Week 12 Picks Against the Spread – Thanks Giving Day Edition

Last weekOfficial picks against the spread: 0-1-1. Unofficial picks: 4-0.
Year to date picks against the spread (ATS): Official picks: 28-25-1. Total picks ATS: 32-25-1

Recap: Last week started a new edition to (ironically) improve the ATS record: Separately labeled picks of some worth and fun, yet perhaps not as strong as the “best” – many of which had been losing and dragging down what would have been a well above .500 ATS year to date. Thus broke the “best” picks into official picks, and added the rest as “fun picks.”

What irony, as the fun picks swept the field, while the “best” went a whopping 0-1-1 as the Redskins, with nearly everything going wrong, were pummeled by Carolina; and as a Rex Ryan coached team that still doesn’t know how to win a game against Bill Belichick that his team easily could have, didn’t even keep it as tight score wise as the game really was.

That result was, in part, courtesy of a field goal smacking the right post that would have veered inside and not in front if but an inch or two to the left. (But then had it done so, but for an “inch or two” to the right, it would have missed, instead of giving the Bills 3 more points and the Patriots worse field position); and then courtesy of, amazingly, giving up an ensuing TD drive in an astoundingly low 46 remaining first half seconds – 62 total yards as a result of the favorable post missed field goal position or not.

That spectacularly rapid TD drive, when all the Bills had to do was hold the Patriots for three quarters of a minute, was also given up to a team their defense had corralled, if not dominated, the entire half; not just stopping them cold on most series, but having given up only a measly 3 points, on the Patriots very opening drive. (And one kept alive by a defensive hold on a 3rd and 9 at that.)

Naturally, the last 4 picks, for the first time labeled unofficial “fun” picks, went an easy 4-0: As the Bengals, but for an AJ Green step an inch or two too far right – thus hitting and stepping on instead of bouncing off inside the pylon – would have won outright; and a bad Bengals decision on a 3rd and 2 to go for a long shot TD throw (that still almost worked but for that pylon dance) in combination with the ensuing 4th & 2 field goal decision to “tie” a game with plenty of time left for an always predictably aggressive Arizona team to easily win it when needing not a TD but just a field goal – and if not, still have a 50-50 chance in overtime, helped the Bengals lose by 3 at the buzzer. And they still covered the spread after blowing the game by not fully contemplating the entirety of end game strategy, as well as a close call on a non TD that didn’t go their way.

While Detroit, in a pick em game, won at home 18-13 (the line used last week for this pick, in explanation, was “surprise surprise“); the Texans, as 4 point underdogs, won outright by 7; and the Cowboys  – as 2 point favorites on the road (where they have been playing better than at home for a while now) courtesy of the Tony Romo is back effect – won 24-14.


1. Carolina Panthers (pick ’em) at Dallas Cowboys

This is funny: But for a playoff game last year, the Panthers have not lost a real football game in about 361 days. Meanwhile the Cowboys, who were 8-0 on the road yet only 4-4 at home last year, and who would be 0-5 at home and 2-3 on the road (instead of 1-4 and 2-3, for a miserable 3-7 overall record) this one but for an outright, purposeful, gift by the Giants, as well as, separately, the referees, in week one. Yet the Cowboys aren’t even an underdog.

Good teams don’t fall apart, whether they still “give effort” or not. (And why wouldn’t any athlete – let alone ones being paid millions of dollars – give effort; that’s what sport is for, particularly when there’s the overriding goal of winning the game driving all effort and play.) And the Cowboys did fall apart a little without their quarterback, losing 7 straight.

Still, common perception semi dissing the Panthers’ accomplishments here notwithstanding, the Cowboys will likely win.

Why? We’ll let actor Tom Berenger explain, courtesy of none other than Tony Romo (who actually tweeted this last week before his first game back):

Pick: Cowboys  Incidentally, if the Cowboys don’t win, it won’t be for lack of  a good game. But because the Panthers — realizing that having just blown out the Redskins to remain undefeated at 10-0, and having not lost a regular season game in almost a year, still aren’t even favored against a (from their perspective) miserable 3-7 ball club — play angrier than hornets.

2. Chicago Bears (+8) at Green Bay Packers

Though there’s apparently no direct evidence of it this time, it looks like before last week’s win at the then division leading Vikings, QB Aaron Rodgers told his once again seemingly struggling team, R-E-L-A-X.

From early last season, before the Packers turned it on:

Still, as with the Lions, it’s getting embarrassing already how often the Bears lose to the Packers in the modern NFL era. Enough of this, perhaps the Bears are saying: and certainly new head coach John Fox, with an improving team, has to be helping to promote the idea.

