2015 Season, Week 9 Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 2-1
Year to date: 22-19

Last week recap: Pick of the Dolphins at +9 was one of the more miserable picks of this season – in hindsight anyway.

And I’m still not giving enough weight to the idea I’ve nevertheless been saying since the season started: the Patriots, and Tom Brady in particular, are on a rampage, feeling slighted over the offseason Deflategate scandal; something which the league, apparently, has gone so off its rocker on as to compare it – an issue of slightly deflated football that refs handle on every play – to Chicaco Black Sox players alleged purposeful throwing of the 1919 World Series.

Maybe I should have listened to Heath Evans, who played for Belichick, and was on the roster when the Dolphins came into Foxboro in week 3 of the 2008 season (at 0-2, and 1-15 the year before) and demolished the Patriots:

I did include the entirety of his apparently spot on hyperbole in last week’s week 8 picks – just had too much naive faith that the Dolphins would play with a hunger and intensity; not have four players continually back up on 3rd and16 runs, then just wait right at the first down marker so the Patriots were almost assured of making the first down.

I couldn’t even tweet the game I got so far behind spending so long analyzing a series of plays early on where the Dolphins – not out of laziness, but fear and horrible techniques – literally gave the Patriots key first downs on their opening drive.

And, frankly, maybe a little bit out of laziness and not being in professional athlete shape as well. I never got paid, but have been in professional athlete shape, and there is no doubt, I don’t care WHAT the players are saying; they do not practice enough.

And this for a now Dan Campbell led team that was supposed to have gotten intense in its drills.

You don’t have to go out and break bones in practice. But it’s professional sports; you should be in professional athlete shape. Playing hard and popping up quickly off the turf is not hard for anyone with good endurance capability, who trains properly.

Not doing so, by two players (the first who missed the tackle, and one of the same culprits in the above described earlier 3rd and 16 fiasco, and another getting blocked on the sidelines), allowed an ensuing opening Patriots drive short pass to some dude known as “Gronk” to score an easy 47 yard touchdown gallop down the left sidelines, running right past where the second of the two was lackadaisically spinning off his block “well away from the play” until he saw Gronk about to race right past him. And it was all downhill from there.

That said, the Cowboys last week, at a silly +6, took the game down to the wire; but barring some luck all but gave away any real strong chance when late in the game they kicked their fourth field goal of the contest (a contest they were to predictably lose 13-12), on a 4th and long 2 from a little outside the eight yard line.

Not gonna go into it too much here, but teams essentially don’t get the math of close to the end zone short yardage field goal situations; particularly late in games where going up by 2 points against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, versus possibly continuing to trail by 1 (and handing the ball over on their 8 yard line) – versus the value of a good shot at making it a 5 or even better 7 point margin late, so that Wilson needs a touchdown not a field goal to simply win and if you make your two point conversion will only be playing for the tie in such a case, meaning their winning chances will be halved – is fairly trivial.

There was actually almost a quarter left to play, and the analysis gets more complicated: But even going up by 5, if there is more subsequent scoring, allows you to be able to win on a late field goal alone – far easier to do, particularly if in defensive battles between two good defensive teams such as in this game – if the Seahawks go ahead with a TD (and either neglect to try or fail on a two point conversion try). And it also allows you to possibly extend your lead to 8 (meaning your opponent will only win one quarter of the time they even do score the touchdown to potentially tie the game with the last score of regulation) or even better make the two point conversion and thus go up by 10, on a late field goal, etc, etc.

Put simply, the taking of 3 points, given the strategic structure of the game there, doesn’t do that much to increase their overall chances. On the other hand, getting the TD – if they possibly can get it (and already being inside the 10, with a short yardage opportunity to get a new set of downs starting at the 6 yard line or better is a fairly strong possibility) – does substantially increase their chances.

It’s like some teams can’t see past the score at the moment, and only worry about the illogical but easy to grasp possibility of “going for the conversion and failing, and later losing by, gasp, 3 points or less,” while failing to recognize that what they do here will affect how their opponent plays and the end game unfolds, and more importantly the missed opportunity that was far greater on average that they gave up, in terms of their ultimate likelihood of winning the contest; which is what matters.

Most such calls (though the Cowboys are particularly bad at it) are so off base it’s a caricature of good strategy. But if it was that obvious, a professional football organization in a close scoring defensive game against a top notch fourth quarter comeback team and in particular quarterback (and right now, with injuries, lacking one themselves), wouldn’t kick their fourth relatively short short field goal of the game on a 4th and long 2 from their opponents 8.5 yard line just to take a measly 12-10 lead.

Did proclaim last week (wrongly, as it turns out) that the Broncos had a slight edge: in hindsight they had more than that, holding Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing (something like 20 fewer than Matt Cassel put up in that aforesaid Seahawks battle), in a contest that but for a few well timed and at times questionable penalty calls keeping drives alive (although yardage after the penalties was legit); could have been closer to 29-0 Broncos. And picked them to win outright: Which part they did do, just far more convincingly than predicted.

Lastly, it was not an official pick, but last week’s picks also ended with an “upset alert” regarding the Colts at Panthers, including:

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

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

Well, Luck didn’t play that way, until the fourth quarter when the team was down 17 points. When he did play that way. (At least for a while, then he seemed to somewhat tighten up again and, while still better than earlier in the game still wasn’t quite the same as he was late in razor tight contests in his first three years in the league, although a random deflection (and good hands by Panthers LB Luke Kuechly) on a nice pass breakup in overtime is ultimately what lost them the game; which at that point, with both teams having kicked a field goal in overtime and possession belonging to the Colts, had slightly favored the Colts.)

