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

 

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


1.  Washington Redskins +3.5 at Chicago Bears

Skins stink on the road.  But they surprise.

Pick: Redskins

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

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

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

Pick: Rams

3.  Seattle (+11) at Baltimore Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Ravens

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

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

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

Pick: Chargers

5. Oakland Raiders (+6.5) at Denver Broncos

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

Pick: Oakland

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

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

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

Pick: Browns

7.  Atlanta Falcons (+7.5) at Carolina Panthers

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

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

Pick: Falcons

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

The Saints party like it’s 1999.

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

So maybe after the game.

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

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 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 5 NFL Picks Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys, in a very close loss. 

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

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

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

But apparently that perception continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Saints 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL Week 4 Picks Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: 49ers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Rams.

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

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

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

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

Pick: Giants, in an upset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys

NFL 2015 Week 2 Picks Against the Spread

Week 1: 6-2 ATS. 1-1 on upset picks: The Rams, who did win on a lucky and largely mistaken onside kick ‘attempt’ win in overtime in a game where they were leading by two scores late. And the Giants, who lost: Both due to their awful strategic decisions and assessments at the end, specifically. And due to NFL acknowledged botched officiating calls, specifically.

All last week’s picks were attempts to provide the best pick possible given the relevant information. But in keeping with the light satirizing (but at least in spirit, somewhat partial support) of Adrian Peterson’s 2500 yard season and Super Bowl proclamation, I ventured a pick on one game I thought was a tossup, hazarding a guess the Vikes would win; when the better call, given that they were favored and probably should have been 3 point underdogs and not 2.5 favorites, the better call may have been to take the home team based on what little we actually knew so far, and until the teams really showed who and what they are.

The game would have ruined a perfect 6-0 record against the spread. But, impressively the Falcons already accomplished that earlier the same opening Monday Evening, playing more like their pre-2014 form and beating a potentially tough Eagles team at home to open their season.

I liked the Vikings to surprise a bit his year. But the fact they were favored on the road against a generally good home team that had a better record than the Vikings last year even with lots of its stars injured, major offseason change since then or not, suggested many others did also. I also noted (see italics in particular) how it was odd the 49ers weren’t favored at home, and possibly also reflected a general, if premature assumption they would stink this year.

Week 1 the Vikings stunk. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had what was arguably his worst game as a pro – and an awful game overall – while Adrian Peterson had 31 yards on 10 carries. A 496 yard pace: Slightly off his optimistic if largely unrealistic 2500 rushing yard goal.

This week, week 2, is also a tough one. But still, if you’re in Vegas, here’s a way to win a large enough fortune to bankroll a global feed the starving children of the world campaign. (Or lose the same.) But as always, all picks are for fun and bragging rights at the metaphorical water cooler.

Which, naturally, of course would have worked out better had they been available by Friday workday.  But hey, I had game film to laboriously sweat over.

1.  Houston Texans (+3) at Carolina Panthers

Okay, I officially picked the Panthers to win the division. But it was an iffy call. (In a prior assessment, I didn’t even give them as high a chance of making the playoffs overall as the Falcons – who looked good in week one – while the Panthers beat the team that coming into week one had more losses than any other team in the NFL the past three seasons: Jacksonville.)

Meanwhile the Texans lost badly in week one, and are now starting the quarterback who was beat out (if only marginally) in preaseason by the guy they couldn’t even stick with through one full game into the season. (And who looked okay in his six minutes of play in largely garbage time.)

What’s worse is that historically, although they may have gotten a little better at this, the Panthers haven’t been the “greatest” at winning close games (and by not the greatest, I mean they’ve been pretty bad). So what’s the point of three points.

So, upset pick: Texans – even with an unknown and probably at this point (who knows though) okay enough backup QB starting – pull it together and win the game.

If they don’t, sorry Bill O Brien. Outbursts on the sidelines and you can’t beat the Panthers after getting waxed at home for three and a half quarters opening week? Early odds, if they lose, or don’t battle close in a very good game, will be against this team taking the next significant step, this year or any other – unless it’s all on new QB Ryan Mallet, and then it’s back to the drawing board. (Though their first loss wasn’t nearly all on starter Brian Hoyer, or, even, one bad pick and a fumble on a terrific play by LB Derrick Johnson aside, really on Hoyer, ultimately.)

