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

 

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


1.  Washington Redskins +3.5 at Chicago Bears

Skins stink on the road.  But they surprise.

Pick: Redskins

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

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

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

Pick: Rams

3.  Seattle (+11) at Baltimore Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Ravens

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

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

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

Pick: Chargers

5. Oakland Raiders (+6.5) at Denver Broncos

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

Pick: Oakland

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

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

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

Pick: Browns

7.  Atlanta Falcons (+7.5) at Carolina Panthers

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

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

Pick: Falcons

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

The Saints party like it’s 1999.

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

So maybe after the game.

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

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Week 13 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 1-1 Unofficial picks: 0-0 (See last paragraph last weeks picks.) Year to date picks against the spread (ATS): Official picks: 29-26-1. Total picks ATS: 33-26-1

Recap: Last week went with the Cowboys. Against an undefeated team whose coach probably asked them why they were 10-0 and undefeated in almost 365 days regular season if go back to last year, yet still not even a favorite (and in some places an underdog) against a debacle 3-7 team who’s not even very good at home. Which probably get then pretty riled. And rightly so.

This quote from a silly comedy movie, and tweeted by Tony Romo, inspired:

Here’s a better inspirational Tom Berenger movie:

This flick, a sort of far softer (and much nicer) “pulp fiction,” relied on an inspirational book which wouldn’t support a team like the Cowboys, who have made excuses (Romo’s not playing!) but would support a team like the Vikings, who don’t.

Picks:

1. Seattle Seahawks (-2.5) at Minnesota Vikings:

3 points would be a more comfortable line here, since this game does involve a team that came within a 2nd & goal from the 1 yard line of winning its second Super Bowl in a row last year, and finished out the 2012 season by almost going to the championship game. A club now with its back up against the wall. But so far it’s not quite been the same team; while the Vikings have been quietly growing. This game will show whether that growth has continued.

Pick: Vikings

2  Arizona Cardinals (-3.5) at St. Louis Rams

Sure the Rams might win, in, of course, true recent history Jeff FIsher fashion. The Jekyll and Hyde Rams, a moniker that’s been fitting since Fisher took over.

Now that they’re all but out of the playoff race, and can’t harm the Cardinals chances too badly even by beating them, they might yet win again and sweep. They outplayed the Cardinals (but lost) one of the two games last year and beat them by 2 points earlier this one.

The Cardinals remember that, and don’t like it. But the Rams seem to play this team well. They may again, but they’re still a a largely up and down but fairly mediocre team with no offense, and a defense that still doesn’t always tackle correctly. And going up against one of the best teams in the NFL, coming into the game knowing they will get the Rams best shot – which given the Rams history is a lot different than the Rams frequent mediocre ones.

And while beating the Cardinals seems to unfortunately define the Rams season for them – and why in part they’re a scary team for the Cardinals to play right now – keep in mind this is now Jeff Fisher’s 20th season as an NFL head coach. It’s included only 6 playoff appearances, and a Rams team that each year continues to do no better than the quick spike in improvement from its prior dismal depths it showed the first year Fisher, now in year four, took over.

Pick: Cardinals

3. Carolina Panthers (-6.5) at New Orleans Saints

And then there were none.

Pick: Saints

4. Denver Broncos (-5.5) at San Diego Chargers

Denver’s a very strong football team, but new QB Brock Osweiler is still somewhat unknown; and Denver’s also getting a lot of publicity off of beating an injury riddled Patriots team in a game they were solidly losing until near the end. And injury riddled or not, under QB Philip Rivers the Chargers have typically played pretty good football late in the season.

Pick: Chargers

5. Indianapolis Colts (+9) At Pittsburgh Steelers

The way the Steelers have been playing, it’s hard to see them losing. Particularly considering the easier schedule the more questionable, and normally almost entirely Andrew Luck led Colts – now still playing with a so far successful but not taking the stats column by storm 40 year old quarterback  – has had. But 9 points is still too many for a game that is far from a near lock.

Pick: Colts

 

 

Week 12 Picks Against the Spread – Thanks Giving Day Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bears 

 

Unofficial “fun pick”

Cancelled, game already started

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

Week 10 NFL Picks Against the Spread – Patriots Giants Version

Last week: 2-3
YTD: 24-22

Recap: Putting aside the lousy record, last week’s calls weren’t too awful. The Cowboys probably lost to the Eagles on a beautiful (for the defense) Matt Cassel pick-six whose harm in an otherwise close game is hard to overestimate: The Cowboys had the ball, then were receiving the kickoff to get the ball again after Cassel’s TD pass to the defense, so it’s a “pure” 7 points – unlike after an offensive score where a team adds 7 to its side, but loses possession of the ball to the other team as part of the bargain.

