Week 12 Picks Against the Spread – Thanks Giving Day Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bears 

 

Unofficial “fun pick”

Cancelled, game already started

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

2015 Season, Week 9 Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 2-1
Year to date: 22-19

Last week recap: Pick of the Dolphins at +9 was one of the more miserable picks of this season – in hindsight anyway.

And I’m still not giving enough weight to the idea I’ve nevertheless been saying since the season started: the Patriots, and Tom Brady in particular, are on a rampage, feeling slighted over the offseason Deflategate scandal; something which the league, apparently, has gone so off its rocker on as to compare it – an issue of slightly deflated football that refs handle on every play – to Chicaco Black Sox players alleged purposeful throwing of the 1919 World Series.

Maybe I should have listened to Heath Evans, who played for Belichick, and was on the roster when the Dolphins came into Foxboro in week 3 of the 2008 season (at 0-2, and 1-15 the year before) and demolished the Patriots:

I did include the entirety of his apparently spot on hyperbole in last week’s week 8 picks – just had too much naive faith that the Dolphins would play with a hunger and intensity; not have four players continually back up on 3rd and16 runs, then just wait right at the first down marker so the Patriots were almost assured of making the first down.

I couldn’t even tweet the game I got so far behind spending so long analyzing a series of plays early on where the Dolphins – not out of laziness, but fear and horrible techniques – literally gave the Patriots key first downs on their opening drive.

And, frankly, maybe a little bit out of laziness and not being in professional athlete shape as well. I never got paid, but have been in professional athlete shape, and there is no doubt, I don’t care WHAT the players are saying; they do not practice enough.

And this for a now Dan Campbell led team that was supposed to have gotten intense in its drills.

You don’t have to go out and break bones in practice. But it’s professional sports; you should be in professional athlete shape. Playing hard and popping up quickly off the turf is not hard for anyone with good endurance capability, who trains properly.

Not doing so, by two players (the first who missed the tackle, and one of the same culprits in the above described earlier 3rd and 16 fiasco, and another getting blocked on the sidelines), allowed an ensuing opening Patriots drive short pass to some dude known as “Gronk” to score an easy 47 yard touchdown gallop down the left sidelines, running right past where the second of the two was lackadaisically spinning off his block “well away from the play” until he saw Gronk about to race right past him. And it was all downhill from there.

That said, the Cowboys last week, at a silly +6, took the game down to the wire; but barring some luck all but gave away any real strong chance when late in the game they kicked their fourth field goal of the contest (a contest they were to predictably lose 13-12), on a 4th and long 2 from a little outside the eight yard line.

Not gonna go into it too much here, but teams essentially don’t get the math of close to the end zone short yardage field goal situations; particularly late in games where going up by 2 points against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, versus possibly continuing to trail by 1 (and handing the ball over on their 8 yard line) – versus the value of a good shot at making it a 5 or even better 7 point margin late, so that Wilson needs a touchdown not a field goal to simply win and if you make your two point conversion will only be playing for the tie in such a case, meaning their winning chances will be halved – is fairly trivial.

There was actually almost a quarter left to play, and the analysis gets more complicated: But even going up by 5, if there is more subsequent scoring, allows you to be able to win on a late field goal alone – far easier to do, particularly if in defensive battles between two good defensive teams such as in this game – if the Seahawks go ahead with a TD (and either neglect to try or fail on a two point conversion try). And it also allows you to possibly extend your lead to 8 (meaning your opponent will only win one quarter of the time they even do score the touchdown to potentially tie the game with the last score of regulation) or even better make the two point conversion and thus go up by 10, on a late field goal, etc, etc.

Put simply, the taking of 3 points, given the strategic structure of the game there, doesn’t do that much to increase their overall chances. On the other hand, getting the TD – if they possibly can get it (and already being inside the 10, with a short yardage opportunity to get a new set of downs starting at the 6 yard line or better is a fairly strong possibility) – does substantially increase their chances.

It’s like some teams can’t see past the score at the moment, and only worry about the illogical but easy to grasp possibility of “going for the conversion and failing, and later losing by, gasp, 3 points or less,” while failing to recognize that what they do here will affect how their opponent plays and the end game unfolds, and more importantly the missed opportunity that was far greater on average that they gave up, in terms of their ultimate likelihood of winning the contest; which is what matters.

Most such calls (though the Cowboys are particularly bad at it) are so off base it’s a caricature of good strategy. But if it was that obvious, a professional football organization in a close scoring defensive game against a top notch fourth quarter comeback team and in particular quarterback (and right now, with injuries, lacking one themselves), wouldn’t kick their fourth relatively short short field goal of the game on a 4th and long 2 from their opponents 8.5 yard line just to take a measly 12-10 lead.

Did proclaim last week (wrongly, as it turns out) that the Broncos had a slight edge: in hindsight they had more than that, holding Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing (something like 20 fewer than Matt Cassel put up in that aforesaid Seahawks battle), in a contest that but for a few well timed and at times questionable penalty calls keeping drives alive (although yardage after the penalties was legit); could have been closer to 29-0 Broncos. And picked them to win outright: Which part they did do, just far more convincingly than predicted.

Lastly, it was not an official pick, but last week’s picks also ended with an “upset alert” regarding the Colts at Panthers, including:

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

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

Well, Luck didn’t play that way, until the fourth quarter when the team was down 17 points. When he did play that way. (At least for a while, then he seemed to somewhat tighten up again and, while still better than earlier in the game still wasn’t quite the same as he was late in razor tight contests in his first three years in the league, although a random deflection (and good hands by Panthers LB Luke Kuechly) on a nice pass breakup in overtime is ultimately what lost them the game; which at that point, with both teams having kicked a field goal in overtime and possession belonging to the Colts, had slightly favored the Colts.)

So the Colts, as it turned out, did almost pull off the upset; and didn’t win. It was the Panthers who won, and yet another close game, uncharacteristically, and possibly in a sign of growth of the team. (And Newton, who late in the game – ignore stats – played near lights out and relaxed, with a look of control and calm on his face – even retaining it when a picture perfect on a rope low arc easy catch TD bomb that likely would have won them the game anyway, was dropped by Ted Ginn.)

But it wasn’t an official pick against the spread, so it doesn’t count unfortunately.

