Monday, October 29, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012: Week 9

NFL Picks 2012: Week 9 predictions
Underdogs continued their tear by going 8-6 ATS in Week 8, and 71-45-3 ATS (61.2%) on the season.  Naturally, things should regress to the mean, but it's going to be hard for the favorites to bring it down towards the 53-47% range.

The question going forward is whether or not we'll begin to see any value on the favorites?  I would say not much.  I expect the same week to week adjustments that is typical of the NFL.

Week 8 Recap

Not much to review here. I usually save the commentary for the losses, but I went a perfect 5-0 ATS in Week 8.  It's nice to finally have some positive variance work in my favor.  As a bonus, teasers and totals finished 5-2. The Bears came up a half point short on one teaser and the Redskins offense lost a total, but Dick Lebeau has a history of doing that to rookie QB's.

Week 9 Picks

Note*: With so many games hovering around the '3' this week, only buy the half point if you can get it between 10-15 cents (at most).  The standard price of buying on/off the '3' is 23 cents, which is too expensive and a waste of value.  

Buccaneers vs Raiders

Broncos vs Bengals 

Lions vs Jaguars

Bears vs Titans 

Steelers vs Giants

Ravens vs Browns

Team Totals and Props

Survivor Pick

Bears backers (including TeamRankings) had to sweat out Week 8, but if you were one of the few in the poll that went with the Vikings, you picked the wrong week to take a risk.  Packers sure made things interesting, but came through as the heavy choice.

Things begin to get very tricky for Week 9 as win probabilities shrink on the available options. As always, TeamRankings have in-depth analysis here.

Survivor Pick: Detroit Lions

Week 8: Green Bay Packers
Week 7: San Francisco 49ers
Week 6: Atlanta Falcons
Week 5: New York Giants
Week 4: Baltimore Ravens
Week 3: Chicago Bears
Week 2: New England Patriots
Week 1: Houston Texans

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 9: Steelers vs Giants

Pittsburgh Steelers vs New York Giants: NYG -3 (Pinnacle)

Markets

Rounding out the week of the short favorites are the New York Giants.  I should give a personal 'thank you' to the Steelers for winning the last two weeks, because it has provided some favorable line movement for this game.

I believe far too many games are being offered at -3.25 this week, so I'm more than happy to grab some of them.  The look-ahead line had New York -3.5, but I thought even that was generous.  The Giants should be the clear favorites in this game and if I was setting the line I'd have it -4.5 (at the least).

Common Denominator?

Let's begin this analysis with what both of these teams have in common.

Great leadership?  Check.

Super Bowl moxy?  Check.

Solid coaching?  Check.

Great quarterbacks, passing attacks, and clutch play?  Check, check, check.

There's no question that both of these teams have a lot going for them in these categories.  There's only a handful of offenses I'd rather have on the field when the game is on the line than these two.

The problem for the Steelers is the stark differences found on the other side of the ball and in a couple other key situations.

Who Can Get a Stop?

What I like most about this Giants team is their ability to rise to the occasion when things get tough.  Down three scores at home vs the Buccaneers?  No problem.  Severely undermanned heading into Carolina?  Big deal.  Blow a huge lead against a fierce division rival on the road?  Just another day at the office.

There's many reasons why New York is 6-2 on the year and it would take too long to cover all of them in depth, but they rank in the top third in almost every ranking across the board.  They play the run well, disrupt and stop most drives, keep people out of the end zone, sack the quarterback, and win the turnover battle. 

They do all of these things better than the Steelers defense, despite what they pulled off in the last two weeks.  The Steelers run, 3rd down, and red zone defense all rank below average.  They've been up and down stopping the pass, and haven't gotten to the QB consistently either.  They also racked up all these stats against below average offenses.

Now that Ryan Clark is being evaluated for a concussion, Pittsburgh if facing the possibility of him and Polamalu out for this game.  Dick Lebeau is one of the best in the business, but the Giants offense is much more efficient than Cincinnati or Washington. 

If Big Ben has the ball down one score and two minutes to go, I might not like this play, but over the course of 60 minutes I'll take my chances with this Giants defense.  The home crowd isn't about to intimidate the Steelers either, but keep in mind that Pittsburgh is 1-3 on the road this season.

Bottom Line

The Steelers will get a lot of support in this spot, especially if people can get the +3.5, but side-by-side there should be no comparison of these teams.  A line of -3 suggests that these two are relatively even on a neutral field.  I don't think so.  Lay the points and ride the defending champs.

NFL Pick: NYG -3.

The rest of my Week 9 NFL picks.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 9: Lions vs Jaguars

Detroit Lions vs Jacksonville Jaguars: DET -3 (Pinnacle)

Markets

This is a game that wasn't on the board last week thanks to the injury to Blaine Gabbert, but it opened at -4 on Sunday.  The funniest thing about this spread is that money has once again come in on Jacksonville moving it all the way down to -3.25.

I realize the Lions have not been good vs the spread this year and that the Jags have shown some fight over the last two weeks, but let's get real here.  So-called "smart money" has bet the Jags as home dogs three times this year and lost each one of them.  I've never heard of "4th's time a charm", so I have no trouble grabbing an affordable three with Detroit.  If you love home underdogs, this is the week to fade me because I'm not passing on clear value.

Are the Lions "Back"?

Heading into this season I fully expected Matt Stafford and company to light up the league with points.  It wasn't only based on what they did last year, but it also had a lot to do with the increasing importance placed on the passing game.  When you look at all the weapons on this Lions team, I figured they were in a prime position to dazzle.

That clearly hasn't been the case this year.  Stafford's mechanical problems and decision-making issues have been well-documented, but he's not the only one under scrutiny.

Brandon Pettigrew has the physical abilities to be one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, but he has consistently dropped balls this year.  Calvin Johnson is nursing a sore knee and hasn't looked himself this year.

Finally, the running game has been a sore spot as Mikel LeShoure hasn't brought the kind of game-changing ability people were hoping for.  For the second straight week he was parked on the bench in favor of Joique Bell.

Last week, they made us forget all that as they went 12 for 16 on third down against a stingy Seahawks defense, and put up pretty big numbers in a come-from-behind win.

Yet, even before last week this offense had been doing just fine by normal standards.  They still managed to rank above average in rushing, passing, pass protection, on third down, and in the red zone.  Just because they haven't put up 40+ points per game doesn't mean they are not having success.

Defense: Advantage ... Lions?

If you would have told me before the season that Detroit would have a better defense than the Jaguars after eight weeks I might have called you crazy.

It's a given that Detroit hold the advantage on the defensive line, but what stands out the most is the fact that the Lions are number one in the entire NFL in red zone defense.  Their schedule hasn't been the most difficult, but the Jaguars aren't about to flip that script this week either.

MJD has already been ruled out, so once again the weight of the world will fall on Blaine Gabbert.  Cecil Shorts has stepped up to provide a weapon opposite of Justin Blackmon, and Jennings has been serviceable in the back-field.  The trouble comes when the the game is on the line.

The Jags actually made a game of it vs the Packers, but in the second half they went three and out drive after drive.  They are the single worst team on third down and pretty putrid in every other offensive category too.

Even if the Lions are prone to giving up the big play in the passing game once in a while, I simply can't find any which way to back the Jaguars in this spot.  They provide us with zero faith in their ability to move the ball or score points inside the 20.

Bottom Line

Eight of Stafford's 16 wins have been 4th quarter come backs.  Overall, he has nine game-winning drives under his belt.  Jags defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will do his best to slow them down with a mix of cover-2 and man-to-man coverages, but if this game is close there's no question which side I'm backing.  I like the Lions here and I didn't even hesitate when the line moved in Jacksonville's favor.

NFL Pick: DET -3.

