Thursday, January 31, 2013

NFL Predictions 2013: Super Bowl XLVII

Baltimore Ravens vs San Francisco 49ers: SF -3.5 (Pinnacle)

To put the Super Bowl bettting in perspective, let's consider that betting on the Pro-Bowl exceeded the Heats-Celtics and Thunder-Lakers games combined.  The Pro-Bowl people.

With more than $90 million expected to be bet on the Super Bowl in Las Vegas and who knows how much in the offshore world, it's an understatement to say that people all across the world are looking for an edge. Let's take a closer look and see what we find.

Markets

As the conference championship games were winding down, Vegas put out a point spread around -5 or -4.5. Immediately sharp money took the Ravens and the semi-official opener settled around -4.5 or -4. Since  then we haven't seen a lot of significant movement. The line has settled at -4, but  -3.5 is out there if you shop around.

What's important for us is where the line is going to go leading up to kick off?  We know the public is going to come in heavy on the 49ers during the weekend. How will the sharp money respond? Will they wait for the best Baltimore number they can get? That's a likely assumption given how predictable betting patterns are.  Personally I'd love to see the 49ers hit -3, but I'd also like a yacht, personal jet, and VIP pass for the winning locker room too.

Superficial Storylines, Fluff Pieces, and Over-Analysis

If you're looking for more exhaustive analysis about Ray Lewis or the Harbaugh family tree, you came to the wrong place. The national media has over-analyzed the storylines to death. My question is whether or not there is any line value to be had.

Against the Odds

Based on the odds to win the Super Bowl before the playoffs began, the Ravens had a 9% chance to win the big show. And based on what they had to overcome along the way, they are the first team in over 20 years to win in back-to-back playoff games as more than touchdown underdogs.

But Who Are the Ravens, Really?

Football Outsiders have the Ravens 7th in their weighted power rankings while the 49ers are 4th.

Statistically, the Ravens have had their best two defensive games in a row. Based on what we've seen all year there are two ways of looking at this, and media members will spin it depending on what point the want to prove.

All season the Ravens defense mostly resembled a bend-but-don't-break unit. They allowed teams to march up and the down the field in between the 20's, but they would tighten up in key situations.  They were amongst the league leaders on third down and in red zone defense.  In December, these areas faltered and you saw what happened on the scoreboard.  In the playoffs though, they not only reverted back to their earlier form, but they took it up a couple notches and shut things down. 

On the other side, the Ravens are coming off one of their best offensive performances. The play on both sides of the ball has also masked some very subpar special teams play.

What makes this team so interesting to evaluate is the nature in how they've got to New Orleans.  I picked against Baltimore when they faced Indy, but didn't have any official picks for their last two games.  In hindsight, that turned out to be wise because you would've had a hard time convincing me they were going to pull off what they did.

Their playoff run has definitely given them the belief they can overcome any challenge they face on or off the field, but will the two week break and unique experience of the Super Bowl render their previous wins irrelevant?

The QB Factor

Since QB's win most Super Bowl MVP's, it would be foolish to skip over this position for this game.

Kaepernick remains a deadly threat, but we saw some of those lingering rookie signs of inconsistency last week. This is something I mentioned going into the Packers game, but that obviously fell on deaf ears after one of the best QB performances we've seen in some time. The new read-option that's been implemented has only enhanced what was an already deadly run game. Now if you want to stop them, you not only have to be extremely disciplined and smart, but you have to execute strong fundamentals once you do get the chance to stop a play.  That's easier said than done when you're talking about Gore and Kaepernick. You can do everything right within the scheme and still get beat on brute force and/or athleticism.

Flacco remains hot and cold with his deep balls in the playoffs. He was quite proficient in this area before Jim Caldwell came in and changed up the game plan. Of course most only have his hail  mary prayer against the Broncos in their minds, but this is something to keep an eye on as the 49ers aren't likely to give him much.  They will continue using man coverage underneath with a bracketing cover two scheme up top. A place on the field where Flacco did dominate vs the Patriots was in the red zone though.  Baltimore have been very good at converting inside the 20 all year, but they hit a skid in December before stepping up again in the playoffs. These peaks and valleys make it difficult to get a beat on what the Ravens are really about.

Brotherly Love

I have to give Jim the edge, but I've been a big fan of John's too ever since he was an ace special teams coach under Andy Reid in Philadelphia. I side with Jim if for no other reason than the fact that he and his staff have consistently got more out of his roster than the advanced stats suggest they should. In the 17 statistical categories I look at, the 49ers are average or below average in 6 of them. Not many teams are able to consitently cover inflated point spreads over the course of a season, let alone two, with those kinds of numbers.

The other feather in Jim's hat was the decision to switch to Kaepernick full- time. Alex Smith might not look sexy on the field on your 50 inch flat-screen, but he was having one of the most efficient seasons of his career before his concussion. To shift gears and go with a raw rookie when you have a championship caliber roster takes serious cojones. Clearly it's paid off as there has been no dropoff in any of  the advanced stat categories and subsequently created a whole new dimension that defenses have to account for.

The Crux of the Issue

Like most games, this one is likely going to come down to one-on-one match-ups - especially when the Ravens have the ball.  Can Boldin and Smith cut free? Will Ray Rice elude that shutdown linebacking crew? Will Flacco's protection hold up?

This will be one gigantic test for Baltimore's offense. I expect them to get the ball in Ray Rice's hands as much as possible. He really is the oil for this engine. In fact, if Rice can exceed the Vegas player  prop yardage total, they probably win this game.

Much like Eli Manning, no one expects a lot out of Flacco.  At least they didn't coming into these playoffs. I'm sure some of it has to do with their unassuming demeanors, but they've both been wildly inconsistent in their careers. Can Flacco have his moment in the son and walk away a  hero?  Against this defense and this type of coverage, I'm betting no.

