Friday, January 31, 2014

NFL Super Bowl XLVIII Predictions 2014: Broncos vs Seahawks

Denver Broncos vs Seattle Seahawks: SEA +3 (Bovada)

Market Watch

The most talked about point spread on the planet was released immediately after the Seattle Seahawks eliminated the San Francisco 49ers, and most sportsbooks opened the game as a 'pick em'.  Within minutes a surge of bets came flying in on the Broncos and it hasn't really slowed down since.

Many people are wondering whether or not that early money was "sharp" money, but the answer is, not necessarily.  The Super Bowl is the most bet game in football by a country mile, which means a lot of big bets come in from casual bettors. This is also reflected in the current bet tracking numbers, as 72 percent of all bets are on Denver so far.

With all this action sportsbooks have moved the line in favor of the Broncos. Most have it at -2 or -2.5, but some square shops are hanging -3 to entice bets on the Seahawks. Therefore, no matter which side you like, you should be able to get the best line available.

From my analysis, Seattle is the team that should be slightly favored.

When the Broncos have the ball

Can Peyton Manning be stopped?

When the Seahawks have the ball

Can the Seahawks offense take advantage?

Percy Harvin is the x-factor

Bottom Line

Games are not played on paper, and we know that variance makes anything possible in any given game, but there's no question that the Seahawks are the more balanced (and healthier) overall team. The Broncos offense might be incredible, but if there is any defense in the league that can limit their damage, it's Seattle's. The Seahawks also have a decisive advantage against an inferior Broncos defense.

What it all adds up to some value on Seattle, not only with the point spread, but also to win the game straight up. The majority of people might disagree, but the stage is set for the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl. The only question that remains is whether they step up and seize the moment. I think they can, and they're my pick to come out on top this Sunday.

NFL Pick: SEA +3.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

NFL Super Bowl XLVIII Predictions 2014: Prop Bets

Once we finish laughing at all the crazy prop bets that got put on the board for the Super Bowl, we can settle down and take a more serious look at the props involving the actual game.

If you're looking for value, here are some of the best options for both player and team prop bets this Sunday. All odds courtesy of Bovada.

Player Props

Player to score first TD in the game?

Julius Thomas 8/1

Montee Ball 16/1

Percy Harvin 14/1

The Seahawks have done a fantastic job shutting down opposing tight ends this season, a list that includes the likes of Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis, but Thomas is difficult to handle in the red zone. If Seattle load up in coverage, there's a good chance that Peyton Manning calls an audible and hands it off to one of his backs. You could flip a coin between Ball and Moreno, but Ball offers more value. Finally, Percy Harvin can score in so many ways, both on the ground and in the air, so he provides a good option under any circumstance.

Total completions - Russell Wilson

Over 16.5

Total passing attempts in the game - Russell Wilson

Over 26.5

The 'Hawks love to the run the ball as much as any team in the NFL, but there are a few things in Wilson's favor for this prop. First, the Broncos already had a weak pass defense, and now they are without Chris Harris. Second, they add Percy Harvin to the lineup. And finally, in the event that the Seahawks need to come from behind, Wilson will be passing on the majority of the snaps.

Longest completion - Russell Wilson

Over 36.5

Again, there is a strong perception keeping this number at a lower rate - the fact that Seattle are a run-first team. Wilson is also underrated as a deep passer. This year they completed the highest percentage of passes over 20 yards, and with Tate and Harvin running routes, there's a good chance for a big play.

Total Rushing Yards - Russell Wilson

Over 32.5

Without Von Miller in the lineup, the option for a quarterback spy becomes thin. This is a Denver defense that will have a hard time accounting for pre-snap formations, so how will they account for Wilson? Wilson should have some nice opportunities to pick up yards with his legs.

Total Rushing Yards - Marshawn Lynch

Over 90.5

This number is pretty low when you consider what Lynch was able to do this year. Nobody in the league created more missed tackles than him and it wasn't even close. He racked up over 100 yards against the 49ers, one of the best run defenses in the NFL. The only way I see Lynch not reaching this number is if the Broncos are up 2+ scores in the fourth quarter.

Total Rushing Attempts in the game - Marshawn Lynch

Over 21.5

For a heavy running team, you can be sure that Seattle will try to establish their ground game early, and grind down the Broncos defenders throughout the game. If Seattle have a second half lead, this prop could hit earlier than expected.

Total tackles and assists - Kam Chancellor

Over 7.5

Chancellor will be a key player in stopping the run. This number is low given how big his role is.

Total receiving yards - Demaryius Thomas

Under 75.5

Total receptions - Demaryius Thomas

Under 5

Of Welker, Decker, and Thomas, it's Thomas's numbers that go down the most when facing press coverage. If he sees a heavy dose of Richard Sherman, I don't expect him to put up big receiving yards.

What will be higher, Alex Ovechkin shots on goal Vs Detroit Red Wings, or Wes Welker receptions?

Ovechkin shots

Ovechkin is tops in the NHL with around 5.5 shots per game. He's a pretty solid bet for a lot of shots each and every game, but Welker is going up against the best pass defense in the NFL. It's more likely that the Broncos spread the wealth than load up on Welker targets.

What will be higher, goals in the Red Wings/Capitals game, or Demaryius Thomas receptions.

Goals in the Red Wings/Capitals game

Both of these hockey teams are average at best on defense, and neither have had excellent goaltending this year. For reasons mentioned above, I don't think Thomas is due for a big game.

Team Props

Team to score last wins the game

No +135

The odds for this prop don't make much sense in terms of how many NFL games go. A lot of garbage points are put on the scoreboard at the end of games by the team trying to get back in it. There is also the natural incentive factor. Teams that are ahead will be more inclined to burn clock than put up points. Good value here.

Total team points - Seattle Seahawks

Over 23.5 -125

When you factor in the fact that the Seahawks shouldn't be underdogs to begin with, their team total offers some value. The Denver defense has performed below average in most of the key categories this year against a fairly weak schedule, and now they are without some of their best players due to injury.

