Week Two Picks

September 14th, 2017 No comments

Grant Hart is dead. So this week is already officially filled to overflowing with suck. Thanks for nothing, universe.

Oh, also, my week one football picks didn’t work out so great. I went 9-6 straight up, 8-7 against the spread. I suppose I could have done worse (particularly against the spread). But I could have done a lot better. Let’s see which direction this miserable week takes me in.

Here’s what not to expect.

Houston (+6.5) at Cincinnati
Both of these teams suffered embarrassing losses in their home openers on Sunday. One of them has to fare at least somewhat better this time out. I’m thinking it’ll probably be the one that isn’t starting a rookie quarterback in a road game on short rest. Just, you know, a hunch. Bengals by two touchdowns.

Tennessee (-2.5) at Jacksonville
Put me down as yet one more person inclined to think both Jacksonville’s big road win and Tennessee’s big home loss in week one had less to do with the teams facing off here than with the quality of their respective opening weekend opponents. Tennessee by a field goal.

Cleveland (+7.5) at Baltimore
I don’t know when we’ll find out whether the Ravens defense is for real. But I feel fairly confident it won’t be this week. Baltimore logs another shutout, while once again putting double digits on their side of the scoreboard.

Buffalo (+7.5) at Carolina
Facing the Panthers in Charlotte may prove a bit more challenging than hosting the Jets. I think. Carolina by six.

New England (-6.5) at New Orleans
The Patriots played terribly in all three phases of the game in their opening night home loss to the Chiefs. That’s not something you expect to see from New England in one consecutive game let alone two. And given that the Saints will be playing on short rest following their own lackluster losing effort in Minnesota Monday night, I’m thinking that if the Patriots can get it right on offense and special teams this time around, that should be enough to get the job done. Patriots by a touchdown.

Arizona (-7.5) at Indianapolis
It would appear there’s a chance that no matter who lines up behind center, the Colts are just an awful team. Cardinals by 10.

Philadelphia (+4.5) at Kansas City
I knew the Chiefs were a good team heading into the season. They may yet be better than I realized. Kansas City by nine.

Minnesota (+6) at Pittsburgh
I’d pick the home team in this matchup no matter where it was being played. Pittsburgh by three.

Chicago (+7) at Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers finally get to open their season. And they do it with a win. Tampa by 10.

Miami (+4.5) at LA Chargers
The Dolphins also get a late start on kicking off their 2017 campaign. The Chargers, meanwhile, officially take a run at starting that new tiny stadium trend they’ve been talking about. Los Angeles Jr. by seven.

NY Jets (+14) at Oakland
The Jets reportedly are planning to make the most of their final visit to the Black Hole by cosplaying as a real NFL football team. They won’t play like one, of course. But one can only ask so much. Raiders by 20.

Washington (+2.5) at LA Rams
The Racists are probably better than the Colts. Probably. Rams by four.

Dallas (-2) at Denver
The Cowboys are almost certainly better than the Chargers. Better than the Broncos, too, for that matter. Dallas by six.

San Francisco (+13.5) at Seattle
Oof! Seahawks by 17.

Green Bay (+2.5) at Atlanta
The Falcons caught a break when they drew the Bears as their opening week opponent. Here’s where the Super Bowl hangover kicks in. Packers by six.

Detroit (+3.5) at NY Giants
The Lions are still a better team than they get credit for being. But the Giants are a much better than the team we saw on the field last Sunday night. Better, probably healthier, and playing at home makes a huge difference. New Jersey by five.

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Week One Picks

September 7th, 2017 Comments off

I don’t even know how to start one of these things when I don’t have previous weeks’ results to beat myself up over.

Wanna hear about my disappointing workout from this morning? I didn’t think so.

So let’s just get straight to the part where I make stupid statements about football games, shall we?

Here’s what not to expect in week one of the 2017 NFL season.

Kansas City (+9) at New England
The Chiefs were a good football team last season. And I think they’re likely to be very nearly as good this season. They’re also a well coached team that typically doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. I think that — plus the fact that the New England defense still has some coming together to do — positions Kansas City to keep this game close throughout the evening. And it’s only a late score by the Patriots that makes the victory appear more decisive than it’s likely to be. New England by 10.

NY Jets (+8) at Buffalo
The Bills aren’t a good team, but they may very well look like one coming out of this game. Buffalo by 13.

Atlanta (-7) at Chicago
Let’s say you had a football team that really needed to get its season off to a strong start, because maybe the previous campaign ended in a way that could possibly do real, long-term damage to your players’ psyches. Just a, you know, hypothetical here. But let’s say you had that situation. You could do a whole lost worse by way of your opening week opponent than the Chicago Bears. In that hypothetical situation, I mean. Falcons by double the spread.

Jacksonville (+5.5) at Houston
There’s an old saying about how if a football team has two starting quarterbacks, it really doesn’t have any. I’m not sure whether there’s a saying about two teams having no starting quarterbacks. Other than, you know, ugh. Texans by six.

Philadelphia (-1) at Washington
I feel fairly confident (it is week one, you know) that the Eagles are the better team in this match. But I’m not sure they’re better by enough to beat the Racists in their home opener. Washington by a field goal.

Arizona (-1.5) at Detroit
This looks to me like a fairly even match between a pair good but unbalanced teams. And in even matches, particularly in week one, the wise move is to go with the home team. Lions by a field goal.

Oakland (+2) at Tennessee
I think there’s an excellent chance these teams could meet again in January. And the outcome of this game could potentially determine the location of that one. Titans by a point.

Baltimore (+3) at Cincinnati
The Ravens are going to finish ahead of the Bengals in the final standings. But they’re not going to finish ahead of the Bengals on the scoreboard this weekend. Cincinnati by three.

Pittsburgh (-8.5) at Cleveland
I’ve got this weird feeling that the Browns … you’re not buying it, are you? OK, here’s the real deal: Steelers by 10.

Indianapolis (+3.5) at LA Rams
This game may well end up determining which of these teams loses more games this season. Rams by a touchdown.

Seattle (+3) at Green Bay
Fox might have caught the best game of the week to anchor its first Sunday double-header of the season. I honestly have no idea how this game is going to turn out, but I can’t wait to see it. My best guess: Packers by four.

