Week 6 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 1-2. Year to date: 15-12

Last week recap: Last week’s picks provided all sorts of good reasons why the Patriots would trounce the Cowboys. Then picked the Cowboys because they are a “really good team” with championship aspirations and potential, and really good teams in key games against defending Super Bowl champs no less (as if they needed more motivation), don’t get blown out at home.

Yeah, well okay, that was wrong. To say the least.

Meanwhile, backup Cowboys QB Brandon Weeden, who’s now 0-11 in his last 11 starts, said he was “pissed” that he was benched.

Tim Tebow should be pissed due to the groupthink that swept thru the NFL like spinach salmonella food poisoning from a team cafeteria eathathon(okay that was a terrible analogy); and collectively decided Tebow can’t “play” even though when he has played in games, he’s come through and the team has won, which seems to warrent great consideration as at least a backup that can give a team a spark, until and unless it turns out the fact that the team seemed to play better when Tebow, and he pulled multiple games out at the end was some sort of bizarre fluke.

On the other hand, Weeden should be eternally grateful that he got 11 starts.

And this is the same league that after Tebow’s 2011 season where he started 11 games in Denver much of the overall collective thinking – while some (myself included) said he should be a backup, and a few said he can’t play at all -was that he could play (there was all this Tebow excitement, remember? And it wasn’t just the fans), and maybe even be a good starter.

This opinion has drastically changed despite the fact that but for a couple of meaningless plays with the Jets in odd situations (he attempted a total of 8 passes with the Jets, completing 6 for 39 yards), Tebow has not played again in a regular season game. (As far as training camps odds go, he’s never really looked good in practice; so neither that nor the non playing Jets time should really have that fundamentally changed things.)

On to this weeks disaster picks. Which should be easy, since the 1:00 E.S.T games are already going on – those were too hard anyway.

1.  Carolina Panthers (+7) at Seattle Seahawks

After blowing a 17 point lead on the road to Cincinnati last week and falling to 2-3 (and this after almost losing at home the week before to at this point – at least before today’s early games end – still winless Detroit in a game that if the referee’s made the proper call on a bizarre fluke of a meaningless play, they more than likely would have), energy and focus levels seem to suggest the Seahawks.

And this Seattle team has shown its championship caliber and ability to focus when necessary, again and again.

They also seem to play far better at home, and on the road the last three seasons they’ve beaten the Panthers in close games, all of which the Panthers led late.

And beat them soundly in the playoffs last year.

It is for these last two reasons, both of which are also be compelling reasons for the Panthers to focus for the game, that 7 points is too high. The Panthers may be improving – particularly under Cam Newton’s play. They’re coming off a bye. And while he’s not expected to play all of the snaps (and his backup, A. J. Klein will be out), stud linebacker Luke Kuechly will be back. And this is the Seahawks; who but for a wild play at the one yard line in the final seconds, would have been repeat Super Bowl Champs.

Seattle, who’s also getting back running back Marshawn Lynch, is tough to beat at home. And if it’s the same old Panthers they will probably lose, but it might still be a reasonably close game. And this Panthers team at least has reasons to be motivated, to say the least.

Pick: Panthers

2.  New England Patriots (-9.5) at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday Night)

Yes this game should be a blow out as well for the Patriots. Just like last week. And just like last week, the (questionable?) call here is maybe not. Though once again this may be ascribing more to presumed character and motivation than really exists.

Yet everyone is talking about all of the motivation that the Patriots have. And they’ve shown it. It’s even been noted on several occassions in here – before the Cowboys and before the Bills game and elsewhere – that the “Deflate-gate” saga seems to have focused the motivated the Patriots even more (and somewhat understandably).

And this Colts team is the team that “told” on them, which reportedly also has some Boston area fans upset.

The league’s handling of the deflategate saga was an abomination (following a pattern, no less), and it was made into something it was not. However, if footballs are supposed to be inflated to a psi range and they aren’t, and no one checks them during the game, then how do rules get enforced save for teams noticing it?

The issue needed to have been brought up. The question is how. Mentioning it to the Patriots directly in a league filled with refs, rules and oversight seems a little odd. That leaves only one choice: The Colts bringing the correct attention to it. (Although it could be argued – maybe – that the Colts perhaps could have brought it up generically and less attached to a particular game, so that the issue was proper psi inflation in general, not proper psi inflation for “our game.”) And given that the Colts did make an issue of it, and what it led to, it’s easy to see it as being motivating for the Patriots

But the bottom line is that the Colts have also been somewhat pilloried for this. More importantly they’re playing the Super Bowl champs. And playing the team that has owned them the past several years.

The Partiots are the team that has beaten the Colts the last six times they have played. The team who beat them 59-24 in late 2012. Who next beat them 43-22 in the 2013 playoffs. Who next beat them late last season, 42-20. (In Indy, too.) And who then in last season’s playoffs beat them 45-7; with most of it coming in the second half, with carefully recalibrated footballs.

Again, the evidence that this Colts team simply can’t match up with the Patriots (combined with the fact that the Colts haven’t been very good this year, uncharacteristically, and the Patriots are seemingly on a rampage) may be too much. And choosing the Colts getting a measly 9.5 points may be a weak move.

But if any team has motivation here, it’s the Colts.

True, the Patriots will no doubt be focused. Even their non statements suggest it. “Um, we just want people to realize we didn’t beat them 45-7 because of deflated footballs,” is what’s reportedly being uttered.

But, while they simply may not be good enough, if this game doesn’t get the Colts focused to play as if a Super Bowl, then nothing can.

So, here’s saying it would just be too predictable, too formulaic, for this otherwise thus far not very good team – and one that really didn’t improve in the offseason despite all their talk about how they are a different team (they are, they’re worse) – not to play its heart out.

Though once again the mistake may be presuming focus and motivation where it doesn’t exist.

And the other mistake – but less important if the Colts play with an energy that simply won’t accept losing – just as the Saints did Thursday Night against the Falcons – is not giving sufficient due to the fact that right now they’re still not a very good football team, and are going up against a laser focused Super Bowl championship team with strong motivation to not just beat them, but throunce them, again.