And the Cowboys had been on the Eagles 36 yard line. So aside from the unrelated fluke of a great ensuing great kickoff return by Lucky Whitehead, they also lost a net of 42-44 yards average of key middle field position, as well as the 7 full points, on Cassel’s smooth move.

The Redskins, getting 14, lost by 17, in part because of a sudden plague of dropped passes. (Though while still being slightly random, those do count as being “what the team is.”)  And the Colts won outright.

The one real bad pick was the same as week 8 – the Dolphins. Prescient words:

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

Pick: Dolphins

Also interesting:

Hard to imagine [the Dolphins can actually beat the same Bills who trounced them earlier]. And based on the type of response the Dolphins showed in the Patriots game two Thursday Nights ago (see above), they are not that team.

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

Woops. Bad deferment.

Watch the Dolphins now upset the Eagles – a reasonable possibility given that expectations are low again, and the Dolphins have shown that under Dan Campbell they can turn it on.

But they’ve also shown they’re still lousy, and essentially the same team, while the Eagles may finally be morphing into a very solid club that also needs a home win.  (QB Sam Bradford is also getting less and less jittery the further away he moves from his umpteenth season ending injury.)

Also forgot to include the Bears Chargers. (Though in fairness was going to pick the Browns getting 13.5 at the Bengals for week 8 TNF – a spread they still would have missed by 1/2 a point if Browns DT Randy Starks in an at that point very close game hadn’t mind-numbingly lined up offsides on what turned out to be an utterly failed 4th down play, which instead of giving the Browns the ball gave the Bengals a 1st down at the Browns 3 yard line, and essentially 7 points. Though did call the Jets to win this Thursday – just rarely get to picks by Thursday’s game.)

And forgot to include the 49ers, a pick I loved, since they’re not bad at home, Atlanta is a bad road team crossing the country, and has played middling teams close the past several games. And the 49ers wound up winning outright. (In part because the Falcons Dan Quinn, like a lot of head coaches, doesn’t really “get” end game structural strategy situations.)

Picks: 

1.  Chicago Bears (+6.5) at St. Louis Rams

The Bears have been playing increasingly decent football, while the Rams may have finally turned the corner after a few years of flirting with becoming a very good team.

But until otherwise established, this consistently Jekyll and Hyde team shouldn’t be favored by nearly a TD against a decent, possibly up and coming team: Even with the possible to likely return off three key starters – DL Robert Quinn, S T.J. McDonald, and (rookie) RT Rob Havenstein – though that does make it a closer call.

If the Rams do win this game solidly and fairly easily, they may have turned that corner (finally); as they have shown increasing signs already. But it’s still an if. And even if they have, the Bears may put up a decent battle anyway; though if the Rams have turned that corner, it’s less likely. So it could be Rams 26 – 9, in which case the Rams, given the last several games, might finally be a strong contender in that division, but:

Pick: Bears, possible surprise upset. But that’s only banking on the fact that Jeff Fisher’s an overrated coach, not the fact he’s still a decent enough coach, with a lot of young talent and a team that from trades and bad records has now had a horde of high draft picks for years running.

2.  New Orleans Saints (pick) at Washington Redskins

How are the Saints, considered a good team, still a pick em game, even if a road game, against Washington, considered a bad team?

In part because too much may be being placed on the Saints loss at home versus the Titans (and a still underrated rookie Marcus Mariota at QB, coming back from injury, and a quick head coaching change bounce) – making this an absolute must win for the Saints against a middling opponent.

And in part because the Redskins aren’t a bad team, and they will likely be healthier in their secondary than they’ve been since starting out week 3. (And their number one WR, out most of the season but active last week, may be a bit healthier – and certainly has to play lights out after grabbing his head coach’s chest the other day and giving him a “purple nurple.” (You just can’t do that to your head coach, who then says he expects a big game out of you, and not then light it up some.))

That makes this a tough game, and probably one of the better games of the week, in terms of the hidden story lines and real football, though it’s not getting much coverage.

QB Kirk Cousins simply can’t follow up his half fun but half kind of seemingly thin skinned “you like that!” scream with a bad loss at the Patriots (although he did have 7 dropped passes by his receivers in the game) followed then by a home loss, can he?

Pick: Redskins

3.  Kansas City Chiefs (+4.5) at Denver Broncos.

This line is a little ridiculous. It opened at around 6.5 to 7, which is pretty high considering the rivalry, early season expectations, and the Chiefs mild rebound to 3-5.

Now it’s at 4.5 – a huge drop – and barely the 3 a home team gets in an otherwise “tie” game just by virtue of being the home club. And this for a team that but for a desperate Colts team would not only be unbeaten entering week 10, but is one game past removed from a dominant beat down of the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers.