Carolina (-5.5) at San Francisco
The Panthers are early contenders to make the Super Bowl. The 49ers are early contenders to earn the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Carolina by something in the double digits.

NY Giants (+4) at Dallas
The Giants started have taken three in a row from the Cowboys, including a win in Dallas in week one of last season. I think they keep the streak going. New Jersey by three.

New Orleans (+3.5) at Minnesota
I think the Vikings defense can slow the Saints offense. Not sure New Orleans actually even has a defense. Minnesota by four.

LA Chargers (+3.5) at Denver
Sometimes you look at the late game in the opening Monday night double header and wonder if fans on the east coast will be able to stay awake for the conclusion. And sometimes you wonder the same thing about fans on the west coast. Denver wins a defensive struggle 13-10.

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2017 Season Predictions

September 6th, 2017 Comments off

Last year at this time, as you may remember — I’m sure you totally remember — I predicted that the New England Patriots would stage a historic comeback to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Totally true. You can look it up.

I mean, if you do look it up (because you just can’t take my word for it, can you?) you’ll see that what I wrote was that the Patriots would beat the Seahawks in a Super Bowl XLIX rematch. That’s what I wrote. What I meant, you’ll surely agree, was the other thing, the one that happened.

As it works out, my predictions generally turn out better when I make them after the fact. And the way I see it, that puts me a DeLorean and a flux capacitor away from making this annual exercise worthwhile.

For the nonce, all I can do is state up front that I recognize that it is entirely absurd to make predictions at the start September about the outcome of football games that won’t happen until the end of September — let alone in December, January and February.

But I do it every year anyway. I don’t know why. I’ve stopped asking myself, and I’m pretty sure I’m happier for that.

As always, I won’t try to predict final win-loss records. (Because, you know, that would just be completely over the top.) Instead, what I’ll give you is a range of how many games I think each can win. And based on that ridiculous exercise, I’ll push on to predict postseason seedings and outcomes. All of which is to say that you’ve already read the only content in this post that’s in any way based in rational thinking. And then I ignored that thinking. Move ahead at your own risk.

AFC East

New England Patriots, 12-14
This range of potential wins is pretty much what I predict for the Patriots every year. It’s worked a bunch of times in the past. And I’m pretty sure Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still with the team. So I don’t see a significant reason to change. I know there are some Pats fans (as always) who think 16 wins is a real possibility (even with Julian Edelman gone for the season), but it isn’t, because it never really is. And even the best teams typically find a way to drop two (in some cases, one of the losses happens simply because the team’s week 17 game works out to be meaningless). So when I set my cap at 14, you should read it as me saying this team can be incredible. The defense may need half a season to come together. And everything, as always, turns on how well the O line protects Brady. But if everything happens right, the Pats should land as the one seed. And they could end up as the one seed even if a couple of things happen wrong. That’s about as much as any realistic football fan can ask for.

Miami Dolphins, 6-9
In some seasons, there’s a lot to be said for being the second best team in the AFC East. I don’t think this is one of those. The Dolphins hit the ineptitude perfecta following Ryan Tannehill‘s season-ending injury by paying through the nose to pull Jay Cutler off the scrap heap. I think that nicely presages the team’s move back to the middle of the pack this season.

Buffalo Bills, 4-7
Is being better than the Jets a point of pride?

New York Jets, 1-3
The Jets might stumble into an extra win along the way. And the Patriots might be in a position to hand them a “victory” in week 17. Failing that, they’re a 1-15 team.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers, 11-13
The Steelers were good for 11 wins and a visit to New England for the conference championship game last season. And they look like a slightly better team this time out. The only thing I can see possibly getting in the way of Pittsburgh having at least as good a regular season in 2017 as it did in 2016 is Ben Roethlisberger‘s enduring failure to recognize that he is not indestructible.

Baltimore Ravens, 8-11
The Ravens defense should be formidable once again. The offense? Depends on whether Joe Flacco really is at full health (and can stay there). It’s an awfully long season.

Cincinnati Bengals, 5-8
I’m not confident Andy Dalton comes out of this campaign in one piece.

Cleveland Browns, 2-4
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.

AFC South

Tennessee Titans, 10-12
Heading into last season, I was one of those folks who thought the Titans could potentially be on track for a very strong bounceback from their 3-13 finish in 2015. Worked out we were right. I see them continuing the progression this year. They’re better on both sides of the ball than they were a year ago. I think this team could potentially be very dangerous.

Houston Texans, 8-10
If the Texans had an NFL-ready starting quarterback, they could contend for a division title. They don’t. Still might slide into the six seed if all goes right.

Indianapolis Colts, 6-8
This is not the Colts’ year.

Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-6
It’s even more not the Jaguars’ year.

AFC West

Oakland Raiders, 10-12
The Raiders have the best quarterback in the division. If the defense can hold up its end, this team could go deep into January.

Kansas City Chiefs, 9-11
The Chiefs were good enough to earn a first round bye and a home game in the 2016 postseason (though not quite good enough to make the most of their advantage). And they’re probably almost as good this season. Trouble is, the Raiders are better this year than they were last.

Denver Broncos, 7-9
I don’t care how good your defense is, you don’t win NFL games consistently if you don’t have a quarterback.

Los Angeles Chargers, 5-7
The Chargers are headed in the wrong direction.

NFC East

New York Giants, 10-12
The Giants were better than they got credit for being last season. I think they’re a little better still this time around. If they can manage a season sweep of the Cowboys again this year, New Jersey will take the division (and they might yet get it done with a split).

Dallas Cowboys, 10-12
I’ve been paying attention to football too long to believe Dak Prescott won’t take some kind of step back from his amazing rookie season. But I’ve also seen enough of Prescott to feel confident that he’s the real deal. I expect the Cowboys will work out whatever kinks they may experience during the first half of the season, then surge just in time to be trouble in the postseason.

Philadelphia Eagles, 8-10
The Eagles have most of the pieces. Let’s see how well they put them together. Might still be a year away from contending with Dallas and New Jersey.

