2015 NFL Season Week 14 Picks Against the Spread – Who Let the Dogs Out Version

 

Late in the season isn’t exactly a good time to pick a lot of underdogs, as teams become more and more who they are, and often what we expect. But this is the week of the underdog. Either that, or it’s the week of really bad picks. Thus:


1.  Washington Redskins +3.5 at Chicago Bears

Skins stink on the road.  But they surprise.

Pick: Redskins

2.  Detroit Lions (-3) at St Louis Rams

St. Louis has to win just enough so that we keep suffering from the mass delusion that Jeff Fisher is a good head coach. Plus, the Lions are probably past their embarassment now about getting nearly their entire top level staff fired, and having their 90 year owner publicly calling them out to the world.

Even if they did then finally blow an otherwise season sweep of the Packers, by an ill timed (if also bad call) facemask and ensuing longest Hail Mary for the win in the entire history of the NFL.

Pick: Rams

3.  Seattle (+11) at Baltimore Ravens

Jimmy Clausen has had such a bad career it’s kind of hard to realize he wasn’t drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round. (Carolina, 2nd round, 2010)

But Baltimore’s not a bad team, and shouldn’t be an 11 point dog at home to anybody even if Elmer Fudd or Brian Billick were playing quarterback.

Okay, if either of those two were, maybe they should be; but not with an actual NFL backup, even an iffy one.

Incidentally, Clausen played for the Bears earlier this season, against these same Seahawks in week 3: He passed for 63 total yards, and the Bears lost 26-0.

Also, Albert Breer should be forced to sit in an alternate universe and carefully watch the Seahawks’ entire 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons, with a boilerplate average starting QB at the helm, instead of Russell Wilson. Then rewrite this piece, which, verbatim, has the following absurd lead in, from NFL.Com: “One-time game manger Russell Wilson has become a major driver of his team’s success.” (Though in fairness, game manger might be a much larger step up from game manager than I had always assumed it to be, and thus the lead in less ridiculous.)

Pick: Ravens

4. San Diego Chargers (+11) at Kansas City Chiefs

Philip Rivers, unless he stays sick and doesn’t play (not anticipated) sometimes pulls games out of a hat in December. Chiefs are playing well, but might sleep a little on this team that has fallen miserably.

It’s a division game, and the spread is a bit over the top given the unpredictability between division rivals, even if the Chargers are badly banged up.

Pick: Chargers

5. Oakland Raiders (+6.5) at Denver Broncos

Hard to imagine this same Oakland team that has finally settled in to lower mid level mediocrity is going to beat the same team that recently beat the Patriots, and that a few weeks back also dominated the Packers like they were a farm club.  But they will.

Pick: Oakland

6. San Francisco 49ers (+1.5) at Cleveland Browns

Be better if Kevin Patra were held to a year of eating fruitarian drinks, whatever those are, but he probably won’t have to, as Johnny Football’s only incompletion, and turnover, is during his one drop back where he pulls a beer out of his side pocket and doesn’t get the top off and the whole can fully guzzled before being sacked and stripped of the ball (and beer can).

Ha ha we can joke all we want, beer drinking quarterbacks are a serious NFL quarterback problem. As are the Browns.

Pick: Browns

7.  Atlanta Falcons (+7.5) at Carolina Panthers

The Panthers, despite the ludicrous “Riverboat Ron” nickname, used to sometimes outplay the Falcons as huge underdogs and then lose at the end because they liked punting on 4th and short past midfield with a small lead when a mere 1st down wins the game outright.

Now the Panthers are genuinely better. A lot better. And they will lose: Probably by being afraid of playing to win at the end (and blowing their perfect season), and so Matt Ryan gets a chance to beat them again. And does.

Pick: Falcons

8. New Orleans (+4.5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers;

The Saints party like it’s 1999.

Wait, the Saints only won 3 games in 1999, Mike Ditka’s last season as head coach there.  While the Bucs lost in the last minute of the NFC Championship game on a controversial replay.

So maybe after the game.

Pick: Saints. If not, maybe the Saints should bring back Rob Ryan, and consider getting some new defensive players instead of a new coordinator. Or both.

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Probabilities of Making the Playoffs for All 32 NFL Teams

Below is a list of each of the 32 NFL team’s chances of making the playoffs before opening day Sunday.

The number in parenthesis is the percentage chance of that team making the playoffs based on this iffy but popular Harvard Sports study. The first number is the chance given here, broken down over three successive pieces assessing each team’s chances.

Note that this isn’t a ranking of the relative strength of each team. Each conference is a little different, and some divisions are much harder than others or have tougher or easier schedules this year. And all of these factors also play into each team’s actual chances of making it into the playoffs.

