2015 Ravens at 49ers – Maximizing Winning Opportunity Through Play Calling

Week 6 of the NFL saw the Baltimore Ravens, with a depleted secondary and a 1-4 record out of a bevy of close games, go into San Francisco and (though seemingly slightly outplayed for much of it), lose another close one to fall to a now logistically impractical 1-5.

But an interesting situation came up early in the fourth quarter: 13:47 remained when the ball was snapped, and the Ravens faced 3rd and 4 from the 49ers 27 yard line (though not a “gimme,” solidly within superman kicker Justin Tucker’s comfortable field goal range – see bottom).

Ravens quarteback Joe Flacco occassionally makes throws that may not have been well advised, but overall takes a “play to win” approach, doesn’t fear interceptions if the play has an overall positive value, and generally makes good to very good decisions at one of the most difficult positions in all of sports.

On this play however, and however subtle, the Ravens may have blown a small but important opportunity.

With almost a quarter left to play, it’s too early to heavily discount the value of 3 versus 7 points here. But down 19-13, fairly late, pulling within 3, and thus still trailing (and thus not in a position to be able to generate the key late game two score lead, whereas your opponent is), and also more likely ultimately putting your team in a position to only play for the “tie” with a field goal, isn’t of huge value.

So going for the touchdown is obviously not a bad move. But what maximizes the chances of getting that touchdown?

If the Ravens get the first down here, it means they’re on the 49ers 23 yard line or better, and can mix it up to continue to try and advance the chains, as well as go for the end zone as oppportunity permits.

On the other hand, going for the end zone on this 3rd down play instead – and leading to an inevitable field goal try if they fail – isn’t necessarily a bad play. But it’s limiting in that if they fail, it cuts off any successive chances of trying for the touchdown on this drive.

So does a failed shorter conversion attempt of course (unless that failure brings up a fourth and fairly short, in which case the Ravens should go for it); but the chances of doing so on a far shorter conversion attempt are much lower.

It’s easy to watch game film and second guess. And for that reason (and because it’s part of the fun of football), it tends to get overdone – even when one is trying to be careful not to. But at the same time we’re talking about the professional level, and one of the better, and instinctively savvier, quarterbacks in the game.

And here the best decision is of course to get a touchdown if you can. But, if at all possible, maximize keeping the drive alive if you can’t.

That aside, the best call here as with any situation, is to go with what whatever play call is best in this situation. In other words, as with most play calls, something that, taking into account the situation, personnel out there, alignment at the line, and outguessing a defense, etc., is fairly subjective.

But there’s also an important component here that’s not really “after the fact” second guessing, and objective.

That is, if taking a shot at the end zone under the impression that the play offers high odds is the call, that’s fine. But for winning football it needs to be considered that unless the end zone play is – or at least, more importantly, ultimately develops into – a solid, relatively high opportunity rather than just a near wing it and “take a shot” type of a play, making sure to try and get the first down is of greater value because of the multiple successive chances of scoring that it brings up.

The Ravens do go for the end zone. But in such a situation they need an out, in case the play develops more into the latter (a low odds play) rather than the former (a relatively high odds play that catches the defense off guard):

That is, if the play doesn’t unfold nicely, then the low odds of connecting on it, combined with the complete practical loss of their possession if they fail to connect – in so far as fourth down now ensues, and from the 27 on 4th and 4 – far out yet still within Tucker’s easy range, and without a super easy conversion opportunity – they will and should kick the field goal – make the play a bad decision.

The loss of opportunity may have been in the play call itself. But that’s hard to say: Maybe it would have worked out with an open receiver more often; maybe the play was designed to have easy second and third options, etc. (Or maybe it wasn’t, which would have made it a bad call from the get go, and not just how it was called and ultimately run.)

In other words, the loss of opportunity may not have been with the call to go deep down the right sideline to Kamar Aiken in coverage by Tramaine Brock. And again, even if it was – barring the issue of secondary options – it’s a subjective call because if it does leave Aiken wide open, with Flacco’s ability it’s a fairly easy touchdown.

The loss of opportunity was to both go with that play call and stick with it after nothing but tight coverage and a sort of “low odds” wing it situation developed, and thereby give up the far higher odds play of getting an entire new set of downs, and thus several more (and somewhat closer) chances at the end zone to work with.

