Week 5 NFL Picks Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys, in a very close loss. 

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

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

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

But apparently that perception continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Saints 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

NFL 2015 Week 2 Picks Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Houston Texans (+3) at Carolina Panthers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Texans

2.  Detroit Lions (+2) at Minnesota Vikings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bills

4.  Tennesse Titans (+2) at Cleveland Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Browns

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bengals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Packers.

7. Dallas Cowboys (+5) at Philadelphia Eagles

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys

Update:

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

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

Pick: Giants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we’ll see.

NFL Football Strategy Versus the Harvard Study Team Projections, part II: Teams 11 – 20

Note, this was published’/posted late yesterday, September 6, 2015. Not August 30th. Who knows what wordpress is doing. If you know, please tell me.
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A few weeks back, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Part I looked at the playoff probabilites of the first ten teams of the study, and tried to offer more realistic numbers. Continue reading

Another Wild Ride Past their Nemesis Ravens for the Patriots to Reach This Year’s Super Bowl

This year’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks is shaping up to be a great match-up. It pits the dominant team of the past 15 years against their former head coach, leading a team seeking to be the first NFL team to repeat since none other than the Patriots themselves did it back in 2003- 2004, and a dominant defense that in last year’s Super Bowl dismantled what had been one of the best offenses of all time.

But the New England Patriots almost lost in the playoffs to their nemesis, the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens weren’t very good this year. But in the AFC divisional round to this year’s playoffs, Baltimore came into town; and playing Baltimore in the playoffs should never make the Patriots feel comfortable.

Never mind that the Patriots were at home, where they almost never lose. Or the fact that Baltimore hasn’t typically been a great road team. (Or at least during the regular season, in 2012 they made it to and won the Super Bowl, winning two of three playoff games on the road en route, and in the playoffs have won multiple other games on the road.)

Or the fact that but for the Chargers losing against the Kansas City Chiefs back up quarterback, Baltimore never would have been in the playoffs in the first place. Or that as an underdog they had to beat the division winning Pittsburgh Steelers to even make it to the divisional round. (They did, 30-17.)

For the Patriots first playoff game, the Ravens were coming to town. And in January,  that normally means trouble for the Patriots – one of the winning-est playoff franchises in modern NFL history:

The Ravens beat the Patriots handily in the first round of the playoffs in 2009, knocking them down 33-14 (Though after the game, then Ravens’ running back Ray Rice was quick to correctly surmise “their era is not over.”)

And the Ravens beat them again, 28-13, in the 2012 AFC Conference Championship Game for the right to play in the 2012 season Super Bowl. (Which the Ravens won, fending off a furious near come from far behind 49ers victory, interrupted by an infamous, and very long, stadium power outage during the game.)

In the 2011 AFC Championship game, the Ravens should have beat the Patriots as well. But a dropped pass by wide receiver Lee Evans –  as well as a strong play by an undrafted rookie cornerback waived by the team that originally signed him earlier in the year – changed who went to Super Bowl 46 (XLVI).

Evans was a former star for the Buffalo Bills – drafted 13th overall by them in 2004, and traded to the Ravens before the start of the 2011 season for a mid round draft pick. And had Evans caught that pass from Flacco, the New England Patriots would now have five total Super Bowl appearances since the 2000 season – not six – and the Baltimore Ravens would have four – followed by Seattle, Pittsburgh, and the New York Giants at three each. Instead it’s six, three three three and three for the five teams.

The Giants incidentally are the same team who lost to the Ravens in the 2000 season Grand Finale. And it was the Giants, of all teams, that would have faced the Ravens again on February 5, 2012 in Super Bowl XLVI, but for that drop which vaulted in the Patriots instead.

(A Patriots team who, even more coincidentally, in a duplicate of Super Bowl XLII, lost a Super Bowl to the Giants for the second time in four years, as the New York team’s only other Super Bowl appearance of the millennium, after the Ravens, was also against the Patriots.)

