Week 8 Picks Against the Spread – Thursday Night Football

Last week: 3-5
Year to date: 20-18

Recap of miserable week 7:

Picked Redskins (they won the game by only a point);
.
Browns (staying loyal to preseason prediction of Bills making playoffs, while not staying loyal to Rams preseason prediction of making playoffs: both backfired, as the Rams trounced the Browns, and Bills lost at the end);

Cowboys, making the wrong call on the Giants a second week in a row. (After picking them to upset the Cowboys week 1, which they should have, and the Bills in week 4, which they did);

Eagles, buying into the “they’re starting out slow but have just turned it around” idea for some reason, with, really no evidence (some luck and a bad performance by the Giants in week 6 isn’t turning it around), other than the lame fact that when first taking over what was for him a brand new team, Chip Kelly had started out 1-3;

And, again, the Bills, staying with the sinking ship of that prediction and worsening an already bad ATS record. (Yeah, I know above 500 is “good.” Whatever, but not really.)

In the game on the road in London (the once and future London Jaguars “home” stadium for the contest), the Bills fell behind 27-3. Then were up 31-27 late.

Then, on 3rd and 15 with 3:04 left from their own 47 yard line, a Blake Bortles pass fell incomplete.

But as is often the case in the National Football Penalty Flag League (charmingly often referred to as the National Football League), a questionable pass interference penalty was called, where to make matters worse, cornerback Nickell Robey was going for the ball as well.

This penalty wasn’t nearly as game changing as many. The reality is that while it was for 17 yards and a 1st down at the Buffalo 36 yard line rather than a 4th and 15 for Jacksonville from their own 47, the Bills still gave up what was the winning touchdown. And did so on the next two plays alone.

In fact they gave up a touchdown so fast that, along with their three timeouts still remaining, at 2:16 they had more than enough time for a strong two minute drill winning touchdown drive.

Not only did they botch it, they were slow on the drive and quickly burned their timeouts, which – in case they got stopped quickly (which they did) – they should have saved; that way they stood a good chance of getting the ball back again and if so could have had a 30 – 45 second shot at getting into long field goal range for the tie. But they didn’t do that either, and the Jaguars kneeled a few times, and that was that.

So, bad penalty or not, the Bills lost legitimately. And bad penalties are a part of football.

So to make up for last week’s miserable week, this week will sweep the table. Making this easier will be the fact, that  (for now, at least, maybe some will be added before Sunday game time), the “table” will only be two picks. (Update: 3 picks)

Both could easily be big upsets. And one of the two is tonight, in what has quickly become a time honored tradition that some players apparently dislike, but the league itself, commercial telecast networks, and many fans, like a lot: Thursday Night Football.

1.  Miami Dolphins (+9) at New England Patriots

The Pariots rampage continues. Plus, they remember what an at the time 0-2 Miami Dolphins team (coming off a 1-15 year) did to them in September, 2008, ending their 21 game regular season win streak in the process. This:

Never mind that Matt Cassel was the quarterback in that game, Cassel still piloted them to an 11-5 record. And the Patriots don’t make excuses.

Heath Evans, who played for Bill Belichick, and was also on that 2008 Patriots squad, had this to say about the Dolphins game tonight:

“By Thursday afternoon around 1:00pm, Belichick will have his Patriots team convinced that the Miami Dolphins:”

But the Patriots are somewhat playing that way anyway; and if the Dolphins are now for real under new interim head coach Dan Campbell, this is the game they would play as hard as any,

It’s by no means a lock. The Dolphins might now think they are good and simply assume they can do it rather than play with maximum intensity and focus at all moments, or simply make mistakes against a formidable team; a team that almost never loses at home, and a team that is laser beam focused, and that Belichick not only has the recent scary Dolphins buzz to use as well as the still motivating offseason marring Deflategate “scandal,” but that 2008 dismantlement of the Patriots by the Dolphins in Foxboro, as further motivation.

But this should be a tightly fought division matchup. And for the Dolphins, it’s their closest thing to a Super Bowl in quite a while.

Pick: Dolphins

2.  Seattle Seahawks (-6) at Dallas Cowboys

It’s hard to pick the Cowboys to win outright here – Russell Wilson’s record at pulling out close games, and games in general, is just too good. (Often he carries that team a lot more than stats indicate, creating plays where none exist, and turning losses into key yardage and first downs with well timed scrambles.)

The Seahawks remember that the Cowboys beat them last year in Seattle (one of the only two teams to do so in Russell Wilson’s first three years in the league, until the Panthers did so two weeks ago.)

And this Seahawks team has been championship caliber for a few years now, and need to win this game.

While the Cowboys, in falling apart after losing their star quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant, have shown that despite what they confidently said pre season, they are not.

The Cowboys will at least try to play like it this game, and in terms of caliber of players, they aren’t outmatched. And while they haven’t been a particularly good home team, Seattle is a much better home team than on the road

This one should be a close Dallas loss, or an outright win.

Pick: Cowboys

3.  Green Bay Packers (-3) at Denver Broncos

This game could go either way. And frankly the 3 points Denver is getting probably don’t matter much: Go back and study Aaron Rodgers’ record, he has won less than his fair share of 3 point games.

He has won some close ones, of course. But also notice his record even in games won by 7 points or less – 24-22 – and compare it with his record in games won by more than 7 points – 55-15. There has to be some natural difference here, as games that are closer in score were on average more up in the air with regard to outcome and therefore more likely to be lost in the first place, but the margin here is pretty steep.

Peyton Manning acknowledged weeks ago he barely has feeling in a parts of his fingers. On his throwing hand. He’s clearly not the QB he was, or even close.

This is not news of course. But Manning is still like having an offensive coordinator who’s great at making line reads and adjustments, out there as a team’s QB.

He also demands the best of his players – at least he has, and usually gotten it, in the past.

The Packers are a better football team right now. But their road record under Aaron Rodgers barely scrapes .500

The one scary stat is that Rodgers hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record, on the road, since December of ’12.

That stat has to end; and why not now, with his team clicking on all cyclinders, against a team that really isn’t nearly as dominant as the Packers are, and could easily have several losses.

But the odds are slightly against them here. Rodgers and the Packers faced a very good defense early on in the Seahawks, and solidly outplayed them. But the game was at home. (They also did it last year in the NFC championship game on the road, in a game they should have won. Against those same Seahawks.) Can they do it again?

Interesting game, no doubt. And it’s too bad the points probably won’t matter in this one, since getting 3-3.5 extra for a home team that probably has a slight edge in the game would otherwise be an easy call.

Pick: Broncos, with a slight edge to win outright.

