home where they do rarely lose – a full touchdown is simply too much against a scrappy division foe playing as a cohesive unit.

Pick: Cardinals

Rams (+5) at Chargers

This game is one of the best games of the season. Sure it doesn’t feature two powerhouses, but for pure football intrigue this is it.

The 4-6 Rams have played well against powerhouse division foes the last few years, but not so much outside of the division. But after going into Arizona and holding the lead until nearly halfway through the 4th quarter (this blog picked them getting 7 at Arizona, but they then turned the ball over, and then gave up two touchdowns to the defense, on 3 successive drives to end the game), the Rams came home and beat the mighty Denver Broncos last week. Solidly.

San Diego meanwhile, which along with New England has been just about the hottest team late November and December in the NFL the last few seasons, this year started strong; and then, suffering a few injuries, has floundered a bit.

The Chargers got three relevant players back last week, a 13-6 victory of the Oakland Raiders (who went on, see pick above, to upset the Chiefs this past Thursday Night for their first win of the season): outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, inside linebacker Manti Te’o, and running back Ryan Matthews.  And if they are the team they looked to be early in the season this is the type of game, at home, where they are going to crush any but a very good football team.

So that’s the question, and the answer is unknown. One win against Denver for a team that has been moderately mediocre with sporadic periods of strong play against division foes here and there does not make the Rams a strong team.

But the book is still out on the Chargers, also.  This is more of a pick made simply because it is just a fascinating football game. And in such a game, a little more than 2/3 of of a touchdown seems like slightly better odds.

But it’s not quite like the Seattle game, where you have to figure Arizona has at least the same, if not a greater, chance of upsetting Seattle than the Rams do here, and a bigger chance – given the way they play and their consistency – of keeping it close. (Maybe.)

But ultimately this is a pick that respects the Ram’s potential, and treats the Chargers like a solid, strong but still quasi middle of the pack team until they show they are back.  It’s an iffy pick, but probably not a horrible one, in a tough game:

Pick: Rams 

Dolphins (+6) at Broncos

Beware 6 point games: Games in the NFL are either close, or they’re not. When they are close, it means that the gap is usually between 3 and 6 points, by the nature of the math of the game.  . Occasionally 7.

Getting 6 versus 3 points in such a game is a tremendous difference. And usually a team favored by less than 7 is a reflection of the fact, or perception, that the better team is not that dominant that a lopsided game is as likely as some others, making the relevance of that 6 points notable.

Denver was dominant last year, until the Super Bowl. (Where, against a good defense – and here they face a good defense in the Dolphins – they got crushed).

They improved this offseason on paper. But they may not have improved in reality.  Something might not be clicking. And the Dolphins have been flying a little bit under the radar.

So if Denver doesn’t get it clicking, not only will this be a tight game, but in a near must win for Miami (while a Denver loss keeps them tied for first atop the AFC West with Kansas City) the Dolphins might pull off the win, suggesting they’ve  “arrived.”

Or they might not have really arrived yet and Denver, after a disastrous loss at St. Louis, might get it together and beat them solidly.  Who knows.  The Oakland Pick and several from last week were, again, easier than this one.  But it’s another truly great football match-up this NFL football Sunday

Pick: Broncos

Cleveland (+3) at Atlanta

Another tough game, and while maybe not as great as some of the others, another good one.

Cleveland is one of four teams in the AFC North to be over.500. While the Falcons, at 4-6, are in a tie with the Saints for 1st place in the NFC South. (Technically, they’re in first place right now, since they beat the Saints heads up; but they still have to play them again.)

The Browns have been without their key tight end Jordan Cameron for three games now, and it looks like it’s going to be a 4th.  They do finally get a guy back who may have been the best receiver in the NFL last season – Josh Gordon. But what kind of football shape is he in? And atop a few other injuries they’ve now lost former 1st round pick defensive tackle Phil Taylor for the season.

Taylor had missed a month before returning last week. But his absence is still a key loss. And the Falcons, until last year perennially very strong under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, have been playing strong of late. And would have even crept up to 5-5 if they Lions hadn’t pulled off a 20 point come from behind over where the natives speak with an English accent, en route to a last moment 21-20 win several weeks ago.  They might well be a better team than the Browns at this point. And they tend to be a very good home team.