Washington Racists, 6-8
The Racists aren’t a bad football team. They’re just the odd team out in a strong division.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers, 10-13
Same as it ever was: The Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers and the offense take them. Maybe the D will pitch in a little bit this year. Or maybe not.

Detroit Lions, 9-11
The Lions surprised me by turning out to be a threat last season. Maybe they’ll surprise me again by taking the division. Or winning a game in the postseason. You never know.

Minnesota Vikings, 9-11
The Vikings also have the ability to surprise me. They could end up legitimately in the mix for the division. Sam Bradford‘s had plenty of time to prepare heading into this campaign. And the team appears to have improved on the O line, and very possibly in the running game, in the off-season. If the defense can play as well as it did a year ago, Minnesota could do some damage.

Chicago Bears, 2-5
And, uh, speaking of damage.

NFC South

Carolina Panthers, 10-13
The Panthers have done the off-season work they needed to do. Assuming Cam Newton‘s shoulder holds up, Carolina looks to me like a team ready to rebound from their post-Super Bowl L slump and resume their position at the top of the division.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8-10
The Buccaneers might be even better than I suspect. But I’ll wait and see.

Atlanta Falcons, 7-9
I don’t think the Falcons have fallen that far from last season. I just have a hunch that it’s going to take them the better part of a season to recover from their collapse in Super Bowl LI. If I’m wrong, look for Atlanta to at least contend for the division if not take it outright again.

New Orleans Saints, 6-8
Drew Brees deserves a better end to his career than the one he appears likely to get.

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks, 11-14
The Seahawks probably could have won the NFC West again without putting a better team on the field than they did last year. They improved anyhow. Maybe they’re hoping to advance past the divisional round this time out.

Arizona Cardinals, 8-11
I don’t know that Carson Palmer is consistent enough to carry a team at this stage in his career. Maybe David Johnson is, though. We’ll see.

Los Angeles Rams, 4-7
Maybe next year.

San Francisco 49ers, 2-5
Maybe the year after next.

Playoffs

This is where we cross the line from mostly ridiculous to completely absurd.

AFC
1. New England
2. Pittsburgh
3. Oakland
4. Tennessee
5. Kansas City
6. Baltimore

NFC
1. Seattle
2. Green Bay
3. Carolina
4. NY Giants
5. Dallas
6. Minnesota

Wild Card Playoffs

AFC
Oakland defeats Baltimore
Tennessee defeats Kansas City

NFC
Carolina defeats Minnesota
Dallas defeats NY Giants

Divisional Playoffs

AFC
Oakland defeats Pittsburgh
New England defeats Tennessee

NFC
Seattle defeats Dallas
Carolina defeats Green Bay

Conference Championships

AFC
New England defeats Oakland

NFC
Seattle defeats Carolina

Super Bowl LII
New England defeats Seattle

Second year in a row I’ve predicted the same Super Bowl. Second year in a row I’m destined to be wrong.

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Super Bowl LI Pick

February 2nd, 2017 Comments off

I finally found the formula. Or half the formula, anyhow.

And, of course, I found it just exactly too late. (Lucky for me it’s a load of bull to begin with.)

I went 2-0 picking the conference championships straight up. Went 1-1 against the spread, but I’m going to keep pretending I don’t care about that. (There’s no money on the line, but I still don’t like being wrong.) That gets me to 8-2 (.800) straight up this postseason, 4-6 (.400) against the spread.

What was the secret to my kinda, mostly, a little bit good performance on conference championship weekend? Well, I’ll tell you: First, you want to make sure there are only two games to pick. That one’s big. It limits your opportunities to overlook aspects of most of the games while focusing on a couple. So, yeah, big. Second, go where the stats point you. Three, feel even better about the stats when they point you toward picking the home teams.

Pretty cool, right? I mean, hard to go wrong there.

Maybe let’s keep the whole deal between us, though. I don’t need everyone getting hold of this gem.

Also, hooray for me, the stats don’t really point in a clear direction for this week’s little game. And there’s no home team. So I’m shelving the formula until next year’s conference championships.

Here’s what not to expect in Super Bowl LI.

New England (-3) vs. Atlanta
I know you hate stats. Or I’m pretty confident, anyhow. Because just about everyone does. But I don’t. And you’re probably a figment of my imagination anyhow. (Forgive me if you’re an actual person reading this. It’s just that you’re the odd real person in a giant crowd of figments. And, oh, on that note, while you’re here, why not go ahead and introduce yourself? The figments are mostly polite. I run a pretty tight figment ship over here.) So, back to business, I’m going to lead with the big three predictive stats. Ready? Scoring differential, Patriots +1.5; passer rating differential, Falcons +0.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Falcons +1. Those are all effectively ties, which means this game would be a tossup in Foxborough or Atlanta, let alone the neutral field in Houston. But there they are just the same.

Now, you can take into consideration the way the numbers shift slightly if you look only at the 14 games in which the Patriots have had Tom Brady behind center. Then you end up with a scoring differential of Patriots +2.7 and a passer rating differential of Patriots +0.8. (You then have to get into the weird question of whether you need to adjust the turnover differential to factor out the four games Brady missed. New England came out of the first quarter of the season +3. Take that away, and you end up with Falcons +4. But if you’re doing that with a cumulative measure — the only one in the mix here — shouldn’t you also factor out the Falcons’ first four games? Atlanta also went +3 over that stretch. Which gets us back to Falcons +1. So that’s where I’m sticking. You figure out what you want to do.) You can get excited about that if you’re a Patriots fan and you really want something to get excited about. But it’s still pretty much a draw.

All of this is to say that no matter how you cut up those numbers, you’re looking at a tossup. So, yeah, that’s right. We did all that work to get nowhere. This is why you hate stats, isn’t it?

OK, now what? The predictive stats don’t really tell us which team is going to come out on top. But neither does most of what you’ve heard about, read about or talked about regarding this game. The so-called “Deflategate revenge tour.” The Patriots’ experience, and Falcons’ lack of experience in the Super Bowl. Brady’s politics. Brady’s family. Brady’s diet. Or, you know, Matt Ryan‘s politics, family or diet. (I know no one’s talking about that stuff with Ryan. But that’s not because the media is targeting Brady to be mean or anti-Patriots. It’s simply — please don’t tell any Pats fans I said this — the price of celebrity.) Spooky stuff and superfluous details. Nice for the water cooler, but devoid of predictive value.