But here’s to a suprisingly good and quite the story lined Sunday Night NFL matchup:

Pick: Colts

3.  New York Giants (+5.5) at Philadelphia Eagles (Monday Night) 

This is the Giants. Point spreads barely matter. And yes Odell Beckham might not play, Victor Cruz is still out, the Giants almost lost to San Francisco at home last week, while the Eagles last week finally showed us they may be closer to what we all thought they may be (aka, “good” rather than not so good).

But this is the Giants. And Eagles. Home field advantage doesn’t matter that much, and there’s no strong edge in terms of who’ll win. (After the fact there may appear to have been. But even if the Eagles are now “good,” given that this is the Giants, and it’s the Giants versus Eagles, and it’s the Giants versus Eagles on Monday Night, there’s still not much of an edge here.)

So given this, if it’s a close game, 5.5 points is a lot. The Giants may win – even if the odds are lower than for the Eagles winning. The Giants may lose handily.  And the Giants may lose by a somewhat close one score game, in which case, spread wise, they still win.

Pick: Giants

The only pick that’s an uncomfortable one here (even if the Panthers do get pummeled, they have the ability to hang with and beat the Seahawks and this game should be big to them) is the Colts Patriots game.

This is because the Colts so far, at least relatively speaking, somewhat stink. And more disturbingly, no strong hints even seem to be coming out of the organization to the effect that they’re sick and tired of the Patriots, to say the least, rather than, instead, silly things like “we’re a different team.” Particularly when after a season that so far has shown that though on paper they are no better, they are a decidely “different” team: One no longer capable of hanging with anybody in the league (except the Patriots, that is), the last two seasons running.

But maybe they’re just keeping it to themselves. We’ll find out tonight.

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Wild End to Lions Seahawks Game Leads to Focus on Half the Equation

The Lions lost a close game Last Monday night in Seattle (where the Seahawks have still lost only twice in the now three plus seasons since Russell Wilson entered the league), after looking like they were going to pull it out at the end.

With less than two minutes to go, on 3rd and 1 from the Seattle 11, Lions quarterback Matt Stafford hit Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, who after the catch was en route for what looked like would be the go ahead touchdown.

As big as this was, and often unmentioned, the game still wouldn’t be over after the touchdown. Down by four, 17-13, the Seahawks would not have enough time to mount a perfect two minute type drill. But with 1:45 left and two timeouts to save them an extra 30 seconds or so or use the middle of the field more, they still had a pretty good shot. And under Russell Wilson, particularly at home, they’ve been pretty good at pulling out games at the end.

But just before the ball broke the plane of the goal line, the Seahawks Kam Chancellor knocked it loose, causing a fumble that rolled through to the back of the end zone.

The ball was about to go out of bounds, and no one was even near it: except for Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, who, not wanting to risk even the theoretical possibility of anything bizarre happening (such as trying to recover it and muffing it himself while somehow keeping it in the end zone), helped it along by a very purposeful slight right jab (video).

Which is illegal – although Wright clearly didn’t know, and even head coach Pete Carroll said he hadn’t been aware of the rule. And it should have been first down Lions ball inside the 1 yard line.

At which point, trailing 13-10, the Lions likely – but, against that Seattle defense that but for this last drive had essentially badly bottled them up all night – very much not assuredly, would have scored a TD (and taken critical time off the clock), or probably kicked a field goal. Nice Pro Football Talk column here, but that field goal doesn’t necessarily mean the game goes into overtime:

The Seahawks had two timeouts left, and would have used them immediately on any two staying in bounds running plays. A Detroit penalty that stopped the clock and that Seattle declined, would probably have also sufficed to save them a timeout. (Though Seattle likely would have taken it since any penalty was likely to push Detroit away from the goal line, but only depending on what down it was; for instance, likely figuring that after a failed third try in a row the Lions wouldn’t dare risk losing it all on yet a fourth short yardage attempt for the win, why give them a free third down play with still a “gimme” field goal as backup.) And any attempted pass play that led to an incomplete, or outside run or pass that went out of bounds, would have completely frozen the game clock and operated as effectively as another timeout.

Thus it’s likely that if Detroit tried a field goal on fourth down, Seattle would have had at least somewhere near a minute, and maybe about 1:20 or so left. Which in turn – although 1:20 is better – are both enough for a quick drive to get into field goal range and win the game even before it gets to overtime.

But, perhaps in an irony in a league that, particularly this year, seems to call – or maybe it just sees – way too many penalties), the penalty never got called. And the Seahawks were awarded the ball out at the 20 yard line for a touchback.

The Lions would still have an outside shot to tie, since they could stop the clock on two plays with their last two timeouts; and after a Seahawks punt if they could stop them, would have about 45 seconds, or around 1:20 if the Seahawks threw incomplete. (On average they wouldn’t be in quite as good a situation as the Seahawks would have been had the Lions been re-rewarded the ball inside the 1 and then kicked a 4th down field goal: Very short field goals take a few seconds – punts take longer – and the Seahawks were in a situation where running clock was probably paramount, while inside the 1 the Lions focus was on trying to score a touchdown and win. Though on the other hand, they may have come up with slightly better field position after the punt versus a post field goal kickoff.)

But on a 3rd and 2 the Seahawks connected on an unnecessarily long pass (though that was the play that was apparently the most open), and essentially ended the game.

Then ensued a near firestorm controversy about how the team was robbed, with the Lions giving hints of perhaps feeling a little bit sorry for themselves for having gotten somewhat “screwed” by the refs’ call, or, in this case, non call.

But the mild batting of the ball by K.J. Wright was a technical rule fluke that otherwise had no real bearing on the play; one that simply would have given the Lions an unexpected gift.

Sure, the refs made a mistake. But that mistake didn’t screw the Lions over. It kept the Lions from getting miraculously lucky on some fluke rule that the opposing player, among many, didn’t know about.

