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.

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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:

NFL 2015 Week 2 Picks Against the Spread

Week 1: 6-2 ATS. 1-1 on upset picks: The Rams, who did win on a lucky and largely mistaken onside kick ‘attempt’ win in overtime in a game where they were leading by two scores late. And the Giants, who lost: Both due to their awful strategic decisions and assessments at the end, specifically. And due to NFL acknowledged botched officiating calls, specifically.

All last week’s picks were attempts to provide the best pick possible given the relevant information. But in keeping with the light satirizing (but at least in spirit, somewhat partial support) of Adrian Peterson’s 2500 yard season and Super Bowl proclamation, I ventured a pick on one game I thought was a tossup, hazarding a guess the Vikes would win; when the better call, given that they were favored and probably should have been 3 point underdogs and not 2.5 favorites, the better call may have been to take the home team based on what little we actually knew so far, and until the teams really showed who and what they are.

The game would have ruined a perfect 6-0 record against the spread. But, impressively the Falcons already accomplished that earlier the same opening Monday Evening, playing more like their pre-2014 form and beating a potentially tough Eagles team at home to open their season.

I liked the Vikings to surprise a bit his year. But the fact they were favored on the road against a generally good home team that had a better record than the Vikings last year even with lots of its stars injured, major offseason change since then or not, suggested many others did also. I also noted (see italics in particular) how it was odd the 49ers weren’t favored at home, and possibly also reflected a general, if premature assumption they would stink this year.

Week 1 the Vikings stunk. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had what was arguably his worst game as a pro – and an awful game overall – while Adrian Peterson had 31 yards on 10 carries. A 496 yard pace: Slightly off his optimistic if largely unrealistic 2500 rushing yard goal.

This week, week 2, is also a tough one. But still, if you’re in Vegas, here’s a way to win a large enough fortune to bankroll a global feed the starving children of the world campaign. (Or lose the same.) But as always, all picks are for fun and bragging rights at the metaphorical water cooler.

Which, naturally, of course would have worked out better had they been available by Friday workday.  But hey, I had game film to laboriously sweat over.

1.  Houston Texans (+3) at Carolina Panthers

Okay, I officially picked the Panthers to win the division. But it was an iffy call. (In a prior assessment, I didn’t even give them as high a chance of making the playoffs overall as the Falcons – who looked good in week one – while the Panthers beat the team that coming into week one had more losses than any other team in the NFL the past three seasons: Jacksonville.)

Meanwhile the Texans lost badly in week one, and are now starting the quarterback who was beat out (if only marginally) in preaseason by the guy they couldn’t even stick with through one full game into the season. (And who looked okay in his six minutes of play in largely garbage time.)

What’s worse is that historically, although they may have gotten a little better at this, the Panthers haven’t been the “greatest” at winning close games (and by not the greatest, I mean they’ve been pretty bad). So what’s the point of three points.

So, upset pick: Texans – even with an unknown and probably at this point (who knows though) okay enough backup QB starting – pull it together and win the game.

If they don’t, sorry Bill O Brien. Outbursts on the sidelines and you can’t beat the Panthers after getting waxed at home for three and a half quarters opening week? Early odds, if they lose, or don’t battle close in a very good game, will be against this team taking the next significant step, this year or any other – unless it’s all on new QB Ryan Mallet, and then it’s back to the drawing board. (Though their first loss wasn’t nearly all on starter Brian Hoyer, or, even, one bad pick and a fumble on a terrific play by LB Derrick Johnson aside, really on Hoyer, ultimately.)

But I’m picking them. Stay cool Bill. Fire the team up, not the arteries and blood vessels at routine bad pass interference calls/non calls. It also helps the Texans that the Panthers best defensive player, LB Luke Kuechly, will be out.

Pick: Texans

2.  Detroit Lions (+2) at Minnesota Vikings

The Lions were originally getting three points, which seems hard to figure given the fact they lost on the road week one to a theoreticaly tough San Diego home team, nearly beat the Cowboys in the playoffs last year, and are going up against a team that was 7-9 last year, hasn’t changed all that much, and was decidely outplayed in week one.

Last year the Lions beat the Vkings 17-3, then did so again at home later in the season, 16-14.  And 34-24 to open up the 2013 season, before losing 14-13, in Minnesota, to close it – and that in a year (as with last) that the Lions, despite entering week 17 at 7-8 while the Vikings were at 4-10-1 – that the Lions were actually a reasonably tough team still.

Going back a third year, the Lions were coming off of a strong (and, up until that point, for them fairly unusual) 10-6 season; but despite still being a team that battled tough in most games, they finished up at 4-12. Among the twelve losses were two to the Vikings, 20-13, and 34-24.

