Week 10 NFL Picks Against the Spread – Patriots Giants Version

Last week: 2-3
YTD: 24-22

Recap: Putting aside the lousy record, last week’s calls weren’t too awful. The Cowboys probably lost to the Eagles on a beautiful (for the defense) Matt Cassel pick-six whose harm in an otherwise close game is hard to overestimate: The Cowboys had the ball, then were receiving the kickoff to get the ball again after Cassel’s TD pass to the defense, so it’s a “pure” 7 points – unlike after an offensive score where a team adds 7 to its side, but loses possession of the ball to the other team as part of the bargain.

And the Cowboys had been on the Eagles 36 yard line. So aside from the unrelated fluke of a great ensuing great kickoff return by Lucky Whitehead, they also lost a net of 42-44 yards average of key middle field position, as well as the 7 full points, on Cassel’s smooth move.

The Redskins, getting 14, lost by 17, in part because of a sudden plague of dropped passes. (Though while still being slightly random, those do count as being “what the team is.”)  And the Colts won outright.

The one real bad pick was the same as week 8 – the Dolphins. Prescient words:

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

Also interesting:

Hard to imagine [the Dolphins can actually beat the same Bills who trounced them earlier]. 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’s most telling, but am deferring to new or interim head coach Dan Campbell until they fall flat again).

Woops. Bad deferment.

Watch the Dolphins now upset the Eagles – a reasonable possibility given that expectations are low again, and the Dolphins have shown that under Dan Campbell they can turn it on.

But they’ve also shown they’re still lousy, and essentially the same team, while the Eagles may finally be morphing into a very solid club that also needs a home win.  (QB Sam Bradford is also getting less and less jittery the further away he moves from his umpteenth season ending injury.)

Also forgot to include the Bears Chargers. (Though in fairness was going to pick the Browns getting 13.5 at the Bengals for week 8 TNF – a spread they still would have missed by 1/2 a point if Browns DT Randy Starks in an at that point very close game hadn’t mind-numbingly lined up offsides on what turned out to be an utterly failed 4th down play, which instead of giving the Browns the ball gave the Bengals a 1st down at the Browns 3 yard line, and essentially 7 points. Though did call the Jets to win this Thursday – just rarely get to picks by Thursday’s game.)

And forgot to include the 49ers, a pick I loved, since they’re not bad at home, Atlanta is a bad road team crossing the country, and has played middling teams close the past several games. And the 49ers wound up winning outright. (In part because the Falcons Dan Quinn, like a lot of head coaches, doesn’t really “get” end game structural strategy situations.)

Picks: 

1.  Chicago Bears (+6.5) at St. Louis Rams

The Bears have been playing increasingly decent football, while the Rams may have finally turned the corner after a few years of flirting with becoming a very good team.

But until otherwise established, this consistently Jekyll and Hyde team shouldn’t be favored by nearly a TD against a decent, possibly up and coming team: Even with the possible to likely return off three key starters – DL Robert Quinn, S T.J. McDonald, and (rookie) RT Rob Havenstein – though that does make it a closer call.

If the Rams do win this game solidly and fairly easily, they may have turned that corner (finally); as they have shown increasing signs already. But it’s still an if. And even if they have, the Bears may put up a decent battle anyway; though if the Rams have turned that corner, it’s less likely. So it could be Rams 26 – 9, in which case the Rams, given the last several games, might finally be a strong contender in that division, but:

Pick: Bears, possible surprise upset. But that’s only banking on the fact that Jeff Fisher’s an overrated coach, not the fact he’s still a decent enough coach, with a lot of young talent and a team that from trades and bad records has now had a horde of high draft picks for years running.

2.  New Orleans Saints (pick) at Washington Redskins

How are the Saints, considered a good team, still a pick em game, even if a road game, against Washington, considered a bad team?

In part because too much may be being placed on the Saints loss at home versus the Titans (and a still underrated rookie Marcus Mariota at QB, coming back from injury, and a quick head coaching change bounce) – making this an absolute must win for the Saints against a middling opponent.

And in part because the Redskins aren’t a bad team, and they will likely be healthier in their secondary than they’ve been since starting out week 3. (And their number one WR, out most of the season but active last week, may be a bit healthier – and certainly has to play lights out after grabbing his head coach’s chest the other day and giving him a “purple nurple.” (You just can’t do that to your head coach, who then says he expects a big game out of you, and not then light it up some.))

That makes this a tough game, and probably one of the better games of the week, in terms of the hidden story lines and real football, though it’s not getting much coverage.

QB Kirk Cousins simply can’t follow up his half fun but half kind of seemingly thin skinned “you like that!” scream with a bad loss at the Patriots (although he did have 7 dropped passes by his receivers in the game) followed then by a home loss, can he?

Pick: Redskins

3.  Kansas City Chiefs (+4.5) at Denver Broncos.

This line is a little ridiculous. It opened at around 6.5 to 7, which is pretty high considering the rivalry, early season expectations, and the Chiefs mild rebound to 3-5.

Now it’s at 4.5 – a huge drop – and barely the 3 a home team gets in an otherwise “tie” game just by virtue of being the home club. And this for a team that but for a desperate Colts team would not only be unbeaten entering week 10, but is one game past removed from a dominant beat down of the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers.

The Chiefs are also without arguably their best offensive player (and, since in a game that was otherwise going into overtime he fumbled the game away early in the season against the Broncos, the one with perhaps the most direct motivation for redemption): RB Jamaal Charles, who doesn’t run; he floats, glides, dances, with an instinct and balance for the game and its movement that can’t be taught.