So the Colts, as it turned out, did almost pull off the upset; and didn’t win. It was the Panthers who won, and yet another close game, uncharacteristically, and possibly in a sign of growth of the team. (And Newton, who late in the game – ignore stats – played near lights out and relaxed, with a look of control and calm on his face – even retaining it when a picture perfect on a rope low arc easy catch TD bomb that likely would have won them the game anyway, was dropped by Ted Ginn.)

But it wasn’t an official pick against the spread, so it doesn’t count unfortunately.

Picks this week: 

1.  Washington Redskins (+14) at New England Patriots 

It’s not clear Brady “lied” to Goodell in the Deflategate saga, and often assumption becomes conflated with fact today.

But here, it does seem at least as if his statement that an undefeated season is “the furthest thing from anybody’s mind” is a bit of a white lie, if diplomatic and focus oriented.

That is, Brady should probably say what he in fact did say. And the players, even if they want to go undefeated, should try to think it; to focus on the present and on their best effort and performance every week, as it it comes up.

Brady knows that, and most communications to the press about competitiveness should serve that purpose first and foremost – i.e., trying to win, not giving one’s deep down and somewhat irrelevant wishes on an ultimate W-L record.

And as noted, the Patriots are on a rampage. This is a team that in general is also focused anyway: they don’t tend to have “trap” games.

But they might not have the same focus for the Skins that they had for the Dolphins, who after a mere two weeks were suddenly reannointed as some type of team on a monster roll. (Which was probably perfect as far as Belichick was concerned, making it easy to convey to his team to get super focused for the game.)

But this Redskins team is a better football team than many people think. And the NFC East is not a “lousy” division. (On the other hand, the AFC South is, as it has been for a while.)

It’s not a great division; it has four somewhat to possibly decently competitive teams, almost any one of which at this point could easily turn the corner and become a strong team.

This includes the Redskins, who have been playing without key starters for much of the season.

They get speedy and likely number one WR DeSean Jackson back this week. TE Jordan Reed, though he didn’t miss too much time with a concussion, will have gotten additional rest. C Kory Lichtensteiger, who has also missed several games, will be a game time decison. OLB Ryan Kerrigan did tear something in his hand last game that was surgically repaired, and is likely to play, though this could limit him a little.

Most importantly both of the team’s top two CBs have been out since early in the season: DeAngelo Hall played in the first three games, Chris Culliver played in three of the first four. Neither has played since.

Hall, with an injured toe, doesn’t sound like he’s 100%, which given that toes matter (balance, push, cuts), isn’t a great thing; but it seems as if he’s more likely to play than not. Culliver’s also still officially questionable, but didn’t practice Thursday, nor, reportedly, Friday – not good signs, but one never knows.

CB Bashaud Breeland, though dinged up a bit the last few games, has played in them all with the exception of week one. He’s also questionable, and like Hall practiced on a limited basis – although it doesn’t appear this was due to major injury limitations rather than simple precaution, but like Hall he is also not near a sure thing to play.

On balance the Redskins are still likely to have at least two of their top three CBs for the game though; which, if so, would be an improvement. (And Keenan Robinson, who’s been reasonably effective in coverage as a linebacker, though listed as questionable, has stated he will assuredly play). As would be the addition of Jackson on offense.

This team is not taking this game as the (here, somewhat humorous, however) joke many others may be taking it as, and while right now the Patriots are playing lights out, if the Redskins come in with fire, they may test the Pats a bit.

The key here is that the Redskins are not the bad team they’re perceived to be. Why they are not is not clear, but what is clear from watching their film is they aren’t all that bad.

The Patriots O line continues to be banged up, with Logan Mankins traded and their center out prior to week one (and placed on IR shortly thereafter, although he was just reactivated in the last 24 hours), left tackle Nate Solder placed in IR a few weeks ago, and injuries continuing to creep up on the remaining lineman.

But Brady is getting rid of the ball so quickly, and the young rookies seeing a lot of action are seemingly getting good coaching and improving, that it hasn’t seemed to matter much.

This could be an interesting game, though some of it will depend on whether the Redskins do get some players back, and if they are in sufficient playing shape and relatively healthy enough to perform.

This one – as with nearly any Patriot game this season at home – could be a blowout. Or it could be a scary close game for the Patriots; but even a strong performance by the Patriots could still only be an 8 to 13 point victory (or even less).

Needless to say, for it to be a good game Skins quarterback Kirk Cousins has to be in his good QB play mode, not his occasional semi meltdown mode.

While he racked it up for fantasy players last week in a big comeback win versus the Buccaneers, and maybe got a little too excited (if playfully) about it – indicating a possible sensitivity to questions about his play (never good for a QB) – at least it may have taken the pressure off of him for a little bit.

That is fired up though.

But who knows with KC. A good game versus Brady could vault him back into possible “good NFL quarterback status” (or a shocker upset, even higher), until later in the season when a slew of bad and overly apprehensive worry driven decisions reappears – if it does.

