Week Seven Picks

October 18th, 2018 No comments

I should be getting better at this by this point in the season. I usually do as the stats add up. But not so much so far this year.

I went 8-7 picking straight up in week six, 8-6-1 against the spread. For the season, that gets me to 54-37-2 (.591) straight up, 41-47-5 (.468) with the points.

Maybe this is my week. But it probably isn’t.

Here’s what not to expect.

Denver (-1.5) at Arizona
It’s entirely possible, as the teams with the worst run defenses in the league square off, that neither offense will need to call a pass play all night. And for the Broncos, that certainly would be one way for to limit Case Keenum‘s interceptions. It would also get the rest of us out from under this battle for 2019 draft position a bit earlier, which sounds good to me. The Cardinals are pretty awful, but I still like them to win this game by a field goal.

Tennessee (+6.5) vs. LA Chargers at Wembley Stadium, London
I expect to see Melvin Gordon carry the Chargers for a second straight week. Los Angeles by 13.

New England (-3.5) at Chicago
The Bears are an illusion. New England by 10.

Cleveland (+3) at Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers are awful. The Browns are just garden variety bad (which, you know, is actually a step in the right direction for Cleveland). But I don’t think the difference is quite enough to overcome home field. Tampa Bay by a point.

Detroit (-3) at Miami
I wonder who’ll be the Dolphins’ starting quarterback next season. Lions by two.

Carolina (+4.5) at Philadelphia
I haven’t been particularly impressed with either of these teams. (Sorry. I know the narrative is that Philadelphia has started to turn it around, but I’m just not sure I’m ready to view stopping a two-game skid with a win over the Giants as season saving.) But the Eagles are playing at home on 10 days rest while the Panthers are playing a second straight game on the road. And, more important, I suspect Philadelphia will be able to limit Carolina’s production on the ground and render the Panthers offense one dimensional. I think that should prove just enough. Eagles by three.

Buffalo (+7.5) at Indianapolis
I’m sure Derek Anderson will be every bit as good as Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman at getting the snot knocked out of him. Colts by two touchdowns.

Minnesota (-3) at NY Jets
If the Jets can win the turnover battle, they may very well be able to make this a game. But can they win? Probably not. Vikings by six.

Houston (+4.5) at Jacksonville
If the Texans had an offensive line, I might actually be tempted to pick them. (Or maybe not. Maybe if the game were being played in Houston.) But they don’t. And I’m setting the over/under on the number of Texans QBs knocked out of this thing at two. Hope you’re ready to go, Joe Webb. Jaguars by three.

New Orleans (+2.5) at Baltimore
Balance. Baltimore. By four.

Dallas (+1.5) at Washington
Can I just predict a home-home split in the season series right now and avoid dealing with this showcase of mediocrity when it repeats in Dallas five weeks from now? Racists by three.

LA Rams (-10) at San Francisco
I’ll be shocked if this is still a game at the end of the first quarter. Or, rather, I’ll be shocked if I find out after the fact that this was still a game at the end of the first quarter. I know I won’t be paying attention in real time. Rams by 21.

Cincinnati (+6) at Kansas City
This week, it’s the Chiefs’ turn to win the Sunday night game 43-40.

NY Giants (+5.5) at Atlanta
The only thing likely to slow down either offense in this game is the Giants offense. Falcons by eight.

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Week Six Picks

October 11th, 2018 No comments

I’m not getting better at this. I should be getting better at this as the data sets on each team grow to meaningful levels. But I’m not.

In week five, I went 10-5 straight up for the second straight week. That’s not completely awful. But against the spread, I’m only getting much, much worse. I was a miserable 5-9-1 in week five. There’s nothing close to a positive spin you can put on outcome like that.

For the season, I currently stand at 46-30-2 (.603) straight up, 33-41-4 (.449) with the points.

And now I’m staring at a slate of week six games most of which I have no idea what to make of. That always points to great results, doesn’t it?

Here’s what not to expect.

Philadelphia (-3) at NY Giants
Think the NFC East couldn’t possibly be more of a mess? Think again. New Jersey by a field goal.

Arizona (+10) at Minnesota
If the Vikings can’t get their running game going against the Cardinals, it won’t matter whether — or by what margin — they win this game. The Vikes travel to New Jersey to face the Jets next week. That’s a game they should win. After that, though, their schedule turns difficult no matter what, brutal for a team with a one-dimensional offense. So if you want to know where the Vikings are headed, don’t look at the scoreboard late Sunday afternoon; look at the box score. I don’t know what you’ll see there. We’ll find out together. But I am fairly confident the scoreboard will show a nine-point Minnesota margin of victory.

LA Chargers (-1) at Cleveland
The Browns haven’t lost a game in Cleveland yet this season. I’m not sure that means very much. But it’s something. And, you know, reluctant as I am to buy into the Browns on any level, I have to think that if you can hold off the Ravens in your building one week, you ought to be able to hold off the Chargers in your building the next. Cleveland by three.

Chicago (-3) at Miami
Remember that time the Dolphins started 3-0 with home wins over the Titans and Raiders and a road victory over the Jets, and then all the Miami fans decided their team was running away with the AFC East? Wasn’t that hilarious? Now the Dolphins pretty much need to beat the well-rested Bears just to get their season back on track. The good news for Miami is that the Bears aren’t really as impressive as their 3-1 record might suggest. The bad news is that the Bears are still better than the Dolphins. Chicago by one.

Carolina (+1) at Washington
I don’t really know what I can believe about either of these teams at this point in the season. But I think the Racists are slightly more uneven than the Panthers. I think. Carolina by four.

Indianapolis (+2.5) at NY Jets
Neither of these teams has much going for it. But New Jersey at least is playing at home. Let’s call that the deciding factor. Jets by three.

Pittsburgh (+2.5) at Cincinnati
The Steelers absolutely cannot afford to lose this game. Not only do they trail the AFC North-leading Bengals by a game and a half, the Steelers are 0-1-1 in the division and 0-2-1 in the conference. It’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh climbing out of the hole they’d be in if they don’t find a way to get a win here. My gut says the Steelers find a way to keep things interesting for at least a little while longer. But my head says, “Shut up, gut. You’re stupid.” Bengals by two.

Tampa Bay (+3.5) at Atlanta
Which defense is worse? No, seriously, I’m asking. Because I really have no idea. Atlanta wins by three, quite possibly with an Arena Football League style score, say 63-60. (If you must bet, bet the over.)

Seattle (-3) vs. Oakland at Wembley Stadium, London
Jon Gruden can’t stop thinking about how during Live Aid, Phil Collins played in London and Philadelphia on the same day. Played a set. Hopped on the Concorde. Played another set. (And then another.) Except for how the music was awful, it was pretty impressive. At least that’s what I’m guessing’s been on Gruden’s mind. It would explain why the Raiders’ coach might figure there’s no reason his team can’t have a nice Saturday evening out in Oakland, catch a red-eye to London and be on the field ready to kick ass come 10 a.m. West Coast time Sunday. Or something like that. Maybe Gruden’s hoping the extra time in California will give him a chance to locate his defense. Barring that, I can’t begin to understand his strategy. Seahawks by 17.

Buffalo (+10) at Houston
If Josh Allen can manage to avoid giving the ball to the Texans defense, the Bills might not lose too badly. Houston by a touchdown.

LA Rams (-7) at Denver
I don’t care where it’s being played, or in what weather conditions, this game has ugly written all over it. Rams by 20.

Jacksonville (-3) at Dallas
Jaguars, 10-9.

Baltimore (-3) at Tennessee
You beat the Titans on the ground. Unless you’re the Ravens, in which case you lose to the Titans by not being able to mount a sustained running attack. Tennessee by a point.