The Chiefs are also without arguably their best offensive player (and, since in a game that was otherwise going into overtime he fumbled the game away early in the season against the Broncos, the one with perhaps the most direct motivation for redemption): RB Jamaal Charles, who doesn’t run; he floats, glides, dances, with an instinct and balance for the game and its movement that can’t be taught.

So how are they now only 4.5 points? Conventional wisdom seems to be they may beat the Broncos. Conventional wisdom (except when fairly lopsided) is often not right on football, but may be here. It’s the Chiefs season on the line, and they still have the players to beat the Broncos. (Still, this would seem to be the insiders line as well, which doesn’t explain how the line opened so high, except for possible expectations that the public might not see it that way.)

And while the Chiefs showed poor resiliency and what appeared to be on field “heart” against the Packers after that debacle against the Broncos in week 2 (they not only got crushed scorewise until it was late in the game and meaningless, even in a key nationally televised game they showed listlessness, and poor body language), and then continued to spiral downward after that, enough time has passed since that, helped by some victories, they may not respond the same way this time.

4.5 is a pretty tight line for such a poor team missing it’s key offensive player on the road against a nearly unbeaten (and solid nearly unbeaten) team. But this game is likely to be close. And the Broncos are without half of their key cornerback tandem, and one of their better pass rushers in Demarcus Ware.

The Chiefs “should” win or battle it close enough to make it a 3 or 4 point game. Beyond that, with the breakdown they showed at the Packers and beyond, it’s hard to say.

Pick: Chiefs, possible to likely upset

4. New England Patriots (-7.5) at New York Giants

It’s a game of the News. But never mind the oddity that of 32 different teams in the NFL these two have met in the Super Bowl twice in the recent past (or that those two times are barely the only times the Giants even made the playoffs under that entire stretch), the Giants also won both.

That is, Brady and Belichick have been to a remarkable 6 Super Bowls together. They’re 4-2.  The two losses are both to the giant slayers – the New York Giants.  Who in that first Super Bowl not only beat New England, but ruined the first perfect season since the 1972 Dolphins (back when teams played a 14 game regular season schedule), with the at that point 18-0 Patriots one game away from accomplishing what no NFL team has ever accomplished: A perfect 19-0.

The Patriots may say they don’t care about a perfect season this year, but no doubt they do. But in the type of interesting storyline twist that seems to occur often in the NFL, this so far perfect season could once again be ruined by the Giants:

Different teams, but the four main principals, Bill, Tom, Tom and Eli, remain. And while the Patriots hardly need a reason to stay vigilant for any road game this season, they know Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin seem to be able, for whatever reason, to play them well, and are perfectly capable of beating them; and despite some defensive breakdowns and injuries, seem to be playing a little better this year again.

Anything can happen this game. The Giants defense has given up about 422 yards per outing – hardly a good number for a “good team,” and ranking at the bottom of the league. (Even worse than the 414 per game Saints, who the Giants gave away a game to in week 8 by deciding to fask mask a ball carrier at mid field with seconds left on the clock – when the ball carrier wasn’t even allowed to advance the ball, and had himself made a big mistake by even trying to, in a key end game unfolding that was barely covered, yet ultimately and freakishly decided the game.)

But they also actively try for and create turnovers, and may figure out a way to take away some of those quick slants and underneath routes that Brady is so good at quickly unloading – a talent which has enabled the Patriots to easily weather the loss of what now amounts to just about half plus of their overall offensive line.

And 7.5 points on the road against a team who can easily beat them is a lot of points for any team, even the 2015 New England Patriots on a sort of “post deflate gate rampage.” Though really, given the fact that this is the Giants, it’s also just as much about the fact that the Giants may win; and simply because it’s Giants Patriots, there’s a good chance this game itself may be closer, in which case a touchdown and a half point is a lot.

Pick: Giants

5. Cleveland Browns (+6) at Pittsburgh Steelers

Until last year Cleveland had lost to Ben Rothlisberger something like 17 of the last 18 times, or something absurd like that. Ben’s not playing this game, but the Steelers are still good. And unlike the Browns, still in the thick of the race, and need this division game.

Meanwhile the Browns don’t seem to recognize the potential high value of draft picks relative to the salary cap. The numbers are structured, so if a high or even mid (or low) round pick plays great, a team gets a value return that but for flukes rarely happens once a player gets past his rookie contract.

So picking a quarterback in the first round, then deciding to sit him for year two even when the team is essentially out of any meaningful playoff race – after a total of 85 NFL passes (in like three games by the time it was evident that was the team’s goal regardless unless McNown literally couldn’t play) for even a good 36 year old career backup, is a debacle of a move.

And it doesn’t matter how much otherwise so far decent enough head coach Mike Pettine loves 36 year old Josh McCown or hates aforesaid number one pick Johnny Manziel. If that’s the case they shouldn’t have drafted him. And in a losing season are simply wasting opportunity and possible upside value, with little downside, by refusing to play him until forced into it, by McCown acknowledging that not only is it painful to throw, it’s painful for him to even put his shirt on due to rib and shoulder injuries.

