The 2015 NFL Draft and the Blockbuster Trade That Wasn’t

Despite great anticipation, no blockbuster trade ups to grab a top 5 pick in the 2105 NFL draft were ever announced. Continue reading

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Week 12 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Week 11 record ATS, including Thursday Night Football’s Bills Dolphins debacle (this blog picked the Bills):  4-2-1

Most of the recap of week’s 11 picks – with some extra analysis on the Panthers Falcons game, and a brief comparison of the NFC South (where the top two teams are tied for the division lead at 4-6) and the NFC West (where the bottom dweller lags well behind at 4-6) – is now here.

One of the notes worth re-mentioning from last’s week’s picks:

If there’s going to be an upset pick, this is it. And the Saints, so dominant at home, lose their 2nd straight here.”

Despite ultimately being a favorite in the game by 8 points over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints lost 27-10 for their second straight home loss.

One of the bloke’s I deeply admire – I just can’t remember who, so it would be foul to throw out a name (I WILL find it an update) on “Around The NFL” this week proclaimed the Saints will not lose 3 in a row at home, because “they never have under Sean Payton.” (It might have been Jamie Dukes, now that I think about it, and he’s pretty good with his overall football analyses I think.)

But the fact they never have lost three in a row doesn’t mean they won’t now. Also since they haven’t lost twice in a row that often under head coach Sean Payton (they’ve been a very good team under him and quarterback Drew Brees, AND have won a lot more at home than on the road on top of that) they haven’t been in a situation where they even could lose 3 in a row that much to begin with.  Even less, when considering that the team they face for their possible and unprecedented 3rd straight home loss, is pretty good.

See picks below. Hopefully by the time you (and I) arrive there, I will have a clue to this one of many wild and fantastic NFL match-ups this week – the Baltimore Ravens at the New Orleans Saints. But the game does present at least a reasonable chance of the Saints hitting that home trifecta.

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As always, the following picks are either for the purposes of earning enough funds through legitimate wagering in Vegas to start a large non profit organization to find a cure for cancer, or post-facto bragging rights.

But don’t count on this week’s picks too heavily. Several of last week’s picks – most notably the Bengals, who had a very good chance to win that game outright and were getting a touchdown plus – were somewhat easy calls. And even the week before – where this blog had a few huge calls (winning by a lot, and twice calling the Jets upset of the Steelers outright), and a few closes losses for a miserable 3 – 3 – was somewhat easier.

This week, is not.

Chiefs (-7.5) at Raiders

This is a long standing rivalry. The Chiefs know how to win. And after seeing Oakland battle Denver super tough for nearly a full half two weeks ago (batting down a remarkable 5 Peyton Manning passes at the line in the short time span) before, well, completely falling apart, and then putting up a decent game last week against a Chargers team that saw the return to their lineup of Ryan Matthews, Manti Te’0, and Melvin Ingram, they know Oakland can in theory battle with them a little bit.

But at 0-10, and playing Denver tough for a half, and ultimately making it a somewhat close game with San Diego, is not enough. They are likely to give their best effort again.  And this game almost smells of upset. But one would think the Chiefs can sniff that same scent, and do not want to lose a division game.

Close call, but:

Pick: Raiders 

Also (nearly) always, the rest of this football weekend’s picks will be updated later in the week, or weekend prior to Sunday’s games.

(11-23-14) Updated – Voila:

At 1-0 on the week so far, following last week’s 4-2-1, we could just call it a wrap and finish up a a second straight above .500 week ATS. But let’s tangle with a few of these, including the toughest game of all: The aforementioned Saints, taking on that iconic black bird that is evermore.

Ravens (+3.4) at Saints (Monday Night Football)

Two teams who have been very successful under the current respective head coaches and quarterbacks, and both of whom tend to be significantly better home teams than road teams.

The Saints are in a weaker division, and are 4-6, but don’t be fooled by their record. They lost a close game (by a point) against Detroit in week 7, where they actually outplayed Detroit, who needed a break or two at the end to pull out the win.  They lost two games in overtime (against Atlanta in week 1, 37-34, and 27-24 in week 10 against a desperate, if still Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis less San Francisco 49ers).  And possibly lagging a little bit on the fact that Browns are competitive this year, they lost 26-24 to a Browns comeback at the end of the game in Cleveland in week 2.)

And it’s possible the Ozzie Newsome magic has worn off a little bit, and the Ravens really aren’t that good after their long stretch of competitive – and post season competitive -seasons.

And of course the wild card in this game is that the Saints are playing at home.

