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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

But here was the situation earlier this afternoon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falcons called their first time out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so they lost anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 9 NFL Picks Against the Spread

My only twitter picks this season, extra t’s and all:

Those three lucky calls don’t redeem last week’s awful 3-5 record ATS: Continue reading

Carolina Panthers Have Another Yet Another Come From Ahead Defeat Against the Defending Super Bowl Champions

With last Sunday’s late game come from ahead to lose defeat, the Carolina Panthers have now managed to lose by just about the same amount, in just about the same fashion, to the same team, and in the same place – their own home stadium – three years running. Continue reading

Top Ten Reasons the Tampa Bay Buccanners Lost to the Atlanta Falcons Tonight

Updated below with graphic, but instructional “how not to” image of the Bucs night.

10. Coach Smith coached a really good game.

9.  Coach Smith coached a really bad game.

8.  In a statistical fluke, entire Bucs team has Devin Hester on its fantasy roster.

7.  The Bucs were all on twitter just before the game following the latest Adrian Petersen, Greg Hardy, Ray Rice and Roger “Two games,  no, wait, my bad, I apologize for getting it wrong, no wait, I don’t apologize because I didn’t see the video and Ray barely hit her so why should I apologize, no, wait, now I’ve seen the video with the rest of America so I’ll pretend I didn’t already apologize for getting it wrong, and instead act super quick and ignore my own new 6 game domestic violence rule and not only override Ray’s 2 game punishment, but suspend him indefinitely instead because of our foul-up, and then I’ll go dark while we waste the talents of a former FBI director to sort through the whole sordid mess” Goodell news; and just weren’t mentally prepared for the game.

6.  Per Bleacher Report, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was 32-2 when his passer rating is over 100; The Bucs liked the challenge of seeing if they could make it 32-3, so they tried to let him complete all his passes in the first half.

5.  The Bucs needed a new head coach.  Wait, no, that didn’t work…..Bucs needed a new starting quarterback – preferably a long time, solid but not great backup, who had some good games down the stretch last year for another team, instead of their second year guy who played really well as a rookie and who they needed to play and find out if they could build with him – unless, well – unless they could get someone as good as a decent but not spectacular second year back up to ruin any such logic or common sense…. So no ,that didn’t work…..Bucs needed to bring in an over priced pass rushing defensive end/linebacker for a 5 year 43.98 million dollar contract. Oh, wait, no that didn’t work…..The Bucs needed to swindle the hapless Patriots out of their all pro Guard for a mere tight end, since they drafted a tight end with the a 2nd round pick in the draft. Oh, wait, no…..

…….The Bucs need new owners, or a new GM. (I volunteer.)

Or, the Bucs need to get Jon “Find your beach, but mine ain’t coachin’ any more” Gruden back.


4.   All the NFL Florida football teams can’t be championship caliber every year. Or, rather, none of them can be.

3.  Bucs, jealous of all the attention fellow northern Florida NFL team Jacksonville got for being horrible two seasons ago and into last, desperately want to replicate.

2.  Everybody was picking on Commissioner Goodell, so Bucs promised: “Don’t worry, we got your back Rog’, we’ll divert away focus: We’ll lose so badly practically no one will even mention your name for hours!” Bucs new head coach Coach Smith Lovingly pleaded; “you can accomplish the same by a blowout win you know.” Team responded, “yes, but it’s not as sure a thing.”

1.  The Bucs are a really bad football team right now.

Update: You know things probably aren’t going your team’s way when your Center gets unsportsmanlike penalties, snaps the ball over the quarterbacks head, and into his own buttocks instead of the quarterback:

(Link Via here)