“It’s okay though – The Browns have done so well on QBs since reentering the league in 1999 (starting just a mere 23 different ones so far), they get a pass on this bungling fiasco.” Which they may get rescued from anyway by mere happenstance. Or not.

So will we see the Browns who played the Steelers tough last year both times (winning once and rallying furiously to tie and then ultimately lose by 3 in the other), or the Browns of old, who repeatedly get plastered by the Steelers almost every time?

While QB Manziel is once again a wild card (he played well early versus the Bengals last week, and then after a bad helmet to helmet hit on a pretty gutsy first down scramble attempt, coincidence or not, played poorly for the rest of the game), this is still a Mike Pettine team, the Steelers are not the Bengals – and certainly aren’t without Rothlisberger – and if the Browns are not to be the same debacle they’ve been for years and years running (though they may well, once again, be just that), they’ll battle and make this a real football game at least.

Though making it more challenging for them, they’ll have to do it without two of their better defensive players in Safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden – once one of the leagues premier defenders – once again. Guard Joe Botonio will also be out; with a rookie (C. Erving), who reportedly hasn’t looked very good in his limited snaps so far, slated in to take his place.

Pick: Browns.  Pettine may not be good with structural QB decisions, but he can otherwise coach and get a team to play. If he can’t, he should be out of there. All this talk of teams needing stability is a partial myth. What they need are good coaches, and there’s a world of possible candidates out there, and only 32 positions in the entire country. (Good teams “have stability” because good teams don’t need to change head coaches.)

6.  Dallas Cowboys (+1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Before the season started, the Cowboys said they were acting like a championship team because they thought they were one, and would be more likely to stay one if they acted that way.

They’ve now lost 6 straight games and are 2-6, and would be 1-7 if both the Giants and the referees, independently, hadn’t all but handed the Cowboys the game in week 1.

They kick a fourth field goal from just outside the 8 yard line on a 4th and long 2 in the 4th quarter against the Seahawks to take a 12-10 lead – as if helping to ensure that it stays a 1 score game even if they can add another now otherwise key additional field goal, and likely the easiest kind for an almost always clutch Russell Wilson to pull out at the end (which of course he did, easily), is a good move – to thus ultimately lose 13-12.

Their backup QB has a “good game” when he only throws one pick, although it was a pick-six that not only lost them a full 7 points, but also nearly half of the football field of field position on top of that as of the time of the pick (*see above).

Owner Jerry Jones, in response to their recent “history of apparent off field domestic violence and anger issues” acquisition literally strikes a clipboard from a coaches hand in another outburst of anger in full view of public cameras, points out in response that he’s a “team leader”….

Meanwhile, the Cowboys, who couldn’t intercept a morse code transmission if it was spelled out for them in block letters, have almost no turnovers, and a good defense that otherwise simply apparently doesn’t try to strip the ball – besides of course not tackling by aiming one’s shoulder into a player and hoping he falls, the single most important thing to do on defense.

Number one overall draft pick Jameis Winston of the Bucs, meanwhile, while playing very poorly in preseason and somewhat poorly early on in the season, is starting to validate all of those prognistications interestingly proclaiming they liked what “Winston will be.”

But after four games without a Winston pick, the odds even out and the turnover challenged Cowboys somehow pick up a few in this game and come out with a victory. Then they get Romo the sharp, relaxed, charming, down to earth more intelligent than he acts all American humble good guy and goofy in a good way choirboy back, and they start winning and suprisingly make a run for it. While in private a not quite delusional Jerry Jones – or somebody, maybe Jason Garrett – insists that Greg Hardy start indulging in some behind the scenes but serious emotionally shifting anger management and self control counseling.

Pick: Cowboys. America’s team, almost perfectly, to the letter.

NFL 2015 Season Week 3 Picks Against the Spread

Last week, 4-4. (Glad I added a late update, taking the Giants at minus 2.5, who went on to blow a double digit 4th quarter lead two weeks in a row; and who also made several mistakes after creeping into field goal territory or picking up key 4th downs deep – but hey, that’s part of who the Giants are, right?)

Year to date: 10-6. And with some bad picks last week: Such as Buffalo, who I picked even after learning th confounded Bills “haven’t been to the playoffs since before the medieval ages” organization still had the cornball nerve to sell some supposedly Patriots mocking Deflategate “football air pumps” for the game.

That’s a good way to calm the Patriots and get them primed for a cush contest. Like poking a stick at hornets is calming.

If you have to play the hornets, grab the stick. But even implicitly joking they’re wussy bees who need to cheat to win, when all they’ve done is whupped you this entire century? Seems like a bad move.