The thing about the Falcons’ top scoring offense (34.4 points per game when you factor in the postseason) squaring off against the Patriots’ top scoring defense (15.7 points per game allowed) seems like it probably matters. I mean, it seems like one of those units has to win that battle, right? Though possibly not. What if the Falcons score 25? Does that mean the Falcons offense overcame the Patriots defense or that the New England D limited the Atlanta O? To answer that question, you have to know what’s on the other side of the scoreboard. In any event, that bit you keep hearing about how in the previous six Super Bowls that featured the #1 offense vs. the #1 defense, the team with the best D came out on top five times? That’s not predictive. It’s indicative of a trend that’s favorable to New England. But there’s no carryover from those games to this one. The teams are not the same. The game is not the same. Trends are always worthy of consideration, and if you’re in the business of making assumptions, the safe assumption is that a trend will continue barring interference from some external force. But you never want to rely on a trend continuing.

Let’s get back to that thing about the other side of the scoreboard for a moment, shall we? That seems like something worth examining a bit.

There, we find a New England offense that ranked third in scoring (28.4 points per game, including postseason results) against an Atlanta D that ranked 27th (24.8 points per game allowed). That seems kinda lopsided, right? I mean, you can wonder whether Atlanta’s high-powered O is going to be able to overcome New England’s stingy D, but you have to expect that the Patriots’ high-powered O is going to be able to put up points against the Falcons’ generous D. And, yes, I realize that the Falcons played better on D down the stretch and in the postseason. But “down the stretch” for the Falcons meant games against the Rams, 49ers, Panthers and Saints, teams that finished the season with 4, 2, 6 and 7 wins respectively. (Oh, and before I become the latest to fail to mention it, the Falcons gave up 32 points to the Saints, a team with the second highest scoring offense in the league at 29.3 points per game. That was in Atlanta. With a first-round bye on the line.) And in the postseason, with home games against two opponents without a healthy ground attack between them, Atlanta allowed 20.5 points per game. That’s better than 24.8, of course. But it’s worse than 15.7. It’s also worse than the 16.5 points per game New England allowed in its two playoff games. The last time the Falcons played a complete postseason-qualifying team was just before “down the stretch.” Week 13. Atlanta hosted Kansas City. The Falcons lost that game 29-28, giving up 266 yards through the air and 123 on the ground.

Keeping in mind that how a team (or unit) performed “down the stretch” sometimes depends on how you define the stretch, I feel like the safest approach is to look at the Falcons’ defensive results in aggregate — just as we do with everything else. And that points me to an expectation that the Patriots should be able to score somewhere between 26 and 28 points. Since both of those numbers are greater than 25 (this is arithmetic at work, kids; stay in school — at least till, like, third grade), that confirms what I’m pretty sure we all knew: A draw for the Falcons offense vs. the Patriots defense isn’t likely to get the job done. If Atlanta wants to win the game, they’re probably going to need to win that battle. (I say probably here mainly because there’s always a third path. A big special teams play on either side could end up making the difference. Both teams are capable of making those, though. And both are capable of preventing them. And the volatilities and vulnerabilities in play make it difficult to predict how, or even whether, special teams play will influence outcome. So I’m staying away from that, except by way of this really sad hedge.)

The question is, can the Falcons offense win big O vs. big D battle? And the answer is, sure, maybe. I mean, look, one of these units is going to have the right game plan, make the right adjustments, play mistake-free football and all that cliché stuff that leads to wins. That could be the Falcons. They’re in this game for a reason. But the same goes for the Patriots and their D.

And I suspect the puzzle is a bit less difficult for the Patriots to solve than it is for the Falcons.

We all know that if the Falcons defense is going to limit the Patriots offense, it’s going to need to bring interior pressure on Brady, disrupt the Patriots receivers (probably with effective press man coverage), and limit the run. I think the Falcons have the potential to do one of those things. The Falcons don’t have the personnel to bring pressure on Brady up the middle. And their run defense is beyond suspect (4.5 yards per carry and 15 TDs allowed during the regular season). They’ve played more man coverage over the latter part of the season, though, and they’ve done it fairly well. But even if they can continue that trend against New England, which is easier said than done, that alone isn’t going to shut down the Patriots. Particularly if the answer to any kind of disruption to the passing game is that New England runs the ball down your throats. The Patriots, like the Falcons, have the ability to move the ball in multiple ways. You have to play excellent defensive football to slow the Patriots down, exceptional defensive football to stop them. Better down the stretch is nice, but transitioning over the course of seven games from bad to better to exceptional would be a rare accomplishment to say the least.

The other way Atlanta can limit the Patriots’ offensive production, of course, is to keep the New England offense off the field. This is probably what you have to hope for, and plan for, if you’re Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan. It’s also where I think things get problematic for Atlanta. Because I’m not sure the Falcons can accomplish this goal without getting out of their game.

The way you keep another team’s offense off the field is to keep yours on it. You accomplish that with sustained drives and good production from your ground game. Trouble is, New England wants you to try to win with long drives. They want you snapping the ball a lot. They want you throwing the ball short. They want to maximize your opportunities to make mistakes.

The Patriots also are considerably better at stopping the run than the Falcons are. More important, the Patriots are better against the run than all but one of the teams the Falcons faced “down the stretch” and in the postseason. And even there, it’s a matter of how you look at the numbers. New England this season allowed 3.9 yards per carry, eighth fewest in the league, 88.6 rushing yards per game, third fewest, and 6 rushing TDs, fewest. The Seahawks (a team that lost to the Falcons in the postseason, but beat them in the regular season), allowed a league-low 3.4 yards per carry, but gave up 92.9 rushing yards per game (which is still really good, seventh fewest in the league), and 16 rushing TDs, tenth most. Since at the moment we’re talking about staying on the field rather than scoring, though, let’s say Seattle’s run D was better than New England’s. That’s one of six. And not by a lot.