Picks this week: 

1.  Washington Redskins (+14) at New England Patriots 

It’s not clear Brady “lied” to Goodell in the Deflategate saga, and often assumption becomes conflated with fact today.

But here, it does seem at least as if his statement that an undefeated season is “the furthest thing from anybody’s mind” is a bit of a white lie, if diplomatic and focus oriented.

That is, Brady should probably say what he in fact did say. And the players, even if they want to go undefeated, should try to think it; to focus on the present and on their best effort and performance every week, as it it comes up.

Brady knows that, and most communications to the press about competitiveness should serve that purpose first and foremost – i.e., trying to win, not giving one’s deep down and somewhat irrelevant wishes on an ultimate W-L record.

And as noted, the Patriots are on a rampage. This is a team that in general is also focused anyway: they don’t tend to have “trap” games.

But they might not have the same focus for the Skins that they had for the Dolphins, who after a mere two weeks were suddenly reannointed as some type of team on a monster roll. (Which was probably perfect as far as Belichick was concerned, making it easy to convey to his team to get super focused for the game.)

But this Redskins team is a better football team than many people think. And the NFC East is not a “lousy” division. (On the other hand, the AFC South is, as it has been for a while.)

It’s not a great division; it has four somewhat to possibly decently competitive teams, almost any one of which at this point could easily turn the corner and become a strong team.

This includes the Redskins, who have been playing without key starters for much of the season.

They get speedy and likely number one WR DeSean Jackson back this week. TE Jordan Reed, though he didn’t miss too much time with a concussion, will have gotten additional rest. C Kory Lichtensteiger, who has also missed several games, will be a game time decison. OLB Ryan Kerrigan did tear something in his hand last game that was surgically repaired, and is likely to play, though this could limit him a little.

Most importantly both of the team’s top two CBs have been out since early in the season: DeAngelo Hall played in the first three games, Chris Culliver played in three of the first four. Neither has played since.

Hall, with an injured toe, doesn’t sound like he’s 100%, which given that toes matter (balance, push, cuts), isn’t a great thing; but it seems as if he’s more likely to play than not. Culliver’s also still officially questionable, but didn’t practice Thursday, nor, reportedly, Friday – not good signs, but one never knows.

CB Bashaud Breeland, though dinged up a bit the last few games, has played in them all with the exception of week one. He’s also questionable, and like Hall practiced on a limited basis – although it doesn’t appear this was due to major injury limitations rather than simple precaution, but like Hall he is also not near a sure thing to play.

On balance the Redskins are still likely to have at least two of their top three CBs for the game though; which, if so, would be an improvement. (And Keenan Robinson, who’s been reasonably effective in coverage as a linebacker, though listed as questionable, has stated he will assuredly play). As would be the addition of Jackson on offense.

This team is not taking this game as the (here, somewhat humorous, however) joke many others may be taking it as, and while right now the Patriots are playing lights out, if the Redskins come in with fire, they may test the Pats a bit.

The key here is that the Redskins are not the bad team they’re perceived to be. Why they are not is not clear, but what is clear from watching their film is they aren’t all that bad.

The Patriots O line continues to be banged up, with Logan Mankins traded and their center out prior to week one (and placed on IR shortly thereafter, although he was just reactivated in the last 24 hours), left tackle Nate Solder placed in IR a few weeks ago, and injuries continuing to creep up on the remaining lineman.

But Brady is getting rid of the ball so quickly, and the young rookies seeing a lot of action are seemingly getting good coaching and improving, that it hasn’t seemed to matter much.

This could be an interesting game, though some of it will depend on whether the Redskins do get some players back, and if they are in sufficient playing shape and relatively healthy enough to perform.

This one – as with nearly any Patriot game this season at home – could be a blowout. Or it could be a scary close game for the Patriots; but even a strong performance by the Patriots could still only be an 8 to 13 point victory (or even less).

Needless to say, for it to be a good game Skins quarterback Kirk Cousins has to be in his good QB play mode, not his occasional semi meltdown mode.

While he racked it up for fantasy players last week in a big comeback win versus the Buccaneers, and maybe got a little too excited (if playfully) about it – indicating a possible sensitivity to questions about his play (never good for a QB) – at least it may have taken the pressure off of him for a little bit.

That is fired up though.

But who knows with KC. A good game versus Brady could vault him back into possible “good NFL quarterback status” (or a shocker upset, even higher), until later in the season when a slew of bad and overly apprehensive worry driven decisions reappears – if it does.

Pick: Redskins

2. Denver Broncos (-5.5) at Indianapolis Colts

Last year in the playoffs the best pure QB to ever play the game (regular season, what he is able to do from the line of scrimmage pre and post snap), in the twilight of his career, and slowed by injury and nerve damage, faced the most likely contender to be the next greatest – until this season reared its ugly non Luck head  – and the new guard beat the old.  (Before going on to Foxboro and getting throunced with both slightly deflated and non deflated footballs, by – if the postseason is proportionately weighed – arguably the greatest; although it’s hard to measure with only one, and very successful, head coach.)

Surely the Broncos want revenge, and are more than capable of exacting it. Especially against a not very good Colts team, wherein a few of their defensive backs continue to take awful tackling angles, and the offense doesn’t seem to do much better.

Including a quarterback who isn’t broadly scanning the field, is locking down on his decisions, and appears to be aiming or guiding the ball.

But this is the Colts. And Andrew Luck. He says he’s healthy. And if he stops aiming the ball, and just relaxes while simultaneously focusing without attention to result (as he did for a while in the fourth quarter against the Panthers last week) he can be a phenomenal quarterback. And when he plays like that, at home, getting points, he can potentially beat any team.

Maybe not easily, particularly with an iffy team around him – and for this game possibly missing his game time decision top WR T.Y. Hilton. But this Colts team is too interesting to dismiss as a near 6 point underdog at home against a team, revenge minded or not, coming off of a big game against a previously undefeated team and powerhouse in which they had the embarassment of being undefeated, playing at home to a poor road team, and being tagged as the underdog.

Pick: Colts

3. Philadelphia Eagles (-3) at Dallas Cowboys 

Just several months ago not enough people were satirizing the Bills for voluntarily taking on Matt Cassel for a five million dollar salary and the needless loss of an upcoming 5th round draft pick, now many are saying Cassel is no better than the just a tad over half a million dollar a year salary Brandon Weeden that he has replaced.