And, the fact they are coming off a key, close win against their rivals the Panthers (who usually play them tough) last week probably doesn’t mean too much for this team, – which has repeatedly exhibited it knows how to focus during the season. But the Browns, coming off a solid loss at home to the Houston Texans last week, might be riled.

Still, the 3 points is likely not of much worth here. And a pick for the Browns is close to saying they are going to, or are 50 – 50 or near it, to pull off the upset. This might a “root for the long time underdog” kind of pick. But coming out of a touch division, between two teams that probably have heart, we’re going here with the true underdog in this game, who will need to play with even more heart to pull off that upset.

This might be the worst pick of the week, but,

Pick: Browns

Panthers Run Fear Driven “Play not to Lose” Strategy at End of Falcons Game, and do Lose, Largely as a Result

The 3-6-1 Carolina Panthers and 3-6 Atlanta Falcons were playing for a lot this afternoon in Charlotte, North Carolina.

It was not only a division game. But with the New Orleans Saints – strangely a 7 to 8 point favorite over a team with a better record from a better division – losing 27-10 to the Bengals this afternoon (in a game this blog declared as “the week’s upset, if there is one”), the Panthers and Falcons were playing for first place in the division. And despite what would still be a losing record: The Panthers for first place outright at 4-6-1, and the Falcons for a tie with the Saints at 4-7. (Although for now, by beating the Saints earlier in the first of their two scheduled meetings, the Falcons hold the tie breaker; so they would also technically be in first place for the moment if they won.)

But the Panthers once again played not to lose instead of to win. They didn’t think it out to the end of the game. Or if they did, they mis-assessed it. As a result, they played as if when they kick a field goal and take a 1 point lead and have to give up possession of the ball with over a minute still remaining, the game is all but over.

But far from being over, they would instead be facing one of the best regular season 4th quarter QBs in football, with the ball in his hands, his team only needing a field goal to win, and with sufficient time to get it done.

Yet just inside the 30 yard line, the Panthers ran three straight, fairly predictable, vanilla runs practically upon the middle. As if they were taking the clock down to only a few seconds left. And as if they were inside the 20 yard line or at least 25 (where the field goal success rate also starts to get fairly high), not closer to the 30. (Where the field goal success rate is good, but there are also a lot of misses.)

They very likely did so at least in part our of some sort of fear of a long shot turnover, some other mistake, or heaven forbid an incompletion – thereby stopping the clock, and leaving the Falcons even more time – when the time they were going to be leaving Atlanta was sufficient for the Falcons to pull out the win anyway. Thus making the key variable keeping possession of the ball, not just avoiding incompletions – or, far more ridiculously, avoiding the chance of interceptions or other turnovers, as if the chances of simply losing outright weren’t already many many times greater than a turnover.

By thus pulling a “turtle” – the football equivalent of pulling their head back inside their shell as if they just don’t want anything bad to happen, the team came close to ensuring two reasonable ways for it to lose: Miss the field goal and never retake the lead. Or make the field goal, and then watch as the other team drives and kicks a field goal to win.

Just as with nothing to lose, 4 plays per set of downs, and desperation on the line at the end of the game and a small score deficit, any NFL quarterback can reasonably do.  And just as the Atlanta Falcons Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan has done so many times in his career.

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One of the most amazing of these was against these same Panthers two seasons ago, when after a Cam Newton fumble and recovery that botched getting the 1st down, the Panthers very foolishly elected not to go for the conversion – and essentially the outright win –  on a 4th and one half yard at the Falcons 45 yard line with 69 seconds remaining in the game and a 1 point lead.

The Panthers, with Newton, who is large, powerful, and very athletic (and behind what was a fairly solid offensive line at the time), were – conservatively – probably around 80% on the quarterback sneak to make the 1st down, and win the game outright.

But even if they were stopped, they still had a few chances to stop the Falcons and win anyway. And even if they only had a very low 1 in 3 chance of stopping Atlanta from the Falcons own 45 from driving and making a game winning field goal – this gave the Panthers about an 86 t0 88% chance (very roughly) of winning the game had they tried to go for it.

Realistically, if the Falcons need to drive at least 25 yards just for about a 75% chance of making the field goal – meaning that if they drove to the 30 yard line 75% of the time, they would still only win the game a little over 55% of the time (meaning the Falcons would not win only 33% of those rare times they got stopped, but 44%, and just under a 90% chance of winning the game overall if their chances of making the 1st down conversion were 80%) – the Panthers should have a better than 1 in 3 chance of stopping them with the game on the line.