Memo, to Bills: Don’t mock opponents that have owned you for nearly fifteen years over psi inflations having nothing to do with your game, and before you even beat them. (Note, Tom Brady came into the game 23-3 against the Bills. He left 24-3. Nice mockery job, Buffalo.)

So this week, first pick, who do we have? Well, of course, the Tyrannosaurus Rex Ryans:

1. Buffalo Bills (+3) at Miami Dolphins

If Buffalo’s the team I think they are (or maybe at this point it should be “thought”), they’re even or a bit ahead to win; and yet are pegged as underdogs for the contest.

Sure the Dolphins have the home field heat advantage (tough in Miami in September). But, weather aside, when these two teams play the home field really doesn’t mean too much. (Note: Here it might because of that weather: Given the role of temperature changes I just checked Miami’s forecast: 89 degrees at game time, with a 99 index. Between white jerseys and the natural thinner blood acclimation for the team practicing and living in the warmer area, it’s an advantage.)

And while the Dolphins just lost – not to the Patriots either, but to the team with more losses over the past three seasons than any other in the NFL – and will be rearing for a key division win in this their “this, time, we make it” season, the Bills may just be the better football team still.

Ryan Tannehill’s great, bla bla Been suggesting it since his first season when despite a super nice year by historical standards for a QB rook, he was overshadowed by the triple monster performances of one Lucky guy, RW, and some guy named R2d2 – or RG3, I get the nicknames confused. (But either way, a guy currently languishing as perhaps the highest priced 3rd string QB the game has seen, and who should be traded to a team in need of QB potential. And yes a triple win trade can be accomplished; the easily remediable, and in everybody’s interest to do so, “no cut if injured” clause on next year’s option notwithstanding. I’ll show how in another post.)

But consider Miami’s week 1 17-10 win at the Redskins: A likely underrated team (at least when Kirk Cousins isn’t having one of his every so often multi quarter mild play meltdowns) that outplayed Miami and probably should have won. (The Skins made a routine but large strategy error late in the game; gave up a 69 yard punt return for a TD and had marginal punting as well; and dropped two easy picks (by Culliver and Robinson, and Culliver’s would have probably been a pick six) – that had a good chance of changing the game’s outcome.)

The point is, Tannehill’s stats show 0 picks for the game. It’s a team sport, and randomness affects the numbers that alter our perception of individual performance: Two easy catches by NFL defensive backs, for whom catching footballs should be as automatic and easy as brushing one’s teeth (but apparently, through lack of proper kinesthetic and extra challenging multi sensory pass catch training, or whatever, it’s not), and Tannehill has bad stats, not good ones.  Yet the drops versus catches have nothing to do with how Tannehill performed.

He is good though, and should be on his game, at home, in a big matchup for his team that, facing two expectedly “poor” opponents first, they’ve probably been looking toward since preseason.

But perhaps a humbled Rex has his team more quietly fired up this time; and also has them flying a little more under the radar after their perhaps sudden self presumption of excellence after rolling a normally slow starting Colts team in week 1.

If he doesn’t, the team is probably not that good, and my pick of them to win the division, in hindsight, possibly wrong. (And it may be anyway, because I’m starting to suspect that the Patriots, after an entire offseason where their performance was implicitly questioned through the never ending “Deflategate” saga, are also somewhat quietly seething, and even more focused as a result.)

Pick: Bills

2. San Francisco 49ers (+6.5) at Arizona Cardinals

(Post game update: This is the worst pick of the season so far. I guess I forgot to remind myself of this.) The 49ers, even if Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater had his worst game, and the whole Vikings team seemed to play as if they simply expected to win (unlike in week 2 when they came out against the Lions and played with a different intensity level), showed in week 1 that they can play.

The Cardinals, last week’s game against the Bears (and after some key Chicago injuries) aside, don’t usually blow teams out. And it’s a division game: After several years of the 49ers being the challenged team, it’s also one with the tables now plausibly turned; and the battle should be well fought. [Again, this.]

While the Cardinals obviously have the edge in winning, it wouldn’t be that big of a true upset if the 49ers won. And given the division intensity and history, there’s a reasonable chance the game could be close, making this an easy pick with the almost touchdown cushion the 49ers are being given here.

Pick: 49ers 

3. New Orleans Saints (+9) at Carolina Panthers

Seriously, did Drew Brees really play all that fantastically in weeks 1 and 2?

I watched every play; and while Brees has been one of the best QBs in the NFL for a long time, and may still be well up there, it’s conceivable that the drop off to long time backup Luke McCown may not be as big as anticipated because of Brees’ play the first two weeks.

But then again, in those two weeks the Saints also lost twice – to the Cardinals, and then to the Buccaneers: That is, to the very same team who after winning all of two games in 2014 and just before playing the Saints, also lopsidedly lost in week 1 of this season as well. And it was a loss to the Titans no less, who themselves had also somehow managed the considerable feat of only winning 2 games in 2014, mirroring the Bucs.