This will come as sacrilege, as I’m personally a huge Drew Brees fan. I don’t know him, and the rush to presume things about people good and bad is rampant in human nature, but Brees appears to be a truly remarkable guy. And he’s an phenomenal quarterback:

But he’s not always quite as clutch in tough games as some of the other greats, and if some pressure can be gotten to him, he doesn’t always tend to respond as well as a few other quarterbacks. And while the Saints win their share of close games, on average I would take Flacco (who truly has been “Joe Cool” more often than not) – not that he’s at Brees’ level – in a close game at the end.

So getting 3.5 points, particularly in an NFL where – due to a flurry of reasons, but most notably the continual tweaking of the rules under commissioner Roger Goodell to favor offenses, and most notably passing, over defenses – where very high scoring games are occurring with more frequency – is not really a big deal in this game. Still, just to follow up on the Saints last week, and given that this is a heavyweight bout between two seasoned teams looking at a tough road ahead, take them, as, though the odds may be slightly against, the Saints could hit that third straight loss.  We’ll know late Sunday Afternoon.  This is truly one of several fantastic match-ups on the weekend:

Pick: Ravens
Titans (+11) at Eagles

Tennessee played tough against Pittsburgh last week, on Monday Night Football where Pittsburgh, under Ben Rothlisberger, has been dominant for years.  The Steelers were missing a few key players – including Safety Troy Polamalu –  but it was still a better effort by the Titans, who may finally be creeping towards decency.

If they are, and even though we should expect a  strong bounce back after last week’s embarrassment in Green Bay from the seemingly very well coached Philadelphia Eagles, the Titans stand a strong chance of putting up a game here.

Despite my call that the Titans offseason coaching switch (even if they provided their prior head coach, Mike Munchak, a theoretical “out” towards remaining if he fired most of his coaching staff)  was an ill thought out move, it wasn’t clear new head coach Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t at least alsodecent coach. But if by this point the Titans can’t battle in this game, that would, on top of a dismal downturn season – represent more solid evidence in that direction.

Here’s rooting for Whisenhunt, another good football game, and perhaps a sneak surprise that the team from Tennessee has finally clawed its way out of that bottom rung of bad teams. (Though I  hate to pick against Sanchez, who I’ve always thought was a bit underrated; but Philly can still win by 10.)

Pick: Titans

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

Last season, in a remarkable final stretch to close out the season for the powerhouse NFC West, a desperate Arizona Cardinals team somehow managed to go into Seattle in week 16 and hand the Seahawks their first home loss ever under then second year quarterback Russell Wilson.

But this year, the defending Super Bowl champs are 3 games behind the Cardinals, have their backs against the wall, and are locked in a tough second place battle with San Francisco – who just got back defensive lineman extraordinaire Aldon Smith, who may still get back linebacker Navorro Bowman before the season ends, and who will probably see Defensive Tackle Glenn Dorsey return to action next week.

And Seattle has still very rarely lost under Wilson at home.  Motivation, especially for good teams with character – and the Seahawks have exhibited this – matters.

In short, this is near or just about a playoff  game for the Seahawks, who simply can’t afford to lose a division match-up, let alone against the front-runner. They also have a lot of pride riding on the line; and by knocking off the division leading champs – Carson Palmer or no Carson Palme – and jumping back into the race, they can show they still legitimately belong.

Still, Arizona is a football team.  They’re a unit. And while they could easily lose by 10 or 14 here, and are at a disadvantage with Palmer sidelined for the duration of the season, they don’t seem like the type of team, under second year head coach Bruce Arians, to just cruise on the fact that they can “afford” this loss.

An, though the edge clearly goes to Seattle in this must win game for them – at home where they do rarely lose – a full touchdown is simply too much against a scrappy division foe playing as a cohesive unit.

Pick: Cardinals

Rams (+5) at Chargers

This game is one of the best games of the season. Sure it doesn’t feature two powerhouses, but for pure football intrigue this is it.

The 4-6 Rams have played well against powerhouse division foes the last few years, but not so much outside of the division. But after going into Arizona and holding the lead until nearly halfway through the 4th quarter (this blog picked them getting 7 at Arizona, but they then turned the ball over, and then gave up two touchdowns to the defense, on 3 successive drives to end the game), the Rams came home and beat the mighty Denver Broncos last week. Solidly.

San Diego meanwhile, which along with New England has been just about the hottest team late November and December in the NFL the last few seasons, this year started strong; and then, suffering a few injuries, has floundered a bit.