The play as thrown had a very low probability of completion.

First of all it’s a difficult deep pass. Clearly that can be worth the payout (likely touchdown) on its own if it looks like it has a good chance of working. But again the uniqueness of the otherwise very makeable third down situation and the greater value that situation brings up needs to be considered as well.

Given that situation, the fact that Aiken was well covered and with little manueverability near the sidelines to boot when the long pass was thrown, greatly lowers the odds.  And while it still “could” have worked, the chances were now much lower of it working; and thus, correspondingly, the chances were very high that the Ravens would be stopped in their quest to, far more importantly, add 7 rather than 3 points here.

Thus the decision to attempt the play, despite the tight coverage under the specific strategic situation the team was in – and thus the low probability use of only one shot at the end zone rather than a far higher probability shot at getting closer and gaining an entire new set of four downs (or at least a better probability shot at the end zone), was a mistake.

And by better awareness and decision making before the fact, it was probably an avoidable one; one that, at least with some trust, is also recognizable and correctable from a website blog piece alone, without additional practice time on the field and or physical skills – making it in one sense among the most critical kind of mistakes in football, as it offers up the opportunity for a team to improve its winning chances by better decision making alone. (And there are reams of these, many very significant, in NFL football today.)

Put more simply, in that situation, if there are subjective reasons or assessments for the end zone shot, call the play. But make sure it has secondary and tertiary outs. And given the situation, if the big play isn’t there, while its not always possible to easily make good adjustments on the fly, don’t get greedy and go for it regardless rather than for a secondary decision that instead maximizes the chances of keeping the drive alive with an easier option.

As it turned out, Justin Tucker, who rarely misses, hit the right upright on the ensuing field goal try, and the score remained 19-13 – although the San Francisco field may have been part of the reason. Watch Tucker sink and almost split on the kick, showing solid athleticism to even half stay with his follow through:

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Huge Playing Not to Lose Strategy Miscue Applauded by Nantz and Simms in Dallas New England Game

Week 5 of the 2015 NFL Season, New England Patriots at Dallas Cowboys, late third quarter:
Jim Nantz: “You gotta come out of this w/in 2 scores.”
Phil Phil Simms: “Absolutely.”

No guys, you don’t gotta do nothin’ but win the game. And kicking the field goal here versus trying to score more than double the points, does more to help the Patriots win than the Cowboys.

Pretty simple situation: 4th down, ball at the 5 yard line (or a bit outside if the refs spotted it correctly), 2 yards to go for the first Third quarter, 1:30 left. Patriots lead 20-3.

Until this one, Dallas has had one drive that’s gotten a first down all night. 7 of their first 8 averaged around 3 yards per drive. 2.42 if the end of half kneeldown is included.

That doesn’t really matter much, but it’s interesting, and does suggest Dallas is having a (very) hard time moving the ball against New England.

So here they are, with a chance to make it a reasonable game, 20-10.

With 16:30 left to play, it’s bleak regardless. But a field goal here, relative to a touchdown, does very little to increase their chances all that much, and,despite the seeming popularity (and conventionality) of the move, it’s strategically boneheaded. Or, in technical terms, “highly ill-advised.”

First off, the EV, or expected value is poor. (EV of trying the conversion equal odds of making the 1st time times chance of then making the TD if they don’t make it on that fourth down play, plus the chances of getting stopped times the (small but real) value of leaving the Patriots around the 5 yard line, is still higher than the 3 points of the field goal; and down by a lot of points, Dallas needs to maximize the points they make, not go “conservative” as if they need to decrease volatility.)

But more importantly is the real value it conveys. Two touchdowns – and that’s without a single additional New England score the rest of the way (meaning the Cowboys stop them each time), does not mean Dallas wins. It means they win half of the time.

If more realistically, New England sneaks in a field goal, they still need three scores to win, and only then if all three are touchdowns. And two touchdowns and a field goal just to tie.

Being “within two scores” is better than not. But the context of those two scores – what the scores are exactly, whether they put the team into a tie or win, how much time is left, and most importantly the specific opportunity the team is giving up to achieve them, are far more important.