Even if you grant the Ravens a statistical bump in certain areas for their playoff run, they still don't match-up well with the 49ers.  They are outmatched on both sides of the ball.

The one thing that Baltimore do have going for them, and it's the most important area to consider, is how they do in those "make-or-break" moments - third down and red zone. Curiously, they match San Fran evenly in those categories on both sides of the ball.  The issue is can their coaches, schemes, and studs get them in favorable spots?  Third and short or third and long?  Touchdowns or field goals? 

Bottom Line

It's one thing to analyze this game in-depth, but it's another story to go overboard. Given the amount of variance in the NFL week to week, one game could easily flip the switch on what we know and  what we've come to expect all season long.  The Ravens are perfect testament to that.  The 49ers meanwhile, are one of the more consistent teams you'll find in the NFL.  You pretty much know what you're going to get, give or take some minor variance.

When I handicap this game I would set the point spread at SF -1.5. Normally this would make it an automatic play on the Ravens because we are getting a spread over the key number of "3".  Yet, when it comes to SF, you have to find that grey inflation area and ask yourself if it's reasonable or not.  Is anything over -3 too much?  Personally I wouldn't bet anything past -4, but with -3.5 available at multiple books there's no excuse not to grab the best number.

It's not a popular choice among the sharp bettors, but I'm fading the Ravens here. They've crushed inflated spreads in the three games leading up to the Super Bowl, but I think the Cinderella story ends in New Orleans.  I'm willing to lay the hook and ride the team built for a championship, not a team that defied ridiculous odds to get there.

NFL Pick: SF -3.5

Saturday, January 19, 2013

NFL Predictions 2012: Championship Round

Unlike last week, underdogs took a bite of the action this weekend for a 2-2 split ATS.

Divisional Recap

Where would I even begin to summarize the wild weekend of football we just saw?

How about here...


I knew when my preseason Super Bowl picks (Texans vs Packers) got matched up against the Patriots and 49ers that I could be in trouble.  I went into it knowing what the risks were, especially since both New England and San Fran are arguably the toughest in the league to handicap for the simple reason that they consistently outperform their stats.

Elite-level coaching does that for you, but it doesn't hurt to have Tom Brady and a record-setting performance from Colin Kaepernick either.  Despite this, when you dangle +3 and +10 in front of me I had no choice but to bite. 

The good news is the Seahawks battled back from a tough road start for the 2nd week in a row and showed why they're the real deal. I felt a bit bad for them that they gave up the straight up win, but at the end of the day I was happy to cash the ticket. Atlanta was on the cusp of pretender status for the 4th time before Ryan stepped up and finally sealed the deal.

I wanted no part of the Ravens/Broncos thanks to the inflated line, and sometimes the best bets are the ones we don't make.  On a side note, it's too bad we didn't get a Manning/Brady rematch.  That would've been amazing.

Championship Picks

*Note: I won't have picks for every playoff game, but I will be doing betting previews for each game all the way until the Super Bowl. 

49ers vs Falcons

Ravens vs Patriots

Teaser

Friday, January 18, 2013

NFL Predictions 2012 Conference Championships: Teaser

New England Patriots -1.5 & Atlanta Falcons +11

It's been a while since I liked a teaser on the board, but I can't overlook the kind of value this one presents.  The Falcons don't qualify as a "traditional" teaser option crossing through both the "3" and the "7", but since the spread is already inflated over the expected amount, I have no problem doubling down and maximizing the value.


NFL Predictions 2012 Conference Championship: AFC

Baltimore Ravens vs New England Patriots

Markets

NFL Picks 2012 AFC Championship Ravens vs Patriots
Here's a point spread that I expected to come out higher than it should have. In the theoretical look-ahead line prior to the Divisional round, the Patriots were actually -6 favorites vs the Ravens.  That's very surprising on every level.  What did we see over the weekend to suggest this should come out at -9?  By my numbers, the Patriots are clearly more than touchdown favorites in this match-up.  I have the "true line" at -7.5.  Throughout the week we've seen a trickle of support for the Ravens as we are now looking at -7.5 to -8's across the board.  Where will this line go leading up to kickoff? I can't imagine it hitting -7 as most of the general public will be betting both favorites this weekend.

No Mysteries in This Game

Some gave me some misguided slack a couple weeks ago when I called Ray Lewis "overrated" after the Wild Card game, but what people seemed to ignore was the fact that I clearly was referring to his ability to contain pass-catchers over the middle and in space. I was also referring to the current version of Ray Lewis, not the guy from yesteryear.

People can point to his tackle totals this post-season, but we all know those are inflated stats - often times coming as second man in and assisted tackles. If you actually watched the game or caught some replays on tape, you'll see how rusty he's been and how often teams have taken advantage of his speed deficit. Look for Brady and company to do more of the same this weekend. Big advantage Patriots.

Patriots lost Gronkowski, but they've been down this road earlier in the season. The completion percentage, YPP, and TD-INT ratio all went down with him out of the lineup, but when I say "down" it must be taken in context. This offense is a well-oiled machine with or without Gronk.

One aspect of the improved Patriots defense that is finally getting more attention is the acquisition of Aqib Talib. It took him a while to get adjusted and overcome some injury problems, but he's settled right in and put some semblence of stability in that secondary.  The trickle down effect on the guys around him has been noticeable as the consistent gaffs in coverage are not nearly as prevalent as they were in the first half of the season.

AFC Championship: Ravens vs PatriotsFlacco has impressed this post-season and surpassed my expectations by a long-shot. He deserves a lot of credit for not only being a major difference maker, but for overcoming the challenges he faced in Denver. He's shown these flashed of moxy before, but there always seems to be some kind of major speed bump somewhere along the way. In fact, after a great start, his numbers continued to trend towards mediocre before this final surge late in the season.

