Week 12 Picks Against the Spread – Thanks Giving Day Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bears 

 

Unofficial “fun pick”

Cancelled, game already started

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

Week 8 Picks Against the Spread – Thursday Night Football

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

Recap of miserable week 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Dolphins

2.  Seattle Seahawks (-6) at Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Week 15 NFL Pick Against the Spread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals (+6) at Rams, Thursday Night Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raiders (+10) at Chiefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Raiders

Bengals (-1) at Browns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Bengals – Marvin’s team

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

49ers (+9) at Seahawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: 49ers

Broncos (-5) at Chargers

Yeah, Denver Broncos, Bla bla bla bla…

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

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

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

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

Thus, against the spread, naturally,

Pick: Chargers 

Packers (-5) at Bills 

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

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

Pick: Bills

Dolphins (+7.5) at Patriots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Dolphins

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

This piece originally consisted of only the pick for Thursday Night’s game to start off the week (pick: Cardinals, +6), and has been updated and expanded to include all of the key picks for week 15 and more, and moved here.

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

Update, via Football outsiders, as quoted by ESPN:

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

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

Miami Dolphins Make a Typical, but Truly Awful Strategic Decision in last Minute of the Half Against the Buffalo Bills

This blog is about to share something with you, that, if you happen to come across this post in your online football travels, from a football strategy perspective will absolutely blow you away. Continue reading