The Eagles might explode at any moment. At least that’s the perception: Chip Kelly’s system and all, and as they have shown in the past, if not consistently enough late. But they also seem to show signs of it even this season. And they have to be reeling at the fact that last year the Cowboys beat them late to help keep them out of the playoffs. And then this year, as underdogs, the Cowboys came in and beat them (and without Romo for some of the game, as it was the game he broke his collarbone in), for what was the Cowboys only real win of the season.

That is, had the Giants not, to use the highly technical term, made an especially bonehead decision right at the end of their week one matchup, or the referees not missed a call that the NFL subsequently announced to have been a mistake by said referees, the Cowboys would be 1-6 and not 2-5. (Almost assuredly in the first case, assuredly in the second.)

And the Cowboys aren’t even a good home team.

That said, this is their last stand. (Unless they are buying the popular koolaid that 9-7 or even possibly 8-8 will be a lock to win the division, rather than simply a good shot at it given the standings at this moment – and even then they’re still in a world of hurt if they lose.)

And if they play as they did against Seattle, and not just assume they can beat the Eagles, but pay attention to the fact they’ve lost 5 straight and should be 1-6, and that the Eagles trounced the Giants who lead the division (and gave away the game to the Saints at the end last week in a boondoggle of plays almost no one much talked about), and almost beat the Falcons in Atlanta while the Falcons ran up and down the field on the Cowboys here in Dallas after falling behind early, etc., and that the home team has lost the last 5 games in a row between these two teams, and so they need to play harder as if they have the home disadvantage, they will win.

The Cowboys have a potentially powerful defense, seem to know how to play the Eagles reasonably well, Matt Cassel “could” play a good game (well, that one might be pushing it), and the Eagles still aren’t fully meshing – though that also might be changing.

Pick: Cowboys, who should win outright. So long as they recognize that they’re the road team.

4. St. Louis Rams (+1) at Minnesota Vikings

The line is saying the Rams here. Has this Jekyll and Hyde team of the past three years finally turned the corner it seemed to have almost gotten past several times now?

If so they have a decent edge in this game.

If not the Vikings have more of an edge.

Averaging that out, without trying to deciper what the Rams are (they were my “creative” don’t just go with the obvious favorite pick to win the division this season, but a few of those picks got out of hand so maybe they should go unmentioned), gives a slight edge to the home team in a non divisional game.

That said if the Rams are going to win the division or even make the playoffs, they probably need to win this game. The Seahawks are in their division. And the Cardinals, right now a game and a half ahead at 6-2, are still hot, and seemingly not letting up.

This is a pretty interesting game, since while the Vikings can afford a loss a little bit more than the Rams, they face a really tough schedule up ahead, and if they lose this one, may also not yet be for real.

I thought it was a bad draft pick for the Rams to take Todd Gurley. This is based on the fact that the Rams have made several ill thought out draft decisions in the last few years based on the facts that existed at the time of the draft, and simply going on the fact that they liked him (I hadn’t evaluated his play or come to a conclusion about his potential); he was injured; and taking a running back at number ten overall and especially coming off a major knee knee injury should only be done if the player clearly, and outside of his college system/offensive line blocking, shows unusual ability and talent.

Gurley apparently did, and it was a good pick. And this is the Gurley Adrian Peterson Bowl. Whether that gives AP any extra motivation or not, who knows. Regardless, that Rams team, and in particular that defense, still has the potential to be very strong.

Are they finally getting there?

Here’s a vote of low confidence on competition committee Jeff Fisher’s record, simply because he says he clearly understands the “what is and isn’t a catch” rule, and almost assuredly doesn’t:

Fisher says he understands the catch rule.

Then Fisher says “you have to complete the catch when going to the ground”; which is the only thing that is already a given in this rule anyway: with the two real issues being “when do you have to” (meaning the catch was not yet completed before hitting the ground, and not answered by Fisher or anyone else for that matter), as if the most important consideration and by far the most botched out on the field part of this issue in live calls and replay reviews doesn’t even exist), and “what does completing it mean” (answered in a way by Fisher that contradicted the way referees have been explaining and interpreting it).

Still, for a head coach considered so strong, yet who has only made the playoffs 6 times out of 19 full seasons (a poor record given the long head coaching tenure and fact that 37.5% of teams make it every year), this has to be the year right? And thus, likely, this may be the game. I’ll root for them, but:

Pick: Vikings

5.  Miami Dolphins (+3) at the Buffalo Bills

It’s hard to imagine a team that can be trounced by another team as badly as the Dolphins were early in the season by the Bills, can actually turn around and beat that team. And based on the type of response the Dolphins showed in the Patriots game two Thursday Nights ago (see above), they are not that team.

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

Rex Ryan still hasn’t lost a press conference; and, as his team should, and can be better than it is, and has a bad taste in their mouth (as should the Dolphins, both from TNF and their last Bills matchup), they can be better. And they’re coming off a bye, and teams do win a little bit more off of byes.

But let’s see if Dan Campbell’s fire works after a devastating loss, and toward a team that earlier also thoroughly embarassed them and led more than anything else to their prior head coach’s firing. If it doesn’t work here, it doesn’t work.

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

Pick: Dolphins

 

Week 8 Picks Against the Spread – Thursday Night Football

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

Recap of miserable week 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Dolphins

2.  Seattle Seahawks (-6) at Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 7 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Last week: 2-1. Year to date: 17-13

Last week recap: Despite a probable laughing gas affect that caused the Colts to line up and snap a fourth down conversion try from their own 37 yard line – one where just in case it wasn’t already a bad idea, they literally had no one lined up to block (making it perhaps the first scene when “Must see to be Believed Bloopers I, the Football movie” comes out) – the Colts pick was at least okay in hindsight.

Andrew Luck is still not throwing the ball as well as he has historically, however.

And again, their was that “play” – two Colts lining up and literally snapping the ball from their own 37 on 4th and 3, with several Patriots defenders standing right there – and zero blockers – as if it was some sort of zany broadway Confederacy of Dunces theatrical football play.