It's this kind of inconsistency that will remain to leave doubters with major questions - especially in big moments such as this. The thing he has going for him is no one expects them to win this week. It's very similiar to what we had last week when they were -9 point underdogs.

As usual, much of Baltimore's success will rest on the legs of Ray Rice. The Patriots rank near the very top in rush defense efficiency, although some of that is due to the fact that teams become one-dimensional after falling behind.

If Rice can reach the 25-30 carry/touch range, the Ravens might actually be in a position to give the Patriots some concerns.

That said, without a strong pass rush from their defense it might not matter what they do on offense. I haven't seen much from this defense to suggest they are about to dominate, or even win, the line of scrimmage on Sunday. What could be even more troubling is what they do when Brady goes into hurry-up mode. Not many defenses have an answer for that.

Even if Baltimore do find a way to sustain some pressure, they have to be wary of New England's potent run game. As I pointed out last week, this offense is at or near the top of the rankings in every meaningful advanced stat category out there.

Bottom Line

This point spread is exactly where it should be - above -7. When the Ravens took on the Broncos, I said I would have made an official pick on Denver if the line fell to -7, which it didn't. Even though Denver lost, I would have felt pretty good about that bet since the Ravens were trailing by a TD with under 2 minutes to go. The Broncos had held their passing attack to just 36 yards in the 2nd half before their miracle TD to tie it up.

The Patriots aren't a lock to win this game because this is the NFL, but their odds are obviously pretty high to come out on top - and by two scores at that. I'm willing to put them in a teaser with the Falcons  right now, but if by some chance it drops to -7 I'll add the home favorite as a pick as well.

NFL Predictions 2012 Conference Championship: NFC

San Francisco 49ers vs Atlanta Falcons: ATL +5 (Bodog)

Markets

At what point do we look at an inflated point spread and say enough is enough?  The theoretical look-ahead line for this game was at "pick em" before the Divisional round. A bookmaker on the Behind the Bets podcast with Chad Millman said "pick em" was about right statistically, but thought -3 was a proper line to compensate for "perception".

I couldn't agree with him more as my numbers come out around the same.  I expected San Fran to be inflated because, like the Patriots, they outperform their stats on a regular basis. Yet, I was surprised that books moved the game off the key number of "3" on Sunday night.  Sharps recognized that money was going to pour in on the road team and bet -3 mostly in an anticipatory move and books quickly recognized that they put out a number that was too enticing to bettors across the board.

Now we sit here late in the week and the line is hovering anywhere from -3.5 all the way up to -5, depending on where you shop.  I don't care how good the 49ers are, I'm not passing on that kind of value.

Deja Vu?

This match-up features big similarities to last week's NFC games.  The 49ers are facing a pass-heavy offense, while the Falcons are facing a run-first team with a mobile QB and a stout defense.

The good news for Atlanta is they were able to rack up rushing yards against the Seahawks, something that no one would have predicted based on what we've seen all year.  Now they must hope they can have just moderate success against the best run defense in the NFL.

They'll also face a defense that likes to limit the big down-field play with bracket safety play. This forces opposing offenses to exhaust their playbook and take their chances with crossing routes, tight end match-ups, and swing passes. With a linebacking corp full of pro-bowlers who can cover, there is no easy answer for this SF defense.

And the questions don't stop there.

No one liked how the Falcons responded when Seattle punched them back in the mouth last week. If SF can overcome the 1st Q tidal wave of home momentum, can ATL deal with it?

What will they do with Kaepernick? Will Kaepernick fare as well on the road in this spot?  Cam Newton exposed ATL twice this year. Wilson had 60 yards and a TD, but did not utilize the read-option for any of those plays. Don't expect that to happen with Kaepernick. Does the ATL defense have the necessary gap discipline?

The Falcons will need to spy Kaepernick, but this does provide extra opportunities in the passing game - something the young QB seems able to exploit.  Harbaugh will also be busy creating favorable match-ups that will come down to simple execution.

The benefit for the Falcons is they have a playoff win under their belts and it came from a "make-or-break" moment. I should actually make that plural since they got clutch plays from Ryan/Gonzalez as well as their kicker.  That kind of confidence might be able to carry over.

The added relief they'll get is the big underdog status they'll have.  With no one giving them much of a chance to win this game, there won't be the big dark cloud of pressure looming over them like last week.  This could all be meaningless if the 49ers beat them to a pulp, but if the game is close it's the little things that could contribute to a win (or in my case a cover).

Bottom Line

I probably deserve to lose this pick since it's become ridiculous to bet against the 49ers over the last two seasons, but value is value - especially for a #1 seed playing at home. A place where they've had a great deal of success as well.

In fact, this line might even go higher with more money expected to come in on the 49ers leading up to kickoff.  I suggest if you like the Falcons in this spot, wait until you see what happens over the course of Saturday - and even early on Sunday.

NFL Pick: ATL +5.

Friday, January 11, 2013

NFL Predictions 2012 Playoffs: Divisional Round

If you like to bet favorites, you had a great start to the playoffs! There was a clean sweep as each favorite covered the spread, including three out of four home teams.

Wild Card Round Recap

I got two out of three right with the Colts coming up short. I felt pretty good about that pick until Vinateiri missed a straight-forward field goal which triggered a late collapse.

After the Skins went up 14-0 I have to say I was a bit concerned. That said, it's not unusual for home teams to come out on fire only to give way to the better team the rest of the way.  The Seahawks domination in the final three quarters was the kind of game I expected.  This is one dangerous team and the books took notice by making the Falcons -2.5 point favorites.  In the look-ahead line last week, Vegas had it at -3.