So how are they now only 4.5 points? Conventional wisdom seems to be they may beat the Broncos. Conventional wisdom (except when fairly lopsided) is often not right on football, but may be here. It’s the Chiefs season on the line, and they still have the players to beat the Broncos. (Still, this would seem to be the insiders line as well, which doesn’t explain how the line opened so high, except for possible expectations that the public might not see it that way.)

And while the Chiefs showed poor resiliency and what appeared to be on field “heart” against the Packers after that debacle against the Broncos in week 2 (they not only got crushed scorewise until it was late in the game and meaningless, even in a key nationally televised game they showed listlessness, and poor body language), and then continued to spiral downward after that, enough time has passed since that, helped by some victories, they may not respond the same way this time.

4.5 is a pretty tight line for such a poor team missing it’s key offensive player on the road against a nearly unbeaten (and solid nearly unbeaten) team. But this game is likely to be close. And the Broncos are without half of their key cornerback tandem, and one of their better pass rushers in Demarcus Ware.

The Chiefs “should” win or battle it close enough to make it a 3 or 4 point game. Beyond that, with the breakdown they showed at the Packers and beyond, it’s hard to say.

Pick: Chiefs, possible to likely upset

4. New England Patriots (-7.5) at New York Giants

It’s a game of the News. But never mind the oddity that of 32 different teams in the NFL these two have met in the Super Bowl twice in the recent past (or that those two times are barely the only times the Giants even made the playoffs under that entire stretch), the Giants also won both.

That is, Brady and Belichick have been to a remarkable 6 Super Bowls together. They’re 4-2.  The two losses are both to the giant slayers – the New York Giants.  Who in that first Super Bowl not only beat New England, but ruined the first perfect season since the 1972 Dolphins (back when teams played a 14 game regular season schedule), with the at that point 18-0 Patriots one game away from accomplishing what no NFL team has ever accomplished: A perfect 19-0.

The Patriots may say they don’t care about a perfect season this year, but no doubt they do. But in the type of interesting storyline twist that seems to occur often in the NFL, this so far perfect season could once again be ruined by the Giants:

Different teams, but the four main principals, Bill, Tom, Tom and Eli, remain. And while the Patriots hardly need a reason to stay vigilant for any road game this season, they know Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin seem to be able, for whatever reason, to play them well, and are perfectly capable of beating them; and despite some defensive breakdowns and injuries, seem to be playing a little better this year again.

Anything can happen this game. The Giants defense has given up about 422 yards per outing – hardly a good number for a “good team,” and ranking at the bottom of the league. (Even worse than the 414 per game Saints, who the Giants gave away a game to in week 8 by deciding to fask mask a ball carrier at mid field with seconds left on the clock – when the ball carrier wasn’t even allowed to advance the ball, and had himself made a big mistake by even trying to, in a key end game unfolding that was barely covered, yet ultimately and freakishly decided the game.)

But they also actively try for and create turnovers, and may figure out a way to take away some of those quick slants and underneath routes that Brady is so good at quickly unloading – a talent which has enabled the Patriots to easily weather the loss of what now amounts to just about half plus of their overall offensive line.

And 7.5 points on the road against a team who can easily beat them is a lot of points for any team, even the 2015 New England Patriots on a sort of “post deflate gate rampage.” Though really, given the fact that this is the Giants, it’s also just as much about the fact that the Giants may win; and simply because it’s Giants Patriots, there’s a good chance this game itself may be closer, in which case a touchdown and a half point is a lot.

Pick: Giants

5. Cleveland Browns (+6) at Pittsburgh Steelers

Until last year Cleveland had lost to Ben Rothlisberger something like 17 of the last 18 times, or something absurd like that. Ben’s not playing this game, but the Steelers are still good. And unlike the Browns, still in the thick of the race, and need this division game.

Meanwhile the Browns don’t seem to recognize the potential high value of draft picks relative to the salary cap. The numbers are structured, so if a high or even mid (or low) round pick plays great, a team gets a value return that but for flukes rarely happens once a player gets past his rookie contract.

So picking a quarterback in the first round, then deciding to sit him for year two even when the team is essentially out of any meaningful playoff race – after a total of 85 NFL passes (in like three games by the time it was evident that was the team’s goal regardless unless McNown literally couldn’t play) for even a good 36 year old career backup, is a debacle of a move.

And it doesn’t matter how much otherwise so far decent enough head coach Mike Pettine loves 36 year old Josh McCown or hates aforesaid number one pick Johnny Manziel. If that’s the case they shouldn’t have drafted him. And in a losing season are simply wasting opportunity and possible upside value, with little downside, by refusing to play him until forced into it, by McCown acknowledging that not only is it painful to throw, it’s painful for him to even put his shirt on due to rib and shoulder injuries.

“It’s okay though – The Browns have done so well on QBs since reentering the league in 1999 (starting just a mere 23 different ones so far), they get a pass on this bungling fiasco.” Which they may get rescued from anyway by mere happenstance. Or not.

So will we see the Browns who played the Steelers tough last year both times (winning once and rallying furiously to tie and then ultimately lose by 3 in the other), or the Browns of old, who repeatedly get plastered by the Steelers almost every time?

While QB Manziel is once again a wild card (he played well early versus the Bengals last week, and then after a bad helmet to helmet hit on a pretty gutsy first down scramble attempt, coincidence or not, played poorly for the rest of the game), this is still a Mike Pettine team, the Steelers are not the Bengals – and certainly aren’t without Rothlisberger – and if the Browns are not to be the same debacle they’ve been for years and years running (though they may well, once again, be just that), they’ll battle and make this a real football game at least.