Kansas City (+3.5) at New England
The Patriots defense has shown some positive signs over the last two weeks. That’s fairly typical. New England tends to grow into its D every season. I think the unit is still a few weeks away from really coming together, though. And even when it does, it might not be enough to slow down the powerhouse Chiefs offense. It’s possible there isn’t a D in the NFL this season that can do that. But at the same time, it doesn’t look to me like Kansas City’s D is ever going to be ready to stop any half decent offense. And the Patriots’ O is considerably better than half decent. I expect this game to go back and forth all night. And I expect that whichever team holds the ball last will come out on top. In a situation like that, I take the hosts. New England by three.

San Francisco (+9.5) at Green Bay
Major League Baseball couldn’t have scheduled game two of the ALCS against this dog? Green Bay by halftime. And 13 points.

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Week Five Picks

October 4th, 2018 Comments off

There are lots of reasons I don’t gamble on football. One is that I don’t gamble on anything; it does nothing for me. Another one, though, is that I’m not good at it.

I went 10-5 last week picking straight up. That’s not terrible (though it’s certainly not great by any measure). Against the spread, though, I was 6-7-2. And that’s just plain awful. If I were putting actual money on these games and faring this poorly, I’d have to stop just to save myself from bankruptcy. But where the only cost is pride I never had to begin with, I can press on.

I head into week five with season records of 36-25-2 (.587) straight up and 28-32-3 (.468) against the spread.

I’m sure I can do worse.

Here’s what not to expect over the next five days.

Indianapolis (+10) at New England
This may not be news to you, but the last time the Colts visited Foxborough there was a, um, well, a bit of a thing. Seriously. It really has been that long. Seems crazy given that these teams used to have a rivalry, but it’s been better than three years since the last meeting in New England, and two weeks shy of three years since the Pats and Colts played at all. It’s also been nearly nine years since the Colts last beat the Patriots in any building, and most of 12 since Indianapolis last came out ahead in New England. And the Colts have never pulled off a win of the Patriots with Andrew Luck as their quarterback. None of that has a thing to do with this game, of course. Three years is forever in NFL time. So long that if it weren’t for recent off-field history, one might well conclude these teams were functionally strangers to each other. And, you know, had this game taken place in Indianapolis two or three weeks ago when the Patriots still had a lot to figure out, the Colts may have been able to pull off a win. Had it taken place in Foxborough a week ago, I might have expected a close game. Records notwithstanding, I don’t see a lot that separates the Colts from the Dolphins. Indy and Miami have played at effectively the same level, with many of the same strengths and weaknesses, against a slightly different set of opponents. Given that, given what we saw Sunday afternoon when the Patriots hosted the Dolphins, given the fact that the Colts are traveling on four days rest after playing through a full overtime in week four, and given that the Patriots just got an important weapon back, I have a hard time imagining the Colts are going to be able to keep up for 60 minutes. I expect to see a competitive first half, but I think the Indy starts to wear down after halftime, at which point it becomes the Sony Michel show. Even playing ball control for much of the second half, I think the Patriots come out on top by two touchdowns.

Baltimore (-3) at Cleveland
A year from now, this may well be a game. Right now, it isn’t. For the Browns to succeed, Carlos Hyde needs to succeed. And I’m not sure Hyde can have a big day against the Ravens’ D. Ravens by six.

Jacksonville (+3) at Kansas City
Unbalanced as these two teams may be, I can envision them meeting again in mid January with a lot on the line. And if that comes to pass, the outcome here may well determine the venue. That may be bad news for the Jaguars. Because even though the Jacksonville offense is slightly less unimpressive than the Kansas City defense, I don’t think it’s by enough to overcome home field advantage. Chiefs by a point.

Tennessee (-3.5) at Buffalo
It’s starting to look like the Titans might be for real. It’s abundantly clear that the Bills are not. Tennessee by a field goal.

NY Giants (+7) at Carolina
Pin the Giants’ problems on Eli Manning if you like. But if you do, you’re missing the point. Eli Manning is playing exactly like Eli Manning. And that kind of consistency is pretty much the best one can expect from a 37-year-old quarterback. Certainly, it would be foolish to expect Manning to suddenly start playing like Drew Brees, regardless of whether that’s what fans might want. It wouldn’t be foolish, on the other hand, to think the Giants would try to develop a run defense. This is something they haven’t quite managed to do. And I expect it’s going to bite them on the ass is a major way once again this weekend. Panthers by 16.

Denver (+1.5) at NY Jets
Neither of these teams is very good. Jets by three.

Atlanta (+3) at Pittsburgh
I know the over/under on this game is an insane 57.5, but if I were betting, I’d still bet the over. There’s simply no reason to believe either of these teams is suddenly going to discover defense. Home team by a point.

Green Bay (-1) at Detroit
The Lions this season clearly are going to be the team that always does the exact opposite of what I expect. Which means they’re destined to win this game. Packers by four.

Miami (+6.5) at Cincinnati
The Dolphins weren’t quite good enough to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati before they were exposed by the Patriots. It’s just that now everyone knows it. Cincinnati by nine.

Oakland (+5.5) at LA Chargers
The Chargers so far this season have been uneven. As time goes on, they’ll prove fatally flawed. The Raiders? They’re just bad. Chargers by four.

Arizona (+4) at San Francisco
You can’t not beat the Cardinals. San Francisco by three.

Minnesota (+3) at Philadelphia
It’s too early in the season for this literally to be true, but it feels like the Vikings need this game. They’re not getting it. The Eagles fire up the ground game, control the clock, and come out on top by a touchdown.

LA Rams (-7) at Seattle
I’m not disputing the Rams’ greatness, but it would be nice, sometime this season, to see them face a good opponent. That’s not happening this week. Los Angeles by 13.

Dallas (+3) at Houston
I suppose one of these teams has to win. Or at least, you know, I can’t really pick a tie. So let’s go with the home team. They seem to be slightly better anyhow. Maybe. Houston by two.

Washington (+6.5) at New Orleans
I think the well-rested Racists make this a game. Saints by three.

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Week Four Picks

September 27th, 2018 Comments off

Damned underdogs.

That’s where I’m placing the blame for my horrific performance in week three. I’m not sure you could call it upset week — hell, I’m not inclined to believe you could call any week three upset week — but it’s nonetheless true that six underdogs won outright last week. Four of them did it on the road. And one of those teams, the Buffalo Bills, was getting most of three scores (16.5 points) going in. There’s no picking a team like that to win it straight up. Just isn’t.

Of course, it’s also possible that I’m just a dunce. I’ll let you weigh the possibilities while I point out that I finished the week at 7-9 both straight up and against the spread. That brings my season numbers to 26-20-2 (.563) straight up and 22-25-1 (.458) against the spread.

Let’s see if I can’t manage to creep even closer to the Mendoza Line this week. Here’s what not to expect.

Minnesota (+7) at LA Rams
The Vikings need a big win to rebound from the beatdown the Bills put on them on Sunday. Not exactly the circumstances under which you want to travel on short rest to face the Rams. Los Angeles by 17.

Miami (+7) at New England
I’m not sure I’d give a touchdown to the Dolphins in September (maybe December in Foxborough) even if the Patriots hadn’t stunk up the field in each of their last two games. I definitely wouldn’t give seven here. At the same time, though, I’m not overly impressed with the path Miami has taken to 3-0. New England by three.

Houston (+1) at Indianapolis
The Colts don’t look to me like a team that can succeed against top-tier opponents. But the Texans aren’t a top-tier opponent. The Texans are toast. Indianapolis by four.

Cincinnati (+5.5) at Atlanta
These teams may be more evenly matched than I imagined four weeks ago. I’m still taking the home team. But I wouldn’t give more than a field goal.