On Saturday, the Texans took care of business as the Bengals went 0-9 on third down.  That was the story of the game really and was one of the primary reasons I didn't like their chances in a "make-or-break" matchup.  Granted, Houston looked tentative at times, especially in the red zone. If they have any hope next week, they can't do it by kicking field goals.

Divisional Picks

*Note: I won't have picks for every playoff game, but I will be doing betting previews for each game all the way until the Super Bowl.

Ravens vs Broncos

Packers vs 49ers

Seahawks vs Falcons 

Texans vs Patriots



NFL Predictions 2012 Divisional Round: Texans vs Patriots

Houston Texans vs New England Patriots: HOU +10 (Bodog)

Markets 

Before the Wild Card round, Vegas put up -7.5 in favor of the Patriots for their theoretical match-up with the Texans.  After reviewing everything, this was a very accurate point spread for this game. Yet, after the weekend games, the line re-opened at -9.5. There hasn't been a lot of movement during the week as it still hovers around the -9 to -10 range. Books know if they drop it below -9 they'll get a ton of teaser action on the Patriots.

Between -7.5 and -9.5 there aren't any "key numbers", but once you hit -10 you have to begin looking at the underdog.  With a 2.5 point inflation, I'm more than prepared to ride the Texans and take my chances.

Blood in the Water?

Yes, the Texans got slaughtered in their last trip to Foxboro. It can't be good for the collective psyche that Houston have dominated teams all season, but got their butts whipped against the Packers and Patriots.

The problem for Houston hasn't been how their roster stacks up on paper though. From a numbers standpoint, there's no reason to think the Texans can't hang in this game. In fact, they should be able to win it straight up.

The issue for them so far has been two-fold. First, losing Cushing continues to hurt this team. He was a crucial anchor in the middle of the field that just can't be replaced. Dobbins was decent, and even good at times, but even he's injured for this game. These injuries give teams two new options to attack this Texans defense.

The other big issue has been the approach taken by Wade Philips. He deserves a lot of credit for what he's done with this defense over the past two seasons, but unless he figures out a scheme to slow down a spread offense led by an elite QB, he can forget about getting this team to the promised land.

Don't expect to see the same formations again this weekend in the rematch. It's hard enough stopping the lethal two-tight end set Patriots offense as it is, but you can't do the same thing and hope for a different result. The game plan simply didn't work on any level.

Yet, even if Wade does come up with something that clicks, Brady can easily turn it all upside down with a hurry-up offense that would keep Houston off-balance.

The question is how do you disrupt this offense?  Three of the four TDs in the last game came against blitzes.  Dropping back in zone didn't work either. 

Whatever approach the Texans take, they'll need to execute at a high level and not fold in those make-or-break moments.  The big key will be winning the one-on-one match-ups, regardless of formation.

Speaking of Unstoppable...

New England have an obvious passing advantage with Brady vs Schaub, but their running game is also greatly underappreciated. When you look at the advanced metrics for this offense, you'll see top ranks across the board. That covers everything including QB efficiency, rushing/passing, pass protection, drive success rate, 3rd down/red zone efficiency, and turnover differential.

Yikes!

Welker, Gronk, Hernandez, Ridley...who do you take away?  Where do you leave the isolated match-ups?

Even if Houston find a way to disrupt one area, they have so many other things to worry about - and they must maintain their focus/discipline for an entire 60 minutes in a very tough road environment.

The 3rd Wheel

Something that can turn a game in the playoffs is special teams. If the Texans score a FG/TD, it can all be for nothing if they give up a long kick return. A stalled drive can result in a lethal punt return. A nice drive can be killed by a missed kick.

You get the idea. The Houston special teams has been a big liability for most of the season. At times they were showing signs of improvement, but it was more window dressing than anything. The Patriots aren't world-class in this area, but they are above average with their special teams units.

The troubling thing for the Texans is the fact that this area of the game could create an avalanche of momentum against them at any point. 

Another Blowout?

Belichick isn't about to take his foot off the pedal if his team gets a lead in this game, but let's not get crazy here. The sky isn't falling just yet.

The Texans are more than capable of being competitive in this game. It's almost an advantage that they got to face New England so recently to find out what they need to fix in order to have a chance this time around.

Aside from special teams, there's not an area on the field on either side of the ball that screams "huge mismatch".

The obvious key for Houston will be controlling the line of scrimmage, remaining poised, and keeping this game within a score or two. They are not built to come back from a big deficit.

Arian Foster needs to be the main man on offense to maximize Schaub's options in the air.  It's really that straight-forward.  Houston is best when they are dictating on both sides of the ball. On Sunday, they'll need to succeed on one side of action at the very least.

Bottom Line

I picked the Texans to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season. After blowing home field advantage, the prospects of that happening have dwindled. They also have to go into Foxboro and stop an offense that very few teams have figured out how to stop. When you combine Belichick, Brady, and a brilliant two-tight end set, it's just a matter of time before they break you down.

With all that said, this game should not be a double-digit spread. Even with their metrics and home field advantage, the highest I'd put this line at is -7.5. People are talking like the Texans are nothing more than a speedbump on the road to Patriots glory.

I might be one of the last people who still believe in Houston, but I'm prepared to go down with the ship this season. If they execute how they've done for most of the year and their studs play like studs, they will cover this spread. From a value perspective, give me +10 and I'll take that every time.

NFL Pick: HOU +10.

NFL Predictions 2012 Divisional Round: Seahawks vs Falcons

Seattle Seahawks vs Atlanta Falcons: SEA +3 (Bodog)

Markets

Here's an interesting point spread to talk about.  Last week in the Vegas look-ahead lines, the Falcons were listed as -3 point favorites vs the Seahawks, but after Seattle handled the Redskins they re-opened it at -2.5. 