The rest of my Week 9 NFL picks.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 9: Broncos vs Bengals

Denver Broncos vs Cincinnati Bengals: DEN -3 (Pinnacle)

Markets

Here is another game that has offered us favorable line movement.  The look ahead line had the Broncos as -4 favorites, so why do we have the option to take -3 right now?   I'm not really concerned about what the underdog records say this year, if the books want to give us a favorable spread around a key number, I'll take it.  Truthfully, I'll be surprised if this doesn't come off the three entirely at some point.

The Cure of the Bye?

The Bengals made it very clear to the fans and the media that the coming games are going to determine what their team is made of.  I'm here to tell them that they don't need to bother with the innuendo because we already know what the identity of this team is.

The Bengals went into the bye as one of the worst teams on third down and in the red zone - on both sides of the ball.  The scary thing for Bengals fans is they put up these numbers against a fairly soft schedule.

It's great to have a guy like Andy Dalton showing marked improvement in his second season and the future is bright with someone like A.J. Green emerging as one of the best on the outside, but they can only do so much.  In fact, Dalton has thrown an interception in every single game of the year, and 10 overall.

I find it hard to believe they are suddenly going to find some magic elixir to cure their issues in the critical spots.  Nate Clements was moved to safety and Dre Kirkpatrick should make his season debut as a rookie, but as far as I'm concerned that doesn't solve anything.

The lone bright spot on defense for the Bengals is their defensive line. This could give them a competitive advantage in the hopes of slowing down Peyton Manning, but without adequate coverage on the back end, this unit is in trouble.  Adding insult to injury is their inability to slow down opposing running backs.

I think we'll get a lot of the same from this team despite the extra week off.

Sign of Things to Come?

The smack-down that the Broncos laid on the Saints is the kind of performance many of us have been waiting for all year.  The most impressive aspect was their defense, but my main worry about that side of the ball was their woeful rankings on third down and in the red zone.  I figured Drew Brees and company would have had a lot more success given how good they are in those moments.

Yet, it's hard to ignore what the potential of this Denver team is when they can avoid a slow start.  The talent is certainly there on both sides of the ball, and Peyton has only thrown one interception since that bizarre game against the Falcons.  What makes this run even more dynamic is how often they were trailing from behind in those games.  You'd figure there would be more mistakes as they were forced into pass-only options.  Peyton deserves special credit for his experience and smarts, even if he has losts some zip on the ball.

Most of the Broncos turnover problems have come from fumbles.  I believe they've fumbled over 10 times and not recovered any of them. That is some severe negative variance, so I'm not worried about that going forward.

Bottom Line

This doesn't mean I'm calling for a blowout.  The Bengals should have a good effort here with the extra week to prepare, and they do have the horses up front to make Peyton uncomfortable, but it's pretty clear that these teams are polar opposites in the big moments.  I'll lay the points and trust the team that performs the best when things are on the line.

NFL Pick: DEN -3.

The rest of my Week 9 NFL picks.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 9: Bears vs Titans

Chicago Bears vs Tennessee Titans: CHI -3 (5Dimes)

Markets

This is a curious point spread.  The Bears were -3.5 favorites in last week's look-ahead line.  They re-opened this week at -4, but have been bet down to 3.25!   The great thing about this number is it gives those of us who like the favorite to grab an affordable three, while those on the dog can take an affordable hook. I do not recommend buying the half point if you're seeing -3.5 at regular juice.  Either shop around, or hope that juice moves in your favor.

My numbers have the Bears as clear favorites here - which is noteworthy given the fact that they are on the road. 

Hasselbeck, Britt, & CJ?

The Titans are gaining a lot more respect in the market lately thanks in large part to their improvements on offense.  Johnson has had some success, Hasselbeck is a more reliable than Locker, and Britt has provided a legitimate threat opposite of Wright.

So why not ride the home dog here?

The simple reason is Chicago's defense.  Fundamentally, they are great against the run and pass, and boast one of the better D-line's in the NFL.  Schematically, you aren't about to get a bunch of big plays or easy points from them either.  This is reflected in their drive success, third down, and red zone rankings. 

If CJ doesn't turn back the clock and take this game over by himself, I see very little reason to put any faith into the Titans passing game.  And Hasselbeck is going to need one of his receivers to step up big because whoever Tim Jennings covers will basically be blanketed out of the game.  When QB's have been brave enough to throw his way, he's picked off six passes and returned half of them for TDs.

It also doesn't help matters that Cook has publicly asked for a trade this week.  The improvements since Locker has gone out are being a bit overblown.

The Bears hold the best turnover differential in the league and that's with Cutler throwing at least one pick per game.  That's a big testament to just how game-breaking their defense is.

Make-or-Break

The other prime reason I like the Bears in this spot is what happens in the big moments.  Yes, they did look listless against the Panthers, but what happened when the game was on the line?  Both the offense and defense came up with big plays and got the job done. 

Conversely, what happened when the game got tight in the Titans/Colts game?  The Colts managed to drive down the field and tie the game, then did the same thing again in OT.  Statistically, the Titans gave up over 170 rushing yards - a theme we've seen play out all year long. The truth is the Titans defense is piss-poor and if this game is close, I know who I want my money on. 

The Bears do have significant problems on the O-line, but they have the benefit of playing against one of the worst pass-rushing fronts in the NFL.

Finally, before and after these drives take place, the Bears have a couple other advantages in their favor - special teams and average starting field position.

Bottom Line

I think the Bears should be favored by -4.5 in this game.  The fact that we're able to get on the key number of three is a big bonus.  The Bears should win this match-up the way they win most games - with great defense and stellar special teams.

NFL Pick: CHI -3.

The rest of my Week 9 NFL picks.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 9: Buccaneers vs Raiders

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Oakland Raiders: TB +2 (5Dimes)

Markets

Last week the look-ahead line on this game had the Raiders as field goal favorites.  I was hoping we would see a similar number when the lines went back on the board on Sunday night, but the current line sits at -1 or -2 depending on where you shop.

The reason I still like the Bucs at this number is because I believe the wrong team is favored.  Even with the Raiders win over KC, I have Tampa as short favorites.  If this is a close game, I feel a lot better about have a couple extra points in my pocket rather than the other way around.

I'm also skeptical that enough money will come on the Raiders to push this back to a field goal.  I believe this is the best number we'll get.

Tampa Has an Offense?

I picked the Bucs to cover the spread when they went into Minnesota, partly because they do have the talent on offense to put up some numbers.  The problem so far has been consistency.  We are never quite sure what we are going to get from this bunch, but the last couple weeks should be reason for tempered optimism.

The added bonus is that they get to face a defense that is just as inconsistent.  The Raiders are below average in every meaningful category across the board and only had seven sacks in six games prior to Week 8.  They deserve no extra credit because they got to the Chiefs quarterbacks a few times.

Football Outsiders have the Bucs O-line adjusted sack rate near the top of the league, so there is no reason to be concerned about a mismatch in the trenches. This should give the likes of Freeman, Jackson, Williams, and Martin enough opportunity to move the ball and put up some points in Oakland.  It also helps that the Bucs have been one of the better teams at converting red zone trips into touchdowns this year - an area that the Raiders have struggled in defensively.

No Talib, No Wright, No Problem?

The news this week that Eric Wright might get suspended could put the Bucs secondary at a serious disadvantage on Sunday.  Aqib Talib is out one more game serving his own suspension, so we might see Ronde Barber return to corner in this match-up.

While that certainly isn't good, it's also not the end of the world either.  Carson Palmer has been nothing more than average this year and their overall offensive stats are borderline atrocious.  McFadden might have gotten back on track against the Chiefs, but the Bucs have been pretty solid against the run for most of the year. 

What should be more of a concern for Oakland is how to move the ball consistently and how to convert those chances into touchdowns once they get inside the 20.  They rank near the bottom in both categories. 