Buffalo (+10) at Green Bay
With Josh Allen starting behind center, the Bills may be capable of more than anyone expected. Winning against a heavily favored opponent in a road game for a second straight week? I don’t think they’re up to that quite yet. Packers by nine.

Detroit (+3) at Dallas
There are a lot of ways one can look at the Lions’ destruction of the Patriots on Sunday night. I, for one, believe I saw a team that should have been better than its 0-2 start finally buying into its new head coach’s approach and playing disciplined football. Add to that the fact that the Cowboys have been wholly unimpressive thus far this season and I’m looking for an upset here. Lions by a point.

NY Jets (+7.5) at Jacksonville
With their letdown game behind them, I expect the Jaguars to get back to business. Jacksonville by 10.

Tampa Bay (+3) at Chicago
Here’s how this game is going to prove harmful to the Buccaneers: They’re going to lose and the loss is going to be pinned on Ryan Fitzpatrick, opening the door for Jameis Winston to retake the role of starting QB. In reality, the loss is going to be the fault of the Tampa Bay defense. But for the rest of the season the conversation in Tampa is going to revolve around which quarterback is more of a disappointment, all while the Bucs D continues to sputter. And nothing will get fixed. Bears by six.

Philadelphia (-4) at Tennessee
Whichever team discovers the magical football quality called “offense” wins. I’ve gotta think that’s Philadelphia. Eagles by three.

Seattle (-3) at Arizona
I’m confident Josh Rosen is going to have his moments in this game. Rosen’s a talented guy. And the Seahawks at best are an uneven team. But I don’t think any one player is turning the 2018 Cardinals around. Seattle by four.

Cleveland (+2.5) at Oakland
I’m not 100 percent on this, so, you know, don’t quote me or anything, but I think the last time the Browns won two straight, their quarterback was Otto Graham. Of course, since the Oakland defense is a complete shambles … nah, actually, I still can’t pull the trigger. Raiders by one.

San Francisco (+10.5) at LA Chargers
The 2018 San Francisco 49ers put all of their offensive eggs in one basket. C.J. Beathard is not that basket. Chargers by 13.

New Orleans (-3.5) at NY Giants
Drew Brees has been lighting up questionable defenses, which has covered up the Saints own defensive struggles. I don’t believe the Giants’ D is likely to make things easy for Brees, though. And to my mind, that means this game comes down to whether Eli Manning can avoid making stupid mistakes. In New Jersey, anyhow, I’m inclined to think he can. Giants by a field goal.

Baltimore (+3) at Pittsburgh
Nothing I’ve seen from the Steelers this season has been remotely impressive. Ravens by four.

Kansas City (-5) at Denver
The Chiefs’ lack of balance is going to catch up with them at some point. But not this point. Kansas City by seven.

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Week Three Picks

September 20th, 2018 Comments off

Enough with the ties already, NFL. This is not soccer. Or hockey. No one wants to see this nonsense. Bring back the full-length overtime period. Extend it if you have to. Just have these teams play until one of them wins.

Or maybe I should welcome ties. At least with those games, I can pretend my picks were half right. And that’s something I could have used more of in week two.

I wrapped up last week 9-6-1 straight up, 7-9 against the spread. For the season, that gets me to 19-11-2 (.625) and 15-16-1 (.484) respectively.

Let’s see how much worse it can get in week three. Here’s what not to expect.

NY Jets (+3) at Cleveland
Ugh. The Jets are not a good football team. But neither are the Browns, who haven’t won a game since Christmas Eve of 2016. I know the short week favors the home team and all that, but I just can’t bring myself to pick Cleveland. Can’t. Jets by a point.

New Orleans (+3) at Atlanta
The home team rebounded from a tough road loss to the defending champs in the season opener with a win over another tough opponent at home in week two. The road team rebounded from a humiliating week one home loss with a narrow week two win at home over the Browns. If I need to have faith in one of these squads at this point, I’m going with the Falcons. Atlanta by six.

San Francisco (+6.5) at Kansas City
If the 49ers want Jimmy Garoppolo to lead them to a Super Bowl, they may want to invest some time in figuring out how to keep him on his feet. I can’t remember the last successful team that exposed its quarterback to a 72-sack season. Chiefs by four.

Oakland (+3) at Miami
I’m still not buying into the idea that the Dolphins are a good football team. But I’m totally in on the idea that the Raiders are a bad one. Miami by a touchdown.

Buffalo (+16.5) at Minnesota
Bills quarterbacks have taken a combined 11 sacks this season. Josh Allen has been on the pancaked end of eight of those. That translates, for Allen, to an absolutely brutal sack percentage of 14.3.

sack percentage tweet

The Vikings defense, meanwhile, has recorded seven sacks thus far this season. That’s an 8.5% sack rate, roughly once every 12 times an opposing quarterback has dropped back. This, in case you were wondering, is not a promising combination of factors for Buffalo. I’m still not giving three scores, though. Vikings by 14.

Indianapolis (+6.5) at Philadelphia
You have to figure Carson Wentz is going to need a bit of time to shake off the rust, right? So let’s figure maybe the Eagles win this one by just four.

Cincinnati (+3) at Carolina
The Bengals can’t win every game they play 34-23. Maybe this week they’ll lose by that score. Panthers by 11.

Denver (+5.5) at Baltimore
Sure, 2-0 is a nice start to a season. But a pair of narrow home wins over mediocre and bad opponents doesn’t ultimately mean that much. I’m not sure the Ravens are a great team, but they’re the best the Broncos will have faced this season. And I expect it to show. Baltimore by six.

NY Giants (+6) at Houston
I guess I’ll go with the unproven home team over the unproven road team. Texans by a field goal.

Tennessee (+7.5) at Jacksonville
The Titans’ only hope here is that the Jaguars are in for a letdown game after their big week two Super Bowl victory. I don’t think it’ll be enough. Jacksonville by five.

Green Bay (-3) at Washington
I suspect the Packers could win this one even if Aaron Rodgers had to play on crutches. Green Bay by four.

LA Chargers (+7) at LA Rams
The Chargers should prove a tad harder to stop than the Raiders and Cardinals. Which, of course, is to say absolutely nothing. Rams by six.

Chicago (-6) at Arizona
We all knew the Cardinals were going to be bad this season. But I don’t think many of us realized they were going to be this bad. Bears by 10.

Dallas (+1.5) at Seattle
Neither of these teams has been able to protect its quarterback so far this season. But at least the Cowboys have shown some ability to get to opponents’ QBs. Dallas by three.

New England (-6.5) at Detroit
You can’t expect new addition Josh Gordon to be a factor for the Patriots this week even if he’s active. The Patriots’ run game, on the other hand, will be going up against a Lions D that surrendered 169 and 190 rushing yards to the Jets and 49ers respectively. That, you know, seems like an opportunity. New England by 13.

Pittsburgh (-1) at Tampa Bay
I’m not sure the Buccaneers are for real. But I’m starting to believe that the Steelers are a real mess. Tampa Bay by four.

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Week Two Picks

September 13th, 2018 Comments off

I’m off to a perfectly mediocre start, which is nearly as comforting as it is frustrating. In this crazy world, there’s something to be said for taking consistency where you can find it. Probably. I’m a consistently OK picker of football results straight up, and a consistently semi-accurate picker against the spread. With zero dollars ever on the line, I can live with that.

I finished week one 10-5-1 (.656) straight up; 8-7-1 (.531) against the spread.

Let’s see if I can draw some faulty conclusions from the tiny sample size of one result per team and really cut into my results in week two.

Which is to say, here’s what not to expect.