They still “should” have been given that opportunity to win it inside the one yard line, under the rules. But they also legitimately lost the game. Holding onto the football is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, and the Lions did not, at the most critical time, while on the other hand they had nothing to do with the fluke rule or K.J reaching the ball and electing to unknowingly (rulewise) bat it out rather than just run through it.

In essence the Lions got rescued by a fluke and otherwise completely irrelevant rule and circumstance. But then they got immediately unrescued by a mistake in judgment by the referees in either not being clear on the rule themselves, or not seeing that, in so far as there can be an “intentional batting” of the ball, Wright’s action’s were intentional.

Rescued by circumstances outside of one’s control and performance, then unrescued, is not getting screwed.

Sure, it was unlucky. But it was only unlucky because it was first lucky for them for Wright to even get to the ball before it went out of the end zone anyway, and do what many players in that situation, playing “heads up” but unaware of the rule, might have done; and thus make sure that a ball going out of the end zone – that but for Wright touching it was going to anyway -did so.

So they got lucky and unlucky. Yet almost all that’s seemingly been focused on is the unlucky and fairly random part, and not how it that part was only created by an equal amount of completely unexpected luck to begin with a moment earlier. And how driving for the go ahead touchdown, they fumbled the ball, and lost the game, not the referees.

The rulebook, through obscure application, almost rescued them. And the refs, through then botching that application, failed to do so, in a blown call. But the game was blown by the Lions, not the refs.

Week 5 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Last week 2-2. Year to date: 14-10.

Last week recap: On the bright side, pegged the Giants and Rams as picks against the spread and to each win outright; making the proclamation with respect to the Giants at the bottom of the game summary, and with respect to the Rams in said summary; dryly noting how it would “shock” ESPN. (Mainly because EPSN’s power rankings after week 3, by virtue of the Cardinals beating three middling teams, two by lopsided scores, already had the Cardinals as number two in the league – ahead of the Packers who almost made it to the Super Bowl last season and are playing even better early on in this one.)

Downside: 2-2 again. Sure, 2-1-1 would have been squeaked out had the Saints hit their chip shot field goal at the end to win 23-20. But the Cowboys could have also won the game outright in overtime as a result (and 15-9 total against the spread looks so much better than 14-10, doesn’t it?), or lost it by the far more common 3 points, same as if the Saints had not missed from inside what is now extra point range.

The missed field goal was great luck for Dallas. Such great luck, Dallas apparently didn’t realize they were actually in overtime until the second play after the kickoff. Which worked out well for the Saints, since they scored an 80 yard touchdown on the first play, and won, 26-20.

Bigger downside: Once again, shamefully, went with the 49ers. But at least Colin Kaepernick elected not to throw more passes to the opposing players than his own this week; and frankly, the 49ers played a much better game.

Without further ado, let’s roll through a few lock picks. Not necessarily a lock to be right, but a lock to be right, wrong, or possibly a push. One of those three, at least.

1.  New England Patriots (-9) at Dallas Cowboys

The only thing keeping the spread here from being a joke, besides the fact that the Cowboys are missing their two biggest superstars – Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, with the QB drop off from Romo to Brandon Weeden being among the largest in the league, missing their best CB Orlando Scandrick for the entire season, and the fact that before losing to said at the time 0-3 Saints, they gave up a 14 point lead to lose to the Falcons by two scores right here in Dallas, is….um…uh…

Wait a minute. Those are a lot of things keeping the spread from being a joke, and it doesn’t even cover it all.

But the most key thing might be this: The Patriots seem to be on the proverbial warpath after their post Super Bowl glory was seemingly made partial mockery of by the NFL’s labeling of Tom Terrific Brady as a ball deflating cell phone destroying cheater. (Never mind that Brady willingly gave permission to access any texts and phone calls with all potentially relevant parties rather than open up the entirety of his personal communications, or that the CBA concept of giving the commissioner broad discretion doesn’t mean there’s suddenly an expectation of yielding one’s intimate personal communications – and possibly nudie pictures or worse with, or of, his wife, etc. – to the NFL for what are in effect on field equipment transgressions.)

And the fact that nearly the entire NFL offseason was essentially shaped if not dominated by this ongoing “Deflategate” saga. (We’ve certainly come a long way from Watergate, when ‘Gates were tied to things like the basic subversion of our democracy rather than whether footballs for one team but not the other were somehow purposefully and thus illicitly deflated below the requisite 12.5 lbs of pressure.)

That’s a pretty good reason to be worried about the Patriots, if one is playing them. At least, it certainly is combined with the fact that through three games they’ve looked as good as any team in the league, and are the defending Super Bowl champs.

That said, this is also the team that the Cowboys could have possibly played in that Super Bowl if the football on a pretty athletic Dez Bryant catch didn’t graze the ground and come loose for a moment. And, that is, if they could have then beaten Seattle again in Seattle.

But hey, before melting down at the end and giving up two scores sandwiched around a long shot Seattle onside kick recovery (enabled by a some unintentional Packer assistance), those Packers were beating that same team and heading to the Bowl themselves; and the Cowboys were a better road team than Green Bay last year.

The Cowboys are a little different now, missing their key two offensive superstars Romo and Bryant, and without their top CB for the season. (Along with their superstar running back from last year, with no seemingly suitable replacement yet – although Demarco Murray hasn’t done anything over at rival Philadelphia yet.)

And while they haven’t had a chance to practice, and will be rusty and less in tune with the defense, they do get Greg Hardy back from suspension, along with Rolando McClain, who will ostensibly finally play alongside key MLB Sean Lee. (Who in turn missed the last 3 quarters of the Saints game last week but was on the field for the Falcons debacle in week 3.)

Maybe the Cowboys aren’t a team with championship aspirations ability and attitude.

But they seem to think they are; and if they are, they’re playing the Super Bowl champs, lost their last two games including an embarrassing home loss two weeks ago, and have a chance to show the nation (and themselves) that yes, they possibly could have done what Seattle (almost did but) did not do.