I actually have some faith in Tampa's defense based on the quality of competition they've faced this season and the fact that Da'Quan Bowers is back in the lineup.  He only saw 12 snaps last week, but he's had a couple extra days off so his playing time should increase in this game.

The Bucs D also ranks near the top of the heap on third down and in the red zone. If the Raiders are forced to kick too many field goals, they are not winning this game.

Bottom Line

The books gave Tampa Bay a little extra respect after Week 8, but I believe the adjustment wasn't enough.  Aside from home field advantage, I don't see much on Oakland's roster to warrant this point spread.  The mismatch that the Bucs own in the make-or-break situations is noteworthy. 

NFL Pick: TB +2.

The rest of my Week 9 NFL picks.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 9: Ravens vs Browns

Baltimore Ravens vs Cleveland Browns: BAL -3 (5Dimes)

Markets

There isn't a whole lot of movement here (yet).  The look-ahead line was Ravens -3 and it has re-opened at the same number this week.  However, there are signs this line is moving as you have to lay a little bit of extra juice depending where you shop.  I won't be surprised if this comes off the 3 at some point.

Off a Bye Into a Bye

The cat is officially out of the bag.  Teams heading into a bye are now 1-14 ATS with the Monday Night Football game pending.  I've seen many people say this is much ado about nothing and simply a case of random variance.  That's entirely reasonable given the ultra-small sample size, but there could be something to this as players are looking forward to guaranteed time off under the new CBA.

Either way, in this game we have the Ravens coming off the bye as the Browns enter one.  The same scenario played out in Week 8 in the Dolphins/Jets game.  For the time being, I'm going to include this as an advantage in our favor.

Trust What You See?

Some might look at the Browns win over the Chargers and be a little bit weary about this pick.  Don't be.  The Chargers are only getting by on reputation at the moment and the truth is they aren't a very good football team this season.  Cleveland only managed one sack on Philip Rivers and came away with no interceptions.

If the Browns hope to repeat the same script against Baltimore they might want to revisit that plan.  There are a number of mismatches they have to overcome on both sides of the ball, including the fact that the Ravens have had an extra week to prepare.

Only -3?

Part of the reason this point spread isn't higher is thanks to the Browns defense.  It certainly isn't among the top half of the league though, because they rank well below average in run and pass categories.  What does raise their stock is the fact that they tighten up a bit on third down and in the red zone.

Joe Haden's return from suspension has sure helped that, but it is their overall play in make-or-break moments that have kept them within striking distance of most games. This is a direct reflection of their coaching and discipline within the scheme, because they sure don't have the personnel to scare people.

At the same time, they now must face a top flight running game and above average passing game.  I'm not the biggest fan of Joe Flacco, but he does have the clear edge on Brandon Weeden and much better weapons around him.  Advantage Ravens.

A Step Above

Speaking of Weeden, the Browns rank around the middle in turnover differential, but the bad news is most of their turnovers have come from interceptions.  The Ravens have been below average defending the pass this season, but like the Browns, they tighten up in the key situations. 

The Ravens are a well-coached team and their week off is going to help them tighten up some of their problems.  Also, now that Terrell Suggs is back in the lineup, it's safe to say that the ratings across the board are going to get a kick up. 

Baltimore's defense isn't what it used to be, but the challenge ahead of them in Week 9 is not a daunting one.  Unless Trent Richardson has a monster day, I don't foresee the Ravens in danger of any serious trouble.

Bottom Line

The Ravens have had a week to get the bad taste from the Texans game out of their mouths.  They face a much easier task this Sunday against a familiar division foe.  In Week 4 they were 11.5 point favorites when they played the Browns, but now they're only laying a field goal.  I know Baltimore have some flaws, but there are simply too many advantages across the board to only be laying three points.

BAL -3.

The rest of my Week 9 NFL picks.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 8: Team Totals & Props

Team Totals from Pinnacle and 5Dimes.

Team Totals

Vikings U24.5

Strangely enough, this total still has value despite the fact that the line has moved in the Bucs favor since the morning.  One could make a case that Percy Harvin has been the bigger threat this year when compared with Adrian Peterson, but either way Tampa Bay is pretty stout against the run with their active front seven.  In fact, the Bucs defense holds a statistical advantage in every meaningful category.  Ponder still doesn't scare me, so they should need help from their defense/special teams to go over this total.

Falcons O20.5

Juan Castillo out, Todd Bowles in. The Eagles have the talent to contain the Falcons, but can they make the necessary adjustments for an offense firing on all cylinders? Vick is also good for a turnover or two per game, which could give Matt Ryan good field position.  Atlanta also have a nice edge with average starting field position and special teams.  21 points shouldn't be too much to ask.

Redskins O20.5

It seems like light years ago that the Pittsburgh defense was the dominant force that is so engrained in our memories. Troy Polamalu is still out, and while that didn't pay dividends for the Bengals, I don't expect a sudden resurgance without him.  RG3 is not only lethal with his feet in the open field and in the red zone, but he's leading league with a ridiculous completion percentage.  Given that the Steelers rank below average in most critical categories, and the Redskins offense trending up, 21 points seems more than attainable.

Giants O24

Not a lot of mystery for this pick either.  The Giants QB, RB's, WR's, and O-line all rank near the top in their respective categories.  They have a great turnover differential and move the ball up and down the field almost at will.  Sean Lee is out, which certainly won't help their problems with consistency on defense. 

Props

Props from Bodog and 5Dimes.

Ponder U235.5 pass yards
Peterson U90.5 rush yards
P Manning O310.5 pass yards
Demaryius Thomas O83.5 rec yards

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 8: Teasers

Lots of great options for teasers this week.  If you like these kind of bets, mix and match however you want, but I wouldn't even rule out a round-robin.  I'm pairing them as follows...

Atlanta Falcons +9 & New England Patriots -1

Analysis here and here.

NFL Pick: ATL +9 & NE -1.

Chicago Bears -1.5 & New England Patriots -1

Bears

This might be one of the shortest write-ups I do all year.

Offensively, there isn't much separating these teams. Both QB's have been below average.  They have good running games, but not great.  Both can't pass very well, and neither team boasts a very good offensive line. Driving down the field is also a problem for both teams.  Third down conversion rates rank about average.  The key difference is the Panthers have actually been pretty good in the red zone this season.  This makes sense given the dual-threat that Cam Newton poses, but the problem has been getting to the red zone.  That task isn't about to get any easier against this Bears defense.

Speaking of defense, this is where the obvious split takes place.  No need to go into detail there.

I will add that the Bears have a huge advantage in special teams and have a much better average starting field position over the Panthers.  It also goes without saying Chicago has a great turnover differential.

I almost came close to adding the Bears as a straight play, but I'll take the safer route and throw them in a teaser instead.  After you include home field advantage, this choice is a no-brainer.

NFL Pick: CHI -1.5 & NE -1.

Miami Dolphins +8.5 & Denver Broncos PK

Dolphins

I'm still holding out hope that I can snag a +3 in this game for a straight bet, so a full write-up with analysis is pending.

Broncos

This is another game I really want to bet straight, but Drew Brees is an animal and always a serious threat for a backdoor cover.  They have no running game (surprisingly) and their defense is still way below average.  This shows just how scary it can be to bet against a top-flight elite-level QB in this league.

When I break this down, there is an alarming trend that emerges if you're a Denver Broncos fan.  Statistically, Denver's defense matches up quite well vs the Saints rushing and passing offense, but dig deeper and some red flags appear. When it comes to crunch time, the Broncos can't get off the field or keep people out of the end zone. On the flip side, the Saints offense has been great in make-or-break moments.

Looking at the Saints defense, things are the complete opposite.  New Orleans gives up yards up and down the field all day long, but they are trending up a bit in the critical situations.  Don't get me wrong, they are still bad on third down and in the red zone, but not as bad as their other stats would indicate. 