The Vikings themselves in 2012 were coming off a 3-13 season, and surprised everybody, going 10-6, and winning some impressive games in the process before losing in the wild card round of the playoffs to the Green Bay Packers.

So heads up the two teams have gone 3-3 the last six years.. And again, while the Lions lost in week one this season, the Vikings were embarassed in a nationally televised game against a team that was supposed to be “rebuilding.”

And they have that Adrian Peterson Super Bowl prediction to back up. So maybe they’ll be jacked up, and can simply erase the Monday Night game by beating the division rival, and presumed obstacle to the Packers – aka the Lions – straight up.

Perhaps increasingly foolishly at this point, I picked the Lions to win the division (and it’s the only pick that if redoing season predictions, I would change pending a loss after week 2). So, while the three points in a possible down to the wire divisional matchup would be nice, let’s see if I can’t go 0-2 on the Vikings so far this year.

My (iffy) call: Right now, until proven otherwise, the Lions should be the better team, in a divisional game that, at least as far as it goes early on, they need to win.

Pick: Lions

3.  New England Patriots (pick ’em) at Buffalo Bills

It makes it hard to pick the Bills after hearing about their gimmicky “football air pump” souvenirs. (And my poor excuse if they do lose – I mean come on, fun is fun, but mocking the Patriots through some sort of air pump gimmick? That’s lame, even if using the word lame in an article picking week 2 NFL game winners is a little lame – not as lame as deflate gate air pumps though.) I almost want to root for the Patriots now after such corniness.

But I picked the Bills to win the division. And obviously at home that means they win this. Right? Maybe.

And if the Bills don’t win this game after flat out mocking their opponent like that – with deflate a football pumps – it’s time for, well something: Maybe for the Bills organization to focus on the team and playing, and not stadium gimmicks more corny than a corndog made from corn and served on a corncob stick over a bed of corn pilaf. Just my take. Could be wrong. (Then again the Bills are also trying to make money, and fire up fans. And maybe it is fun for the home fans, so what do I know. It’s all good if they beat the Patriots; but it seems really lame if they flat out mock them like that and then get beat at home by them, and with regulation footballs no less!)

The Bills romp of the Colts in week one might also have them a little less hungry. And it also certainly put the Patriots on even more serious notice. (And one of the many things the Patriots are good at is being serious as it is to begin with). But this is the game that if there is a changing of the guard, even if temporary or just a “pull even with,” this is the first key opportunity.

There may not be that many more, so it might as well be now.

The odd thing is I picked this game before the season started, and if the Bills had lost in week one would be more confident of it. I know, if they lost week one it means they are not as strong.

But they are what they are; it showed late last year and in preseason, somewhat, and the Colts, and in particular Andrew Luck – for him anyway – played a bad game. And the Bills would have something serious to prove in this game, while the Patriots were more apt to at least somewhat think “same old Bills.”

Plus, and perhaps most importantly, for picking against the spread, which is what I’m doing in these columns, since picking straight up winners is a lot easier overall, and nearly everyone else does that anyway, the Bills would be getting points in what would probably be a tossup game.

Week one did help confirm that the Bills are potentially fairly strong, which gives them a slight advantage now in that regard; but they lose the underdog edge they had, and that coach Rex Ryan has been pretty good at capitalizing on.

Even with the long week after a big opening Thursday night win, the Patriots are still adjusting to lot of new starters, and aren’t typically as good on the road. So there’s that. Though Billl Belichick, in a semi worthless, semi relevant stat, is 12-1 against first or second time QB starters – he’s probably good at game planning for them, as he seems to be against almost everybody. (Except Joe Flacco and Eli Manning.)

But if the BIlls win, though with the scrambling ability and athleticism he can certaintly help them, it shouldn’t be because of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but their defense, decent enough play from their offense, and no major mistakes by Taylor.

Pick: Bills

4.  Tennesse Titans (+2) at Cleveland Browns

I hate to pick against Marcus Mariota. I called him the “real deal” after week 2 of the preseason, and after week 3 said there was a large gap between him and number one overall pick Jameis Winston. And, though I still haven’t watched the film of his team’s apparent dismantling of the (still lowly?) Bucs in week one, rumor has it he’s, uh, pretty good.

Meanwhile Johnny Manziel, who still looks more like he belongs in a post Brooklyn teenager hijinks movie than a Browns uniform, can’t even keep from getting tennis elbow.

It’s hard to say a team that was 2-14 the year before could have a “letdown” going into week 2 of the following season, but this almost seems like it could be a letdown for the Titans, who, on the other hand though, seem to really be playing like a team behind Mariota. And the fact is, after getting pummeled by double digit points in three straight games, the Titans were also throuncing the Browns early last season before giving up the largest road comeback win in NFL history, and losing by a single point.