Here it’s lopsided. Sure a team can crush it to the end but yet get “stopped” on one simple 2 yard play (the big “worry” that Dallas apparently has, and so fearfully doesn’t want to “give up” the 3 points), but that’s even more unlikely than them even just kicking the field goal instead and then suddenly crushing it to the end sufficiently to at least tye of win the game. (In other words, the only rationale for not trying the conversion – and it’s a bit speculative at that – is “we can’t move the ball on this team.” Yet the decision to not try requires that for all but the duration of the game the Cowboys not only move the ball on the Patriots, but dominate their defense.) It just feels good.

Group hug sessions and high fives are about feeling good. Winning strategy is about winning the game. And if a team needs to trick itself and strategically help its opponent in order to “feel good” and thus play better, it has bigger game winning problems.

Even getting stopped all day Dallas has a strong chance of making the 4th & 2, on this individual play.

And if one wants to factor in that they can’t seem to move the ball on New England, again – it can’t be emphasized enough but yet is repeatedly overlooked – that has to be equally factored into the fact that then willfully putting themselves down by a full fourteen points when they are so close to making it only ten becomes an even longer shot than it is already:

That is, the team can’t move the ball against New England so much they can’t get two yards, but is going to create two touchdown drives plus either stop New England or match yet a third score, and then also drive and win in overtime?

They may. But it banks on being able to move the ball, substantially, while the decision to give up a huge opportunity at a measly two or so yards banks on the inability to even budge the ball.

The fact Dallas is struggling thus on balance doesn’t weigh in much here, because it cuts both ways – they know they’ll have a hard time on subsequent drives, so reducing the number of them, the difficulty, or increasing the chances that the drives produce a win and not a “shot at” a win, is just as critical as the idea that their odds of making the fourth and two on this one particular play might also be lower than normal.

And to the extent the fact Dallas is struggling does weigh in, it means their chances are lower than the general game situation (score, time left) suggests.

This in turn means they need to take chances and increase volatility and variability; not decrease it. And there’s not much better opportunity to do so than when a team is only 5 yards from a touchdown, and only needs 2 to get an entire new set of downs. While on the other hand, taking the milquetoast field goal instead greatly decreases variability – and thus helps New England, the team both leading by a lot, and here the likely better team as well.

If Dallas does correctly go for the conversion and gets stopped, they at least have New England back at their own 5, and increase their own odds of subsequently having a shorter drive to field goal (and touchdown) range.

If they make the conversion, which is still statistically more likely than not, they stand a reasonable chance of scoring the touchdown on the play itself.

And if they make the conversion but don’t score on the play, they again have four chances to advance the ball a maximum of three yards, or as little as an inch, depending on where their successful fourth down conversion winds up.

As impotantly, making that touchdown would make it a 20-10 game. This is very different from a 20-6 game at this point, with barely over a quarter to play, and in what has been a defensive game. (The Patriots have moved the ball some, but this is in part because they keep stopping the Cowboys so quickly and have had a lot of chances, and good field position. And it’s in part because of somewhat sloppy tackling technique by the Cowboys versus better tackling and angles by the Patriots, but that’s another story.)

If, along with the constant stoppages of the Patriots, Dallas gets those same two touchdowns they seem to be banking on (and, at a minimum need, or the field goal is worthless), they win the game outright, instead of still lose it half of the time.

And, more likely, if the Patriots hit at least another field goal with their exceptional field goal kicker (who has already connected from 57), then those same two touchdowns still win the game, since the Patriots would be up by 13 points.

If that same Patriots field goal, and then somehow, two Dallas touchdowns happens after their measly 23 yard field goal instead, they again lose the game outright. And again, in that case, they would need to score three touchdowns just to win (making the odds from low to almost ridiculous by that point given the time left), or two touchdowns plus a field goal just to make it a tie game.

And last, by pulling within ten, not only are the Cowboys at least somewhat protected against a New England field goal (once again, if that happens, those same two touchdowns they would at a minimum need to even have a shot if they only kick the field goal – and which then would be worthless without more scores in the event of a New England field goal – would in this case still win them the game outright); they have a strong backup plan:

That is, if they stop the Patriots on all ensuing drives that taking the measly field goal here all but essentially also requires, and can’t get the two touchdowns, they can at least hit a field goal on one of their two scoring drives – which gives a lot more flexibility if they need it – and at least still have a shot at winning by putting the game into overtime. (Or winning on another field goal, which option being down by 14 also won’t give them).

