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 8 Picks Against the Spread – Thursday Night Football

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

Recap of miserable week 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Dolphins

2.  Seattle Seahawks (-6) at Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they faded, as has happened before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harvard study, by focusing on the “core” players of a team to assess value, misses that critical full team element, including the contribution of less marquee but still starting players, whose strengths or weaknesses can play a critical role in a team’s results; the effect some players can have on others; and it misses heart.
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[Update: Assessments of teams 11-20, and 21-32, can now be found here, and here.]

Packer’s Make Hideous Strategic Call Against Seahawks In Championship Game, Then Do It Again

Football strategy decision making is about maximizing value by the decision made.

Normally, this means simply maximizing the expected point value of a decision. When points have differing values – usually near the ends of football games, and under specific circumstances – maximizing value then takes that into account as well.

But the right decision in football is always to maximize overall value.

Most of the time, as your team doesn’t know how the end of the game will play out, which points you absolutely need, which ones you should have given up for a better chance at more points, etc, each point is simply worth a point, equal in value to every other point.

So unless your team is already way ahead (then decrease volatility to decrease any chance for your opponent of scoring a huge number of points), way behind (then increase volatility to increase any chance of scoring a huge number of points yourself) or often late in the game when there are additional factors based on oddities of the scoring structure of football (clock, certainty, the value of a certain number of points depending on the score and situation and most likely way that it is going to or can play out, etc – all a key subject of the book I’m currently working on), the only decision that maximizes overall value is the one that maximizes overall point value.

And so it was in the first quarter of the 2014 NFC Conference Championship Game, when – after an interception by the Seahawks Richard Sherman, then an interception off a tipped ball by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of the Packers 3 plays later, then a 12 yard pass and a 6 yard run down to the 1 – the heavy underdog Green Bay Packers got stopped twice in a row from the Seattle Seahawks 1 yard line on goal to go plays.

The stoppages ultimately brought up a 4th and goal from well inside the 1; inches, more than anything, from the goal line. The score was 0-0, and 8:10 remained in the 1st quarter.

Mike McCarthy, who leads the Pack, is a fantastic head coach. But to be a HC and excellent in the required fields of leadership, teaching, motivation, management, public relations, football knowledge and play designs and strategy, can also make it difficult to have a solid grasp of the sometimes more obtuse area of the underlying structural strategy of the game.

This often leads to a lot of poor decisions. (Here is but one such example among many hundreds from this NFL season alone.)

In the Packers situation, with the ball so close to the goal line that the ensuing field goal has been recorded as an 18 yarder rather than the traditional 19 yarder from the “1” yard line, McCarthy made an extraordinarily counter productive decision. (That’s French slang for “horrible.”)

It was a decision that at the time made, significantly helped his opponent’s chances in the game, and lessened those of his own team: And this ultimately, is all that strategic decision making in NFL football games comes down to; namely, increasing your team’s chances of winning by the decision at the time the decision is made, and not your opponents’.

Clearly McCarthy was worried about the fact that the Seahawks have an excellent defense, an excellent goal line defense, and had stopped the Packers on the two prior plays, and in the past. (Sportscaster and former Cowboy Great Troy Aikman even made this point at the time during the broadcast of the game.)

But here’s why it was an absolutely horrendous, if “understandable” decision: First, prior performance – particular recent prior performance, does provide a small clue regarding how a similar ensuing play or attempt may work out. But that’s all it does.

It doesn’t indicate how a successive or later similar play will work out, or heavily change the odds from what they are in that situation in general, with that particular offense, against that particular defense.

The Seahawks no doubt have a strong defense. But unless there is almost no time left to play in a football game and the offensive team finds trails by 3 or less or leads by 2 or less, no team, no matter how poor their offense, and no matter how good the defense, should ever kick a field goal in that situation that close to the goal line. (Or, most of the time, even anywhere in that general area.)

Such a situation – as we’ll shortly see is so lopsided that the above statement can be made so categorically yet accurately.