And if they don’t at least battle the Patriots reasonably close here at home, in a game that’s less meaningful to the Patriots – who are also playing on the road – that idea becomes a bit far fetched no matter how many excuses are made about how they “didn’t have Romo or Dez.” (But, though not an equal trade given the key importance of the QB position – and the fact that Greg Hardy has never played with them, was also suspended last year, and is rusty coming off a four game suspension this one – they do have Hardy, and Sean Lee; while last year Hardy wasn’t with the team, and Lee was injured for the season.)

The Cowboys could surprise by not being what they say they are, and lose solidly. But it’s more likely they “surprise” and put up a tough battle, and possibly even a real “surprise” win.

3-1 on outright upset picks on the year. (The other two besides the Giants and Rams in week four were also the Giants and Rams, but in week one. And while the Rams somehow managed to defeat the Seahawks in overtime, the Giants got some fortunate picks and had the game won until the referees completely blew it for them, and, separate and apart from the referees, they completely blew it for themselves.)

So, time for boldness and risking a fall to 3-2 on upsets? And this would be a BIG one.

But Brandon Weeden!? He’s 0-10 his last 10 starts. And now he’s playing the likely still upset Super Bowl champion Patriots. Cowboys – not even with recently acquired second backup and former Patriots back up stalwart Matt Cassel, but Brandon Weeden – defeat the so far bulletproof appearing Super Bowl champs?? (While Cassel could get in, that would likely only be if Weeden is doing poorly, and putting the Cowboys into an even bigger hole. And it’s not like Cassel is all that good – he’s a solid backup who has occassionally started, and therein had one or two nice runs with good personnel around, and some very poor ones.)

It’s hard to tell whether picking the Cowboys to win with the clear lack of winning leadership from Weeden is a bold move, or a fruitless one. Going with the latter: But really, 0-10 is the time for a bold move. But the issues, as the Falcons game (as well as the last Saints drive when they had to stop them, then again on one play in overtime) clearly showed, aren’t just Brandon Weeden.

Pick: Cowboys, in a very close loss. 

2.  New Orleans Saints (+6) at Philadelphia Eagles

In week one the Saints lost a fairly close game on the road to a team that after two more games against bad opponents ESPN questionably ranked number two in its NFL power rankings; lost at home to a weak Buccaneers team; lost a fairly close game at the 4-0 Panthers (not that the Panthers have played any team that’s all that great yet); then got back a few defensive players and essentially beat Dallas at the end, first missing an otherwise game winning 30 yard field goal, then winning in overtime.

Meanwhile, the Eagles are 1-3 against the spread, and most of those haven’t been all that close. This also matches their record. Thus it could be that perception of this team doesn’t really match what they are.

But apparently that perception continues.

Sure, the Eagles played now 4-0 Atlanta very tough, beat a solid Jets team, and lost close to an underrated (but still at this point fairly middling) Redskins team. But they’re 1-3 like the Saints. And while they get one or two guys back on defense, the two players the Saints picked up for week four – CB Keenan Lewis and S Jarius Byrd (who saw limited action), might be more key because they help lead what has otherwise been a weak defense.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ shoulder, injured in week two against the Buccaneers – which limited his throwing (and kept him out of week 3 against the Panthers, though Verizon commercial star Luke McCown played an outstanding game in his stead) – also wasn’t fully healed for the Dallas game in week four, and should be stronger this week.

If Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford stops playing skittish, worried and tense, and plays like he did against the Redskins in the second half of week 4 or better, the Eagles will be tougher to beat; but Bradford’s fall from his one time lofty potential is not the Eagles only problem.

With the way offenses and the new rule tweaks of the last few years have been going, six points is not a huge amount; as a lot of games become high scoring offensive scoring affairs, and double digits is now ho hum.

But while the Eagles “look” to be slightly better and probably have a small home field advantage, this game would otherwise be close to a tossup, and not the seemingly at least somewhat one sided battle a six point spread suggests.

One almost never knows with the NFL, but this should be a good game.

Pick: Saints 

3.  Pittsburgh Steelers (+4) at San Diego Chargers

This just isn’t the same Steelers team with Michael Vick at the helm instead of Ben Rothlisberger; it’s tough to cross the country; and the Chargers are a pretty good home team that might be slightly better injury wise than last week (but possibly not by much). While the Steelers will also be without last year’s first round pick (No. 15 overall) Ryan Shazier, although he’s missed the last two games as well.

But that said, this line may in part be an overreaction to the Steelers botchery against the at that point winless (but always dangerous) and ultimately half WR-less Ravens in a nationally televised week four Thursday Night matchup.

Here’s the real botchery. But the most notable was the miss of that same 49 yard field goal near the end that would have won the game the way it played out; then the miss of the 41 yarder that almost assuredly (but for some tupe of near Hail Mary type fluke) would have as well; then the two fourth down conversion, odd play call and Michael Vick failure tries in overtime. With, as icing on the cake, the second coming from winning field goal range that the Steelers were at that point too skittish to try, one yard closer in than the distance (52 yards) from which nearly bulletproof Ravens kicker Justin Tucker then beat them a few moments later. (Though I half agree with their decision to go for the fourth down conversion, if not the more subjective specific play call itself, and disagree with analytic guru Brian Burke. The only reason I might not have, unless my kicker didn’t have a confident look in his eyes, is that with nothing to lose at that point and a chance at redemption, then very soon to be released Josh Scobee might have had laser focus for the kick. But that was just a guess, and defensible strategically only because the decision was otherwise close; and a read on kickers is important in close calls, if something that’s often hard to see away from the sidelines.)

But let’s get on with this game, and why this is an easy pick:

At Foxboro in week one the Steelers, despite perception to the contrary expressed by a few articles, weren’t really much outplayed by the Patriots; which in turn suggested either the game was an aberration (common in the NFL), the Patriots weren’t yet very good (hard to fathom when Tom Brady was laser sharp for the contest, and even harder to fathom now), or the Steelers were good.

