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.

NFL 2015 Week 2 Picks Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Houston Texans (+3) at Carolina Panthers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Texans

2.  Detroit Lions (+2) at Minnesota Vikings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bills

4.  Tennesse Titans (+2) at Cleveland Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Browns

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Packers.

7. Dallas Cowboys (+5) at Philadelphia Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys

Update:

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

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

Pick: Giants

_______

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we’ll see.

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

A few weeks back, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they faded, as has happened before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harvard study, by focusing on the “core” players of a team to assess value, misses that critical full team element, including the contribution of less marquee but still starting players, whose strengths or weaknesses can play a critical role in a team’s results; the effect some players can have on others; and it misses heart.
_______

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

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.

Why the Patriots Should Win a Great Super Bowl Matchup

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

Week 14 NFL Picks, Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens (+3) at Dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers (+3) at Bengals

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

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

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

Pick: Bengals 

Panthers (+10) at Saints

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

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

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

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

They’re just not very good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Panthers

Buccaneers (+10) at Lions

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

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

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

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

Pick: Buccaneers

Seahawks (+1.5) at Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

Chiefs (-1) at Cardinals

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

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

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

Pick: Cardinals 

Patriots (-4) at Chargers, Sunday Night Football

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Chargers

Falcons (+13) at Packers, Monday Night Football

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

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

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

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

Pick: Falcons

Week 12 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Week 11 record ATS, including Thursday Night Football’s Bills Dolphins debacle (this blog picked the Bills):  4-2-1

Most of the recap of week’s 11 picks – with some extra analysis on the Panthers Falcons game, and a brief comparison of the NFC South (where the top two teams are tied for the division lead at 4-6) and the NFC West (where the bottom dweller lags well behind at 4-6) – is now here.

One of the notes worth re-mentioning from last’s week’s picks:

If there’s going to be an upset pick, this is it. And the Saints, so dominant at home, lose their 2nd straight here.”

Despite ultimately being a favorite in the game by 8 points over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints lost 27-10 for their second straight home loss.

One of the bloke’s I deeply admire – I just can’t remember who, so it would be foul to throw out a name (I WILL find it an update) on “Around The NFL” this week proclaimed the Saints will not lose 3 in a row at home, because “they never have under Sean Payton.” (It might have been Jamie Dukes, now that I think about it, and he’s pretty good with his overall football analyses I think.)

But the fact they never have lost three in a row doesn’t mean they won’t now. Also since they haven’t lost twice in a row that often under head coach Sean Payton (they’ve been a very good team under him and quarterback Drew Brees, AND have won a lot more at home than on the road on top of that) they haven’t been in a situation where they even could lose 3 in a row that much to begin with.  Even less, when considering that the team they face for their possible and unprecedented 3rd straight home loss, is pretty good.

See picks below. Hopefully by the time you (and I) arrive there, I will have a clue to this one of many wild and fantastic NFL match-ups this week – the Baltimore Ravens at the New Orleans Saints. But the game does present at least a reasonable chance of the Saints hitting that home trifecta.

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As always, the following picks are either for the purposes of earning enough funds through legitimate wagering in Vegas to start a large non profit organization to find a cure for cancer, or post-facto bragging rights.

But don’t count on this week’s picks too heavily. Several of last week’s picks – most notably the Bengals, who had a very good chance to win that game outright and were getting a touchdown plus – were somewhat easy calls. And even the week before – where this blog had a few huge calls (winning by a lot, and twice calling the Jets upset of the Steelers outright), and a few closes losses for a miserable 3 – 3 – was somewhat easier.

This week, is not.

Chiefs (-7.5) at Raiders

This is a long standing rivalry. The Chiefs know how to win. And after seeing Oakland battle Denver super tough for nearly a full half two weeks ago (batting down a remarkable 5 Peyton Manning passes at the line in the short time span) before, well, completely falling apart, and then putting up a decent game last week against a Chargers team that saw the return to their lineup of Ryan Matthews, Manti Te’0, and Melvin Ingram, they know Oakland can in theory battle with them a little bit.

But at 0-10, and playing Denver tough for a half, and ultimately making it a somewhat close game with San Diego, is not enough. They are likely to give their best effort again.  And this game almost smells of upset. But one would think the Chiefs can sniff that same scent, and do not want to lose a division game.

Close call, but:

Pick: Raiders 

Also (nearly) always, the rest of this football weekend’s picks will be updated later in the week, or weekend prior to Sunday’s games.

(11-23-14) Updated – Voila:

At 1-0 on the week so far, following last week’s 4-2-1, we could just call it a wrap and finish up a a second straight above .500 week ATS. But let’s tangle with a few of these, including the toughest game of all: The aforementioned Saints, taking on that iconic black bird that is evermore.