The Chargers got three relevant players back last week, a 13-6 victory of the Oakland Raiders (who went on, see pick above, to upset the Chiefs this past Thursday Night for their first win of the season): outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, inside linebacker Manti Te’o, and running back Ryan Matthews.  And if they are the team they looked to be early in the season this is the type of game, at home, where they are going to crush any but a very good football team.

So that’s the question, and the answer is unknown. One win against Denver for a team that has been moderately mediocre with sporadic periods of strong play against division foes here and there does not make the Rams a strong team.

But the book is still out on the Chargers, also.  This is more of a pick made simply because it is just a fascinating football game. And in such a game, a little more than 2/3 of of a touchdown seems like slightly better odds.

But it’s not quite like the Seattle game, where you have to figure Arizona has at least the same, if not a greater, chance of upsetting Seattle than the Rams do here, and a bigger chance – given the way they play and their consistency – of keeping it close. (Maybe.)

But ultimately this is a pick that respects the Ram’s potential, and treats the Chargers like a solid, strong but still quasi middle of the pack team until they show they are back.  It’s an iffy pick, but probably not a horrible one, in a tough game:

Pick: Rams 

Dolphins (+6) at Broncos

Beware 6 point games: Games in the NFL are either close, or they’re not. When they are close, it means that the gap is usually between 3 and 6 points, by the nature of the math of the game.  . Occasionally 7.

Getting 6 versus 3 points in such a game is a tremendous difference. And usually a team favored by less than 7 is a reflection of the fact, or perception, that the better team is not that dominant that a lopsided game is as likely as some others, making the relevance of that 6 points notable.

Denver was dominant last year, until the Super Bowl. (Where, against a good defense – and here they face a good defense in the Dolphins – they got crushed).

They improved this offseason on paper. But they may not have improved in reality.  Something might not be clicking. And the Dolphins have been flying a little bit under the radar.

So if Denver doesn’t get it clicking, not only will this be a tight game, but in a near must win for Miami (while a Denver loss keeps them tied for first atop the AFC West with Kansas City) the Dolphins might pull off the win, suggesting they’ve  “arrived.”

Or they might not have really arrived yet and Denver, after a disastrous loss at St. Louis, might get it together and beat them solidly.  Who knows.  The Oakland Pick and several from last week were, again, easier than this one.  But it’s another truly great football match-up this NFL football Sunday

Pick: Broncos

Cleveland (+3) at Atlanta

Another tough game, and while maybe not as great as some of the others, another good one.

Cleveland is one of four teams in the AFC North to be over.500. While the Falcons, at 4-6, are in a tie with the Saints for 1st place in the NFC South. (Technically, they’re in first place right now, since they beat the Saints heads up; but they still have to play them again.)

The Browns have been without their key tight end Jordan Cameron for three games now, and it looks like it’s going to be a 4th.  They do finally get a guy back who may have been the best receiver in the NFL last season – Josh Gordon. But what kind of football shape is he in? And atop a few other injuries they’ve now lost former 1st round pick defensive tackle Phil Taylor for the season.

Taylor had missed a month before returning last week. But his absence is still a key loss. And the Falcons, until last year perennially very strong under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, have been playing strong of late. And would have even crept up to 5-5 if they Lions hadn’t pulled off a 20 point come from behind over where the natives speak with an English accent, en route to a last moment 21-20 win several weeks ago.  They might well be a better team than the Browns at this point. And they tend to be a very good home team.

And, the fact they are coming off a key, close win against their rivals the Panthers (who usually play them tough) last week probably doesn’t mean too much for this team, – which has repeatedly exhibited it knows how to focus during the season. But the Browns, coming off a solid loss at home to the Houston Texans last week, might be riled.

Still, the 3 points is likely not of much worth here. And a pick for the Browns is close to saying they are going to, or are 50 – 50 or near it, to pull off the upset. This might a “root for the long time underdog” kind of pick. But coming out of a touch division, between two teams that probably have heart, we’re going here with the true underdog in this game, who will need to play with even more heart to pull off that upset.

This might be the worst pick of the week, but,

Pick: Browns

A Quick look at the Percy Harvin Trade, a Few Coaching hire Decisions, and Some Analysis on the New York Jets Excess Salary Cap Space and Rollover

Several days ago, this blog published a piece entitled “Why the Percy Harvin Trade May have been Good for the Jets and Seahawks,” that also contended that the trade may have been extremely good for the Jets. Continue reading

The Tennessee Titans, Currently Languishing, did not Think Through Their Offseason Head Coaching Change

The Tennessee Titans rallied to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 16-14 last week, in a game that head coach Ken Whisenhunt thought they were going to lose. Prior to that, they won handily, then lost by 16, 26, and 24 points, then 1, while giving up the largest road comeback in NFL history. Continue reading

Titans Coach Ken Whisenhunt Makes the Correct Strategy Call on a key Late Game 4th Down, Titans Still Lose and Give up the Largest Road Comeback Win in NFL History

In a wild football game in week 5 between the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans, the Browns came back from what had at one point been a 25 point deficit.