Pick: Redskins

2. Denver Broncos (-5.5) at Indianapolis Colts

Last year in the playoffs the best pure QB to ever play the game (regular season, what he is able to do from the line of scrimmage pre and post snap), in the twilight of his career, and slowed by injury and nerve damage, faced the most likely contender to be the next greatest – until this season reared its ugly non Luck head  – and the new guard beat the old.  (Before going on to Foxboro and getting throunced with both slightly deflated and non deflated footballs, by – if the postseason is proportionately weighed – arguably the greatest; although it’s hard to measure with only one, and very successful, head coach.)

Surely the Broncos want revenge, and are more than capable of exacting it. Especially against a not very good Colts team, wherein a few of their defensive backs continue to take awful tackling angles, and the offense doesn’t seem to do much better.

Including a quarterback who isn’t broadly scanning the field, is locking down on his decisions, and appears to be aiming or guiding the ball.

But this is the Colts. And Andrew Luck. He says he’s healthy. And if he stops aiming the ball, and just relaxes while simultaneously focusing without attention to result (as he did for a while in the fourth quarter against the Panthers last week) he can be a phenomenal quarterback. And when he plays like that, at home, getting points, he can potentially beat any team.

Maybe not easily, particularly with an iffy team around him – and for this game possibly missing his game time decision top WR T.Y. Hilton. But this Colts team is too interesting to dismiss as a near 6 point underdog at home against a team, revenge minded or not, coming off of a big game against a previously undefeated team and powerhouse in which they had the embarassment of being undefeated, playing at home to a poor road team, and being tagged as the underdog.

Pick: Colts

3. Philadelphia Eagles (-3) at Dallas Cowboys 

Just several months ago not enough people were satirizing the Bills for voluntarily taking on Matt Cassel for a five million dollar salary and the needless loss of an upcoming 5th round draft pick, now many are saying Cassel is no better than the just a tad over half a million dollar a year salary Brandon Weeden that he has replaced.

The Eagles might explode at any moment. At least that’s the perception: Chip Kelly’s system and all, and as they have shown in the past, if not consistently enough late. But they also seem to show signs of it even this season. And they have to be reeling at the fact that last year the Cowboys beat them late to help keep them out of the playoffs. And then this year, as underdogs, the Cowboys came in and beat them (and without Romo for some of the game, as it was the game he broke his collarbone in), for what was the Cowboys only real win of the season.

That is, had the Giants not, to use the highly technical term, made an especially bonehead decision right at the end of their week one matchup, or the referees not missed a call that the NFL subsequently announced to have been a mistake by said referees, the Cowboys would be 1-6 and not 2-5. (Almost assuredly in the first case, assuredly in the second.)

And the Cowboys aren’t even a good home team.

That said, this is their last stand. (Unless they are buying the popular koolaid that 9-7 or even possibly 8-8 will be a lock to win the division, rather than simply a good shot at it given the standings at this moment – and even then they’re still in a world of hurt if they lose.)

And if they play as they did against Seattle, and not just assume they can beat the Eagles, but pay attention to the fact they’ve lost 5 straight and should be 1-6, and that the Eagles trounced the Giants who lead the division (and gave away the game to the Saints at the end last week in a boondoggle of plays almost no one much talked about), and almost beat the Falcons in Atlanta while the Falcons ran up and down the field on the Cowboys here in Dallas after falling behind early, etc., and that the home team has lost the last 5 games in a row between these two teams, and so they need to play harder as if they have the home disadvantage, they will win.

The Cowboys have a potentially powerful defense, seem to know how to play the Eagles reasonably well, Matt Cassel “could” play a good game (well, that one might be pushing it), and the Eagles still aren’t fully meshing – though that also might be changing.

Pick: Cowboys, who should win outright. So long as they recognize that they’re the road team.

4. St. Louis Rams (+1) at Minnesota Vikings

The line is saying the Rams here. Has this Jekyll and Hyde team of the past three years finally turned the corner it seemed to have almost gotten past several times now?

If so they have a decent edge in this game.

If not the Vikings have more of an edge.

Averaging that out, without trying to deciper what the Rams are (they were my “creative” don’t just go with the obvious favorite pick to win the division this season, but a few of those picks got out of hand so maybe they should go unmentioned), gives a slight edge to the home team in a non divisional game.

That said if the Rams are going to win the division or even make the playoffs, they probably need to win this game. The Seahawks are in their division. And the Cardinals, right now a game and a half ahead at 6-2, are still hot, and seemingly not letting up.

This is a pretty interesting game, since while the Vikings can afford a loss a little bit more than the Rams, they face a really tough schedule up ahead, and if they lose this one, may also not yet be for real.

I thought it was a bad draft pick for the Rams to take Todd Gurley. This is based on the fact that the Rams have made several ill thought out draft decisions in the last few years based on the facts that existed at the time of the draft, and simply going on the fact that they liked him (I hadn’t evaluated his play or come to a conclusion about his potential); he was injured; and taking a running back at number ten overall and especially coming off a major knee knee injury should only be done if the player clearly, and outside of his college system/offensive line blocking, shows unusual ability and talent.

Gurley apparently did, and it was a good pick. And this is the Gurley Adrian Peterson Bowl. Whether that gives AP any extra motivation or not, who knows. Regardless, that Rams team, and in particular that defense, still has the potential to be very strong.

Are they finally getting there?

Here’s a vote of low confidence on competition committee Jeff Fisher’s record, simply because he says he clearly understands the “what is and isn’t a catch” rule, and almost assuredly doesn’t:

Fisher says he understands the catch rule.