Upset alert: Not an official pick, and the points are also irrelevant in this possible big upset game as well. But in the second half of the Saints game last week, where through some bad luck and bad play the Colts had fallen behind 27-0, and thus with relatively “little to lose” and yet a big challenge on the table, there were suddenly some glimpses of at least a little of the old Andrew Luck. (Aka the relatively new in the  league Andrew Luck, who now may be suffering a hint of the 2012 two best college QB prospects to come out in 10 years syndrome, one that after his rookie year hit RG3 like a rock): He read the field, moved his eyes, head, made quicker, better decisions and tighter throws, and played far more relaxed and natural.

He didn’t play like this in the first half, where he seemed to play somewhat poorly, as he has much of the season. With tight feet, frozen reads, some questionable decisions, and imprecise throws.

And this Colts team doesn’t know how to tackle – not that that’s all that unusual. But they are also not very good at it even when executing half correctly – which is more unusual, and harder to overcome.

And in the fourth quarter, once the Colts pulled within two touchdowns of an outright win, their comeback last week did get quickly stifled, as the Saints bore down again, and the Colts didn’t look as Colts teams of fourth quarters past.

Plus, on the flip side, the Panthers have some serious team unity going on this season, and that makes them very competitive, and hard to play against.

But Andrew Luck once had the ability to pull out almost any game in the NFL. (That is, at least unless it happened to be in a stadium now named after a razor shaving company, and with a guy taking snaps on the opposite side of the ball who’s pretty well known; though integrity of the game (never mind integrity of the process, or the higher importance of not making presumptions and conflating them with fact) aside, one does wonder how at 38 and without “deflated” footballs, Tom Brady has managed to effectively all but dominate the league.)

This game is so lopsided in favor of the Panthers that Luck may just play like he started to in the second half of the Saints game, and his team may follow suit.

That said – and it’s no doubt an “if,” not a “will” – Luck is (or at least was) easily as good as anybody in the NFL at winning close games: Including yes, the master himself, TB.

The Panthers, on the other hand have been extremely poor at it.

Though they finally managed to accomplish it in week six against the Seahawks – a team that had come from behind late to win close games, in Carolina against the Panthers, each of the last three regular seasons.

Thus they are seemingly getting better. And with such a good overall record, and now having pulled off the close game comeback to none other than the Seahawks up in their dome, will probably be more relaxed about close games now as well. Plus, they’re home, which, undefeated atop the division, can help with both energy motivation from the crowd – particularly in a non divisional game matchup – and noise control.

But in a close game – if the Colts can play well enough to keep it close – the edge, at least based on history, undoubtedly still goes to the Colts.

And out of desperation and a sort of nothing to lose at this point but one more crappy game Andrew Luck, who thus just plays yet focuses more and tries less – if he sees it that way and can find what he had before – they may just show it.

It may be what we expect; a good team at home who wants to stay atop their division and at least this year go into the playoffs with some home games and a bye, easily defeating a relatively poor team in a nationally televised game. But it may also not be.

True, one never knows with the all over the board St. Louis Rams (have they finally turned that corner they’ve been trying and at times seem to slide around now for almost three years??); but of all the seemingly lopsided games, this is the one most primed for an upset. And it’s on Monday Night.

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Week 7 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 2-1. Year to date: 17-13

Last week recap: Despite a probable laughing gas affect that caused the Colts to line up and snap a fourth down conversion try from their own 37 yard line – one where just in case it wasn’t already a bad idea, they literally had no one lined up to block (making it perhaps the first scene when “Must see to be Believed Bloopers I, the Football movie” comes out) – the Colts pick was at least okay in hindsight.

Andrew Luck is still not throwing the ball as well as he has historically, however.

And again, their was that “play” – two Colts lining up and literally snapping the ball from their own 37 on 4th and 3, with several Patriots defenders standing right there – and zero blockers – as if it was some sort of zany broadway Confederacy of Dunces theatrical football play.

More importantly, however, the Patriots surreptitiously put a layer of carbonated air on the field whenever they had possession, leading to less gravity drag and higher scoring. (But the Colts – and thus Roger Goodell – still don’t suspect anything.)

The laughing gas byproduct of the procedure, at least according to top neurophysicists, also altered the Colts’ routine circuitry – wonderfully trying a hand at much needed NFL strategy situation creativity, but doing so in among the most boneheaded and counter productive strategic fashions imaginable – and leading to the aforementioned non fake “fake” 4th down punt boondoggle where viewers might have reasonably thought they were watching post modernism football theatre, instead of a real matchup.

The Panthers getting 7 points was an easier pick. The Seahawks almost never lose at home,and those bad cats from Carolina had not only been beaten in last year’s playoffs by those bad Seattle birds, but for some reason have played them the last 3 (and now, including this year, the last 4) regular seasons running; each time, prior to this year, in Carolina, with late game Carolina leads, and each time leading to a close Carolina loss.

Not this time. Go Cam. Not Kam and Company. Cam.

Re the atrocious Monday night (Giants) pick: Who knows what’s going to happen with the Eli Coughlin mix: This team can pop out of nowhere and win Super Bowls, and it can play poorly. The Giants are the real wild card team of the NFL.

Manning reportedly scored 39 on the Wonderlic test, yet in week 1 with the game but for a fluke all but mathematically over, he threw an incomplete to stop the clock and give the Cowboys a faint ray of hope. (On a play that amongst two NFL acknowledged officiating snafus, should have also drawn a flag and in fact mathematically end the game. )

In that rather remarkable week 1 game, that faint ray of hope then turned into a Cowboys win – given an ensuing super soft Giants defense that practically begged for the Cowboys to march down the field on it; as if losing a game that no way should have been lost, so long as they didn’t risk some long shot fluke of a 60 yard play.

But the Giants didn’t just play with far too much cushion for the basic field math of the situation, they also played soft overall, looking sometimes a little lethargic, and frequently non focused both to the ball and their gaps, especially on the earlier and middle part of the drive.

Then they got a break that should have saved them however, when a bad shotgun snap with only seconds remaining could have easily ended the context, but Tony “Zen” Romo calmly snatched it up first try, flipped the laces, and easily found Jason Witten for the winning touchdown.

And now the Cowboys, fresh off a 3 game and no Romo no star WR Dez Bryant (and relatively sub par play regardless) losing streak, limp into New York to face the same Giants; although they will have most of their firepower on defense at the ready for this game.

Which brings us to….week 7 picks.

1.  Dallas Cowboys (+3) at New York Giants

Brandon Weeden is pissed about being benched: It’s understandable, from a competitive wanting to play perspective. But take that away and the team in theory at least could be mildly pissed if Weeden wasn’t benched, since the fact he’s 0-11 in his last 11 starts is clearly related to the fact he played poorly in several of them, and more importantly, repeatedly struggled to find good movement in the pocket to avoid rushers, find receivers, buy time, make better decisions, etc.

That said, if the Cowboys expect Matt Cassel to be their savior, that’s a mistake. (Update: for this game he wound up being the savior for the Giants defense; though when he wasn’t finding Giants defenders at really bad times, he did make some nice throws.)