But, the Packers also don’t have a poor offense. In fact they they have a very solid offensive line; which at times, if not on the past two plays, was getting a little bit of push against the Seattle defense and sometimes opening up holes for running back Eddie Lacy. And had been doing so for much of the season.

But regardless of offenses or defenses and prattle about “good offenses, bad offenses,” etc. Here’s the essence of the situation: The value of going for that 4th down conversion is the value of the touchdown times the chances of that touchdown being made, plus the value of being stopped (versus an ensuing kickoff after a touchdown or field goal) times the chances of being stopped. (And if a team is that poor relative to their opponent that in an otherwise categorically lopsided situation it may not be a greater value to go for it – hard to imagine here regardless – that team is likely going to get crushed in the game anyway and needs to increase variance or volatility, and thus go for it anyway.)

Understanding what that means is crucial for a team being able to make the right decision in these situations – and we’ll look at what it means in a moment. And there probably are no great statistics that can do justice to the actual chances of the Packers successfully making that 4th down conversion.

Yet by putting statistics too far aside – or more accurately any prior record of relevant probabilities – the problem that human nature leads to and that head coaches sometimes understandably over indulge in, is to take “hunches” over what might or might not happen on the next play, and conflate those hunches or guesses with some sort of relevant knowledge about the outcome of an ensuing play.

In close situations these hunches are fine. (More on this and how to differentiate between subjective guesses and analyses made based upon specific, observed factors in conjunction with a history of such experience, in another post.)

But coaches can’t know outcomes in advance. And the fact is the probability of scoring from well inside the 1 yard line is reasonably high. Even if the Packers had been stopped on the two prior plays and the Seahawks defense is very strong, their chances are not suddenly that out of whack with the Packers general overall chances against strong defenses in that type of a field down and distance situation.

We could go into pages of statistics, but to come to the correct strategy call here we don’t need to, because the call is so lopsided. For instance, even if McCarthy, from inches out, decided that his team only had a ridiculously low 1 in 3 chance of making that touchdown (a near ludicrous assumption) it was still a poor decision to go for it.

But their chances were not that low, or likely anywhere close – average teams are about 50% from the two yard line. And this pitted a good offense against a good defense, from a half yard out or less, so it was very likely above 50%, prior plays notwithstanding. As we’ll see, an upgrade in their chances from a near ludicrously low 1 in 3 to a more reasonable figure makes the correct strategic call here remarkably lopsided – and it’s not what the Packers opted to do.

However, even if the chances of making the touchdown were a miserably, unrealistically, low 1 in 3, the value of the attempt in terms of scoring alone is still the value of making the touchdown, times the chances of being successful. Here that would be 7 points times 1 in 3 or 33%, or .33(7) or  2.31 points. (On the other hand, if the chances of making that conversion were 2 in 3, the value of the attempt in terms of scoring alone would be worth 4.7 points.)

Wait, you say, 2.31 points is less than the 3 they get from a field goal. Or you might even say “but they might not get the 7 points!”

The fact (at the ridiculously low chance of only 1 in 3 of making a foot or so) that it is less than the 3 points from the field goal does not mean the attempt is worth less than the field goal, as there is also substantial value in getting stopped around or inside of an opponent’s 1 yard line versus kicking off and having their opponent start out around the 20 yard line or better, as we will see in a moment.

But on the latter point of the two above, it also does not matter that they might not “get” the touchdown. They might not score the next time they have the ball, the next 3rd and 8 with a receiver open past the 1st down marker might not make the catch, or their opponents might not score on the next possession, or their opponents might, etc. Every play in football involves an unknown; and for most of them the unknown is the biggest element.

This decision is no different. Since all points are equal in value (1 point equals 1 point) barring special end game circumstances where the conditions make some points more valuable than others – and the team with the most points at the end wins – all that matters is maximizing them.