No Mariota there last year or not (and until he got hurt and had to be replaced late in the first half, then NFL quarterback – in his pre “I want to just work on my house” days – Jake Locker was pretty good, particularly compared to his non mobile replacement), it’s hard to imagine the Titans forgetting that one.

The Browns meanwhile, were simply outplayed by the Jets in week one last week. At least once 36 year old and largely career backup Josh McCown (who was actually playing pretty well), helicoptered in for a touchdown but came away with a lost fumble, no points and a concussion late in the first quarter and left the game.

Everything points to the Titans in this game. Still, it may not be a marquee matchup, but in pitting a possible team on the rise (the Titans) and a perennial who knows where – seemingly everywhere except for close to the playoffs Browns team since they reentered the league in 1999 – and the two former Heisman Trophy winners head to head (a week after the number 1 pick and QB in the draft went head to head with the number 2 pick and QB in the draft for the first time ever), not to mention the flamboyant personna yet first season failures on field and off of Manziel, it’s an interesting game.

Marcus Mariota for now remains the next future superstar, but Go Jonny Go; either make your move, or at least fire up your team to do so.

If I regret one pick so far this week, it’s this one: (Last week it was the Minnesota pick, so make of that what you will.) But am making it:

Pick: Browns

5.  San Diego Chargers (+3.5) at Cincinnati Bengals

If this was the playoffs, obviously the Bengals wouldn’t have much of a prayer. But more seriously, this might be the year the Bengals implode, finally start winning playoff games and go deep – possibly, surprising everyone, Super Bowl deep -or it could even (and most likely?) be the year that now 13 straight year and running Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis takes his already extremely impressive and somewhat statistically unlikely 0-6 (and almost all by solid losses) playoff record, and extends it to an even more unusual 0-7.

But it’s regular season, and despite some prognosticators counting the Bengals out-possibly out of fatigue over their perpetual playoff drop off – they’re a pretty good team, and have usually been very strong at home.

And besides, I know all that matters is this week, next week, and this season, but there’s revenge at least theoretically on the table: the Chargers came in as big underdogs in the 2013 playoffs, and beat the Bengals soundly. 34-7 won’t come close to making up for that loss, but it’s a start.

Pick: Bengals

6. Seattle Seahawks (+3.5) at Green Bay Packers

Speaking of revenge on the table, the Packers had the NFC Conference Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl all but won last season, when the Seahawks scored late, somehow recovered a low odds yet necessary non surprise onside kick, and scored again to knock the Packers out.

The Seahawks are a character team, and character teams take these kinds of opportunities to show their win was legitimate, even on the road, and missing their so called leader of the defense (Kam Chancellor, in a rare NFL holdout). And they are coming off an upset loss to the Rams in week one.

The question though is if they are the team from late late season (very good), or the team from early last season (decent).

If they are the team from late last season, and the Rams still went head to head with them, the Rams are legit. (And I hope so, since they were my NFC West pick to win the division.) If they are the team from early last season, the Packers should win this game.

And if the Seahawks are the team from late last season, the Packers – even down one 1519 receiving yards last year Jordy Nelson (though the Seahawks are missing their perhaps very slightly overhyped but still fairly key safety) – can still show their character by saying “yes, we basically beat you last year and fouled it up at the end, but not this time.”

And despite perception of Aaron Rodgers as the best quarterback in the NFL, he doesn’t have the best record in close games, and with the game on the line I’d take Romo, Brady, probably Rothlisberger, Luck, and yes, Russell Wilson, ahead of him. (Famous last words, right?)

So the Packers win by more than 3. Though I almost regret this pick as much as the Browns. (okay, not really:  At least the Packers do win at home. And Rodgers is really good.) Come on Aaron R, pull out a close game by incredible end game play, but win it by four.

Pick: Packers.

7. Dallas Cowboys (+5) at Philadelphia Eagles

The Cowboys are going to the Super Bowl this year, so how do they lose to the Eagles in a divisional matchup, on the road, where they’ve lately played better than at home. (Okay, I also rather optimistically picked the Eagles to meet the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, and an 0-2 start doesn’t make such an event seem all that likely).

Still, the Cowboys are lucky to be 1-0 after that last Sunday Night Fiasco. Meanwhile the Eagles, flying high on everybody’s radar, just got embarassed last Monday Night. Well, okay, they simply lost. Embarassed just sounds better.

But really, they were road favorites, and head coach Chip Kelly made more moves this offseason than Gary Kasparov in a heads up speed chess match. (As a heads up, I’m good at football, and good at trying to make analogies, not at actually making them.)