Hopefully, the Cowboys can just get him to play as a competent backup (which is what he is), and try to recognize the fact that, if they can’t win games without their star quarterback, they’re not a very good team. And before the season they said they were a very good team.

Foolishly, I keep believing them week in and week out, though now probably don’t. But with the Yin and the Yang of Giants football, and the fun this game would be if the Cowboys win again (even if this pick number 1 of week 7 is also official foolish pick number 1 this week, which it probably is) “easy call”: Cowboys in an upset, before the Giants regroup and either go into their proverbial slide or under the radar late season run toward a likely Super Bowl victory. (Which would also be helped if Victor Cruz’s mysterious calf injury can somehow heal – maybe he should get some of that advanced gadgetry Brandon Marshall uses, or at least a masseuse. And Jason Pierre-Paul can still play football after a fireworks related index finger and tip of the old thumb loss.)

Pick: Cowboys

2. New York Jets (+9) at the New England Patriots

Seriously, a division game involving two good teams, with a 9 point spread?

Oh yea, the reigning Super Bowl champ Patriots are on a rampage. But they may not trot out their trusty invisible surface anti gravity psi deflate carbonator machine; being, if just momentarily, perhaps sated at beating the Colts: The very team – with a huge assist from a multiple federal judge ruling arbitrary and capricious Roger Goodell – responsible at helping to bring the wonderful latest gate in American history lore into the NFL offseason forefront.

And while there’s no Rex Ryan there to get his team hyped into thinking that playing the Patriots is like the Super Bowl, the Jets may be somewhat hyped anyway, being that they’re playing the defending SB champs and long time division foe that’s won way more than it’s fair share against the Jets as well. And the current Jets are a better team than most of the ones Rex fielded.

Here’s to near genuis level quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick not having one of his occasional turnover meltdowns – always a possibility since Fitzpatrick doesn’t have the same natural ability as a lot of QBs, and tries to make to up for it with more intensity and calculated risk, while not simultaneously making a higher proportion of bungling mistakes (as he did early in his career, but has learned to somewhat corral).

Good article here by NFL Spin Zone on some of the key Patriots injuries, along with additional information, particularly regarding their offensive line; although I’m not sure the injuries will hurt the Patriots that much (and they also largely haven’t yet), as the team plays better football than most because they practice better.

This line is still way too high though, and there is a solid possiblity of an upset here.

Pick: Jets. In, frankly one of the best and most interesting matchups of the year; though whether that remains the case after the fact, remains to be seen.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (+3) at Carolina Panthers

Okay, I would never wager on football. Far be it for me to even contemplate such a notion. (However, “gaming” on football player statss because – as the normal looking sports buff on the commercials assures us thirty times and hour – practically everyone wins, is different.) But I had a friend who happened to be in Vegas last week and he owed me four Papa Johns pizzas.

So to finally clean the slate I asked him to put down 25 bucks on the Steelers, Panthers and Giants to win by 3 or more each. It paid 2370, and 50 pizzas on the Chargers +11 combined with the 49ers and, once again, Giants, to win. It paid 1100 pizzas.

The Chargers came within 3 yards of tying the game at the end, and the 49ers, in a game they very well could have lost (and in a very interesting fourth quarter no less), won by five.

And, incredibly, despite Carson Palmer carving up yardage over the middle of the field like a thanksgiving turkey (offset by some uncharacteristically turkey like play closer to the end zone), the Steelers, sprung from a somewhat too chill and this year very inaccurate Michael Vick, by virtue of a fortuitous hamstring pull, turned to their third string QB Landry Jones and managed to win, and by 12 points no less, 25-13.

And the Panthers managed to win by 4: In Seattle, where practically nobody wins. Except Seattle. (And, recently, almost, the also almost still winless and not very happy Lions.).

Naturally, at that point I knew the Giants had no chance.

But what does that have to do with this game? Everything: The Panthers were practically laughed at to win the division by this silly Harvard Sports Collective study. Despite winning it the past two seasons. But now they sit at 5-0.

Still, it will be hard to match the intensity of last week. And since Chip Kelly managed to turn the team around from a similar slow start in 2013 – though he was new to a previously struggling club at that point – and they seem to be playing better, and Sam Bradford has still not hit his one time exhibited potential, they could just do it again. (Though if the Panthers stay fresh even after upsetting Seattle and do win – and, it’s not because the Eagles play like the Giants did last Monday night – watch out, as this division will have a nice battle to the end between these cats and some other birds – and still might anyway.)

Fly, Eagles, Fly.

Pick: Eagles

4.  Buffalo Bills (-3.5) “at” the London Jaguars (also sometimes known as the Jacksonville Jaguars)

The Jaguars have lost more games the past 3 seasons than any team in the NFL, and continue to lose this year. And after coach Rex said he would “bet anyone” that his team would turn it on this season, the Jaguars should lose this one by 15 points. (Normally most volunteer work on this end is for the poor, helping out with health issues, the homeless and public information; but I’ve offered to be the Jaguars general manager for free – though I might have to stop writing bad football columns that even google barely knows about. Tough choice.)

Well, truly the Bills aren’t missing like half their team. But they are missing several key players: Sammie “my ankle injury is making me and you look bad” Watkins (or possibly it was “not getting the ball,” and not a sprained ankle that prompted that excellent impromptu “team spirit” comment from Watkins); Percy “maybe I should rethink this whole NFL thing and also make sure my coach tells the world he ‘has no idea where I am'” Harvin; Starting QB Tyrod Taylor; Kyle, and Karlos, Williams.

Pick: Bills, staying loyal to a bad preseason prediction: But really I dunno  (Update. I sure didn’t.) It’s just fun to write about this Bills team. I still wouldn’t be surprised it they win handily. (Maybe former No. 16 overall pick reach EJ Manuel will finally turn it on – throwing to somebody, anyway).

But if the Jaguars can’t win in their once and future English accented home against an injury riddled cast, at this point in year four of the very lengthy “Jaguars are turning it around” program, when can they?

4a. New Orleans Saints (+4.5) at the Indianapolis Colts 

Seriously? I could tell you who’ll win the U.S. presidency next year easier than I could this game.

I thought Andrew Luck was the next great quarterback. And this season he comes out and plays poorly. This last game against the Patriots – who he has all the motivation in the world to beat – he still didn’t play that well.

But whether this was still part of the not so great “new” Andrew Luck (if a slightly improved version of the “new” Luck), or some shoulder trouble, is hard to say. It seemed like the latter, but could be both.

The Saints weren’t going to let the Patriots beat them last week in the Superdome when they played the Falcons – it was just that kind of game. Their quarterback, coaches, and some of the players were angry and upset at having lost several games.

Can they come in here angry? On the other hand, are the Colts a debacle this year who have somehow managed to half keep it together and win (in which case they’re probably a little more likely than not to win again, but likely close), or the same team who (somehow, if helped by an easy division), managed to get to the AFC Championship game before getting soundly trounced in the second half after referee approved recalibrated inflated footballs. Who knows. We’ll see.