Which of course, doesn’t bode well for the Saints either.

Still, the large underdog line represents too much compensation for the QB loss and the embarassing home debacle against the Bucs in week 2 (in which, however, and making matters worse, they were largely ouplayed, not simply “unlucky”): And it could be a harbinger that the Saints’ reasonably long run as a competitive team, including within their division, is over.

But the Panthers are a defensive oriented team. And though they aren’t among the league leaders in winning close games, they don’t tend toward large blowouts either. 8 points is a large cushion in a game that, given that the South doesn’t look like it’s going to be a pushover, could represent a Saintly desperation effort to keep this season’s hopes alive, and make it a tougher battle than it otherwise should be. (And possibly even shock the NFL world and Panthers in the process – don’t be surprised if it happens.) Then again they may not.

It’s far from a lock. But it’s too early to be taking the Panthers as huge favorites aginst even a QB depleted but traditionally tough division foe, especially with LB Luke Kuechly out.

Pick: Saints

(Update: Original number was +8 for the Saints, yesterday when article posted it had moved past 9, and now is 10. Which seems like an over reaction)

3A. Atlanta Falcons (-1.5) at Dallas Cowboys

Okay, after this game I’ll have a lot of hindsight, and give you a great analysis as to who will win.

But before the game, are you kidding me? We’re slogging along at 10-6 on the year against the spread here – let’s keep that above .500 pace alive rather than risk it on a few coin tosses like the Bills and Lions were last week.

So why the write up? It’s just a great matchup, that’s all. Let’s face it, Tony Romo has been playing silk smooth, but the Cowboys have not played as well at home as on the road; meanwhile the Falcons are seemingly clicking on all cyclinders. And in Cowboys backup Brandon Weeden they’re going up against a QB who’s 5-15 in his career.

Granted, all but one of those games was with the Browns. But it’s still a really lousy record; Weeden (a wacky draft pick when the Browns wasted a first rounder on a then 28 year old “potential upside but already very mature college player” as their projected starter), hasn’t played all that well much of the time; and one of the Cowboys rare losses last year came in their one game with Weeden at the helm, and the game ultimately wasn’t all that close either.

While sure, he has arm skills, and could surprise, the drop off from Romo to Weeden is pretty significant as far as QB dropoffs go – kind of a big one. (Also note, as far as the Browns go, that pick of Weeden wasn’t even their worst move of that same 2012 first round: as the Browns just “had to make sure to have” running back Trent Richardson, and traded away three later picks in order to move up one single spot to number 3 overall just in case the Adrian Peterson rich and left tackle poor Minnesota Vikings traded away that third pick in the draft to someone else, and the Browns universe thus crumble away. I watched that draft, as always took copious notes, and for about the 500th time prayed, of course first for world peace, greater tolerance, less fervently held misinformation, hatred, righteousness and infringement on others in the world; and more personally, to be a team General Manager.)

This is just a great week 3 contest though: Dallas was my NFC pick to make it to the Super Bowl. But with a reasonable chance for Dez Bryant’s foot to not heal until very late or even at all this season, and Romo – in possibly what will utlimately be a faster healing injury, – out for at least 8 games, and a bit of a disapointment in the run game (I thought Darren McFadden might surprise, but it looks like his very early career flashes of great ability once again aren’t showing), it’s looking weaker at this point. I can’t even pick ’em in a tossup game against the Falcons, who are really playing with a renewed energy this year , and so far look to be in the early stages of also writing a strong season and improvement story.

I want to. I did pick them to win the entire NFC, after all, injury riddled or not. But I’m sticking with a more select group of picks here, and just can’t figure this game out. For those that can, email me.

Dallas is not just missing Romo and Bryant, but left guard Ronald Leary is out. Free agent rookie pick up La’el Collins, who took 1 snap at the position for every 2 by Mackenzy Bernadeaue in the week 2 win at Philadelphia (although the team reportedly didn’t even think he was sufficiently ready to even suit up for week 1), has been named the starter over Bernadeaue for the game.

Collins was originally targeted as a first round pick, before being questioned, without ever being a suspect, with respect to a heinous crime. And NFL teams, forgetting that police ask anybody with relevant information questions too, naturally flipped out and dropped him like a hot potato, also seemingly forgetting that the very act of drafting an untested player is a risk, and more importantly that this possible addition simply changed the calculus a little bit.

Veteran stalwart defensive end Jeremy Mincey is also now out. Big offseason acquisition Greg Hardy isn’t eligible to play until game 5. Promising rookie draft pick Randy Gregory is still hurt. Tight end Jason Witten is reportely playing with a few injuries.