And, while granted the Eagles won’t be playing anywhere near as soft as the Giants ill advisedly did on the last two Dallas drives (both easy, quick, and ending in touchdowns) but the Cowboys still did play the last portion of that game without their start Dez Bryand, and are capable of winning without him while he nurses a broken foot.

This is a great matchup, the Cowboys rarely lose by a lot, and the outcome could very easily go to either team here. 5 points are a lot.

Pick: Cowboys

Update:

8.  Atlanta Falcons (+2.5) at New York Giants

So long as the Giants don’t have the lead late (ie., they are winning by a lot, or losing by a little) and thus decide to play far too soft on defense and all but literally give away the game, they should be okay against a potentially tough, but on the road Falcons team.

Pick: Giants

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Steelers 49ers commentary: Something makes me want to take the 49ers, as 6.5 point underdogs at the Steelers.

There’s some perception, as I even read it in a major sports column, that the “Patriots Steelers game was less close than the final [28-21] score.”

My impression is more the opposite. That even though the score in that game was a somewhat lopsided 28-14 late, the teams actually played very close. And that was with Tom Brady playing laser like in his focus, decisions, and releases, and the Steelers missing a few key players. (WR Martavius Bryant, out for about a month, RB Le’Veon Bell, out for the first two games, and most notably of all, all pro Center Maurkice Pouncey, out for at least eight weeks, possibly more.)

So 1) the Patriots are possibly not that great this year. Or 2) the Steelers are possibly pretty good this year, for some reason. (That often happens with the Steelers, and the clear perception of just that phenomenon is represented in this line, favoring them by almost a touchdown against a team that was convincing in it’s opening night win; a team that has a potentially decent enough quarterack, and a possibly good defense.). Or, well, 3) one game into the season doesn’t really tell us all that much.

But the Steelers are still missing those key players, and maybe the 49ers are not that bad. Still, coming off a Monday Night win, and now flying across the country to play at what will in effect be 10 a.m. in the morning for them, which is against what their bodies are used to doing – minor but not meaningless – does make it a little harder for them, and of benefit to the Steelers. So, we’ll see. Potentially a lot, from this game.

As murky as the picture is even by late season, it’s much murkier right now, when nobody really knows nor can know what teams will emerge.  But after week 2, a slightly better, if still early idea, will start to materialize.

It might not say much if the Steelers win by 15. But if this is a close game, it likely is saying something – whether it means a tough season for the Steelers, or the 49ers are going to keep the entire NFC West difficult this year, will be hard to say.

But we’ll see.

Harvard Study Part III

About a month ago, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Part I assessed the top 10 teams on the Harvard study list, and compared them to the probability assessments made here, while part II assessed teams 11-20.

Note also that since the study, original promise to do this comparison, and part I of it came out, a few of the study’s numbers have changed. The oddest was increasing an already semi statistically outlandish “95%” chance of Seattle – the top team – making the playoffs, to a now far more outlandish 99%.

Pegging the Seahawks at 99% to make the playoffs defies NFL football reality. (Update: For more on the Seahawks and in general, here’s an analysis of the Harvard study itself, and why many of its numbers are problematic.)

At the end of the regular season, and regardless of results, we’ll do a comparison of both sets of numbers in conjunction with exactly how each team winds up in terms of proximity to the playoffs. Despite general variance and unpredictability, it’ll be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here.

As in parts I & II, the opening percentage number given in bold represents each team’s chance of making the playoffs according to the HSAC study. The ending percentage numbers, in contrast, are ours.

21.  Bears, 25%. This is a reasonable number except for the John Fox effect. Fox has not been an exceptional head coach, but has been a solid one: He made the Panthers (at least for a while), and Denver both highly competitive, even if the bulk of the latter occurred after Peyton Manning arrived.

It’s also hard to assess what the Bears are losing with the firing of HC Marc Trestman after a mere two years. On balance, it’s likely somewhat of a coaching upgrade to switch to Fox – and potentially a significant one.

Also for the Bears, former Saints director of personnel Ryan Pace becomes the new GM, taking over for the fired Phil Emery. And former Saints scout Josh Lucas takes over as director of player personnel, for the fired Kevin Turks.

That might be a bit too much Saints involvement. Yet Franchise nepotism is common in the NFL, and it also often reflects the hire of people one knows, which can also be an advantage; if, sometimes on the flip side, leading to the same inside the box type of thinking and same, perhaps overly limited, set of candidates.

The Bears also brought in Vic Fangio as their new defensive coordinator. From ’95-’05 Fangio was DC for the Panthers, Colts and Texans. And then again DC for the 49ers from ’11-14, the same years Jim Harbaugh was the head coach there.