Pick: The team that score more points at the end. (Sure, mock that silly answer. But by some of the strategy calls NFL teams repeatedy make in basic, structural game situations, it’s not clear some NFL teams really know this, or at least what maximizes the chances of it being achieved; what with punting across midfield on short yardage situations; punting late in games in decent yardage situations when trailing by 17 points (the Giants, twice, against the Eagles – heaven forbid they get stopped and maybe lose); going for the PAT instead of a two point conversion when taking a 12 point lead in the second half, punting the ball away on a 4th and ~6 when trailing by 5 with just under two minutes to go and only 2 timeouts (Saints, week 1, followed by the Cardinals making a mistake nearly as bad by not simply running the clock down to about 56 seconds and then punting inside of the 20, giving the Saints about a 1 in 50 chance, if that, of winning), etc etc etc etc….Or, update, this wild gift of a real chance to the Ravens by the Cardinals in a game that the Ravens otherwise had less than a one in hundred chance of even tying, let alone winning.

If you’re in Vegas, don’t rely on the last two picks. I don’t think they’re officially listed as options.  “I dunno” might be, but it probably only pays in Monopoly money. Or pizza.

5. Cleveland Browns (+6.5) at St. Louis Rams

Seriously? When did the Rams become so big and bad.(Update: Just before this game, after I jumped off my preseason bandwagon of trying to be “cool” and picking them to win the division. I did pick them to upset the Seahawks in week 1, but whatever; helped by some big return plays, they did that last year as well.)

Jeff Fisher sure gets a lot of pub as a good coach for a guy who hasn’t even made the playoffs the average 37.5% of the time, reaching the postseason, in his 19 full years of head coaching so far, in just 31.5% of his seasons.

Still, we’re all expecting it (I expected the Rams to surprise this year too), just probably not this game. Maybe, but probably not.

Pick: Browns

6.  Pittsburgh Steelers (+2.5) at Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs have, uh, “disappointed.” For a team I expected to battle Denver heads up for the division (and since Denver was the easy call, actually picked the Chiefs to win it – now there’s a laugher, amongst an unusual bevy of bad preseason predictions), they sure are bad.

The most important clue was when they played the Packers in week 3 in a nationally televised game, after blowing an embarrasing (but otherwise, turnovers aside, solidly played) game at home in week 2 to the Broncos, who have beaten them every time since Peyton Manning came on board – and Manning, at least relatively speaking, can barely throw this year.

And not only did they lose, they allowed a late drive, then fumbled away the game in the last few seconds to take away even any 50 -50 chance in overtime if they couldn’t somehow pass deep and hit a quick field goal for the win prior to it.

It wasn’t the score in the ensuing Packers game (which was lopsided for most of the contest until some junk TDs late), but the way the Chiefs played. I tweeted during the game that they looked more like a team that couldn’t wait to get out of there and drink beer, than one focused and ready to play – let alone after such a big loss, and now on a national stage against a perenially strong team.

And they haven’t won since. Andy Reid is at this point probably overrated, and they probably need to retool what it is they think they’re doing.

But they win this one. Jamaal Charles or No Jamaal Charles. This is their game to pump it up. (Or, then again, if they couldn’t even get psyched for the Packers on a national stage when their season was still alive, maybe I’m wrong.)

Pick: Chiefs

7.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3) at Washington Redskins

I don’t know what happened, but the Redskins are a well coached team this year. They play solid football. But they also played last week without about 9-10 originally projected starters, and not counting IR like 6 starters now that the season is underway (Jordan Reed, Chris Culliver, DeSean Jackson, DeAngelo Hall, Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger, I think).

Jordan Reed, listed as questionable, is apparently expected to play (at least he hinted that way this past week), and Trent Williams in all likelihood will also – though as “questionable” it’s not certain.

Williams coming back at left tackle (if so), will be a boost, and while likely losing third down back Chris Thompson for this game won’t help, getting their top TE Reed back should help as well. Still, they’re down four key starters, as they’ve been for a while now, and last year, a Buccaneers team that won only two games, and really was pretty bad for most of them, came into Washington and beat the Redskins 27-7.

27-7! In Washington. It doesn’t even make much sense.

But watching the Washington team closely this year, again, it’s a well coached team and playing differently than last year, for some reason. Losing all these players hurts. But if this team is not still near the bottom of the league, and they don’t seem to be, they win this game. Maybe even if Kirk Cousins does throw another two picks; though it sure won’t help if he does.

(Side note to RG3’s agent – With an expensive option next year, and either a more expensive contract or he’s out the door if he plays well, after that, as well as a 16.1 million loss if he gets hurt this season and can’t play next, the Redskins have little to gain and a lot to lose by playing him. RG has a lot to gain, and, with his stock currently so low, very little to lose by not languishing on the bench, and instead hitting a team in need of some QB help or at least competition. The Redskins also benefit from trading him instead of just paying out his salary, making sure he doesn’t get injured, and then voiding the (now, with no injury, voidable) year five 16.1 million dollar option. So drop the silly injury clause, and stop with the triple lose lose lose. (The Skins, RG, and perhaps some NFL team that could use a player who still has the possibility of turning it on.) And turn it into a win win and win and get this guy’s talents back in the mix now, not as an undervalued free agent after the season is entirely wasted. Though this should have been done earlier.)

Pick: Redskins 

Added pick, early Sunday a.m.

8.  Minnesota Vikings (-1) at Detroit Lions

Sure the Lions could surprise, but right now they’re not as good. Close call, but

Pick: Vikings

A Minor Little Penalty at the End May Have Dramatically Changed the 2015 Ravens 49ers Game Outcome, and some other Fourth Quarter and NFL Game Considerations

A 2015 week six NFL matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers featured a rematch of Super Bowl XLVII from less than 3 years ago.

It also featured two 1-4 teams, while still current Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh’s brother Jim is no longer coach of the 49ers; and out of both original teams, only ten players again started this game on Sunday (or at least for the same side – see below), six for the gang from San Francisco, and four from Baltimore: QB Joe Flacco, guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda, and linebacker Courney Upshaw.

The game also saw a few interesting strategy situations unfold in the fourth quarter of what was ultimately another close one. And, with barely two minutes to go, wound up being dramatically altered by an inside of five yards subjective defensive hold call, in a contest that up until that point had seen just five penalties.

First, in a key 3rd down situation and trailing by 6 from the 49ers 27, the Ravens threw a long pass with very little chance, to a well covered Kamar Aiken boxed in along the deep right sideline (after the play was over, long time quarterback and commentator Rich Gannon proclaimed the play ultimately had “no chance”), thus blowing the more important opportunity to get four new plays out of the deal, on a sort of needless “wing it and hope” type of decision.

Then, about a minute later, the Ravens – having already badly wasted timeout number one less than a minute into the second half – lost their second on a challenge to a solid 51 yard Anquan Boldin catch (also see below), that barring a likely mistake by the referees had very little chance of being overturned.