More importantly, however, the Patriots surreptitiously put a layer of carbonated air on the field whenever they had possession, leading to less gravity drag and higher scoring. (But the Colts – and thus Roger Goodell – still don’t suspect anything.)

The laughing gas byproduct of the procedure, at least according to top neurophysicists, also altered the Colts’ routine circuitry – wonderfully trying a hand at much needed NFL strategy situation creativity, but doing so in among the most boneheaded and counter productive strategic fashions imaginable – and leading to the aforementioned non fake “fake” 4th down punt boondoggle where viewers might have reasonably thought they were watching post modernism football theatre, instead of a real matchup.

The Panthers getting 7 points was an easier pick. The Seahawks almost never lose at home,and those bad cats from Carolina had not only been beaten in last year’s playoffs by those bad Seattle birds, but for some reason have played them the last 3 (and now, including this year, the last 4) regular seasons running; each time, prior to this year, in Carolina, with late game Carolina leads, and each time leading to a close Carolina loss.

Not this time. Go Cam. Not Kam and Company. Cam.

Re the atrocious Monday night (Giants) pick: Who knows what’s going to happen with the Eli Coughlin mix: This team can pop out of nowhere and win Super Bowls, and it can play poorly. The Giants are the real wild card team of the NFL.

Manning reportedly scored 39 on the Wonderlic test, yet in week 1 with the game but for a fluke all but mathematically over, he threw an incomplete to stop the clock and give the Cowboys a faint ray of hope. (On a play that amongst two NFL acknowledged officiating snafus, should have also drawn a flag and in fact mathematically end the game. )

In that rather remarkable week 1 game, that faint ray of hope then turned into a Cowboys win – given an ensuing super soft Giants defense that practically begged for the Cowboys to march down the field on it; as if losing a game that no way should have been lost, so long as they didn’t risk some long shot fluke of a 60 yard play.

But the Giants didn’t just play with far too much cushion for the basic field math of the situation, they also played soft overall, looking sometimes a little lethargic, and frequently non focused both to the ball and their gaps, especially on the earlier and middle part of the drive.

Then they got a break that should have saved them however, when a bad shotgun snap with only seconds remaining could have easily ended the context, but Tony “Zen” Romo calmly snatched it up first try, flipped the laces, and easily found Jason Witten for the winning touchdown.

And now the Cowboys, fresh off a 3 game and no Romo no star WR Dez Bryant (and relatively sub par play regardless) losing streak, limp into New York to face the same Giants; although they will have most of their firepower on defense at the ready for this game.

Which brings us to….week 7 picks.

1.  Dallas Cowboys (+3) at New York Giants

Brandon Weeden is pissed about being benched: It’s understandable, from a competitive wanting to play perspective. But take that away and the team in theory at least could be mildly pissed if Weeden wasn’t benched, since the fact he’s 0-11 in his last 11 starts is clearly related to the fact he played poorly in several of them, and more importantly, repeatedly struggled to find good movement in the pocket to avoid rushers, find receivers, buy time, make better decisions, etc.

That said, if the Cowboys expect Matt Cassel to be their savior, that’s a mistake. (Update: for this game he wound up being the savior for the Giants defense; though when he wasn’t finding Giants defenders at really bad times, he did make some nice throws.)

Hopefully, the Cowboys can just get him to play as a competent backup (which is what he is), and try to recognize the fact that, if they can’t win games without their star quarterback, they’re not a very good team. And before the season they said they were a very good team.

Foolishly, I keep believing them week in and week out, though now probably don’t. But with the Yin and the Yang of Giants football, and the fun this game would be if the Cowboys win again (even if this pick number 1 of week 7 is also official foolish pick number 1 this week, which it probably is) “easy call”: Cowboys in an upset, before the Giants regroup and either go into their proverbial slide or under the radar late season run toward a likely Super Bowl victory. (Which would also be helped if Victor Cruz’s mysterious calf injury can somehow heal – maybe he should get some of that advanced gadgetry Brandon Marshall uses, or at least a masseuse. And Jason Pierre-Paul can still play football after a fireworks related index finger and tip of the old thumb loss.)

Pick: Cowboys

2. New York Jets (+9) at the New England Patriots

Seriously, a division game involving two good teams, with a 9 point spread?

Oh yea, the reigning Super Bowl champ Patriots are on a rampage. But they may not trot out their trusty invisible surface anti gravity psi deflate carbonator machine; being, if just momentarily, perhaps sated at beating the Colts: The very team – with a huge assist from a multiple federal judge ruling arbitrary and capricious Roger Goodell – responsible at helping to bring the wonderful latest gate in American history lore into the NFL offseason forefront.

And while there’s no Rex Ryan there to get his team hyped into thinking that playing the Patriots is like the Super Bowl, the Jets may be somewhat hyped anyway, being that they’re playing the defending SB champs and long time division foe that’s won way more than it’s fair share against the Jets as well. And the current Jets are a better team than most of the ones Rex fielded.

Here’s to near genuis level quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick not having one of his occasional turnover meltdowns – always a possibility since Fitzpatrick doesn’t have the same natural ability as a lot of QBs, and tries to make to up for it with more intensity and calculated risk, while not simultaneously making a higher proportion of bungling mistakes (as he did early in his career, but has learned to somewhat corral).

Good article here by NFL Spin Zone on some of the key Patriots injuries, along with additional information, particularly regarding their offensive line; although I’m not sure the injuries will hurt the Patriots that much (and they also largely haven’t yet), as the team plays better football than most because they practice better.

This line is still way too high though, and there is a solid possiblity of an upset here.

Pick: Jets. In, frankly one of the best and most interesting matchups of the year; though whether that remains the case after the fact, remains to be seen.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (+3) at Carolina Panthers

Okay, I would never wager on football. Far be it for me to even contemplate such a notion. (However, “gaming” on football player statss because – as the normal looking sports buff on the commercials assures us thirty times and hour – practically everyone wins, is different.) But I had a friend who happened to be in Vegas last week and he owed me four Papa Johns pizzas.

So to finally clean the slate I asked him to put down 25 bucks on the Steelers, Panthers and Giants to win by 3 or more each. It paid 2370, and 50 pizzas on the Chargers +11 combined with the 49ers and, once again, Giants, to win. It paid 1100 pizzas.