So what's changed during the week?  Well, not much. Thankfully we have options. If you shop around there are books out there that are offering us the key number of +3 for Seattle.  Most books are staying firm at 2.5 though and some are even keeping it out of the teaser window entirely at -1.

Should you buy the half point to push your edge up to a field goal? Usually I say no given the amount of juice that it costs.  Most of the time I'm only interested in buying up or down if the juice sits somewhere inbetween -3 and -3.5.  I could also make the case that Seattle is going to win this game straight up. 

That said, I'm always in favor of increasing my odds the best I can.  A full field goal is nice to have.  Still, even +2.5 points in my back pocket can come in handy in a close game since a team like Seattle like to play knock-down-drag-out games.

The Dark Cloud of Failure

The Falcons coaches and players can talk all they want about how they aren't thinking about their lack of playoff success, but that's the most obvious lie of the century.

The big playoff "but" for the Falcons is likely going to come down to whether or not the changes at the coordinator position will make a difference this weekend. They've had excellent teams before, as well as home field advantage.

Mike Smith runs a well-oiled machine and Atlanta have thrived over the last few seasons in areas often overlooked. When a team consistently does the little things right, you have to wonder why the playoff success hasn't followed.

The name of the game for the offseason was "aggressiveness".  That was the driving force behind the hiring of both Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan. So far this season the moves have paid off in a big way and it's a primary reason why I believed in this Atlanta team when many others didn't.

They are also a main reason why the Falcons are above average in 12 of the 17 advanced stat categories I follow, and near the top five of them (QB, 3rd down offense, red zone defense, net avg field position, and fewest offensive penalties).

In a nutshell, these aren't your same Atlanta Falcons. Last season they lost almost every big game they were in, but this season they are 7-2 in games decided by eight points or less.

Match-Ups, Match-Ups, Match-Ups

The problem for Atlanta is who they drew as an opponent this week. The Falcons are built to win in today's pass-happy NFL, but the Seahawks are built to exploit Atlanta's approach. Seattle is not only great at rushing the ball, but they are also great at defending the pass. That's not a good combination if you're the Falcons.

The Seahawks haven't been as stout vs the run in the 2nd half of the season as they were in the first half, but it's not an area that the Falcons are very efficient at anyways.

Of course, it doesn't help Seattle that they lost a key defensive player in Chris Clemons. This guy was a vital piece of their line who could play both the run and rush the passer. This kept him on the field more than any other lineman on the team.

Thankfully they have an up-and-coming threat in Bruce Irvin. He's not an all-around player yet, but since the Falcons are a pass-first team, his presence could create havoc in the backfield.

That said, the Falcons have done a good job protecting Ryan this year and the Seahawks pass rush hasn't been as good as it was earlier in the year. Yet, even if Ryan does get time he'll have his work cut out for him facing the likes of Browner, Sherman, and Chancellor in coverage.

And speaking of Ryan, how will he respond in his big moment? Well we've asked this question three times before and for much of his playoff career he's been seen with a bewildered look on his face. I'm a fan of Ryan, but he should call Romo and ask him how heavy the monkey can get. Will he get it off his back this year? If not, he won't have any excuses this time around. All the pieces are in place for him to get it done.

Offensively, the Seahawks have their own questions with Lynch's foot, but Turbin should get more attention here. He's not going to get the extra yards that Lynch gets, but he's been a solid contributer all year.

They'll line up against a rested Falcons defense, but how healthy are Robinson, Samuel, and Abraham?  If any of them can't play near 100%, there is a big dropoff with their replacements.

It should also be noted that the Falcons have gotten torched twice this season by another read-option offense in the Panthers. Carolina rushed for 199 and 195 yards in those games.

Another key for Seattle will be converting red zone chances into touchdowns instead of field goals. Both teams are identical in their red zone rankings on both sides of the ball this year, but Seattle has been rising fast up the charts with their red zone offense during their win streak.

Seattle also boasts a key advantage with their offensive 3rd down efficiency vs Atlanta's 3rd down defense. It might be a draw inside the 20, but the Seahawks might be able to stay on the field longer and create more red zone chances if they continue the play they've shown over the last couple months.  The threat that Wilson presents in the backfield is something the Falcons defense is going to have to figure out, especially in the "make-or-break-moments". The kid has already shown he's ready for prime time, so I like his odds at coming through in the clutch.

Bottom Line

Of all the teams in the league, Atlanta must be banging their heads on the wall with this match-up. Seattle matches up brilliantly with them on both sides of the ball. If Atlanta hope to win this game they'll need some special moments and/or fortunate luck.

And if they fall behind? I think Falcon-Nation will be holding their collective breath in nervous dread. There is absolutely no pressure on Seattle, and the weight of the world on Atlanta. The Seahawks will win this game unless the Falcons rise up and have one of their best games of the season.

NFL Pick: SEA +3.

NFL Predictions 2012 Divisional Round: Packers vs 49ers

Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers: GB +3 (Bodog)

Markets

Many people expected the Packers to defeat the Vikings in the Wild Card round, including Vegas.  Therefore, there isn't much change in the look-ahead line. Last week Vegas put out theoretical point spreads and the Packers were +3 dogs vs the 49ers.  It re-opened at +3.25 with the option to lay a bit extra juice on either side for a favorable number.

But there's been some movement early in the week. Now if you like the Packers (like I do), you'll have to lay a bit extra juice just for +3.  Will it move off the 3?  It could at some point, but it would take a lot considering what a key number it is and the amount of money expected to be bet on this game.

I'm not going to take any chances and go ahead and grab the +3 now just in case.