Ravens (+3.4) at Saints (Monday Night Football)

Two teams who have been very successful under the current respective head coaches and quarterbacks, and both of whom tend to be significantly better home teams than road teams.

The Saints are in a weaker division, and are 4-6, but don’t be fooled by their record. They lost a close game (by a point) against Detroit in week 7, where they actually outplayed Detroit, who needed a break or two at the end to pull out the win.  They lost two games in overtime (against Atlanta in week 1, 37-34, and 27-24 in week 10 against a desperate, if still Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis less San Francisco 49ers).  And possibly lagging a little bit on the fact that Browns are competitive this year, they lost 26-24 to a Browns comeback at the end of the game in Cleveland in week 2.)

And it’s possible the Ozzie Newsome magic has worn off a little bit, and the Ravens really aren’t that good after their long stretch of competitive – and post season competitive -seasons.

And of course the wild card in this game is that the Saints are playing at home.

This will come as sacrilege, as I’m personally a huge Drew Brees fan. I don’t know him, and the rush to presume things about people good and bad is rampant in human nature, but Brees appears to be a truly remarkable guy. And he’s an phenomenal quarterback:

But he’s not always quite as clutch in tough games as some of the other greats, and if some pressure can be gotten to him, he doesn’t always tend to respond as well as a few other quarterbacks. And while the Saints win their share of close games, on average I would take Flacco (who truly has been “Joe Cool” more often than not) – not that he’s at Brees’ level – in a close game at the end.

So getting 3.5 points, particularly in an NFL where – due to a flurry of reasons, but most notably the continual tweaking of the rules under commissioner Roger Goodell to favor offenses, and most notably passing, over defenses – where very high scoring games are occurring with more frequency – is not really a big deal in this game. Still, just to follow up on the Saints last week, and given that this is a heavyweight bout between two seasoned teams looking at a tough road ahead, take them, as, though the odds may be slightly against, the Saints could hit that third straight loss.  We’ll know late Sunday Afternoon.  This is truly one of several fantastic match-ups on the weekend:

Pick: Ravens
Titans (+11) at Eagles

Tennessee played tough against Pittsburgh last week, on Monday Night Football where Pittsburgh, under Ben Rothlisberger, has been dominant for years.  The Steelers were missing a few key players – including Safety Troy Polamalu –  but it was still a better effort by the Titans, who may finally be creeping towards decency.

If they are, and even though we should expect a  strong bounce back after last week’s embarrassment in Green Bay from the seemingly very well coached Philadelphia Eagles, the Titans stand a strong chance of putting up a game here.

Despite my call that the Titans offseason coaching switch (even if they provided their prior head coach, Mike Munchak, a theoretical “out” towards remaining if he fired most of his coaching staff)  was an ill thought out move, it wasn’t clear new head coach Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t at least alsodecent coach. But if by this point the Titans can’t battle in this game, that would, on top of a dismal downturn season – represent more solid evidence in that direction.

Here’s rooting for Whisenhunt, another good football game, and perhaps a sneak surprise that the team from Tennessee has finally clawed its way out of that bottom rung of bad teams. (Though I  hate to pick against Sanchez, who I’ve always thought was a bit underrated; but Philly can still win by 10.)

Pick: Titans

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

Last season, in a remarkable final stretch to close out the season for the powerhouse NFC West, a desperate Arizona Cardinals team somehow managed to go into Seattle in week 16 and hand the Seahawks their first home loss ever under then second year quarterback Russell Wilson.

But this year, the defending Super Bowl champs are 3 games behind the Cardinals, have their backs against the wall, and are locked in a tough second place battle with San Francisco – who just got back defensive lineman extraordinaire Aldon Smith, who may still get back linebacker Navorro Bowman before the season ends, and who will probably see Defensive Tackle Glenn Dorsey return to action next week.

And Seattle has still very rarely lost under Wilson at home.  Motivation, especially for good teams with character – and the Seahawks have exhibited this – matters.

In short, this is near or just about a playoff  game for the Seahawks, who simply can’t afford to lose a division match-up, let alone against the front-runner. They also have a lot of pride riding on the line; and by knocking off the division leading champs – Carson Palmer or no Carson Palme – and jumping back into the race, they can show they still legitimately belong.

Still, Arizona is a football team.  They’re a unit. And while they could easily lose by 10 or 14 here, and are at a disadvantage with Palmer sidelined for the duration of the season, they don’t seem like the type of team, under second year head coach Bruce Arians, to just cruise on the fact that they can “afford” this loss.

An, though the edge clearly goes to Seattle in this must win game for them – at home where they do rarely lose – a full touchdown is simply too much against a scrappy division foe playing as a cohesive unit.