Then Fisher says “you have to complete the catch when going to the ground”; which is the only thing that is already a given in this rule anyway: with the two real issues being “when do you have to” (meaning the catch was not yet completed before hitting the ground, and not answered by Fisher or anyone else for that matter), as if the most important consideration and by far the most botched out on the field part of this issue in live calls and replay reviews doesn’t even exist), and “what does completing it mean” (answered in a way by Fisher that contradicted the way referees have been explaining and interpreting it).

Still, for a head coach considered so strong, yet who has only made the playoffs 6 times out of 19 full seasons (a poor record given the long head coaching tenure and fact that 37.5% of teams make it every year), this has to be the year right? And thus, likely, this may be the game. I’ll root for them, but:

Pick: Vikings

5.  Miami Dolphins (+3) at the Buffalo Bills

It’s hard to imagine a team that can be trounced by another team as badly as the Dolphins were early in the season by the Bills, can actually turn around and beat that team. And based on the type of response the Dolphins showed in the Patriots game two Thursday Nights ago (see above), they are not that team.

Here’s a vote that on this I’m wrong (usually though it’s reading the tea leaves of players attitude and character on the field that is the most telling, but am deferring to new or interim head coach Dan Campbell until they fall flat again).

Rex Ryan still hasn’t lost a press conference; and, as his team should, and can be better than it is, and has a bad taste in their mouth (as should the Dolphins, both from TNF and their last Bills matchup), they can be better. And they’re coming off a bye, and teams do win a little bit more off of byes.

But let’s see if Dan Campbell’s fire works after a devastating loss, and toward a team that earlier also thoroughly embarassed them and led more than anything else to their prior head coach’s firing. If it doesn’t work here, it doesn’t work.

Remember though that tell tale sign of Dolphins playing scared of the Patriots, backing up on 3rd down runs, waiting at the first down marker, popping up slowly after blocks or tackle attempts, and responding poorly to the game going south – hopefully these aren’t prescient words for this game, but we’ll see. Reluctantly:

Pick: Dolphins

 

Week 8 Picks Against the Spread – Thursday Night Football

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

Recap of miserable week 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Dolphins

2.  Seattle Seahawks (-6) at Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvard Sports Analysis Collective’s Crazy “Predictions,” and a Little Bit More

(Updated and edited, 8-9-15)

In response to this Harvard SAC study projecting the probability of each NFL team making the playoffs this season, in reply here, I posted the following comment.

Or tried, as it wouldn’t post. Instead, bizarrely-but perhaps appropriately for a study that gives the Dolphins more than a 700% greater chance of making the playoffs than the Ravens-something else happened.

Remember, it’s just a comment, and unedited. (Also, note the study predicted a Seahawks-Dolphins Super Bowl, which is how I made the “second highest playoff chance” error. The Packers were given the second highest playoff chances. The Dolphins were third; but highest in the AFC.) Here it is:

Of course he’s not predicting who will make the playoffs. That’s what “X” chances by definition means. But all of the issues raised equally apply to the percentage chances concluded, if not more so.

The fact that it’s “data” that was used does not mean that the inherent assumptions that go into choosing which data and how to weigh it, nor the decisional and necessary omissions, yields a good result or even reasonable result.

And these results are not good.

Of course there is no way to “prove” that. Nor does the Titans, for example failing to make the playoffs – as they probably will – nor the Seahawks making the playoffs – as they probably will – mean that the probabilities of 2% and 95% respectively, represent reasonable estimations (so far as they exist in terms of something no one can know) rather than not. (And vice versa.)

There are numerous glaring flaws in the conclusions, regardless of how arrived at and regardless of the fact that data was used, so picking out any is almost pointless. But one of the ones raised above is a good one – the Falcons are an unknown with a new coach and some mid level changes. Yes they’re in a bad division, but the idea that the Ravens are just under 1 in 10 to make the playoffs and the Falcons 50-50 borders on the ridiculous. (And for the same reasons given above would remain so even if Atlanta DOES make the playoffs, and Baltimore does not.)

I kind of like the dark horse Dolphins pick, but giving them the second highest chance of making the playoffs is also ridiculous.

Interesting study though, and fun to consider. It will also be interesting to look back upon as the season unfolds.

End Comment.

But it was tagged as spam. And from a filter that may have made a mistake, instead of an apology or something neutral in case it had (and not only was the comment obviously not spam, I hadn’t even commented on the site before, or if I had it was minimal, and quite some time ago), appeared this:

ERROR: Your comment appears to be spam. We don’t really appreciate spam here.

Since apparently a minor insult just isn’t enough, and regardless of the fact that filters can not only catch things that aren’t spam but also wind up wasting the commenter’s time as a result, the above reply was followed by:

“Go back and post something useful.”

This treats the comment and auto response not as assumption, but instead a conclusion, with nothing but a robotic error riddled program driving it (somewhat like the subject “prediction” study of the article itself, ironically enough), that the attempted comment is – not may be – spam. And, for good measure, adds a double if mild veiled insult: “We really don’t appreciate spam. Now go post something useful.”

That’s a big leap. Not knowing the difference, or being unwilling to recognize it, between presumption and fact is a pretty big mistake for any college. But then Harvard is, after all, considered one of the very worst in the land, so perhaps it’s understandable.

A small irony is I almost went to Harvard and wrestled there, and as things turn out, in probably the first big mistake of my life, did not. I still regret the decision, even if this HSAC study, interesting nature of it aside, and it’s “Hal” like spam machinery, seems to botch some things.