Much Ado About Nothing

The side story about Rodgers returning to play the team that passed him over in the draft is a nice story for the media, but it's completely irrelevant to this match-up. He has a Super Bowl ring and MVP to his name, so let's end that discussion right now. And for good measure, Rodgers has a 3-1 road playoff record, one short of the all-time record.

Another dead storyline is their first match-up to start the year. The Packers have three different starters on both sides of the ball and the 49ers have a different QB, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Nothing in Week 1 (with replacement refs I might add) is going to matter much in this game.

Who Are the 49ers Anyways?

What's far more interesting is the mystery surround Colin Kaepernick. The kid only has seven starts to his name so it's anyone's guess how he's going to come out and play this weekend. I thought it was a wise move to fade him on Monday Night Football in his big prime-time appearance before he warped into Randall Cunningham and put me in my place.

It's not the first time I've faded the 49ers either. I've consistently disrespected them over the last two seasons, but I have acknowledged that 2011 was no fluke, too. A primary reason they outperform their stats is thanks to Jim Harbaugh's direction.  The sum is often times greater than it's parts.

Due to this, it's often difficult to handicap them. There are clear inconsistencies throughout their stat-lines and they haven't been nearly as dominant as they were last season.

Strangely, they have one of the worst pass protections in the NFL. Kaepernick's legs can help compensate for that, but he's also going to run himself into trouble at times too. They continue to rank below average on third down offense, and below average in red zone efficiency on both sides of the ball. Even their special teams is way down from last season.

On the flip side, their passing efficiency has improved a lot this season - and there hasn't been any dropoff with Kaepernick under center (despite playing a fairly challenging group of defenses this season).

The 49ers hope to get a boost with their pass rush with the return of Justin Smith. This guy is a flat out beast, but how efficient will he be with that injury? If anyone is wondering, Clay Matthews is healthy too and the Packers actually have a better statistical pass rush this season.

In a game where both teams have question marks on their O-line, I think Green Bay might be in a better position to exploit it - especially when you have Rodgers vs Kaepernick under center.

The Challenge for the Packers

Controlling the damage done on the ground. It's no secret what Adrian Peterson did to Green Bay this year and the 49ers now present a double threat with Gore/Kaepernick. Capers might be pulling his hair out because if he plays man-coverage the 49ers will have them gassed by the 4th quarter. If they stack the box you can bet Harbaugh will find ways to locate the mismatches.

Look for Capers to mix things up, something he's very good at doing. This could give the rookie QB some problems.

That said, even if the Packers do maintain gap integrity and manage their zones well, they're far better off grabbing the lead. That's not rocket science, but sometimes it's just that simple. Get the 49ers out of their comfort zone and Kaepernick might try to play hero. He's already shown a bit of an erratic tendancy early in his career.

The Packers have a full slate of healthy receiving options, so Rodgers will be licking his chops. Even without ideal protection, he'll be a lot more comfortable going through his progressions knowing someone he trusts is on the other end.

With Rodgers, they also have one of the best red zone offenses in the NFL. His ball location, along with the pass catching/route running of his WR's make it nearly impossible to stop at times.

Bottom Line

I not only think the Packers cover the +3 spread, but I think they win this game straight up. I would be a bit concerned about Crosby kicking in a tight game, but Akers is just as much of a choke artist, if not more.

On a neutral field I actually think the Packers are the better football team. I think this spread should be under a field goal and the Rodgers vs Kaepernick discrepancy is notable. I might be fading the 49ers at my peril, but I picked Green Bay to make it to the Super Bowl and I've seen nothing to change my mind at this point.

NFL Pick: GB +3.


NFL Predictions 2012 Divisional Round: Ravens vs Broncos

Baltimore Ravens vs Denver Broncos

I have no pick for this game, but I have a full write-up over at IBtimes.com.  In a sentence, I really don't like the Ravens chances in this game, but the spread is a tad too high for my liking.  If by some miracle it drops to -7 at some point before kickoff I'll be adding the Broncos as a play.




Saturday, January 5, 2013

NFL Predictions 2012: Wild Card Playoffs

Favorites and dogs split the final week of the regular season going 8-8 ATS.  Dogs finished 134-115-7 overall (53.8%) on the season. In review, underdogs hit over 60% during the first half of the year, but favorites took over in the second half.  If you predominately play one or the other, 2012 gave new meaning to "peaks and valleys".

Week 17 Recap

Sunday was a light day for me as I didn't want to get too involved in a bunch of meaningless games.  The Packers and Texans both came up short and both of them were head-scratchers.  There's not much we can do when Christian Ponder had the kind of day he did.  He not only managed the game well and limited his mistakes, but he also threw 3 TD passes on the day.  A sign of things to come next week?  I highly doubt it.

The Texans once again had another big letdown game after failing to clinch home field advantage in the playoffs. It's one thing to lose to a hot Vikings team, but losing to a team with nothing to play for is concerning.  Will things be different at home in the Wild Card round?

Wild Card Picks

*Note: I won't have picks for every playoff game, but I will be doing betting previews for each game all the way until the Super Bowl.

Bengals vs Texans 

Vikings vs Packers

Colts vs Ravens

Seahawks vs Redskins



Friday, January 4, 2013

NFL Predictions 2012 Wild Card Round: Seahawks vs Redskins

Seattle Seahawks vs Washington Redskins: SEA -2.5 (Pinnacle)

Markets

So the Seahawks opened up at -1.5 favorites on Sunday and by the time the clock struck midnight, it had already been bet up to -2.5.  It took a few days, but -3's starting appearing on the board around mid-week. The good news for those of us that like the Seahawks (and have multiple books to shop at) is there are still -2.5's available for a bit extra juice. Most sharp books have the line around -2.75 with juice attached to favorable lines on each side.

Media Hype?