Pick: Cardinals

Rams (+5) at Chargers

This game is one of the best games of the season. Sure it doesn’t feature two powerhouses, but for pure football intrigue this is it.

The 4-6 Rams have played well against powerhouse division foes the last few years, but not so much outside of the division. But after going into Arizona and holding the lead until nearly halfway through the 4th quarter (this blog picked them getting 7 at Arizona, but they then turned the ball over, and then gave up two touchdowns to the defense, on 3 successive drives to end the game), the Rams came home and beat the mighty Denver Broncos last week. Solidly.

San Diego meanwhile, which along with New England has been just about the hottest team late November and December in the NFL the last few seasons, this year started strong; and then, suffering a few injuries, has floundered a bit.

The Chargers got three relevant players back last week, a 13-6 victory of the Oakland Raiders (who went on, see pick above, to upset the Chiefs this past Thursday Night for their first win of the season): outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, inside linebacker Manti Te’o, and running back Ryan Matthews.  And if they are the team they looked to be early in the season this is the type of game, at home, where they are going to crush any but a very good football team.

So that’s the question, and the answer is unknown. One win against Denver for a team that has been moderately mediocre with sporadic periods of strong play against division foes here and there does not make the Rams a strong team.

But the book is still out on the Chargers, also.  This is more of a pick made simply because it is just a fascinating football game. And in such a game, a little more than 2/3 of of a touchdown seems like slightly better odds.

But it’s not quite like the Seattle game, where you have to figure Arizona has at least the same, if not a greater, chance of upsetting Seattle than the Rams do here, and a bigger chance – given the way they play and their consistency – of keeping it close. (Maybe.)

But ultimately this is a pick that respects the Ram’s potential, and treats the Chargers like a solid, strong but still quasi middle of the pack team until they show they are back.  It’s an iffy pick, but probably not a horrible one, in a tough game:

Pick: Rams 

Dolphins (+6) at Broncos

Beware 6 point games: Games in the NFL are either close, or they’re not. When they are close, it means that the gap is usually between 3 and 6 points, by the nature of the math of the game.  . Occasionally 7.

Getting 6 versus 3 points in such a game is a tremendous difference. And usually a team favored by less than 7 is a reflection of the fact, or perception, that the better team is not that dominant that a lopsided game is as likely as some others, making the relevance of that 6 points notable.

Denver was dominant last year, until the Super Bowl. (Where, against a good defense – and here they face a good defense in the Dolphins – they got crushed).

They improved this offseason on paper. But they may not have improved in reality.  Something might not be clicking. And the Dolphins have been flying a little bit under the radar.

So if Denver doesn’t get it clicking, not only will this be a tight game, but in a near must win for Miami (while a Denver loss keeps them tied for first atop the AFC West with Kansas City) the Dolphins might pull off the win, suggesting they’ve  “arrived.”

Or they might not have really arrived yet and Denver, after a disastrous loss at St. Louis, might get it together and beat them solidly.  Who knows.  The Oakland Pick and several from last week were, again, easier than this one.  But it’s another truly great football match-up this NFL football Sunday

Pick: Broncos

Cleveland (+3) at Atlanta

Another tough game, and while maybe not as great as some of the others, another good one.

Cleveland is one of four teams in the AFC North to be over.500. While the Falcons, at 4-6, are in a tie with the Saints for 1st place in the NFC South. (Technically, they’re in first place right now, since they beat the Saints heads up; but they still have to play them again.)

The Browns have been without their key tight end Jordan Cameron for three games now, and it looks like it’s going to be a 4th.  They do finally get a guy back who may have been the best receiver in the NFL last season – Josh Gordon. But what kind of football shape is he in? And atop a few other injuries they’ve now lost former 1st round pick defensive tackle Phil Taylor for the season.

Taylor had missed a month before returning last week. But his absence is still a key loss. And the Falcons, until last year perennially very strong under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, have been playing strong of late. And would have even crept up to 5-5 if they Lions hadn’t pulled off a 20 point come from behind over where the natives speak with an English accent, en route to a last moment 21-20 win several weeks ago.  They might well be a better team than the Browns at this point. And they tend to be a very good home team.

And, the fact they are coming off a key, close win against their rivals the Panthers (who usually play them tough) last week probably doesn’t mean too much for this team, – which has repeatedly exhibited it knows how to focus during the season. But the Browns, coming off a solid loss at home to the Houston Texans last week, might be riled.

Still, the 3 points is likely not of much worth here. And a pick for the Browns is close to saying they are going to, or are 50 – 50 or near it, to pull off the upset. This might a “root for the long time underdog” kind of pick. But coming out of a touch division, between two teams that probably have heart, we’re going here with the true underdog in this game, who will need to play with even more heart to pull off that upset.

This might be the worst pick of the week, but,

Pick: Browns