There was no way that punting the ball to Matty Ice and the Falcons gave them anything close to the same 85-90% or greater chance of winning the game that going for the conversion did.

But the Panthers instead “turtled up,” played not to lose, and increased their chances of so losing by playing to avoid losing, rather than playing to win in a way that simply maximized their chances of doing so: By, literally, giving the ball to their opponents, with time left to beat them, for want of a simple half a yard, and very good field position already.

Luckily for the Panthers, their punt, uncharacteristically, was downed  just inside the 1 yard line.

From the 20, or even the 15, this added another  20% of so to the total length of the drive needed, and also tied the Falcons hands a little, as it is dangerous for any team to operate out of the end zone, since one pop to the ground behind that line, and it’s game over. So of course if the Panthers knew in advance that they were (not that they “might”) down the ball on the 1 yard line, the punt was the better call.

And since it did go to the 1, it would probably work out anyway despite the extremely poor decision.

Except it didn’t.

On the first play from the 1, somewhat wildly, Ryan threw a 59 yard bomb to the Panthers 40 yard line to receiver Roddy White, who had also somehow gotten behind the Panthers secondary in the classic scenario – typically overplayed, not underplayed, in the NFL – of “whatever you do, keep the receiver in front of you, even if you have to play a little soft.”

A few other mistakes were made that we’ll skip for now, but the Panthers still easily could have won the game; only further illustrating how solid their chances still were had they gone for it on 4th down and been stopped at the Falcons own 45 yard line: 15 yards further way, and more than double the remaining distance to the Panthers 30, than the Falcons were now after just this one play. And which but for a another mistake, the Panthers would have won.

But the Panthers didn’t win it, and the Falcons wound up making a 40 yard field goal 10 seconds on the clock, for the 30-28 win.  (In large measure because of a far more remarkable mistake than the 59 yard pass the Panthers gave up (and one which has gone completely under the radar), and one of mental awareness, not just a breakdown in execution. One that had the Panthers not made – given what the situation had unfolded to at that moment – would have all but won the game for them.)

Side note: While the Falcons were good that year and wound up going to the AFC championship game, and the Panthers were not that good but starting to become so, they got their revenge later in the season when the Falcons came into town, again as solid favorites, and, in a game that was far more lopsided than the final score indicated, were completely outplayed by the Panthers, who just absolutely took it to the Falcons that game, and wound up closing out the 2012 season with a lot of solid wins en route to a fairly successful 2013 campaign before, due to injury, off season moves, and whatever else, regressing back this year toward where they had been.

But here was the situation earlier this afternoon:

Going into the 4th quarter of the game, Atlanta led 16-3.  The Panthers then scored two touchdowns – the second one on a 47 yard Cam Newton touchdown pass to rookie receiver Philly Brown with 6:29 left to go in the game – gave them the 17-16 lead.

Atlanta then took over with 6:20 to go, slowly marched 54 yards to the Panther 26 yard line, and hit a 44 yard field goal to take a 19-17 lead with 2:12 left on the clock.

After a very short kickoff and 19 yard return by Brandon Williams to the 36 yard line, the Panthers traveled 42 yards to the Atlanta 32.

There, they faced a 1st and 10, with 1:32 on the clock. Atlanta, critically, had all three of their timeouts left.

So unless the Panthers really thought 3 predictable vanilla runs up the middle of the field gave them the best chance of continuing to move the chains and thus run off the rest of the clock, or at least a large portion of it, while simultaneously making it an easy field goal, running 3 straight runs to burn clock was extremely foolish.

And it’s difficult, even far fetched, to make the case that 3 predictable, vanilla runs really gave them their best chance of moving the chains. But this is what they ran, in almost automatic seeming succession, anyway.

Unlike touchdown drives, NFL teams barely need a minute for at least a reasonable field goal drive at the end to win a game, as field goal drives are fundamentally different than touchdown drives due to the basic structure of the field, and rules and physical dynamics of the game.

But on 1st and 10 the Panthers called a run  up the middle, and it went for a yard.

The Falcons called their first time out.

Then the Panthers did call a play out of the shot gun, but it either looked like a designed run, or quarterback Cam Newton elected to run far too early. Although he did gain almost four yards off right guard – all but up the middle again.