Whether the Bears can do what the Lions managed to sneakily do two weeks ago in what was up to that point the most “surprise” upset of the season, remains to be seen. But they may stop this longer term trend of Green Bay blowouts at home, while the expected rain may murk up things even more:

Pick: Bears 

 

Unofficial “fun pick”

Cancelled, game already started

Lions (-2) Maybe the Eagles will get it together this week, maybe they won’t. The casual call here is they won’t or, more oddly, the Lions – in a season that was earlier falling apart, will; and uncharacteristically, will do so on Thanksgiving Day no less. Update: Didn’t finish this piece and it’s almost 1:00 EST, have no idea of the status of the Lions game, but since it’s already started (plus the line appears to now be Lions – 3, making it an even harder pick) can’t include it as a pick. Second update: Still finishing this up and finally looked at the halftime score about a half hour ago, and “groan,” the Lions are pummelling the Eagles. Naturally.

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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

Taking On the Harvard Sports Collective’s Zany NFL Playoff Projections

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.

The HSAC study relies upon subjective data (PFF “core” player evaluation, ELO team rankings), and makes several compounding assumptions.

Regardless of the reasons, the study reached several flawed conclusions that nevertheless have the credibility of “rigorously tested” data and analysis behind it, and garnered a lot of attention.

So just below we’ll compare the study’s assessment of each NFL team’s playoff chances with our own. (And as promised here.)

This piece will assess the HSAC study’s top ten teams. The next two will assess teams 11-20 and 21-32. [Update: Coverage of teams 11-20 is now available here, and of teams 21-32, where the wackiest Harvard study numbers reside, is available here.]

We’ll also compare both sets of numbers with exactly where each team winds up at the end of the regular season. And, to be repeated (regardless of outcome) at season end: Despite general variance and unpredictability, it will be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here.

The opening percentage number provided in bold represents each team’s chance of making the playoffs according to the HSAC study.  The ending percentage number, also in bold, is this site’s assessment of that team’s chances.

1. Seattle Seahawks, 95%.  This number is starting to close in on being statistically ridiculous. [Update: weeks after the study came out, a couple of the numbers were altered. This included the Seahawks projected chances, which, now at 99%, has reached statistical ridiculous. More on this number, an analysis of the study itself, and a few of its other more egregious examples, can now be found here. ]

While the loss of seeming top notch Seattle defensive coordinator (DC) Dan Quinn (HC, Falcons), may not hurt any more than the 2013 loss of seeming top notch DC Gus Bradley (HC, Jaguars), NFL football is not that predictable:

Earlier last year, as defending Super Bowl champions no less, the Seahawks were far back and a long shot to even win the division. They are likely to make the playoffs again this year. But giving them a 19 in 20 chance is unrealistic. Even with a 10-6 record they could miss the playoffs – particularly in the NFC West. And given that division‘s likely toughness, and possibility of some close losses or key injuries, more than 6 losses is also realistic.

My number is a guestimate, and might be slightly low; but in terms of football reality, variance, and unpredictability, 95% is almost a joke: 75% 

Note: While a drop from 95 to 75 might not seem like much, it is a huge drop in terms of probabilities, which is what the Harvard study was all about: 95% means that 19 out of 20 times on average the result will occur. So randomly we would have to replay “planet earth, NFL season 2015,” 20 times just to have the Seahawks on average miss the playoffs one time.  In contrast, 75% means a 3 in 4 probability, which means that on average 3 times out of 4 the event will occur.

Note also that looking at what happens with Seattle won’t tell much in terms of comparing the Harvard Study with the assessments made here. But examining exactly how the Seahawks and every other NFL team wind up faring – both in exact wins and proximity to the playoffs in relation to the original assessments – will tell an awful lot.

Update: The study, presumably (so it now reads) to “normalize” it’s numbers (it so reads) such that an average of six teams from each conference would make the playoffs each year, it changed a few of them, but not most. And as noted above, the Seahawks were one of those changed, and this almost silly 95% figure has turned into a fairly statistically ridiculous 99%. Again, a more detailed assessment of the study itself can now be found here.

2. Green Bay Packers, 93%. Ditto, and for much of the same reasons as No.1 above: That is, this number is extreme, and not reflective of realistic NFL variability and some degree of unpredictability.

Divisionally, the Bears, with a new HC (head coach) in the usually successful Jim Fox, along with other changes and an always potentially dynamic but also sudden error streak prone Jay Cutler, are a bit of a wild card.