Though making it more challenging for them, they’ll have to do it without two of their better defensive players in Safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden – once one of the leagues premier defenders – once again. Guard Joe Botonio will also be out; with a rookie (C. Erving), who reportedly hasn’t looked very good in his limited snaps so far, slated in to take his place.

Pick: Browns.  Pettine may not be good with structural QB decisions, but he can otherwise coach and get a team to play. If he can’t, he should be out of there. All this talk of teams needing stability is a partial myth. What they need are good coaches, and there’s a world of possible candidates out there, and only 32 positions in the entire country. (Good teams “have stability” because good teams don’t need to change head coaches.)

6.  Dallas Cowboys (+1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Before the season started, the Cowboys said they were acting like a championship team because they thought they were one, and would be more likely to stay one if they acted that way.

They’ve now lost 6 straight games and are 2-6, and would be 1-7 if both the Giants and the referees, independently, hadn’t all but handed the Cowboys the game in week 1.

They kick a fourth field goal from just outside the 8 yard line on a 4th and long 2 in the 4th quarter against the Seahawks to take a 12-10 lead – as if helping to ensure that it stays a 1 score game even if they can add another now otherwise key additional field goal, and likely the easiest kind for an almost always clutch Russell Wilson to pull out at the end (which of course he did, easily), is a good move – to thus ultimately lose 13-12.

Their backup QB has a “good game” when he only throws one pick, although it was a pick-six that not only lost them a full 7 points, but also nearly half of the football field of field position on top of that as of the time of the pick (*see above).

Owner Jerry Jones, in response to their recent “history of apparent off field domestic violence and anger issues” acquisition literally strikes a clipboard from a coaches hand in another outburst of anger in full view of public cameras, points out in response that he’s a “team leader”….

Meanwhile, the Cowboys, who couldn’t intercept a morse code transmission if it was spelled out for them in block letters, have almost no turnovers, and a good defense that otherwise simply apparently doesn’t try to strip the ball – besides of course not tackling by aiming one’s shoulder into a player and hoping he falls, the single most important thing to do on defense.

Number one overall draft pick Jameis Winston of the Bucs, meanwhile, while playing very poorly in preseason and somewhat poorly early on in the season, is starting to validate all of those prognistications interestingly proclaiming they liked what “Winston will be.”

But after four games without a Winston pick, the odds even out and the turnover challenged Cowboys somehow pick up a few in this game and come out with a victory. Then they get Romo the sharp, relaxed, charming, down to earth more intelligent than he acts all American humble good guy and goofy in a good way choirboy back, and they start winning and suprisingly make a run for it. While in private a not quite delusional Jerry Jones – or somebody, maybe Jason Garrett – insists that Greg Hardy start indulging in some behind the scenes but serious emotionally shifting anger management and self control counseling.

Pick: Cowboys. America’s team, almost perfectly, to the letter.

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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

 

Probabilities of Making the Playoffs for All 32 NFL Teams

Below is a list of each of the 32 NFL team’s chances of making the playoffs before opening day Sunday.

The number in parenthesis is the percentage chance of that team making the playoffs based on this iffy but popular Harvard Sports study. The first number is the chance given here, broken down over three successive pieces assessing each team’s chances.

Note that this isn’t a ranking of the relative strength of each team. Each conference is a little different, and some divisions are much harder than others or have tougher or easier schedules this year. And all of these factors also play into each team’s actual chances of making it into the playoffs.

  1. Green Bay Packers: 80% (93%)
  2. Seattle Seahawks: 75% (99%, originally 95%)
  3. Indianapolis Colts: 70% (57%)
  4. New England Patriots: 64% (60%)
  5. Detroit Lions: 60% (57%)
  6. Denver Broncos: 55% (57%)
  7. Buffalo Bills: 55% (39%)
  8. Kansas City Chiefs: 52% (61%)
  9. Philadelphia Eagles: 50% (41%)
  10. Houston Texans: 50% (50%)
  11. Dallas Cowboys: 45% (27%)
  12. Miami Dolphins: 45% (74%, originally 77%) 
  13. Cincinnati Bengals: 42% (33%)
  14. Atlanta Falcons: 42% (55%)
  15. New Orleans Saints: 40% (48%)
  16. Pittsburgh Steelers: 38% (45%)
  17. San Diego Chargers: 38% (27%)
  18. New York Giants: 38% (48%)
  19. New York Jets: 38% (51%)
  20. Arizona Cardinals: 36% (30%)
  21. Baltimore Ravens: 36% (24% originally 9%)
  22. Carolina Panthers: 36% (22%)
  23. St. Louis Rams: 35% (10%)
  24. Chicago Bears: 28% (25%)
  25. Cleveland Browns: 26% (25%)
  26. Minnesota Vikings: 24% (12%)
  27. San Francisco 49ers: 20% (9%)
  28. Washington Redskins: 19% (22%)
  29. Tennessee Titans: 12% (2%)
  30. Oakland Raiders: 10% (.03%)
  31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10% (2%)
  32. Jacksonville Jaguars: 8% (3%)

Final Notes: Based on preseason action; some of the more key injuries; and last evening’s season opening Thursday Night game where the Steelers looked better than expected despite missing some key players (one of whom, their all pro and near all world Center Maurkice Pouncey, is on the IR designated to return list), a few of the numbers may be off a little bit. Some examples:

-The Patriots might actually be lower than 64%, and they’re only even anywhere that high because they were very good last year (if with a few key different players). And they somehow keep doing it. (Probably because, in the next scandal to be alleged or made up, they surreptitiously put slip n slide clear “banana peel” fun rub underneath opponents’ cleats before each game.)