After Seattle beats the Dolphins in a close Super Bowl in February 2016 (yeah, right), I’ll stand corrected. But seriously, these are, of course, probability assessments, which is why they aren’t only hard to assess before the fact, they’re almost as hard to assess afterward. (For example, what ultimately happens in each team’s case doesn’t prove whether the initial probability assessment was right, mildly flawed, or awful.)

…That is, unless the general set of projected probabilities, lined up against actual season outcomes and divergence away from expectation, is either stunning good or stunningly bad. Which we may well see turn out to be the case with respect to this study. (See below.)

Still. I wrote a detailed piece a few weeks into last season illustrating why the “2%” Titans coaching switch from Mike Munchak to Ken Whisenhunt was a bad move, and the team proceeded to (still surprisingly) remain horrible throughout the entire year: Losing 9 games out of their 14 total losses, by at least 14 points or more.

But the Titans have some solid players, and the NFL has a lot of variance as well as some general unpredictability, and the team could jell.

We also got a little spoiled on QBs coming into the league as rookies and doing fairly well the last few years, and it’s still kind of a long shot. (And I argued the Titans, in need of a QB or not, should have taken advantage of their fortuitous number two pick and traded it away to deeply build the team.) But Marcus Mariota might deliver, and, who knows, they might just surprise enough to make the playoffs.

Long shot, but “it sure ain’t as low as a one in fiddy chance.” The NFL is too unpredictable. And, Colts aside, the AFC South is a relatively weak division. Not only that, this year the AFC South plays the AFC East, which while it’s expected to be better, wasn’t a total powerhouse last year.

And it plays the division many call the worst in football (though I think the AFC South, with possibly the two worst teams in football last year, night have qualified) – the NFC South. Whisenhunt also had a losing record before joining the team, but it wasn’t dramatically under .500; and courtesy of Kurt Warner, Anquan, and Fitz, did take his team to a Super Bowl.

Within the next several days I’ll post some season probability odds right alongside the SA Collective predictions; based on general team assessment, and zero modeling. (Update: teams 1-10, 11-20, 21-32 – some of Harvard’s numbers are already looking ridiculous – and why the study’s no good, here.) It’ll be interesting later to compare how each team ultimately winds up at the end of the season – record and proxmity to playoffs wise – in comparison with their projected probability chances under the HSAC study, versus the chances to be shortly posted here.

Harvard, game on. To bad there isn’t an easy way to do this objectively, and we could put a fun embarassing wager on it; something like if the backers of the study lose they have to run twice around Harvard Square naked (and sober) with “Yale Rocks!” painted on their chest during class sessions or something.

Week 15 NFL Pick Against the Spread

Update: Season record to date…..let’s see, carry the 1, divide by the hypotenuse, multiply by the square root of the cube… Wait, no, I just found it. Each week in all its laborious glory: Right down to the “who’s gonna play tough” guesswork more relevant than who’s going to stop which player – since stopping x or y guy on the field sounds great, but is present every game for all players as a team.

That is, two things matter in picking games: Which team is better at the moment and where the game is being played. And who is more likely to play hard.

Most of the stuff we hear about who will win because this or that team can “run the ball well” or something similar, sounds great; but doesn’t matter.

If team A, for example, struggling with the pass and relying on the run, andnow facing team B who is “guess what,” good at stopping the run (an analysis I just heard on an excellent flagship football show offered as rationale for why team A would lose), that means team B is weaker at stopping the pass. Which against a struggling passing team who can use the weak pass defense help so they can introduce balance back to their offensive attack, may be even more relevant than the fact their opponents are good at stopping the run.

Or it may not be. And if team B is also stronger at stopping the pass, it simply means team B has a good defense. Which means Team A’s defense catches a break. Or it team B also has a good offense, it means team B simply has a better football team, which is the real reason team A is more likely to lose. Etc., etc.

In contrast to analysis that makes it sound otherwise, it’s extremely hard to pick out in advance which team will play well against another team apart from a) how good they are, and b) how hard they are going to play. And the best way to determine this is history (and even then that’s often because one team tends to play hard, or “charged up” against another one), or on rare occasion a particular talent by one team that offsets a talent by the other that most other teams can’t seem to stop; but trying to figure this out in advance often gets confused with simply focusing in one area of the game and not realizing it is offset by other areas. And that if it’s not offset by other areas, it usually simply means that one team is better than the other one, which is why they are more likely to win.

Thus a lot of analysis we hear about which team is going to win that doesn’t focus on who is actually better, and who is likely to play better in that particular game, sounds great, but isn’t otherwise of as much value as it sounds. That’s why many picks you read even by experts at the country’s leading sports sites, against the spread at least, (or straight up for otherwise very close games) are about the same as a coin flip. Or worse.

That said, the picks here ain’t much better:  Season history to date: Week 14: 4-4. Week 13: 4-4 Week 12: 4-3.  Week 11: 4-2-1. Week 10: 3-3. Week 9 3-3. “Debacle week” 8: 3-5.  Week 7: 2-1 Season record to date: 27-25-1, not counting the 1-0 record this week so far.(28-25 -1, or 29-25-1 including last Thursday, with outside verification that the Browns at +6 were a “pick em” possible upset pick at the Bengals back in week 10, but I didn’t get to this column in time. I ranted about it as if I had 40,000 dollars on the game, 5 million weekly readers, and was in a heads up season long gentleman’s wager with the far funnier Bill Simmons (nice picks column here by Simmons, for example) for post season bragging rights, rather than – well – really no real reason at all.)