The huge issue for New Orleans is the fact that they are severely outmatched against Peyton Manning.  Without adequate personnel to execute Spagnuolo's scheme, Peyton will be able to sit there all day long and pick them apart.  The task for coach Spags is to figure out whether to drop back in coverage or mix things up with blitzes.  I think he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.  

This game has the makings of a shootout, but teasing the Broncos down to a pick em at home is a good bet.  Drew Brees is great, but he can't play defense.

NFL Pick: MIA +8.5 & DEN PK.

NFL Predictions 2012: Week 8

NFL Picks 2012: Week 8
Week 7 is in the books and it offered up some interesting results.  Heading into last week, sharps were still gung ho on the underdogs, but they finished 6-6-1 ATS.  That included the bizarre Seahawks cover on Thursday, and the brutal back-door cover by the Lions on Monday.

There's a few more trends that sharps are monitoring closely.  NFC underdogs (against anybody) were on a ridiculous tear, but that didn't continue in Week 7.  Teams heading into a bye week are now 1-13 ATS after eliminating games where both teams are going into a bye.  Also, teams coming off a bye are doing great this season - likely because they all lost going into the bye!

As I said before, I'm not a big "trends" guy, but it's hard to ignore these.  There's at least one obvious game where the trends come into play in Week 8.

Week 7 Recap

If I was a slimy tout, I'd advertise that I went 4-1 on teasers and totals in Week 7 and call it a day.  The problem is that was wiped out by going 0-2-1 ATS on sides.

When I see a guy like Fitzpatrick throw an idiotic INT, followed by a Hasselbeck 4th and 9 conversion for a touchdown to win the game, I can't do anything other than laugh at this point.  I had the Bills -3, and it closed -4.5 so I felt pretty good about that going into Sunday.

The same thing played out in Oakland.  I had them -4, but it closed -6.  It was hard enough watching this game, so recapping it is even more painful.


WagerMinds summed it up perfectly.  I guess I should be surprised that Oakland couldn't cover despite the fact that MJD and Gabbert both got knocked out of the game, but this is the Raiders - led by the turnover machine known as Carson Palmer.

I mention the closing number this week because I take a lot of pride in beating the closing number on a consistent basis.  The problem is it hasn't paid off yet.  In the 28 picks where the number closed at least 1 point off (or a half point off the key number of 3) from the opener, I've got the best of the number in 25 of those picks.  Combined, it equates to 38 extra points of value.  Go figure.

Week 8 Picks

Buccaneers vs Vikings

Giants vs Cowboys

Dolphins vs Jets

Patriots vs Rams

 Falcons vs Eagles

Team Totals & Props

Teasers

Pending...

Survivor Pick

A lot of people (including Beyond the Bets) were holding their collective breath on Sunday once the Jets took the lead in New England.  If they would have lost, I'm sure a fair share of survivor pools would have been clinched in Week 7.  As always, TeamRankings have great coverage each week found here.  For me, this week was the biggest no-brainer since Week 1.

Survivor pick: Green Bay Packers

Week 7: San Francisco 49ers
Week 6: Atlanta Falcons
Week 5: New York Giants
Week 4: Baltimore Ravens
Week 3: Chicago Bears
Week 2: New England Patriots
Week 1: Houston Texans

Saturday, October 27, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 8: Dolphins vs Jets

Miami Dolphins vs New York Jets: MIA +2.5 (5Dimes)

Markets

One of the most curious point spreads on the board in Week 8 is the Jets two and half point favorites over the Dolphins.  The spread was the same in the look-ahead line, so their performance vs the Patriots didn't change perception for anybody.  The question is whether or not the Jets should be favored in this game at all?

I waited all week to see if an affordable +3 would become available, but it appears like I'll have to wait closer to kick off for that to happen.  I'd be willing to play the Dolphins +2.5, but wait as long as possible for some potential late line movement.

Off and Into the Bye

There has been a lot of talk about teams before and after the bye week this season.  Beyond the Bets look at some historical data regarding teams heading into the bye and found there is nothing much to discuss here.  They make a great point because small sample sizes are notoriously flawed with variance.

At the same time, teams heading into a bye are 1-13 ATS this year after removing games where both teams were headed for a week off.  Some have speculated that these teams are looking forward to their guaranteed time off thanks to the new CBA.  Personally, I'm still on the fence about this mini-trend, but I'm also not going to ignore it.

In fact, there might be a direct correlation to the bad record going into the bye and the good record coming out of it.

Regardless of where things will wind up at the end of the year, right now we have one team coming off a bye (Dolphins), and one team going into one (Jets).  At the very least, I know this can't hurt those of us on the Miami side.

By the Numbers

Like a lot of match-ups, some clear differences emerge after we look beyond the surface.  This is why I really hate it when people refer to standard stats routinely found on ESPN and the like.  I cringe everytime I hear a TV talking-head refer to team A as having "the #1 ranking in total defense".

Just what does it mean if a defense is giving up the least or most amount of yards?  The answer is very little.  Some teams might put up big numbers thanks to the fact that they are always trailing.  Some might have a disproportionate ratio of run vs pass simply based on how often they are leading in a game.  The examples are endless, but it's much more important to dig into the numbers a little deeper to see how teams are doing in critical situations.

When we do that for this game, we'll find that Miami has had the more efficient passing attack this year, better pass protection, better on third downs, and better at converting red zone chances into touchdowns.

Conversely, the Jets run defense has been below average in pass defense, third down/red zone defense, and drive success rate.  The advantages might not be substantial, but they do provide an edge when taken collectively.

And once we look at the Jets offense vs the Dolphins defense, the advantages become even bigger.
The Dolphins defense ranks near the top in four key categories - vs the run, on third down, in the red zone, and with drive success rate.  This is important when you consider how average the Jets offense has been this year.

Neither QB has a big edge over the other and both are just as prone to turning the ball over, but I'll take my chances with the defense that performs better in the make or break moments.

Bottom Line

When you add it all up, I would actually make the Dolphins as short favorites in this game.  There's no denying that they've been the better team this season and they should be well prepared with an extra week off.  Meanwhile, the Jets are coming off an emotional loss against their division rivals, and have the bye week lurking over them.  This might not amount to anything after kickoff, but all the arrows are pointing Miami's direction.

NFL Pick: MIA +2.5.

Friday, October 26, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 8: Patriots vs Rams

New England Patriots vs St Louis Rams: NE -7 (5Dimes)

Markets

The look-ahead line had the Patriots favored by 8.5 points, but after Week 7 they re-opened as -6.5 favorites.  It didn't take very long for early money to recognize the value and it quickly got bet to -7, where it sits now.

Home vs Road?

The Rams are technically listed as the home team here, but in reality this is more of a road game for them.  The New England Patriots are much more of a world-wide brand than the St Louis Rams.  The funny thing is, Gisele Bunchen might have as much to do with that as the Patriots' history in the Super Bowl.  Tom Brady is a house-hold name, even across seas.

This isn't the best news for the Rams.  The home-road dichotomy is real with this club as all three of their wins have come in the dome, while three of their four losses have come on the road.

Jeff Fisher has tried to mitigate some of this discrepancy by taking his team to London earlier in the week.  He hopes that the added time there would increase the acclimation process, but I'm not so sure this is going to work.  Keep in mind that the Rams have one of the youngest starting rosters in the NFL.

In contrast, the Patriots have one of the most experienced starting crews, and the organization has made this trip before.  Bill Belichick made a good point that every team and trip is different, but he also conceded that their previous trip to London does provide certain shortcuts and advantages.  They traveled to London later in the week, which is the same script they had when they killed the Bucs in 2009.

The reason all of this is so important, is because we must factor in "home-field advantage", or lack thereof, into this point spread.  At best, the Rams receive zero points on the line due to the aforementioned factors, but in reality we could probably grant the Patriots an extra point or two.

Rams = Seahawks-Lite?