With 3:09 remaining in the contest, and one Cleveland timeout, the Titans clung to a 6 point lead (28-22) and faced a 4th down and about a foot and a half at their own 42 yard line.

Prior performance is no indication of future result – particularly at the very ends of games, where both teams are often desperate, and one or the other (sometimes both) have little to nothing to lose. But in the second half of this game, the Browns had moved the ball consistently on the Titans, while the Titans had barely moved the ball at all, let alone scored.

Yet there is a correct and incorrect strategic call in this situation, and it wouldn’t matter who was playing who, or how the game had gone, since the call is lopsided, and in this situation, generic.

If the Titans get the 1st down on a 4th down attempt, the Browns will use their last timeout. (Or wait to use it, which will have no affect on the ultimate time they have left, unless they wait until after the two minute warning, in which case they will lose 5 or 6 seconds as a result.)

The Titans can then run two plays before the two minute warning causes an unavoidable clock stoppage; run 3rd down at the two minute warning; and barring an unexpected 1st down in the process, punt the ball to the Browns from out past their own 40 yard line, arching the kick high and giving their coverage unit plenty of time, knocking at least another 5 or 6 seconds off of the clock (or more if the kick rolls) and making the kick nearly impossible to return. Barring a major miscue, this would give the Browns the ball at their own 20 yard line or worse, with about 1:10 remaining, 80 or more yards to travel, and no timeouts.

Occasionally a fluke will occur here, but it’s extremely rare for the trailing team to make up a touchdown deficit in such circumstances. (There are basic structure reasons for this, which we’ll go over in another post shortly and link back to as soon as it’s completed.)

If the Titans punt with 3:09 left instead, time will not be a factor for the Browns. With desperation, and four plays per each set of downs (since they will have nothing to lose by going for it regardless of the situation) on their side, their chances of winning the game will be their chances of driving for the TD,  multiplied (that is to say, reduced), by their chances of then stopping the Titans from making a field goal at the end.  (Between the chance of them leaving Tennessee some time, which in this situation is fairly to very low, and then then giving up the field goal drive, this serves as a very low reduction to their overall winning chances from simply driving and scoring a TD alone, but it is very mildly relevant.)

If the Titans go for it, the dynamics change considerably, and the situation is very deceiving. Here, intuition, which often causes us to incorrectly over focus on one or two factors rather than the entire strategic picture, usually leads to the wrong call  in the NFL in this and similar situations.

In this situation however Titan head coach Ken Whisenhunt made the correct call. It was made difficult by how dominant the Browns were in the second half of the game; but that dominance was not going to be irrelevant for the Browns last drive with plenty of time left for the win, if the Titans voluntarily gave up possession of the ball without a fight.

Whisenhunt correctly decided to go for it.

Now for the Browns to win, they had to a) stop the Titans on 4th down (if they failed, the game – but for a near fluke – would effectively be over), and they had to then still score a TD. And if they do manage to both stop the Titans on 4th down and then put put together a 43 yard TD drive, they would have to also stop the Titans unless the Browns scored and managed to burn most of the remaining 3 minutes of the game:

Field goal drives are very different than TD drives, as teams usually only need to get to the 30 yard line, or sometimes even only the 35, depending on their kicker, for a solid to strong shot at winning the game. And this last consideration would be far more relevant now with a a little over 3 minutes to go and a much shorter field, than it would be if the Browns had to drive 80 plus yards (where as a practical matter if would only rarely come into play,as the Browns, if by some fluke they advanced quickly, could easily start to slow it down in terms of speed in between plays, as they approached the end zone.)

Here is the key part that is almost always invariably over looked: To win when the leading team with the ball elects to try and keep the ball, the trailing team’s chances of winning are their chances of accomplishing each task, multiplied together. Since each task is a probability (or fraction) and fractions multiplied together produce far lower fractions, without actually doing the math, or having an extremely good feel for it, the odds are almost invariably overestimated for the trailing team – as teams, for a multitude of reasons, often elect to “give them a longer field,” rather than instead fighting to not even give them the ball in the first place.