The Chargers came within 3 yards of tying the game at the end, and the 49ers, in a game they very well could have lost (and in a very interesting fourth quarter no less), won by five.

And, incredibly, despite Carson Palmer carving up yardage over the middle of the field like a thanksgiving turkey (offset by some uncharacteristically turkey like play closer to the end zone), the Steelers, sprung from a somewhat too chill and this year very inaccurate Michael Vick, by virtue of a fortuitous hamstring pull, turned to their third string QB Landry Jones and managed to win, and by 12 points no less, 25-13.

And the Panthers managed to win by 4: In Seattle, where practically nobody wins. Except Seattle. (And, recently, almost, the also almost still winless and not very happy Lions.).

Naturally, at that point I knew the Giants had no chance.

But what does that have to do with this game? Everything: The Panthers were practically laughed at to win the division by this silly Harvard Sports Collective study. Despite winning it the past two seasons. But now they sit at 5-0.

Still, it will be hard to match the intensity of last week. And since Chip Kelly managed to turn the team around from a similar slow start in 2013 – though he was new to a previously struggling club at that point – and they seem to be playing better, and Sam Bradford has still not hit his one time exhibited potential, they could just do it again. (Though if the Panthers stay fresh even after upsetting Seattle and do win – and, it’s not because the Eagles play like the Giants did last Monday night – watch out, as this division will have a nice battle to the end between these cats and some other birds – and still might anyway.)

Fly, Eagles, Fly.

Pick: Eagles

4.  Buffalo Bills (-3.5) “at” the London Jaguars (also sometimes known as the Jacksonville Jaguars)

The Jaguars have lost more games the past 3 seasons than any team in the NFL, and continue to lose this year. And after coach Rex said he would “bet anyone” that his team would turn it on this season, the Jaguars should lose this one by 15 points. (Normally most volunteer work on this end is for the poor, helping out with health issues, the homeless and public information; but I’ve offered to be the Jaguars general manager for free – though I might have to stop writing bad football columns that even google barely knows about. Tough choice.)

Well, truly the Bills aren’t missing like half their team. But they are missing several key players: Sammie “my ankle injury is making me and you look bad” Watkins (or possibly it was “not getting the ball,” and not a sprained ankle that prompted that excellent impromptu “team spirit” comment from Watkins); Percy “maybe I should rethink this whole NFL thing and also make sure my coach tells the world he ‘has no idea where I am'” Harvin; Starting QB Tyrod Taylor; Kyle, and Karlos, Williams.

Pick: Bills, staying loyal to a bad preseason prediction: But really I dunno  (Update. I sure didn’t.) It’s just fun to write about this Bills team. I still wouldn’t be surprised it they win handily. (Maybe former No. 16 overall pick reach EJ Manuel will finally turn it on – throwing to somebody, anyway).

But if the Jaguars can’t win in their once and future English accented home against an injury riddled cast, at this point in year four of the very lengthy “Jaguars are turning it around” program, when can they?

4a. New Orleans Saints (+4.5) at the Indianapolis Colts 

Seriously? I could tell you who’ll win the U.S. presidency next year easier than I could this game.

I thought Andrew Luck was the next great quarterback. And this season he comes out and plays poorly. This last game against the Patriots – who he has all the motivation in the world to beat – he still didn’t play that well.

But whether this was still part of the not so great “new” Andrew Luck (if a slightly improved version of the “new” Luck), or some shoulder trouble, is hard to say. It seemed like the latter, but could be both.

The Saints weren’t going to let the Patriots beat them last week in the Superdome when they played the Falcons – it was just that kind of game. Their quarterback, coaches, and some of the players were angry and upset at having lost several games.

Can they come in here angry? On the other hand, are the Colts a debacle this year who have somehow managed to half keep it together and win (in which case they’re probably a little more likely than not to win again, but likely close), or the same team who (somehow, if helped by an easy division), managed to get to the AFC Championship game before getting soundly trounced in the second half after referee approved recalibrated inflated footballs. Who knows. We’ll see.

Pick: The team that score more points at the end. (Sure, mock that silly answer. But by some of the strategy calls NFL teams repeatedy make in basic, structural game situations, it’s not clear some NFL teams really know this, or at least what maximizes the chances of it being achieved; what with punting across midfield on short yardage situations; punting late in games in decent yardage situations when trailing by 17 points (the Giants, twice, against the Eagles – heaven forbid they get stopped and maybe lose); going for the PAT instead of a two point conversion when taking a 12 point lead in the second half, punting the ball away on a 4th and ~6 when trailing by 5 with just under two minutes to go and only 2 timeouts (Saints, week 1, followed by the Cardinals making a mistake nearly as bad by not simply running the clock down to about 56 seconds and then punting inside of the 20, giving the Saints about a 1 in 50 chance, if that, of winning), etc etc etc etc….Or, update, this wild gift of a real chance to the Ravens by the Cardinals in a game that the Ravens otherwise had less than a one in hundred chance of even tying, let alone winning.

If you’re in Vegas, don’t rely on the last two picks. I don’t think they’re officially listed as options.  “I dunno” might be, but it probably only pays in Monopoly money. Or pizza.

5. Cleveland Browns (+6.5) at St. Louis Rams

Seriously? When did the Rams become so big and bad.(Update: Just before this game, after I jumped off my preseason bandwagon of trying to be “cool” and picking them to win the division. I did pick them to upset the Seahawks in week 1, but whatever; helped by some big return plays, they did that last year as well.)

Jeff Fisher sure gets a lot of pub as a good coach for a guy who hasn’t even made the playoffs the average 37.5% of the time, reaching the postseason, in his 19 full years of head coaching so far, in just 31.5% of his seasons.

Still, we’re all expecting it (I expected the Rams to surprise this year too), just probably not this game. Maybe, but probably not.

Pick: Browns

6.  Pittsburgh Steelers (+2.5) at Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs have, uh, “disappointed.” For a team I expected to battle Denver heads up for the division (and since Denver was the easy call, actually picked the Chiefs to win it – now there’s a laugher, amongst an unusual bevy of bad preseason predictions), they sure are bad.

The most important clue was when they played the Packers in week 3 in a nationally televised game, after blowing an embarrasing (but otherwise, turnovers aside, solidly played) game at home in week 2 to the Broncos, who have beaten them every time since Peyton Manning came on board – and Manning, at least relatively speaking, can barely throw this year.