Side-by-side, there isn't a whole lot that separates the St Louis Rams from the Seattle Seahawks.  They both rely heavily on a strong running game and stout defense, while hoping for just enough out of the passing game to clinch a game.

The Patriots have seen this song and dance before and handled it just fine until a bizarre sequence in the final quarter. 

The issue for the Rams is their defense isn't quite up to par with the Seahawks yet.  They are good against the pass and the run, but not great.   Furthermore, they are just average in the sack department, on third down, and in the red zone.  This formula is great against most offenses, but it's not enough to slow down a lethal offense like the Patriots.

If the Rams fall behind, the running game becomes borderline irrelevant.   Relying on Sam Bradford to win a game on his own is just asking too much - especially when you consider his favorite target, Danny Amendola, is doubtful to play.

Football Outsiders pointed out that the Patriots have given up the most passes beyond 20 yards this season (39), but the Rams offense is the third-worst with these passes (17).  The inability of the Rams offense to take advantage is a big plus for New England.

Backdoor Cover?

Before Week 7, many stat-heads were labeling the New England Patritos the best 3-3 team in NFL history.   That message was severely toned down after they allowed the New York Jets come from behind to almost win the game.

Unless we are talking about a severe injury situation, I'm not about to overreact to one game.  No matter what the records say, the fact remains that New England is a bonafide contender and highly efficient team.

Is their pass defense bad?  Yes.  Is their third down/red zone defense below average?  Yes.

Yet, they have improved upon last season.  That might be hard to believe given what we've seen on Sundays, but the stats don't lie.

I'm also not convinced the Rams offense is equipped to cover the number even if their down late in the game. St Louis toils away near the bottom of the rankings in drive success rate, third down conversions, and red zone offense.

They are also badly outmatched with average starting field position and special teams. Greg Zuerlein is a bright spot, but even he has fallen back to earth over recent weeks.  It's also unlikely that the Rams will need field goals at the end of the game, so Zeurlein's big leg probably won't matter.

Combined, this puts St Louis at a significant disadvantage in most situations, including garbage time.

Bottom Line

This pick is definitely going against the grain. The Rams are 5-2 ATS this year, while the Pats have blown 4th quarter leads in back-to-back weeks.  It is also a pick that goes against the strong trend of NFC underdogs and the fact that the NFC is much better across the board than the AFC.

Nevertheless, I have to call it like I see it and I don't think the Rams match-up well here, nor do I think it's a very good situation for them.  After adjusting for the "home-field" disadvantage, the Patriots should be favored by more than a touchdown on Sunday.  The look-ahead line had it right the first time.

NFL Pick: NE -7.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 8: Falcons vs Eagles

Atlanta Falcons vs Philadelphia Eagles: ATL +3 (Bodog)

Markets

This is another point spread on the board that makes zero sense.  The Eagles were two and a half point favorites in the look-ahead line, and they've moved to three point favorites as I write this.  Someone smarter than I am is going to have to explain this, because I am clearly not seeing the same thing. In my opinion, the wrong team is favored in this match-up.

Stats are for Losers?

Unless you're an owner, coach, or player, wins and losses don't mean a thing in the short-term.  What's much more important is the true identity of a team and how they are performing in the make or break moments.  This pick has nothing to do with the fact that the Falcons are 6-0 on the season while the Eagles are 3-3. 

Many are going to point to the fact that Andy Reid has a phenomenal record after the bye.  This is a legitimate factor to consider when handicapping the Eagles each season, but by no means should it result in a five point swing on the spread.  I have this line as Atlanta -2, so let's take a closer look at why.

After the Bye

Andy Reid's record after the bye are well-documented, but there's more important bye-week factors here.  First, in the category of "better-late-than-never", they have fired Juan Castillo.  I (and the rest of the football world) thought he should've been fired last year, but it's good that they decided to do this before the season is a complete disaster.

The problem is whether or not they'll have enough time to make the necessary adjustments to stop a potent Atlanta offense?  I have my doubts about that...

Yet, the biggest thing being overlooked this week is the fact that the Falcons have two new coordinators themselves this season.  With an extra week to review the season, I like Atlanta's chances of coming out strong in this game.  They've had a chance to catch their collective breaths and grab an even stronger grasp on the new schemes on each side of the ball.

The bye came at a great time for the Eagles, but I think the Falcons will benefit just as much, if not more.  Atlanta is a well-coached football team and they should be ready for this challenge.

Offense: Advantage Falcons

A key reason I like Atlanta here is the consistency of their offense in comparison with Philly.  Simply put, they've remained fairly consistent all year long and rank near the top in passing, drive success, third down conversion, and red zone.

The same can't be said for Mike Vick.  He is a turnover machine, doesn't read blitzes very well, and does not feel pressure when it's coming.  That is a serious problem when Mike Nolan is on the other side of the field.

If the Eagles don't rely heavily on McCoy, I have little faith that Vick is going to match Matt Ryan and his collection of weapons in the passing game.  The Falcons defense have a glaring weakness against the run and haven't been very stout in the red zone.

Given Reid's track record, it's a good bet that he'll maintain his heavy passing attack, even with an extra week to prepare.  There have been countless times when they started out with a balanced attack, only to abandon it when things go wrong or they fall behind.

Bottom Line

It's entirely possible that the Eagles come out with a renewed sense of purpose, run the ball, and get Matt Ryan off balance.  Having said that, we have to make a lot of unwarranted assumptions for that to happen.  Even if Philly do come out strong, the Falcons aren't about to roll over and concede this win.  I think Atlanta win this game, and even if they don't, I like the extra three points in my pocket.

 ATL +3.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 8: Giants vs Cowboys

New York Giants vs Dallas Cowboys: NYG -1 (5Dimes)

Markets

This was the biggest mistake the books made this week.  The Cowboys were two point favorites in the look ahead line, and actually opened up as short favorites early on Sunday.  Since then the money has come clearly on the Giants.  It's pretty obvious who the better team is at this point in the season, so if you get anything below -3, you'll have value.

Injuries

Injuries often get overblown during the course of the season, but when they start piling up at important positions, the cumulative effect begins to make a difference.

First off, Dan Connor might have the game of his life or Rob Ryan might find a very creative way to scheme the defense, but it's going to be very hard for them to replace Sean Lee's natural athletic ability.  He was one of the unsung heros of the Cowboys defense and you can be sure Eli Manning will be looking to take advantage.

The other notables here are the injuries to Costa and Murray.  It probably went unnoticed the last few weeks, but Costa has made a big impact in the running game.  Now that he joins Murray on the sidelines, a lot more pressure is going to be put on Romo's shoulders.

Consistency

One of the great thing I like about advanced stats is what can be found in the not-so-obvious department.  Side by side, the Cowboys offense and defense aren't that far behind the Giants.  Dallas only lag behind in four categories - passing, offensive penalties, defensive drive success, and turnovers.

Yet, a closer look reveals that Dallas has been erratically inconsistent on both offense and defense.  They've put up some great numbers against weaker opponents which has skewed the overall picture.  When there is this little differential, consistency is a big advantage to have.

"Special" Teams and Special Moments

One more advantage the Giants have in this game is on special teams.  The Giants rank in the top 10, while the Cowboys are toiling away near the bottom.  This rating from Football Outsiders covers all aspects of the kicking game and return teams.  It's not a huge factor in the overall picture, but when we are talking about a spread less than a field goal, these sorts of categories earn extra importance.

The other edge that deserves special mention is the difference between Eli Manning and his group of receivers in comparison to Tony Romo and his set of pass catchers.

I think it's obvious by now that there is no debate here anymore.  The Giants receivers have emerged and proved this season that last year was no fluke.  Eli Manning is also having a much more impressive season than I expected out of him.  Conversely, the same can't be said about the Cowboys.  Romo hasn't been horrible, but he hasn't been great either.  He continues to be let down by an inconsistent group on the outside, which again puts too much focus on Jason Witten.