The Steelers then trounced the 49ers. Sure, big deal; but the 49ers are still a football team who did beat the Vikings the week before. (Glad I picked the Vikings in that game, who were decidedly outplayed by the 49ers – who in turn haven’t covered since (and not even been within half a mile in two out of three) – before going on a slight rampage; very solidly winning outright by substantial margins the next two weeks, then covering in a close game at Denver last week. So basicallly: when this site gives you a pick that involves the San Francisco 49ers, go with the opposite. 14-7 so far against the spread this season in games not involving the 49ers. 0-3 in games involving them.)

Then the Steelers outplayed the Rams in St. Louis, before outplaying the Ravens for most of this last game, and Vick’s full contest, week four.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is outstanding at the end of football games. Michael Vick is not. On the road, against a home crowd, it’s tough to see the Steelers winning a close game.

But right now they are probably the better team. And getting four points. And though it might in large part be due to Big Ben, who is cheering from the sidelines, they tend to have a pretty extreme winning record on Monday Night Football. (They even managed to win this one last year against the Texans by somehow getting the ball back and then scoring 24 points in the span of less than 3 minutes, 21 of which came in 90 seconds.)

Pick: Steelers, in a game that’s probably at best a tossup for the Chargers to win.

NFL Week 4 Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 2-2. Year to date: 12-8

Last week recap: “But perhaps a humbled Rex has his team more quietly fired up this time.” Apparently so.  Also, even more apparently so, “the Cardinals obviously have the edge in winning.” But picking the 49ers +6.5 points was almost the football equivalent of Titanic engineers picking their boat over icebergs. (Metaphorically speaking – no insensitive humor intended. Bad humor however, intended.)

But hey, four interceptions, two pick-sixes, 67 total yards passing; at least with “Bad Harbaugh” gone, not being asked to do things he doesn’t want to do (or presumably isn’t good at – as opposed to throwing pick sixes), quarterback Colin Kaepernick is now “comfortable.”

Whew to the 49er’s to be rid of the head coach who took over a team which went 7-9, 2-14, 4-12, 7-9, 5-11, 7-9, 8-8, 6-10 their prior 8 seasons, and immediately took them to the NFC Championship Game, the Super Bowl, the NFC Championship Game, and then a still tough 8-8 record in an injury and exodus rumor riddled season.

Which brings us to two icebergs – um, I mean football games – on this week’s docket. Namely, our two villains from last week’s “horrible pick of the month”:

The Gold Rush team, and the team this silly Harvard Sports Analytic Collective “study” gave a middling 30% chance of making the playoffs to. (But at least that same study picked the should be 0-3 Dolphins to have the highest chance of making the playoffs out of the entire AFC, and gave the 2-1 Raiders a statistically irrational 1 in 333 chance.)

The first of the two teams playing in that 49ers Cardinals contest is playing a team that, in a misleading final score game, played so well last Monday night that for much of the contest they looked like they were scrimmaging a local college squad. The second is playing a team so stubborn in its patterns that its mascot even grew horns.

1. Green Bay Packers (-9) at San Francisco 49ers

The fact that the (then very different) 49ers have beaten the Packers the last four times they’ve played doesn’t matter – except to the extent that the Packers, even though it’s “just another game,” might be aware of it.

And Aaron Rodgers is playing really, really, well. While Colin Kaepernick though, at least is “comfortable.”

But here’s one last dying hope to the idea that jettisoning Harbaugh to bring in Tomsula wasn’t like ditching Ulysses Grant to bring in Custer.

This is your moment 49ers. You can’t be a nearly 10 point home underdog with a strong home field advantage against a team that itself normally plays far better at home and coming off a big Monday night win in front of the nation.

Unless, you know, you really are one of the bottom teams in the league right now.

Pick: 49ers

2.  St Louis Rams (+7) at the Arizona Cardinals

I’m just probably not practical enough to recognize the reality of NFL football, where CBAs and the fact that athletes are “so good” makes pretty much everything reasonable.

Thus, tackling technique? For advanced high school athletes and wanna be posers. In the NFL, you need to bring a ball carrier down “any way possible.”

Which I suppose is one of the reasons that in a game where the single most important fundamental is tackling – it not only ends nearly every play, but ultimately determines each plays’ outcome – technique sometimes follows a “jump up around the guy’s shoulders,” “try to shoulder bump him to hopefully upend instead of missing outright,” or “try to dive low even when you don’t have to” approach, instead of driving and wrapping up with at least the intention of controlling the critical mid section or legs, and continuing to finish wrapping and driving through and back upfield or sideways.

Jeff Fisher is a head coach I have heard utter the ridiculous “he knows he needs to bring him down by any way possible” phrase. Which could explain why throughout the years Fisher’s otherwise solid enough looking defenses have gone through poor periods of tackling.

The Rams could be good this year. They should be good this year. (Though they do keep making questionable draft day decisions.) And that defense should be a monster.

But let’s face it, while so many of us have just long assumed that Fisher” is a very good NFL head coach, his teams have now been to the playoffs only twice in the last ten years. And there, with two losses total, no wins.

Over one third of all NFL teams – 37.5, or close to 40% – make it to the playoffs every season. Fisher has been a head coach for 20 years prior to this one, and despite an overall mild winning record (.522), his teams have won the division 3 times, and reached the playoffs 6. That’s 30% of the time. With one SB appearance.

And this year, the third season in a row his Rams were finally supposed to rise up from mediocrity, they’ve followed the same pattern:

Upsetting a Seahawks team who who they also beat in St. Louis last year as well. (And who outplayed them in overtime, but given the benefit of a semi mistaken onsides kick snafu that immediately put the Seahawks in a really bad field position hold, and ultimately a nice but probably fortuitous stop of the Seahawks the crucial fourth down of the all but first score wins overtime period, they won it.)

Then going to Washington (to face a team they shut out last year 24-0) and practically being shut out themselves, 24-0, before ultimately losing 24-10. Then in week three coming home and being outplayed by the Steelers in a 12-6 loss where despite being on the road and losing their quarterback in the third quarter, the Steelers were decidedly the better team.

