Saturday, October 15, 2011

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Carolina Panthers vs Atlanta Falcons: CAR +5.5 
If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that I'd be taking CAR +5.5 at ATL I would've assumed that Matt Ryan, Roddy White, and Julio Jones were all injured.  Such is life in the fast-changing NFL.  At the time of this write-up the line has already moved to +4, but I don't need to remind you about jumping on the opening lines.  I would likely still play this game at the current line because my system has ATL favored by less than a field goal!

The "Cardiac Cats" are on the road this week and have quickly become the "backdoor cover" darlings around Las Vegas.  Some people are chalking it up to luck and soft prevent defenses late in the game, but CAR fit the description for classic backdoor cover teams.  They are young, can move the ball, and want to improve.  They've never given up on a game no matter who the opponent has been and there is a strong feeling in that locker room that they deserve a better fate than their 1-4 record indicates.  They'll have a chance this weekend because the primary advantage ATL have is home field.

Despite having pro-bowl caliber cornerbacks, ATL have been brutal against the pass this season.  Some of that is due to the fact that they've played teams like PHI and GB, but there's no denying that the lack of pass rush up front is a contributing factor.  I never feel great about backing a rookie quarterback, but Cam Newton is putting up monster numbers and should be able to move the ball on Sunday.  They are averaging a whopping 25.5 points per game from long drives!  They would have even more points if it wasn't for some rookie mistakes and self-defeating penalties.  Even more astonishing is that they are average on third down, red zone efficiency, and special teams.  Normally these kind of red flags would hold me back, but ATL don't have any particular edge in any of those categories.

On the other side we have an injured Julio Jones and his status remains uncertain for Sunday.  If he can't go then suddenly the ATL offense becomes much more predictable.  I won't go as far to say they will be bad, but they'll need to revert back to what made them successful last season--play mistake-free ball, sustain clock-controlling drives, and stay efficient.  The only problem is ATL's O-line isn't playing as well and it's looking like they miss Harvey Dahl more than we thought.  As a result they rank near the bottom of the league in points from long drives and are only average in ball control.

The only word that comes to mind when you review ATL's offense is--average.  Last week Matt Ryan couldn't elevate his game in prime-time against the nemesis GB Packers and the entire organization had a "back to the drawing board" mentality on Monday morning.  The only saving grace that ATL have is that CAR's linebackers are decimated as they lost another starter this past week.  At the same time ATL are dealing with their own set of key injuries on both sides of the ball.

I think CAR have a decent chance to win this game straight up, but at the very least I think they continue their early season tradition of covering the number.  Prediction: Bank CAR +5.5.

San Francisco 49ers vs Detroit Lions: DET -4
We have a clash of monster spread killers in this game.  Both teams are 4-0-1 ATS!  SF has been undervalued all year long and I paid the price for it a couple times already.  Once when I teased PHI and again last week when they dismantled TB.  On the flip side, I've taken DET ATS almost every week this year.  It's crazy to think that DET has got the cover despite all the hype from the fans/media!

In this matchup DET opened at -6 and the early action quickly brought it down to -4.  This is the spot where I see value.  In fact I'm not quite sure I understand the 2 point move.  Maybe half a point or a full point, but 2??  It just doesn't make any sense when you break things down.

The biggest mismatch that leaps off the page is the advantage DET have in the air.  SF is great against the run, but that isn't DET's strength.  Best can break a long one at anytime (like we saw vs CHI), but his main mode of attack is catching passes out of the flat.  Instead, I expect more of the same from a hot DET team as they work the outside routes with Johnson and Burleson and over the middle with Pettigrew and Young. SF ranks near the top in red zone defense, but it's not a big advantage as DET are above average in red zone offense.  Stafford's line has held up pretty good this year and SF's D-line ranks near the middle of the pack.  So if you don't win on the line of scrimmage and give up a ton of yards in the air, I don't see how DET is going to get shut down here.

Much of the same story exists on the other side of the ball. DET have a big advantage defending the pass.  Harbaugh is playing very conservative with Alex Smith and focusing more on efficiency and ball protection.  Thus far it's paid off.  However, when you play on the road against a high-flying team like DET you're going to need to up your game in the passing department.  This is very bad news if you're a fan of SF.  Through 5 games their O-line ranks near the bottom in pass protection while DET's D-line ranks near the top.  They can take some of the pressure off by pounding the rock with Gore, but DET isn't weak in that category either.  DET have the edge in red zone/3rd down efficiency and points prevented from long drives. 