And not only did they lose, they allowed a late drive, then fumbled away the game in the last few seconds to take away even any 50 -50 chance in overtime if they couldn’t somehow pass deep and hit a quick field goal for the win prior to it.

It wasn’t the score in the ensuing Packers game (which was lopsided for most of the contest until some junk TDs late), but the way the Chiefs played. I tweeted during the game that they looked more like a team that couldn’t wait to get out of there and drink beer, than one focused and ready to play – let alone after such a big loss, and now on a national stage against a perenially strong team.

And they haven’t won since. Andy Reid is at this point probably overrated, and they probably need to retool what it is they think they’re doing.

But they win this one. Jamaal Charles or No Jamaal Charles. This is their game to pump it up. (Or, then again, if they couldn’t even get psyched for the Packers on a national stage when their season was still alive, maybe I’m wrong.)

Pick: Chiefs

7.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3) at Washington Redskins

I don’t know what happened, but the Redskins are a well coached team this year. They play solid football. But they also played last week without about 9-10 originally projected starters, and not counting IR like 6 starters now that the season is underway (Jordan Reed, Chris Culliver, DeSean Jackson, DeAngelo Hall, Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger, I think).

Jordan Reed, listed as questionable, is apparently expected to play (at least he hinted that way this past week), and Trent Williams in all likelihood will also – though as “questionable” it’s not certain.

Williams coming back at left tackle (if so), will be a boost, and while likely losing third down back Chris Thompson for this game won’t help, getting their top TE Reed back should help as well. Still, they’re down four key starters, as they’ve been for a while now, and last year, a Buccaneers team that won only two games, and really was pretty bad for most of them, came into Washington and beat the Redskins 27-7.

27-7! In Washington. It doesn’t even make much sense.

But watching the Washington team closely this year, again, it’s a well coached team and playing differently than last year, for some reason. Losing all these players hurts. But if this team is not still near the bottom of the league, and they don’t seem to be, they win this game. Maybe even if Kirk Cousins does throw another two picks; though it sure won’t help if he does.

(Side note to RG3’s agent – With an expensive option next year, and either a more expensive contract or he’s out the door if he plays well, after that, as well as a 16.1 million loss if he gets hurt this season and can’t play next, the Redskins have little to gain and a lot to lose by playing him. RG has a lot to gain, and, with his stock currently so low, very little to lose by not languishing on the bench, and instead hitting a team in need of some QB help or at least competition. The Redskins also benefit from trading him instead of just paying out his salary, making sure he doesn’t get injured, and then voiding the (now, with no injury, voidable) year five 16.1 million dollar option. So drop the silly injury clause, and stop with the triple lose lose lose. (The Skins, RG, and perhaps some NFL team that could use a player who still has the possibility of turning it on.) And turn it into a win win and win and get this guy’s talents back in the mix now, not as an undervalued free agent after the season is entirely wasted. Though this should have been done earlier.)

Pick: Redskins 

Added pick, early Sunday a.m.

8.  Minnesota Vikings (-1) at Detroit Lions

Sure the Lions could surprise, but right now they’re not as good. Close call, but

Pick: Vikings

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.

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.

Steelers Made the “Play not to Lose Call” When it Mattered the Most Not To

A lot of strange things and tough decisions, that outcome wise didn’t go the Pittsburgh Steelers’ way, combined to give the Baltimore Ravens what was ultimately an unlikely win in their week four Thursday Night Matchup.

The strange come from behind victory kept the Ravens from losing a key divisional game and dropping to 0-4 (0-2 in the division, and with both losses to the two division front runners), and thus putting them in a hole that barring a remarkable turnaround would have all but ended their season a mere four games in.

And there was some criticism of the Steeler’s tough decisions in overtime, some unwarranted, some worth considering.

But the real mistake by Pittsburgh is the one that went on somewhat under the radar, and which came at a critical moment for them to correctly finish out the game. In that instance, the team made the strategy decision almost every team in the league would have made, and routinely makes; a decision that increased their opponent’s chances of winning the game, and decreased their own. (In fact, it was not as bad as many, and simply because of the long distance the Steelers faced – see below – and the extra 8 yards to the opponents if the decision fails, may have occassionally been decided differently; whereas ten yards further in, where it’s just as ill advised, the decision’s almost always made the same way – even usually in shorter yardage decisions where it increasingly becomes an even bigger mistake, sometimes to the point of practically handing one’s opponent a very good chance in a game that up until the decision is made, from a probability standpoint, they don’t remotely have.)

With Steelers backup quarterback Michael Vick at the helm, and, along with their defense playing reasonably well, Pittsburgh built up to a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter.

But the Ravens came back, adding a touchdown and then field goal to pull to 20-17. Then after an exchange of possessions, the Steelers took over at their own 43 yard line with 4:43 left in the game.

A nice long drive would finish it off. Pittsburgh pulled off the first half of such a drive, but then found themselves facing a fourth down at the Ravens 31 yard line, with 5 yards to go for a first.

2:29, and one Baltimore timeout remained. (As of this moment, NFL’s Gamecenter incorrectly has a timeout attributed to Pittsburgh at 2:32, and Baltimore’s second rather than third timeout atttributed to them at 1:51 of regulation, even though Baltimore, still trailing Pittsburgh who had the ball, could do nothing to stop the clock on the ensuing play, and it ticked all the way down to 1:06)

At the Ravens 31, facing fourth and five, a field goal would put the Steelers up by 6 points; with Baltimore still having a timeout left, and about 2:24 left on the clock after the field goal. This is more than enough time for a two minute drill to drive and win the game.

Needing a touchdown is more difficult than needing a field goal. But, with enough time, the difference, in an end game situation where the trailing team is both playing with desperation and in effect has four plays rather than the customary “three” to advance the ball (with the fourth typically used to either punt or kick a field goal, both of which are essentially worthless when trailing by 4-7 in two minute drill situations), isn’t all that great. Particularly when a field goal, down by 3, only gets the trailing team a tie – which they will then lose in overtime about half of the time anyway – while a touchdown as the last score of the game when trailing by 6 gets them the win every time.