On the other hand, in the playoffs last year the Lions almost the Cowboys – and but for a penalty flag that should have been called may have easily beaten them; who in turn but for an almost catch that wasn’t likely would have beaten the Packers (who then but for a meltdown at the end of the NFC Championship game in turn should have beaten the Seahawks for the right to to play in the Super Bowl).

The Vikings could also always surprise this year – and probably will to some extent.

With the Lions likely in it, and the Bears or Vikings possible contenders, the Packer’s seeming lock on the division is uncertain; it’s also unlikely more than one wild card spot will come out of the NFC North, and the Packers could be battling for that spot.

Or the whole division could be behind the two other NFC WC teams and will only send their division winner to the playoffs. And that’s without the division lagging nearly as much as in 2013, when the Packers won a tight race at 8-7-1, in a year where Aaron Rodgers missed just under half of the regular season.

Given this, and simple general NFL variance and injuries, 93%, is far too high. 80%, or 4 out of 5 is still high, yet remarkably more realistic than an almost a 14 out of 15 chance (93%), which is almost silly.

93% might not be quite as silly as the Seahawks 95% however:  Remember in the NFC championship game Green Bay went toe to toe with Seattle (In Seatle, too); and helped by a couple Russell Wilson picks as well as fortuitous bounces that happened to land in Green Bay defender’s hands, seemed to outplay Seattle for much of the game. While this season could emerge differently, the NFC South also still looks like a tougher division.

But, interestingly, the NFC North and West play each other this year. And, on the flip side (edge Seattle), the North also plays the potentially very tough AFC West, while the West plays what is as of right now still one of the two weakest divisions in football – the AFC South.

These two tough divisions faced by the NFC North also drop the probabilities of making the playoffs lower. This was the original number in the original draft however, so we’ll keep it: 80%

Note: Much of this assessment, as with most, was written shortly after the Harvard Study came out. And I’ve tried not to change them much based upon how starters have looked in pre season games, etc. (and most of that is subjective, and of minimal value at this point). The Packer’s chances though are probably also a little lower now with the loss of No. 1 WR Jordy Nelson for the season, but we’ll stay at 80%: It’s a number I originally noted was already borderline high anyway, but not unrealistic given Aaron Rodgers and the team’s perennial performance under head coach Mike McCarthy, and their position right now as the favorite based on last season’s late dominating performances. Though, frankly, taking into account the NFC North’s very tough scheduling and perhaps (now) their loss of their most reliable receiver, 80% is too high as well.

3. Miami Dolphins, 77%.  While the Dolphins blew a hot weather home game against those same Packers earlier in the year that they should have won, the Dolphins had a stretch last season where it looked like they had turned the corner and could hang with anybody.

Then they faded, as has happened before.

In 2012 QB Ryan Tannehill was also overshadowed by the remarkable QB draft class of 2012 and Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and at least at that time, Robert Griffin. But Tannenhill has great potential, and once again the Dolphins could take it to the next level.

Either way the NFC East isn’t going to be an easy task to take again for the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, as the Bills will likely make the playoffs for the first time this entire millenium (quarterback problems and Rex Ryan’s seemingly somewhat random pre season handling of it notwithstanding); the Jets should improve; and the Dolphins aren’t a bad dark horse pick to surprise.

But giving this team the highest chance in the AFC to even make the playoffs, based upon a methodology that’s a nice idea as one part of an equation or approach rather than the equation as utilized in the study, is, again, ridiculous. I liked the Dolphins as a dark horse, but even my guestimate may actually be too high: 45%

4. Kansas City Chiefs, 61%. Many balked at the Chiefs being so high, and in particular being higher than the Broncos. But this is the first of the Harvard SAC probability numbers that’s not borderline ridiculous: Remember, the study is not predicting that the above teams will make the playoffs, but their percentage chances of doing so, which is where the numbers get off kilter.

Check out HC Andy Reid’s long term record: Management may have had a lot to do with it, but Reid brought his Eaglest to the playoffs most of the years he was there; and all the way to the NFC title game four times. It’s quite a record. He came into Kansas City and immediately brought them to the playoffs; then his second year (2014) they faltered, but were still a tough matchup.

The Chiefs are also getting some players back; The Broncos’ Peyton Manning was slowed late last year either by leg injury or father time; the Broncos have a new unknown in head coach Gary Kubiak (who certainly wasn’t great as long time HC of the Texans); and the Broncos weren’t dominant late last year.