But I’m picking them. Stay cool Bill. Fire the team up, not the arteries and blood vessels at routine bad pass interference calls/non calls. It also helps the Texans that the Panthers best defensive player, LB Luke Kuechly, will be out.

Pick: Texans

2.  Detroit Lions (+2) at Minnesota Vikings

The Lions were originally getting three points, which seems hard to figure given the fact they lost on the road week one to a theoreticaly tough San Diego home team, nearly beat the Cowboys in the playoffs last year, and are going up against a team that was 7-9 last year, hasn’t changed all that much, and was decidely outplayed in week one.

Last year the Lions beat the Vkings 17-3, then did so again at home later in the season, 16-14.  And 34-24 to open up the 2013 season, before losing 14-13, in Minnesota, to close it – and that in a year (as with last) that the Lions, despite entering week 17 at 7-8 while the Vikings were at 4-10-1 – that the Lions were actually a reasonably tough team still.

Going back a third year, the Lions were coming off of a strong (and, up until that point, for them fairly unusual) 10-6 season; but despite still being a team that battled tough in most games, they finished up at 4-12. Among the twelve losses were two to the Vikings, 20-13, and 34-24.

The Vikings themselves in 2012 were coming off a 3-13 season, and surprised everybody, going 10-6, and winning some impressive games in the process before losing in the wild card round of the playoffs to the Green Bay Packers.

So heads up the two teams have gone 3-3 the last six years.. And again, while the Lions lost in week one this season, the Vikings were embarassed in a nationally televised game against a team that was supposed to be “rebuilding.”

And they have that Adrian Peterson Super Bowl prediction to back up. So maybe they’ll be jacked up, and can simply erase the Monday Night game by beating the division rival, and presumed obstacle to the Packers – aka the Lions – straight up.

Perhaps increasingly foolishly at this point, I picked the Lions to win the division (and it’s the only pick that if redoing season predictions, I would change pending a loss after week 2). So, while the three points in a possible down to the wire divisional matchup would be nice, let’s see if I can’t go 0-2 on the Vikings so far this year.

My (iffy) call: Right now, until proven otherwise, the Lions should be the better team, in a divisional game that, at least as far as it goes early on, they need to win.

Pick: Lions

3.  New England Patriots (pick ’em) at Buffalo Bills

It makes it hard to pick the Bills after hearing about their gimmicky “football air pump” souvenirs. (And my poor excuse if they do lose – I mean come on, fun is fun, but mocking the Patriots through some sort of air pump gimmick? That’s lame, even if using the word lame in an article picking week 2 NFL game winners is a little lame – not as lame as deflate gate air pumps though.) I almost want to root for the Patriots now after such corniness.

But I picked the Bills to win the division. And obviously at home that means they win this. Right? Maybe.

And if the Bills don’t win this game after flat out mocking their opponent like that – with deflate a football pumps – it’s time for, well something: Maybe for the Bills organization to focus on the team and playing, and not stadium gimmicks more corny than a corndog made from corn and served on a corncob stick over a bed of corn pilaf. Just my take. Could be wrong. (Then again the Bills are also trying to make money, and fire up fans. And maybe it is fun for the home fans, so what do I know. It’s all good if they beat the Patriots; but it seems really lame if they flat out mock them like that and then get beat at home by them, and with regulation footballs no less!)

The Bills romp of the Colts in week one might also have them a little less hungry. And it also certainly put the Patriots on even more serious notice. (And one of the many things the Patriots are good at is being serious as it is to begin with). But this is the game that if there is a changing of the guard, even if temporary or just a “pull even with,” this is the first key opportunity.

There may not be that many more, so it might as well be now.

The odd thing is I picked this game before the season started, and if the Bills had lost in week one would be more confident of it. I know, if they lost week one it means they are not as strong.

But they are what they are; it showed late last year and in preseason, somewhat, and the Colts, and in particular Andrew Luck – for him anyway – played a bad game. And the Bills would have something serious to prove in this game, while the Patriots were more apt to at least somewhat think “same old Bills.”

Plus, and perhaps most importantly, for picking against the spread, which is what I’m doing in these columns, since picking straight up winners is a lot easier overall, and nearly everyone else does that anyway, the Bills would be getting points in what would probably be a tossup game.

Week one did help confirm that the Bills are potentially fairly strong, which gives them a slight advantage now in that regard; but they lose the underdog edge they had, and that coach Rex Ryan has been pretty good at capitalizing on.