Pick: None. Just a middling write up.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (+6.5) at Green Bay Packers

Upset alert: This game is near a tossup. So, as no one is picking the Chiefs, here you go: Chiefs win.

Putting aside trying to capture public perception, as lines must also do, the line should be 3 (maybe 3.5), for the Packers solid home field advantage. They usually seem to play much better in Green Bay. And the Chiefs also slightly lean toward being a better than average home versus road team.

But right now, but for prior expectations and perception, there’s no great way to peg the Packers as the better team. They beat the Seahawks. But, if closer, so did the Rams. They beat the Bears. Then the Cardinals half walloped the Bears.

The Chiefs are healthier than last year, have gotten a few key players back and have more depth, are a little under the radar this year, and as with the Packers also have a traditionally very successful coach.

Presumably they’re also hungrier; and presumably very hungry after blowing a key divisional and likely ultimate playoff game relevant matchup versus methuselah but still super savvy and competent Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

They stood toe to toe with the Broncos, in a game Denver was no doubt jacked up for, and in the majority of respects played a better game. Sure the Texans look meek so far this season, but the Chiefs also solidly outplayed them in week 1 in Houston.

While every game matters, being in the tough AFC West, they need a win, and this is the game the Chiefs make their statement That is, if they are capable of making that statement. And there is more than a good enough chance that they are that the game could be considered closer to a true tossup than the somewhat lopsided winner loser context the 6.5 spread suggests.

With the points, and even though when the Packers win at home (which is a lot), it’s not a close game anywhere near the league average, this is still an easy pick.

Pick: Chiefs

Note: There’s still more film to watch, so this might be updated before tomorrow afternoon with another game. None of the above picks will change once made; but if more worthwhile information is revealed in film, I’ll add it in an update as well.

Probabilities of Making the Playoffs for All 32 NFL Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Popular Harvard Sports Analytic Collective Study of NFL Playoff Possibilities Misses the Odds

Near the beginning of preseason, a Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

The study reached numbers that appear to carry the credibility of tested data and analysis. Because of this, along with the school name and the study’s use of assessments from Pro Football Reference and statistical behemoth FiveThirtyEight, it garnered a lot of attention.

Unfortunately, many of its numbers are heavily flawed. (I’ve compared them in here with better playoff chances in part I-covering teams 1-10; II-covering teams 11-20; and III-covering teams 21-32, and will look at both during the course of the season and run a comparison at season end. Anything can happen, but barring a statistical aberration, the Harvard Collective’s study numbers will fare worse.)

The HSAC study made several compounding assumptions. And not only did this lead to some results that may not represent the best assessment of that team’s actual playoff chances, it also led to some statistically questionable, and even unsupportable ones.

For instance, it pegged the Seahawks at a ridiculous 99% to make the playoffs. (The Seahawks were originally 95% to make the playoffs – still too high. But apparently to normalize outcomes so an average of six teams from each conference would make it into the postseason each year, their number was adjusted upward.) There’s far too much variability, uncertainty, as well as general parity in the NFL for any team to have a 99 out of 100 chance to make the playoffs, before the season even begins.

The HSAC study also pegged the Titans at 2% to make the playoffs, and originally the Ravens at 9%. Both of these are also unrealistic given basic NFL variance in the case of the Titans; and in the case of the Ravens, also given the fact they have made the playoffs 6 out of the last 7 seasons, and have more playoff wins than any team in the entire NFL since 2008; the year quarterback Joe Flacco entered the league and John Harbaugh became their head coach.

And it pegged the Raiders at a ridiculous, almost ludicrously low .003 (.3%) – that’s 3 out of 1000 times – chance of making the playoffs.

Along with a few other probabilities that push the boundaries of statistical reasonableness, and several others that probably don’t represent particularly great assessments, the study also pegged the Miami Dolphins as having the highest chances of making the playoffs out of the entire AFC.

That’s not a totally wacky pick. Miami was one of my dark horse teams to take the next step this year; as it was for several other people. But it still seems a little odd that since this study has come out, Miami is now often thrown into the mix of AFC, and even possible Super Bowl contenders.

There’s a good chance this is simply a coincidence. After all, Miami as a dark horse team (among several) was not a novel idea. They have some good players, a potentially excellent quarterback, and showed occassional signs the last two years of being able to play at a near elite team level. (Albeit several teams have. For instance, watch out for the Chiefs this year as much as if not more than the Dolphins. Another AFC dark horse that may surprise, if that defense really pulls together and QB Hoyer throws as accurately as he did the first half of last season and not the second half, is Houston. The Bills are also at least on par with Miami, and probably more likely to make the playoffs.)

But it could also be that a reasonably well publicized Harvard study floating around out there, that pegged Miami as the top team in the AFC, also didn’t hurt – no matter how goofy some of its numbers upon closer analysis.