Some are expecting a big letdown after DET was sky high for Monday Night Football and there's no denying how amped up they were to be in prime time, but I look at it in a different way.  I think that DET was too high for the CHI game and it hurt them all over the field.  Players were taking stupid penalties and Stafford was overthrowing his receivers.  I expect them to be much more grounded for SF and a lot of the self-defeating plays will get eliminated.  As a result I'm riding DET for at least one more week.  Prediction: Bank DET -4.

Indianapolis Colts vs Cincinnati Bengals: CIN -7
Last week CIN jumped off the board at me, but I was hesitant to take them at anything less than a field goal on the road.  They might be laying a huge TD as the favorite this week, but I'm not passing up what I think is value for a 2nd straight week.  In fact, I had so much faith in this CIN defense that I used them in my fantasy league last week and it paid off in spades.  This is where the big mismatch will take place on Sunday.

To begin with, I have no illusions about what the numbers mean.  CIN haven't played a top team yet and IND played a few stinkers with Kerry Collins.  Nevertheless, Curtis Painter and the rest of his cast of characters aren't going to give CIN's defense the kind of the test I'm worried about.  Last week Painter improved as he threw for 277 yards, 2 TDs, no picks, and no sacks, but most of this came in the 1st half.  In the 2nd half they had three 1st downs and 64 yards.  We've likely already seen the best that IND have to offer in their two prime-time games and now it's just a matter of getting through the season.  They've lost 3 heart-breakers in a row and it can't be that motivating to get up for a Bengals team on the road.

They only average 10 points per game from long drives, can't control the clock whatsoever, and rank near the bottom of every other meaningful offensive category.  A lot of so-called experts refer to CIN's top ranked defense in yards allowed, but their stellar play goes well beyond this.  They've improved a lot with their pass rush, are near the top in red zone stops/third down efficiency, and don't commit the same kind of self-defeating penalties like they used to.  Last week JAX had 1st and goal at the 5 twice and couldn't get in the end zone.

CIN's success doesn't stop at their defense.  For the first time in a long time this team didn't panic on the road when they faced some adversity.  They stayed poised and finished the game strong.  AJ Green is showing why he was one of the top talents to come out of the draft, Gresham is a weapon in the middle, and Benson/Scott provide enough change of pace in the back field to provide some balance.  At the center of it all is Andy Dalton.  He's far from being a polished QB, but this kid is much better than he looked in the preseason.  He's laying it on the line for his team in the big moments and his teammates are taking notice. They don't have any significant advantages going up against IND's defense (although IND did lose CB Powers to injury), but they aren't outmatched in any particular area either. I believe they can put enough drives together to get some points and let their defense do the rest.  

It may seem a bit scary to hear, but lay 7 points and ride the upstart Bengals in week 6.  Prediction: Bank CIN -7.

Dallas Cowboys vs New England Patriots: DAL +7.5
In what seems like another surprising pick I am actually recommending grabbing the points and going with Tony Romo on the road against the "mighty" Patriots.  It might be true that Las Vegas continue to put up inflated lines for NE and they continue to cover.  It's also true that no bet on Romo is ever safe no matter how good the matchup is.  Yet, this time the stars have aligned for a good opportunity here.  I have NE favored by 3.5 points so a touchdown and the hook is too much to pass up.  This is not the Patriots of old.  There are significant weaknesses on their defense and a healthy DAL offense will be able to take advantage of them.

Miles Austin is set to return this week and Bryant is back at practice after nursing a sore quad for the last few weeks.  Together with Witten and a healthy Jones, this offense has all their big guns back.  The best part about this DAL offense is the play of their revamped offensive line.  Despite all the challenges they've had, they are protecting Romo quite well for the most part.  Bad snaps aside, this group shouldn't have too much trouble handling an inept NE pass rush.   The only wild card here is Romo.  He's gone from goat to hero and back to goat this season.  Which one will we get?  I'm not that good, but I will say that I think DAL can hang with NE even if he does have a setback or two.

The big challenges comes with slowing down NE's league-leading offense.  I'm not going to sit here and twist the numbers to make it seem like it's possible, but there are a couple areas that inspire some hope.  DAL has done a great job getting to the QB and this is a critical factor if any team has a chance to stop Brady.  DAL have also been very good preventing points from long drives.  All this could become entirely irrelevant because Brady will figure you out eventually, but we aren't asking DAL to win this game--just to stay within 7 points.  DAL have had an extra week to prepare for this one so that can only help the cause.  Even if NE have this game in the bag in the 4th quarter, DAL have an offense that can easily move the ball down the field for a backdoor cover against a very suspect defense.  Having that extra half point could come in handy.  Prediction: Bank DAL +7.5.