This was a timeout that, given the Ravens waste of the earlier one, effectively made the difference between them having a very realistic chance of later ultimately winning the game, versus the super long shot chance they wound up with; but for, again, want of that timeout.

Then the Ravens pulled within 6, and made a PAT versus two point conversion attempt decision that was also pretty interesting. (Link forthcoming – but here was the situation: 5:14 left, the touchdown, pending an extra point or conversion try, made the score 25-19, with more strategy implications than might at first meet the eye.)

Then, though we’ll never know, the game may have been all but decided on a measly little penalty. A penalty that but for its moment of occurrence otherwise probably went somewhat under the radar:

Leading 25-20, the 49ers faced 3rd and 7 from their own 40 yard line with 2:33 left in the game, and just the one Baltimore timeout.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick scrambled hard left. (Which, interestingly, as a right handed quarterback he nevertheless seems to like to do more than roll right – and on their prior drive, moving hard to his left, had on the dead run and with his right arm of course, thrown that essentially perfect pass to Anquan Boldin nearly 50 yards downfield for a 51 yard gain shown in the video above; hitting Boldin in his hands out in front in near perfect stride.) And he was eventually forced out of bounds for a one yard gain.

Thus, after Kaeperinick’s scramble on 3rd and 7, a 49ers punt had been upcoming. And thus at that moment the game was not only far from over, it may even have more likely belonged to the Ravens at that point: Since Joe Flacco joined the league and team in ’08, given plenty of time for a two minute type drill with the game on the line – make it and win outright, don’t make it and lose – the Ravens have won these games more than they’ve lost.

But they were called for their third penalty of the game: A somewhat subtle, within five yards, “grab” type hold by a member of their heavily depleted secondary. Here, cornerback Jimmy Smith on one time 49ers defeating Super Bowl champion Raven, and current 49er, Anquan Boldin. (Torrey Smith is yet another Raven wide receiver who was a member of that Super Bowl squad that defeated the 49ers and Kaepernick in number XLVII (47), who now plays for the 49ers – Smith even had a 76 yard TD catch against his former team in the game. Meanwhile, on the flip side of the ball, the Ravens secondary was so depleted coming in – and they lost safety Kendrick Lewis to a knee injury in the third quarter – that Shareece Wright started at corner for them, when just over a week earlier Wright had been a member of – who else – the 49ers. But not playing, he had asked to be traded or released, and gotten his wish.)

That 3rd down out of bounds scramble play and defensive hold stopped the clock at 2:26, and made it 49ers first down, at their own 45 yard line.

The Ravens could still win. (And as long of a shot which as a result they were ultimately faced with – helped as it later was by a bad 49ers punt – they wound up getting to the 49ers 35 yard line – also helped the last 5 yards by a 49ers penalty – and took two shots at the end zone: Though the 49ers likely played the final drive with more cushion than they otherwise would have had there been a little more time left.)

But at this point they were in a near Hail Mary fluke type of chance situation. A first down ends the game; and barring that, the only requirement was for San Francisco to run plays and hold onto the ball. One run will burn the Ravens last timeout. The second will take the game to the two minute warning.

The third will gake the game clock down to 1:15 or 1:16, at which point the 49ers would make a short high punt with essentially no chance of a return, and put the Ravens somewhere in between the goal and 20 yard line, and probably around the 10 or 12 on average. The Ravens would have about 70 seconds, and no timeouts, to drive between 80 and 99 yards. It’s been done on some fluke occurences, but it’s extremely rare. (The punt, despite becoming more of a rarity in such situations the last few seasons, as it is went into the end zone for a touchback, and gave the Ravens a slightly higher faint – albeit still faint – hope.)

But for a huge 49ers breakdown (though, again, with the Ravens reaching the 35 yard line the opportunity did at least arise as turned out), and what would be one of the very very rarest of last minute drives – post normal kickoff with no timeouts and only a minute to a minute and twenty seconds left – the 49ers, by virtue of that subjective penalty, all but essentially won the game (which, of course, they did 25-20). Or, but for a long shot fluke foulup – it ensured their winning a game that was otherwise completely up in the air.

This is no injustice of sport. And, frankly, in some sense it wouldn’t really be even if it was a bad penalty call. (Heck, the one being called a huge injustice for this season so far, if anything, would have been super fluke luck for the team ultimately deprived of it.)

The games are called aggressively against defensive backs – for better (fans that love high scoring and lots of “big plays” and big fantasy point scoring that the NFL’s Goodell, despite constant NFL sponsorhip on its own shows and website, says it’s not promoting), or worse (less balance between offense and defense, and less meaning to each big play and score). And bad calls, though the goal is to minimize if not eliminate them, are part of the game – and here, if minor, the penalty may have been a legitimate call as well.

When a game is that close – something that seems long forgotten if ever known (or agreed with) in the NFL, but for the record books and subsequent results, it’s not really “won” anyway in one sense at least. When it’s that close, bad bounces cause the difference betwen a win and a loss; a fluke, freak or lucky good play or bad, due to sheer randomness as much as skill and focus, cause the difference between a win and a loss.

They’re still legitimate wins and losses – particularly when combined with great play in key moments – but they often could have gone the other way. (Here the Giants lost opening day – imagine the repercussion for the tightly bunched NFC East right now, or possibly even more significantly by season end – because of a horrendous strategy decision by them; as well as, strategy snafu aside, by a third botched officiating call: A botched call that would have been a defensive hold penalty that, while legitimate, would have saved the Giants after their bad strategy decision and before they even had a chance to then add to it by playing a soft, backed way up swiss cheese style of defense – a defense with more holes even than capitalization policy on the word “swiss cheese,” and a botched call openly acknowledged by the NFL the next day. Itself one of two; but not three, acknowledged, as the NFL, but almost no one else, is apparently “clear” on what defines a catch when a receiver hits the ground “soon” after making said catch. (But apparently not if the ball is fumbled immediately beforehand – when the not yet completed catch under one set of rules, is now ruled a completed catch under another, and with sources apparently chomping at the bit to explain why.)

So actual wins count, are legitimate, and are real. But real wins in the sense of ensuring that on this day this competitor, or this team, is going to, will, and does defeat that competitor (somewhat like the week five game between the Saints and Falcons, most of the Patriots games this season, and of course, many, many others – but not including when Rex Ryan says his team is going to), or the way it turned out, unequivocally did win, regardless of calls or bounces, are a little bit different if not always as discernible.

But games are close in the NFL. And even not so close ones in the end come down to a lot of things. Sometimes those things are the subjective angle of penalty calls. And naturally here in the Ravens game it was the type of penalty that in the last few years has been increasingly tilting NFL games in favor of offenses versus defenses; and specifically passing, versus defenses.