You don’t neglect to throw to an open receiver 48 yards down the field and choose to throw a much easier to catch pass to an open receiver 8 yards down the field (unless there is a minute and one timeout left in the game and you faced a 3rd and  7 from your opponents 28 yard line, for example, and you either led by a small margin and needed to close out the game or trailed by 2 or less), simply because you don’t know the outcome.

And so it is, again, with every play and every decision in football – unless, in certain specific, often late game and condition specific circumstances knowing the outcome or having a higher probability of an outcome on top of the point value of it, offers some extra value. (Such as when leading by 6 with 3 minutes to play and coming upon a very short 4th down conversion well inside field goal range, where the right call would normally be to keep the ball (despite the fact that teams normally don’t), here you do kick the field goal because of the extra value of ensuring that you make it a two score game under those clock conditions.)

To play winning football, all you do as a team is maximize value, which takes into account what maximizes your team’s chances of ultimately winning the game. Nothing more – and nothing less. And in most situations (and certainly here in the first half of a game where one team is not completely blowing out the other) that means maximizing your points or expected point value alone.

In the situation the Packers were in, you can’t know whether each point from the “3”  you will get from kicking the field goal is going to wind up being worth more or less per point by the end of the game then each point from the “7” you will get if you score the touchdown. All you do know, and can know, is that the field goal is worth 3 points, and you will get it if you try, and the touchdown is worth 7 and you or your team may get it if you try.

There is no value here in definitely getting the 3 points. None. Zilch. This is a tough concept. But not getting it is a big impediment to good football strategy, whereas getting it is critical to good football strategic decision making.

The team (or head coach, or strategy advisor) who does, and who also knowns when – under what circumstances – and why there is extra value in some degree of certainty, will have an immediate advantage over all other teams.

It probably feels like there is value (and is probably a large part of the reason the Packers went for it), but there is none. It’s just points. Staying 0 – 0 but possibly going up 7-0 versus assuredly going up 3-0 doesn’t have any less value per point simply because, in the first scenario, you do not know if you will “temporarily” take a decent but small single full score lead, nor does going up 3-0 have any more value simply because versus the first scenario you do know you will “temporarily” take a (piddling, minimal, 3 point field goal) lead.

This is so key to good strategic decision making in football in most situations it can’t be emphasized enough. (Once again, to be clear, in those situations where each point is not worth one point, and there is some additional value in either certainty, in a higher probability, or in achieving a certain number of points or achieving something relative to the clock, those become part of the same value equation in terms of simply doing that which maximizes your teams’ chances of having the most points at the end of the football contest and winning the game: Which again, in our instance here, and until end game situations in most instances of games, simply means maximizing your expected point value.)

But remember, there is a key second part to this equation that is often overlooked by teams (though less so over the past 5 or years as decisions in these general close in goal situations have become a little less abhorrent than in the past).

That part is the difference between making a field goal (the decision if your team does not elect to go for it on 4th down), and what happens after that field goal in terms of value; and going for it and failing on the conversion attempt.

Remember, if you make the touchdown on your 4th down attempt, you kick off. This is the same thing that happens if you make a field goal – after the field goal you also kick off. The ensuing results are identical – the only difference being that in the one (piddling) instance you scored a field goal for 3 points, and the other you scored a touchdown for 7.

Football plays are about probabilities. If the Packers go for the conversion, and try a pass play, they might take a sack, but it is unlikely. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers – who looked to finally be moving around well after that calf injury a few weeks back that hampered him in the season ending and division clinching win over the Detroit Lions, and slightly in their close (and somewhat lucky) win over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs last week – might roll out with an option to pass or run to the pylon, and lose a few yards. Or as with any play in football – but with such low odds that the negative value is negligible – something fluky could happen.

Most likely the Packers would try a run in such a short yardage situation, even if they thought the Seahawks likely expected it, and even a quarterback sneak,; which being able to move first off the snap, gives the offense a decided advantage even in goal line situations, in very short yardage situations. A sneak that failed would likely gain a couple of inches, or lose a foot or two, and a running play, even one designed only for very short yardage, could lose a little more.