This may point to a difficulty for an Atlanta offense that is portrayed as high flying because of Ryan’s gaudy stats, but that, in fact, relies on a balanced attack. The Falcons scored 38 TDs through the air this season, and 20 on the ground. The run accounted for 29 percent of Atlanta’s offensive yards and 39 percent of its first downs. That’s fantastic when it works, not so much when it doesn’t. Four times during the season, opponents were able to limit the Falcons’ run game. Atlanta lost three of those games, scoring 24, 24 and 15 points. Their sole win came against the Rams, a team that was 4-9 and in a tailspin at the time.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Slowing the Falcons’ ground attack is no simple thing. Devota Freeman and Tevin Coleman both are outstanding, versatile and dangerous football players. But it’s been done, and when done it’s been an effective strategy. And the Patriots have the size, tackling ability and discipline up front to do it. If New England has the right game plan, makes the right adjustments, and executes, it should be difficult for the Falcons to keep the Patriots offense off the field via a sustained ground attack.

Of course, even if the Patriots defense is able to control the Falcons’ run game, Atlanta still has the potential to be productive. Ryan throwing to Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and company has produced all season. It would be foolish to assume it can’t produce against the Patriots, regardless of New England’s defensive success. But if the run game is taken away, that would leave Atlanta with a decision. They can throw a lot of short passes in an effort to control the tempo of the game, and play into the Patriots bend-but-don’t-break approach. Or they can stick to what they do well and try to turn the game a shootout, exposing their defense to New England’s considerable offensive potential.

The Falcons can win a shootout. They usually do. But so do the Patriots.

I think it comes down to this. The Falcons have one way to win this game, which is to score early and often. They have to make this a sprint. The Patriots have two ways to win the game. One is to outpace the Falcons, with their defense not stopping Atlanta, but making it slightly more difficult for the Falcons to score than it is for the Patriots. The other is to outslug the Falcons, make the Atlanta offense fight for every point (every yard) while taking advantage of the holes in the Falcons’ D.

The game’s still a tossup. But in a tossup, I’ll take the team with two ways to win over the team with just one. I’ve always said balance wins championships. And the Patriots clearly are the more balanced team in Super Bowl LI.

New England by a touchdown.

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Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2017 Comments off

During wild card weekend, I learned not to invest too much faith in road teams in the playoffs. In the divisional round, I learned that I need to invest more faith in the predictive stats.

In both rounds, I finished 3-1 straight up, which isn’t exactly terrible. But I could have done better. (I know this because of math.) I should never have picked Oakland in the wild card round. That was an act of shear stupidity on my part.

I also should have followed the stats and taken Green Bay to beat Dallas in the divisional round. That one’s a bit less painful since, you know, both teams had their starting quarterbacks active. But, still.

In my defense, I had Packers-Cowboys as a toss-up and it came down to the final play, so I at least got that right. But I overreached. I went against the stats in both of the Sunday games. What I should have done was stuck with the one I felt strongest about — Pittsburgh over Kansas City — and let the numbers point the way in the other. But after wild card weekend, I couldn’t make myself feel good about picking two road teams. And I couldn’t talk myself into picking the Chiefs, I talked myself into picking the Cowboys.

So it goes.

I head into conference championship weekend 6-2 (.750) straight up. And with my 2-2 finish against the spread in the divisional round, I’m a typically dismal 3-5 (.375) there.

The good news for me this weekend is that the stats favor the home teams in both games. That renders the decision making simpler, anyhow. Probably means I’m headed for 1-1 straight up 0-2 against the spread at best. But at least I go into it free of inner conflict. And that’s something, I suppose.

Here’s what not to expect.

Green Bay (+4.5) at Atlanta
Let’s start with the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, Falcons +2.4; passer rating differential, Falcons +8.6; takeaway-giveaway differential, Falcons +3. Those aren’t overwhelming numbers, but they’re telling. When all three favor the home team, that’s usually is a pretty reliable indicator of outcome. You could argue there’s an X-factor present in that Aaron Rodgers  played great football down the stretch and has continued that trend through two postseason games. And you’d be right. But Matt Ryan‘s done the same (except with just one postseason game so far, because the Falcons qualified for a bye while the Packers did not). And while neither of these teams brings much to the field by way of a defense, the home team is at least marginally better at defending the pass, which is what matters most in this game. Atlanta also has a stronger offensive ground game than Green Bay. And the Falcons did manage to put up 36 points last weekend against a visiting opponent that featured an actual NFL defense. I think you also have to factor in that a second straight road game against a tough opponent is always a difficult hurdle to clear. I know there’s no shortage of folks who are convinced that Rodgers has been blessed with some sort of inevitability magic, but I’m not one of those. I think Rodgers is a great quarterback and I never cease to be amazed at what he’s able to do on the football field. (And I’ve been rooting for the guy for his entire pro career.) But a great quarterback can only carry a team so far. At some point, other factors come in to play. And the majority of the factors I rely on point to a Falcons win. I’m taking the lessons of last week to heart and going where the numbers point. Atlanta by a field goal.

Pittsburgh (+6) at New England
Might as well start with the math portion of the festivities here, too: scoring differential, Patriots +3.6; passer rating differential, Patriots +9.4; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +5. I should note straight away that the Chiefs came ahead in two out of three of those areas a week ago and still managed to lose. Just as I thought they would. I made the pick thinking Kansas City’s suspect run defense had no chance of containing Le’veon Bell. And it didn’t. But you know what’s funny? Even though the Patriots’ run D is considerably more formidable than the Chiefs’, I’m in no way under the impression that it’s strong enough to take Bell out of the game. The Patriots at least appear to have the talent to hold Bell to fewer than 170 yards, of course. But let’s say they don’t. Let’s say the Steelers are as successful running the ball against the Patriots as they were against the Chiefs. Where did that get Pittsburgh last weekend? It got them to 18 points. And, yeah, the Chiefs had the NFL’s seventh best scoring defense this season, allowing just 19.4 points per game. But the Patriots feature the league’s best scoring defense, a unit that surrendered just 15.6 points per game. And while Kansas City surrendered just 10 rushing TDs during the season, New England gave up a league-low 6. I don’t think the Patriots sell out to stop Bell. I think the Pats play their game, assume Bell’s going to get his yards, and figure that if the Steelers want to kick another six field goals, that will be OK by them. (This is anything but revolutionary thinking, by the way. It’s just me recalling how Bill Belichick’s defenses approached similar challenges in Super Bowl XXV and, to a lesser extent, Super Bowl XXXVI.) Keep in mind, by the way, the Patriots can run the ball, too. New England’s ground attack was good for 117 yards a game and 19 touchdowns this season. Pittsburgh’s run D gave up 100 yards a game and 15 TDs. I may not love the prospects for New England’s defense (or any team’s defense) trying to shut down Bell. But neither do I have any reason to feel strongly about the Pittsburgh D’s chances of neutralizing the NFL’s rushing TD leader and the rest of the New England ground attack. The Patriots also are better than the Steelers through the air, and marginally better at defending the pass. But you already knew that; it’s in the numbers I led with. I think if the Patriots focus on disrupting Ben Roethlisberger, challenge the Steelers to match Tom Brady‘s output with Bell’s, and eliminate the uncharacteristic mistakes of last week (which limited their margin of victory to a mere 18 points), they can expect to come out with a relatively comfortable win. That’s what the predictive stats say. And, once again, this week I’m going where the numbers point me. New England by 10.