  1. Green Bay Packers: 80% (93%)
  2. Seattle Seahawks: 75% (99%, originally 95%)
  3. Indianapolis Colts: 70% (57%)
  4. New England Patriots: 64% (60%)
  5. Detroit Lions: 60% (57%)
  6. Denver Broncos: 55% (57%)
  7. Buffalo Bills: 55% (39%)
  8. Kansas City Chiefs: 52% (61%)
  9. Philadelphia Eagles: 50% (41%)
  10. Houston Texans: 50% (50%)
  11. Dallas Cowboys: 45% (27%)
  12. Miami Dolphins: 45% (74%, originally 77%) 
  13. Cincinnati Bengals: 42% (33%)
  14. Atlanta Falcons: 42% (55%)
  15. New Orleans Saints: 40% (48%)
  16. Pittsburgh Steelers: 38% (45%)
  17. San Diego Chargers: 38% (27%)
  18. New York Giants: 38% (48%)
  19. New York Jets: 38% (51%)
  20. Arizona Cardinals: 36% (30%)
  21. Baltimore Ravens: 36% (24% originally 9%)
  22. Carolina Panthers: 36% (22%)
  23. St. Louis Rams: 35% (10%)
  24. Chicago Bears: 28% (25%)
  25. Cleveland Browns: 26% (25%)
  26. Minnesota Vikings: 24% (12%)
  27. San Francisco 49ers: 20% (9%)
  28. Washington Redskins: 19% (22%)
  29. Tennessee Titans: 12% (2%)
  30. Oakland Raiders: 10% (.03%)
  31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10% (2%)
  32. Jacksonville Jaguars: 8% (3%)

Final Notes: Based on preseason action; some of the more key injuries; and last evening’s season opening Thursday Night game where the Steelers looked better than expected despite missing some key players (one of whom, their all pro and near all world Center Maurkice Pouncey, is on the IR designated to return list), a few of the numbers may be off a little bit. Some examples:

-The Patriots might actually be lower than 64%, and they’re only even anywhere that high because they were very good last year (if with a few key different players). And they somehow keep doing it. (Probably because, in the next scandal to be alleged or made up, they surreptitiously put slip n slide clear “banana peel” fun rub underneath opponents’ cleats before each game.)

-The Steelers may be higher than 38%, although it’s hard to assess how much of that game last night – which was closer than the ongoing and late score indicated – was the Steelers’ doing, and how much was the Patriots’ doing.
But 38% is also low regardless for a team that at least all but perenially contends, and often contends strongly; and that has an extremely good (and very long underrated, although the last few seasons that seems to be changing) quarterback in general and clutch situations.

-The Jets could be higher than 38%, but that’s still just on paper – nothing much in the preseason really showed it. (They may also be lower than 38%, as it’s still a pretty high number for a team with a new head coach, no real quarterback yet, and one that hasn’t really been a solid contender for a while.)

-The Eagles may be higher than 50%, but they have a big if in Sam Bradford, who is a natural at quarterback, finally staying healthy.

-Both the Eagles, and Cowboys, are possible Super Bowl picks. Ignoring the Harrvard study’s rather iffy 27% number, as we are all their numbers, this may seem to suggest a higher than 45% chance of making the playoffs.
But for the Cowboys it may not:
The division may be tough. (Even the Giants could contend and run it at the end, as they already have twice with the still together Eli M and HC Tom Coughlin tandem.)
And the Cowbys are a little bit of an unpredictable team, apart from the fact that their record seems to usually be pedestrian despite the fact they seem to be a better team than their usually pedestrian record suggests.
They could easily fall to that pedestrian record again, or, particularly if Tony Romo’s late game play improvement (of late) is in fact the new Romo, just as easily solidly make the playoffs; and if they do, there is no reason to think they’re not, or won’t be, the best team in the NFC.
They were probably extremely close to it last season.

-It’s hard to assess the Ravens.
But 36% still feels low for this team and their General Manager Ozzie Newsome’s now fairly consistent longer term record – even putting aside the study’s originally near ludicrous 9% for the team that has more playoff wins than any team in the NFL since 2008, when the still in place QB Flacco HC Harbaugh combo signed on.
Yet every team can’t make the playoffs.And even good teams have down years. It’s just hard to say who in advance.
But if the Ravens make the playoffs yet again, it’s time to start giving a LOT of credit – I mean even more – to those guys. (That is, putting aside their rag tag handling of the Ray Rice fiasco last year when they fully had his back – maybe too much even for a beloved and charitable teammate with a then fiance now wife victim nearly pleading for their continued support of said teammate – then when a repeatedly looped video of a totally drunken Rice and his fiance surfaced essentially showing all the facts we knew, dropped him like a hot potato and made it seem as if the video was some major revelation. Thereby pinning the already arbitrary and capricious NFL commissioner into a bit of a corner. Which commissioner then in turn acted even more arbitrarily and capriciously once again by not even simply applying the new 6 game suspension rules under the new tougher policy under claim the video provided specific detail about the type of punch thrown, and thus “relevant new” info. (If it wasn’t sufficient for that, it certainly wasn’t sufficient for a random indefinite suspension in discord with the initial punishment, and in complete and total discord with the new tougher domestic policy, particularly under all the circumstances.)