And a game that was probably 50 50, if not at that point with a slight edge to the Ravens – with four player per set of downs, plenty of time, nothing to lose desperation on their side, and the fact that given this opportunity Flacco and the Ravens accomplish it more often than not – becomes, barring a complete 49ers defensive meltdown, essentially all but a lock for the 49ers to win.

It’s an interesting aspect that something as trivial as a minor holding call may have ultimately decided this game. And while the Ravens season looked all but over anyway, one never knows with this team. While it’s not likely in terms of their otherwise still very long shot chances of making the playoffs, that penalty may have ultimately, and very early in the season, knocked those chances down for the final count.

2015 Ravens at 49ers – Maximizing Winning Opportunity Through Play Calling

Week 6 of the NFL saw the Baltimore Ravens, with a depleted secondary and a 1-4 record out of a bevy of close games, go into San Francisco and (though seemingly slightly outplayed for much of it), lose another close one to fall to a now logistically impractical 1-5.

But an interesting situation came up early in the fourth quarter: 13:47 remained when the ball was snapped, and the Ravens faced 3rd and 4 from the 49ers 27 yard line (though not a “gimme,” solidly within superman kicker Justin Tucker’s comfortable field goal range – see bottom).

Ravens quarteback Joe Flacco occassionally makes throws that may not have been well advised, but overall takes a “play to win” approach, doesn’t fear interceptions if the play has an overall positive value, and generally makes good to very good decisions at one of the most difficult positions in all of sports.

On this play however, and however subtle, the Ravens may have blown a small but important opportunity.

With almost a quarter left to play, it’s too early to heavily discount the value of 3 versus 7 points here. But down 19-13, fairly late, pulling within 3, and thus still trailing (and thus not in a position to be able to generate the key late game two score lead, whereas your opponent is), and also more likely ultimately putting your team in a position to only play for the “tie” with a field goal, isn’t of huge value.

So going for the touchdown is obviously not a bad move. But what maximizes the chances of getting that touchdown?

If the Ravens get the first down here, it means they’re on the 49ers 23 yard line or better, and can mix it up to continue to try and advance the chains, as well as go for the end zone as oppportunity permits.

On the other hand, going for the end zone on this 3rd down play instead – and leading to an inevitable field goal try if they fail – isn’t necessarily a bad play. But it’s limiting in that if they fail, it cuts off any successive chances of trying for the touchdown on this drive.

So does a failed shorter conversion attempt of course (unless that failure brings up a fourth and fairly short, in which case the Ravens should go for it); but the chances of doing so on a far shorter conversion attempt are much lower.

It’s easy to watch game film and second guess. And for that reason (and because it’s part of the fun of football), it tends to get overdone – even when one is trying to be careful not to. But at the same time we’re talking about the professional level, and one of the better, and instinctively savvier, quarterbacks in the game.

And here the best decision is of course to get a touchdown if you can. But, if at all possible, maximize keeping the drive alive if you can’t.

That aside, the best call here as with any situation, is to go with what whatever play call is best in this situation. In other words, as with most play calls, something that, taking into account the situation, personnel out there, alignment at the line, and outguessing a defense, etc., is fairly subjective.

But there’s also an important component here that’s not really “after the fact” second guessing, and objective.

That is, if taking a shot at the end zone under the impression that the play offers high odds is the call, that’s fine. But for winning football it needs to be considered that unless the end zone play is – or at least, more importantly, ultimately develops into – a solid, relatively high opportunity rather than just a near wing it and “take a shot” type of a play, making sure to try and get the first down is of greater value because of the multiple successive chances of scoring that it brings up.

The Ravens do go for the end zone. But in such a situation they need an out, in case the play develops more into the latter (a low odds play) rather than the former (a relatively high odds play that catches the defense off guard):

That is, if the play doesn’t unfold nicely, then the low odds of connecting on it, combined with the complete practical loss of their possession if they fail to connect – in so far as fourth down now ensues, and from the 27 on 4th and 4 – far out yet still within Tucker’s easy range, and without a super easy conversion opportunity – they will and should kick the field goal – make the play a bad decision.

The loss of opportunity may have been in the play call itself. But that’s hard to say: Maybe it would have worked out with an open receiver more often; maybe the play was designed to have easy second and third options, etc. (Or maybe it wasn’t, which would have made it a bad call from the get go, and not just how it was called and ultimately run.)

In other words, the loss of opportunity may not have been with the call to go deep down the right sideline to Kamar Aiken in coverage by Tramaine Brock. And again, even if it was – barring the issue of secondary options – it’s a subjective call because if it does leave Aiken wide open, with Flacco’s ability it’s a fairly easy touchdown.

The loss of opportunity was to both go with that play call and stick with it after nothing but tight coverage and a sort of “low odds” wing it situation developed, and thereby give up the far higher odds play of getting an entire new set of downs, and thus several more (and somewhat closer) chances at the end zone to work with.

The play as thrown had a very low probability of completion.

First of all it’s a difficult deep pass. Clearly that can be worth the payout (likely touchdown) on its own if it looks like it has a good chance of working. But again the uniqueness of the otherwise very makeable third down situation and the greater value that situation brings up needs to be considered as well.

Given that situation, the fact that Aiken was well covered and with little manueverability near the sidelines to boot when the long pass was thrown, greatly lowers the odds.  And while it still “could” have worked, the chances were now much lower of it working; and thus, correspondingly, the chances were very high that the Ravens would be stopped in their quest to, far more importantly, add 7 rather than 3 points here.

Thus the decision to attempt the play, despite the tight coverage under the specific strategic situation the team was in – and thus the low probability use of only one shot at the end zone rather than a far higher probability shot at getting closer and gaining an entire new set of four downs (or at least a better probability shot at the end zone), was a mistake.

And by better awareness and decision making before the fact, it was probably an avoidable one; one that, at least with some trust, is also recognizable and correctable from a website blog piece alone, without additional practice time on the field and or physical skills – making it in one sense among the most critical kind of mistakes in football, as it offers up the opportunity for a team to improve its winning chances by better decision making alone. (And there are reams of these, many very significant, in NFL football today.)

Put more simply, in that situation, if there are subjective reasons or assessments for the end zone shot, call the play. But make sure it has secondary and tertiary outs. And given the situation, if the big play isn’t there, while its not always possible to easily make good adjustments on the fly, don’t get greedy and go for it regardless rather than for a secondary decision that instead maximizes the chances of keeping the drive alive with an easier option.

As it turned out, Justin Tucker, who rarely misses, hit the right upright on the ensuing field goal try, and the score remained 19-13 – although the San Francisco field may have been part of the reason. Watch Tucker sink and almost split on the kick, showing solid athleticism to even half stay with his follow through:

Week 6 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 1-2. Year to date: 15-12

Last week recap: Last week’s picks provided all sorts of good reasons why the Patriots would trounce the Cowboys. Then picked the Cowboys because they are a “really good team” with championship aspirations and potential, and really good teams in key games against defending Super Bowl champs no less (as if they needed more motivation), don’t get blown out at home.