Longest successful field goal

Over 44.5 yards

There is always the possibility of some not-so-great weather and Met Life Stadium is known for swirling winds, but both of these teams have strong, reliable kickers and 45 yards isn't that long.

Team to get the first first down of the game

Seahawks +105

Since this will likely come down to who gets the ball first, there's no reason why Seattle should be the underdogs here. For a coin flip, take the plus money.

Last scoring play of the game

Field goal or safety +150

There are far too many scenarios where a field goal could be the last play of the game, eg if the game is close, goes to overtime, to extend a lead, to cut a two score lead, etc. At +145, you have to like those odds.

Total number of penalties made in the game

Under 12

When it comes to the Super Bowl, referees do not want to be the ones to decide the game. It's also bad optics for the league to have a penalty-filled game.

Monday, January 20, 2014

NFL Predictions 2014: Super Bowl XLVIII

Championship Sunday is in the books and both favorites took care of business at home. Both games also stayed under the total.

My picks cashed for a 2-0 ATS sweep, and I'm finishing up strong going 19-7-2 over the last 8 weeks. 

Each game played out according to script, despite what the public perception was heading into them. The Broncos outmatched the Patriots on both sides of the ball, and it wasn't all that competitive. The 49ers looked like they were going to continue their impressive run all the way to the Super Bowl, but on the backs of the 12th man, Seattle came up with huge plays in the second half - including three turnovers to win and cover. 

It's not very often that there is "value" on the home favorites, but with roughly 70% of the bets coming in on the road teams there was a great opportunity to ride the best teams in football. 

We now have the league's top ranked offense matching up with the league's top ranked defense for Super Bowl XLVIII. The game opened as a 'pick em', but early money came pouring in on the Broncos. The line quickly moved to Denver -1 to -2.5, depending on where you look.  My raw numbers suggest the Seahawks should be favored by -2, so it appears like the value is going to be with Seattle.

Check back for a full preview and prediction for the big game, and I'll also have some picks from the huge prop board.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

NFL Predictions 2014: Championship Playoffs

Favorites/underdogs split the Divisional round with a 2-2 record.

After going 3-1 in the Wild Card round, I stuck with the value on the board for the Divisional games, but it only translated into a 1-2-1 week.

The vast majority of Saints bettors had a push, but money came pouring in on the Seahawks once the gameday weather reports came out. If you took the Saints late, you walked away with a backdoor cover. The Chargers had a backdoor cover of their own with a 4th quarter rally.

The Colts and Panthers proved they aren't quite ready for prime time, but full credit to the Patriots and 49ers for winning the "make or break moments". In the red zone, New England went 5 for 6 and San Francisco went 2 for 4. Indy and Carolina were each 0-2 respectively. During the season, the advanced stats suggested a different outcome, but playoff experience and coaching were big factors.

We now have two games to go before the big one and the opening lines are out. The Seahawks opened as -3 or -3.5 point favorites (depending on where you look).  Denver came out at -6, but it has quickly been bet down to -5 and -4.5.

Check back during the week for full previews and picks for both games.

Friday, January 17, 2014

NFL Championship Playoff Predictions 2014: 49ers vs Seahawks

San Francisco 49ers vs Seattle Seahawks: SEA -3 (Bovada)

Market Watch

When the 49ers clinched their win over the Panthers last week, Las Vegas opened up the Seahawks as -3 point favorites for this game. It didn't take long for the line to move to -3.5, which is what the consensus is right now, but you can still find Seattle -3 if you shop around.

So which side has the value?

The 49ers are on a great winning streak, and the perception of Seattle's home invincibility was tainted when the Cardinals won there in Week 16. The Seahawks also failed to cover the inflated point spread last week against the Saints.

Yet, despite all this there's obvious value on Seattle, especially at -3.  Their home field advantage is worth around 5 points, which means the 49ers are currently perceived as the better team in this matchup.

The public agree with that, as 69 percent of the bets are on the 49ers thus far. This is pretty close to what we saw back in Week 2 when 67 percent of the bets came in on San Francisco.

Keep an eye on

When we take a closer look at this matchup, there are a few critical areas that favor the Seahawks.

Anytime we talk about Seattle, it usually starts with Marshawn Lynch. No other running back forced more missed tackles this year than him (99).  However, on the other side we have a 49ers front seven who haven't given up 100 yards to any running back this year. This probably means we are going to see a handful of third and longs for Russell Wilson, and it leads us to the first big advantage for the 'Hawks.

Pass defense.

As great as the 49ers defense is, their cornerbacks are considered the weak link. Last week Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown didn't have a great game, and this will be a bigger test than the one Cam Newton posed in Carolina. There aren't many quarterbacks who are more dangerous outside the pocket than Wilson, and if he has to improvise on a third and long, I prefer his chances over Kaepernick's.

And speaking of Kaepernick, a disproportionate amount of his interceptions have occurred in Seattle. If the 49ers want to win or cover this game, they'll need to buck that turnover trend. They can do this by relying heavily on the run game, but will that be enough?

Probably not.

The Seahawks have the highest takeaway rate of any team in the NFL, and no other team is better against the pass or defending their red zone. These advantages are heightened at home by having the loudest fans in the league. If Kaepernick is facing too many third and longs, or is in a position to bring the team from behind, we could see a repeat of what we saw in Week 2.

The Seattle defensive line is dominant in their own right, but when you add a split second advantage due to the crowd noise, it becomes extremely daunting for opposing QBs.  Under all this pressure, they must try to pass the ball into a secondary that features Sherman, Maxwell, Thurmond, Chancellor, and Thomas.

Sherman only faced 58 targets this year, but he picked off 8 of them. Thurmond has only allowed 25 yards on 12 targets over the last three games. It helps that San Fran have a healthy Crabtree to put into the mix, but they are still outmatched in the air, and the challenge becomes even tougher with K.J. Wright back on the field.