After the next Atlanta timeouts, this brought up 3rd and 5 with a full 1:31 left in the game, from the Falcons 27 yard line.

The game at this point didn’t hinge on the Panthers making a field goal. A first down essentially wins them the game. (Even had they gotten a first down on two plays and been facing a 1st down here, this still would have quashed any reasonable chances for the Falcons.) Whereas had they hit the field goal, the Falcons were more likely than not to win. Or at least one could make the reasonable argument.

But apparently the Panthers were not sufficiently thinking about the last 80 seconds of the game, and how reasonable their chances were of losing it after a kickoff (which was not going to put the Falcons back around the 12 or 14 yard line as a punt from near midfield would), even if they did make their field goal.

But instead, they, or their play caller(s), were seemingly obsessed with preventing much lower probability longer shots from hurting them – such as a turnover, possibly not even gaining a yard on an incomplete, or a clock stoppage and thereby saving the Falcons a timeout (which with well over a minute to go the Falcons could use, but didn’t really need.)

That is, unless after two runs essentially up the middle, the Panthers really believed that yet another vanilla run, right up the middle – which is exactly what they ran again – gave them the best shot of accomplishing what they needed to do at that point: Which is get that first down, and pick up another set of downs to be able to not only advance the ball a little further, but essentially take the clock down to under 30 seconds, and all but assure a win before kicking the field goal.

But then as this blog suggested in this recent piece over an awful end of first half strategic mistake by the Dolphins in their game versus the Bills three nights ago:

When it comes to the basic underlying structural strategy of the game of football, NFL teams often do not know what they are doing.

The 3rd down also vanilla run up the middle play actually lost these Cats from Carolina a yard: two yards worse than the run on 1st down had yielded. They then tried a field goal with a whopping 1:26 left in the game; and, facing the Falcons and Ryan in particular, were probably more likely to lose than not even if they did make the field goal. But from the 28 yard line, field goals are only made roughly a little more than 75% of the time, give or take. And this one missed.

And so they lost anyway.

They’ll probably over blame the loss on the field goal (as well as more reasonably the fact that, as it should be in any close game, the fact that it was even close to begin with), when it wasn’t the field goal.

Watching their play on that last set of downs, it was not only the play calling that was astounding, it was their seeming lack of urgency, as if there was no recognition that this was the game.  Make the first down on these three plays, or at least two plays, and win it. Don’t, and it’s a coin flip at best, between the chance of a missed field goal, or plenty of time for the Falcons if they make it.

They almost played, instead, as if they were just running out some clock and centering the ball for an easy or at least reasonable chip shot field goal, with a few seconds left for the win.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but between the play calls themselves, and the way the Panthers actually played those plays, the Falcons were probably going to stop them 10 out of 10 times on that last set of downs. The Panthers needed to focus – pay attention to sensibly using clock, sure, in terms of staying in bounds, running clock time in between snaps, and the pparticularlylays to call. But the main focus again needed to be to keep the ball.

Except to the Panthers, clearly, it was not. And if in a press conference head coach Ron Rivera later says that 3 straight vanilla runs -two highly unsuccessful –  right up the middle gave them best chance of keeping possession of that ball (don’t worry, he won’t), he’s kidding himself.

But then, in all fairness, though it’s implicitly put on head coach, and presumptively (and wrongly) assumed that just because they are head coaches (or coordinators) with a lot of football experience, that they’re good at it, these types of implicit and explicit strategic decisions and approaches that are such a fundamental part of most games, really are too much to ask of a head coach; who is otherwise already required to be a head coach managing the entire situation and his players, a teacher, a mentor, often a psychologist, a great leader, a motivator, a manager, and, among other things, a media liaison who has to be fairly careful what he says, because it impacts his team,  while (unless his name is Bill Belichick) he also needs to be fairly responsive to the media upon which publicity for the league and a lot of the interest that is generated in it, lie.

(Belichick on the other hand, helps both his team and the league by being Darth Vader in press conferences. Please don’t change Bill. It’s hilarious, and provides great balance.)

Quick Recap of Week 10 NFL Picks

From a football and games picking perspective,this is a brief recap of some interesting week 10 NFL picks. (Week 11 picks against the spread can be found here.)

There were a few lucky picks by this blog last week – including a call of the Jets upsetting the Steelers outright (about 3 times, but once qualified with a “maybe”).