It’s a tossup as of right now when these two teams play, and the Chiefs should (but may not) edge out the Chargers for second best in the division, possibly even best: 52%

5. New England Patriots, 60%.  Now we come to the first difficult one. The Patriots record in the “B & B” years is exceptional. But they have missed the playoffs before, if rarely. And during the first half of last year’s Super Bowl, Tom Brady was uncharacteristically shaky. (Though he dug deep and was focused as a laser beam in the second.)

Brady looks young, in shape, and has been still playing at a high level. But he also just turned 38. The Patriots always seem to do well after jettisoning players, but this year they’ve lost some key members of the secondary, and a few others, and it could be a change in combination with Brady’s age and some signs of a return to QB’ing mortality. (Though some of that success was also likely Belichick, and his return to mortality is probably not anywhere near age dependent at this point.)

As of right now, the Patriots will also be without Brady for the first quarter of the regular season. (Though based on an unspecified leap from concluding Brady had general awareness to specific involvement in the deflategate scandal, or that Goodell punished Brady because of an “optimistic” CBA reading of the CBA and thus granted himself the right to the entirety of a player’s private cell phone records for an on field equipment transgression issue, Judge Berman could vacate Goodell’s ordered suspension – following the same pattern as last year. Add on: 2014 No 62 pick overall Jimmy Garoppolo has shown some serious pro NFL quarterback potential, though we’re not going to change the number below.)

This year the AFC East could be tough and more upredictable than in years past, as both the Dolphins and Bills could battle the Patriots this year.  And, if he continues Rex Ryan’s “rise up and play like it’s a different game when facing the Patriots” tradition, Todd Bowles’ Jets somehow could also – at least when the two teams play.

But it’s the “Patriots.”  And that mean’s B & B’s record: That record, spanning almost the entirety of the Patriots’ Brady Belichick years as well as this new millenium, is far beyond random, and can’t be ignored. (Defending Super Bowl champs, while even playing with a little bit of a target on their back since every team wants to upset the champs, also normally do make the playoffs the following year.)

And while the Bills were solid last year and a darn good team by season end, if 2013 No. 16 overall “reach” Bills pick EJ Manuel doesn’t progress, and former Ravens 2011 6th round pick Tyrod Tayler doesn’t surprise, then “plays well when the situation is easy” perennial if solid backup Matt Cassel is probably a drop off from the shrewd game (and salary) manager Kyle Orton, who retired again.

Also, the idea that the Bills will continue or even improve upon their end of last season strength is still theory at this point; as is the Dolphins step up to that elite “you don’t want to play that team” circle – probably even more so.

With the Jets and the sometimes streaky Ryan Fitpatrick likely to be another bit of an unknown (and the up and down Geno Smith now healing a broken jaw courtesy of a silly “one guy break’s jaw of the team’s QB in the locker room” scene more fitting for the HBO football series Ballers, whose cast even would have been more appalled than Rex Ryan – who immediately signed the culprit – seemed to be) – the Patriots have to still be the slight favorite to take this division; over the Bills. With the Dolphins possibly not far behind. And who knows on the Jets.

It’ll show even more about the team, and Brady and Belichick, if as defending (if barely) SB champs, they can somehow keep it together and contend again. No controversy here, though it’s in part on the fumes of B & B’s history, we’ll almost equal the number: 64%

6. Denver Broncos, 57%  The Broncos were assessed above.

The fact that LT Ryan Clady will miss the season also doesn’t help, but Clady missed most of 2013 as well. Manning is like an on field coach, whose reads, adjustments and micro quick decision making at the line and after the snap are sometimes almost machine like perfect.

But there are too many unknowns here to pen the Broncos as a strong favorite. And their recent domination might be over. Yet on the other hand, since his rookie year in ’98 it’s hard to find a season that as the starting QB Peyton Manning has missed the playoffs. That makes this the second toughest call, after the Patriots – including the fact that it’s further complicated by Manning’s advancing football age; which will be 39 and a half, a week and a half into the regular season.

This is probably low given Manning’s record (and what a disappointment it would be for him); but without him there’s little that on balance suggests this is a playoff team. 55%

7. Detroit Lions, 57%. This one is also reasonable. It’s odd to think the Lions (who got plastered by the Patriots last November) have about the same chance of making the playoffs as the Patriots.

And this is also a tough call, as the Vikings could surprise; the Lions defense could be better, yet did lose key pieces; and QB Matt Stafford, who actually does play a lot more clutch than many QBs yet somehow also manages to both play clutch and lose a lot of close games (and almost always to good teams) – hard to do – remains an enigma. 60%

If there’s error here I’d have to say it’s to the upside. Green Bay was weaker early in the season, and the Lions outplayed them, but couldn’t hang with them (performance or score wise) when it mattered at the end of the season. Yet they could close that gap this year. And even though the HSAC Packers number was an absurd 93%, I still had it at a possibly too high 80%.

