Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Denver Broncos vs New England Patriots: DEN +7 (Bodog)

Markets

There is a pretty solid consensus regarding this line going all the way back to the offseason.  It started off at -7, inched up to -7.5 in the look-ahead line, and re-opened -7 earlier this week.  Some money has come in on the Broncos moving it down to -6.5 at some shops, but if you have the ability to shop around, +7s are still out there.  I still think -6.5 is too high for this game, but I wouldn't feel nearly as comfortable without the full touchdown.

Manning vs Brady: Rematch

The battle of future Hall of Famers is getting most of the national headlines this week, but this matchup is much more about the rest of the rosters this time around. 

Yet, it's unavoidable to look at the comparisons between these two.  Both are on the wrong side of Father Time, but both can still run an offense at an elite level.

Even if Peyton doesn't have the downfield arm strength he once had (yet), the thing that makes him brilliant is his ability to read schemes, adjust, and execute. 

Brady himself is also very human.  Like any QB, if he doesn't get adequate protection he can look fairly ordinary.  Thankfully for him, his O-line has held up much better than expected coming into the season. 

Grading the two, I still give Brady the upper hand, but the gap might not be as great as people think.  Peyton is only going to improve as the year unfolds as he builds more chemistry and timing with his receivers.

The Mirage of Power Rankings

Before the week is done, I expect to have my own power rankings updated.  There's a million of them out there, but I'd put mine up against any on the market.  Preseason projections are one thing, but advanced statistical metrics don't lie and it's the primary reason I can separate the men from the boys after September.

Yet, power ratings are not the be-all-end-all of handicapping.  For example, I saw that Dave Tuley aggregates three handicapper power polls and uses it as a guide for handicapping weekly lines on ESPN Insider.

The problem with this approach (and something they always ignore), is this is an inherently flawed method for analyzing games.  The simple explanation is that two teams could have a similar power rating, but when matched up against each other one team's strength could completely exploit the other team's weakness.

Of course, I'm not saying handicappers only use power ratings, but it's very misleading to suggest they do anyone any favors when looking at specific matchups.

I do have the Patriots ranked higher than the Broncos on my list and when you add home field advantage, they should be rightly favored this week.  However, Denver have enough of their own mismatches to make this a competitive game.

X's and O's

We all know the Patriots can score points.  Even without Hernandez, the Patriots can go back to a more traditional scheme and exploit defenses with Welker.  Throw in a highly efficient running game and this offense becomes downright scary.

In this game, the Broncos defensive identity is going to be put to the test.  They've been solid against the run this season and kept McFadden in check last week.  They've also been pretty solid against the pass (for the most part).  The big problem has been due to mental mistakes and blown assignments.

The questionable part is when they get in key situations.  On third down and in the red zone, the Broncos D have been below average.  You can look at this as a sign of things to come, or a result of early schematic problems and a tough opening schedule.  I cautiously lean to the latter.

If Dumervil, Wolfe, and Miller can cause enough problems for Brady on third down, Denver could win this game straight up.  At the very least they'll need to be adequate in the make-or-break situations, or too much pressure will fall on Peyton.

The encouraging part for Patriots fans is the play of their run defense.  If they couldn't improve in this area the defense as a whole was going to have a hard time getting off the field this year.  Peyton will put them to the test this week with his ability to call the right play at the right time, but it's also possible they confuse Manning and throw his timing off.

The worrisome aspect for New England is their inability to pressure the QB.  This has left the secondary exposed at times.  If this continues, Peyton will have his choice over the middle and on the outside.  I like Denver's chances to move the ball, even though it might require a patient and efficient approach.

The final thing to keep an eye on is the Patriots kicking game. Belichick has given his support for Gostkowski publicly, but you have to think that this is a tough spot for a kicker.  This is a high profile game and it's at home. His ability to make or miss field goals might be the difference when all is said and done.  No pressure!

Bottom Line

Both teams have mismatches in their favor. The concerns I have are two-fold.  First, it's always tricky to handicap the Patriots. They have the kind of flexibility to switch up the entire game plan from one week to another. Second, the Patriots are not a team you can get a firm handle on by looking at stats alone.

This is why they are often "spread-proof" and cover lines they have no business covering on paper.

Having said that, Denver is a good team. We don't know how good yet, but they should be able to hang in this one.  If I was setting the line I'd have New England favored by 4.5.  I'll take that value every time, especially when I get a key number like 7.

NFL Pick: Broncos +7.

The rest of my Week 5 predictions are here, or you can find all my 2012 predictions on the home page main menu.