-I would probably give the Chiefs a higher chance of making the playoffs than offered above, they’re likely to be very strongly in the mix.

-The Vikings could be one of the surprise teams, even a possible contender in the playoffs. And though they present a large range – from lagging to a possible playoff team to even a solid playoff team – 24% is probably low. They’re also a good dark horse team pick to surpise and take the division, or battle for it and squeak in a wild card.

-The Rams are still probably too low at 35%. They could very well wind up battling it out with the Seahawks, or Seahawks and Cardinals with one of the two runner ups making a wild card.

-I previously said the Bills will make the playoffs this season for the first time since 1999. But the 55% number represents not my hunches and predictions, but the best assessment of their actual chances, all things considered.
And 55% already puts the Bills chances very high in a tough AFC, given their prior records and fact they have an unproven quarterback who’s never started a regular season game and was a late round pick in 2011; and as their now third string quarterback have a guy who was a big reach at number 16 in the 2013 draft (this includes the fact they probably still could have gotten him had they traded back, and possibly even if they had traded back quite a ways), but has shown potential. (Although if it was me, and first time starter Tyrod Taylor falters, I’d bring in that former No. 16 pick EJ Manuel next to see what he could do, and not long time solid backup occasional spot starter Matt Cassel. Even more so considering Manuel would be playing without first round draft pick expectations for the first time, )

-The Browns could be higher than 26%, and they showed this potential for a while last year under now second year head coach Mike Pettine.
But backup, potentially still not ready (even if ever) QB Johnny Manziel is a complete wild card.
And bizarrely, the Browns let go of their only starting quarterback of the astounding 22 they’ve had so far (not counting week 1 this year) since coming back into the league in 1999, in order to pick up a 36 year old career backup for the same money that Brian Hoyer is now getting paid in Houston.
And they did so even after Tampa Bay failed with the same experiment last year.

-Though we all have it wired in that the Packers always seem to win the division, their real chances are probably lower than 80%, perhaps significantly so. Losing receiver Jordy Nelson hurts them. And there is a good chance the Vikings are competitive this year and the Lions stay strong, making the division much closer. Also, one never knows about the Bears under new head coach John Fox, who leaves a decent enough track record behind him. And QB Jay Cutler might even suddenly play well again.

-I want to put the Panthers higher than 36%; they were the best team in the NFC South at the end of last season, and they shouldn’t fall off this year, and their QB might even improve.
But the division isn’t likely to be quite so weak this year, and losing their really only proven wide receiver in Kelvin Benjamin, who was a huge part of their offense last year even as a rookie, then having number 41 spot draft pick WR Devin Funchess (who they traded up to get) be held up most of training camp and preseason from injury, hurts them.

Much more information and analysis is found in the three separate, longer pieces assessing each team’s chances in comparison with the Harvard study. And many of the numbers are conservative, as they are trying to replicate the most reasonable probabilities, not what could happen. Hence why the Vikings are still pretty low, although they could easily surprise. Ditto with a few other teams, including, again, the Rams, who could easily turn out to be a scary good team later this year; even with potential offensive line issues and a still probably lagging wide receiver corps, and a possibly slightly overrated quarterback in Nick Foles after trading the “The Natural” (but often hurt) Sam Bradford to Foles’ old team in exchange for him (and his much lower salary),plus a draft pick.

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.

Quick Recap of Week 10 NFL Picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 10 NFL Picks Against the Spread Includes Some Whoppers

A minimally frustrating moment for the humble proprietor of this humble little blog, last week finishing up a bit disappointing 3-3, after a poor (but in hindsight ironic) record the week before, and a pretty decent week 7 – the first week these picks started. Continue reading

Week 8 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Update:

Continue reading

Some Week 7 NFL Picks, and Rex Ryan’s Favorite NFL Player

(Updated 10-18-14, 10-21-14)

Getting a little lucky with my only real NFL prediction so far this season,  I suggested 13 point underdog Kansas City would battle tough with Denver,(came down to the 2 yard line and a TD deficit) and San Diego would upset the Seahawks (31 – 20 final). Continue reading