Monday, August 19, 2013

NFL Preseason Predictions 2013: Patriots vs Lions [UPDATED]

New England Patriots vs Detroit Lions: NE +2.5 (Pinnacle) +.5 1stH (5Dimes)

Market Watch

This is a very curious point spread. What's even more interesting is that we've seen a line move from the opening -1 for Detroit to -2.5. Yet, when we check the Sports Insights tracker, 70% of the bets are on the Patriots. So what gives? Let's unpack this game and see what's going on here.

Coaching/Motivation

There's a perception out there that Bill Belichick doesn't take the dress rehearsal seriously. They will point to the fact that he's 6-7 straight up in Week 3 games, and over the last five years he's 0-5 against the spread.

However, taking a closer look three of those five games were within a field goal, one of them Tom Brady didn't even play, and in another he was knocked out at halftime due to an injury.  So let's calm down with the "fade Belichick in dress rehearsal" talk shall we?

There's also no question that Jim Schwartz has traditionally liked to win in the preseason. I've pointed this out many times in my preseason picks, but something might be amiss this year. I'll get into that in a minute, but for now it is worth noting that Schwartz is 13-5 SU, 12-6 ATS, and 3-1 in dress rehearsal games.

Quarterbacks

One reason why the Lions have been so good in the preseason is due in large part to their history of quality backup quarterbacks. Shaun Hill is one of the best for the role he plays, but he's missed practice all week due to an injury no one knows anything about. Will he play in this game? He might, and if he does it will alter how strongly I feel about this play.  That said, it is a red flag when a guy sits out practice without any reason from the coach. This is the preseason after all, and Schwartz has never been a guy to play coy during exhibition season.

The problems might extend beyond the backup situation for Detroit though. I like Stafford, but when CJ or Bush is off the field, he hasn't looked comfortable one bit this preseason. The first team offense has produced just two field goals on seven possessions. He looks rushed and his footwork hasn't been good.

For New England, no one is quite sure what Belichick has planned. He said the starters can be expected to play into the third quarter, but he might also pull Brady after one series and call it a night. The good news is Brady has played into the third quarter in each of the last three seasons. He was knocked out of the game at halftime four years ago, and didn't play five years ago. In two of the last three years, he even went into the fourth quarter.

Assuming Brady plays a similar length in this one, it's doubtful we'll see much of Tim Tebow. Ryan Mallett is still a guy in need of experience and he should be just fine running this offense in the second half.

What to watch for ...

...Calvin Johnson. He was quoted in the press this week that he is planning on playing. The Patriots are preparing as if he's gonna play, but Jim Schwartz was non-committal.  The thing I'm skeptical about is why risk playing him for extended reps if there's even a chance at a setback? He missed both practices this week, so I'm not sure he's going to play. Local beat reporters in Detroit have expressed similar doubt. Looks like CJ won't play, so I like the value on the first half play as well. He's widely regarded as the most influential non-QB player on a team (minus AP), and when he's out of the game the offense just isn't the same.

Detroit cornerbacks. If there's a weakness in pass defense, you can be sure Brady is going to target it. Beyond Houston, there isn't a lot of reliability in this secondary. Bill Bentley got torched in the first preseason game and now has Rashean Mathis breathing down his neck.

Offensive line. For the Lions, the right side of the line is a big question mark.  They are happy to have some running back depth in Bush, Leshoure, and Bell, but the O-line has not opened up enough holes in the run game and if CJ is limited, the pressure on Stafford and company revs up another notch. Heck, even Riley Reiff at left tackle is a question mark. The Patriots have shown a nice pass rush this preseason.

Brady's protection. Two years ago the Lions harassed Brady all night long on route to a nice preseason win. It's going to be a serious test for this offensive line because the Detroit D-line is about the only thing that has been consistent through two games. If Brady does get time though, the back seven for Detroit are suspect in their tackling with many blown assignments - just as they were last year.

With Amendola unlikely to play, it opens up an opportunity for Julian Edelman.

Bottom Line

Worst case scenario? CJ and Shaun Hill are healthy and produce, and Tim Tebow plays extensive reps in the second half. A more realistic scenario? Schwartz holds one (or both) of those guys out for precautionary reasons and Tebow sticks on the bench. Assuming this game plays out as expected, I see some nice value with the Patriots getting points as a dog. The Lions have the ability to pull out a win, but I see enough problems/injuries to bet against it.

NFL Pick: NE +2.5 (+100).