Having said all that, you can never feel entirely comfortable betting against the 49ers.  In fact, you could say that about all four teams that remain in the playoffs.  Much like Bill Belichick, Jim Harbaugh always seems to find a way to get more out of his team than the advanced stats suggest. Coaching is always a wild card that is difficult to quantify, but if anyone can overcome the odds, Harbaugh is near the top of the list.

Bottom Line

For the 49ers to win, they'll need to win the turnover battle, win the "make-or-break" moments, and be opportunistic on offense. This is a script that they've used for their entire winning streak, so it's entirely possible that they keep it rollin', but in Seattle? That's asking a lot.

This has all the makings of an epic game, and it wouldn't surprise me if the 49ers win, but I think this point spread should be around -5 (or higher).  It's worth it to pay a bit of extra juice to grab a -3, but I'd still side with Seattle if -3.5 was my only option. When we combine the home field advantage with the discrepancy in pass/red zone defense, we are getting some rare value on the Seahawks.

NFL Pick: SEA -3.

NFL Championship Playoff Predictions 2014: Patriots vs Broncos

New England Patriots vs Denver Broncos: DEN -4 (Bovada)

Market Watch

When the point spread for this game was released last Sunday, my immediate reaction was to side with the Patriots. Las Vegas opened the Broncos as -6 point favorites, and to no surprise the "sharp" money came pouring in on Brady and company. The line moved all the way down to -4, but since then we've seen support come back in on the Broncos. The consensus line sits at -5.5 at the moment, but it's as high as -6 at some places, and as low as -4 at others.

The true line for this game should be Broncos -6.5, but that's not taking into account the "experience" and coaching factors. Essentially, the current point spread is pretty accurate and it's just a matter of which team you think will execute (or make the least mistakes) on Sunday.

So far, a whopping 72 percent of the bets are on the Patriots.

Keep an eye on

When it comes to breaking down the big games, we often suffer from "paralysis by analysis".  My write-up for this matchup back in Week 12 turned out to be a complete waste of time given what we saw unfold during the game. There were seven turnovers and a game-deciding coin toss in overtime determined by the wind.

The other problem we face is that these are two teams that you just shouldn't bet against. Handicapping the Broncos is extremely difficult because their offensive numbers go beyond anything we've seen before. The Patriots always seem to find a way to be more than the sum of their parts.

So which team is destined to cover the spread this weekend?

When I look back at all my playoff picks so far, the three I got wrong were all teams that weren't quite ready for prime-time - the Eagles, Colts, and Panthers.  Despite having a number of key advantages on the field and value on the point spread, they all lost to teams that had better head coaches and more playoff experience.

And this is what this game comes down to because nothing on paper suggests that the Patriots can keep this within a touchdown. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are reasons enough to bet against the Broncos.

Last week the Patriots proved that executing in the "make-or-break" moments is what matters most, and we saw it in the stat sheet.  Brady only had three first downs on first and second down against the Colts, but he went 6 for 9 on third down. They also dominated in the red zone on both sides of the ball.

Can they repeat a performance like that on the road against a superior team?

When we look at all the meaningful statistical categories, special teams is the only area where the Patriots hold a clear advantage.  Yet, there are some important factors that nullify that.

Unlike in New England, the wind isn't going to be a factor on Sunday. The thin air also helps negate any net starting field position advantage they might have had. Matt Prater's kickoffs result in touchbacks 58 percent of the time on the road, but it goes up to 84 percent at home.

The lack of wind is also something that will aid the Denver passing offense. I worried about Peyton Manning performing under pressure last week, but his play on third down demonstrated that he's ready for this challenge (7 for 9 for 1 touchdown and 6 first downs).

With better conditions, a home crowd, and clear advantages in the air, someone is going to have to talk me out of taking the Broncos.

Bottom Line

For New England to cover, they'll need to win the turnover battle, control the clock on the ground, and get A+ performances from Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.  This is plausible in theory, but it's also asking for a lot of stars to align just right.

Even without Chris Harris, Denver's advantage in the air is too much for me to overlook. I don't see how New England is going to prevent Denver from scoring points. I respect Tom Brady a lot, but outside of Julian Edelman, his weapons don't inspire much confidence.

It might be worth waiting to see if this line comes down, and it always pays to shop around for the best number, but I'd roll with the Broncos at anything less than a touchdown.

NFL Pick: DEN -4.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

NFL Predictions 2014: Divisional Playoffs

Wild Card weekend is in the books and it was a big week for underdogs. They finished 3-0-1 against the closing line and if the Chiefs didn't choke, all four road teams would have won. The KC/IND shootout was the only game to go over the total as the late season 'under' trend continues.

I went 3-1 ATS (16-5-1 last 6 weeks) with the only loss coming from the Eagles. I did say it was my least confident pick of the weekend, and I probably should have passed on it, but I decided to take a chance. I was fortunate with two more close wins with KC and SF, but those games also illustrate the importance of line shopping.

No matter which side you took on those games, you could have walked away a winner. My only regret was not putting something on the Chargers money line. Dalton's implosion didn't surprise anyone.

We now look ahead to the Divisional round and opening numbers are already up. We've seen some early movement, but the consensus lines are SEA -8, NE -7/-7.5, SF -2, and DEN -10. By the numbers, every favorite seems a bit inflated - especially SF and DEN.  We'll see what a closer look reveals and what the injury situations are like during the week.

Check back soon for picks and previews for all the games.


Friday, January 10, 2014

NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions 2014: Chargers vs Broncos

San Diego Chargers vs Denver Broncos: SD +9 (5Dimes)

Market Watch

Despite San Diego's convincing Wild Card win over the Bengals, they still didn't receive a lot of respect when Las Vegas opened the lines for the Divisional round. To start the week, the Broncos were listed as -10 point favorites.

Since then we've seen some support for the Chargers. The line has moved to -9, but I'd be surprised if it moved lower than that. If it drops even a half point more, the sportsbooks will open themselves up to the teaser window (-7.5 to -8.5).

So what should be the true line for this game?  That's not an easy question to answer because the Broncos have been covering inflated point spreads all season (9-5-1 ATS).  By the numbers, this game should be -7, but it really comes down to whether or not you buy into the Chargers recent play or not.