Thus overall the reasonable yard line range if the Packers get stopped, is somewhere inside the 1 yard line  a solid majority of times, and probably around the 1 yard line or just outside of it, on average.

This is big. After a kickoff, the average starting point is about the 22 yard line. This represents a net gain for the Packers defense of about 20, 21 yards on average.

There are all sorts of ways to approximate the point value of x number of yards (which often tend to oversimplify, as yards have different values depending on where they are on the field relative to each team’s scoring range).

But assigning about a point value to 20 yards is in line with many of them, and a little bit on the low side, and about 1.2 points is probably also a decent accounting; again realizing that they are all just guestimates, no matter how rigorously arrived at, based upon assumptions. But the value of those yards, whatever the number, is very real.

Normally yardage for an offense deep inside their own territory is worth less than yardage close to or past midfield, which is why the assignment of a traditional half a point per 8 yards (thus say 1.25 points value for the Packers if the Seahawks start out 20-21 yards further back) may be a little high. But by the same token, this yardage could become worth more for the Packers offense after an ensuing punt, for the flip side of the same reason:

That is, suppose the Seahawks go three and out, and punt. The Packers will likely start in extremely good field position, close to scoring range, making the value of gaining ensuing 1st downs (with maybe just 1 or 2 1st downs putting them right back into scoring range) a little higher than at some other random point on the field for them.

But there is additional value here due to the structure of the field. Backing a team up very close to the goal line has additional worth because it hampers the flexibility of the quarterback – even a great decision maker and athlete like the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. He has to be very careful on any pass attempt. And it curtails the flexibility of the opposing team for the same reason. (Though sometimes defenses subconsciously let up a little bit when opponents are very deep, because the opponents “have such a long way to go.” This is a big mistake, and most great defenses that play to win do not do this.)

One decent pop in the end zone and it’s two points for a Safety and possession back of the ball (making the Safety a more valuable score than the field goal, because it delivers two thirds of the points, and more importantly, a brand new possession of the ball).

But even without the Safety, the quarterback will have far less time simply because he can’t risk taking that Safety, or worse, getting that ball stripped away in the end zone – where merely falling on it by the defense means an automatic 7 points.

On top of this, if the opponent can be contained near the goal line, their punter, due to the constraints of the end zone, won’t have as much room to get his punt off, and will have to hurry, resulting in a shortened kick, and less hang time and less coverage time for the punting team, often leading to immediate good field position on the punt recovery, as well as an increased chance of a solid punt return.

Thus when teams punt from inside their 5 yard line, very often they gain less than the average yardage from a punt where the punter can otherwise wail away and not worry about it bouncing into the end zone for a touchback (such when not punting from near mid, and often poorly advised past midfield punts), due to these same reasons, and thus start out across midfield or better: already knocking on the door, or near knocking on the door, of their scoring range.

Thus while a lot of time this value will not come to fruition, the reasonable chance at a Safety, initial curtailment of the offense, and the chance, if they can stay semi curtailed, at a bigger advantage off of their ensuing punt, add additional and specific value – beside the sheer differential in yards versus an kickoff – to getting stopped on a 4th and very short and leaving one’s opponent at or in this instance likely well inside their own 1 yard line.

Let’s give that a conservative value of half a point, which is probably low since it provides the Packers a good opportunity to get the ball back well past midfield and a 1st down or so away from field goal range or better.

This yields a value of getting stopped, on average, and conservatively, of about 1.5 points, and probably a little bit more (the traditional 1.25 + our semi-conservative half a point for likely leaving an opponent – though the term is far too loosely used for most “deep” punts – actually pinned against their goal line).

If the chances of making that touchdown are again a miserably underestimated 1 in 3, then the value of going for it would be the value of making the touchdown times the chance of that happening, or .33(7), plus the value of getting stopped and the average starting field position for the defense over kicking off times the chance of that happening, or .66(1.5), or 3.3 points total.