Why be stubborn like the horns of a Ram and go against the pattern of them as a mediocre team? Because I have faith I’m not completely right about Fisher. That he’s not really a so so coach disguised as a good one.

And that after 10 years of near mediocrity, against a division rival who the Rams outplayed for over three quarters in Arizona last season (with Carson Palmer in the lineup – in fact ironically the game fell apart for the Rams after Palmer left with his infamous injury), after yet again the same, old same old; the Rams will play like a football team, and not only cover this piddling 7 point spread, but upset the Cardinals and so shock ESPN and the “play fantasy football” channel on Monday that total team and division ranking chaos ensues.

There’s also another reason to pick the Rams. Their pattern also suggests they might play a tough game. And the Cardinals rise from preseason afterthought to suddenly number two in the power rankings ahead of Green Bay, after just three middling opponents, might (or might not) ultimately wind up being justified; but right now it’s not.

Pick: Rams.

3. New York Giants (+5) at Buffalo Bills.

In week 1 the Giants were fortunate with turnovers. But save for missed referee calls (acknowledged by the NFL – well, at least the two critical ones were), that literally changed the outcome of the game, as well as their own end game multiple strategy breakdowns, they did “beat” the Cowboys. Or they should have. And they similarly held a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter against the Falcons in week 2, also ultimately a Giants loss.

But luckily, despite Eli Manning’s strange pronouncement after the game that their goal had been to finish strong and that they did so, they so dominated the Redskins in week 3 that even though they actually finished weak, they still won the game.

It would be nice if the Giants got Victor Cruz back. (Or even had Jason Pierre-Paul.) But you know, fireworks, and recurring calf problems and all.

Pick: Giants, in an upset

4. Dallas Cowboys (+3) at New Orleans Saints

Save for possibly the 49ers game, the above picks were too easy (famous last words, right?). So here’s a slightly harder one:

The now nine straight losses in a row Brandon Weedens (that is, teams quarterbacked by Weeden have now lost their last 9), clash head on with the three straight losses of the Saints; who in turn, after missing his first game since high school (and back in the last century), get back quarterback Drew Brees,

With Weeden, and yet missing a few players on defense and the heart and soul of that team – Tony Romo – can the Cowboys possibly win?

I picked them to win the NFC. (Which, with Romo out with a broken collarbone, and Dez Bryant out for who knows how many months, and after blowing a 21-7 then 28-14 point lead to lose 39-28 at home to the Falcons last week, isn’t looking so hot incidentally). And to stick with the nautical and iceberg theme here, I might as well go down with the ship.

The Saints hung with the Panthers last week and could have won the game; are a strong team at home; they get Drew Brees back (though Luke McCown played very strong at Carolina); and are desperate at 0-3.

Meanwhile, if the Cowboys are the team they say they are, and not the team that otherwise always seems to go 8-8 (and a loss here would put them at a nice 2-2, not 1-3, courtesy, again, of both referee calls and the Giants how not to finish a football game strategy camp), they have to be geared up for this game. And it should be a good one.

I picked them to be closer to the team they say they are, and not the one they usually seem to be. And they did outplay the Giants, and dominate the Eagles. So one game isn’t enough to jump ship (though with Weeden as the engine, it is time to start thinking about it).

One final note, though hopefully a mere coincidence. I picked the Chiefs last Monday Night. (0-3 so far ATS on Monday Night Games, 12-5 on Sundays).

I did it because they were a little under the radar, because of Andy Reid’s long standing solid record as a head coach (and who at this point might just be sort of doing the same old same old, since it’s hard to see how he could let his team play so flat in such a key game after an embarassing and critical home loss the week before).

And, relevant here, I did it because I believed they were who they said they were. (Notice though, so far at least, I left the Bengals Chiefs game off this list. And that should be an easy pick as well.)

Pick: Cowboys

NFL Acknowledges Two of Three Officiating Mistakes in Cowboys Giants Game, One of Which Took Away the Win From the Giants

NFL Acknowedged Two Officiating Mistakes in the Sunday Night Giants Cowboys Game, One of Which Gave Dallas Four Points, and the Other Ultimately Gave Them the Game.

The referees blew at least three officiating calls against the New York Giants in last Sunday Night’s Game at Dallas, two of which were officially recognized and acknowledged by the league after the game. Continue reading

2015 NFL Season Picks Against the Spread, Week 1

(Updated below with Ravens Broncos, 9-13 3:41 EST)

In honor of the fact that Adrian Peterson is going to rush for 600 yards a game this year, and the Vikings are going to win the Super Bowl, World Series, Indy 500, and Nobel Peace prize, our similarly ambitious goal is to finish a perfect 102-0 (picking roughly 7 games on average each week) against the spread.

So, we’ll blow that “statistically a little less likely than a huge asteroid blowing up the Mojave desert in the next 4 seconds” goal out of the water with our very first pick; which is, naturally, in honor of Adrian Peterson himself:

1.   Minnesota Vikings (-2.5) at San Francisco 49ers (MNF)

So, basically, the 49ers are the first new team to enter the NFL since what, the Houston Texans in 2002? But since they get a big edge the Texans never got – they get to keep several of the players, and even some of the office personnel, from the old team in San Francisco prior to this year, they should be a lot better than the Texans were.

So why is Minnesota, a team that along with Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa Bay and a few others was rumored to be starting a new London Farm League last year (by somebody, somewhere, I’m sure), favored, on the road, against a team whose ghost went to the NFC Championship game three of the last four seasons – losing one on two muffed punts at the end of regulation and in overtime, and winning another -and who even last year with like half its team hurt, or at least the key guys, still had a better record and in a tougher division??

It must be that the old no “one knows about them” sexy pick to surprise this year – the Minnesota Vikings – are no longer the no one knows about them sexy pick to surprise this year.

Or it could be because, as everyone knows, Adrian Peterson is going to rush for 2500 yards this season, and the Vikings are going to win the Super Bowl. (Too bad I didn’t choose them for a wild card, but I did put them very close. Then again, this goofy but popular Harvard Sports Collective study put the Vikings at 12% to make the playoffs – although to be fair it was before AP told us how many yards he was going to get).