Baltimore (-1) at Cincinnati
I don’t feel like I know anything more about either of these teams than I did a week ago. Well, except that maybe I underestimated both heading into the season. Or, you know, maybe not. A week ago, I wasn’t sure the Ravens could put a lot of points on the board against the Bills. Works out they could. That knowledge would be more helpful if the Ravens were playing Buffalo again. Or if I had a better sense of whether last week’s result had more to do with the Ravens being better than I expected or the Bills being worse (somehow). But I don’t. Meanwhile, the Bengals at least beat a team with an offense. But I’d really like to see them do it more than once before I draw any hard conclusions. In the end, I still have little to go on here. If what I still suspect is the better of the two teams were the one hosting on short rest, I’d just go with them and have done with it. No such luck. But I’m still going to hold my breath and take the Ravens. By two.

Indianapolis (+6) at Washington
I don’t know what happens when the Racists face an actual NFL opponent yet. I also don’t know yet whether the Colts are capable of playing defense. For now, I’m just going on the fact that Washington’s playing at home, the impression that the Colts can’t stop the run, and the belief that Alex Smith is at least as good a quarterback as Andy Dalton. Racists by a field goal.

Carolina (+6) at Atlanta
I don’t think the Falcons are six points better than the Panthers. In fact, I don’t think the Falcons are better than the Panthers at all. But I know the Falcons are playing at home on 10 days rest. And I think the injuries each team is dealing with pretty much offset. Atlanta by four.

Minnesota (-1) at Green Bay
If you’re Aaron Rodgers and you’re hopping around on your one good leg just trying to make something happen (because you aren’t just your team’s best option at quarterback; you’re their only option), you can’t feel good about the Minnesota Vikings coming to town. You can’t feel good about that at all. Vikings by six.

LA Chargers (-7.5) at Buffalo
Angry Chargers vs. awful Bills. I know Los Angeles doesn’t typically fare well on the east coast. And I know the Bills have made a change at quarterback. I’m just not sure a change at one position (though, obviously, it’s a big one) and a jet-lagged opponent are going to be enough to fix what’s wrong with Buffalo. Chargers by nine.

Houston (-2.5) at Tennessee
The team that keeps its starting quarterback upright longest wins. Since we don’t really know whether Marcus Mariota actually belongs on the field, I’m going with the Texans. Houston by a point.

Kansas City (+4) at Pittsburgh
No matter how I pick this game, it’s pretty much guaranteed to bite me in the ass. The Steelers are a different team at home than they are on the road. The Chiefs are playing their second straight road game. These aren’t minor factors. Still, I keep thinking about the extent to which the Cleveland Browns battered Ben Roethlisberger in week one. And I don’t know how to think past that. Chiefs by three.

Miami (+3) at NY Jets
Jets by a point. Why? Because I’m just guessing. That’s why.

Philadelphia (-3) at Tampa Bay
I don’t know if you’re aware of this — it’s a fairly well kept secret — but Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard. Philadelphia by a touchdown.

Cleveland (+9) at New Orleans
I’m pretty sure the Browns played their Super Bowl in week one. They managed a tie. Because, yeah, the Browns probably could find a way to play to a tie in a Super Bowl. (You know, in the pretend universe where the Browns could get to a Super Bowl.) Saints by 13.

Arizona (+13) at LA Rams
Sometimes early in a season a pretty bad team catches a pretty good team off guard. I can’t see that happening here. Rams by 17.

Detroit (+6) at San Francisco
If Matt Patricia had all of the pieces in place, and if those pieces were actually interested in being coached, I might think the Lions defense could exploit their coach’s familiarity with Jimmy Garoppolo and steal a win. Oh, wait. Detroit would also need an offensive line. Those can come in handy. San Francisco by 10.

New England (-1.5) at Jacksonville
Is, um … there’s a lot that makes this an interesting game — AFC Championship rematch, home team’s excellent defense, ongoing uncertainty about the visitors’ depth at wide receiver … just a lot — but my question remains: is, um, is Blake Bortles still playing quarterback for the Jaguars? Oh, he is? OK, then. Patriots by a field goal.

Oakland (+6) at Denver
The Broncos are not great. The Raiders are not good. Denver by seven.

NY Giants (+3) at Dallas
At this point, I can’t imagine doing anything other than taking the home team to win by the default margin of three. Maybe I’ll think differently by the time this series gets to New Jersey at the end of December. But that’s where I’m at right now. Cowboys straight up; a push with the points.

Seattle (+3.5) at Chicago
Maybe the Bears defense will play a full four quarters this week. Maybe they won’t even need to. Chicago by four.

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Week One Picks

September 6th, 2018 Comments off

Here’s the bar: 177-79 (.691) straight up, 124-119-13 (.510) against the spread. That’s how I wrapped up my 2017 regular season picks.

Those results feel pretty daunting to me right now. But I’m just foolish enough to press on anyhow. Even here in week one when I have less than usual to go on. I know nothing, because nothing has actually happened. All I know is what I think, and what I think rarely accomplishes anything other than getting me in deep trouble.

Last year, in week one I went 9-6 straight up, 8-7 against the spread. (Yes, there were only 15 games that week. Remember the whole thing where Hurricane Irma forced the postponement of the Buccaneers-Dolphins match?) I’ll be lucky to duplicate those results.

Here’s what not to expect.

Atlanta (pick ’em) at Philadelphia
Someone out there somewhere has these teams meeting again in the NFC Championship game. I don’t know who that someone is; I just know they have to exist. Because these are two excellent football teams that appear to have good to great seasons ahead of them. Only one of is the defending champion, though. The 2018 Eagles look right now like a better team than the one the took the 2017 league title. And they’re at home. So I’m taking them. Philadelphia by four.

Pittsburgh (-4) at Cleveland
Le’Veon Bell will not participate in this game. But neither, one suspects, will the Browns. Steelers by a touchdown.

San Francisco (+6.5) at Minnesota
Wait, the 49ers are getting most of a touchdown in the season opener? Even though San Francisco has never lost a game with Jimmy Garroppol0 — the sun that rises in the west; the GOAT-in-waiting whom the Patriots foolishly let slip through their fingers — starting at quarterback? I just … I just … I don’t … it, it, it just doesn’t make sense. Someone fix this. Please. Vikings by six.

Cincinnati (+3) at Indianapolis
The home team might be good this season. The visitors probably won’t be. Colts by a field goal.

Buffalo (+7.5) at Baltimore
The Ravens are winning this match, but I’m still not sold on Baltimore’s ability to put a lot of points on the board. So I’m going to hedge and say the home team comes out ahead by just six.

Jacksonville (-3) at NY Giants
I recommend resisting the temptation to draw broad conclusions about the 2018 Giants based on the outcome of this game. Jaguars by five.

Tampa Bay (+9.5) at New Orleans
I just don’t see what the Buccaneers have going for them in this match. Saints by 13.

Houston (+6.5) at New England
The Patriots have lost their home opener only twice in the 16 seasons since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback. The Texans are a decent team. And I kind of expect the Patriots to start slow as they feel their way around their new offense. I won’t be blown away if New England lets this one go all 60 minutes and only comes out on top by a late field goal. But I’m more inclined to think they take control late in the third quarter and win it by at least seven.

Tennessee (-1.5) at Miami
I suspect we’ll all have a much better idea what to make of both of these teams at the conclusion of this game. Titans by four.

Kansas City (+3.5) at LA Chargers
In Kansas City, I’d probably take the Chiefs. And maybe that’s exactly what I’ll do when the Chargers roll in to KC for a rematch in mid December. In week one, in Los Angeles? I’m going with the Chargers by three.

Seattle (+3) at Denver
I’m not sure either of these teams is fully formed at this point in the young season. And, really, both may be a full calendar year away. I’ll go with the home team by a point.

Dallas (+3) at Carolina
I think my view of both of these teams heading into the season is more favorable than the consensus. My view of the Panthers is slightly more favorable than my view of the Cowboys, though. And the Panthers are at home. Carolina by four.