In short, it’s a game structure and probabilities issue, combined with the huge field value situation of having a fourth and short near the goal line.

Here that field goal does fairly little, but seems to mean a lot because it’s “two scores”; while a touchdown, while still not giving them a great chance, presents a significant change to the game and their at the 4th & 2 pre decision moment, very low chances.

If the Cowboys weren’t in such a good field and down situation – already at the 5 yard line, with only about 2 to go for the first down – it might be a closer call. Obviously 20-6 is still better than 20-3: It at least does give you that option of maybe somehow scoring two unanswered touchdowns and winning in overtime, which alone won’t do it “if” you got stopped.

But 4th & 2 from the 5 when trailing by a lopsided score nearing late in the game is a gift wrapped opportunity. The value of making it simply has to be cohesively assessed (and multiplied by, or assessed vis a vis the chances of doing so), versus the value of kicking that field goal in lieu.

The former – the value of making it – is significant, and the chances fairly high, and the latter – moving to 20-6 – far more trivial. The decision to take it is playing not to lose in one of the worst ways possible, in order to avoid the possibility of somehow getting to the end of the game and being down by 1, 2, or 3 and incorrectly but commonly thinking, “Oh, if we had we only kicked the field goal.”

But the reality is the real value of the opportunity given up, will be relevant far more often but not seen. That is because that opportunity was not a hard number but a value expectation that’s just as real – or significant – but not as concrete or easy to blame after the fact because it connotates a range, and not something “definitive” that could have happened (take the “3” points) for instance, rather than a chance or even high chance, but not certainty, at a much larger value.

If teams can’t or won’t think in these terms, they will continue to make the wrong decisions in these situations, and, along with the great majority, think, as with Simms and Nantz, that they’re the right ones.

Another Wild Ride Past their Nemesis Ravens for the Patriots to Reach This Year’s Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks is shaping up to be a great match-up. It pits the dominant team of the past 15 years against their former head coach, leading a team seeking to be the first NFL team to repeat since none other than the Patriots themselves did it back in 2003- 2004, and a dominant defense that in last year’s Super Bowl dismantled what had been one of the best offenses of all time.

But the New England Patriots almost lost in the playoffs to their nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens weren’t very good this year. But in the AFC divisional round to this year’s playoffs, Baltimore came into town; and playing Baltimore in the playoffs should never make the Patriots feel comfortable.

Never mind that the Patriots were at home, where they almost never lose. Or the fact that Baltimore hasn’t typically been a great road team. (Or at least during the regular season, in 2012 they made it to and won the Super Bowl, winning two of three playoff games on the road en route, and in the playoffs have won multiple other games on the road.)

Or the fact that but for the Chargers losing against the Kansas City Chiefs back up quarterback, Baltimore never would have been in the playoffs in the first place. Or that as an underdog they had to beat the division winning Pittsburgh Steelers to even make it to the divisional round. (They did, 30-17.)

For the Patriots first playoff game, the Ravens were coming to town. And in January,  that normally means trouble for the Patriots – one of the winning-est playoff franchises in modern NFL history:

The Ravens beat the Patriots handily in the first round of the playoffs in 2009, knocking them down 33-14 (Though after the game, then Ravens’ running back Ray Rice was quick to correctly surmise “their era is not over.”)

And the Ravens beat them again, 28-13, in the 2012 AFC Conference Championship Game for the right to play in the 2012 season Super Bowl. (Which the Ravens won, fending off a furious near come from far behind 49ers victory, interrupted by an infamous, and very long, stadium power outage during the game.)

In the 2011 AFC Championship game, the Ravens should have beat the Patriots as well. But a dropped pass by wide receiver Lee Evans –  as well as a strong play by an undrafted rookie cornerback waived by the team that originally signed him earlier in the year – changed who went to Super Bowl 46 (XLVI).

Evans was a former star for the Buffalo Bills – drafted 13th overall by them in 2004, and traded to the Ravens before the start of the 2011 season for a mid round draft pick. And had Evans caught that pass from Flacco, the New England Patriots would now have five total Super Bowl appearances since the 2000 season – not six – and the Baltimore Ravens would have four – followed by Seattle, Pittsburgh, and the New York Giants at three each. Instead it’s six, three three three and three for the five teams.