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Divisional Round Picks

January 12th, 2017 Comments off

Might as well start with my performance picking the wild card games, which was about par for the course. I went 3-1 straight up, 1-3 against the spread.

All of my failures last weekend came as a result of giving too much credit to the road teams. I had the Raiders to win, which was stupid (I knew Connor Cook wasn’t going to be great, didn’t think the Oakland coaching staff would give him the opportunity to be a complete disaster), the Lions and Giants to cover, which … eh, whatever. I didn’t place any actual bets.

If I had it all to do over again, I’d still pick at least one of those games to be close. But I don’t have it to do over again. And now my task is not to let my mistakes from the first round of the playoffs affect the way I look at the games in the second round.

That’s not necessarily a simple task. The quality of the teams remaining at this point is much greater than it was a week ago — last week’s field of competitors included four teams that were never going to get very far (two of which were playing each other); this week there’s just one of those — but in three out of four games, that uptick in quality is there for both teams. So you tell me: In any of the three close matchups, is favoring the well-rested home team the wise course, or would it constitute going conservative after getting bit by overestimating the road teams last week? Does looking for reasons to believe a road team will win (or keep it close) make for smart analysis, or would I simply be repeating my errors of a week ago?

I have no answers to those questions. So I suppose I should just move ahead with getting everything wrong.

Here’s what not to expect.

Seattle (+5) at Atlanta
I think the Falcons would have beat the Seahawks back in week six had the game been played in Atlanta. I don’t necessarily think that means a whole lot three months later, but there it is just the same. So what does mean something? Well, let’s start with the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, Falcons +1.8; passer rating differential, Falcons +7.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Falcons +10. That doesn’t point to a good outcome for the road team. Pairing that data with Seattle’s offensive line issues and lack of a robust rushing attack makes it really hard for me to see a path to victory for visitors. The Seahawks’ defense could potentially carry the day, I suppose. And if this game were being played in Seattle, I’d consider that a real possibility. But I don’t think you can count on it here. Atlanta by a field goal.

Houston (+16) at New England
Hey, you never know. Lots of things could happen. Like, the Patriots could lose a handful of critical players early in the game. The whole New England team could get the flu. Maybe it turns out the Texans have been working an elaborate rope-a-dope these last few years. The Texans could be accidentally exposed to gamma radiation on their way to the stadium and hulk out en masse just before kickoff. Or, you know, it could just be one of those freaky games when everything happens exactly as it shouldn’t. Barring something along those lines, though, (and with all due respect to Tom Brady’s caution about the quality of this weeks’ opponent) it’s really hard to envision any way this is still a game when the second half gets under way. Here are the predictives (factoring in the Texans’ atypically strong performance against the depleted Raiders in the wild card round): scoring differential, Patriots +7.1; passer rating differential, Patriots +14.9; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +16. Those are not numbers one expects to see in the second round of the postseason. They’d point to a decisive Patriots victory in Houston. In Foxborough, they spell blowout. Patriots by 28.

Pittsburgh (+1.5) at Kansas City
If there’s an upset coming this weekend, it’s almost certainly coming on Sunday. And I think it’s more likely to happen in Kansas City than in Dallas. The holy trinity of predictive stats say this is probably the Chiefs’ game to lose: scoring differential, Steelers +0.2; passer rating differential, Chiefs +3.6; takeaway-giveaway differential, Chiefs +10. Close, but a home team coming out ahead in two out of those three factors is usually in good shape. The ground game, though, points in a somewhat different direction. Both teams run the ball well. But the Chiefs can struggle on run D. That’s a tough position to be in with Le’Veon Bell coming into your building. If Kansas City can solve that problem, force the Steelers to the air, and get Ben Roethlisberger to throw at least one pick, they should be able to earn a trip to the AFC Championship (for the first time since they had Joe Montana behind center). I suspect, though, that stopping Bell is a bit too much to ask. I won’t be surprised by any outcome in this game (other than a blowout), but since I have to make a pick, I’m going to say Steelers by a point.

Green Bay (+4.5) at Dallas
This one comes down to the ground game, too. The predictive stats say it’s a tossup: scoring differential, Cowboys +1.6; passer rating differential, Packers +0.3; takeaway-giveaway differential, Packers +5. I see nothing that tells me the Packers’ average-ish run defense can contain Ezekial Elliott. Their only hope is to build a big enough lead that the Cowboys abandon the run. And I can’t even imagine what a lead like that would look like. More likely, I think, Elliott helps keep the Packers offense off the field, limiting Aaron Rodgers‘ opportunities and forcing him to take too many chances when he does get out there. I think it translates to a Dallas win in a game that will be closer than the 6-point gap in the final score.

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Wild Card Round Picks

January 5th, 2017 Comments off

I think I’ll just pretend that my strong (strong-ish) finish in week 17 wasn’t mostly the product of a slate of games that were mostly over before they kicked off. Because it helps me feel better about myself, that’s why. What’s it to you, anyhow?