Even with the long week after a big opening Thursday night win, the Patriots are still adjusting to lot of new starters, and aren’t typically as good on the road. So there’s that. Though Billl Belichick, in a semi worthless, semi relevant stat, is 12-1 against first or second time QB starters – he’s probably good at game planning for them, as he seems to be against almost everybody. (Except Joe Flacco and Eli Manning.)

But if the BIlls win, though with the scrambling ability and athleticism he can certaintly help them, it shouldn’t be because of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but their defense, decent enough play from their offense, and no major mistakes by Taylor.

Pick: Bills

4.  Tennesse Titans (+2) at Cleveland Browns

I hate to pick against Marcus Mariota. I called him the “real deal” after week 2 of the preseason, and after week 3 said there was a large gap between him and number one overall pick Jameis Winston. And, though I still haven’t watched the film of his team’s apparent dismantling of the (still lowly?) Bucs in week one, rumor has it he’s, uh, pretty good.

Meanwhile Johnny Manziel, who still looks more like he belongs in a post Brooklyn teenager hijinks movie than a Browns uniform, can’t even keep from getting tennis elbow.

It’s hard to say a team that was 2-14 the year before could have a “letdown” going into week 2 of the following season, but this almost seems like it could be a letdown for the Titans, who, on the other hand though, seem to really be playing like a team behind Mariota. And the fact is, after getting pummeled by double digit points in three straight games, the Titans were also throuncing the Browns early last season before giving up the largest road comeback win in NFL history, and losing by a single point.

No Mariota there last year or not (and until he got hurt and had to be replaced late in the first half, then NFL quarterback – in his pre “I want to just work on my house” days – Jake Locker was pretty good, particularly compared to his non mobile replacement), it’s hard to imagine the Titans forgetting that one.

The Browns meanwhile, were simply outplayed by the Jets in week one last week. At least once 36 year old and largely career backup Josh McCown (who was actually playing pretty well), helicoptered in for a touchdown but came away with a lost fumble, no points and a concussion late in the first quarter and left the game.

Everything points to the Titans in this game. Still, it may not be a marquee matchup, but in pitting a possible team on the rise (the Titans) and a perennial who knows where – seemingly everywhere except for close to the playoffs Browns team since they reentered the league in 1999 – and the two former Heisman Trophy winners head to head (a week after the number 1 pick and QB in the draft went head to head with the number 2 pick and QB in the draft for the first time ever), not to mention the flamboyant personna yet first season failures on field and off of Manziel, it’s an interesting game.

Marcus Mariota for now remains the next future superstar, but Go Jonny Go; either make your move, or at least fire up your team to do so.

If I regret one pick so far this week, it’s this one: (Last week it was the Minnesota pick, so make of that what you will.) But am making it:

Pick: Browns

5.  San Diego Chargers (+3.5) at Cincinnati Bengals

If this was the playoffs, obviously the Bengals wouldn’t have much of a prayer. But more seriously, this might be the year the Bengals implode, finally start winning playoff games and go deep – possibly, surprising everyone, Super Bowl deep -or it could even (and most likely?) be the year that now 13 straight year and running Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis takes his already extremely impressive and somewhat statistically unlikely 0-6 (and almost all by solid losses) playoff record, and extends it to an even more unusual 0-7.

But it’s regular season, and despite some prognosticators counting the Bengals out-possibly out of fatigue over their perpetual playoff drop off – they’re a pretty good team, and have usually been very strong at home.

And besides, I know all that matters is this week, next week, and this season, but there’s revenge at least theoretically on the table: the Chargers came in as big underdogs in the 2013 playoffs, and beat the Bengals soundly. 34-7 won’t come close to making up for that loss, but it’s a start.

Pick: Bengals

6. Seattle Seahawks (+3.5) at Green Bay Packers

Speaking of revenge on the table, the Packers had the NFC Conference Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl all but won last season, when the Seahawks scored late, somehow recovered a low odds yet necessary non surprise onside kick, and scored again to knock the Packers out.

The Seahawks are a character team, and character teams take these kinds of opportunities to show their win was legitimate, even on the road, and missing their so called leader of the defense (Kam Chancellor, in a rare NFL holdout). And they are coming off an upset loss to the Rams in week one.