The Giants incidentally are the same team who lost to the Ravens in the 2000 season Grand Finale. And it was the Giants, of all teams, that would have faced the Ravens again on February 5, 2012 in Super Bowl XLVI, but for that drop which vaulted in the Patriots instead.

(A Patriots team who, even more coincidentally, in a duplicate of Super Bowl XLII, lost a Super Bowl to the Giants for the second time in four years, as the New York team’s only other Super Bowl appearance of the millennium, after the Ravens, was also against the Patriots.)

But here’s what happened on the pass play that changed NFL history (although what happened two plays after that pass play is often referenced even more). Coverage was strong by rookie cornerback Sterling Moore, an undrafted free agent by Oakland who was then waived and picked up by the Patriots. (And who is currently with the Dallas Cowboys.)

Evans caught the near perfect pass, with two hands comfortably wrapped upon it, cradled up to his body. But he didn’t really secure the ball or catch it correctly. So a light hand swipe well after the ball hit Evans gut, and which needle threading connection by Flacco should have vaulted the Ravens into the Super Bowl – knocked away what should have been a catch, as well as another Ravens Super Bowl appearance. Here’s the play:

New England was leading 23-20 at the time, and the Ravens had driven from their own 21 down to the Patriots 14, in just under 80 seconds. Only 27 more seconds remained, and it was 2nd and 1. Flacco then hit Evans – who from examination of subtle body language, basic kinesthetics, and the ease with which Moore’s desperation swipe knocked away a ball that should have been easily secured, likely went into pre-celebratory mindset mode the moment he “caught” the ball.

Had the pass been held onto, the Patriots would have had 22 seconds left (minus any taken off by the ensuing kickoff), and would have trailed by 4 points, 27-23. That is, but for a “music city miracle” type of play, the game was over.  (Even if the Patriots had just over a minute left but not much more than that, trailing by more than field goal they still would have had almost no realistic chance to win the game.)

The story, as assuredly all Ravens fans remember, got even better for the Patriots, as Baltimore then got stopped on 3rd down and with 15 seconds remaining, lined up for the “gimme” 32 yard game tying field goal: A field goal rarely missed in the NFL, and that Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff very rarely misses.

But he did here. And the Patriots went onto their 5th Super Bowl appearance since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady entered the scene in early 2000.

This year, although New England was clearly the better team entering the playoffs, the Ravens again gave them trouble.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has long been underrated as a playoff QB, although that somewhat changed after his bulletproof (and never losing) performance in the upstart Ravens 2012 run all the way to Super Bowl victory.

But in this game, the 2014 AFC divisional round playoff, and just as Brady finally did years into his career (losing to Peyton Manning and the Colts in a game where the Patriots could have pulled it out at the end, and for the first time in his playoff career, they didn’t), Flacco finally came back down to earth when it ultimately mattered most.

Despite some prognostication otherwise (save from those who have vivid memories of the Ravens Patriots playoff history), the game was once again a very tough match-up for the Patriots; and if not a lopsided affair in the Ravens favor, it was certainly, as with their 2011 AFC championship tango, a reasonably even game.  And it came down at the end to a final drive, with the ball in Joe Flacco hands.

Flacco, as usual in tight spots, tried to make the most of the situation. But this time he pressed a little too much, didn’t pay quite enough or the right kind of attention to the clock, and threw too loosely for the situation; perhaps just in hope “something,” like a super catch or a huge penalty flag, would happen.  And something most definitely did happen. .

But the situation didn’t call for such a move, and there were enormous clock considerations:

After losing the lead on a Brandon LaFell TD, the Ravens started on their 11 yard line, down 35-31, with just over 5 minutes to go. This was probably not the situation the Patriots had wanted to be in. But it was better than losing, and the Ravens having the ball at the end. (As a side note, LaFell was part of an interesting team purge of the otherwise crescendoing 2013 Carolina Panthers.)

Minutes later, after a Patriots’ offsides, the Ravens found themselves with an opportunistic 1st and 5 at the Patriots 36.  Since a TD would only put them ahead by 3 and allow the Pats a chance to tie the game on a field goal, they needed to be careful with the clock; but since the Patriots only had 1 timeout remaining, a few plays in bounds should crunch off enough clock easily enough when and if they needed to.