But here’s what happened on the pass play that changed NFL history (although what happened two plays after that pass play is often referenced even more). Coverage was strong by rookie cornerback Sterling Moore, an undrafted free agent by Oakland who was then waived and picked up by the Patriots. (And who is currently with the Dallas Cowboys.)

Evans caught the near perfect pass, with two hands comfortably wrapped upon it, cradled up to his body. But he didn’t really secure the ball or catch it correctly. So a light hand swipe well after the ball hit Evans gut, and which needle threading connection by Flacco should have vaulted the Ravens into the Super Bowl – knocked away what should have been a catch, as well as another Ravens Super Bowl appearance. Here’s the play:

New England was leading 23-20 at the time, and the Ravens had driven from their own 21 down to the Patriots 14, in just under 80 seconds. Only 27 more seconds remained, and it was 2nd and 1. Flacco then hit Evans – who from examination of subtle body language, basic kinesthetics, and the ease with which Moore’s desperation swipe knocked away a ball that should have been easily secured, likely went into pre-celebratory mindset mode the moment he “caught” the ball.

Had the pass been held onto, the Patriots would have had 22 seconds left (minus any taken off by the ensuing kickoff), and would have trailed by 4 points, 27-23. That is, but for a “music city miracle” type of play, the game was over.  (Even if the Patriots had just over a minute left but not much more than that, trailing by more than field goal they still would have had almost no realistic chance to win the game.)

The story, as assuredly all Ravens fans remember, got even better for the Patriots, as Baltimore then got stopped on 3rd down and with 15 seconds remaining, lined up for the “gimme” 32 yard game tying field goal: A field goal rarely missed in the NFL, and that Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff very rarely misses.

But he did here. And the Patriots went onto their 5th Super Bowl appearance since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady entered the scene in early 2000.

This year, although New England was clearly the better team entering the playoffs, the Ravens again gave them trouble.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has long been underrated as a playoff QB, although that somewhat changed after his bulletproof (and never losing) performance in the upstart Ravens 2012 run all the way to Super Bowl victory.

But in this game, the 2014 AFC divisional round playoff, and just as Brady finally did years into his career (losing to Peyton Manning and the Colts in a game where the Patriots could have pulled it out at the end, and for the first time in his playoff career, they didn’t), Flacco finally came back down to earth when it ultimately mattered most.

Despite some prognostication otherwise (save from those who have vivid memories of the Ravens Patriots playoff history), the game was once again a very tough match-up for the Patriots; and if not a lopsided affair in the Ravens favor, it was certainly, as with their 2011 AFC championship tango, a reasonably even game.  And it came down at the end to a final drive, with the ball in Joe Flacco hands.

Flacco, as usual in tight spots, tried to make the most of the situation. But this time he pressed a little too much, didn’t pay quite enough or the right kind of attention to the clock, and threw too loosely for the situation; perhaps just in hope “something,” like a super catch or a huge penalty flag, would happen.  And something most definitely did happen. .

But the situation didn’t call for such a move, and there were enormous clock considerations:

After losing the lead on a Brandon LaFell TD, the Ravens started on their 11 yard line, down 35-31, with just over 5 minutes to go. This was probably not the situation the Patriots had wanted to be in. But it was better than losing, and the Ravens having the ball at the end. (As a side note, LaFell was part of an interesting team purge of the otherwise crescendoing 2013 Carolina Panthers.)

Minutes later, after a Patriots’ offsides, the Ravens found themselves with an opportunistic 1st and 5 at the Patriots 36.  Since a TD would only put them ahead by 3 and allow the Pats a chance to tie the game on a field goal, they needed to be careful with the clock; but since the Patriots only had 1 timeout remaining, a few plays in bounds should crunch off enough clock easily enough when and if they needed to.