And for offensive coordinator the Bears brought in Adam Gase, who played the same role the last two years under John Fox – and when the team was on the field, likely somewhat under Peyton Manning – in Denver.

Chicago also lost several players, but made multiple short signings and a few more longer term, including LB Pernell McPhee ($38.75 million/5 years, 15.5 million guaranteed), WR Eddie Royal ($15.5 million, 10 million guaranteed) and S Antrel Rolle ($11.25 million, 5 million guaranteed).

Pernell, a 2011 5th round pick, has had some key plays in big moments, which may have been due to sheer variance as well as his skill, and may possibly have led to a higher perceived than real value. (Perhaps Bears staffers would disagree and say otherwise, I don’t know.) And it’s possible the Bears overpaid; possibly not.

Some criticized the Cleveland Browns $9 million guarantee given to Dwayne Bowe, but the $10 million given to Royals is larger. (Though Bowe’s 9 million guarantee was out of a $12.5 two year deal total, making it more lopsided.) When you take into account the offenses each played for, Bowe is probably a better receiver, although he does turn 31 later this month, whereas Royal is 29.

Included among the player losses are 12 year Bears stalwart Lance Briggs, who last season started 8 games with 24 tackles and 10 assists, and is now retired. And Brandon Marshall, now 31, who broke some ribs and had a collapsed lung from a knee hitting his back against the Cowboys in week 14, and is now with the Jets.

Marshall had 61 catches last year before getting hurt late. But he also had over 100 catches in 2012 and 2013, and in years 2007 – 2009 with the Broncos (one of only five receivers in the NFL to ever have 3 consecutive 100 catch seasons). And the QB throwing him the ball in all those years but for 2009 when he went to Chicago a few years ahead of Marshall? Jay Cutler, still with the team today.

The Bears were pretty awful last year. But that is in some part relative to the general expectation that they weren’t a bad football team. Maybe they were and we just didn’t know it.

As duly noted in part I, the Bears are a wild card. Not that they will make a wild card playoff spot, but they could be anywhere from a contender to a bad team – although Fox might keep them from slipping too far:  28%

22. Ravens, 24%. Until recently the number published by the Harvard study (and referenced here as well), was 9%. But 24% is still too low.

While the Ravens may not make the playoffs this year, they have every single year but one since Joe Flacco as rookie QB and John Harbaugh as rookie HC joined seven seasons ago. And they lead all NFL teams in total playoff wins during that period.

The original number of 9% was statistically ludicrous. (A 1 in 4 chance is low, but a slightly less than 1 in 10 chance, statistically, is far different.) The study doesn’t seem to note any particular reason for this change in its as of now current and apparently updated form, other than “normalizing” the results so an average of 6 teams would make the playoffs every year. And which doesn’t explain such a change (particularly when most teams are still the same).

The Ravens are in a tough division; they don’t seem to have really improved while a lot of other teams have; The AFC North’s schedule was fairly easy relative to some of the other divisions last year; and several teams will likely vie for the two AFC wild card sports this year, including a likely improved Chiefs and an overall improved NFC East. And, this year the NFC North plays the tough AFC West and tough NFC west: 36%

23. Redskins, 22%. Giving the Redskins about the same chance of making the playoffs as the Ravens (and originally more than twice the chance) is slighty far fetched. This team right now sits on the bottom of a division that may see three competitive teams. (Four if the Redskins join in.) 19%

24. Panthers, 22%. This is a good indication of the study’s considerable flaws. At the end of last year the Panthers were the best team in the weak NFC South. In part probably because of team cohesion, and defensive chemistry;

The study projects the Falcons to have a 55% chance of making the playoffs (which is also too high, see part I), and it’s near silly to claim the Falcons have nearly a two and a half times better chance of winning the division than the winner the previous two years. Cam Newton has also been a little rocky at times; but if he takes that next step, the Panthers are also going to have a heck of a QB.

Since the study came out the Panthers got a little hammered in the injury deparment, losing both starting DE Frank Alexander and more importantly second year WR Kelvin Benjamin for the year.

Benjamin was seemingly the key element in an otherwise potentially very weak receiving corps. And right now, after missing training camp and most of the preseason with a hamstring injury – not good for rookie wide receivers – rookie Devin Funchess is third on that nevertheless still on paper very weak looking depth chart.

Funchess was no small investment either, as the Panthers traded up to snag him, perhaps inadvisedly giving up their 3rd and 6th round picks to move up 16 spots in the second round to 41 overall to grab him. (If your team is that good at evaluating talent that you know Funchess is a steal at that spot, evaluate the best guy available at 57 and then again in the 3rd round, which is a considerable value pick – low salary but still with a reasonably high chance of strong upside – and then again in the 5th round; with both now being picks, as a result of the trade, that simply vanished. (Technically they moved over to the Rams, who made the deal with the Panthers.)