New Orleans Saints vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers: NO -4
I know it might seem like this is a personal revenge game against TB after they blew 2 teasers for me in week 5, but believe me when I say I was underrating SF more than overrating TB.  I bet the 'under' for TB in the season win totals because this team is far too young and inconsistent to realistically challenge for the division this season.

To begin with let me state that I'm not a big trends guy.  They matter in the preseason, but they are a lot less reliable in the regular season.  Yet, I cannot ignore that TB is 5-17 ATS in their last 22 home games.  Not every home team should be granted the automatic 3 points in the spread just for playing at home and TB is one of those teams.  So when you breakdown this game a lot more weight should be given to the NO advantages.

The biggest mismatch on paper is Drew Brees and his high-flying passing attack against an underperforming TB secondary.  This shouldn't be the case when you have a guy like Talib, but the numbers don't lie.  In fact someone like Talib isn't as big a weapon in this game because NO love to spread the ball around.  This year Brees favorite target has been the rookie TE Jimmy Graham.  Not far behind him is Sproles.  So I beg the question--how do you slow down this offense?  Sean Payton and Brees know how to break down the cover two and pick apart the zones.  TB's defense relies heavily on the front four getting to the QB, but that will become even more problematic with Gerald McCoy out this week.  Morris is playing coy with the media about his true status, but all indications are that he will be out.  This is a big blow for the defensive front.  Across the board TB don't have any real edge in any category to slow down the Saints.

And if they can't slow down Brees how are they going to keep up with him?  If you've watched Josh Freeman over the past couple of years you'll know that he's one of the most inconsistent QB's in the NFL.  Making matters worse is the injury status of LeGarrette Blount.  If he can't go this will be all on Freeman.  TB don't have any quality RB depth to speak of.  Gregg Williams is going to send the house at Freeman and force him to make plays from the pocket.  Yes he's been one of the best 4th quarter comeback QB's in the NFL, but can they keep it close enough to give him that opportunity?

I doubt it. TB average a measily 11 points per game from long drives (NO is averaging 22!) and without a running game this number could get worse.  Mike Williams, Earnest Graham, and Kellen Winslow aren't the names that will strike any fear into a NO defense that has a healthy Vilma back in the lineup. Freeman also has just as many interceptions this year as he did all of last season.  This is a simple case of 'regression to the mean'.  Fade the Bucs at home until further notice.  Prediction: Bank NO -4.

Minnesota Vikings vs Chicago Bears: MIN +3
When I took MIN against KC it was under the assumption that they were nowhere near as bad as their record indicated.  It seems I jumped on their bandwagon one week too soon as they made ARI look like a college football team. 

Yet for whatever reason sportsbooks aren't rewarding them this week against CHI.  Maybe public perception still ranks CHI much higher than MIN, but based on what I see there aren't a lot of differences between the two and according to my analysis the wrong team is favored.

It's no secret that MIN's offense is only going to go as far as Peterson takes them.  Mcnabb is a decent QB who can manage a game, but his offensive line stinks and his passing options are average.  Thankfully for MIN none of that might matter because this is not the same CHI defense of old.  They are getting shredded on the ground this year and now face one of the best backs in the game.  Maybe if CHI had a potent defensive front I'd think twice about it, but CHI isn't doing much of anything good on defense in 2011.  Even if they decide to stack the box and immobilize Peterson (which they will), Mcnabb isn't as bad as Tavaris Jackson.  He can make enough plays to keep some drives alive.

Taking a look at CHI's offense against MIN's defense is almost a mirror image.  CHI rely heavily on Forte and hope to do enough in the passing game to squeeze out some points.  The problem is MIN is pretty good against the run so far this year which means Cutler is going to have to do more than the pieces around him are capable of.  This isn't an offense that gets many points from long sustained drives so the wild card will be Hester--once again.  Longwell isn't known for his touchbacks so Hester will get his opportunities, but this is no way to win a football game in my opinion.  I don't think any other team in the NFL relies so heavily on special teams to win games than CHI.  They will need every ounce of fortune they can get because CHI's offensive line is horrendously bad.  Making it worse, MIN's D-line has been a bright spot all year.

With MIN owning the significant advantages on both sides of the ball I'll gladly take the points and roll the dice on the road.  The way I have this game MIN should be favored by at least a point--even after accounting for home field advantage.  Prediction: Bank MIN +3.