-The Steelers may be higher than 38%, although it’s hard to assess how much of that game last night – which was closer than the ongoing and late score indicated – was the Steelers’ doing, and how much was the Patriots’ doing.
But 38% is also low regardless for a team that at least all but perenially contends, and often contends strongly; and that has an extremely good (and very long underrated, although the last few seasons that seems to be changing) quarterback in general and clutch situations.

-The Jets could be higher than 38%, but that’s still just on paper – nothing much in the preseason really showed it. (They may also be lower than 38%, as it’s still a pretty high number for a team with a new head coach, no real quarterback yet, and one that hasn’t really been a solid contender for a while.)

-The Eagles may be higher than 50%, but they have a big if in Sam Bradford, who is a natural at quarterback, finally staying healthy.

-Both the Eagles, and Cowboys, are possible Super Bowl picks. Ignoring the Harrvard study’s rather iffy 27% number, as we are all their numbers, this may seem to suggest a higher than 45% chance of making the playoffs.
But for the Cowboys it may not:
The division may be tough. (Even the Giants could contend and run it at the end, as they already have twice with the still together Eli M and HC Tom Coughlin tandem.)
And the Cowbys are a little bit of an unpredictable team, apart from the fact that their record seems to usually be pedestrian despite the fact they seem to be a better team than their usually pedestrian record suggests.
They could easily fall to that pedestrian record again, or, particularly if Tony Romo’s late game play improvement (of late) is in fact the new Romo, just as easily solidly make the playoffs; and if they do, there is no reason to think they’re not, or won’t be, the best team in the NFC.
They were probably extremely close to it last season.

-It’s hard to assess the Ravens.
But 36% still feels low for this team and their General Manager Ozzie Newsome’s now fairly consistent longer term record – even putting aside the study’s originally near ludicrous 9% for the team that has more playoff wins than any team in the NFL since 2008, when the still in place QB Flacco HC Harbaugh combo signed on.
Yet every team can’t make the playoffs.And even good teams have down years. It’s just hard to say who in advance.
But if the Ravens make the playoffs yet again, it’s time to start giving a LOT of credit – I mean even more – to those guys. (That is, putting aside their rag tag handling of the Ray Rice fiasco last year when they fully had his back – maybe too much even for a beloved and charitable teammate with a then fiance now wife victim nearly pleading for their continued support of said teammate – then when a repeatedly looped video of a totally drunken Rice and his fiance surfaced essentially showing all the facts we knew, dropped him like a hot potato and made it seem as if the video was some major revelation. Thereby pinning the already arbitrary and capricious NFL commissioner into a bit of a corner. Which commissioner then in turn acted even more arbitrarily and capriciously once again by not even simply applying the new 6 game suspension rules under the new tougher policy under claim the video provided specific detail about the type of punch thrown, and thus “relevant new” info. (If it wasn’t sufficient for that, it certainly wasn’t sufficient for a random indefinite suspension in discord with the initial punishment, and in complete and total discord with the new tougher domestic policy, particularly under all the circumstances.)

-I would probably give the Chiefs a higher chance of making the playoffs than offered above, they’re likely to be very strongly in the mix.

-The Vikings could be one of the surprise teams, even a possible contender in the playoffs. And though they present a large range – from lagging to a possible playoff team to even a solid playoff team – 24% is probably low. They’re also a good dark horse team pick to surpise and take the division, or battle for it and squeak in a wild card.

-The Rams are still probably too low at 35%. They could very well wind up battling it out with the Seahawks, or Seahawks and Cardinals with one of the two runner ups making a wild card.

-I previously said the Bills will make the playoffs this season for the first time since 1999. But the 55% number represents not my hunches and predictions, but the best assessment of their actual chances, all things considered.
And 55% already puts the Bills chances very high in a tough AFC, given their prior records and fact they have an unproven quarterback who’s never started a regular season game and was a late round pick in 2011; and as their now third string quarterback have a guy who was a big reach at number 16 in the 2013 draft (this includes the fact they probably still could have gotten him had they traded back, and possibly even if they had traded back quite a ways), but has shown potential. (Although if it was me, and first time starter Tyrod Taylor falters, I’d bring in that former No. 16 pick EJ Manuel next to see what he could do, and not long time solid backup occasional spot starter Matt Cassel. Even more so considering Manuel would be playing without first round draft pick expectations for the first time, )

-The Browns could be higher than 26%, and they showed this potential for a while last year under now second year head coach Mike Pettine.
But backup, potentially still not ready (even if ever) QB Johnny Manziel is a complete wild card.
And bizarrely, the Browns let go of their only starting quarterback of the astounding 22 they’ve had so far (not counting week 1 this year) since coming back into the league in 1999, in order to pick up a 36 year old career backup for the same money that Brian Hoyer is now getting paid in Houston.
And they did so even after Tampa Bay failed with the same experiment last year.

-Though we all have it wired in that the Packers always seem to win the division, their real chances are probably lower than 80%, perhaps significantly so. Losing receiver Jordy Nelson hurts them. And there is a good chance the Vikings are competitive this year and the Lions stay strong, making the division much closer. Also, one never knows about the Bears under new head coach John Fox, who leaves a decent enough track record behind him. And QB Jay Cutler might even suddenly play well again.