But for their part, the Ravens, after a 3rd and 3 incomplete from their own 42 with 2:25 remaining, took their 2nd timeout. This would have been a bad move had they wound up scoring fairly quickly; it stopped the clock above the two minute warning and kept a lot of time left for New England if they did score quickly – which does happen – and took away their clock flexibility for later control.But they probably wanted to think about the play longer, since it was 4th down and the game was on the line. And unless they scored very quickly, it was probably not going to be a problem. (Still, since there is little support for the idea that “thinking” about what play to run even more than the 20-30 seconds an incomplete allows, just because the situation is crucial, necessarily increases a team’s chances, they probably shouldn’t have called it, but it wasn’t at all a horrendous move, like this strategy call in the Packers Seahawks NFC Conference Championship Game was.)

More likely than not the Ravens were not going to score right away from the 36. But the 1st and 5 gave them a few shots at making up significant yardage (which is part of why getting that clock lower for control would have been a good move), and then making sure to pick up the 1st down and keep the chains rolling regardless.

Yet the Ravens did something ill advised. After a short incomplete, they threw deep down the left sidelines. Almost to the end zone.

This was a bad move, for two reasons. It was a low probability play that was also well covered, and had they scored it would have left the Patriots with over a minute and a half and just a 3 point deficit.  (The strong coverage and poor angle for the throw in combination with its low odds are the key reasons it shouldn’t have been attempted; if open, even if it will leave the Patriots some time, take it.)

You don’t want to leave any team with that kind of time. And Tom Brady and the Patriots in particular don’t fail to score very often when there is over a minute to go and they trail by 3 and have the ball – and the score would have stood at 38-35 at that point, not exactly a low scoring game. (One of the few times it did happen was in 2012, after a 46 yard near Hail Mary type of pass put them behind 24-23, but with over a minute left. That game was in Seattle, against the Seahawks, the same team they face on Sunday in the Super Bowl.)

But as Flacco had likely wanted, “something” did happen on the play. A catch into the end zone. Unfortunately it was by Duron Harmon, who happens to play Safety for the Patriots. And that was the ball game, and a slight change in NFL history.

Ironically, there is a good possibility that the Ravens would still be matching up with the Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl had that game gone differently at the end. The Patriots, “deflategate or not,” went on to crush the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship game. The Ravens easily beat the Colts back in the 2012 playoffs – although it was in Baltimore and both teams were a little different, and the Colts easily beat the Ravens in Indianapolis earlier this season, where this game would have been as well.)

The long ball to the end zone into extremely good coverage with far too much time left on the clock for the Patriots to still easily pull out the game, on an otherwise manageable 2nd and 5 in unambiguous four down territory with plenty of time to throw numerous incompletes and still get to the end zone, was a poor decision by the Ravens and Flacco – who is usually both clutch, and makes fairly good decisions for the given situation.

An occasional commentator has questioned some of Flacco’s moves.But they usually have a bigger upside times their chances than downside times those chances relative to the situation – which is the most crucial aspect of good quarterback decision making. Brady, of course, has long been the master at this. (Although Russell Wilson, who Brady faces in this upcoming Super Bowl – and who also possesses a great set of feet to both complicate and expand his decision making process and potential – like Brady early in his career has fast become very good at it as well.)

But regardless of what happens in this year’s Super Bowl coming up on Sunday versus Wilson and those same Seahawks (pick: Patriots win), if Brady returns for another year, – likely – and if the Patriots make the playoffs (based on past history also likely, as they’ve made the playoffs every year but 2 since Brady became the starter in 2001), they probably would rather not have to face the Ravens, one way or another.

Week 12 NFL Picks Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week, is not.

Chiefs (-7.5) at Raiders

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

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

Close call, but:

Pick: Raiders 

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

(11-23-14) Updated – Voila:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Ravens
Titans (+11) at Eagles

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

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

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

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

Pick: Titans

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cardinals

Rams (+5) at Chargers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Rams 

Dolphins (+6) at Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Broncos

Cleveland (+3) at Atlanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

But here was the situation earlier this afternoon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falcons called their first time out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so they lost anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miami Dolphins Make a Typical, but Truly Awful Strategic Decision in last Minute of the Half Against the Buffalo Bills

This blog is about to share something with you, that, if you happen to come across this post in your online football travels, from a football strategy perspective will absolutely blow you away. Continue reading