8. Indianapolis Colts, 57%. It’s not a ridiculous number, but once again, un huh.  Andrew Luck; Colts improving; and it was a cakewalk of a division last year for Indy, who is 12-0 against the AFC South the last two years.

Even though the division will likely be tighter this year, odds are that aside from its “top” team, this division is still likely to be the weakest in the AFC. And, once again, Andrew Luck, whose got heart and clutch skills no statistical core player study is going to capture. 70%

9. Atlanta Falcons, 55%.  This is too high. The Falcons have a possible good head coach coming over in former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn; underrated Matt Ryan does remain “Matty Ice”; Mike Smith, who had done a very good job as Falcons HC, might have been burned out a little his last year; and the NFC South was very weak last season and likely won’t jump to being a monster this year.

(Plus, though we won’t let it change the number given below, the Panthers, who won this lagging division last season, just lost two starters for the year – including number one wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin now going into his second year, and the key part of an otherwise very non deep receiving corps.)

But the division is still at best a tossup right now between the Saints, Panthers and Falcons, and the Bucs could even be a bit of a sleeper this year.  (Unfair add on: Watching pre season week 3 very carefully – wherein number one overall draft pick Jameis Winston regressed – number two draft pick Marcus Mariota has the clear edge over Jameis Winston; and the Bucs, and Winston, have some serious work to do in order to make that happen.) Plus, unless things change drastically in the NFC this season, a wild card is very unlikely to emerge from the South.

If you ignore the Bucs altogether, as well as the chance of any wild card team emerging from the division (which may not be identical odds, but they at least partially cancel each other out), that leaves three teams with a roughly equal shot at making the playoffs (at least before the Panthers injuries), making anything too substantially above 33% silly.

And, frankly, while the NFC South could improve and produce wild card winners, the Bucs could easily go from worst to first in a division that since it’s inception in 2002 has only seen a repeat division winner one time (last year, the Panthers) and all four of its teams win the division an unprecedented 3 times or more. (All four have all also reached an NFC Championship game as NFC South reps; and three, a Super Bowl.) (Update: After that week 3 preseason observation, that does look less likely however.)

On the plus side, the NFC South does play the NFC East this year. The East, perhaps somewhat more unpredictable than the others at this point, is likely not an easy division but is one that, depending on how things turn out, could still be weaker than the North. And it is one that at least at this point is weaker than the still rugged NFC South. And more importantly, the NFC North also plays the AFC South – also at this point, still solidly the worst division in the AFC. That potentially ups the divisional wild card chances a bit, but probably not enough: 42%

10. New York Jets, 51%. We’re in the middle of the HSAC probability predictions, and the middle tends to mute the extremes a little, so few of these are as bad as some on the higher and lower ends. But this one is also very high.

The Jets have been all over the place. Sure, now that Geno Smith will be gone for about half a season (this happened after the HSAC study), this gives more knowledge. But Smith was up and down, and Ryan Fitzpatrick can play pretty well at times. And if Fitzpatrick stays hot the Jets should keep rolling with him: While if he falls south for two games in a row or badly so for one, given his prior history the Jets should immediately plug in Geno after week 8, who will also have less pressure this way. So the loss of Smith may not be a big deal.

Some years back new Jets HC Todd Bowles seemed to do a good job as interim HC for the Dolphins in his only, if extremely brief, head coaching experience.. But he didn’t see much improvement early when he took over as the Eagles defensive coordinator from a much maligned Juan Castillo:

Castillo perhaps should have been fired after the 2011 season. But the Eagles defense improved under him early in 2012, yet he was then fired and replaced by Bowles after week 6 of the 2012 campaign anyway. Bowles, in turn, then went to the Cardinals for 2013 and 2014, where his defenses did a great job keeping points off the board.

General guestimations are that Bowles will be a good head coach, and those guestimations are shared here.

But the Jets are still a fairly big unknown; Rex Ryan may have gotten his team to overperform a few times last season (although it’s hard to assess; this season and next will tell more about both coaches); the Dolphins and Bills should both be better or just solid; and at this early point several possible AFC wild card contenders ahead of the Jets still stick out. So putting their chances of being one of the 12 out of 32 teams who dances onward past week 17 at 50-50 is very iffy.