The other aspect to the field goal here is that a 49 yard attempt isn’t all that easy. The last few years, as kickers have gotten better and better, kicks are around 75% from the 48 yard line. This is good, but still means a quarter of the time the field goal will be missed anyway. And thus the other team will get the ball without even those 3 points added – and get it at the literal spot of the kick, so about 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

49 is another yard above 48. Less trivial than another yard is the fact that Heinz Field where the Steelers play, is a typicaly difficult place to kick field goals from. And for this game there was again a cross breeze, if somewhat light, and the Steelers were on their third field goal kicker of the season: Josh Scobee, who had also missed two field goals in the Steelers opening night loss at New England, from 44 and 46 yards.

But more important here is the fact that kicking the field goal is literally handing the Ravens the legitimate opportunity to win the game outright – and doing so voluntarily.

But on the other hand, actually kicking the field goal doesn’t increase the Steelers chances very much, and in fact probably only does so somewhat marginally. And it certainly doesn’t enough to offset the value of the opportunity (its value times the chances of achieving it relative to not doing so and the harm therein versus the field goal try), being given up by doing so.

First of all, again, there’s the missed field goal issue and ball placement after the miss, an extra 8 yards out to the Ravens 39.

This is only about 25 yards away from excellent kicker Justin Tucker’s realistic range to be more likely to tie the game than not. And it’s only 61 yards from a winning touchdown, with a full 2:25 and a timeout left – a touchdown the Ravens may still play for or stumble into given the large amount of time, even though they only “need” a field goal.

And again, making the field goal is not that big of an advantage versus simply staying up by 3 points. (On the other hand, if there was 1:06 left to play, it’s almost exactly the opposite – and precisely this scenario also wound up coming into play in this game a few moments later.)

If the Steelers don’t have much better to do, sure, take the field goal. (Most of the time.)

But they do have something better to do. Much better, and at least reasonable enough odds of achieving it. That is, play to win the game outright, without Baltimore even getting any reasonable chance in the first place.

That means getting a first down, and effectively running out most or all of the relevant remaining portion of the game.

A first down doesn’t guarantee the win, but it’s close; whereas if the Steelers don’t make it they’re not in that much worse shape than if they had simply kicked the field goal, as we’ll see a little more below.

If Pittsburgh makes the fourth down conversion try and doesn’t go out of bounds on the play – fairly easy to control when it’s important to so control (unless going out of bounds assures them of making the first, which is more important here) – Baltimore has to take their last timeout.

Then Pittsburgh’s ensuing first down will run the game clock down to the two minute warning. Second and third downs will run it down to about 30-32 seconds before any fourth down play is run. And then from the 26 yard line or very likely better (i.e., making their 4th and 5 from the 31 by getting the absolute minimum 5 yards, then getting 0 total yards on three more runs, still puts Pittsburgh at the 26), they can try a field goal to if successful make it a 6 point game at that point – with the Ravens needing a Hail Mary (huge kickoff – very hard when the covering team doesn’t have to maximize yardage, but just cover gaps to prevent a fluke huge return, which will burn up half the time left, plus then a long or Hail Mary type pass), or double Hail Mary type of situation.

And if they miss the field goal, with now about 25-27 seconds left and no timeouts, the chances of the Ravens winning are still negligible.

If Pittsburgh instead makes the first down but somehow goes out of bounds (either by big mistake, or the play somehow unfolds where it becomes a choice between going out of bounds and picking up the first, or otherwise not making it), the Ravens are still very unlikely to win – what wound up bizarrely happening in this game aside.

The out of bounds – which again will be rare in the first place if the Steelers make the first down and are correctly aware of the key difference that extra forty seconds makes in the game situation (unlike the Giants in week one) – would stop the clock. In such a case the Ravens would use their last timeout after the Steelers ensuing first down, the two minute warning would stop the clock after second down, and the Steelers could take the clock down to about 1:15 before trying a reasonably easy field goal, unless they get another first down and can just take a knee to end the game.

If the Steelers make the fourth and 5 from the 31, they’ll be at the Ravens 26 or better, and then have 3 more plays to advance the ball, ideally a few yards each. (And if the clock was somehow stepped by an unavoidable out of bounds they should also play a little bit for the first down to then be able to simply take a knee, rather than just pure vanilla plays simply to run clock.)

Between picking up an average of 5-8 yards or so on any successful fourth down conversion try, and a few more yards (2-8) on three more run attempts, the Steelers would likely be trying a field goal from about the 18 or 19.

In essence, if the Steelers make the fourth down conversion try, they have to 1) somehow have gone out of bounds – easily avoidable – 2) they need to then miss a fairly easy field goal (unless they pick up another first down, which makes it all moot anyway), and then 3) the Ravens still need to drive in likely the last 70 seconds and make the field goal, and 4) then win in overtime.

Driving and making a field goal in 70 or so seconds is more than doable. But the chances of the Ravens winning if the Steelers convert are the chances of 1) Pittsburgh making the conversion but going out of bounds (low), 2) not making another first down (high, but it still lowers the overall odds a little more), 3) missing a fairly easy field goal (fairly low, but as this game reminded us, more than plausible), 4) driving to field goal range and making that field goal (reasonable), 5) then winning in overtime (50/50). All these things have to be accomplished, and multiplied together the odds are exceedingly low.

in essence, and part one of the two things that are key here, Pittsburgh doesn’t automatically win if they make the conversion and don’t go out of bounds. But they will win save for those rare, rare freak instances; and if they make the conversion and nevertheless do go out of bounds, they’re still very very likely to win.

The second key is that failing on the conversion attempt versus simply attempting the field goal, doesn’t really increase the Ravens chances too terribly, and more importantly, doesn’t in comparison to the critical fact that making the conversion – which is certainly reasonably doable – radically changes the game into what will in almost all cases be a win for Pittsburgh.

The problem is that getting stopped on such a conversion try – probably a little more likely than not with 5 yards to go – is looked at as if versus simply trying the field goal it’s some sort of huge loss; so the gigantic, almost game winning gains from making it, aren’t fully evaluated, or are somewhat overlooked or misassessed.

But again, it’s not: Trying the field goal, particulary with a kicker only available as Pittsburght’s third option because the other 3 teams in the league didn’t consider him among the 32 best, and a field with typical crosswinds, and from 49 yards, gives a decent shot at missing anyway.