Washington (+1) at Arizona
I don’t think much of either of these teams. But I suspect that while Washington will be a disappointment this season, Arizona will be a straight up mess. Racists by six.

Chicago (+7.5) at Green Bay
The Bears are surely in better shape for this game with Khalil Mack than they ever could have been without him. Which means, you know, they might not get clobbered quite so bad. Packers by “just” 10.

NY Jets (+6.5) at Detroit
It has to feel good, when you’re a team that maybe needs some time to find a groove, to open your season at home against a team that … uh, is the Jets. Lions by six.

LA Rams (-4) at Oakland
Four? You’re kidding, right? I half expect the Rams to be up by 14 before the end of the first quarter (which is when I plan to go to bed). Los Angeles by 21.

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2018 Season Predictions

September 6th, 2018 Comments off

I don’t know why I do this.

Well, I do, actually. It’s because I’ve had months and months (213 days) to think about football without watching football and now there’s this part of me that feels like I have to say something. That part of me couldn’t be more wrong, of course. I don’t really have to say anything. And I know that. But I’m ahead with this anyhow.

So here goes the only football-related activity I engage in that’s more pointless than trying to pick a given week’s slate of games.

As in previous years, I’m not interested in trying to predict win-loss records. Even my stupidity has its limits (or so I really, really, really hope). I’ll just present a range of the total wins I think each team is capable of. And then, having forgotten sometime during my advance walk through 32 teams’ 17-week seasons that I’m just completely making this stuff up, I’ll refer back to the products of my own idiocy and pretend I can predict postseason seedings and outcomes

You still here? Man, you might be even sadder than I am. Might as well keep reading.

AFC East

New England Patriots, 11-13
I don’t know, like, maybe you’ve heard this, but Tom Brady just turned 41, which as I now understand it is the age at which one expects to see a quarterback transition from from league MVP to worthless bum. I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be a problem. Still, when the Patriots drafted Sony Michel in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, I thought (and I’m pretty sure tweeted, but going back to check that would, you know, require effort), hey, adding an explosive running back is a certainly one way to ameliorate the sudden bumification of an aging quarterback. It’s been done before (I think; like maybe there was a guy in Denver once or something like that — no, no, longer ago than that). This was an exciting thought to me. But not apparently to Bill Belichick, who in his eternal determination to play chicken with the Grim Reaper has opted to um, let’s say de-emphasize the wide receiver position this season. This, one anticipates, may put some of that pressure right back on Gray-dy. (See what I did there?) It might also tend to put some pressure on the dinged-up Michel, who could conceivably have trouble gaining yards if he’s the only guy defenses have to worry about. Except Gronk, I mean. They still have to worry about Gronk. Also, Chris Hogan has been known to make a catch from time to time. And if Cordarrelle Patterson is ever going to evolve into an actual NFL receiver, the QB best suited to help him get there is probably Brady (dotage notwithstanding). The Patriots also should get Julian Edelman back after week four — and one can at least hope that Edelman will start to return to form by the second half of the season. That’s all good-ish news for young Mr. Michel and old Mr. Brady alike. It’s no guarantee of a third straight Super Bowl appearance for the Patriots, mind you. But it does at least suggest that things may not be so terribly bleak for New England after all.

Miami Dolphins, 5-8
Let’s say Ryan Tannehill returns to his previous form. What does that get you? A guy who can throw 25-ish TDs and lead you to eight wins? Are those the goals? Is eight wins the goal? If so, I’m not sure I think this Dolphins organization is particularly well run.

New York Jets, 4-6
Sam Darnold very likely represents a huge step in the right direction for the Jets. Should be interesting to see what creative ways New Jersey comes up with to bollix the whole deal.

Buffalo Bills, 2-5
I’m sure Nathan Peterman’s going to do just great.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers, 9-12
The temptation this year (actually, it’s not all that new a thought process) is to consider the fact that Ben Roethlisberger seems significantly older at 36 than Tom Brady does at 41 and conclude that the Steelers and their quarterback alike are destined to fall apart. But the end never seems actually to arrive, does it? And I don’t think the Le’Veon Bell situation changes the calculus much, if at all. (Might hurt in the short term, but long term, I think as great as Bell is, the Steelers are built to achieve roughly the same level of success with or without him.)

Baltimore Ravens, 7-11
The Ravens defense, once again, should be able to keep the team in the hunt no matter what happens with the offense. Whether “in the hunt” translates to just missing the postseason or overtaking the Steelers for the division title (or, you know, one of the possibilities in between) will depend on the extent to which Joe Flacco continues his ongoing slide.

Cincinnati Bengals, 3-6
I wonder if anyone in the Bengals organization has noticed that Andy Dalton gets worse every season.

Cleveland Browns, 1-4
Here’s what I wrote about the Browns last year: “I’m sorely tempted to set up a template that populates this space with ‘The Browns are rebuilding.’ Feel like I could save a ton of time that way.” So there you go.

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars, 9-13
If defense truly won championships, the Jaguars would be … well, actually, they might have gone into this season as the defending Super Bowl champs. But defense doesn’t win championships. Balance wins championships. And championship-level balance in the NFL requires consistently strong quarterback play. Blake Bortles has yet to deliver that. Maybe this is his year. Or maybe Jacksonville will field one of those Ds that are so dominant that even an average QB is enough. Or maybe the Jags will finish another season as also-rans. Time will tell.

Tennessee Titans, 8-11
The Titans were very good last season. They could, maybe should be better this season. If Marcus Mariota can step up his game, Tennessee may even be able to challenge Jacksonville for the division.

Houston Texans, 7-10
Deshaun Watson is a stunningly good quarterback. Next off-season, the Texans should consider bringing in an offensive line to protect him.

Indianapolis Colts, 5-10
You tell me whether Andrew Luck is healthy and ready to play like his old self. Without knowing, it’s impossible to say whether the Colts are a contender or a disaster.

AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers, 8-11
I’m not sold on the Chargers. I keep hearing about how they’re poised to make a deep run into the postseason after struggling to 9-7 and just missing the tournament last season. But I keep thinking about how all I heard last season was that the Chargers were “better than their record” (man, do I hate that stupid cliche). I suspect that, for whatever reason, a lot of experts just sort of love to love the Chargers. Thing is, as I look around at the rest of the AFC West, I’m just not clear on which of the other team can step up and take the division. There are too many questions all around. So maybe Los Angeles gets it done. Or maybe they back into it. Or maybe neither. (And, ugh. Now that I’ve said all this, the Chargers will probably go 14-2 and win the Super Bowl.)

Kansas City Chiefs, 8-11
The Chiefs are just uneven enough that they could conceivably get a great season out of Patrick Mahomes and still manage to finish 8-8. Or they could get a few good bounces of the ball and end up taking the division.

Denver Broncos, 7-10
I like Case Keenum. I like the Broncos defense. The rest of the team, I’m not so sure about.

Oakland Raiders, 4-6
The Raiders are playing the long game. And they’re making wise decisions in that regard. But they’re not making decisions that point to success this season.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles, 11-15
I’m putting the Eagles at the top of the division because it was only a few months ago that I saw them beat a really good team in a really big game behind a backup quarterback. I don’t know how you look away from that. And then you consider that the defending champs certainly look like a team that could be better this year than they were last (maybe even if their starting QB doesn’t make it back on the field until midseason). That would be bad news for the rest of the league. Could it all fall apart? Well, sure. It’s the NFL. It can always all fall apart. For any team. But I’m not getting into the business of predicting that. And in fact, the only reason I even feel a need to hedge with the Eagles at all is that I think the NFC East is a fairly brutal division in which just a bit of misfortune can kill a team’s season.