On the flip side, and trade aside, Funchess may have been a nice pick with a lot of potential. And the Panthers could have used some more wide receiving help – in part possibly why they made the trade. But then their by far and away this moment best WR, Benjamin, goes down for the year, and Funchess essentially misses training camp and the preseason.

But we’re trying not to take hard news that came about after the Harvard study into account, so the Panthers are still around even to the slight favorite to win the division over the Saints, with the Falcons possibly in the mix, and with a wild card from this division still probably unlikely.  (Also, even taking into account the bad injury news and holdup to any possible early development of Funchess, this team is still at least probably even with the Falcons and Saints overall to win the division, putting them over 30%.)  36%

25. Browns, 15%. This seemed like it would have been a really bad number. But in 2013 the Bears’ Josh McCown filled in nicely for Jay Cutler for several games later in the year, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite over a decade of nice quality backup QB work by McCown, said, “hey, he can be our starter!” And made him so.

It was a bad move at the time. And while it still could have worked out (McCown, after all, had played pretty well in 2013), it didn’t.

Now the Browns are trying the same magic trick.

True, they have Johnny Football, aka Johnny Manziel, sitting in the wings. And if McCown falters they will probably say “let it rip” Johnny. And Manziel didn’t show enough last year to conclusively prove he won’t make it in the NFL as a quality starter. So it could be exciting yet.

But it’s somewhat hard to evaluate, as last year the Brown’s also had Brian Hoyer as their starter for 13 games (although for the last several he played very poorly). And teams seem to play better when Hoyer starts, and thus win more often. In 2013, before now second year HC Mike Pettine got there, the Browns went 4-12 overall, yet 3-0 in the games Hoyer started.

It’s kind of head scratching. I mean, if the argument for going with Josh McCown is, “well, we have Johnny Boy waiting in the wings” (reasonable enough), why wasn’t that the argument for going with Hoyer: Out of the so far 22 total starting QBS the Browns have had, not counting McCown, who will be starter week 1 and number 23 overall since the franchise was resurrected from the football graveyard (having earlier been turned into a large black bird in 1996 and moved to Baltimore in something famous enough in Ohio to be known as “the move”), the only one who even has a winning record is Brian Hoyer.

That’s out of 22 total starting QBs. One. One, has a winning record. Hoyer. Letting him go is one thing. But to 1) let him go. and 2) choose McCown, a long time backup, who the Bucs just made the same mistake on last year and who is entering his 13th year in the NFL (it would be 14th but McCown played for the UFL in 2010), is quite another.

Bad Browns, bad.

Bad Harvard study too, as Pettine shouldn’t be counted out so quickly. But that’s what perhaps silly studies that then get popularly picked up by multiple news sources and hat try to assess a team’s chances based upon subjective core player evaluation, miss; among many other things. 26%

26. Vikings, 12%. This is a joke. Anyone who thinks the Vikings are 1 in 8 to make the playoffs hasn’t been closely watching football the last several years.

Note, the Vikings will probably miss the playoffs: Again, if they are given a four times, or a 300% greater, chance of making the playoffs than this Harvard study gave them, the odds would still be that they are (slightly) more likely to miss the playoffs than not.

And even if their chances were a whopping 65%, they would still miss the playoffs 1 out of 3 times.

This NFC North division could be tough. The Packers lost their stud wide receiver Jordy Nelson for the year. Nelson had over 1500 yards for them last year, and made some solid catches. (Though we’re not supposed to take that into account, as it happened after the original SAC study came out). But they’ve been perennial contenders, and there’s no real reason to think they won’t be strong this year. And the Lions look to be as well. As for the Bears? Well, see above.

But the Vikings improved last year under first year HC Mike Zimmer; also surprised the league a few years back and won the division in 2008 and 2009; second year QB Teddy Bridgewater showed some smooth moves his rookie year, and could be a force this one; and they get back what was not long ago the undisputed best running back in the NFL. This might not seem like a lot, but it’s double – double – the study number. And probably conservative: 24%

27. Rams. 10%. I’m just gonna say it. Almost no one does it seems. Possibly because he’s just one of those guys. You know, the guy that just handles it all well, and we don’t want to diss, because they just, well, handle it all so well.

But after many years of watching his teams often fail to wrap up when tackling (and he’s been 5 straight seasons, 2 with the Titans, then a year off, then 3 with the Rams, without a playoff appearance), it’s time: Head Coach Jeff Fisher is a little overrated.