But more importantly making the field goal forces Baltimore to play for the win; ensures that they have time left to do it; and voluntarily hands over the ball to them so that they have the opportunity to do it in the first place.

It’s better to be up by 6 than 3, generally. But it’s usually not that much of an improvement versus an opponent being down by 3 and playing for the tie – or at least not being forced to hurry enough to get to the end zone rather than field goal range, and to use fourth downs as field goal plays and not to keep a TD drive alive – and then still losing half the time (in overtime) anyway.

Also relevantly, but not all encompassing, making the field goal and kicking off also does get a little extra yardage for Pittsburgh’s defense versus geting stopped somewhere outside of the 26 yard line, and likely on average near the 31 yard line of scrimmage, ona failed conversion attempt.

Again, not meaningless,including that yardage, particularly when only talking about having to get it into field goal range to at least keep the game alive. So take the field goal here if there’s no better option. But the option to essentially win the game – make a simple five yards and stay in bounds on the play (with still very good odds even if they go out of bounds) – relative to what trying the field goal provides, and the reasonable chances of being able to make it, is of enormous value.

As it turned out, Scobee missed the field goal by a few inches to the left, in the direction the light Heinz breeze was blowing.

Then what happened was pretty unusual – particularly for Joe Flacco, who has gotten the Ravens to the playoffs (and then performed well in them) six of the seven seasons he’s been in the league, in part because if the game is on the line and he has a chance to win, he does more often than not.

And particularly when it’s critical, as this game was as much any game four of the season possibly can be. (Here was a rare miss by Flacco, and it allowed the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl last season. Another key miss is covered in that same link, where with the AFC Championship on the line against, once again, the Patriots Flacco lasered it in on a narrow tightrope into Lee Evans’ stomach, and an undrafted rookie free agent, much as in the last Super Bowl for the Patriots, made the key play of the game and saved their season.)

Still down 20-17, sitting a 0-3 and looking at 0-4 and yet another division and possible wild card rival game loss, and thus with their season on the line as much as it can be only four games in, the Ravens got to start out from their own 39, with 2:24 and one timeout remaining: plenty of time to play for the 61 yard TD drive win, which good teams will usually do in situations like this. (Notice Tom Brady and the Patriots almost always play for the win whenever possible, and also have Six Super Bowl appearances since 2001); and to use the field goal tie as backup.

Yet the Ravens got stopped, gaining a whopping total of negative 10 yards, on four plays. And with three incompletes and a sack that stopped the game clock for the exchange of possession, they got stopped so quickly that, with some more luck shortly to come, they got yet another reprieve in the game.

Here’s what happened: Pittsburgh took over at 2:04, a mere 20 seconds later, and after Baltimore used their last timeout at the 1:51 mark and before Pittsburgh’s third down, they took the game clock down to 1:06 before lining up for a 41 yard field goal attempt.

Once again, close, but no cigar: This kick, after veering at the last moment, also missed to the left by about a foot. And 41 yarders are usually made.

Baltimore then started from their own 31 with 61 seconds remaining; and with a few seconds left, they kicked a 42 yarder to send the game into overtime.

In overtime Baltimore also stopped Pittsburgh on two short fourth down conversion attempts by virtue of good defensive plays, and some would suggest iffy play calls. (Using Michael Vick on a designed run on fourth and two. And later, on a fourth and one from the 33 where a 51 yard field goal would have won the game outright, a pass play – Vick’s probably not the best QB to make that call with – and a long one but heavily angled for short yardage – which only increased the chance of error.)

After the second fourth down stop, Baltimore was able to drive, and won the game on a 52 yard field goal. (A yard more than the one that the Steelers wouldn’t take a few moments before, and, ironically, also a fourth and one. But the Ravens have a great kicker, the Steelers absolutely don’t, and their confidence in him was also probably particularly low at that point, so one can understand the difference in the two calls.)

The outcome of the game isn’t relevant to the original decision to try a 49 yard field goal from the 31 yard line and go up by 6 points with a little over two minutes remaining, rather than simply try to keep the ball and run the clock out or close to out and then (try) a fairly easy field goal.

And after knocking the Ravens backward on four plays after the missed field goal, the Steelers should have won anyway, but missed the easier 41 yard attempt as well. (Had the Steelers done that from a fourth down conversion failure and thus about 6-12 yards further in, the kick would have been good. It’s not relevant, but interesting to note.)

But the Steelers overall chances of winning the game, at the time they faced 4th and 4 from the Ravens 31 yard line, would have been higher had they simply tried to win. That is, make Baltimore both stop them and then drive for the win or tie and then win in overtime, rather than voluntarily hand Baltimore a good chance of winning the game, either by missing the field goal anyway, or making it and kicking off with plenty of time left for Baltimore to win.

Mike Tomlin is usually pretty good at these types of decisions relative to other head coaches. But he makes multiple mistakes too. And the fact is it’s far too much to ask of a head coach to be intuitively expert at these kinds of “secondary” yet important and improvable structural game logic and decision making skills that can improve outcome odds from better assessment alone, in addition to being the expert teachers, communicators, media liasons, organizers, managers, leaders and motivators that coaches simply need to be, and which most are extremely good at.

Making these kinds of decisions correctly also goes against almost all of the conventional thinking that dominates the league; And most such decisions are hidden, in that they tend to go largely unrecognized or widely (but not always) mis-assessed in the mainstream media when addressed, which as with teams and coaches tends to be far too conventionally routine as well as outcome oriented in assessing a strategic move, rather than exlusively focused on the conditions and facts that existed at the time of the decision.

Yet such assessments and decisions are a key part of the game, in that a team’s chances of winning can be improved simply from better strategic assessment; without additional skills, endurance, balance, flexibility and smaller muscle kinesthetic development, technique, tackling, execution and other practice (which as an aside I also think the CBA unprofessionally restricts too much), but the mind alone. (The same thing also applies to non game day decisions, but that’s another, broader topic area.)

Jacksonville, for you, I’m available. I know you guys need a lot of help. Even if your quarterback does suggest that “fans questioning play calling are like kindergartners questioning college students.”

Maybe, sometimes. But we’re all kindergartners. We just don’t know it.