This is a decent amount more than the field goal. And it is using conservative estimates for the value of leaving the Seahawks on average around their 1 yard line or worse, and more importantly using a ridiculously, almost ludicrously low estimate for their chances of making the touchdown in the first place.

If with inches more than yards to go for the touchdown the Packers chances were really as low as 1 in 3 – never give up of course – but metaphorically they might as well have walked out of the stadium at that point and caught a flight home. Because if getting a fraction of a yard on any one play is that low of a probability, despite the generally high probability of getting such small yardage (even in general goal line situations, which is tougher because the defense has an extremely short field to cover and knows the opponent precisely needs only a very small bit of yardage), they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in you know where of winning the game.

Again, there is not a large enough sample size to really know the exact chances of the Packers, facing 4th and inches. You can look at all inside the 1 yard line situations, but 4th downs are a little different, because the offense knows it has to make it and defenses knows it’s pulled off a strong move if it gets the stop on that one specific play. (Not that that changes odds all that much, but it does introduce another element that may be relevant.)

You can look at all teams in general, but better information comes from strong offenses – in particular those with strong run blocking or off the line push offensive lines – against strong defenses, strong front seven defenses, and maybe strong inside the 10 yard line defenses against appropriate (also strong) offenses, if again the sample size is large enough to really make a substantive distinction within their overall defensive play.

And it comes from the general play of the Packers offensive line in recent weeks (and in those and similar situations) and the Seahawks defensive line play in recent weeks (and in those and similar situations) as well as, a little bit, so far in this game. (Which wasn’t much, although it did consist of some nice stops by the Seahawks, then some nice blocking, then the two stops from the 1). Going back to when the teams played 17 games earlier in week 1 of the season is probably pretty pointless, even if apt to stick in a coach’s mind too much.

Let’s take a 50% chance at the touchdown just to get a more realistic feel for the value of trying for the touchdown here (which is again what matters – namely the value of the attempt itself), in comparison with the value of trying for the field goal.

In general 50% would be too low for such an extremely short yardage goal line situation (and ridiculously low if it were not a goal line situation, where the probabilities are closer to 80% or better). But even with the Packer’s good offense, the Seahawks have a strong defense, and at least the last two plays- simple variance of football and or good defensive guesswork or anticipation or not – Seattle had also played strongly, and the Packer’s offensive line not as much as usual. So keeping this figure low is reasonable.

(Generally the odds are around 50%, or lately a little higher, from about the 2 yard line, which also represents the place a team starts on a 2 point conversion. When there is only a foot or so to go, the odds go up, but again, we’re accommodating for the facts that the Seahawks defense had stymied the Packers at the line a few times – on the last 2 plays and very early in the drive before then being a bit run over – and that in general it is a very strong defense, notwithstanding the Packer’s strong offense and solid offensive line.)

This more reasonable (and possibly even still low) approximation puts the value of the attempt at 3.5 points (the 7 point value of the TD times the .5 probability of it occurring) + .75 points (the conservative 1.5 value, versus kicking off after a field goal times the .5 probability of the stop occurring, of leaving the Seahawks likely backed right up to their own goal line, times the .5 probability of getting stopped), or about 4.25 points.

Even these numbers may underestimate the value, since the Packers chances of making the touchdown, with only inches to go, may well have been higher. (If they were 60%, the value of the attempt becomes 4.8 points – almost 5 points) And leaving the Seahawks inside the 1 may be a little more valuable than what we’re assigning to it.

But the bottom line is that there is no realistic scenario where the value of going for that field goal is as high as the value of going for the touchdown attempt here.

Since there is no extra value in “making” the field goal (as, say, there would be if there were 3 minutes left and the Packers led by 6, or if there was 40 seconds left and they led by a couple or trailed by 1 or 2), the decision is categorically counter productive, and probably horrendous. And it cost the Packers significant value, and gave significant value to the Seahawks, all through strategic decision making alone.