Thus far, 59 percent of the bets are coming in on San Diego.

Keep an eye on

Of all the games this weekend, this one could have the highest degree of variance. No one would be surprised if the Broncos won by three or four touchdowns, but it could easily be another upset in the making.

The biggest factor in determining what type of game we see will likely come from the defenses.

During the season, it was hard to bet on the Chargers with any sort of confidence due to their horrific play on that side of the ball. In fact, in the first 12 weeks they were historically bad. It wasn't until December that this defense began to turn things around.

Over their last five games, their defense has performed like a middle of the pack unit. As I mentioned last week, a big reason for the resurgence has been the return of Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. They aren't dominant players, but they are significant upgrades from what they had before.

The question is whether or not the Chargers defense can maintain this level of play for one more week.

On the other side, there are just as many doubts about the Denver defense. They were nothing more than average throughout the entire season, and now they are severely undermanned. For this game, they'll be without Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, and Rahim Moore. One could argue that those are the three best players on the Broncos defense.

Some might point out that they get Champ Bailey back for this game, but he's been a shell of his former self this year. Injuries and age have finally caught up to the perennial Pro Bowler. They also expect to have Shaun Phillips on Sunday, but he only had 3.5 sacks in the final eight games of the season. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence, especially when he's now their primary pass rusher.

Offensively, the big key for the Chargers will be their run game. Ryan Mathews is listed as "questionable", and it appears as though his ankle has gotten worse. This is definitely bad news for the Chargers, despite how well Woodhead and Brown have played. The ground game has been the backbone of their five game win streak, and it has allowed them to control the clock better than every other team this season. If they hope to limit Peyton Manning's opportunities, they'll need to stay productive in this area.

And speaking of Manning, that brings us to the final key factor to this game. Once again, all eyes will be on the future Hall of Famer. It's been talked about to death, but it does bear repeating. Can he replicated what he does in the regular season in the playoffs? Throughout his career, Peyton gets a little more edgy in the post-season and it's not uncommon to see the "happy feet". While it might not be anywhere near an Andy Dalton level, there is still a lingering doubt about Peyton in these big games.

One thing that does bode well in his favor is the big difference between this game and the last time they played San Diego.  In that Week 15 loss, they didn't have Wes Welker, and only had three days to adjust and prepare. This time, Welker is back and they've had two weeks to get ready. That could spell really bad news for San Diego.

Bottom Line

In the end, we are talking about one of the best offenses we've ever seen, playing at home, with an extra week to rest and prepare. I certainly wouldn't blame anyone for riding Denver, but it would be a lot more reasonable to take them if the line was -7.

Personally, I think it's a bit crazy to be giving San Diego this many points. With an improved defense and a top flight offense, an easy case can be made for the Chargers - especially when you look at all the injuries on Denver's defense and Peyton's history of sub-par playoff performances. And even if Denver are up two scores in the fourth quarter, I like the chances of Philip Rivers leading them down for a backdoor cover.

I'll take the Chargers and the points.

NFL Pick: SD +9.

NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions 2014: 49ers vs Panthers

San Francisco 49ers vs Carolina Panthers: CAR +1 (5Dimes)

Market Watch

Without question, this game features the most interesting point spread of the Divisional playoff weekend. Shortly after the 49ers took care of the Packers, Las Vegas opened them up as -2.5 point favorites for this game. It was adjusted to -2 within an hour, and it's slowly gone down to -1 throughout the week. Some sportsbooks are even listing it at a 'pick em'.

A whopping 76 percent of the bets are coming in on the 49ers so far, but the line continues to trend the other way.  So what's going on here?

For starters, there isn't a huge difference between -2.5 and -1. These aren't key numbers like '3' or '7'. By moving it down to -1, sportsbooks also keep this line out of the 'teaser window' (+2.5 to +1.5).

Having said all that, the 49ers shouldn't even be favorites at all. The Panthers are getting no respect from anybody, and it's the sole reason behind this point spread. If we look at this matchup objectively, the Panthers should be -3 point favorites, if not more.

Keep an eye on

There are lots of great matchups all over the field in this game, but I'm going to focus on three key factors that shape this game.

First, let's consider how these teams are viewed. Why are the Panthers getting no respect?

Offensively, there hasn't been a lot of differences between them. Both Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick are above-average quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs. They both feature excellent running games, efficient passing games, and adequate pass protection. In the "make or break" moments, the Panthers were actually better on third down and in the red zone.

Defensively, the Panthers were slightly more effective against the run, the pass, and sacking the QB this year. The 49ers defense were a bit better on third down, but the Panthers were better at preventing touchdowns inside the 20.

Carolina also won three big "prove it" games this season when they took down the 49ers in Week 10, the Patriots in Week 11, and the Saints in Week 16. In the latter two, Cam Newton led them on game winning drives.

Finally, the Panthers went 7-1 at home and they've had an extra week to rest and prepare.

So why are people pushing and shoving for the chance to bet on the 49ers?

From where I sit, there are two things that favor San Francisco that would worry me.

Back in the Week 10 game between these teams, Vernon Davis left in the second quarter with a concussion. They also didn't have Michael Crabtree. For the Panthers, Steve Smith is banged up and listed as "questionable".  Smith might not be the big play guy that he used to be, but he does draw double-teams when he's healthy.

With these changes at wide receiver, the edge could shift to the 49ers if Kaepernick is able to overcome the pass rush.  Yet, even with the advantage at receiver, it might be nullified if Carolina play like they have all year. Last season Kaepernick was the fifth best QB when facing pressure. This year, he's fifth worst.

Finally, the 49ers have another advantage in the form of experience. 20 of the 22 starters were on the team in 2012. In contrast, the Panthers only have seven offensive players who have played in a playoff game, and only five on defense.

There is also no question that Jim Harbaugh is a better coach than Ron Rivera. At the start of the year I would have said that the coaching advantage was huge, but there are signs that Rivera has closed the gap. After going 2-14 in one score games, Rivera has coached them to a 5-0 record in one score games since then.