Dallas Cowboys, 10-13
The Cowboys have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. If they can stay healthy and execute consistently, they’re at least a wild card team. And if the ball bounces right in their head-to-head matches with the Eagles, the Cowboys could potentially steal the division title.

New York Giants, 8-11
If you believe Eli Manning has a rock-solid season in him at age 37, then it’s easy to believe the Giants made all (or most) of the right off-season moves. If not, you have to expect the season to turn into a bit of a slog. I’m inclined to believe Manning’s got one more run in him, and I think that’s good enough at least for a run at a wild card berth.

Washington Racists, 7-9
The Racists could be OK. They don’t have the weapons to be great (not in this division, anyhow). And they may not even make it all the way to good.

NFC North

Detroit Lions, 9-12
I couldn’t decide whether to pick the Packers or the Vikings to win the NFC North, so I decided to go with the Lions. Detroit has a quarterback who can play pretty well. They acquired a running game in the off-season. And they have a coach who has at least shot at fixing their defense. I can get behind a team like that.

Green Bay Packers, 9-12
If Aaron Rodgers stays healthy and plays at the top of his game, the Packers can win it all. If he doesn’t, they can’t. What else is new?

Minnesota Vikings, 9-12
Let’s see if the Vikings can keep their new starting quarterback on his feet for an entire season for a change. If they can, they can win the division again.

Chicago Bears, 5-8
Khalil Mack is a great football player. He’s the equal of at least two, probably three great football players, actually. But he isn’t 11. And he certainly isn’t 22.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints, 12-14
The Saints look like a stronger, more balanced team than the one that won the division last season. As long as Drew Brees has a decent season in him (and I have no reason to suspect he doesn’t), New Orleans not only has a shot at the division title, but should be in contention for the NFC one seed.

Carolina Panthers, 9-12
I know I’m supposed to have the Falcons as the team most likely to challenge the Saints for the NFC South title. But I think it’s a mistake to look past the Panthers this season. This is a balanced team that I think can get things done on both sides of the ball. And Norv Turner is the kind of offensive coordinator who can engineer situations in which Cam Newton can excel. If this team can execute consistently, they have the potential to be very, very dangerous.

Atlanta Falcons, 9-11
If talent alone were enough to win professional football games (which I guess is to say, “if the NFL were like the NBA”), the Falcons would be a lock to make a deep run in the postseason. But it isn’t. And I need to see how things come together (over the entire season, not just the first half of it) before I’ll be ready to buy in on this team as more than a solid contender for a wild card berth.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1-5
It looks like this is the year before the rebuilding year for the Buccaneers. That’s never a good year.

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams, 11-13
The Rams rode a high-powered offense to a division title last season. And here’s the thing: they were about a year ahead of schedule. The Los Angeles D, which wasn’t awful last year, appears to have improved in the off-season. And the O may actually be a hair better. The Rams face a tougher schedule this year than they did last, but they should still fare at least as well as they did in 2017, and they’re probably better by a win or two.

San Francisco 49ers, 8-11
The Niners are probably a bit ahead of schedule, too. Which is to say, I won’t be terribly shocked if they come on in a big way this year. But I suspect there’s still one more off-season of work to do before San Francisco will truly be ready to make a run at a title.

Seattle Seahawks, 7-9
There’s enough talent in Seattle to make the Seahawks a team opponents can’t afford to overlook. But the Seahawks also have some things to figure out, including how they’re going to reconstitute their defense. Given the power at the top of this division, I suspect it’s going to be next year before we talk about Seattle a postseason contender.

Arizona Cardinals, 4-6
If you don’t have much of a defense and you can’t protect your quarterback, you’re in trouble.

Playoffs

Here’s where things get truly ridiculous. I don’t know what’s going to happen next week. But here’s a look at what I kinda guess might possibly happen early next year. This always works out great.

AFC
1. New England
2. Jacksonville
3. Pittsburgh
4. L.A. Chargers
5. Baltimore
6. Tennessee

NFC
1. L.A. Rams
2. Philadelphia
3. New Orleans
4. Detroit
5. Dallas
6. Carolina

Wild Card Playoffs

AFC
Los Angeles defeats Baltimore
Tennessee defeats Pittsburgh

NFC
Dallas defeats Detroit
Carolina defeats New Orleans

Divisional Playoffs

AFC
Los Angeles defeats Jacksonville
New England defeats Tennessee

NFC
Dallas defeats Philadelphia
Los Angeles defeats Carolina

Conference Championships

AFC
New England defeats Los Angeles

NFC
Los Angeles defeats Dallas

Super Bowl LIII
New England defeats Los Angeles

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Super Bowl LII Pick

February 3rd, 2018 Comments off

I knew the home underdog Eagles were going to cover the 3-point spread in the NFC Championship. Didn’t see them winning (I’m still not sure whether I overestimated the Vikings or underestimated the Eagles — maybe both), but I saw them keeping it close.

That, along with pegging the exact scoring differential in the AFC Championship, led to the rarest of occurrences for me, a weekend (well, a day, really) in which I fared better picking against the spread than simply identifying winners.

My 1-1 performance straight up and 2-0 finish against the spread get me to 6-4 and 7-3 respectively thus far in the postseason. There’s nothing remotely impressive about that. But I’m still up for the challenge of making things even worse. So let’s have a look at what not to expect with the Lombardi Trophy on the line Sunday night.

New England (-4.5) vs. Philadelphia
Maybe I haven’t been thinking deeply enough about this Super Bowl.

It’s possible.

I mean, there’s a difference (right?) between obsessing and deep thinking. So while no one could possibly make a case that I haven’t obsessed over this game adequately, one could certainly argue that I haven’t looked at it in the right way, that I’ve missed something crucial, that I’ve taken too much for granted or relied on faulty assumptions.

I raise this possibility because in the nearly 12 days that have passed since conference championship weekend, I haven’t come up with a more pressing question than the one that came to mind immediately after it became clear that the Eagles had their game in hand: Can the Patriots defense turn Nick Foles back into a frog?

I simply don’t have another paradigm through which I’m capable of looking at this game.

But, um, let’s maybe take half a step back. Because, you know, I like numbers and so I need to get some numbers out there in order to explain myself.

The Eagles’ and Patriots’ total regular season scoring numbers are virtually identical, and all ranked among the top 5 in the NFL. The Patriots scored 458 points (28.6 per game) and allowed 296 (18.5 per game). The Eagles scored 457 (28.6/game) and allowed 297 (18.4). None of this is surprising given that these teams were the top seeds in their conferences. But that’s sort of creepily close.

Factor in the postseason (that is, counting all 18 games for both teams) and you get the Patriots scoring 28.7 per game and allowing 18.3; and the Eagles at 28.3 and 17.3.

Here are your big three predictive stats based on all 18 games: Scoring differential, Eagles +0.3; passer rating differential, Eagles +4.4; takeaway-giveaway differential, Eagles +7.

On a neutral field, the first two numbers point to an almost immeasurable edge for Philadelphia. The third pushes that edge into measurable, if still narrow, territory. If I knew nothing else about these two teams and the paths they’ve taken to this game, I’d probably be inclined to predict the Eagles will win it — by a point, maybe two.

But I do know more. And this is where (and why) we start circling back around to the topic of enchanted frogs.

When you talk about top 5 offenses and defenses on both sides of the field, when you talk about one seeds and conference champions, when you talk about Super Bowl, unless you go out of your way to state otherwise (because, you know, weird things happen once in a very great while), you’re talking about terrific football teams.

You win two straight games against postseason quality competition — on any field — and you’re doing something very right.

There’s no taking anything away from any of that.