The question though is if they are the team from late late season (very good), or the team from early last season (decent).

If they are the team from late last season, and the Rams still went head to head with them, the Rams are legit. (And I hope so, since they were my NFC West pick to win the division.) If they are the team from early last season, the Packers should win this game.

And if the Seahawks are the team from late last season, the Packers – even down one 1519 receiving yards last year Jordy Nelson (though the Seahawks are missing their perhaps very slightly overhyped but still fairly key safety) – can still show their character by saying “yes, we basically beat you last year and fouled it up at the end, but not this time.”

And despite perception of Aaron Rodgers as the best quarterback in the NFL, he doesn’t have the best record in close games, and with the game on the line I’d take Romo, Brady, probably Rothlisberger, Luck, and yes, Russell Wilson, ahead of him. (Famous last words, right?)

So the Packers win by more than 3. Though I almost regret this pick as much as the Browns. (okay, not really:  At least the Packers do win at home. And Rodgers is really good.) Come on Aaron R, pull out a close game by incredible end game play, but win it by four.

Pick: Packers.

7. Dallas Cowboys (+5) at Philadelphia Eagles

The Cowboys are going to the Super Bowl this year, so how do they lose to the Eagles in a divisional matchup, on the road, where they’ve lately played better than at home. (Okay, I also rather optimistically picked the Eagles to meet the Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, and an 0-2 start doesn’t make such an event seem all that likely).

Still, the Cowboys are lucky to be 1-0 after that last Sunday Night Fiasco. Meanwhile the Eagles, flying high on everybody’s radar, just got embarassed last Monday Night. Well, okay, they simply lost. Embarassed just sounds better.

But really, they were road favorites, and head coach Chip Kelly made more moves this offseason than Gary Kasparov in a heads up speed chess match. (As a heads up, I’m good at football, and good at trying to make analogies, not at actually making them.)

And, while granted the Eagles won’t be playing anywhere near as soft as the Giants ill advisedly did on the last two Dallas drives (both easy, quick, and ending in touchdowns) but the Cowboys still did play the last portion of that game without their start Dez Bryand, and are capable of winning without him while he nurses a broken foot.

This is a great matchup, the Cowboys rarely lose by a lot, and the outcome could very easily go to either team here. 5 points are a lot.

Pick: Cowboys

Update:

8.  Atlanta Falcons (+2.5) at New York Giants

So long as the Giants don’t have the lead late (ie., they are winning by a lot, or losing by a little) and thus decide to play far too soft on defense and all but literally give away the game, they should be okay against a potentially tough, but on the road Falcons team.

Pick: Giants

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Steelers 49ers commentary: Something makes me want to take the 49ers, as 6.5 point underdogs at the Steelers.

There’s some perception, as I even read it in a major sports column, that the “Patriots Steelers game was less close than the final [28-21] score.”

My impression is more the opposite. That even though the score in that game was a somewhat lopsided 28-14 late, the teams actually played very close. And that was with Tom Brady playing laser like in his focus, decisions, and releases, and the Steelers missing a few key players. (WR Martavius Bryant, out for about a month, RB Le’Veon Bell, out for the first two games, and most notably of all, all pro Center Maurkice Pouncey, out for at least eight weeks, possibly more.)

So 1) the Patriots are possibly not that great this year. Or 2) the Steelers are possibly pretty good this year, for some reason. (That often happens with the Steelers, and the clear perception of just that phenomenon is represented in this line, favoring them by almost a touchdown against a team that was convincing in it’s opening night win; a team that has a potentially decent enough quarterack, and a possibly good defense.). Or, well, 3) one game into the season doesn’t really tell us all that much.

But the Steelers are still missing those key players, and maybe the 49ers are not that bad. Still, coming off a Monday Night win, and now flying across the country to play at what will in effect be 10 a.m. in the morning for them, which is against what their bodies are used to doing – minor but not meaningless – does make it a little harder for them, and of benefit to the Steelers. So, we’ll see. Potentially a lot, from this game.

As murky as the picture is even by late season, it’s much murkier right now, when nobody really knows nor can know what teams will emerge.  But after week 2, a slightly better, if still early idea, will start to materialize.

It might not say much if the Steelers win by 15. But if this is a close game, it likely is saying something – whether it means a tough season for the Steelers, or the 49ers are going to keep the entire NFC West difficult this year, will be hard to say.

But we’ll see.