And some of its numbers, as suggested above, are goofy. For instance, pegging the Seahawks at 99% to make the playoffs defies football reality, and at least relative NFL parity and uncertainty.

One of the only ways to really show this point is for the Seahawks to miss the postseason. (Though it wouldn’t technically prove that the “99%” probability was wrong, since, though a long shot, such an outcome could still just be a “1 in 100” fluke, it would certaintly help suggest it.)

But the problem is the Seahawks are likely to make the postseason.They’re just not “99 out of 100 times” likely to make the playoffs. And no team in modern NFL history has been. Ever.
_______

Essentially, the HSAC study used a multiple step interpretive statistics process to come up with a methodology that appears sound, but isn’t.

The study used Pro Football Reference’s approximate value statistics for players, then assessed team strength by relying on them for “core players.” But the valuations are still subjective. And more importantly, football is a team game, not a core player game.

The model results were also “tested” by running last year’s data, and comparing it to last year’s end of season FiveThirtyEight ELO ratings. But reasonable correlation with these ratings doesn’t imply the probabilities are robust; just that they may be more accurate than merely throwing darts at a random board of probability numbers.

The ELO assessments also reflect a limiting system of assumptions as well – one that tries to arrive at the “better team” in terms of overall performance, including in large part how much a team wins games by, etc. But this also doesn’t mean correlation with the highest chances of making the playoffs – just again, something superior to throwing darts at a board.

First off, some teams know how to protect leads; others how to do so and pull out close games when behind; still others manage to stay tight and lose but can win by blowouts, etc. (And even if to some extent these things can factor in to win totals, it gets heavily skewed by score differentials, what team was coming off of what games, and most importantly what actually happened in each game.)  And it doesn’t take into account the odds that particular team faces – the makeup of their division, what other divisions they have to play, etc.

So rather than test the model compared to last season’s rankings, as noted above we’ll compare its probabilities to how the season actually works out for the 32 team’s ranked, as well as how it does in comparison to the non statistical generic evaluation of each team’s playoff possibilities assesed here. My prediction is that the Harvard study, although it got a lot more publicity, is going to show worse results than the assessments made here in parts I II, and III.

In addition to the fact that grading core players rather than the full team is incomplete, and that player grades, even for all players, is still not necessarily equal to a team grade, part of the study’s flaws is that grading players relative to each other in terms of win probability is also very difficult. If one player is a 10 and another is an 8 (just for a scale of comparison), what does that mean?

Is the difference between 10 and 8 that big of a gap that surrounding “non core” players, coaching ability – beyond its small reflection in that team’s player ranking to begin with – overall team chemistry, cohesion, or heart, don’t matter as much?

Of course if we can assess the general quality of multiple key positions, statistically at least we can at least get a feel for the team. (And in many of the skill positions particularly, the study’s overall ranking, even if unintentionally, will be affected by the overall quality of a team, with receivers with great quarterbacks and solid offensive lines and great offensive coordinators getting higher ratings, for instance, than if they had played their last several years on a different team, etc.)

But that’s all the study really does. Which around the middle of the pack is enough to put forth numbers that aren’t consistently outlandish, but not at the high, and in particular low, ends.

Think what you will of the Rams, for instance, but assessing them as having only a 1 in 10 chance of making the playoffs, before the season even starts, and with an upgrade at quarterback; another year for their many young players; an improving team; a good head coach; and when 12 of 32 teams reach the playoffs, is just not realistic.

For this same reason, almost all of the low end, and particularly the very low end numbers, are not just too low, but become increasingly preposterous, no matter how bad seeming the teams. Even Tennessee, and even Oakland.

And, frankly, who knows. either could be a decent team this year. (with Oakland probably having a slightly better chance, although they’re in a tougher division and face a tougher outside the division schedule, which will hurt them in the getting to the playoffs sweepstakes.).

Also notice Oakland’s pattern last year after beating the Chiefs to bolt their record up to a whopping 1-10 in week 12. They took it light – obviously – and got pounded 52-0 by the Rams, then pulled it together and back at home surprised again, legitimately beating the still tough 49ers – and doing so as large underdogs – 24-13, before then, same pattern, getting pounded yet again, and this time by the Chiefs in a rematch in Kansas City, 31-13. Then guess what. Same pattern still: They won again, and again against a good team. That is, by late last season the Bills were a very good football team, and probably taking the Raiders lightly, and on a cross country trip fell to those same Raiders 26-24. And yet after pulling out that win, Oakland continued its pattern as well, getting pounded by Denver in a season ending game, 47-14.

Again, we’ll examine the outcomes at the end of the season, but it will be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here. In the meantime, again, two sets of playoff odds for all teams in the NFL, one by the Harvard Sports Collective study, and one by this site along with some of the key reasons for the numbers given, are set forth in parts I, II, and III.