-I want to put the Panthers higher than 36%; they were the best team in the NFC South at the end of last season, and they shouldn’t fall off this year, and their QB might even improve.
But the division isn’t likely to be quite so weak this year, and losing their really only proven wide receiver in Kelvin Benjamin, who was a huge part of their offense last year even as a rookie, then having number 41 spot draft pick WR Devin Funchess (who they traded up to get) be held up most of training camp and preseason from injury, hurts them.

Much more information and analysis is found in the three separate, longer pieces assessing each team’s chances in comparison with the Harvard study. And many of the numbers are conservative, as they are trying to replicate the most reasonable probabilities, not what could happen. Hence why the Vikings are still pretty low, although they could easily surprise. Ditto with a few other teams, including, again, the Rams, who could easily turn out to be a scary good team later this year; even with potential offensive line issues and a still probably lagging wide receiver corps, and a possibly slightly overrated quarterback in Nick Foles after trading the “The Natural” (but often hurt) Sam Bradford to Foles’ old team in exchange for him (and his much lower salary),plus a draft pick.

Harvard Study Part III

About a month ago, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Part I assessed the top 10 teams on the Harvard study list, and compared them to the probability assessments made here, while part II assessed teams 11-20.

Note also that since the study, original promise to do this comparison, and part I of it came out, a few of the study’s numbers have changed. The oddest was increasing an already semi statistically outlandish “95%” chance of Seattle – the top team – making the playoffs, to a now far more outlandish 99%.

Pegging the Seahawks at 99% to make the playoffs defies NFL football reality. (Update: For more on the Seahawks and in general, here’s an analysis of the Harvard study itself, and why many of its numbers are problematic.)

At the end of the regular season, and regardless of results, we’ll do a comparison of both sets of numbers in conjunction with exactly how each team winds up in terms of proximity to the playoffs. Despite general variance and unpredictability, it’ll be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here.

As in parts I & II, the opening percentage number given in bold represents each team’s chance of making the playoffs according to the HSAC study. The ending percentage numbers, in contrast, are ours.

21.  Bears, 25%. This is a reasonable number except for the John Fox effect. Fox has not been an exceptional head coach, but has been a solid one: He made the Panthers (at least for a while), and Denver both highly competitive, even if the bulk of the latter occurred after Peyton Manning arrived.

It’s also hard to assess what the Bears are losing with the firing of HC Marc Trestman after a mere two years. On balance, it’s likely somewhat of a coaching upgrade to switch to Fox – and potentially a significant one.

Also for the Bears, former Saints director of personnel Ryan Pace becomes the new GM, taking over for the fired Phil Emery. And former Saints scout Josh Lucas takes over as director of player personnel, for the fired Kevin Turks.

That might be a bit too much Saints involvement. Yet Franchise nepotism is common in the NFL, and it also often reflects the hire of people one knows, which can also be an advantage; if, sometimes on the flip side, leading to the same inside the box type of thinking and same, perhaps overly limited, set of candidates.

The Bears also brought in Vic Fangio as their new defensive coordinator. From ’95-’05 Fangio was DC for the Panthers, Colts and Texans. And then again DC for the 49ers from ’11-14, the same years Jim Harbaugh was the head coach there.

And for offensive coordinator the Bears brought in Adam Gase, who played the same role the last two years under John Fox – and when the team was on the field, likely somewhat under Peyton Manning – in Denver.

Chicago also lost several players, but made multiple short signings and a few more longer term, including LB Pernell McPhee ($38.75 million/5 years, 15.5 million guaranteed), WR Eddie Royal ($15.5 million, 10 million guaranteed) and S Antrel Rolle ($11.25 million, 5 million guaranteed).

Pernell, a 2011 5th round pick, has had some key plays in big moments, which may have been due to sheer variance as well as his skill, and may possibly have led to a higher perceived than real value. (Perhaps Bears staffers would disagree and say otherwise, I don’t know.) And it’s possible the Bears overpaid; possibly not.

Some criticized the Cleveland Browns $9 million guarantee given to Dwayne Bowe, but the $10 million given to Royals is larger. (Though Bowe’s 9 million guarantee was out of a $12.5 two year deal total, making it more lopsided.) When you take into account the offenses each played for, Bowe is probably a better receiver, although he does turn 31 later this month, whereas Royal is 29.

Included among the player losses are 12 year Bears stalwart Lance Briggs, who last season started 8 games with 24 tackles and 10 assists, and is now retired. And Brandon Marshall, now 31, who broke some ribs and had a collapsed lung from a knee hitting his back against the Cowboys in week 14, and is now with the Jets.

Marshall had 61 catches last year before getting hurt late. But he also had over 100 catches in 2012 and 2013, and in years 2007 – 2009 with the Broncos (one of only five receivers in the NFL to ever have 3 consecutive 100 catch seasons). And the QB throwing him the ball in all those years but for 2009 when he went to Chicago a few years ahead of Marshall? Jay Cutler, still with the team today.

The Bears were pretty awful last year. But that is in some part relative to the general expectation that they weren’t a bad football team. Maybe they were and we just didn’t know it.

As duly noted in part I, the Bears are a wild card. Not that they will make a wild card playoff spot, but they could be anywhere from a contender to a bad team – although Fox might keep them from slipping too far:  28%

22. Ravens, 24%. Until recently the number published by the Harvard study (and referenced here as well), was 9%. But 24% is still too low.

While the Ravens may not make the playoffs this year, they have every single year but one since Joe Flacco as rookie QB and John Harbaugh as rookie HC joined seven seasons ago. And they lead all NFL teams in total playoff wins during that period.