Bottom Line

Much like the Saints-Eagles game last week, the public isn't exactly sold on the home team in this one. Instead, most are banking on what they trust, which is the 49ers.

A solid case could be made for each team, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if San Francisco came out on top with the win, but in terms of value, the Panthers are the right side.

When you factor in how Carolina played all season, home field advantage, and a week of rest, we are lucky to have the option to take them as an underdog. I'll roll with Carolina for the win and cover.

NFL Pick: CAR +1.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions 2014: Colts vs Patriots

Indianapolis Colts vs New England Patriots: IND +7.5 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

When it comes to point spreads, no team has been more difficult to handicap than the New England Patriots. For years Vegas would inflate the line, only to see them cover it time and time again. That's something you can get away with when you have one of the best coach-quarterback combinations in the league.

Yet, this is a New England team that has been decimated by injuries. For the first time in a long time, they finished a mediocre 8-8 against the spread.

Assuming the Colts don't come out emotionally flat off their big win last week, this line should be around -6. Most sportsbooks have it at -7, but others refuse to come down from -7.5.

So far, 57 percent of the bets are on the Colts.

Keep an eye on

One thing that immediately pops out when you look at these teams on paper is how well the Colts match up with the Patriots.

Offensively, the Patriots have a slightly better passing game thanks to the play of Tom Brady, but it's not a significant difference. Everywhere else they are nearly identical in every meaningful statistical category. They both have above average run games, pass protection, red zone offenses, and drive efficiency rates. They are also both average on third down.

Defensively there isn't a lot separating them either. They are both below average against the run, and average against the pass. New England is slightly better rushing the passer and in the red zone, but the Colts are a bit better getting off the field on third down.

The one area where the Patriots have a clear advantage is on special teams, where they rank near the top of the NFL. If this game is as close as expected, that is something that could come into play.

However, once we dig deeper things get a little more unclear for New England. Both teams have lost their best offensive weapon (Gronkowski/Wayne), but the injury woes go beyond that for the Patriots. Vollmer is out for the year, and more importantly, they are without Wilfork, Spikes, and Mayo on defense.

That inside trio was vital to stopping the run and their replacements are all significant downgrades. Before Week 10, the Patriots defense was ranked in the top 10. After the bye, they slipped all the way to 26th. A bad run defense is now coupled with a poor pass defense. It's uncertain how much a week of rest has benefited Talib, but they'll need him on the top of his game if they hope to slow down Hilton.

Finally, the biggest factor for this game might be turnovers. That is always important, but given how even these teams are, it could be the difference. The Patriots were really good at forcing takeaway in the first half of the year, but that production fell off a cliff in the second half of the season. Conversely, the Colts offense actually had the lowest giveway rate in the NFL.

Of course we saw that anything can happen in one game as the Colts turned the ball over a handful of times against the Chiefs, but KC has been doing that to teams all year and it would be surprising if the same thing happened again this week.

Bottom Line

All the analysis in the world could turn out to mean nothing if the Colts come out flat on Saturday night. The Patriots might not be what they once were, but they still play well at home and Belichick is notorious for taking away the opponents best weapon. At the same time, you could argue that the Colts will enter this game on a wave of confidence with no pressure on their shoulders at all.

Opportunities will be there for both teams, and it will be fun to see if Andrew Luck can go toe to toe with Tom Brady. The interesting thing about Luck's comeback effort last week was the fact that Luck's QB rating was actually better when he was facing pressure than when he wasn't. With that kind of poise, you have to like his chances at keeping this a close game.

If you like the Colts, find a +7.5 if you can. If +7 is your only option, there is still value at that number, too.

NFL Pick: IND +7.5.


NFL Divisional Playoff Predictions 2014: Saints vs Seahawks

New Orleans Saints vs Seattle Seahawks: NO +8 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

When these teams squared off in prime-time in Week 13, the line went from Seahawks -4 all the way to -6.5 by kickoff.  I took Seattle at -5 in that game because the line should have been -6.5 or -7 from the start.

This time around the line opened up at -8. It has ping-ponged around during the week, but it doesn't want to go too far in either direction. The question is whether or not this is an accurate point spread.

Most teams are granted three points for home field advantage, but Seattle is always an exception to that rule. During the season they are usually given four, if not five extra points on the line when they play at home. How much does that increase in the playoffs with a week of rest under their belts?

There is also the weather factor. The current forecast is calling for rain and wind. If these are the conditions on Saturday, it's going to be another advantage in Seattle's favor.

So far, 62 percent of the bets are on the Saints.

Keep an eye on

There are three primary areas that are going to decide this game, but before we get to that let's first talk about the context surrounding this matchup.

When these teams met in Week 13, the Seahawks blew the Saints off the field. Yet, a closer look reveals some fortunate bounces for Seattle. They recovered two fumbles in the first half of that game, which were converted into 10 points. Fumble recoveries are often the result of luck, so let's just assume that the Saints won't suffer the same fate again.

On the injury front, it seems like Percy Harvin is going to play in this game, but I'm not putting too much importance on that. It's hard to believe that he'll be at his normal level of effectiveness.

Also, the Saints have got the road monkey off their collective backs. With that out of the way, the focus for this game will primarily be on the X's and O's.

Like most games, the line of scrimmage is going to be of paramount importance. The Saints aren't going to stop Wilson and Lynch, but they do have the ability to contain them. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are double-digit sack artists this year, and that's one area where Seattle is vulnerable.

The Seahawks offensive line dealt with injuries for much of the season, but even when they got guys healthy the pass protection didn't improve as much as it should have. If the Saints don't win this battle, Wilson will be able to torch any kind of pass coverage scheme deployed by Rob Ryan.

On the flip side, the Seahawks have one of the most fearsome defensive lines in all of football. Avril, Bennett, Clemons, and Irvin are scary enough on their own, but when you add in the crowd noise, pass protection can be overwhelming.