All the media talk for this game is focusing on the Wilson/RG3 match-up, which is fine, but that's not what I'm going to spend much time talking about here. Both have been phenomenal and it will be fun to watch, but I don't see either as having a huge edge over the other.

In fact, both offenses are near mirror images of each other - statistically speaking. Both QB's have above-average efficiency rankings and compliment top-notch running games. The pass protection for both teams are also below average, but not poor.

Both of these teams use a fair amount of option plays, which is no surprise to anyone who's watched RG3 and Russell Wilson this season. Determining whether these guys will run, pass, or fake is a chore on every other down.

So what is this game going to come down to?

Defense, Defense, Defense

Getting Brandon Browner back is a big boost to a defense that probably didn't need one. Not because they didn't miss Browner, but because this is already a stout defense across the board.  They are above-average vs the run and on third down, and they rank near the very top vs the pass and in the red zone.

Two of these categories are why I really like Seattle to come out on top in this game. Offensively, both rank near the top rushing the ball and converting red zone chances into touchdowns. Yet, the Seattle D are great in these areas. The Skins D on the other hand haven't done a good job shutting down opposing rushing attacks or keeping people out of the end zone.

Defensively, I've crapped on the Redskins for most of the season. They are below average stopping the run, rushing the passer, disrupting drives, stopping people on third down (league worst), and keeping teams out of the red zone.

That said, up until December they were also atrocious vs the pass, but give Jim Haslett credit for masking a lot of their problems (both injuries and personnel). During the final stretch of games, they've climbed to a respectable middle of the pack ranking in the air. That's a huge improvement given where they were in the first two-thirds of the year.

Haslett has always been a river-boat gambler with his heavy and aggressive blitz schemes. Without the right personnel, this has usually backfired and it led to him getting canned in New Orleans. It didn't work in Washington either - up until very recently. The question is whether this is a nothing more than inspired play, or is something fundamentally better with this unit?

The Seahawks will go a long way in answering this question, not because they are juggernauts on offense, but because their schemes require defenses to play very disciplined and to maintain a lot of gap integrity.  Will the secondary bite? Can the linebackers attack without overpursuing?  If Seattle can continue executing at a high level, the Redskins defensive flaws could be exposed on Sunday.

I know you'll hear a lot about how the Redskins rank 5th vs the run, but total yardage is such a misleading stat that I don't even bother looking at it. What's far more important is the quality of yardage given up and whether opposing rushes turn into 1st downs and/or touchdowns. You also have to take into consideration the quality of opponent, the game situation, and whether yards against came earlier in the season or later.

In their 5 game win streak, the Seahawks have amassed an average of 200+ rushing yards and 38.6 points per game on offense. 

The Seahawks defense has also faced two strong "read option" offenses this season in Carolina and San Francisco. Without question the RG3/Morris combo will give them problems, but by no means do I expect the Skins to dictate play.

And if this game comes down to who makes more plays in the air, I'll take Wilson vs the Skins secondary over RG3 vs Browner, Sherman, and Thomas.

Bottom Line

This will be the second road team I take this weekend, which is enough to make me nervous in itself, but I think the Seahawks defense is good enough to overcome whatever home field advantage the Redskins might have.  I know Seattle isn't as good on the road as they are at home, but let's not pretend like Washington are Super Bowl contenders either.  I'm riding the better team here and even if I only had -3 available, I'd still make it a play.

NFL Pick: SEA -2.5



NFL Predictions 2012 Wild Card Round: Colts vs Ravens

Indianapolis Colts vs Baltimore Ravens: IND +7 (Pinnacle)

Markets

When it comes to playoff point spreads, nothing is much of a surprise. The books usually do a great job at finding a sharp line that spreads public (and sharp) opinion. However, what we have here is one of the most intriguing lines of the weekend. They opened up with the Ravens as -6.5 point favorites and it's taken almost the full week before we've seen any hints of movement. Right now, books are creeping towards -7, but you'll have to lay a little extra juice depending on what side you like.

What strikes me is that the line didn't move to -7 when the lines were posted last Sunday. This is a clear indication that nobody with a clue respects the Ravens that much.  In fact, I'm surprised that they opened up this high.  I'll gladly pay a little extra and buy an affordable +7 to take a chance on Andrew Luck and company.

Cardiac Kids?

When it comes to unpredictability, it doesn't get any more obvious than these two teams.  What can we expect this Sunday from these clubs?  There's so many questions and not nearly enough answers.

To begin with, Andrew Luck is a bit of an enigma early in his career. He already has four 4th quarter comebacks and seven game winning drives under his belt. He also has a subpar completion percentage and lot of interceptions.  He hasn't completed over 50% of his passes in five straight games, but he hasn't turned the ball over in his last three either.

Surrounding him are eight offensive starters without any playoff experience.  Some will say this is a negative, but it could easily be argued that they can play without fear, too.  This would be much more of a concern if it was the defensive side of the ball.


Another factor helping out an inexperienced offense is the coaching staff.  Chuck Pagano led this Ravens defense for four years, while Bruce Arians coached against them for eight.  If anything, they'll be prepared and know what to expect.

They'll be sure to test an average pass defense with the trio of Wayne, Avery, and Hilton.

Up front, Luck should have some time to make things happen because the Ravens pass rush has also been average this year.  They do resemble a bend-but-don't-break unit as they tighten up on 3rd down and in the red zone. That said, they didn't do well in those areas during the last month of the season either. This is not a defense I fear, and something tells me the Colts won't either.

Ray Rice and What?

For the Ravens, will Ray Lewis return be enough? He's going to have trouble if he's asked to cover tight ends in space.