Bottom Line

In a tough NFC East game filled with a lot of pressure, I have much more faith in the more reliable Giants.  Their players and coaches have more moxy in the clutch as well.  Dallas might have kicked off the season with a nice win, but that was light years ago.  What's transpired since is not a pretty picture for "America's Team".  Grab the defending champs at anything less than a field goal.

NFL Pick: NYG -1.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 8: Buccaneers vs Vikings

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs Minnesota Vikings: TB +7 (Bodog)

Markets

I have to say that the NFL is one of the most fickle sports in the entire world.  The look ahead line on this game was Vikings -5.  It actually opened higher after Week 7.  It now sits at -6.5, but -7's are out there.  I'm not sure about you, but I didn't see much last week to shift my favor towards Minnesota.

In Favor of the Vikings

There are three primary advantages Minnesota have in this matchup.

1) Home field advantage on a short week.

2) Superior run defense vs an average run offense.

3) Extreme advantage on special teams.

The problem is, how does this equate to a full touchdown difference?  I know it's very tough for road teams on Thursday night because they immediately lose a day of rest/preparation before the light turns green, but I'm not about to adjust my line over a field goal because of it.

In Favor of the Bucs

Fundamentally speaking, this is a very even match-up across the board.  Yet, I actually give the slight advantage to the Bucs defense for a couple of reasons.  One, they are well above average on third down and in the red zone.  And two, the Bucs defense have faced much more efficient offenses this year than the Vikings defense.

Yes Tampa Bay had some bad moments (NYG & NO), but as a whole they've been very solid when you look at the full body of work.  This isn't a Vikings offense that scares anybody - especially with a sheltered Christian Ponder under center.

Even better news for the Bucs defense is the fact that the Vikings haven't faced very good defenses this year, and they still rank mediocre in most critical categories.

Bottom Line

This game is very similar to the game against the Cardinals last week, but a key difference here is Tampa Bay's offense actually inspires some hope.  The stats still give me a strong reason to doubt the Vikings.  After factoring everything in, I would set this line at Minnesota -3.5.  Take the value and ride the dog.

NFL Pick: TB +7.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012: Week 7

A few items caught my eye (and ear) this week.

First, Gill Alexander opened the first 10 minutes with a great discussion defining "sharps" and "squares" on Pregame's Week 7 Guessing Lines show.  Good listen.

Second, during the Monday Night Football game, Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders (great follow BTW) tweeted the following,

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Third, roughly 60% of the games have been within one score in the final two minutes. That could explain why so many dogs are covering this season.

In fact, this is the first time in NFL history 40 underdogs have straight up victories after six weeks of a season. A regression to the mean is coming, the only question is when? I don't see any over-adjustment in the Week 7 lines, so it's something worth monitoring.

Week 6 Recap

A 1-3-1 ATS week is in the books. I have no idea if the Broncos or Chargers were the "right" side of that wild MNF game, but after the weekend I had I'll take it.  It also gave me a 1-1 finish on the "best bets" with the team total cover.

I expected more from the Cardinals defense, but I give Buffalo credit for not packing it in. Of all the picks, this is one I'd like to have back.

After the entire scouting world officially declared the Packers offense as "off", Rodgers reminded us all of what he's capable of.  The Texans were force-fed some humble pie and I had a big slice of it, too.  Interestingly, it's the second prime-time game in a row where Houston didn't look like themselves.  Red flag?  Or simply a case of Rodgers being too good?  I have both of these teams in the Super Bowl so I'm not shocked Green Bay won, but I am surprised at how they won.

I could handle those losses, but the one that was tough to stomach was the Patriots pick. I'm not even going to rehash the improbable series of events that led to the non-cover, but that very well could be the last time I ever fade the Seahawks at home. Simply put.  Two snatched wins is enough for me.

Week 7 Picks

Titans vs Bills 

Cardinals vs Vikings

Jaguars vs Raiders

Teasers

Team Totals & Props

Survivor Pick

If you had the Steelers, Eagles, Cardinals, or 49ers, you joined the other 80-90% of eliminated people on the sidelines. The Falcons were the run-away favorite choice of the week, but they barely pulled off the win (and probably didn't deserve to).  The Bucs were the only other team that saved people this week, but they were the 4th most popular pick in the poll.  If you took your chances on them, I tip my hat to you. Gutsy pick.

Week 7 has some tricky choices on the board, but I'm leaning 49ers right now.  TeamRankings have full in-depth analysis here.

UPDATE: 49ers finished with 13% of the poll, including a vote from me.  Packers and Patriots still leading the way, but Vikings are another sneaky popular pick.

UPDATE #2: Beyond the Bets have locked in their pick for the week, but they've decided to go "safe" (if there is such a thing in this league).  Can they outlast TeamRankings this year?  

Survivor Pick: San Francisco 49ers

Week 6: Atlanta Falcons
Week 5: New York Giants
Week 4: Baltimore Ravens
Week 3: Chicago Bears
Week 2: New England Patriots
Week 1: Houston Texans

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 7: Team Totals & Props

Team totals from 5Dimes and Pinnacle.

Team Totals

Buccaneers O23.5

Tampa Bay's offense might be inconsistent, but they have a few things going for them in this spot.  First, they are playing a defense that ranks near the very bottom of the lead.  Second, it's possible the Saints offense has some success coming out of the bye, which could open up the chance for garbage points.  Finally, the Bucs are getting no respect in this matchup, despite being the home team and the more successful season under their belts (so far).

Vikings U24

The Minnesota offense has been average to below-average all season long and they've faced subpar defenses for the most part.  Now they get a line of 24 going up against a top 10 unit?  Matchup-wise, there is no reason to think they are going to win this battle over the course of the game, so if they do cover this number it will be thanks to special teams or turnovers.  The Cardinals defense has made most offenses earn their points, and they've been one of the most consistent, too.

Bengals O22

There were red flags surrounding this Steelers team before the year, but even I'm surprised at how bad their defense has been so far.  Not having Polamalu is a big problem, and he's out again this week.  The Steelers actually rank below-average, or near the bottom, of most important categories - run, pass, drive success, third down, and red zone.  The bizarre part is they've achieved these numbers against ho-hum offenses. 

Props

Props from 5Dimes and Bodog.

Lynch O1.5 receptions
Smith throws INT
Gore O12.5 rec yards
Gore +5.5 rush yards vs Lynch
V Davis -1 receptions vs Tate


Big Ben O275.5 pass yards
Dalton O260.5 pass yards
Hawkins O45.5 rec yards 


Leshoure U60.5 rush yards
Stafford U285.5 pass yards

Friday, October 19, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 7: Cardinals vs Vikings

Arizona Cardinals vs Minnesota Vikings: ARI +7 (Bodog)

Markets

What a difference a week makes?   In the offseason Cantor had this game -1.  Last week in the look-ahead line the Vikings were -4 favorites!  I'm sorry, but I think it's borderline silly to move this game all the way to the 7.  You'll need to shop around to get the full touchdown, but given the way this line has moved I won't be surprised to see it there across the board by kickoff.

NFC Dominance

I came across an amazing stat from RJ Bell and Steve Fezzik this week.  They both reported different numbers, but NFC underdogs are apparently around 35-5 so far this season.  I'm not a big trends guy and I'm even less so for in-season trends, but there's some things you just can't ignore.

Following up on this, NFC teams make up six of the top eight teams on Football Outsiders weekly efficiency rankings, while eight AFC teams make up the bottom eight!

Situationally, I'd be an idiot to ignore these stats going forward.  Of course it rarely pays to bet something blind, but NFC teams certainly deserve to be weighted a little extra for the time being.

Seeing is Believing?

Talk about two teams that have people scratching their heads after six weeks of the season!  Get this, the Cardinals are 2-0 against top tier teams, 2-0 against middle of the road teams, but 0-2 against the bottom third.  Go figure?