The good news for New Orleans is the production of their own offensive line. They are one of the better pass protection teams in the league, and Seattle's sack production actually slipped from 5th to 12th down the stretch. The one question mark for New Orleans will be at left tackle, where rookie Terron Armstead is tasked with protecting the blindside. In three games, he has a holding call and two false starts.

When the Saints do have the ball, it really helps that K.J. Wright is out of this game because he would've been matched up with Jimmy Graham. Now that he's out, they'll have a better chance at utilizing their star pass-catcher.  Where they'll need him most will be inside the Seattle 20.

The red zone on both ends of the field will be a huge factor on Saturday. No one in the NFL is better at forcing field goals than the Seahawks, and this is the one area where the Saints offense stumbles.  They rank 18th in red zone efficiency, which is uncharacteristic of a Sean Payton-Drew Brees team.

The Seahawks also have a red zone advantage when they have the ball.  They have the option of power running Lynch on the ground, as well as the read-option ability of Wilson's legs. You're never quite sure what you're going to see when the ball is snapped, so the Saints defense will need to exercise discipline in their rush lanes and not be too over-aggressive up field.

Having said all that, the Saints did do a great job against one of the best rushing/read-option teams last week in Philadelphia, and the Seahawks had some struggles with their red zone offense in December.

Finally, the last key factor comes in the form of peripheral stats. Seattle have one of the best turnover differentials in the league. Their defense forces a turnover once every five possessions. No other defense even comes close to that rate. Conversely, the Saints are one of the best teams at avoiding giveaways.

If the Saints want to win that battle, they'll be wise to employ the balanced attack we saw last week in Philly. The majority of Seattle takeaways come from interceptions. It would also chew up clock and limit opportunities for Wilson.

Bottom Line

It's unlikely that the Saints win this game straight up, but they should be able to keep it closer than it was the last time they met. The task certainly won't be easy though. New Orleans need to limit their giveaways, convert a couple chances in the red zone, and continue their strong play in the trenches. With Sean Payton and Drew Brees leading the way, the potential is there.

At the same time, it's usually a bad decision to bet against Seattle at home, no matter what the point spread is. But in the end I can't overlook the fact that this line is over-inflated. By my numbers, this game should be -7 at the most, so I'll go ahead and take the value on the underdog. At the worst, I expect an opportunity for a backdoor cover.

NFL Pick: NO +8.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

NFL Predictions 2014: Wild Card Playoffs

The regular season is officially in the books and the favorites finished 9-7 in Week 17, and 127-116-8 for the year. Unders took another bite out of the totals season record by going 10-6, but overs finished ahead for the year at 129-120-4.

The Las Vegas Supercontest top five consensus picks went 3-2 in the final week, and finished 36-47-2 for the year.

I had a small card for Week 17 but it was a clean sweep against the spread (2-0) and teasers (3-0).  I closed the regular season strong with a 13-4-1 ATS record in the final 5 weeks.

Some close finishes finally started going my way, but they never evened out for the season. In picks that were decided in the final few minutes of a game, my record was 10-21-1 on the year. Brutal luck, but sometimes that's how things shake out.

We now start the real football season and I'll have picks up during the week, along with previews for every playoff game leading up to the Super Bowl. Check back soon for updates, and in the meantime check out my NHL blog for some easy money (80+ units at the midway point).



Friday, January 3, 2014

NFL Wild Card Playoff Predictions 2014: 49ers vs Packers

San Francisco 49ers vs Green Bay Packers: SF -2.5 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

When the point spread for this game was released last Sunday, it originally came out SF -1. It took all of 10 minutes before they pushed it up to -2.5 though, which is where it currently sits.

Of all the games on Wild Card weekend, this is the most lopsided among the casual bettor. 72 percent of the bets are coming in on the 49ers.

Keep an eye on

At the start of the year the Green Bay Packers were my NFC pick to make it to the Super Bowl. Even after their Week 1 defeat in San Francisco, I felt pretty good about it.

Since then, things have changed. While the Packers have gotten a great year out of Eddie Lacy, the defense has not had the kind of rebound season that I expected. This leads us to the first big key of the game.

Can the Packers stop the 49ers run game?

It certainly helps Green Bay that fullback Bruce Miller is on IR. The 49ers used a two-back set 374 times this season, which is 120 more times than every other team. The problem for the Packers is it might not matter who is blocking for San Fran.

Trying to stop the lethal 1-2 punch of Gore and Hunter will be a very poor front seven.  B.J. Raji is rated dead last against the run among defensive tackles, and A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones have been almost as bad in support. The only guy in the front seven to rate positively against the run is Mike Daniels. Last week, the Bears running backs only had to break three tackles on their way to a five yards per carry average. Perry, Neal, Mulumba, and Lattimore were among the suspects who got abused.

It's highly unlikely Colin Kaepernick repeats his 412 yard performance from Week 1, or his huge read-option day from last year's playoffs, but a quality run game should make things a bit easier on the young QB. He finished above-average in his QB ranking this year, but he's also the only QB in the league who had to play the league's top two defenses twice. Also, only Philip Rivers had a better rating on third down this year.

With all this to work with, we come to another big advantage for the 49ers.

Coaching.

Since Jim Harbaugh took over, they are 3-0 against the Packers. Mike McCarthy is a good coach, but he's built up a really suspect reputation for his in-game management. In the latest example, McCarthy had to be talked into going for it on 4th down during Green Bay's final drive against Chicago. He also elected to go for the extra point instead of going for 2 in the second half of that game. Whether it's play-calling or clock management, Harbaugh holds a clear edge on gamedays.

The final key to this game will be turnovers. That is a no-brainer for most NFL games, but the 49ers have won this category 5-1 in the three games between them the last two years. If the Packers can't find a way to make some big plays on defense, this game could get ugly.

Adding to the drama in this game will be the weather. It's expected to be around -12 at kickoff, and it might even go down as one of the top 10 coldest games in NFL history. At those kind of temperatures both teams might be at a disadvantage, but if it comes down to a grind and pound game, you have to think the 49ers are better equipped for that type of battle.