There is also the psychological aspect. Or there could be one perceived, so let’s quickly address it, because it factors into games too often, and often in the wrong way:

In a nutshell, barring extraordinary and unusual circumstances, if a team has to harm it’s own chances – here significantly – just to create the right “psychology,” it either has much bigger problems, or the situation is not being explained properly.

Also, players normally want to play to win, not play to “avoid” losing.

As far as the other team goes, again barring unusual circumstances where there is little upside but huge downside (such as when way ahead and playing a sleeping – listless – but otherwise very competent team you don’t want to wake up), the same thing applies: Don’t worry about the psychology of the other team. Play to win and it will take care of itself.

Showing them you are not afraid of their defense, regardless of outcome, certainly won’t hurt that. And whatever imagined “spark” (as if the Seahawks needed spark in an NFC championship game) they might get from stopping your team, would quickly be offset by the fact that they will then likely find themselves pinned up against their goal line, and you can get it right back by stopping them and getting a shortened punt. Not to mention the anti spark for them om the flip side of your team”giving up” the measly 3, and slamming that football home on 4th down for the key full extra 4 points.

What likely drove even a great, and often less fearful, coach like McCarthy, on some level, was likely a “fear” of getting stopped, and a “fear” of coming away with “no points.” But what McCarthy and all teams and head coaches need to fear is losing the game; nothing else in terms of outcome during the course of it.

Since the possibility of “missing out” on those 3 points has no negative value in terms of the value opportunity presented here, and the value of a field goal attempt versus the value of going for the touchdown, “taking” the field goal in order to “ensure” getting 3 points had nothing to do with increasing the Packers chances of winning. Maximizing the opportunity here, and the value of their decision – instead of minimizing the value of their decision – had everything to do with it.

___________

Unfortunately, and even more surprisingly, but again likely for some of the very same reasons, finding themselves on the Seahawks 1 yard line (though this time not quite as close to the goal line) facing a 4th down and now leading 3-0, with 5:10 left to go in the 1st quarter, the Packers again kicked the field goal. This, if not quite as horrific as the earlier decision when they had closer to inches to go than a yard, was also a horrible decision, for similar reasons. (although in some ways possibly even worse because they had just kicked a field goal from the 1 yard line, for cripes sake: In some ways getting stopped on 4th down would have been better than the awfulness of getting to an opponent’s 1 yard line twice in a row and willingly coming away with only 3 points each time.)

The Seahawks, down 19-7 late, then 19-14 after scoring a touchdown after the Packers’ Morgan Burnett was on the receiving end of Russell Wilson’s 4th interception of the day (this one, like the one earlier by Clinton – Dix, also off of a tipped ball), successfully recovered an onside kick that bounced off the hands of the Packer’s Brandon Bostick which, with only 1 Seattle timeout remaining, would – barring an ensuing fluke – all but have won the game for the Packers.

The Seahawks then scored, fairly quickly (again) with the reasonably shortened field after the successful onside kick, and made the two point conversion to pull ahead by 3: Good move, since the Packers then drove to a tying field goal – which would have otherwise won them the game – and the Seahawks then won it in overtime on a TD pass on the opening drive of overtime.

While the Packers were already in very good shape, and would have almost assuredly won the game but for the missed onside kick recovery, the pick by Burnett was still probably one of the more egregious on field during the course of play strategic mistakes made in a long time.

It’s true that after a turnover, defensive teams then themselves lose the ball (turning it back over again) far higher than the general average for turnovers on any offensive running or run after the catch play. (Which as an aside to teams should be a wakeup call to preach and practice ball security for defensive players as well, since these turnovers take away opportunities just as valuable as any other turnover – and often more so, because they happen before the temporarily recovering team has even run a 1st down play.)  But the chances are still low; and the way to guard against this is to protect the ball. But Burnett elected to simply slide as if the game was essentially over.

It wasn’t, there was still 5:13 left to play, and the Packers led by less than two touchdowns.