Pick: Vikings. But in a suprisingly tough game, as the new 49ers may not be slouches either.  And only because Adrian P said they were going to win the Super Bowl. Trouble is a lot of this line may represent early perception that the 49ers are no good. And that perception may be wrong, and to at least some extent, likely is.

2.  New York Giants (+6.5) at Dallas Cowboys (SNF)

This is your upset pick of the week. Yes Dallas makes the Super Bowl.  And yes Victor Cruz is out. And Jon Beason, who seems to get hurt a lot (hence in part why a then somewhat LB stacked Panthers finally let him go to the great delight of a badly lacking Giants middle a few years ago) is out as well.

And yes now that Eli is rich – 4 more years at another $84 million total plus the rare no trade clause – unless, one presumes, it’s to the Chargers – he has nothing to play for except the only thing he always had. To fool us with that “aw shucks” quiet approach, and slice up defenses just when we don’t expect him to do it. A theory which this high publicity contract just signed Friday somewhat ruins. Still:

Pick: Giants.  And as upset of the week, to win outright. Also, as an aside, the player starting in place of Jon Beason at MLB? Uani’ Unga. 27. Undrafted last year. Joined the Giants practice squad two days before Christmas. But if the Giants can’t win with a guy named Uani’ Unga, who can they win with?

3.  Philadelphia Eagles (-3) at Atlanta Falcons (+3) (MNF)

I wrote in multiple comparison articles how I expected not just to beat the Harvard study probabilities by season end, but dominate them when all 32 teams are considered; and the study pegged the Falcons at a high 55% chance of making the playoffs, while I gave them a (still high, frankly) 42%.

And, though as but a wild card to make it into the playoffs, I put the Eagles in the NFC championship game this season. So I need them to win this game. And let’s face it, to have a shot at the playoffs they at least need to win a few games before Sam Bradford gets hurt again. (Kidding. Mostly.)

So they’ll probably lose. And traditionally Atlanta has been an extremely tough place to play; and Dan Quinn, at least versus last season, might be an upgrade right now at head coach over the perhaps somewhat burned out Mike Smith, who otherwise did such a solid job prior to last season.

Still, the Eagles are going to the NFC Championship game, and the Falcons are going to be battling it out in a weaker division:
Pick: Eagles

4.  Kansas City Chiefs (+1) at Houston Texans 

This line is not giving the Texans, who I have as wild card this year, much love at all.  But since I have the Chiefs winning the AFC West, I’ll hold my nose and:
Pick: Chiefs

5. Seattle Seahawks (-4) at St. Louis Rams 

I’m pretending I didn’t watch the Rams in preseason, where at times they still looked like a few of Jeff Fisher’s teams of old: The ones where proper tackling technique – wrapping around the lower midsection, bending slightly at the waist, squaring the shoulders and driving through and backward – seems optional. I’m hoping that was a mirage.

The Rams upset the Seahawks, so take the points:
Pick: Rams

6. New Orleans Saints (+2.5) at Arizona Cardinals

The team that gets its quarterback back, that still made the playoffs last year from arguably the toughest division in football, facing a team that scraped in at 7-9 last year doesn’t even get favored by the traditional 3 at home, but the sneaky 2.5?

Traditionally, when that happens, uh oh, watch out. Home team is not looking good. And this line is definitely telling us something: Either the Saints are going to win this football game, or well, the Cardinals are the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL. I’m going with the latter. It could get ugly though:
Pick: Cardinals

7. Tennessee Titans (+3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In the Marcus v Jameis battle, I’ll go with the Titans, who started off last year practically obliterating the Chiefs in Kansas City, then went 1-15 the rest of the way, getting blown out most games.

This is only on a hunch that Ken Whisenhunt is not as bad of a head coach as he now seems, but only as bad as I argued early last October when I said if the Titans were going to give up on first time head coach Mike Munchak (who had done a solid job over the first three years), it was a mistake to not have gone with someone with a much better winning track record than Whisenhunt or stick with Munchak, who showed upside.
Pick: Titans

8. Baltimore Ravens (+4.5)  at Denver Broncos (update addition) 

The Ravens almost beat the Patriots in the second round of the playoffs last season. But they weren’t that impressive during the regular season, and haven’t seemed to improve, at least on paper, since last year.

On the other hand, Broncos new head coach Gary Kubiak was in Houston for a lot of years before that team started winning. Then once they did and were being mentioned as Super Bowl conteners, they managed to go on a 14 game slide to finish up 2-14 in 2013. And the coaching switch from John Fox to Kubiak could be a downgrade.

Peyton Manning is also now 39 1/2 years old, says that though he wears gloves and it doesn’t seem to affect his throwing, he can’t really feel much in the fingertips of his right hand, and did have a bad neck injury a few years ago that seems to have damaged some nerves.

Playoffs aside, for many years Manning was so good that he was almost in a league by himself. (This is often lost, overlooked, or completely missed, since he has frequently returned to earth during the playoffs.) And he carried teams, over and over and over; with great adjustments at the line, unbelievably laser quick reads, accurate decisions, quick releases, and laser accurate throws.

Last year he finally showed signs of struggling, and the consensus is that in preseason, he may still not be quite the same old Peyton Manning. Much of former head coach John Fox’s staff also went with him to Chicago. And defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a solid defensive coordinator before he came to Denver, and again therein, moved on to become Oakland’s new head coach.

A lot will be told about both Manning and this new coaching staff as the season wears on. But regardless of whether their QB is still the near perfect regular season quarterbacking machine he has usually been or not, this team is good enough to win, and win a lot, with a top notch coaching staff.