Though, we are here sporting a perfect record so far with (sparingly offered) upset picks.

That should change this week however – can’t keep hitting on every one. Plus this week has two outright upset pick calls. And really, they are both close games rather than strong favorites to pull an upset. (Though given the teams involved, as you’ll see below, that doesn’t necessarily mean the games should be close if the upset team loses; but in the case of one at least it should.)

Cardinals (+6) at Rams, Thursday Night Football

This is simple. Over the past several weeks, and notwithstanding a close loss at San Diego 3 weeks ago, the St. Louise Rams have been close to the best team in football. The cardinals have overachieved. And Drew Stanton is not even close to Carson Palmer at quarterback. (Update: Stanton got hurt, and Ryan Lindley – who will likely start next week and probably the week after that for the Cardinals, before Stanton, with the same type of MCL sprain that sidelined Larry Fitzgerald for two games a little earlier in the season, can return for the playoffs – is not even close to Drew Stanton at quarterback. Though when not throwing passes that traveled closer to opponents than his own teammates, he otherwise showed good judgment and quick decision making.)

And, just before the just below the surface potential of the St. Louis Rams (for two seasons now) finally exploded, they went into Arizona in week 10 and were leading 14-10 early in the 4th quarter (against a Carson Palmer led team), before they fell apart (right after, ironically, Palmer tore his ACL).

Since then they’ve beaten the Denver Broncos 22-7 – holding them scoreless in the second half in the process – lost 24-27 at the San Diego Chargers, beaten the Oakland Raiders 52-0, and beaten the Washington Redskins in Washington, 24-0. (The team that traded away half of its draft to this same Rams team back in 2012, so they could draft a quarterback who is now benched.)

But the Cardinals, who still have to face the Seattle Seahawks and who have seen their once dominant division lead fall to a slim one game lead (and they’ve already lost to the Seahawks once), won’t go down without a fight.

The edge to win the game goes to the team who is better right now, and who is playing for something as important to this team as making the playoffs:  The pride of running the table and showing they not only belong in what is still the toughest overall division in football, but that they might be able to soon take it.

Six points, however, is too many against a desperate team that will battle, in a likely lower scoring game between two defensive oriented clubs, in what shapes up to be one of the most interesting games of the season – and will remain so after the fact no matter how it turns out.

Very close, because right now the St. Louis Rams are probably the favorite to win the NFC West next year, and probably the entire NFC, but,

Pick: Cardinals

As always, the remainder of games picked against the spread will be added prior to late Sunday Game Day morning.

Update: Well, that time is now once again upon us.  But also notice how Thursday Night’s Pick went from “this is simple,” to “very close” by the end of the discussion.  It was simple. And, in hindsight, given the Cardinals outright 12-6 win, better if the “very close” was left off, which kind of lamefied my pick. (I’ll check with Webster’s D later to make sure they’ve finally included “lamefied,” as a verb. If not I’ll suggest it.)

Column/post/prattling is still to come on that strong Rams Cardinals contest, which from a pure NFL and football rather than “marquee” perspective, was an excellent one entering the game. And for some who like real defense –  and not just aerial shows up and down the field with less strategy – trickier scores, and defensive balance, was an excellent game as well.

There was also a series of two remarkable strategy decisions in a row in the game by the Cardinals, which will get a separate column/post/prattle fest, since they go to some of the key structural mechanics of the game being overlooked in routine “strategic” game decision situations, and that serve as excellent examples of each.

But that’s later to come. In the meantime, the Rams are, and will remain, next year’s dark horse pick. Watch out for them. And if they pick up some strong receiver and offensive line help, double watch out for them.

Also – though it seems “about as unlikely as if a multi million year level of change to the concentration of the same long lived greenhouse molecules responsible for keeping our earth from being a lifeless frozen ball of ice and rock hurtling to space somehow wouldn’t change earth’s climate” – if they happen to surreptitiously swap places with the New Orleans Saints, and thus clandestinely plant themselves into the thick of the AFC South instead of the current best division in football, triple watch out for them.

Unauthorized division swapping unfortunately is of course a tad bit unprecedented, and highly taboo by the basic rules.  (Though trading division places for draft picks might make for some interesting machinations, as teams foolishly give up draft picks in order to move into “easier” divisions, only to then see those divisions quickly turn strong.) Plus, the guys who makes the NFL schedule, along with the rest of us – and certainly the other teams – would probably need to find out about it at some point.

So okay, let’s face it: The Rams will still be in a division with the always under rated Arizona Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers (who will come back tough next year if Harbaugh remains) and the Legions of Boom up in Seattle, who seem to have gotten their boom on recently, and are not a team anybody wants to play right now. (Although Arizona plays them in week 16, just like last year. And, guess who – St. Louis – hits them up in Seattle to close out the season. In a game that might really wind up mattering for Seattle, both for the division title and a first round bye, or an extra game and wild card trip on the road or, pending, possibly even making the playoffs at all.)

But once again, right now, entering next year with the return of Sam Bradford and a young, hungry, improving team under a decent head coach, watch out for the Rams next year.

So let’s do some picks. Buckle up, this week’s are strong: (So I say now. Check back Monday.)