That being said, he’s still a very good head football coach, and smooth as silk the way he seems to handle most things. (I wish he was a little less smooth about poor tackling though.) And this year the Rams have a legitimate shot.

That’s even with the fact that while their former number one overall draft pick QB is back after missing most of the last two years with injuries (and some injury time before that as well), he’s unfortunately back with the Eagles, who the Rams traded him to in the offseason. And who, if he stays healthy, is going to surprise a lot of people; because Sam Bradford is a natural.

Unfortunately, in preseason the Rams at times looked sloppy tackling once again – particularly for a defense that could potentially be a powerhouse (though I’m trying not to take that into account, and the tackilng could also have been a fluke that won’t happen as such in the regular season.) And they are starting two rookies on the offensive line, which could be problematic for them once again. But this “10%” number is far, far, almost ridiculously, too low.

It’s also still tough to assess their new quarterback Nick Foles. In his rookie year with the Eagles, Foles first played in week 9 and got his first start week 10. And impressed a lot of people. But in one game against the Panthers he threw three easy picks that were all ridiculously dropped. Had they been caught the take on Foles would likely have been different.

But the following year, 2013, he posted a remarkable 13.5 to 1 TD to interception ratio, throwing 27 TDs, and only 2 picks. And he became only the second QB ever to post a perfect passer rating, while also throwing for over 400 yards.

In 2014 he played in only 8 games before getting hurt, and had a much more pedestrian 13-10 TD/interception ratio. And that offense in ’13 and ’14 seemed to buzz under innovative HC Chip Kelly, so it’s hard to know how much that might have helped Foles performance.

Regardless, Foles is an upgrade over the backups the Rams were playing with last year, and his team seems to play well when he’s on the field. But how he does with a still possibly iffy offensive line remains to be seen.

On the one had it’s hard to see why this Rams team couldn’t put it together (provided they get good offensive line play) and contend for the division. On the other hand, if prior history, and what to me seems like a series of up and down draft day decisions over the past several years is any indication (let alone the fact that they were hooked with several extra high picks courtesty of the “RGIII” trade with the Redskins in 2012), it’s hard to imagine them having much of a shot to go deep into the playoffs if they do manage to finally take a bigger step and make it in.

But their defense could be scary. And showed it for a short stint mid late last season, where they outscored an overall middling batch of teams 79-0 over 10 consecutive impressive quarters of play: 0-0 v the Chargers quarter 4 in a game they lost 27-24; a 52-0 win over a bad Oakland team that was in dream land after its first big win in a while – a week twelve 24-10 victory over rival Kansas City for their first win of the season after an 0-10 start; and a 24-0 drubbing of the Washington Redskins followed by a 3-0 first quarter against the Cardinals (in a game they also eventually lost, 12-6.) Before, unfortunately, relapsing back to so so play.

Think what you will of the Rams, but assessing them before this season even starts as having only a 1 in 10 chance, with a significant upgrade (even if a questionable one) at quarterback; another year for those young players; an improving team; a good head coach; and when 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs, is just not realistic.

Our number is still remarkably higher than the study’s, and by halfway into the season, who knows, while they are probably not there yet, it could even look very low, as the Rams could pull it together. I just think they need a new GM first. 35%

28. 49ers, 9%. This is not only the most remade team of the year, it’s probably the most remade team in several, and unfortunately it includes the loss of a probably underrated head coach.

This is a guy who joined them in 2011, taking over a seemingly middling team, and immediately taking it all the way to the NFC Championship game three seasons in a row. There, winning once and losing twice in close games, one of those times on a fluke muffed punt to send the game into overtime and then another to lose in overtime (against the Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl against the Patriots). And in the Super Bowl, putting on a furious comeback effort against the Ravens and head coach Jim Harbaugh’s real brother John (of all people), and almost pulling off a huge comeback at the end.

And it includes the loss of a lot of big name and very successful on field players.

Still, many people rave about the 49ers new head coach Jim Tomsula, and the 49ers also brought in new players as well; and even with a lot of injuries and some key suspensions last year, were still a tough matchup, and finished 8-8. (though again, how much of that was specifically Harbaugh’s doing where other coaches might have failed, is hard to tell.)

LIke the Bears, but possibly with more upside, this team is also somewhat of an unknown wild card. 20%.

29. Jaguars, 3%. It’s hard to say the Jaguars have a chance. They simply have made what appears to be mistake after mistake after mistake. (Though many argue otherwise, and some Jaguars fans don’t like hearing it.) But fact is, make all the excuses you want, this team has won 14 games out of its last 64.