I went 13-3 straight up in the final week of the season, 9-7 against the spread. So I finish the season 165-89-2 (.648) straight up, 119-134-3 (.471) against the spread. I’m going to find a way to be OK with that. Maybe it’ll be easier after I take a bath with my wild card picks. These games never go the way I anticipate.

Here’s what not to expect.

Oakland (+3.5) at Houston
There are some who will say (who have said) that trying to win on the road in the postseason behind a rookie quarterback who was third on your depth chart two weeks earlier and who’s making his first ever NFL start is an impossible task. I should be one of those. I know I should. I should also be thinking that Romeo Crennel will have the Texans defense well positioned to make Connor Cook‘s day as painful as possible. And, you know, I do think that. I truly do. But I also think (by which I mean I know) that the Texans don’t really have any business in the tournament. They backed into the the AFC South title with a record of 9-7, scoring an average of 17.4 points per game while giving up 20.5. Do you know how many other division winners had negative scoring differential for the season? None. That’s how many. Indeed, there are only three teams in the playoffs that gave up more points over the year than they scored: Houston, -49; Miami, -17, and Detroit, -12. And the Texans were outscored by their opponents by 20 points more than the two six seeds combined. And, yeah, I know the Raiders have been an unbalanced team that was carried by offense, the same offense now looking to a third string rookie to lead them to a win. But here’s what I’m thinking: the Raiders might not need their quarterback to do all that much this week. Oakland finished this season tied with Kansas City for the league’s best takeaway-giveaway differential, +16. That was on the strength of 30 takeaways, 16 of which were interceptions. Brock Osweiler threw 16 picks (which is tied for fourth most in the league) while playing in 15 games (14 starts), a major factor in his team’s -7 takeaway-giveaway differential. That, by the way, is also worst among playoffs qualifiers. The only other postseason teams with negative turnover differentials are the NFC wild card teams. And the Giants, -2, and Lions, -1, combined didn’t end up half as deep in the hole as the Texans. I think the Oakland defense may well put seven points on the board in this game. At the very least, I expect the Raiders D to give Cook and company a few short fields to work with. However it works out, I suspect the Raiders will be able to put up somewhere just north of 18 points, which has typically been enough for Texans opponents. So, yeah, I’m taking Oakland to start wild card weekend with an upset. Let’s call it Oakland by two.

Detroit (+8) at Seattle
The Seahawks are vulnerable enough that it wouldn’t absolutely shock me if they dropped this game. But the Lions have been fading for roughly a month now. I can’t see them reversing that trend in a road trip into a hostile environment. I expect a low scoring game that the Seahawks take by something like four points.

Miami (+10) at Pittsburgh
There are a lot of things one could say about this matchup, not one of which would indicate that the Dolphins have much chance of hanging with the Steelers. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just go with one: There’s no way a team that gives up 140 rushing yards a game, let alone 4.8 yards a carry, finds a way to stop Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh by two touchdowns.

NY Giants (+4.5) at Green Bay
Spare me the Eli Manning has some kind of postseason magic nonsense. And save the bit about how the Giants have some kind of power over Green Bay and New England in the playoffs, too. Here’s what the Giants have (again): A much better defense than anyone other than Giants fans seems to realize. And more to the point, a defense with a great ability to disrupt typically strong passing offenses. That could be trouble for a team like the Packers (or the Patriots, but that’s a different story for a different day — maybe). I think Manning can do one of two things here. He either plays well enough for his team to capitalize on the opportunities the D creates or we see the guy who threw 16 interceptions in the regular season and he finds a way to lose the game (taking a page from his brother’s book). If I’m betting, which I’m not, I’m betting on the latter. Oh, by the way, because this match looked so close, I worked out the big three predictive stats. They go like this: Scoring differential, Packers +0.5; passer rating differential, Giants +1.9; takeaway-giveaway differential, Packers +6. Unbelievably close until you get to that last one (thence my take on this game). Green Bay by a point.

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Week Seventeen Picks

December 29th, 2016 Comments off

You know, 10-6 may be barely adequate picking straight up, but it’s pretty damned good against the spread. So I’m calling week sixteen a … well, let’s just say it wasn’t so bad.

I head into the always unpredictable, always uneven week seventeen with season records of 152-86-2 (.638) straight up, 110-127-3 (.465) against the spread.

Here’s what not to expect in the weird week ahead.

Houston (+3) at Tennessee
If the Texans pull off a win here, they’re the AFC four seed — and very likely facing a visit from Kansas City in the wild card round. If the Texans lose — oh, right, same thing. The Titans don’t have much to play for either. Unless you count a winning record (for the first time in five years) and a tie for the best record in the AFC South. Not much. But not nothing. Matt Cassel and the Titans end the season on the best note possible under the circumstances. Titans by four.

Buffalo (+3.5) at NY Jets

Some team by some number of points. Probably. Maybe it’ll be the Bills. And maybe it’ll be by three. I think I’ll just go with that.

Baltimore (+1) at Cincinnati
Another game in which neither team has a damned thing left to play for. This is what makes week 17 so magical. Home team by a field goal.

Jacksonville (+4.5) at Indianapolis
The Colts get a home win to finish the season 8-8 and ensure their new tradition of mediocrity continues for another year. Indy by a touchdown.

Dallas (+3.5) at Philadelphia
I find it very hard to believe that the Cowboys will leave their key starters in past halftime in a game that means nothing to them (they’re locked in as the NFC one seed). But they say they’re playing to win, so whatever. Dallas by six.

Chicago (+5.5) at Minnesota
The Vikings are looking to finish at .500. The Bears are looking at drafting a quarterback early in the first round. Minnesota by a touchdown.

Carolina (+5) at Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers aren’t getting to the postseason (they need entirely too much help), but I expect them to go down swinging. Tampa by three.

Cleveland (+6) at Pittsburgh
Can a team rest its most important starters and still beat a divisional rival? Well, if that rival is Cleveland, probably, yeah. Pittsburgh by four.