Bottom Line

I would love to take the Packers in this game, but they enter the contest with far too many question marks. Is Rodgers on top of his game and in sync with his receivers? Can McCarthy avoid getting out-coached by Harbaugh? Will the defense stop the run or create any turnovers?  Is Lacy's ankle healthy enough for a big game? Can they create pressure without Matthews?

Given all the uncertainty, the only option here is the 49ers. It's a case of what you see is what you get, and I'm a bit surprised this line hasn't moved to -3 yet. I'll lay the -2.5 and not look back.

NFL Pick: SF -2.5.


NFL Wild Card Playoff Predictions 2014: Chargers vs Bengals

San Diego Chargers vs Cincinnati Bengals: SD +7 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

When Las Vegas released point spreads for the Wild Card round, they listed the Bengals as -7 point favorites for this game. Since then we've seen some support for the underdog as many sportsbooks have moved the line to -6.5.  You can still find +7 for a bit of extra juice if you shop around, so the best number is available no matter which side you like.

As we inch closer to kickoff, 59 percent of the bets are coming in on the Bengals.

Keep an eye on

This game should boil down to three specific areas.

In their first meeting, the Cincinnati Bengals dominated the lines of scrimmage. This is always an important component of a game, but it was the deciding factor when they met back on December 1st. Coincidentally, it was also the last time the San Diego Chargers lost a football game.

Many analysts aren't giving the Chargers a chance in this game because the Bengals have the top rated pass blocking offensive line in the NFL. Whitworth and Collins are a big reason for that and thanks to them, Dalton's blindside is usually sealed off.  The OL was also a big reason why Cincy piled up 166 yards on the ground in their first meeting.

That could change in this game though. The Chargers defense has been a weakness all year long, but they've gotten back Ingram and Johnson in December.  This has translated into some improved play down the stretch.

On the other side, the Chargers have Dunlap back for this matchup. He wasn't in the lineup during their previous meeting and Michael Johnson took full advantage on the left side. Since Dunlap's return, he and Fluker have been the most improved tackles for the month of December. Combined they only gave up nine QB hurries down the stretch. Also, since Week 11, Johnson only has one sack and three QB hits.

Will these additions for the Chargers be enough to overcome the mismatches on the lines of scrimmage? Probably not, but they should be able to prevent the manhandling that they suffered in their last meeting.

The second factor comes from the advanced stats categories. It's important how teams play in the "make-or-break" moments. The Bengals have been one of the best teams on third down and inside the red zone on both sides of the ball all year long.

This hasn't been the case for San Diego though. Rivers has no trouble moving the ball up and down the field, but they've settled for too many field goals this year rather than touchdowns. And their defense usually folds when their team needs a stop.

Yet, when it comes to the Bengals and the big moments, we need to add an asterisk.  The final factor that will decide this game comes in the form of Andy Dalton.

Dalton might have great protection, and Jay Gruden does a good job of getting the ball out quick, but none of that will matter if Dalton can't raise his game to the next level. In 2013, he had stretches of brilliance, but when the lights shone the brightest, he didn't step up.

Week 2 was the only prime-time game that he came out on top, but it was a cagey game against a banged up and underachieving Steelers team. Dalton only managed one touchdown in that game, and didn't look very impressive. The next time they played in prime-time, they lost to the Dolphins. Dalton has no touchdown passes in that one, and he turned it over four times (3 interceptions and a lost fumble).  In Week 15, they lost another prime-time game, this time against an improved Steelers team. Finally, in the final week of the season, the Bengals had a huge game against the Ravens for playoff seeding. Cincy won big, but it was in spite of Dalton's four interceptions.

The other element to this is the fact that Rivers has been much better than Dalton when facing pressure this year. It's possible that Dalton lays an egg even with good protection, but if the Chargers are able to get to Dalton in this game, the advantage at quarterback will increase significantly.

Bottom Line

The Bengals went 8-0 at home this year, but before that scares you off, consider this stat. Over the last seven years, 10 teams went undefeated at home, but those teams went 5-5 in their opening playoff game.

On paper, Cincy should win this game, but I think it will be closer than the point spread suggests.  The injury situation is worse for the Bengals than it is for the Chargers, and that could close the gap between them on Sunday.

I'll take the Chargers and the points, and I think there's even a chance for a straight up upset here. If I'm ever to become a believer in the Bengals, Dalton is going to have to prove he can elevate his team and get the monkey off his back.

NFL Pick: SD +7.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

NFL Wild Card Playoff Predictions 2014: Saints vs Eagles

New Orleans Saints vs Philadelphia Eagles: PHI -2.5 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

Las Vegas opened the Eagles as -2.5 point favorites for this Wild Card game and we've yet to see any line movement in either direction since.

As of today, 56 percent of the bets are coming in on the Saints.  Will that translate into line movement before kickoff?  I think this might be the toughest game to handicap this weekend, so it would surprise me if there was a clear move in either direction.

Keep an eye on

There are two primary areas to consider for this matchup when we look at the X's and O's, but before I get to that let's take care of the biggest talking point of this game - the location.

Payton and Brees are no stranger to the playoffs, and 10 Saints veterans have been in the playoffs in 4 of the last 5 years. Yet, the Payton-Brees combination are 0-3 in road playoff games. This year Brees has 23 TDs and 3 interceptions at home, but only 12 TDs and 9 interceptions on the road.

But let’s keep this in mind the Saints were leading in New England before Brady led an improbable TD drive, and also in Carolina before Newton marched down for a game winning TD.  Pinpointing the Saints road problems isn't so easy.

The advanced stats guys have looked at this, but they can’t find anything specific in the data that explains the home-road dichotomy for Drew Brees or the Saints. All we know is the win-loss results certainly suggest it exists.

And there is also this …
In the playoffs, dome teams playing in temperatures below 35 degrees on the road are 3-22. 

But the weather and locale aren't the only things that the Saints should be worried about on Saturday night.

A key factor will be how they handle the Eagles offensive line and the dynamic ability of LeSean McCoy. McCoy led the league for RBs, and he’s finished in top 4 in efficiency rankings 3 times in last 4 years.  And only Charles had a better month of December.