Denver has a good defense, possibly an underated one, New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a fairly good track record. They have a nice home field advantage in the high atltitude and supportive home crowd, and the Ravens have traditionally been a fairly poor road team. For now the new coaching staff gets the benefit of the doubt, and Denver “should” win this game, hence:
Pick: Broncos

Ender: Really the smart move for those in Vegas or vying for bragging rights, is to stay away from these games week 1. There is not enough information, and most of these games are tossups. And I’d have only picked three games this week – if there was even three to decently pick. Even the Giants game – upset special – is not a super great pick, because the Giants are all over the place when they play the Cowboys (though having lost their last four, and being definitively outplayed despite what you read, the last two); and in fact nearly everyone else. So if it is a close game, great, you win.

Happy viewing. And just in case you haven’t been reminded enough times, remember that three federal judges have now essentially ruled in just the last year or so that Roger Goodell has made his key decisions arbitrarily and capriciously, ostensibly in order to “protect the integrity” of the league; which I suggest if anything slightly undermines the integrity of the league. But then to me so does their sudden recent veritable pimping on many of its flagship shows of online fantasy football gambling sites, so maybe I’m wrong. (It’s not the advertising, it’s the “hard sell” promotion aspect of it that to me – but possibly not to many others – seems a little bit over the top.)

Predictions: 2015 NFL Season Division Winners

As everyone who pays any attention to football knows, and many who don’t probably know as well, another NFL football season is upon us.

At the same time, federal judge after judge in NFLPA actions continues to rule that despite extremely wide latitude under the CBA, commissioner Roger Goodell continues to violate it by “arbitrary” actions and decisions that represent an “abuse of discretion.”

Federal Judge David Doty, in a statement dripping with sarcasm, even wondered aloud in Federal Court recently: “I’m not sure the Commissioner understands there is a CBA.

Some, in process, have likened Goodell’s actions to overzealous politicians who believe “national security” allows or even demands they take those actions they support, U.S. Constitution, and government rules of process and inviolate rights be damned.

While far more trivial, Roger Goodell’s pattern of response for “conduct detrimental” to the league is similar. However, many of the 32 NFL owners apparently don’t view a commissioner who, federal judges continue to rule. acts in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner – dispensing his “own brand of industrial justice,” as New York Federal Judge Richard Berman most recently said in the “DeflateGate” matter – as somewhat detrimental to the integrity of the league.

But enough of that. Let’s turn to far better controversy; one that will be resolved by regular season end, and that we get to watch unfold each Sunday in the process – beginning with tomorrow, the first Sunday of the regular 2015 NFL season, and the day some consider the main opening day to the season.

So, here are your division winners for each of the 8 NFL divisions, as well as second, third and last teams for each division. Wild card contenders for each conference are then also listed, in predicted order of success – with the first two teams on each list the projected wild card winners.(Though done in comparison to a very questionable earlier Harvard Study, and for purposes of fairness thus didn’t take into account pre season action or injuries in its actual percentage ratings, these three pieces assess some of the key variables affecting each of the 32 NFL teams’ chances.)

American Football Conference (AFC)
East

  1. Buffalo Bills
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Miami Dolphins
  4. New York Jets

North

  1. Cincinnati Bengals
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Baltimore Ravens
  4. Cleveland Browns

South

  1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. Houston Texans
  3. Tennessee Titans
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars

West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Denver Broncos
  3. San Diego Charger
  4. Oakland Raiders

AFC Wild Cards
1. New England Patriots. 2. Houston Texans. 3. Denver Broncos. 4. Miami Dolphins. 5. Pittsburgh Steelers.

*Notes: The Patriots are also likely to take the AFC East, and the Broncos and Texans could easily be fllip flopped. QB Peyton Manning carries teams, and even at 39, with what might be a good defense, Denver could be a great team again and even beat out the Chiefs for the division. Miami and Pittsburgh could also both obviously move up, or win their respective divisions, as the East, North, and West should be particularly interesting this season. Regarding prior poor teams, Oakland might greatly improve, while Tennessee could show significant, if not as much improvement as well. The Jets are expected to improve as well, and might help make that NFC East a tough division this year.

It also feels a little uncomfortable to completely leave out a team that has more playoff wins than any other in the NFL since their QB and head coach joined them in 2008, and who last year was solidly beating the ultimate Super Bowl champion Patriots in the Conference Semi Finals before losing a very close game at the end on a rare Joe Flacco playoff interception.

But some teams have to be left out. And just as other teams could do better than expected from last season and before, some could do worse. Needless to say, the Ravens and Bengals could also be flip flopped here. And if that happens and the Ravens do get into the playoffs – as they’ve proven before (and much like the Giants, who they also happened to defeat back in their first Super Bowl appearance in January, 2001), anything can happen.

Championship game: Colts v Chiefs

National Football Conference (NFC)
East

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Philadelphia Eagles
  3. New York Giants
  4. Washington Redskins

North

  1. Detroit Lions
  2. Green Bay Packers
  3. MInnesota Vikings
  4. Chicago Bears

South

  1. Carolina Panthers
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Atlanta Falcons
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

West

  1. St. Louis Rams
  2. Seattle Seahawks
  3. Arizona Cardinals
  4. San Francisco 49ers

NFC Wild Cards
1. Philadelphia Eagles. 2. Seattle Seahawks. 3. Green Bay Packers. 4. Minnesota Vikings. 5. Arizona Cardinals.

*Notes: Minnesota and Green Bay, in even more of a surprise, could flip flop, and the Giants could also make it into the playoffs as a wild card. Big improvement would be needed in the South to send a wild card (although the NFC South had a particularly hard schedule last year, and has an easier one this go round); but the Saints are a possibility if some of the other teams don’t improve as projected here.

The Falcons could always also rebound back in their stead or even in place of the Panthers, who to take the division again do need to play as a cohesive team from day one, and with possibly the key piece from his otherwise weak offense missing, QB Can Newton needs to play at a fairly high consistent level.

Championship game: Cowboys v Eagles

Super Bowl: Cowboys v Colts

It’s too easy to just predict the best teams from last year plus obvious offseason additions, and every year there are some surprises that wind up completely changing expectations from what they were earlier in the season. This set of predictions tries to capture at least some of that.