Terrell Suggs isn't the dominating force he was pre-injury and losing Lardarius Webb still hurts. These two are intregal to this defensive unit. Even Haloti Ngata is banged up and playing below the level he's used to.

On the flip side, Boldin, Leach, and Yanda are also among the walking wounded on offense.

Flacco has plenty of playoff experience (5-4 record, 8 TDs, 8 INTs), but he's being asked to throw the deep ball much less under Jim Caldwell. The numbers suggest this isn't a good thing.

The real key for this game will be how much Ray Rice can take advantage of the leagues worst run defense. This isn't front page news, but it's the one match-up that I will worry about on Sunday.

I don't expect miracles, but I do hope the Colts can stay disiplined and do a respectable job. If they get torched on the ground nothing else is going to matter.  What the Colts defense does have going for them is how inconsistent the Ravens offense has been this year.  They rank near the very bottom in that category.  Therefore, it should surprise no one when I say Baltimore rank way down the list on third down conversions as well.

Bottom Line

Statistically, the Ravens do have the edge in this matchup. When you combine home field advantage, they should be favored by more than a field goal.  However, there is no way someone can justify to me that they should be full touchdown favorites.  I realize the Colts defense might be one of the worst to ever grace a playoff field, but that would be much more of a problem if the Ravens were healthy and playing consistently.  It's difficult to trust a team on the road in the playoffs, but I'm going to go ahead and fade an average Ravens team and take the points.

NFL Pick: IND +7.

NFL Predictions 2012 Wild Card Round: Vikings vs Packers

Minnesota Vikings vs Green Bay Packers

Markets

This is an interesting point spread to say the least. The Packers opened as -8 point favorites and it hasn't move anywhere since. If sharp money loved the dog we would have most certainly seen a move closer to the key number of "7".  That said, the Packers are a very public team. Perhaps sharps are waiting for the best line they can get.  Either way the game sits in the teaser window at the moment.  If you wanted to pair the Packers at -2 with either the Ravens or Redskins, the option is there.  Personally, I don't like either of those choices.

Deja Vu?

I'm taking a pass on this game, but I have a full write-up here at IBtimes.com.

NFL Predictions 2012 Wild Card Round: Bengals vs Texans

Cincinnati Bengals vs Houston Texans: HOU -4.5 (Pinnacle)

Markets

It was only logical for the Texans to settle in as -4.5 point favorites for this game.  The line opened up at the "dead" number of -5, but early action came in on the underdog.  There was a point where the line fell all the way to -4 at one point, but it didn't last long given that it's a key number.

Where is money going to go in the final couple days?  If anything, I'd expect more money coming in on the Bengals given the way both teams have played down the stretch. This line could close at -4, but I'd be surprised if we saw a ton of movement either way.

Bengals Are a No-Brainer?

If you spend time reading previews for this game you would think that the sky is falling in Houston.  In fact, given all the numbers being thrown around you'd wonder how the Bengals can lose this game.  Let's summarize...

The Texans have lost three of the last four games.  The Bengals have won six of their last seven, with the only loss coming by one point to the Cowboys - a game they had control of for much of the way.

The Bengals defense gave up an average of 117 rushing yards in the first half of the year, but only 97.4 in the final half - including no 100 yard rusher in the last nine.

Matt Schaub has one TD and three INT in the last four games and has taken 12 sacks.  It's also his first playoff game of his career.

The Texans pass defense has given up 29 TDs this season.  Only the Redskins have given up more among the remaining playoff teams.  Only the Redskins and Patriots have given up more big plays in the air (20+ yards).  Over the first nine games they gave up 15.7 points per game, but 26.8 in the last seven.

Not So Fast My Friends

All that said, there a few key reasons why I like Houston to not only win this game, but to cover the spread as well. First of all, while those numbers might be alarming to some, they don't tell the whole story.  When it comes to match-ups I rely much more on the advanced metrics.

The biggest thing that the Texans will do to win this game will be to make the Cincy offense one-dimensional.  Green-Ellis was on a nice roll heading into the playoffs, but he pulled a hamstring and is expected to only be around 70-80% this weekend.  Without a balanced attack, Andy Dalton will be forced to spread the field and win this with his arm.

Certainly he is capable, but he's only 47.5% on 3rd down this season.  The Texans defense are near the top of the league in this category.  The playoffs are all about those make-or-break moments when you need someone to come up big.  Who beyond AJ Green is going to do that?  They haven't found a reliable option opposite of him all year.  Gresham is the closest thing they have, but he's also an inconsistent threat.

Yes Houston has had some problems in the 2nd half of the year, but until they play a team like the Patriots or Broncos I'm not about to get too worried about their prospects.  A lot of their troubles came when guys like Cushing and Joseph were out of the lineup. Joseph will be in this game and he's more than capable of matching up with Green on the outside.

Offensively, it's imperative that the Texans get the running game going in order to maximize what Schaub does best - control the short-mid-range game and attack deep off play-action.  Neutralizing (or minimizing) the impact of the Cincy D-line is task number one (especially Peko/Atkins).

I like their chances of establishing the tempo, even if it takes a couple of quarters, because I don't see them falling behind by two scores unless something freaky happens.  The Bengals D has been good, but let's keep in mind it has come against one of the weaker group of offenses any team faced this year.

Bottom Line

When it comes to the NFL, anything can happen. This is especially true in the playoffs where momentum can have a significant impact. The dark cloud of finality wears heavy on teams when they fall behind and it can snowball in a hurry.  It's also the time of year when many sharps tread lightly because the lines are so ultra-sharp. 

That said, I still believe in this Houston team and I think they match-up well against Cincy.  Too much pressure is going to fall on Dalton and it could be a long day if he's not at his very best. With the help of the home crowd, they should be able to remain patient and dictate their style of play.

NFL Pick: HOU -4.5.