They shouldn’t (and the Packers shouldn’t have here), but teams do lose games in those situations, and it’s not all that rare. Burnett picked the ball off on the run at about his own 39 and then slid down to the ground just past the 43 yard line, with no Seahawks player anywhere close. (Burnett, for his part, says he received a signal to just get down after the pick.)

Getting as many yards as possible, while protecting the ball, and giving the Packers a good chance to add a field goal to go up to a much more solid 15 point lead was a key opportunity. Purposefully neglecting it through mis-assessment of the situation and likely over presumption that the game was essentially won, was another Packer mistake.

The Packers then ran the ball 3 times in a row, losing 4, then 2, and then gaining 2 yards, and then punted. The Seahawks then scored quickly, made the onside kick, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Green Bay did not “lose” the game because of the exceedingly poor early 4th down decisions. There is no way to know how the game would have turned out, and the fact that they did lose is not an indictment on the earlier decisions (which had they won would have been all but forgotten, but would still have been remarkably poor decisions, if “understandable.”)

What is an indictment are the decisions in the face of the circumstances that existed at the time they were made. They didn’t lose the game because of them; but they increased their chances of losing the game. And in fact wound up, in this case, losing the game. And thus here not going to the Super Bowl.

There’s a reasonable chance that in this case – even though it was early in the game and it’s normally late game structural decision making that has the most profound impact upon game outcomes – that decent basic structural decision making would have kept the Packers from missing out on McCarthy’s second Super Bowl trip (out of 7 trips to the playoffs, equaled only by the New England Patriots since the 2007 season), in his 9 seasons as Packers head coach. But several other things, as is usually the case, did as well.

Not, however, ultimately, bad luck, as it was by virtue of a somewhat lucky tipped ball on a 1st down play from the Seahawks 46 yard line, that fell into the arms of Burnett with just over 5 minutes remaining and a 12 point lead, that put the Packers into a very commanding drivers seat to win a game they should have won anyway.

Soft play on defense after their quick three runs and out, as it so often does in these situations, likely contributed as well. As of course ultimately, did the always challenging but ever so important act in the game of football – hanging onto the ball when it it is loose and comes in contact with one’s hands – as it did against a Packer’s player, up front “just to block” or not, on the Seattle onside kick attempt.

Developing better softer hands until securely grasping a loose football becomes a more natural and unyielding act can be practiced more thoroughly and in different ways outside of game time; but when flubbed during the course of play, is traditionally unintentional. And Brandon Bostick, a “blocker” on the recovery, simply made a mistake he did not intend, and feels bad enough about.

Bad strategic decisions on the other hand, though not intended as “bad” decisions, obviously, are intentional.

And that is why NFL teams, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the pursuit of winning over the course of a season, should not be making them: if through no other means than hiring an assistant who thoroughly understands the strategic nature of the game, to help with this process – something all teams (yes, even the Patriots, if a little bit less than most), could use.

 

 

 

 

Week 14 NFL Picks, Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravens (+3) at Dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers (+3) at Bengals

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

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

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

Pick: Bengals 

Panthers (+10) at Saints

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

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

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

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

They’re just not very good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Panthers

Buccaneers (+10) at Lions

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

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

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

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

Pick: Buccaneers

Seahawks (+1.5) at Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

Chiefs (-1) at Cardinals

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

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

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

Pick: Cardinals 

Patriots (-4) at Chargers, Sunday Night Football

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Chargers

Falcons (+13) at Packers, Monday Night Football

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

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

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

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

Pick: Falcons

Week 12 NFL Picks Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This week, is not.

Chiefs (-7.5) at Raiders

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

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

Close call, but:

Pick: Raiders 

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

(11-23-14) Updated – Voila:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Ravens
Titans (+11) at Eagles

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

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

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

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

Pick: Titans

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cardinals

Rams (+5) at Chargers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Rams 

Dolphins (+6) at Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Broncos

Cleveland (+3) at Atlanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Browns