The Philly offensive line does a great job blocking, led by Peters, who is is equally good at pass and run blocking.  He led all OTs in December and in three of those games he didn’t give up a single pressure. Kelce was also the highest graded center for December, giving up only one hurry and dominated in run blocking. Mathis is another guy who flies under the radar, but ranks among the better guards in the NFL.  

If the Saints can't find a way to slow down McCoy, the Eagles will be able to score points and keep Brees off the field. In addition, the Saints will also be more susceptible to the play-action pass. Philly has done a great job utilizing the play-action in the second half of the year and it's a big reason for their 7-1 record down the stretch.

This presents two-pronged problem for the Saints because of their situation at safety. Kenny Vaccaro was not only good at coming into the box to stop run plays, but he was equally effective back in coverage. With him out for the year, they now have to rely on Jenkins and Harper. 

Jenkins only offers value in coverage due to his previous play at cornerback, but he hasn't played well down the stretch. Harper is a flat-out liability in coverage and not much better against the run.  This could mean big games from DeSean Jackson and/or Brent Celek.

None of this means that the Eagles are the clear favorites though. The Saints are going to present a monumental test and most of the damage should come from Jimmy Graham.

Graham led all tight ends in TD receptions this year and the Eagles secondary isn't equipped to deal with him. We don't know if Wolff is healthy enough to play, but if he can't go they might have to go with Chung at safety. That is not an ideal situation for Philly and you can be sure Payton and Brees will exploit that weakness all night long.

And Graham's big play ability isn't the only issue for the Eagles. Brees is one of the least sacked QBs in the NFL and they are capable of exposing any defense with their short-passing game. This is part of the reason why the Saints are among the best on third down. In contrast, the Eagles defense are below average in this category. 

But most importantly, this game could be decided when the Saints have the ball inside the Eagles 20 yard line. Surprisingly, New Orleans is average with their red zone offense this season, and most of their success came at home. This is one area where the Eagles defense is really good at, so we'll see who can rise to the occasion in those "make-or-break" moments on Saturday night.

Bottom Line

Of all the Wild Card picks this weekend, this is one that I'm least confident about. The Saints have more playoff experience than the Eagles, and with a game on the line I'd probably feel more comfortable with a Payton-Brees combination than Kelly-Foles. 

That said, it's hard to ignore the home-road dichotomy for the Saints and dome teams have a terrible track record in cold weather games. Stopping the run isn't something that New Orleans does well, and now they are tasked with slowing down the league's leading rusher, behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

As long as Philly stays committed to the ground game, everything else should fall into place. I'll roll with them for the win and cover.

NFL Pick: PHI -2.5.

NFL Wild Card Playoff Predictions 2014: Chiefs vs Colts

Kansas City Chiefs vs Indianapolis Colts: KC +1.5 (Pinnacle)

Market Watch

Las Vegas opened up the Indianapolis Colts as -2.5 point favorites for this game and that's where it has sat all week long. It was uncertain which direction this line would go, but we are finally seeing some movement as money is coming in on KC. Most sportsbooks have moved it down to -1.5.

How far will it move? If my numbers are correct, this line should be close to a 'pick em', so I wouldn't be shocked if we saw a little bit more movement before kickoff.

So far, 53 percent of the total bets have come in on the Colts. As always, this doesn't tell us how much money is on each side (which is more important for line movement), but it does indicate what the average bettor is doing.

Keep an eye on

This game will be decided by three key areas.

It's true that Jamaal Charles and Andrew Luck will have a monumental impact on this game, but for me the most obvious factor will be the turnover margin. When these teams met in Week 16, the Chiefs were -4 in that category. The Colts capitalized on those mistakes by scoring two touchdowns directly off those miscues.

I don't see that happening again in this rematch because Alex Smith has been fantastic at protecting the ball in his career. That game stands out as an anomaly as the Chiefs have dramatically improved their turnover differential in 2013.

Another reason why I think things will be different is directly related to the second key area of the game - pass protection.

The first time around, the Colts didn’t have Thornton at guard, Jean-Francois at DT, or a healthy Toler at CB. These guys will all start on Saturday, which should provide the Colts with quality depth, but it's a different story for KC. They didn’t have Pro Bowler Albert at LT or Pro Bowler Houston at OLB.  With their return to the lineup, you can expect a significant difference in the trenches on Saturday.

I must give credit to Castanzo at LT because he's only allowed two hits and zero sacks in the month of December. That's a huge benefit for Luck's blindside. At the same time, KC's defense slipped from 5th to 15th when Houston was out of the lineup. In relief against the Colts, Zombo only had two QB hurries and one hit in 32 rushes. Now that you have Houston and Hali on the field at the same time, along with a stout Dontari Poe in the middle, it's going to really test the Indy offensive pass protection.

On the flip side, all the focus will be on Mathis. He's the second highest rated 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, and he played a big role in taking down the Chiefs a few weeks ago. It helps the entire OL out to have Albert back at LT, but they can also contain Mathis with an adjustment in play-calling.  We all know that Andy Reid is one of the best coaches off a bye, which is basically what they had in Week 17, so I feel pretty confident that he'll make the necessary changes on the line of scrimmage.

Finally, the last key area I'm focusing on is special teams. The Chiefs might not have the best field goal kicker, but they do have the best overall special teams unit in the league. A direct result of this is the best average net starting field position in the NFL. The Colts are very mediocre in this phase of the game, so if this is as close as expected, special teams could play a significant role. 

Bottom Line

Andrew Luck is 14-2 in games that are decided by one score or less, which is enough to scare anybody backing KC,  but the overall picture is more favorable for the Chiefs. 

It's unlikely that they'll repeat the same mistakes that happened in their prior meeting this season and they add two key pieces to the lineup that missed that game. 

I agree with the recent line movement in support of KC and given that this should be a 'pick em' on the point spread, any points that the sportsbooks want to give us is a bonus. I think the Chiefs win this game.

NFL Pick: KC +1.5.