Week 10 NFL Picks Against the Spread – Patriots Giants Version

Last week: 2-3
YTD: 24-22

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

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

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

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

Remember though that tell tale sign of Dolphins playing scared of the Patriots, backing up on 3rd down runs, waiting at the first down marker, popping up slowly after blocks or tackle attempts, and responding poorly to the game going south – hopefully these aren’t prescient words for this game, but we’ll see. Reluctantly:

Pick: Dolphins

Also interesting:

Hard to imagine [the Dolphins can actually beat the same Bills who trounced them earlier]. And based on the type of response the Dolphins showed in the Patriots game two Thursday Nights ago (see above), they are not that team.

Here’s a vote that on this I’m wrong (usually though it’s reading the tea leaves of players’ attitude and character on the field that’s most telling, but am deferring to new or interim head coach Dan Campbell until they fall flat again).

Woops. Bad deferment.

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

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

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

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

Picks: 

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

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

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

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

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

2.  New Orleans Saints (pick) at Washington Redskins

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Redskins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Chiefs, possible to likely upset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Giants

5. Cleveland Browns (+6) at Pittsburgh Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

_______

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.

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.)

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