The original number of 9% was statistically ludicrous. (A 1 in 4 chance is low, but a slightly less than 1 in 10 chance, statistically, is far different.) The study doesn’t seem to note any particular reason for this change in its as of now current and apparently updated form, other than “normalizing” the results so an average of 6 teams would make the playoffs every year. And which doesn’t explain such a change (particularly when most teams are still the same).

The Ravens are in a tough division; they don’t seem to have really improved while a lot of other teams have; The AFC North’s schedule was fairly easy relative to some of the other divisions last year; and several teams will likely vie for the two AFC wild card sports this year, including a likely improved Chiefs and an overall improved NFC East. And, this year the NFC North plays the tough AFC West and tough NFC west: 36%

23. Redskins, 22%. Giving the Redskins about the same chance of making the playoffs as the Ravens (and originally more than twice the chance) is slighty far fetched. This team right now sits on the bottom of a division that may see three competitive teams. (Four if the Redskins join in.) 19%

24. Panthers, 22%. This is a good indication of the study’s considerable flaws. At the end of last year the Panthers were the best team in the weak NFC South. In part probably because of team cohesion, and defensive chemistry;

The study projects the Falcons to have a 55% chance of making the playoffs (which is also too high, see part I), and it’s near silly to claim the Falcons have nearly a two and a half times better chance of winning the division than the winner the previous two years. Cam Newton has also been a little rocky at times; but if he takes that next step, the Panthers are also going to have a heck of a QB.

Since the study came out the Panthers got a little hammered in the injury deparment, losing both starting DE Frank Alexander and more importantly second year WR Kelvin Benjamin for the year.

Benjamin was seemingly the key element in an otherwise potentially very weak receiving corps. And right now, after missing training camp and most of the preseason with a hamstring injury – not good for rookie wide receivers – rookie Devin Funchess is third on that nevertheless still on paper very weak looking depth chart.

Funchess was no small investment either, as the Panthers traded up to snag him, perhaps inadvisedly giving up their 3rd and 6th round picks to move up 16 spots in the second round to 41 overall to grab him. (If your team is that good at evaluating talent that you know Funchess is a steal at that spot, evaluate the best guy available at 57 and then again in the 3rd round, which is a considerable value pick – low salary but still with a reasonably high chance of strong upside – and then again in the 5th round; with both now being picks, as a result of the trade, that simply vanished. (Technically they moved over to the Rams, who made the deal with the Panthers.)

On the flip side, and trade aside, Funchess may have been a nice pick with a lot of potential. And the Panthers could have used some more wide receiving help – in part possibly why they made the trade. But then their by far and away this moment best WR, Benjamin, goes down for the year, and Funchess essentially misses training camp and the preseason.

But we’re trying not to take hard news that came about after the Harvard study into account, so the Panthers are still around even to the slight favorite to win the division over the Saints, with the Falcons possibly in the mix, and with a wild card from this division still probably unlikely.  (Also, even taking into account the bad injury news and holdup to any possible early development of Funchess, this team is still at least probably even with the Falcons and Saints overall to win the division, putting them over 30%.)  36%

25. Browns, 15%. This seemed like it would have been a really bad number. But in 2013 the Bears’ Josh McCown filled in nicely for Jay Cutler for several games later in the year, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite over a decade of nice quality backup QB work by McCown, said, “hey, he can be our starter!” And made him so.

It was a bad move at the time. And while it still could have worked out (McCown, after all, had played pretty well in 2013), it didn’t.

Now the Browns are trying the same magic trick.

True, they have Johnny Football, aka Johnny Manziel, sitting in the wings. And if McCown falters they will probably say “let it rip” Johnny. And Manziel didn’t show enough last year to conclusively prove he won’t make it in the NFL as a quality starter. So it could be exciting yet.

But it’s somewhat hard to evaluate, as last year the Brown’s also had Brian Hoyer as their starter for 13 games (although for the last several he played very poorly). And teams seem to play better when Hoyer starts, and thus win more often. In 2013, before now second year HC Mike Pettine got there, the Browns went 4-12 overall, yet 3-0 in the games Hoyer started.

It’s kind of head scratching. I mean, if the argument for going with Josh McCown is, “well, we have Johnny Boy waiting in the wings” (reasonable enough), why wasn’t that the argument for going with Hoyer: Out of the so far 22 total starting QBS the Browns have had, not counting McCown, who will be starter week 1 and number 23 overall since the franchise was resurrected from the football graveyard (having earlier been turned into a large black bird in 1996 and moved to Baltimore in something famous enough in Ohio to be known as “the move”), the only one who even has a winning record is Brian Hoyer.

That’s out of 22 total starting QBs. One. One, has a winning record. Hoyer. Letting him go is one thing. But to 1) let him go. and 2) choose McCown, a long time backup, who the Bucs just made the same mistake on last year and who is entering his 13th year in the NFL (it would be 14th but McCown played for the UFL in 2010), is quite another.

Bad Browns, bad.

Bad Harvard study too, as Pettine shouldn’t be counted out so quickly. But that’s what perhaps silly studies that then get popularly picked up by multiple news sources and hat try to assess a team’s chances based upon subjective core player evaluation, miss; among many other things. 26%

26. Vikings, 12%. This is a joke. Anyone who thinks the Vikings are 1 in 8 to make the playoffs hasn’t been closely watching football the last several years.

Note, the Vikings will probably miss the playoffs: Again, if they are given a four times, or a 300% greater, chance of making the playoffs than this Harvard study gave them, the odds would still be that they are (slightly) more likely to miss the playoffs than not.

And even if their chances were a whopping 65%, they would still miss the playoffs 1 out of 3 times.