Emphasizing that potentially very strong Jets defense (who appeared to have added another stellar piece in number 6 overall pick Leonard Williams this past spring), positive speculation on Bowles, and not last year’s miserable performance or the Jets history of missing the playoffs for several years now: 38%. (Though if Bowles gets that entire defense – now with Darrelle Revis back at CB – playing monster, it will be higher.)
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We could give a lot of reasons why the HSAC study is off. [Update, again a more detailed assessment of the study is now found here.] But one key ingredient that even a better study can’t integrate – hard as it is to measure, subjective though it may seem to be, and not to sound like Gene Hackman in the great football flick “The Replacements” – is heart.

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 others; and it misses heart.
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[Update: Assessments of teams 11-20, and 21-32, can now be found here, and here.]

Week 14 NFL Picks, Against the Spread

History to date: A bit long, but a nice recap of all the weeks records prior to last week (as well as last week’s abominable picks) and some keys on assessing football games, is reviewed here.

There was no pick for the Thursday night game this week. In last weeks picks, recap, and assessment of Thanksgiving Thursday’s plate of three excellent games just linked to, this blog said the following about this past Thursday night Cowboys at Bears match-up:

Now the Bears face Dallas (next week), so they’re perhaps finally ready to let it all hang out, or their claims they “haven’t given up” are probably tepid. I have no pick on that game. I’m always wrong on the Bears. But hey, this is a blog, and if forced, until they do show that passion that should have come last week, here’s the pick for next week: Dallas.  (Though do recall that Dallas typically falls apart in late November and December, so this ought to be a good one.)

Two problems existed. One is too much faith in even repeatedly passionless teams to pull it together, get jazzed and play hard when it would seem teams would.  With the Bears this is a bad mistake to make, since one would have made that mistake about 5 or 6 big games in a row with them now, in games against good teams. And I think I’ve made it the majority of those times.

The second was a little too little faith in the Cowboys’ December abilities.

But in hindsight, the game materializes nicely, once the “is this the game the Bears finally rear up and play like a team and not a bunch of energy less piddlers” question was (once again), emphatically answered:

Dallas has been good this season.  They got embarrassed at home by the Eagles Thanksgiving day. With that loss their backs are against the wall. Past season tendencies are not a full indication of future performance. And they’ve played well on the road this season.

Meanwhile, putting idealistic guesswork on the Bear’s motivation aside, a callous examination of the Bears’ games indicates a decent team that has listlessly spiraled into a fairly bad one, while others are playing strong.

Hence, a team that is good, good on the road, with a very good quarterback – who unlike the week before had his normal full week to rest his ailing back – in a very important game for them, in front of a national TV audience, coming off of an embarrassing home loss in front of a national (thanksgiving afternoon no less) audience, against a fairly bad, and worsening, team, is likely going to win, and win strong.

Nice analysis, huh.  Be a lot nicer if saw it and provided it before the game.

As always, the following picks are only for the purposes of raising massive funds in Las Vegas in order to buy copious amounts of food for the homeless in Fort Lauderdale and numerous other cities, and then be able to afford a bevy of lawyers for a defense when the police – charged with enforcing an inane law against feeding homeless people in public in order to – get this – reduce homelessness (“Charlie, no one’s feeding me, I think I’ll buy my house back now!”) – arrest you for helping the neediest of the needy.

Ravens (+3) at Dolphins

It’s going to be a little warm in Miami for this game. That is what it does in Miami: Stays warm. And sometimes during the colder months visiting teams have a harder time with this, as during colder months the blood thickens and the body accommodates to colder temperatures.

Teams have gotten pretty good at adjusting for this though, with wet air blowing sideline fans, etc. But the Ravens will still likely be the team in dark, sunlight absorbing jerseys, and the forecast is for mostly sunny.

And while in the world of climate change “debate” an increase in absorbed or even captured and re radiated energy can be dismissed via belief under the grand complexity of long term global impact, in the more simplistic world of incoming solar radiation upon a colored surface, or, shirt, we don’t debate it any more.

Going back over several years it would seem Baltimore is the better team. But this is now. And this is a heck of a football game, in terms of the AFC, and by this point in the season it will say a lot about who has a chance. While Baltimore still has a shot for their division (provided they win this game), the loser of this game will probably be out unless they run the table. And unless the game is closely played, the loser probably isn’t strong playoff caliber anyway.

The Dolphins got slightly outplayed in a 3 point win at the Jets last week that was misleading – as once in a while the Jets play like a strong playoff team. The rest of the time they play like a team with almost no wins. Which is pretty much what they are.

The Ravens were at home last week. And as six point favorites (in a game that this blog, despite a bunch of bad picks against the spread last week, specifically called the upset on), they lost late by a point to the Chargers. But they probably slightly outplayed San Diego in the game.