Without getting too deeply into the math here, teams are near 80% on short 4th downs. Even if we knock this down to about 2/3 given the Titans’ ineffectiveness, and subsequently give the Browns a likely inflated 60% chance of scoring the TD if they do get the ball, the Browns chances of winning are still only about 18%, or a little less than one in five (and in reality less still, as with such a short drive and less opportunity to control the clock and make sure the Titans don’t have any time eft, Tennessee, particularly with two timeouts remaining, will sometimes come back and win with a long field goal at the end. And this is in fact exactly what happened, except Tennessee got stopped around midfield as time expired.)  There is no way, trailing by less than a touchdown, that the Browns chances of winning this game if the Titans voluntarily give them the ball with 3 minutes left, are anywhere even near as low as 18 or 20%. and it’s nowhere close.

And if the Titans offense hadn’t been playing so miserably, thus perhaps justifying a careful reduction downward in the normally lofty expectations of making a measly fourth and half of a yard, the situation would be almost mind bogglingly lopsided. (If a team is 80% to make the first down for instance, and their opponent 60% to score if they and win and hold onto the win if they here if they do get stopped – a fairly high estimate given that the team must score on a reduced field drive and not leave much time on the clock or if they do still stop their opponent in a desperation nothing to lose only needing a field goal to win situation – then going for the 1st down gives the opponent about a 12% chance of actually winning the game, or perhaps a microscopic amount higher for those extremely rare fluky times when they get stopped on the ensuing three and out and their opponent somehow marches the field all the way to the end zone – not all the way to field goal range – in just over a minute. In contrast, simply giving up the ball and punting instead is likely to yield a 36% or even greater chance, giving the opponent not just a “better” chance in the game, but a three times (or 200%) greater chance by merely voluntarily giving up the ball.

As it turned out, the Titans lost anyway.  They were stopped on a quarterback sneak attempt (a specific play call Whisenhunt later reasonably defended), as the offensive line got little push, and backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst didn’t appear to lower sufficiently and drive forward quickly enough – it’s speculation but even with the poor line jump off of the snap, and push (and the solid play by the Cleveland defense), Locker may  have made the first down. And as Whisenhunt correctly points out, most of the time quarterback sneaks work in such situations when only a foot or a foot and a half is needed.

Cleveland did then go on to score the TD, and even managed the clock reasonably well, starting to slow it down in between plays as they got close fairly quickly. But not enough, as on a 2nd and 4 from the 6 yard line, they scored, with a whopping 1:09 remaining. Unfortunately the Titans were down to one timeout, as they somewhat questionably challenged the spot on their 4th down conversion try and lost half of their two remaining timeouts in the process. Tennessee did wind up advancing to the Browns 47 yard line as time expired; one of their best drives, and possibly their best drive, of the entire second half – but not enough, to pull out the game.

This was a good decision by the Titans in a key strategic situation. As with most of the rest of the second half – it was just poor execution.

Strategy is key in football. But execution trumps strategy every time. This is why NFL head coaches can be head coaches – even great head coaches –  and still be miserable at basic underlying game management strategy. If they can teach, manage, lead, inspire and coach a team toward maximum passion, energy, and execution – and this is hard to do given the vast array of challenging and time consuming duties responsibilities a head coach already faces – they will win.

Since teams are often evenly or somewhat matched – or, as in this case, the game is otherwise close – strategy, however, matters. In the second half of this game, with some bad luck also falling their way (two Browns turnovers that would have greatly altered the game, for example, were nullified by Titan penalties) and missing their starting QB Jake Locker,  and in particular his excellent mobility and running ability, the teams were not evenly matched.  And the Titans, after a half of total failure, still didn’t execute when they needed a mere half a yard; and Whisenhunt’s good call went for naught.

But a good objective strategic decision in football – as opposed to a specific play call – is not measured by the outcome of the game, or even of the ensuing play, but by the conditions as they existed at the time the call was made. Likewise, the right strategic situation call does not change in hindsight based upon “how it wound up” working out that particular time, since it is based upon what objectively gave the team making the call the best chance to win. (Not what ultimately winds up happening, which is going to vary, but often gets commingled with needless second guessing of otherwise good strategic decisions, and incorrect validation of poor ones.)

By trying to keep the ball in a ridiculously short 4th and short, with a high probability of doing so and all but winning the game outright, and a backup plan of still stopping the Browns if the Titans failed (and even then a secondary, if longer shot backup, of adding a field goal at the very end if the Brown scored somewhat quickly) the Titans gave themselves a much better shot at winning the game than had they just voluntarily handed the ball over to their opponent, with more than enough time for their opponent to beat them.

But they still gotta block.