But they played tough at times last year; their rookie QB last year, who seemed to me like a bit of a stretch when they took him with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, neverthless impressed some people last season and could at least pan out; the team seems to fully believe in its now 3rd year head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley; and the league is full of surprises. 8%

30. Buccaneers, 2%.  There is this perception that Lovie Smith, brought in last season, is a really good head coach.

Maybe he is. The Bears had a solid winning record under him, made the playoffs a couple of times, and one year somehow managed to get lucky and make it to the Super Bowl as probably the single weakest Super Bowl team in the 2000s so far. (2006 season, and lost to the Colts. I’m also not buying that the Cardinals were when they played the Steelers for the 2008, season. Conventional wisdom called them one of the weakest teams to simply enter the playoffs in a while, and conventional wisdom was way off. I even picked them as the dark horse Super Bowl winner at the very start of the playoffs. And but for a James Harrison pick just outside the goal line on a 5 yard pass that versus a Cardinals touchdown led to a 14 point swing, they probably would have been.)

But the Buccaneers were at least sometimes competitive under departed head coach Greg Schiano, and regressed under Smith. We’ll see in season two. Though obviously they could easily exceed expectations, and given Smith’s prior W-L track record could surprise, no reason to not think they are still one of the poorer teams in the league.

Still, giving them a 2%, or 1 in 50 chance of even making the playoffs, is not realistic given basic NFL variability. This number, though still low, is in part based on the fact that in addition to themselves, their division was still fairly weak last season, and may still lag a little bit this year and has an easier schedule than last year: 10%

31. Titans 2%. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, over six full seasons of coaching, and all with the same team, had an overall losing record. But it wasn’t by all that much. (Until last year’s dreadful 2-14 record with the Titans is tacked on, never mind that the team also got blown out in most of its games as well.) And his prior team twice made the playoffs, getting to the Super Bowl once, where a James Harrison pick of a Kurt Warner pass from the Steelers’ 5 yard line turned into a 14 point swing and likely kept the team with the red bird on its helmet from winning the game.

The Titans have a lot of young, talented players, and with the second pick in the draft had the opportunity to draft a potentially very strong franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota. (Who this preseason has looked exceptional, although that’s not supposed to be taken into account, so we’ll discount it. However, his very strong upside coming into the league still existed prior to the preseason. And this team overall had some upside as well.)

For the same reasons already addressed, assessing this team, or essentially the chances of any team, at 2% is a statistical joke. Our number, if low compared to many teams, is still a whopping six times greater chance of making the playoffs than the one given by the study. And it may still be too low: 12%

32. Oakland .03%. No team in the now essentially half century of the Super Bowl era has had only a 1 in 333 chance of making the playoffs before a season began, and no team has even been close. Oakland’s no exception, and this “point zero three percent number” is,again, ridiculous.

Also notice Oakland’s pattern last year after beating the Chiefs to shoot their record up to 1-10. They took it light – obviously – and got pounded 52-0 by the Rams, then pulled it together and back at home surprised again, legitimately beating the still tough 49ers – and doing so as large underdogs – 24-13, before then, same pattern, getting pounded yet again, and this time by the Chiefs in a rematch in Kansas City, 31-13. Then guess what. Same pattern still: They won again, and again against a good team. By late last season the Bills were a very good football team, and probably taking Oakland lightly, and on a cross country trip fell to those same Raiders 26-24.  And yet after pulling out that win, Oakland continued its pattern as well, getting pounded by Denver in a season ending game, 47-14.

The Raiders might wind up being a better team than the Titans (there is no way to really know), but they seem to be in a tougher division. And their division also plays the NFC North and the AFC North, while the Titans’ AFC South plays the AFC East and the easier NFC South: 10%
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Again, the Harvard study, by focusing on the “core” players of a team to assess value, misses that critical full team element, including the contribution of less marquee but still starting players whose strengths or weaknesses can play a critical role in a team’s results; the effect some players can have on how others play; and most of all, it seems to miss a good portion of coaching, and heart.

We’ll also take a look in from time to time before the end of regular season recap to see who’s getting pummeled: Harvard’s numbers, or ours. Guess which one I predict will lose out.

NFL Football Strategy Versus the Harvard Study Team Projections, part II: Teams 11 – 20

Note, this was published’/posted late yesterday, September 6, 2015. Not August 30th. Who knows what wordpress is doing. If you know, please tell me.
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A few weeks back, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Part I looked at the playoff probabilites of the first ten teams of the study, and tried to offer more realistic numbers. Continue reading

Why the Patriots Should Win a Great Super Bowl Matchup

The two best teams in the NFL are probably meeting in the Super Bowl, helping to make this one of the best matchups in years. Continue reading

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