Raiders (+10) at Chiefs

This game is a bit lopsided from a spread perspective. If you follow football, do you really need the analysis here?  When a team is getting 1o points (even in today’s explosive score oriented NFL) and stands a legitimate chance of winning the game, there’s no decision to be made.

If you don’t think the lowly 2-11 Raiders have a legitimate chance to defeat even their now desperate for a win to stay alive, and playing at home, and hated, division rivals, you haven’t been playing close attention to football. (But don’t laugh too hard if the Raiders lose 28-13. Nothing is locked in gold in football except the idea that the Jaguars are awful and should be banished to the CFL, or get themselves yet another new GM (once again Shahid Kahn, I volunteer), or that the Titans didn’t have to be absolutely miserable this season (losing by at least 14 points in an astounding 8 out of their 11 losses so far this season) to prove an idea I suggested months ago in heavily questioning their offseason firing (though “questioning” is a nice word), of then head coach Mike Munchak.)

In week 12 Oakland wins their very first game of the season -against these very same Chiefs, 24-20.

They promptly go the following week and lose, 52-0.  And, lose to our very own dark horse Super Bowl contender for next season, the St. Louis Rams. (Here’s an interesting analysis of that next game, before the fact.)

Then, they apparently try a little harder the following week (last week) and pull off another big upset, against the San Francisco 49ers, 24-13. (24 seems to be their number in those rare instances they win games this season.)

So, now another post big win let down for the currently “over achieving” two win team? Or is it possible that the Raiders have learned their lesson.

Probably not. But being as this is the Chiefs, and the team that Oakland would probably rather beat than any team in the NFL – let alone sweep – for this game, they may have learned it.

And again, 10 is a lot of points for this much potential emotion, with a team that has shown it can beat the Chiefs, and- even if the Chiefs do need a division win badly to keep their season alive – that are playing a little better themselves.

It would be cool, but probably less likely that the Raiders sweep. But between their chances of winning the game outright, and their larger chances of at least playing with some serious spark to try and give their season some meaning by showing they can dominate at least one of the good teams in the division, 10 is still too large a number for this game even with some additional bad injury news for the somewhat depleted Raiders squad.

Pick: Raiders

Bengals (-1) at Browns

As Joey Lawrence used to so accurately say on the hip 90s sitcom “Blossom”: Whoa!

Johnny Football, the guy who stood in front of a more elderly crowd in cute leotards and led them through some dandy exercises before being woken up by an appropriately much older (and hence wiser) NFL player, the guy who captured the country’s sports heart with his swashbuckling style as a devil may care quarterback at Texas A&M who just won baby, gets his first start in the NFL. (While he also appropriately laughed off another set of silly (okay, stupid) comments by the Bengals head coach.) (Manziel incidentally was also the 837th pick of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft. Which put him, let’s see… again, carry the 1, divide by pie…. um, infinity spots ahead of me in that particular major league baseball draft.)

Last week, in foolishly picking the Bengals as 3 point favorites against Pittsburgh, this blog boldly stated:

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.

Outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter en route to their 42-21 home loss to Pittsburgh (whom they meet again in Pittsburgh to close out the season in week 17), that question was probably answered.

Now, embarrassed, and if the Bengals lose again this weekend with the Steelers able to vault ahead with a win at Atlanta (as can Baltimore with a win at Jacksonville, where they are 14 point favorites), will they show heart this game?

Maybe, maybe not. But given that they’re going against a still largely untested rookie making his first NFL start, on paper at least are still the better team, and have the strong revenge factor in a key playoff implication divisional game on their side, they’re the call to make here.

But still, how can you not root for Johnny JamBoogie?

I’ll be rooting for him and his semi underdog Browns to make this the wrong pick.

But, after their embarrassment at home to the Steelers last week to put Pittsburgh back into the race, if this Bengals team can’t even up the series against the Browns after getting demolished by them on national TV at home in week 10 (in my best pick on this blog that never officially got made), then Marvin Lewis, with his 0-5 playoff record, should walk out of the stadium and go join the Jaguars in Canada. (Or London, once Roger Goodell gets his way. Though if I was Jacksonville’s GM I wouldn’t let Lewis within 100 miles of the franchise,  unless it was as defensive coordinator, and with a standing gag order to desist from making medicinal related commentary on concussions, and other wildly inane statements that wholly miss the point of what was done wrong and incorrectly assumed with respect to concussions in the past.)

Pick: Bengals – Marvin’s team

Make this the wrong pick Johnny Boogie and a Browns team that repeatedly shows heart, and sweep those Tigers.

49ers (+9) at Seahawks

At some point this San Francisco team has to tailspin. And it looks like while earlier in the year they kept it somewhat together despite a bunch of injuries and rumors about head coach Jim Harbaugh leaving (which have only increased), that tailspin may now be happening. Particularly if the players are resigned to losing their head coach, and know they may be playing under new leadership (or even for a different team) next year.

And the Seahawks, who have gotten over their early post Super Bowl Championship slump (though the return of defensive superstars Kam Chancellor and in particular linebacker Bobby Wagner has certainly helped), would probably like little more than to pummel the 49ers once again; just as they did Thanksgiving evening just two weeks ago down in the Santa Clara area. (The 49ers new “home” digs.)

But this is the 49ers, and Harbaugh’s 4th season as a head coach in the league. He has taken them to the NFC championship game every one of this first three seasons. (And he didn’t take over all that great of a team, either.)

