The Lions, Perspective, and Winning Attitudes

So the Lions lost a game last Monday Night where the correct referee call on a fairly obscure rule would have put them in the driver’s seat to win. But let’s look at this another way:

Maybe if there wasn’t all this seeming complaining in Detroit, and apparently major agreement nationally about how the Lions got “robbed” because of a missed fluke technicality that would have horseshoed them – instead of more focus on the fact they were outplayed – the Lions wouldn’t then go into week five at 0-4 and, seeking redemption, get blown out at home 42-17. (And with the score even being 35-7 at one point.)

Much of the complaining understandably comes from fans – which is part of the game. But it seemed to be felt by players too, when in reality a technical referee call that would have all but been a silly random very lucky break isn’t really them winning, but just a very lucky break.

So, taking that rather random, obscure super lucky break away, they lost. The Seahawks led throughout: even led after a somewhat fortunate but nice play Detroit defensive turnover touchdown to close the gap from 13-3 to 13-10 late in the game.

And when the Lions were about to take the lead even later, they didn’t protect the ball. And, for the Seahawks, in a somewhat fortunate but very nice play, strong safety Kam Chancellor purposefully and, football wise, near exquisitely knocked it out.

That kind of awareness and play is part of why they’ve been to the Super Bowl for the last two seasons, while the Lions have seen the playoffs twice since ’99 (though both were recent).

Tough to handle for a fan, no doubt. But a fan should be more upset that the Lions even for an instant thought they were robbed of a game that – but for a fluke, nothing to do with them, obscure, and half the league barely knows it rule that otherwise had nothing to do with the play – they lost.

And then rebounded from that, with a brutal, lopsided thrubbing at home to put them at 0-5; suggesting that too much focus, still, may have been on being ostensibly “robbed” at Seattle, rather than the fact they played Seattle tough and now at home were going to upset the Cardinals come whatever ref calls, turnovers, or circumstances occur. Or at least play to do so.

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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.]

The Monopoly “Pick a Chance Card” Effect of NFL Personal Fouls

Football penalty flags, particularly for “personal fouls,” have made a small but relevant portion of the game somewhat like Monopoly’s “chance” cards Continue reading

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 15 NFL Pick Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals (+6) at Rams, Thursday Night Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raiders (+10) at Chiefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Raiders

Bengals (-1) at Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bengals – Marvin’s team

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

49ers (+9) at Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: 49ers

Broncos (-5) at Chargers

Yeah, Denver Broncos, Bla bla bla bla…

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

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

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

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

Thus, against the spread, naturally,

Pick: Chargers 

Packers (-5) at Bills 

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

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

Pick: Bills

Dolphins (+7.5) at Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Dolphins

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

Week 13 NFL Picks Against the Spread, Some Notes on Picking Games, and a Look at Some of This Blog’s Picks

Record last week: 4-3. Season history to date: Week 11 (4-2-1). Week 10 (3-3). Week 9 (3-3). Continue reading

Quick Recap of Week 10 NFL Picks

From a football and games picking perspective,this is a brief recap of some interesting week 10 NFL picks. (Week 11 picks against the spread can be found here.)

There were a few lucky picks by this blog last week – including a call of the Jets upsetting the Steelers outright (about 3 times, but once qualified with a “maybe”).

But yet all winning picks, as has generally been the case so far this NFL season (starting with week 7 when this blog’s picks began) have been by a reasonable margin against the spread, although the total official ATS record so far, if it’s being added up correctly (convenient, right?) is still 1 game under 500. (Note that the only other upset win offered by this blog so far (at least that I remember – I know, again, convenient, right?) was the outrageous one of the still awful Jacksonville Jaguars against the Browns in week 7, and Jacksonville won.)

But last week’s rather interesting picks started out with the debacle of missing probably my favorite call of the week, the (very same) Browns at the Bengals, followed by the debacle of this blog (see link) going on and on about how I loved the Browns in that game, and why.

Those picks, even without the in hindsight (if still technically non existent) brilliant Browns pick – as they were getting 6 points and clobbered the Bengals 24-3 – still almost went 4-0 on the early games. But they didn’t, going 3-1, as the Dolphins, leading late, lost by four.

But what was also interesting is that I suggested that if there was a game among those early afternoon games that wasn’t a strong pick (or would be a “letdown,” was my poorly chosen wording), it was the Miami – Detroit game!

Sure enough, Detroit came back at the end to win a close one, for the third game in a row.

This seems to follow a pattern with Detroit. Or this blog. Back in week 8 I picked them, giving up 3.5 points, to beat Atlanta in London, but expressed concerns about them not taking Atlanta – who were a well coached and historically hard fighting team who would not do the normal London “bad team essentially mails it in” shuffle – seriously enough.

And saying that if they didn’t take them seriously and lost the game, I would blame their coach. (not that he cares who I blame.) But also writing, amusingly in hindsight:

If the Falcons play tough, but the Lions pull out a close one, I’ll give Caldwell credit, and shoulder all the blame for this pick.

Which, after being down 21 – 0 early, is exactly what happened! Including me, later shouldering all blame, for the pick. (Which I do for all picks, except Oakland. They don’t count. Ever.) As the Lions pulled out the victory 22-21 at the end.