Then again, Baltimore also tends to be a fairly strong home team, and not a very strong road team. And whether they “slightly outplayed” the Chargers or not: it wasn’t by much, and they didn’t win, at home.

Going with the Raven’s history, and perhaps not giving enough credit to the Dolphins’ recent overall performances (it’s hard to see Baltimore going into Denver in week 12 and only losing by 3 in a game they led a good portion of the way, as the Dolphins for instance did in week 12), the call this week, perhaps questionably, is:

Pick: Ravens, but it’s close. If there’s any pick here you just want to skip, or ignore my take completely on it (apart from maybe all of them), this might be the one.

Steelers (+3) at Bengals

It took a while before the Bengals could finally beat the Steelers in a game that mattered. And if they don’t win this, it’s right back to the old ways.

But the Bengals are the better team. And either this is their moment to peak, or they might as well pack it in once again as a pretty good, but just can’t quite get it done, team. (Though if they do win this game they still have the playoffs to not get it done, as they now have five out of five times, going 0-5 so far in the playoffs under head coach Marvin Lewis: the second longest tenured head coach in the NFL, after some random guy no one’s ever heard of – and who certainly has never won anything – who coaches some team out of Boston.)

The Bengals are simply a better football team. The question to be answered here is whether they have as much heart as Pittsburgh traditionally shows. Because Pittsburgh, more likely than not, will show it here.

Pick: Bengals 

Panthers (+10) at Saints

A few weeks ago, the Panthers hosted the Saints, and despite playing well in the first half, fell solidly behind by halftime. Then when they needed to atone in the second half, they did so by playing worse.

Carolina has shown itself to not necessarily be the type of team that will rise up with passion in key games where it is really needed. (Or perhaps they play too tight, and too worried about losing. Or both. See links below.) And on some level they may have half packed it in for this season already.

Whereas New Orleans is playing pretty well again, and is hard to beat at home. But Carolina still has a game left against the Falcons, who “lead” the division along with the Saints at 5-7, one and a half games ahead of the Panthers.

The Panthers have also not beaten, nor in most cases even come very close to beating, a good team this season, with the exception of a 24-7 win at home against Detroit in week 2. (At a time when they sill had linebacker Greg Hardy, a key cog in that defense.) And a tie, in a wacky week 6 game against the Bengals, at a time when the Bengals were not playing all that great. (And which took a Bengals miss of a short 36 yard field goal at the end of overtime for the Panthers to pull out the tie.)

They’re just not very good.

And after turtling up just a little bit at the end and losing in a battle for the division lead to Atlanta, the Panthers had a bye to get all nice and rested, and then came out and lost 31-13 to Minnesota. Minnesota.

Not that Minnesota’s not good, but other than a few fluke seasons here and there, the last time the Vikings were otherwise a strong team, they were purple people eaters. (And even if the Vikings two blocked punts for scores in that game are removed – though failing to block well enough and giving up blocked punts are part of football – they still lose 17-13. Plus they would have gotten the ball two extra times, because after each blocked punt and score by the Vikings, the Panthers get the ball back.)

Sometimes however, even if not as much this season, the Panthers play tough in hard games.

They just don’t seem to be showing much capacity to do so this year. And aside from the still underrated loss of Hardy (on the NFL’s exempt list, practicing some rap while hoping badly to beat the rap against him on appeal from an initial trial with no jury, when the now delayed case finally goes to a jury trial after the NFL season), and the seemingly overly tense and mechanical play of quarterback Cam Newton, this team may have made some poor offseason moves, and they’ve lost a few key players to injury.

Nevertheless, this is a division game. It’s not a near foregone conclusion that the Saints win. They’ve battled the Saints tough before when they’ve been a worse team than the Saints; and the Saints, playing well right now, have been up and down this season.

Though they don’t show anywhere near championship caliber energy – one of the many things that distinguishes the Panthers from the Seahawks, who they keep losing late leads and close games at home to – this is a chance at some redemption against these Saints for the big cats from Charlotte; and a shot, long shot though it may be with a team that is not very good, at pulling something out this season.

This game could be all over the place, and it’s not a great call given the Panthers’ lackluster play and the Saints home record and general focus. But this is the Panthers’ game, or it’s their season. They do have the capacity to play well, and despite losses, their defense still has the capacity to hold the Saints in check.

Keep in mind that if the Panthers do somehow win, it would be the fourth consecutive home loss for the Saints. Who, until this season (two weeks ago, specifically) had never lost three home games in a row under head coach Sean Payton, now in his 9th NFL season. (Though one of those seasons Payton was required to sit out for some Bountygate hanky panky, for which NFL Roger Commissioner was later scolded, and Payton somewhat exonerated).