But for their part, the Ravens, after a 3rd and 3 incomplete from their own 42 with 2:25 remaining, took their 2nd timeout. This would have been a bad move had they wound up scoring fairly quickly; it stopped the clock above the two minute warning and kept a lot of time left for New England if they did score quickly – which does happen – and took away their clock flexibility for later control.But they probably wanted to think about the play longer, since it was 4th down and the game was on the line. And unless they scored very quickly, it was probably not going to be a problem. (Still, since there is little support for the idea that “thinking” about what play to run even more than the 20-30 seconds an incomplete allows, just because the situation is crucial, necessarily increases a team’s chances, they probably shouldn’t have called it, but it wasn’t at all a horrendous move, like this strategy call in the Packers Seahawks NFC Conference Championship Game was.)

More likely than not the Ravens were not going to score right away from the 36. But the 1st and 5 gave them a few shots at making up significant yardage (which is part of why getting that clock lower for control would have been a good move), and then making sure to pick up the 1st down and keep the chains rolling regardless.

Yet the Ravens did something ill advised. After a short incomplete, they threw deep down the left sidelines. Almost to the end zone.

This was a bad move, for two reasons. It was a low probability play that was also well covered, and had they scored it would have left the Patriots with over a minute and a half and just a 3 point deficit.  (The strong coverage and poor angle for the throw in combination with its low odds are the key reasons it shouldn’t have been attempted; if open, even if it will leave the Patriots some time, take it.)

You don’t want to leave any team with that kind of time. And Tom Brady and the Patriots in particular don’t fail to score very often when there is over a minute to go and they trail by 3 and have the ball – and the score would have stood at 38-35 at that point, not exactly a low scoring game. (One of the few times it did happen was in 2012, after a 46 yard near Hail Mary type of pass put them behind 24-23, but with over a minute left. That game was in Seattle, against the Seahawks, the same team they face on Sunday in the Super Bowl.)

But as Flacco had likely wanted, “something” did happen on the play. A catch into the end zone. Unfortunately it was by Duron Harmon, who happens to play Safety for the Patriots. And that was the ball game, and a slight change in NFL history.

Ironically, there is a good possibility that the Ravens would still be matching up with the Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl had that game gone differently at the end. The Patriots, “deflategate or not,” went on to crush the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship game. The Ravens easily beat the Colts back in the 2012 playoffs – although it was in Baltimore and both teams were a little different, and the Colts easily beat the Ravens in Indianapolis earlier this season, where this game would have been as well.)

The long ball to the end zone into extremely good coverage with far too much time left on the clock for the Patriots to still easily pull out the game, on an otherwise manageable 2nd and 5 in unambiguous four down territory with plenty of time to throw numerous incompletes and still get to the end zone, was a poor decision by the Ravens and Flacco – who is usually both clutch, and makes fairly good decisions for the given situation.

An occasional commentator has questioned some of Flacco’s moves.But they usually have a bigger upside times their chances than downside times those chances relative to the situation – which is the most crucial aspect of good quarterback decision making. Brady, of course, has long been the master at this. (Although Russell Wilson, who Brady faces in this upcoming Super Bowl – and who also possesses a great set of feet to both complicate and expand his decision making process and potential – like Brady early in his career has fast become very good at it as well.)

But regardless of what happens in this year’s Super Bowl coming up on Sunday versus Wilson and those same Seahawks (pick: Patriots win), if Brady returns for another year, – likely – and if the Patriots make the playoffs (based on past history also likely, as they’ve made the playoffs every year but 2 since Brady became the starter in 2001), they probably would rather not have to face the Ravens, one way or another.

Borderline Excuse Making by the New York Jets Head Coach in loss to Chiefs, or Just Griping?

The New York Jets have now lost 8 in a row since starting the season with a win against the still winless Oakland Raiders.  And they lost last Sunday to the Kansas City Chiefs 24-10. Continue reading

Week 9 NFL Picks Against the Spread

My only twitter picks this season, extra t’s and all:

Those three lucky calls don’t redeem last week’s awful 3-5 record ATS: Continue reading