When he says all they really have left to play for at this point is “pride,” it may still mean something with this bunch.  And there’s little more prideful than being able to show that while they may be down and out, they can still go into Seattle and avenge their NFC championship game loss from last season and show they still got that swagger, and in effect declare, “come on 2015, bring it on, whoever leads our charge.”

They just may not have the ability to do it right now. And Seattle knows they’re going against a wounded team with a lot of pride, who have a fierce rivalry with them and who have won an awful lot of games over the last few seasons, with a chance at some serious season redemption. And so the Seahawks, who have lately been showing it anyway, likely won’t lose focus.

But given the rivalry and the potential for enormous passion on the part of the 49ers, which can make any game close – and the 49ers are by no means a bad team, yet are coming off a loss to the Oakland Raiders of all teams – this is a San Francisco call all the way.

Sure they could get pummeled, as Seattle likes to do to San Francisco, and has done to San Francisco a few times now up in Seattle recently when San Francisco was a lot better team even. But for this game, don’t necessarily bet on it.

Pick: 49ers

Broncos (-5) at Chargers

Yeah, Denver Broncos, Bla bla bla bla…

And Peyton Manning, who has suddenly been playing subpar (but the Broncos keep on winning) could at any moment turn into superman with a football (again); but this game is one of the better match-ups of the season, regardless.

And despite many claims to the contrary, when the Chargers played Denver back in late October (though a bit more injury riddled than at the moment, albeit they are still down to their 4th center, having lost a remarkable 3 total successive starting centers to season ending injuries), and lost 35-21, the Chargers actually did get outplayed.

But, while it doesn’t matter too too much where the game is being played when these two teams meet, this is December; it is in San Diego; the Chargers need the game badly, the Broncos don’t (as much, though it’s true they do need it, and they don’t want to have to go up to New England to advance); the Chargers, despite that earlier season loss, know how to battle Denver in general; and, most importantly, “this is Philip Rivers time”: That is, late November and December – with a shot at a playoff berth with wins – is where this quarterback has shone like no one else in the league apart from someone named Tom Brady.

It doesn’t mean he will again, or that the better team here – Denver – won’t win. But this is more likely the Chargers game for the taking. Upset pick; Chargers win outright.

Thus, against the spread, naturally,

Pick: Chargers 

Packers (-5) at Bills 

Yes, the Packers could be facing the Patriots (or someone else) in the Super Bowl later this season. (Or it could just as easily if perhaps not more easily be the Seahawks – with the Lions, Cowboys, Eagles, and the always under respected Arizona Cardinals with decent enough shots to also unseat them.)

But the Bills, by sacking Aaron Rodgers more times than the Packers recently improving offensive line would prefer, and smacking the ball away a few times in the process, send the ‘Pack packing, and pull off the surprise upset.  Even if their normal December “cold Buffalo weather “advantage might be somewhat nullified by a team seemingly from the Midwest’s version of Alaska – aka, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Pick: Bills

Dolphins (+7.5) at Patriots

Yes, the Patriots actually held the Chargers to negative yards rushing in the second half in their win last week in San Diego.

Yes the Patriots have dominated this division this entire millennium, and are on a roll right now to boot.

And yes the Dolphins haven’t dominated anything but the occasional autumn sport news headlines down in South Florida. And are rolling themselves, but off of a resounding 28-13 home loss to the Ravens last week in a game they needed to win.

But Miami probably isn’t done speaking yet this season. And have beaten the Patriots 2 out of the last 3 times the two teams have met. (Though both wins were at home.  And they were swept by the Patriots the season before – 2012, and lost by 10 up in New England last season, and 28-0 the season before to close out the year.)

The points are also a little iffy this game, since it’s really a question of whether Miami comes into New England with its ears pinned back – then watch out, it’s anybody’s game. If not, there’s a pretty strong chance the Patriots win this by well more than touchdown.

Balancing that out, this is a decent number of points, even against a Patriots team hitting its stride, and whose defense is really coming together, against a divisional rival team capable of beating them and who probably wants to, badly.

It’s a tough pick, because under Joe Philbin the Dolphins haven’t really ever taken that full step to the next level. And just when it looked like they may have slipped in under the radar to become a strong team this year, they lost at the end in Detroit in week 10, and have slipped back into a just barely on the outside looking in team, once again – needing that win at home last week against the Ravens, a team that under head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco, has repeatedly beaten the Dolphins.

This might be one of the weaker picks of the week (though by accident it would look genius if the Dolphins pull off the upset).  The reason behind it is the idea that Miami will go in and give it their all and then some, and make it a tough game all around. If that call is wrong – and we’ll know soon enough -well, then, this pick is a pretty bad one:

Pick: Dolphins

Catch you on the flip side, as we sift through the wreckage after the fact of this week’s picks. (Whoever “you are,” as right now the only verified devotedly regular reader of this blog is my neighbor’s cat “Frenchie,” who somehow has learned to read in English, and taken a penchant – very surprising for a cat – toward watching football of all things, ever since Dish TV cancelled his favorite mice marathon racing channel.)

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

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.

Some Takeaways and Notes from the Miami Dolphins 22-9 Thursday Night Football Win over the Buffalo Bills

Update, via Football outsiders, as quoted by ESPN:

“S—, we’re going to go out and beat that ass. Point blank. Period.”

-Said by a player in advance of Thursday Night’s Bills Dolphins match-up, from what turned out to be the losing team in 22-9 loss; a player who also left the game with a broken bone in the first quarter.  Continue reading