But when you focus on predictive stats and they don’t present a clear and compelling view of what’s likely to be ahead (which is usually the case with the Super Bowl), your only choice is to dive into the numbers. Or ignore the numbers, I suppose. But I’m not inclined to do that.

I don’t feel compelled to pull apart the Patriots’ offensive stats or the Eagles defensive stats. Some might, I suppose. They’d talk about the fact that Tom Brady had to work his way through the last six games of the season with regular targets either sidelined by injury or suspended by turns. And they’d also talk about the strain put on the Philadelphia defense down the stretch by the fact that the team had lost its MVP-candidate starting QB and was having difficulty producing on offense. That’s all very real stuff, but I’m not sure it sways the stats significantly enough to examine closely, and I’m certain that even if you did, you’d discover that whatever adjustments you could think to make would offset.

The Patriots defense and the Eagles offense, on the other hand, pretty much require closer examination.

With New England, it’s really the same stuff I discussed two weeks ago, which comes down to this: The Patriots D is a better unit right now than the aggregate data indicates.

New England’s D always seems to take a while to truly come together, but that tendency was considerably more pronounced than usual this season. The Patriots D was beyond awful in the team’s first four games, with players routinely out of position and communication issues manifesting themselves on the field plainly enough for the untrained eye to see. The unit began to come together after Dont’a Hightower returned from an ankle injury, putting a critical player and leader back on the field, then had to adjust again when Hightower was lost for the season with a torn pectoral in week seven.

They made the necessary adjustments, though, and did so in the process of becoming the league’s stingiest defense. Consider this: Of the 296 points the Patriots allowed in the 2017 season, 128 (43 percent) came in the first four games. From week five through the end of the season (12 games), New England surrendered an average 14 points per game, fewer than any other team in the NFL. Factoring in the postseason, the Patriots D has allowed 14.4 points on average over their last 14 games.

One lingering concern about the Patriots D is that it has had little success over the course of the season and through the playoffs so far in securing takeaways. New England’s 18 takeaways during the regular season (12 interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries) were the 8th fewest in the NFL. The only postseason qualifier with fewer was the Atlanta Falcons with 16. The big difference between the Patriots and the Falcons, though, is that the New England offense’s ball security has been excellent as usual. The Patriots turned it over only 12 times during the regular season, fewer than every team except the Kansas City Chiefs (11).

That lack of takeaways is the reason the Patriots ended up with a takeaway-giveaway differential of just +6 (11th best in the league) during the regular season, and why they sit at just +5, as compared to the Eagles’ +12, through all 18 games.

When I looked ahead to the AFC Championship, breaking down the numbers behind New England’s turnover stats made me feel like one couldn’t really read the usual advantage into the comparative differential between the Patriots and the Jaguars. I have the same thought here. The Eagles’ regular season takeaway numbers were pretty much on par with the Jaguars’ — 19 interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries (vs. 21 and 12 for Jacksonville). That’s 31 takeaways, fourth most in the league. The Eagles were a bit better than the Jags at holding on to the ball during the regular season, with just 20 giveaways (9 interceptions, 11 fumbles) vs. Jacksonville’s 23. That added up to a +11, one better than the Jaguars’ +10. Add in the postseason, though, and you had the Jaguars at +14 going into their matchup with New England (for a differential of +8). The Eagles, as noted are +12, with a differential advantage of +7.

I’m going to sidestep for a second here to hit you with some weird stuff that may or may not mean anything to this game.

Here’s a start: Including the AFC playoffs, the Patriots defense has gone four straight games without a takeaway. This is not only the D’s longest drought during Bill Belichick‘s tenure as head coach; it’s the longest in 58 years of Patriots history. Not tied for the longest — the longest. And they’ve only very rarely gone as many as three games without a takeaway.

Apparently, though, it doesn’t matter. Because, well a) here they are in the Super Bowl, and b)

We talk a lot about the importance of winning the turnover battle, particularly in big games. And certainly you can’t feel good about the likely outcome of a game when you see a team giving the ball away. But there’s an exception to every rule — and a reason behind every meaningful exception — at it would appear that maybe we’ve hit one of those with the 2017 Patriots. At the very least, looking inside the numbers leads one to wonder if the differential in this matchup, and the apparent weakness of this Patriots D, might not be as much of a concern one would otherwise tend to think.

And with that we’re back to the frog prince and the Philadelphia offense.

We’ve reviewed the aggregate numbers. They’re unquestionable excellent. But we can’t really pretend Nick Foles is behind them, can we?

Foles took over at quarterback after Carson Wentz‘s outstanding season came to an abrupt end in the Eagles’ 13th game. Foles wrapped up the regular season looking like … well, like Nick Foles. He completed 57 of 101 passes (56.4%) for 537 yards, 5 TDs and 2 interceptions, earning a passer rating of 79.5. His was the worst passer rating of any of the 12 postseason starting QBs.

In the postseason? Completely different story.

In the divisional round win over the Falcons Foles went 23 of 30 (76.7%) for 246 yards with no TDs and no picks for a passer rating of 100.1. In the NFC Championship, he was even better, completing 26 of 33 passes (78.8%) for 352 yards with 3 TDs and no interceptions, which calculates to a passer rating of 141.4. That elevates Foles’ aggregate numbers to 106 of 164 (64.6%) for 1,135 yards, 8 TDs and 2 INTs, passer rating of 96.0.

That passer rating still hasn’t risen to the level of Wentz’s 101.9, but the remainder of the data set is pretty compatible with Wentz’s numbers. And no one’s in any position to call Foles’ overall stats through five starts bad.

Still, though, that sample size is damned small. And the data doesn’t match up well with career numbers that look like this:

As a result, it’s really hard to know right now who exactly Nick Foles is. Is he the guy we’ve seen over 39 career regular season starts, or the guy we’ve seen in his last two postseason starts? Did the playoffs princess come along and remove the evil enchantment that’s had Nick Foles hopping around largely ineffectively through his career, or has some mischievous sorcerer temporarily transformed an ordinary frog into a postseason prince? And if it’s the latter, when can we expect the spell to wear off?

For a minute, I thought maybe the fact that only one of Foles’ five starts for the NFC champs was played on the road could be the key. But through his career as a starter, Foles has generally been the same player on the road that he’s been at home. So once again, I have no way of saying for sure.

What I can say is that if the Patriots defense can turn Foles back into a frog, New England will win this game. Regular, normal Nick Foles can’t beat the Patriots on any field.

If they can’t … it’s either team’s game to win. Or lose.

And here I go back to the same thing I talked about in advance of Super Bowl LI, and in advance of this year’s AFC championship: Paths to victory.

When I look at two fairly evenly matched (this assumes Prince Nick, not Foles the Frog), I think about which team has more ways to win.  And I think even with Nick Foles playing his best football, Tom Brady leading a healthy offense provides a team with more ways to win. The Eagles are a great team that may or may not have figured out how to carry an average quarterback. The Patriots are the best in the business at adapting to an opponents strengths both before an during a game.

I expect to see Chris Hogan step up big in this game. I expect to see James White play a critical role once again. And I expect to see Brady settle in over the course of 60 minutes, find the holes in the Eagles defense (because there are holes in even the best Ds) and take advantage of them.

I think this is going to be a close game into the last four or five minutes. I expect the Eagles to have the ball trailing by a score, but with plenty of time to tie it up. But in the end, I believe an insurance TD by the Patriots is going to make it look a lot less close on the scoreboard that it will have been on the field of play.

And when the confetti falls, I think the board reads Patriots 38, Eagles 24.

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Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2018 Comments off

The divisional round ended up working out OK for me. I went 3-1 both straight up and against the spread. I was perfect on Saturday, then split the Sunday games, having picked the Jaguars to cover but not win, and the Vikings to win but not cover. I guess I can live with that, particularly since I was among a very few who saw the Eagles’ victory coming and among the vast majority who never in a million years would have picked the Jaguars to come out on top in a high-scoring barn burner in Pittsburgh.