This NFC North division could be tough. The Packers lost their stud wide receiver Jordy Nelson for the year. Nelson had over 1500 yards for them last year, and made some solid catches. (Though we’re not supposed to take that into account, as it happened after the original SAC study came out). But they’ve been perennial contenders, and there’s no real reason to think they won’t be strong this year. And the Lions look to be as well. As for the Bears? Well, see above.

But the Vikings improved last year under first year HC Mike Zimmer; also surprised the league a few years back and won the division in 2008 and 2009; second year QB Teddy Bridgewater showed some smooth moves his rookie year, and could be a force this one; and they get back what was not long ago the undisputed best running back in the NFL. This might not seem like a lot, but it’s double – double – the study number. And probably conservative: 24%

27. Rams. 10%. I’m just gonna say it. Almost no one does it seems. Possibly because he’s just one of those guys. You know, the guy that just handles it all well, and we don’t want to diss, because they just, well, handle it all so well.

But after many years of watching his teams often fail to wrap up when tackling (and he’s been 5 straight seasons, 2 with the Titans, then a year off, then 3 with the Rams, without a playoff appearance), it’s time: Head Coach Jeff Fisher is a little overrated.

That being said, he’s still a very good head football coach, and smooth as silk the way he seems to handle most things. (I wish he was a little less smooth about poor tackling though.) And this year the Rams have a legitimate shot.

That’s even with the fact that while their former number one overall draft pick QB is back after missing most of the last two years with injuries (and some injury time before that as well), he’s unfortunately back with the Eagles, who the Rams traded him to in the offseason. And who, if he stays healthy, is going to surprise a lot of people; because Sam Bradford is a natural.

Unfortunately, in preseason the Rams at times looked sloppy tackling once again – particularly for a defense that could potentially be a powerhouse (though I’m trying not to take that into account, and the tackilng could also have been a fluke that won’t happen as such in the regular season.) And they are starting two rookies on the offensive line, which could be problematic for them once again. But this “10%” number is far, far, almost ridiculously, too low.

It’s also still tough to assess their new quarterback Nick Foles. In his rookie year with the Eagles, Foles first played in week 9 and got his first start week 10. And impressed a lot of people. But in one game against the Panthers he threw three easy picks that were all ridiculously dropped. Had they been caught the take on Foles would likely have been different.

But the following year, 2013, he posted a remarkable 13.5 to 1 TD to interception ratio, throwing 27 TDs, and only 2 picks. And he became only the second QB ever to post a perfect passer rating, while also throwing for over 400 yards.

In 2014 he played in only 8 games before getting hurt, and had a much more pedestrian 13-10 TD/interception ratio. And that offense in ’13 and ’14 seemed to buzz under innovative HC Chip Kelly, so it’s hard to know how much that might have helped Foles performance.

Regardless, Foles is an upgrade over the backups the Rams were playing with last year, and his team seems to play well when he’s on the field. But how he does with a still possibly iffy offensive line remains to be seen.

On the one had it’s hard to see why this Rams team couldn’t put it together (provided they get good offensive line play) and contend for the division. On the other hand, if prior history, and what to me seems like a series of up and down draft day decisions over the past several years is any indication (let alone the fact that they were hooked with several extra high picks courtesty of the “RGIII” trade with the Redskins in 2012), it’s hard to imagine them having much of a shot to go deep into the playoffs if they do manage to finally take a bigger step and make it in.

But their defense could be scary. And showed it for a short stint mid late last season, where they outscored an overall middling batch of teams 79-0 over 10 consecutive impressive quarters of play: 0-0 v the Chargers quarter 4 in a game they lost 27-24; a 52-0 win over a bad Oakland team that was in dream land after its first big win in a while – a week twelve 24-10 victory over rival Kansas City for their first win of the season after an 0-10 start; and a 24-0 drubbing of the Washington Redskins followed by a 3-0 first quarter against the Cardinals (in a game they also eventually lost, 12-6.) Before, unfortunately, relapsing back to so so play.

Think what you will of the Rams, but assessing them before this season even starts as having only a 1 in 10 chance, with a significant upgrade (even if a questionable one) at quarterback; another year for those young players; an improving team; a good head coach; and when 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs, is just not realistic.

Our number is still remarkably higher than the study’s, and by halfway into the season, who knows, while they are probably not there yet, it could even look very low, as the Rams could pull it together. I just think they need a new GM first. 35%

28. 49ers, 9%. This is not only the most remade team of the year, it’s probably the most remade team in several, and unfortunately it includes the loss of a probably underrated head coach.

This is a guy who joined them in 2011, taking over a seemingly middling team, and immediately taking it all the way to the NFC Championship game three seasons in a row. There, winning once and losing twice in close games, one of those times on a fluke muffed punt to send the game into overtime and then another to lose in overtime (against the Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl against the Patriots). And in the Super Bowl, putting on a furious comeback effort against the Ravens and head coach Jim Harbaugh’s real brother John (of all people), and almost pulling off a huge comeback at the end.

And it includes the loss of a lot of big name and very successful on field players.

Still, many people rave about the 49ers new head coach Jim Tomsula, and the 49ers also brought in new players as well; and even with a lot of injuries and some key suspensions last year, were still a tough matchup, and finished 8-8. (though again, how much of that was specifically Harbaugh’s doing where other coaches might have failed, is hard to tell.)

LIke the Bears, but possibly with more upside, this team is also somewhat of an unknown wild card. 20%.

29. Jaguars, 3%. It’s hard to say the Jaguars have a chance. They simply have made what appears to be mistake after mistake after mistake. (Though many argue otherwise, and some Jaguars fans don’t like hearing it.) But fact is, make all the excuses you want, this team has won 14 games out of its last 64.