We all knew the Cardinals weren't about to finish 1st in the NFC after four weeks, but at the same time they can't be completely written off either - something this point spread is suggesting.  Yes the Arizona offense is bad, but they've also played some good defenses too.  Seattle, Philly, Miami, and St Louis all rank in the top 10.

Meanwhile, the Vikings offense has faced the opposite.  The only quality defense they've faced is the 49ers.

When you compare the numbers, there isn't a huge difference between the two.

Defense: Advantage Cardinals?

Conversely, when you look at the defensive stats across the board you'll find the Cardinals come out on top in all meaningful categories - run, pass, drive success, third down, red zone, and turnover differential.

Look, I'm just as scared about John Skelton and his offensive line as you are, but Christian Ponder isn't exactly tearing it up either.  Ponder has been efficient and fairly consistent this year, but how much credit should we be giving to Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson?

Harvin has been an unstoppable one-man show, but AP has kind of faded as the year has gone on.  Granted, his presence still makes defenses game-plan and account for him on every play.  These guys allow Ponder (along with a solid defense) play within his abilities and manage the game.

In this match-up, both defenses have the advantage, but Arizona's has been the more consistent this season.

Yes, Arizona has no ground game to speak of, but who cares.  Unless you're St Louis, Seattle, Houston, or San Fran, you're not going to wrap your entire game-plan around a running game in this league.  The Vikings will undoubtedly load up in coverage and focus on eliminating Fitzgerald. The Cardinals will do the same against Harvin. 

Bottom Line

I have this game graded Vikings -4.  A legitimate case could be made for -4.5 off the key number, but -7?  This is a clear inflation and I'm just not ready to pronounce the Vikings as touchdown favorites against anybody yet.  True, they did beat the 49ers at home, but they also had to scrape by for an improbable comback vs the Jaguars, too.  The Cardinals defense should be able to keep this one close - take the points.

NFL Pick: ARI +7.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 7: Teasers

San Francisco 49ers -1.5 & Houston Texans -.5

UPDATE: Money continues to come in on the 49ers which has moved the line to -8.  I like them in a teaser at anything under -9, as long as it gets brought down below a field goal.

49ers

Out of all the games on the Week 7 skid, the Seahawks vs 49ers is one of the most fascinating.  I'm not sure I would've said that before the season though.


Entering Week 6, many people regarded the 49ers up there with the Texans as the best team in football. Both of these teams depend heavily on their defense and controlling the tempo with the running game.  However, last week both fell behind early and could never recover (Smith passed 21 times in the 1st half, compared to only 9 runs).  Going forward, I think this dynamic is less of an issue for Houston than it is for San Fran.

As good as Alex Smith looked in September, some of his deficiencies were on display against the Giants.  Dropping seven in coverage put a lot of pressure on Smith.  The G-men rushed four and exposed what has been a well-below-average offensive line. In fact, the 49ers O-line ranks near the bottom in adjusted sacks given up.  No doubt the Seattle defense is going to give Smith and company a hefty challenge on Thursday night - especially with LT Joe Staley on the sidelines with a concussion.

The good news for 49ers fans is their offense has made great strides this year.  They rank near the very top in drive success rate, improved drastically on third down from a season ago, and carry a very high TD-conversion rate in the red zone.  Given the ineffectiveness of the Seahawks offense, the 49ers should be able to stick to their traditional game plan on offense and be in the best position to control this game.

Speaking the Seattle offense, this is due to be a problem this week.  I realize Wilson put together an efficient game last week and pulled off an improbable comeback vs the Patriots, but relying on this to happen week in and week out is not living in reality.

The key for the San Fran defense will be to disrupt Wilson's rhythm and ability to go through his progressions.  When not facing a blitz, the rookie has been good.   The 49ers defensive line hasn't put up the kind of numbers from a year ago, and they've also been below average in red zone defense.  The problem for opposing offenses though, is getting to the red zone. Not many defenses make it as hard for you to drive down the field as the 49ers.  This is a severe area of weakness for Seattle, so if they are going to put up points, they'll need some favorable field positions from their special teams and defense.

The final important aspect of this game is the situation.  If this were played on Sunday I would seriously consider adding the Seahawks on my regular card, but despite their win over Carolina, this team has one of the most dramatic home-road dichotomies in the league.  When you add on the fact that they are traveling on a short week and coming off a very emotional win over the Patriots, it all adds up to a very bad spot for them.  It is also the very likely reason why late money has pushed the line off the key number of 7.

Texans

If it wasn't for the two point line movement earlier this week, I might have added the Texans on my regular card as a straight play.  At the same time, I can't be too surprised that people are reacting strongly to the Ravens injury situation.

Yet, the Texans don't need Baltimore injuries to have a significant edge here.  I realize the Houston gravy train has been halted with back-to-back non-covers in recent weeks, but I'm also not about to overreact and jump off the tracks.

All people need to do is look at what the Ravens defense has been doing in the last couple of games.  In a very untraditional manner, they've suddenly become incapable of stopping the run.  People might think the loss of Ray Lewis will compound that issue, but that is still up for debate.  He was clearly more effective vs the run than he was vs the pass. 

With the loss of Webb on the outside, the Ravens are going to be taxed if they load up the box to slow down the Texans running game.  Even when the Cowboys lost their top two rushing options, they still found success on the ground.  Therefore, the game plan is no secret - the Texans are going back to basics and should pound the ball with aplomb on Sunday. 

The scary thing for Ravens fans, is their defense was already playing below-average before the injuries in Week 6 - and they put up these bad numbers against weak offenses!

The same issues are present with the Ravens offense.  They've face below-average defenses this year and they've been very inconsistent as well.  A 5-1 record is nice to have in your back pocket, but this team clearly has issues going forward. 

Yet, this is the NFL and I'm not saying this is going to be a blowout, either.  The Texans have shown some signs of inconsistency on defense.  They slaughter the lower half of the league, but were completely embarrassed against Rodgers and the Packers receivers in prime-time.  They still need to overcome the loss of Cushing and prove they can right the ship.

The good news is I think they return to normal after two high-profile games under the spotlight.  Nobody wins a Super Bowl in October, so they have a long way to go to get more comfortable as a championship-caliber team - and it starts this Sunday.

NFL Pick: 49ers -1.5 & Texans -.5.

New York Giants PK & Chicago Bears PK

Giants

If context were irrelevant, this could appear like a dangerous point spread for the G-men.  This is the NFC East after all.  However, the Giants lost both games to the Redskins last season, so I'm not the least bit worried about a letdown spot here after New York dominated the 49ers in Week 6.

From an X's and O's standpoint, the Skins don't match up very well here.  They have what is arguably the worst pass defense in the league, while the Giants ranks near the top in passing the ball.  Some of that is on the meager secondary, but an equal amount should be attributed to the pass rush (or lackethereof).  It would really help if Washington's defense could show some personality and step up on third down or stiffen up in the red zone, but they aren't very good in those areas either.

That said, the raw talent and flair of RG3 is simply too dangerous right now to risk taking the Giants straight on the spread.  Even though I have them graded as full touchdown favorites, it makes more sense to tease them down.  RG3 is not only making impressive reads in the passing game and dynamic runs on the ground, but he elevates the play of those around him and isn't the turnover machine say, a Mike Vick is. 

New York is also a team that has started slow at home a couple times vs weaker opponents this season.  It's clear they relish the underdog role much more than that as a favorite.  I like them to win, but the chance for a close game or back-door cover by RG3 is very real.

Bears

In the other leg of this teaser, we have the Bears on Monday Night Football.  One would think this would be a recipe for disaster with a guy like Jay Cutler under center, but he's 5-1 on MNF.  Lovie Smith is 8-2 on MNF.

With that out of the way, the reasons why I like Chicago to win the game are pretty straight-forward.