But yet all winning picks, as has generally been the case so far this NFL season (starting with week 7 when this blog’s picks began) have been by a reasonable margin against the spread, although the total official ATS record so far, if it’s being added up correctly (convenient, right?) is still 1 game under 500. (Note that the only other upset win offered by this blog so far (at least that I remember – I know, again, convenient, right?) was the outrageous one of the still awful Jacksonville Jaguars against the Browns in week 7, and Jacksonville won.)

But last week’s rather interesting picks started out with the debacle of missing probably my favorite call of the week, the (very same) Browns at the Bengals, followed by the debacle of this blog (see link) going on and on about how I loved the Browns in that game, and why.

Those picks, even without the in hindsight (if still technically non existent) brilliant Browns pick – as they were getting 6 points and clobbered the Bengals 24-3 – still almost went 4-0 on the early games. But they didn’t, going 3-1, as the Dolphins, leading late, lost by four.

But what was also interesting is that I suggested that if there was a game among those early afternoon games that wasn’t a strong pick (or would be a “letdown,” was my poorly chosen wording), it was the Miami – Detroit game!

Sure enough, Detroit came back at the end to win a close one, for the third game in a row.

This seems to follow a pattern with Detroit. Or this blog. Back in week 8 I picked them, giving up 3.5 points, to beat Atlanta in London, but expressed concerns about them not taking Atlanta – who were a well coached and historically hard fighting team who would not do the normal London “bad team essentially mails it in” shuffle – seriously enough.

And saying that if they didn’t take them seriously and lost the game, I would blame their coach. (not that he cares who I blame.) But also writing, amusingly in hindsight:

If the Falcons play tough, but the Lions pull out a close one, I’ll give Caldwell credit, and shoulder all the blame for this pick.

Which, after being down 21 – 0 early, is exactly what happened! Including me, later shouldering all blame, for the pick. (Which I do for all picks, except Oakland. They don’t count. Ever.) As the Lions pulled out the victory 22-21 at the end.

The last two Detroit games – including that Atlanta game – were both won by Detroit by a single point each. This one last week against Miami, after I again warned against the game, saw Detroit get the ball back with 3 minutes left, down by 3 point, and drive for the TD to win outright in the last half of a minute.  (Maybe I should start listening to warnings I wrote out – or you should – since in week 8 I also warned, after picking the Bears +6 against New England, how “I’m also always wrong on the Bears.”  I also questioned their heart in that post, and they went on to give up 50 or more points in back to back games (separated by a bye) for the first time by any team in the NFL since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons. Side note: Maybe the now controversially named Redskins can re-take that name for their team, since it appears, last time I, ESPN, or Ted Cruz checked the NFL schedule, there’s no longer a Rochester Jeffersons team active in the league. I don’t think. Although they could be masquerading as the Raiders out in Oakland. Someone call George Clooney, he would know.)

That last moment Dolphins loss by exactly one point more than the spread knocked my “sweep week” to 3-1 (4-1 including the Browns.  Though it was about to get a lot uglier in the later games.)

From a football angle, it’s worth noting how the Lions win at the end went down:

If you’ve watched a lot of NFL football, you’ve noticed how often teams have the ball and a less than one full score lead late in the game, and all they need to do is get a few first downs (or less) and the game is essentially over but then fail to do so.

Part of this is desperation on the part of defenses. But a significant part is lack of urgency on the part of offenses, who seem to play as if closing out the game is sort of a luxury, since at least if they punt “they are still leading.” (Forgetting that often by the time hat last second ticks, they won’t be, because their opponents now control the game, and have desperation, and often an effective four plays per each set of downs rather than three, to work with.)

This time, with a bit more time on the clock (3:13 left) Miami didn’t pull the “full turtle up,” by doing the football equivalentof pulling one’s head back inside of a shell:

Taking over with 3:37 left, they ran up the middle, gaining 5 yards on first down. So the run was reasonable on 2nd down.

But in hindsight, Detroit, who probably expected it, stopped them cold, and it might have been a good time for a short pass, and the “risk” of stopping the clock. (They need first downs and to burn off the rest of Detroit’s timeouts at this point, not just to “make sure” to run clock.)