But they played tough at times last year; their rookie QB last year, who seemed to me like a bit of a stretch when they took him with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, neverthless impressed some people last season and could at least pan out; the team seems to fully believe in its now 3rd year head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley; and the league is full of surprises. 8%

30. Buccaneers, 2%.  There is this perception that Lovie Smith, brought in last season, is a really good head coach.

Maybe he is. The Bears had a solid winning record under him, made the playoffs a couple of times, and one year somehow managed to get lucky and make it to the Super Bowl as probably the single weakest Super Bowl team in the 2000s so far. (2006 season, and lost to the Colts. I’m also not buying that the Cardinals were when they played the Steelers for the 2008, season. Conventional wisdom called them one of the weakest teams to simply enter the playoffs in a while, and conventional wisdom was way off. I even picked them as the dark horse Super Bowl winner at the very start of the playoffs. And but for a James Harrison pick just outside the goal line on a 5 yard pass that versus a Cardinals touchdown led to a 14 point swing, they probably would have been.)

But the Buccaneers were at least sometimes competitive under departed head coach Greg Schiano, and regressed under Smith. We’ll see in season two. Though obviously they could easily exceed expectations, and given Smith’s prior W-L track record could surprise, no reason to not think they are still one of the poorer teams in the league.

Still, giving them a 2%, or 1 in 50 chance of even making the playoffs, is not realistic given basic NFL variability. This number, though still low, is in part based on the fact that in addition to themselves, their division was still fairly weak last season, and may still lag a little bit this year and has an easier schedule than last year: 10%

31. Titans 2%. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, over six full seasons of coaching, and all with the same team, had an overall losing record. But it wasn’t by all that much. (Until last year’s dreadful 2-14 record with the Titans is tacked on, never mind that the team also got blown out in most of its games as well.) And his prior team twice made the playoffs, getting to the Super Bowl once, where a James Harrison pick of a Kurt Warner pass from the Steelers’ 5 yard line turned into a 14 point swing and likely kept the team with the red bird on its helmet from winning the game.

The Titans have a lot of young, talented players, and with the second pick in the draft had the opportunity to draft a potentially very strong franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota. (Who this preseason has looked exceptional, although that’s not supposed to be taken into account, so we’ll discount it. However, his very strong upside coming into the league still existed prior to the preseason. And this team overall had some upside as well.)

For the same reasons already addressed, assessing this team, or essentially the chances of any team, at 2% is a statistical joke. Our number, if low compared to many teams, is still a whopping six times greater chance of making the playoffs than the one given by the study. And it may still be too low: 12%

32. Oakland .03%. No team in the now essentially half century of the Super Bowl era has had only a 1 in 333 chance of making the playoffs before a season began, and no team has even been close. Oakland’s no exception, and this “point zero three percent number” is,again, ridiculous.

Also notice Oakland’s pattern last year after beating the Chiefs to shoot their record up to 1-10. They took it light – obviously – and got pounded 52-0 by the Rams, then pulled it together and back at home surprised again, legitimately beating the still tough 49ers – and doing so as large underdogs – 24-13, before then, same pattern, getting pounded yet again, and this time by the Chiefs in a rematch in Kansas City, 31-13. Then guess what. Same pattern still: They won again, and again against a good team. By late last season the Bills were a very good football team, and probably taking Oakland lightly, and on a cross country trip fell to those same Raiders 26-24.  And yet after pulling out that win, Oakland continued its pattern as well, getting pounded by Denver in a season ending game, 47-14.

The Raiders might wind up being a better team than the Titans (there is no way to really know), but they seem to be in a tougher division. And their division also plays the NFC North and the AFC North, while the Titans’ AFC South plays the AFC East and the easier NFC South: 10%
_______

Again, the Harvard study, by focusing on the “core” players of a team to assess value, misses that critical full team element, including the contribution of less marquee but still starting players whose strengths or weaknesses can play a critical role in a team’s results; the effect some players can have on how others play; and most of all, it seems to miss a good portion of coaching, and heart.

We’ll also take a look in from time to time before the end of regular season recap to see who’s getting pummeled: Harvard’s numbers, or ours. Guess which one I predict will lose out.

Week 15 NFL Pick Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals (+6) at Rams, Thursday Night Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raiders (+10) at Chiefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Raiders

Bengals (-1) at Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bengals – Marvin’s team

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

49ers (+9) at Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: 49ers

Broncos (-5) at Chargers

Yeah, Denver Broncos, Bla bla bla bla…

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

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

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

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

Thus, against the spread, naturally,

Pick: Chargers 

Packers (-5) at Bills 

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

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

Pick: Bills

Dolphins (+7.5) at Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Dolphins

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

Some Takeaways and Notes from the Miami Dolphins 22-9 Thursday Night Football Win over the Buffalo Bills

Update, via Football outsiders, as quoted by ESPN:

“S—, we’re going to go out and beat that ass. Point blank. Period.”

-Said by a player in advance of Thursday Night’s Bills Dolphins match-up, from what turned out to be the losing team in 22-9 loss; a player who also left the game with a broken bone in the first quarter.  Continue reading

A Remarkable and Strategically Notable Late Fourth Quarter, as the Washington Redskins Upset the Dallas Cowboys in Overtime 20-17 on Monday Night Football

The Washington Redskins, coming into last night’s Monday Night Football game at 2-5, and looking awful several times so far this season, were 9.5 underdogs to the 6-1 Dallas Cowboys: i.e, the team many this past week called the best team in the NFC. Continue reading