To start, there is such a disparity in special teams between these two.  It might only make up 15% of a team's ability to win a game, but in a league of parity, that can mean a lot.  The Lions have been atrocious in this area, while the Bears have been among the best (if not the best). 

Yet, what I like most about this game for Chicago is their ability to take away the deep passing game for Detroit.  They are one of the last teams in the league to maintain the traditional cover 2, but it's only because they do it so well.  The Lions have faced some variation of this approach for most of the season as they haven't put up the kind of gaudy numbers as expected.  Can Stafford put together long drives, put up points, and not lose the turnover battle?

Meanwhile, the one hope the Lions do have is their ability to rush the QB.  Their D-line only ranks in the middle of the road in sacks, but the talent is always there to take over a game.  Given the issues Chicago continue to have on their O-line, this is a battle sure to be showcased heavily.

Another overlooked aspect of this Lions defense is their ability to keep people out of the end zone.  They give up a lot of big plays in the passing game, but teams aren't dominating them on a drive-per-drive basis. 

However, the bottom line is the Bears are fundamentally better across the board (O-line notwithstanding).  Throw in home field advantage, and this becomes a no-brainer teaser option of the week.

NFL Pick: NYG PK & CHI PK.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 7: Jaguars vs Raiders

Jacksonville Jaguars vs Oakland Raiders: OAK -4 (Pinnacle)

Markets

This is a point spread I don't understand at all.  In the offseason, the Raiders were 5.5 point favorites.  The look-ahead line last week was -4.5.  It re-opened at -5, but early money actually came in on the Jaguars.  I know this move isn't based on any mismatches on the field, so what is the thinking here?  Does a bye week really mean that much for the Jaguars?  Do some expect a letdown after Oakland came up short in Atlanta?

Jaguars Advantages

This is going to be a short segment.  There isn't a single statistical advantage the Jaguars have on the Raiders.  I've written about the ineptness of Jacksonville before, so I feel I should simply copy and paste at this point.

The Raiders don't have the greatest run defense and statistically, they are a bit below average this season.  Perhaps MJD breaks out and has a monster day, but we've seen that story before.  In the past, his effectiveness on the ground gave Jacksonville a chance to win games, but if it isn't coupled with a solid defensive effort, it becomes irrelevant.

The lone potential bright spot for the Jags comes with their red zone defense.  Despite getting completely owned up and down the field, they have been able to get some stops inside the 20.  However, we are nowhere close to calling this unit a "bend-but-not-break" defense.

Ugly Football

I'm not sure what the ratings will be for this game outside of their respective markets, but this has the makings of one ugly football game.  Oakland's defense has not been good this year and they rank below average in every meaningful category.  The problem for Jacksonville is they simply can't take advantage of these situations.

The majority of offense in the air has come from MJD and Marcedes Lewis (28 of 34 passes).  They've gotten very little production from their wide receivers (42 of 96 passes), despite having one of the top prospects in the game in Justin Blackmon.

How much of this can be attributed to Blaine Gabbert?  I'd say a lot.  I truly expected a bigger jump in development from him this year, and he did show some promise in the preseason, but the numbers don't lie.  He's been one of the least effective QB's in the league thus far.

If they hope to win this game, they're primary option will be over the middle since the Raiders linebackers haven't been the best this year.

Turning the Corner?

I've consistently bashed Oakland this year, but I have always maintained that the schematic changes they made in the offseason were a step in the right direction.  Perhaps they took one of those steps coming out of the bye because the effort they put forth in Atlanta was very impressive.

There are still a few issues though.  Carson Palmer continues to take two steps forward and two steps back.  You can't throw a soft out pattern late in the game against a corner like Asante Samuel.  I'd understand if you were a younger QB, but as a veteran that just can't happen.

They are also not getting enough production out of Darren McFadden.  This is one of the elite running backs in the game, but he's been rendered meaningless this season.  Both will have a great opportunity to get back on track against a very disappointing defense.

Jacksonville has been unspeakably bad on that side of the ball, and I highly doubt the return of Daryl Smith is going to suddenly turn everything around.  He is a welcomed addition, but their problems go beyond personnel.

Bottom Line

As long as the books are going to offer us a reasonable point spread in Jaguars games, I'm going to continue to take it.  At this point, they've almost become an automatic fade.  I don't really care if they had a full month to prepare for this game, there has been very little sign that this team is capable of putting it all together for an entire game.

The sharps have backed them three times at home this year, and lost every single time.  Early line movement suggests they are spotting value once again this week.  I still don't see it.  Take the Raiders.

NFL Pick: OAK -4.

NFL Predictions 2012 Week 7: Titans vs Bills

Tennessee Titans vs Buffalo Bills: BUF -3 (Pinnacle)

Markets

Back in the offseason, and again in the look-ahead line, Vegas pegged the Bills as 3.5 point favorites in this matchup.  I'm not entirely sure what people saw in Week 6 to think this game should be moved to three, but that's what it re-opened at on Sunday night.  Some early action has come in on Buffalo and right now you have to pay a bit extra juice to lay the field goal. At the same time, that three won't be available if more money continues to pour on the home team.

Optimism in Tennessee?

If I'm making an argument for the Titans, I point to the inspired upset over the Steelers, the extra time to prepare, and the general underachieving of the Bills. 

Yet, a closer look at the Titans win last Thursday reveals a deceiving picture.  A variety of things fell their way and the Steelers were severely banged up.  We've seen a fair share of underdogs rise up in critical situations to defy the odds this year, and Tennessee was no exception.

The Titans will not have any sort of "situational advantage" in their tilt with the Bills.

Lesser of Two Evils

There's simply no way to spin this - the Bills defense has been atrocious this year.  I can't possibly sit here and make a logical case for them to stop the Titans.  They haven't been able to get off the field on third down, they can't keep people out of the end zone, and they rarely win the turnover battle.

The good news is they get to face an equally inept offense. Matt Hasselbeck is serviceable and far less erratic than Jake Locker, but by no means is he about to set the league on fire and force defenses to game-plan for him, either.  He does have Kenny Britt back, so that helps.  He also has the benefit of playing behind a better-than-average offensive line. Even Chris Johnson came close to the 100 yard mark last week.

However, the stark reality here is that the Titans just don't strike fear into anybody.  The Bills might be underachieving on defense, but they still have the personnel to put up a competitive fight against average offenses.

Offense vs Defense: Advantage Bills

I'll be the first to say I'm not a fan of Ryan Fitzpatrick.  It's safe to say that he is just not going to reach the expectations his contract placed on him.  Buffalo's turnover differential isn't as bad as the Titans, but they do have more interceptions than fumbles at this point.  Some of that can be attributed to tough competition and coming from behind, but a fair share of that is on Fitzpatrick as well.

The reason I like the Bills in this spot is because of what we've seen unfold all year.  The Titans took a big risk in letting Cortland Finnegan go, and it's been their Archilles heel all season.  Even in the win last week, they allowed Big Ben to put up monster numbers in the air.

The Titans have also been susceptible on the ground because they don't have any defensive standouts anywhere in their starting roster.  With a healthier C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson in the backfield, Fitzpatrick should be able to play within his skill-set.  They are also in little danger of playing from a massive deficit. 

Both of these teams have been bad this year, but Buffalo have made some respectable gains with their offense.  They rank near the middle of the road in third down conversions and above-average in red zone efficiency.  The running game is the key advantage, and it should open enough opportunities for Scott Chandler and Johnson in the air. 

Bottom Line

As poor as Buffalo has been this year, I'm not about to rank them even with Tennessee at this point.  They very easily could have rolled over in Arizona last week, but they stepped up and proved they still have a competitive backbone.  Of course the same could be argued for the Titans, but let's see how they do when they aren't on national TV in a favorable scheduling spot. 

NFL Pick: BUF -3.