Still, here’s to the big cat underdogs to show some divisional spark:

Pick: Panthers

Buccaneers (+10) at Lions

The Bucs are at the bottom of the NFC South, where the two division leaders are at 5-7, and the third place team, the aforesaid Panthers, have 3 wins and 1 tie.

Still, the Bucs, even under former head coach Greg Schiano, were a team that on several occasions went into the stadiums of much better teams, and battled close or won outright. (In fact, late in quarterback Russell Wilson’s second season last year, the otherwise lagging Bucs were almost the first team to beat him in Seattle since he entered the league, losing in overtime.)

And while former Bears head coach Lovie Smith might have been a little overrated, and proclamations of how good the Bucs were going to be this season (seemingly long forgotten, like sand beach castles down by the edge of an incoming tide, washed over and gone from memory) greatly inaccurate, they have shown a few signs of playing some good teams tough, and might finally be improving.

No upset picks this week. But this would be the type of game – though in a tough battle for the division or a wild card, Detroit can’t really afford it – where an unexpected upset could happen. A 10 point (or more) loss looks very plausible. But so does a close game.

Pick: Buccaneers

Seahawks (+1.5) at Eagles

Two birds going at it. This is the game of games. And Philadelphia, who has played well enough to be the standard 3 point home favorite here, doesn’t get much respect.

Still, the Seahawks, after what they did at the end of 2012 (blowing nearly everybody out of the water and then barely missing out on advancing to the AFC championship game), last year (a near dominant Super Bowl run and win) and the fact they are playing well of late, are a tough team to pick against right now.

If they are still for real, they have to win this game. While the Eagles, conceivably, do not.

No pick, it’s just a great game, and one that will tell a lot. And one in which the suddenly vulnerable Arizona Cardinals, who are just a game up on Seattle at this point but have already lost to them once, and who are playing the Chiefs at home and aren’t even 3 point favorites themselves, no doubt have a rooting interest in as well.

And which leads us into a game which, back to common practice, will yield a pick.

Chiefs (-1) at Cardinals

Perhaps the curtain is being pulled back on the Cardinals, who didn’t build as much as other teams in the offseason, and have suffered some key injuries. And who now have Drew Stanton at quarterback –  who throughout his career as a backup, and now in place of, is so far no Carson Palmer, by a long shot.

And the Chiefs are in a tough division, and a good team.

But don’t count these birds out yet.  They’ll give it all they’ve got, and should be a favorite to win the game.

Pick: Cardinals 

Patriots (-4) at Chargers, Sunday Night Football

Are the otherwise red hot Patriots, who once again seem to be one of the two or three best teams in the league right now, really going to lose twice in a row?

Maybe.

Straight up, this might be a Patriots pick. But the Chargers have the home field advantage. And while it doesn’t mean too much for current performance, compared to their other games, the Chargers simply have a near phenomenal record under quarterback Philip Rivers in December. (Albeit not as good as the Patriots record in December under Tom Brady.)

The Chargers are also a little handicapped though. They were down to their 4th string center, having lost a remarkable three centers to season ending injuries this year, and then their 4th center, Chris Watt, was injured in the close win at Baltimore in week 13.

This is not good. Also not good: Their starting right tackle, DJ Fluker, was drafted 11 overall last year. And he may be better than the 1st and 2nd overall picks in that draft, both also offensive tackles. Yet Fluker suffered a concussion this week. In practice.

If it was really a concussion, it is hard to see how he could sensibly play. But he was back at practice on Friday, as was Watt, who may play. (Although center number 5, Trevor Robinson, signed off the Bengals practice squad in week 7, seemed to do all-right against the Ravens last week.) Defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who leads the Chargers in tackles for a loss (14), may also not play.

But 4 points is still relevant in a what could easily a close game, or even a Chargers win.

Pick: Chargers

Falcons (+13) at Packers, Monday Night Football

Sure, the Packers have been blowing nearly everyone out of the water at Green Bay, including some teams better than the Falcons.

But give Atlanta some credit here.  They may not be any good any more, but they are a tough football team under head coach Mike Smith, and less apt to completely fall apart in games.

True, they could not fall apart and still lose by 27 to the Packers up in Green Bay. But it’s time for these ridiculously lopsided games up there in Wisconsin to stop. At least that’s what the Falcons are thinking, right?

Or maybe the team from George is instead thinking. “It’s cold up here, when do we get to go home.”

Pick: Falcons

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

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

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