The last two Detroit games – including that Atlanta game – were both won by Detroit by a single point each. This one last week against Miami, after I again warned against the game, saw Detroit get the ball back with 3 minutes left, down by 3 point, and drive for the TD to win outright in the last half of a minute.  (Maybe I should start listening to warnings I wrote out – or you should – since in week 8 I also warned, after picking the Bears +6 against New England, how “I’m also always wrong on the Bears.”  I also questioned their heart in that post, and they went on to give up 50 or more points in back to back games (separated by a bye) for the first time by any team in the NFL since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons. Side note: Maybe the now controversially named Redskins can re-take that name for their team, since it appears, last time I, ESPN, or Ted Cruz checked the NFL schedule, there’s no longer a Rochester Jeffersons team active in the league. I don’t think. Although they could be masquerading as the Raiders out in Oakland. Someone call George Clooney, he would know.)

That last moment Dolphins loss by exactly one point more than the spread knocked my “sweep week” to 3-1 (4-1 including the Browns.  Though it was about to get a lot uglier in the later games.)

From a football angle, it’s worth noting how the Lions win at the end went down:

If you’ve watched a lot of NFL football, you’ve noticed how often teams have the ball and a less than one full score lead late in the game, and all they need to do is get a few first downs (or less) and the game is essentially over but then fail to do so.

Part of this is desperation on the part of defenses. But a significant part is lack of urgency on the part of offenses, who seem to play as if closing out the game is sort of a luxury, since at least if they punt “they are still leading.” (Forgetting that often by the time hat last second ticks, they won’t be, because their opponents now control the game, and have desperation, and often an effective four plays per each set of downs rather than three, to work with.)

This time, with a bit more time on the clock (3:13 left) Miami didn’t pull the “full turtle up,” by doing the football equivalentof pulling one’s head back inside of a shell:

Taking over with 3:37 left, they ran up the middle, gaining 5 yards on first down. So the run was reasonable on 2nd down.

But in hindsight, Detroit, who probably expected it, stopped them cold, and it might have been a good time for a short pass, and the “risk” of stopping the clock. (They need first downs and to burn off the rest of Detroit’s timeouts at this point, not just to “make sure” to run clock.)

On 3rd and 5 the Dolphins did pass, and it feel incomplete. Strategically at least, it was better overall than the Dolphins “full ostrich” at the end of the Green Bay Packers game in week 6, where they all but willingly gave the ball back to Green Bay rather than try to keep it and win the game. (But it may have only

Detroit only trailed 16-13, and often in these situations teams will ill advisedly play for ties, not wins. But Detroit, under Matthew Stafford, is not that kind of team. More importantly, they had 3:13 left to play with.

Once gain, urgency or not, one has to wonder if at the ends of games defenses don’t repeatedly play a little too soft, as it appeared the Dolphins – who remember held Detroit to 13 points all game – did here. Detroit also put together a nice drive, culminating in a deadly accurate side arm TD throw to Theo Riddick for the go ahead score in the last half minute of the game:

For those who missed the game, it should be noted that while the Chiefs pick panned out, it was a bad call. While it’s true Buffalo couldn’t get it done late, overall the Bills otherwise outplayed them this game

Several things worked against their side of the scoreboard however. For the team that is dead last in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency, perhaps the most notable was the loss of 7 points deep inside the red zone:

With 10:30 left to play in the 3rd quarter, running back Bryce Brown was running in for what would have been a nice looking 17 yard touchdown run and a nice 17-3 Bills lead. (They ultimately lost 17-13.) He made it the last five yards to the end zone somewhat easily, but unfortunately the ball didn’t travel with him those last five years – as Chiefs strong safety Ron Parker made an excellent diving play, almost torpedoing his body forward to knock the ball out of Brown’s hands. And the Chiefs recovered it in the end zone.

(It was also not just a loss of 7 points for the Bills, but a pure loss of 7.  This means they lost possession of the ball, and lost the full 7 points, instead of scoring a normal touchdown -which except at the end of each half or a defensive score, means giving up possession as well. So by keeping the Bills from getting that 7 points, in terms of scoreboard mathematics, it was the equivalent of the Chiefs adding 7 points to their side of the scoreboard, without losing a possession – or half of a possession of however you want to look at it – in the process.)

For the late games, this blog added the Raiders (+11) and the Rams (+7).

The Raiders were leading the Broncos 10-6 with just a few minutes to go in the half, and playing lights out on defense (they had even batted down an amazing five of Peyton Manning’s passes so far, and manning rarely has balls batted down at the line of scrimmage).

Then they faltered, turning the ball over around midfield and giving up a touchdown, then quickly getting stopped and of course playing characteristically soft at the end of the half on defense (as if Peyton Manning didn’t come into the game with a whopping 35 points already scored in the final two minutes of the first half alone), and suddenly were behind 20-6.

This seemed to demoralize them, and they came out a different team in the second half, and Denver quickly ran up the score.

The Rams on the other hand were leading 14-10 almost halfway through the 4th quarter. Then they gave up a long TD throw to backup Drew Stanton, who’s the guy now for the rest of the season as starter Carson Palmer blew out his ACL on the prior series (and disappointingly for him, as he admitted crying later over not being able to directly partake in what he thought was a great season with an amazing bunch of guys), And now the score was, on the prior seasons, blew out his ACL. Now it was 17-14, and maybe the Rams would battle back, or maybe they would stay behind and the Cardinals would get the ball back and run out the clock.

Or, maybe Austin Davis would throw a pick, then on their next possession throw a touchdown pass, but to the other team. Then get hammered and lose the ball, which would be returned by the Cardinals for their second defensive touchdown in a row, and a somewhat out of the blue 31-14 win. Which is what happened.

Davis was demoted after the game, as career back up Shaun Hill, injured to pave the way for third string rookie Davis in week 1 has been reinstated as the starter. (The Rams don’t really need to see what Davis can do or develop him further for next year as a starter, since they have regular starter Sam Bradford coming back next year.)

Final record, 3-3, and some interesting football.