Yeah, well okay, that was wrong. To say the least.

Meanwhile, backup Cowboys QB Brandon Weeden, who’s now 0-11 in his last 11 starts, said he was “pissed” that he was benched.

Tim Tebow should be pissed due to the groupthink that swept thru the NFL like spinach salmonella food poisoning from a team cafeteria eathathon(okay that was a terrible analogy); and collectively decided Tebow can’t “play” even though when he has played in games, he’s come through and the team has won, which seems to warrent great consideration as at least a backup that can give a team a spark, until and unless it turns out the fact that the team seemed to play better when Tebow, and he pulled multiple games out at the end was some sort of bizarre fluke.

On the other hand, Weeden should be eternally grateful that he got 11 starts.

And this is the same league that after Tebow’s 2011 season where he started 11 games in Denver much of the overall collective thinking – while some (myself included) said he should be a backup, and a few said he can’t play at all -was that he could play (there was all this Tebow excitement, remember? And it wasn’t just the fans), and maybe even be a good starter.

This opinion has drastically changed despite the fact that but for a couple of meaningless plays with the Jets in odd situations (he attempted a total of 8 passes with the Jets, completing 6 for 39 yards), Tebow has not played again in a regular season game. (As far as training camps odds go, he’s never really looked good in practice; so neither that nor the non playing Jets time should really have that fundamentally changed things.)

On to this weeks disaster picks. Which should be easy, since the 1:00 E.S.T games are already going on – those were too hard anyway.

1.  Carolina Panthers (+7) at Seattle Seahawks

After blowing a 17 point lead on the road to Cincinnati last week and falling to 2-3 (and this after almost losing at home the week before to at this point – at least before today’s early games end – still winless Detroit in a game that if the referee’s made the proper call on a bizarre fluke of a meaningless play, they more than likely would have), energy and focus levels seem to suggest the Seahawks.

And this Seattle team has shown its championship caliber and ability to focus when necessary, again and again.

They also seem to play far better at home, and on the road the last three seasons they’ve beaten the Panthers in close games, all of which the Panthers led late.

And beat them soundly in the playoffs last year.

It is for these last two reasons, both of which are also be compelling reasons for the Panthers to focus for the game, that 7 points is too high. The Panthers may be improving – particularly under Cam Newton’s play. They’re coming off a bye. And while he’s not expected to play all of the snaps (and his backup, A. J. Klein will be out), stud linebacker Luke Kuechly will be back. And this is the Seahawks; who but for a wild play at the one yard line in the final seconds, would have been repeat Super Bowl Champs.

Seattle, who’s also getting back running back Marshawn Lynch, is tough to beat at home. And if it’s the same old Panthers they will probably lose, but it might still be a reasonably close game. And this Panthers team at least has reasons to be motivated, to say the least.

Pick: Panthers

2.  New England Patriots (-9.5) at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday Night)

Yes this game should be a blow out as well for the Patriots. Just like last week. And just like last week, the (questionable?) call here is maybe not. Though once again this may be ascribing more to presumed character and motivation than really exists.

Yet everyone is talking about all of the motivation that the Patriots have. And they’ve shown it. It’s even been noted on several occassions in here – before the Cowboys and before the Bills game and elsewhere – that the “Deflate-gate” saga seems to have focused the motivated the Patriots even more (and somewhat understandably).

And this Colts team is the team that “told” on them, which reportedly also has some Boston area fans upset.

The league’s handling of the deflategate saga was an abomination (following a pattern, no less), and it was made into something it was not. However, if footballs are supposed to be inflated to a psi range and they aren’t, and no one checks them during the game, then how do rules get enforced save for teams noticing it?

The issue needed to have been brought up. The question is how. Mentioning it to the Patriots directly in a league filled with refs, rules and oversight seems a little odd. That leaves only one choice: The Colts bringing the correct attention to it. (Although it could be argued – maybe – that the Colts perhaps could have brought it up generically and less attached to a particular game, so that the issue was proper psi inflation in general, not proper psi inflation for “our game.”) And given that the Colts did make an issue of it, and what it led to, it’s easy to see it as being motivating for the Patriots

But the bottom line is that the Colts have also been somewhat pilloried for this. More importantly they’re playing the Super Bowl champs. And playing the team that has owned them the past several years.

The Partiots are the team that has beaten the Colts the last six times they have played. The team who beat them 59-24 in late 2012. Who next beat them 43-22 in the 2013 playoffs. Who next beat them late last season, 42-20. (In Indy, too.) And who then in last season’s playoffs beat them 45-7; with most of it coming in the second half, with carefully recalibrated footballs.

Again, the evidence that this Colts team simply can’t match up with the Patriots (combined with the fact that the Colts haven’t been very good this year, uncharacteristically, and the Patriots are seemingly on a rampage) may be too much. And choosing the Colts getting a measly 9.5 points may be a weak move.

But if any team has motivation here, it’s the Colts.

True, the Patriots will no doubt be focused. Even their non statements suggest it. “Um, we just want people to realize we didn’t beat them 45-7 because of deflated footballs,” is what’s reportedly being uttered.

But, while they simply may not be good enough, if this game doesn’t get the Colts focused to play as if a Super Bowl, then nothing can.

So, here’s saying it would just be too predictable, too formulaic, for this otherwise thus far not very good team – and one that really didn’t improve in the offseason despite all their talk about how they are a different team (they are, they’re worse) – not to play its heart out.

Though once again the mistake may be presuming focus and motivation where it doesn’t exist.

And the other mistake – but less important if the Colts play with an energy that simply won’t accept losing – just as the Saints did Thursday Night against the Falcons – is not giving sufficient due to the fact that right now they’re still not a very good football team, and are going up against a laser focused Super Bowl championship team with strong motivation to not just beat them, but throunce them, again.

But here’s to a suprisingly good and quite the story lined Sunday Night NFL matchup:

Pick: Colts

3.  New York Giants (+5.5) at Philadelphia Eagles (Monday Night) 

This is the Giants. Point spreads barely matter. And yes Odell Beckham might not play, Victor Cruz is still out, the Giants almost lost to San Francisco at home last week, while the Eagles last week finally showed us they may be closer to what we all thought they may be (aka, “good” rather than not so good).

But this is the Giants. And Eagles. Home field advantage doesn’t matter that much, and there’s no strong edge in terms of who’ll win. (After the fact there may appear to have been. But even if the Eagles are now “good,” given that this is the Giants, and it’s the Giants versus Eagles, and it’s the Giants versus Eagles on Monday Night, there’s still not much of an edge here.)

So given this, if it’s a close game, 5.5 points is a lot. The Giants may win – even if the odds are lower than for the Eagles winning. The Giants may lose handily.  And the Giants may lose by a somewhat close one score game, in which case, spread wise, they still win.