That gets me to 5-3 both straight up and against the spread so far in the postseason. And that would lead me to believe I must be destined to go 0-2 across the board this weekend. Except that, as you’ll see, I’ve cleverly rendered that outcome impossible.

Here’s what not to expect (mostly).

Jacksonville (+7.5) at New England
Let’s lead with the big three predictive stats (taking into account here all regular season and postseason games played by both teams): Scoring differential, New England +1; passer rating differential, Jacksonville +0.8; takeaway-giveaway differential, Jacksonville +8.

That last one’s a biggie, huh? The closeness of the other two points to the probability of a narrow win by the home team. But that turnover advantage by the visitors really throws quite the wrench in the works.

We’ll get back to that one in a minute. In the meantime, let’s deal with the fact that the middle stat is kind of shocking. I mean, when you look at the disparity in offensive passer rating — New England, 102.6; Jacksonville, 84.5 — which is about what you’d expect, and then go back to the differential, it’s kind of hard to imagine how that could happen. And how it happens is both bad news and good for the Patriots. We know the Jaguars have a great defense, but here’s how great it’s been against the pass: 70.3. That’s Jacksonville’s defensive passer rating through 18 games. That’s sort of astonishingly good, particularly when compared to New England’s 90.0.

And it would be tempting to conclude from that data that the slight advantage New England enjoys in scoring differential must come from a dominating offense compensating for a rather less than dominating defense. And, you know, the Patriots did have the second highest scoring offense in the NFL in 2017, putting up 28.6 points per game. But that’s ultimately not that huge an advantage over the Jaguars, who averaged 26.1. (Factor in the postseason and you get the Patriots at 29, the Jaguars at 26.2. Similar difference.) But the Patriots didn’t exactly bleed points this season. They allowed 18.5 per game, which was fifth fewest in the league. The Jaguars gave up 16.8, second fewest. (With the postseason added to the mix, they land at 18.2 and 17.4, which I would call a minor tightening up.) So in reality it’s just closer than one might imagine all around.

Do a bit of a drill-down, though, and you get to this: While both teams were fairly consistent performers on offense through the season and into the postseason, and while the Jaguars D has been up and down through the season (giving up big points here and there, from week two to week sixteen to the divisional round, and few to very few in the games in between), the Patriots defense was an undisciplined disaster for the first four weeks of the season then turned a corner and became one of the best scoring Ds in the league for the final thirteen weeks (twelve games). Of the 296 points the Patriots defense surrendered during the regular season, 128 (43 percent) were scored over those first four games. Since then, New England has allowed 14 points per game, which is fewer than any other team in the league.

To drill down into the passer rating differential, you have to drill down into the takeaway-giveaway numbers. And here’s what you see if you do that. The Jaguars’ +14 through 18 games (as compared to the Patriots +6 through 17 games) isn’t a reflection of a team that takes a fair number of balls away from opponents while taking good care of the ball itself. The Jaguars actually turn the ball over quite a bit. They’ve just bagged a ton of takeaways. Jacksonville has 37 takeaways through 18 games. Their 33 in the regular season were second most in the league. They also turned the ball over 23 times. That’s the second most giveaways among the teams that made the postseason, behind only Tennessee’s 25. More important (as this games goes anyhow), 24 of Jacksonville’s takeaways (21 regular season, 3 postseason) have been picks.

We know that picks don’t come all that easily when you play the Patriots. Tom Brady threw just 8 in the regular season, and finished with an interception percentage of just 1.4, third best in the league. Moreover, the Patriots’ 12 total giveaways this season were second fewest in the NFL, behind Kansas City’s 11.

If you’re a team that relies on its defense’s ability to take away the ball (with all that comes with it), the Patriots would appear to present not the greatest matchup.

Back to passer rating differential, specifically that scary Jacksonville defensive number, which remains scary despite the fact that Ben Roethlisberger put up a 110.5 against the Jaguars last week, throwing five TD passes on the way. How? Well, because Jacksonville’s regular season defensive passer rating was an even scarier 68.5, lowest in the league by a margin of 4.5. Factor out those interceptions, though, and it starts to look less scary.

You can’t do that, of course, because the Jaguars actually picked off all of those passes. They earned their defensive passer rating. And they earned their takeaway-giveaway differential. That’s all legit.

And still, if you’re looking ahead to this game, you have to decide what you think is likely to prevail, the Patriots offense or the Jaguars defense? We all know that’s the key. Because while anything can happen, the likelihood that the Jacksonville offense is going to bust out a huge game against the Patriots D is not good, especially if they have to do it without the benefit of some short fields and an increasingly tired defense. And then you do have to ask what’s more likely to prove sustainable in the scoring trends and the takeaway trends.

When you look at the matchups, particularly when you look at the Patriots’ ability to adapt and the specific weaknesses of the Jacksonville D — which, it turns out, are difficulties stopping the run and defending passes to tight ends and running backs (all specific strengths of the Patriots offense) — it starts to feel like the safe guess is that it’s the home team that stays true to form.

I don’t think either team is running away with this game. Yeah, it could end with a double-digit difference on the scoreboard, but I suspect if that happens, it’ll come by way of a late score that puts the game away but doesn’t truly decide the outcome. More likely, I suspect, is a hard-fought defensive struggle that ultimately favors the team that has more ways for its offense to prevail. That’s New England. And that’s why I think the Patriots win this by four.

Minnesota (-3) at Philadelphia
If Carson Wentz hadn’t been injured, I think this game would be relatively easy to pick. Maybe not a gimme, but my guess is the Eagles would be giving three and that would feel about right. If the game were being played in Minneapolis, particularly with Nick Foles starting behind center for the Eagles, I’m certain this game would be easy to pick. But Foles in starting. And they’re playing in Philadelphia. And I’m just not certain what to make of it all.

I’m not sure the big three predictive stats mean a whole lot given that Foles has started all of four games. But four is also too small a sample size to go on. So let’s at least take a peak. (As above, I’m factoring in all regular season and postseason games by both teams.) Scoring differential, Eagles +.09; passer rating differential, Vikings +3.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Eagles +3. That would look OK for the home team if it weren’t for the fact that the Eagles have scored roughly 11 points per game fewer with Foles than they had with Wentz (again, small sample size). Of course, the Eagles also have allowed four fewer points per game than their season average over their last four. That may or may not matter, though it strikes me as worth noting that the Eagles D gave up only 10 to the Falcons in the divisional round. All of that said, his success last week notwithstanding, Foles has never been and is not now on the same level as Wentz as a passer. It’s reasonable to expect the Minnesota advantage in that area is substantially better than the aggregate numbers suggest.

To my mind, the central questions here involve whether the Vikings offense can successfully take its show on the road while facing one of the league’s best Ds, and whether Foles can once again limit mistakes enough to give his team a chance to win, and, frankly, whether that’s likely to be enough against an opponent that is considerably better than the one Philadelphia hosted last week.

My best guess is that this is where the loss of Wentz catches up with the Eagles. The Vikings are a very well balanced football team with an offense that finds its way around opposing Ds. I don’t expect them to have the same kind of success in Philadelphia that they had against the Saints last weekend at home, but I think the Vikings will be able to make some plays in the passing game and put up enough points to force Foles and the Eagles out of their comfort zone. If they can do that consistently from the start, and capitalize on whatever Eagles mistakes may follow, the Vikings could potentially run away with this game. But even if they can’t take command (and I expect they won’t be able to do that), I think Minnesota finds itself in a position to steal another game late. And that’s just what I suspect we’ll see on Sunday night. Vikings put up a late field goal to take this one by a point.

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