On 3rd and 5 the Dolphins did pass, and it feel incomplete. Strategically at least, it was better overall than the Dolphins “full ostrich” at the end of the Green Bay Packers game in week 6, where they all but willingly gave the ball back to Green Bay rather than try to keep it and win the game. (But it may have only

Detroit only trailed 16-13, and often in these situations teams will ill advisedly play for ties, not wins. But Detroit, under Matthew Stafford, is not that kind of team. More importantly, they had 3:13 left to play with.

Once gain, urgency or not, one has to wonder if at the ends of games defenses don’t repeatedly play a little too soft, as it appeared the Dolphins – who remember held Detroit to 13 points all game – did here. Detroit also put together a nice drive, culminating in a deadly accurate side arm TD throw to Theo Riddick for the go ahead score in the last half minute of the game:

For those who missed the game, it should be noted that while the Chiefs pick panned out, it was a bad call. While it’s true Buffalo couldn’t get it done late, overall the Bills otherwise outplayed them this game

Several things worked against their side of the scoreboard however. For the team that is dead last in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency, perhaps the most notable was the loss of 7 points deep inside the red zone:

With 10:30 left to play in the 3rd quarter, running back Bryce Brown was running in for what would have been a nice looking 17 yard touchdown run and a nice 17-3 Bills lead. (They ultimately lost 17-13.) He made it the last five yards to the end zone somewhat easily, but unfortunately the ball didn’t travel with him those last five years – as Chiefs strong safety Ron Parker made an excellent diving play, almost torpedoing his body forward to knock the ball out of Brown’s hands. And the Chiefs recovered it in the end zone.

(It was also not just a loss of 7 points for the Bills, but a pure loss of 7.  This means they lost possession of the ball, and lost the full 7 points, instead of scoring a normal touchdown -which except at the end of each half or a defensive score, means giving up possession as well. So by keeping the Bills from getting that 7 points, in terms of scoreboard mathematics, it was the equivalent of the Chiefs adding 7 points to their side of the scoreboard, without losing a possession – or half of a possession of however you want to look at it – in the process.)

For the late games, this blog added the Raiders (+11) and the Rams (+7).

The Raiders were leading the Broncos 10-6 with just a few minutes to go in the half, and playing lights out on defense (they had even batted down an amazing five of Peyton Manning’s passes so far, and manning rarely has balls batted down at the line of scrimmage).

Then they faltered, turning the ball over around midfield and giving up a touchdown, then quickly getting stopped and of course playing characteristically soft at the end of the half on defense (as if Peyton Manning didn’t come into the game with a whopping 35 points already scored in the final two minutes of the first half alone), and suddenly were behind 20-6.

This seemed to demoralize them, and they came out a different team in the second half, and Denver quickly ran up the score.

The Rams on the other hand were leading 14-10 almost halfway through the 4th quarter. Then they gave up a long TD throw to backup Drew Stanton, who’s the guy now for the rest of the season as starter Carson Palmer blew out his ACL on the prior series (and disappointingly for him, as he admitted crying later over not being able to directly partake in what he thought was a great season with an amazing bunch of guys), And now the score was, on the prior seasons, blew out his ACL. Now it was 17-14, and maybe the Rams would battle back, or maybe they would stay behind and the Cardinals would get the ball back and run out the clock.

Or, maybe Austin Davis would throw a pick, then on their next possession throw a touchdown pass, but to the other team. Then get hammered and lose the ball, which would be returned by the Cardinals for their second defensive touchdown in a row, and a somewhat out of the blue 31-14 win. Which is what happened.

Davis was demoted after the game, as career back up Shaun Hill, injured to pave the way for third string rookie Davis in week 1 has been reinstated as the starter. (The Rams don’t really need to see what Davis can do or develop him further for next year as a starter, since they have regular starter Sam Bradford coming back next year.)

Final record, 3-3, and some interesting football.

Some Takeaways and Notes from the Miami Dolphins 22-9 Thursday Night Football Win over the Buffalo Bills

Update, via Football outsiders, as quoted by ESPN:

“S—, we’re going to go out and beat that ass. Point blank. Period.”

-Said by a player in advance of Thursday Night’s Bills Dolphins match-up, from what turned out to be the losing team in 22-9 loss; a player who also left the game with a broken bone in the first quarter.  Continue reading

Miami Dolphins Make a Typical, but Truly Awful Strategic Decision in last Minute of the Half Against the Buffalo Bills

This blog is about to share something with you, that, if you happen to come across this post in your online football travels, from a football strategy perspective will absolutely blow you away. Continue reading