Pick: Giants

The only pick that’s an uncomfortable one here (even if the Panthers do get pummeled, they have the ability to hang with and beat the Seahawks and this game should be big to them) is the Colts Patriots game.

This is because the Colts so far, at least relatively speaking, somewhat stink. And more disturbingly, no strong hints even seem to be coming out of the organization to the effect that they’re sick and tired of the Patriots, to say the least, rather than, instead, silly things like “we’re a different team.” Particularly when after a season that so far has shown that though on paper they are no better, they are a decidely “different” team: One no longer capable of hanging with anybody in the league (except the Patriots, that is), the last two seasons running.

But maybe they’re just keeping it to themselves. We’ll find out tonight.

Steelers Give up Huge Advantage To Chargers by Following Convention

Mike Tomlin commented during halftime of the Pittsburgh Steelers San Diego Chargers Monday night football game that the Steelers problem was they weren’t converting when they got into “fringe field goal” areas, and had “too many red zone like punts.”

Yet despite Tomlin’s proclamation during halftime, what did the Steelers do to end their first possession of the second half?

Still trailing 7-3, they punted. From fringe field goal range.

The Steelers faced 4th and 4 from the Chargers 42 yard line. While most teams would have very often done the same thing, this is a great place to punt from – if you are trying to help your opponents’ chances of winning, and decrease your own.

Punting gives away possession to the other team. That’s usually somewhat bad. Save for very rare exceptions, you need possession to score. (And the only time you do score in those rare “exceptions” is because your defense took possession during the play.)

But it makes sense to punt if risk of being stopped is great – such as giving up great field position to an opponent or having an extremely high chance of being stopped, and the benefit is not quite as great: For instance, your team is in poor field position anyway. (The same thing that simultaneously increases harm of getting stopped, and why the spot on the field is extremely key for making correct fourth down decisions.)

So it’s not like it’s “per se” bad to punt the ball. It’s per se bad when you give up – in terms of value times the chance of it – more than you gain; that is, the extra field position benefit times the chances that you would have been stopped, had you gone for it.

(The benefit of punting is not the improvement over getting stopped, it is the improvement over getting stopped times the chances of even being stopped in the first place, because had you otherwise gone for it and made it, you wouldn’t have been stopped and would still have the ball. The harm is the value of still having that ball that has now been lost, and at that spot on the field, times the chances that you would have.)

Here the situation is extreme: There’s a reasonable probability of making the fourth down with four yards to go. And if the Steelers convert, they get an extra possession they were not otherwise going to get. And, they get great field position.

That is, if they convert they’ll be on the Chargers 38 yard or better. Here, they’re only 38 yards away from a touchdown, 18 yards from the “red zone,” and well less than a first down away from even a reasonable field goal try.

It’s an enormous difference in football between having a first down at your opponent’s 38 yard line or better, and your opponent having the ball, and a first down.

And that difference, is the potential benefit here, versus punting. And the chances of realizing that benefit – i.e, making four yards – aren’t so slim or even anywhere close to it that such huge benefit can be tossed asunder.

Particularly when the harm from being stopped – the second part of this two part decision framework – is factored in.

So what is that harm? This is the part that teams are repeatedly greatly overestimating.

In other words, what happens when they are stopped? Is it that awful?  Certainly going for it and making the first down is pretty awful for their opponent. After all, they were about to have the ball punted to them, and suddenly, their opponent has the ball instead, with a first down, and knocking on scoring territory, to boot.

But, in contrast, is it really that awful – as it must be to strategically justify what teams keep repeatedly doing – when the offense goes for the conversion and fails too make it? It may not feel good, but the goal is to win, not feel good or make weak decisions that actually decreased your chances to win, but are harder to knee jerk second guess later because “everybody does it,” and “at least it avoided the worse possible outcome” (and never mind that that worse possible outcome isn’t really so bad.)

What happens when they get stopped is their opponent gets the ball. And in much better position than had they punted. That’s not the harm of going for it – which is very different – but the harm of going for it and specifically getting stopped. That harm in turn has to be compared to the benefit of going for it, and making it, versus the punt as well.

But their opponent gets the ball in far worse field position – that is, a couple of first downs from field goal range, instead of less than a first down away – than the Steelers were going to get it in if they make it. But they were going to get the ball anyway. They don’t get an extra possession.

The Steelers not only get the ball and a first down in better field position than their opponents would get it when they get stopped (and in this case, significantly better); they get a brand new possession they weren’t even otherwise going to get. And, along with field position this is even more important, because you need possession of the ball to even score. Giving up possessions to the other team is a big deal.

Combining that with the fact that had your team – in this case the Steelers – kept possession, you could have had extremely good field position to boot, and that to try and get it only ran the risk of giving up worse field position versus a punt to your opponent if you get stopped but not as good as you would have gotten and not a new possession for them but one you were otherwise going to give them anyway, it’s an even bigger deal.

So, to recap, punting here; strategically, a great decision. If the goal is to help the other team win the game but at least “feel good” because (in this case monstrously incorrect and barely examined) convention is followed.

The Lions, Perspective, and Winning Attitudes

So the Lions lost a game last Monday Night where the correct referee call on a fairly obscure rule would have put them in the driver’s seat to win. But let’s look at this another way:

Maybe if there wasn’t all this seeming complaining in Detroit, and apparently major agreement nationally about how the Lions got “robbed” because of a missed fluke technicality that would have horseshoed them – instead of more focus on the fact they were outplayed – the Lions wouldn’t then go into week five at 0-4 and, seeking redemption, get blown out at home 42-17. (And with the score even being 35-7 at one point.)

Much of the complaining understandably comes from fans – which is part of the game. But it seemed to be felt by players too, when in reality a technical referee call that would have all but been a silly random very lucky break isn’t really them winning, but just a very lucky break.

So, taking that rather random, obscure super lucky break away, they lost. The Seahawks led throughout: even led after a somewhat fortunate but nice play Detroit defensive turnover touchdown to close the gap from 13-3 to 13-10 late in the game.

And when the Lions were about to take the lead even later, they didn’t protect the ball. And, for the Seahawks, in a somewhat fortunate but very nice play, strong safety Kam Chancellor purposefully and, football wise, near exquisitely knocked it out.

That kind of awareness and play is part of why they’ve been to the Super Bowl for the last two seasons, while the Lions have seen the playoffs twice since ’99 (though both were recent).

Tough to handle for a fan, no doubt. But a fan should be more upset that the Lions even for an instant thought they were robbed of a game that – but for a fluke, nothing to do with them, obscure, and half the league barely knows it rule that otherwise had nothing to do with the play – they lost.

And then rebounded from that, with a brutal, lopsided thrubbing at home to put them at 0-5; suggesting that too much focus, still, may have been on being ostensibly “robbed” at Seattle, rather than the fact they played Seattle tough and now at home were going to upset the Cardinals come whatever ref calls, turnovers, or circumstances occur. Or at least play to do so.