New England (-9.5) at Miami
If the Patriots want to sew up the AFC one seed and home field through the playoffs — and I suspect they do — they’re going to need to play to win this game. The Dolphins can potentially slide up to the five seed, and a rather less daunting wild card matchup (at Houston rather than at Texans) if they win and the Chiefs lose to the Chargers. But the Chiefs aren’t losing to the Chargers. And the Dolphins probably couldn’t beat the Patriots even if they wanted to. Here, by the way, are your big three predictives: scoring differential, Patriots +5.6; passer rating differential, Patriots +7.5; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +6. I have a hard time giving nine and a half to the home team in a division match, but I expect New England to come out ahead by seven anyhow.

NY Giants (+7) at Washington
The Giants are the NFC five seed whether they win or lose this game. The Racists are looking to sneak into the postseason as the six. That and home field should get it done. Washington by four.

New Orleans (+7) at Atlanta
There’s a first-round bye on the line for the Falcons. Atlanta also has the advantage of being at home. And, you know, the better team. Falcons by 13.

Arizona (-6) at Los Angeles
The Cardinals are indeed every bit as bad as their record. The good news (such as it is) for them is that they’re not nearly so bad as the Rams’ record. Arizona by a touchdown.

Kansas City (-6) at San Diego
The Chiefs may not be able to overtake the Raiders for the AFC West title. But if they miss, it’ll be because Oakland beats Denver, not because Kansas City loses to San Diego. Chiefs by three.

Seattle (-9.5) at San Francisco
I’m not sure there’s much difference between the three and four seeds in the NFC (beyond when you end up having to travel to Dallas). But the Seahawks probably need to end the season on a good note more than they need to worry about seeding, anyhow. Seattle by 10.

Oakland (+1.5) at Denver
This is a bit of a coin toss. But I suspect the Denver defense gets it done against Matt McGloin and the Oakland O. Broncos by three.

Green Bay (-3.5) at Detroit
In which the Packers complete their rebound from 4-6 to NFC North champions, and the Lions take sole possession of the NFL record for most consecutive postseason games lost (9). Green Bay by nine.

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Week Sixteen Picks

December 22nd, 2016 Comments off

And the beat goes on. In week fifteed, once again, I came out OK picking straight up, considerably less than OK against the spread.

My 12-4 week straight up gets me to 142-80-2 (.638) for the season. My 7-9 finish against the spread brings my increasingly impressive record for the season to 100-121-3 (.440).

Let’s see how much worse things can get. Here’s what not to expect in the week ahead.

NY Giants (-2.5) at Philadelphia
There are a number of ways the Giants can clinch a postseason berth this weekend, but the simplest is by completing a season sweep over the Eagles. With Philly in a five-game slide and looking defeated, I’m anticipating the Giants will take the direct path to wild card weekend. And since the trip from East Rutherford to Philadelphia hardly counts as traveling, I’m thinking no one gets a real advantage from the short week. Accordingly, I’m looking for New Jersey to come out on top by at least a field goal.

Washington (-3) at Chicago
The Racists are fading a bit faster than I had anticipated. But almost no one loses to the Bears. Washington by two.

Miami (+3.5) at Buffalo
I wonder if either team will bother to throw the ball in this game. Bills by three.

Atlanta (-3) at Carolina
The Falcons aren’t getting to a first-round bye. But a win at least keeps their hopes alive. More important, a win here moves Atlanta one step closer to sewing up the NFC three seed and at least one home game. Is any of that predictive of a result in this game? Not so much. For that, we’ll have to fall back on the fact that the Panthers really don’t match up against the Falcons better now than they did back in October. Atlanta by 10.

Minnesota (+6.5) at Green Bay
With a win against the Vikings at home, the Packers will position themselves to take the NFC North title in their week 17 visit to Detroit. It’s been more than two months since the Vikings last beat a good team. They’re not reversing that trend now. Packers by four.

NY Jets (+16.5) at New England
The Patriots appear to be getting better as the season goes on, and they’re driving for home field advantage through the AFC playoffs. The Jets aren’t even trying anymore. I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more that needs saying. Here are the (completely insane) big three predictive stats for this game: scoring differential, Patriots +8.9; passer rating differential, Patriots +26.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +25. (Oh, hey, here’s something.  This game will mark a full season since New England’s last defensive touchdown — week 16 of last season against the Jets in New Jersey — three full seasons since their last pick six. Might be a good opportunity to reset the clock on both.) New England by 21.

Tennessee (-5) at Jacksonville
A Titans win ensures that we get an AFC South Championship game between Houston and Tennessee in week 17. That (and, you know, the thing with the Jaguars being in complete disarray) just about ought to do it. Titans by nine.

San Diego (-6) at Cleveland
You know what you get when you look at a team that gives up 26 points per game traveling across the country to play at 1 p.m. and still come away feeling like they should win fairly easily? A realization that, yeah, 0-16 really is going to happen in Cleveland. San Diego by a touchdown.

Indianapolis (+3.5) at Oakland
The Raiders are in a battle for the AFC West crown and in contention for the conference one seed. The Colts are sliding uncomfortably into the off season. Oh, and, uh, Indy still can’t stop the run. Raiders by six.

San Francisco (+3.5) at Los Angeles
Maybe you care, but I don’t. In a game that features three turnovers per team, the home squad comes out ahead by a point.

Tampa Bay (+3) at New Orleans
The Saints no doubt would love to erase the memory of their bad experience in Tampa two weeks ago and effectively eliminate their division rivals from playoff contention all at the same time. I think they’ll pull it off. New Orleans by four.

Arizona (+8.5) at Seattle
Although the Seahawks can clinch the NFC two seed and a first round bye with a win here and some help, the reality is that they’re actually going to have to make an effort next week at San Francisco. Because they’re getting the win, but they’re not getting the help. (I suspect they’ll survive the experience.) Seahawks by seven.

Cincinnati (+2) at Houston
The Texans are going to find a way to lose this game. And yet they’ll still have a chance to take the AFC South championship if they can pull off a win at Tennessee next weekend. Bengals by four.

Baltimore (+5) at Pittsburgh
The Steelers are a win away from being guaranteed the AFC three seed and at least one home game in the postseason. Who they’d face in the first round is very much in question. And the muddle for the six seed doesn’t really get any less muddly with a Baltimore loss here. Steelers by a field goal.

Denver (+4) at Kansas City
The Broncos aren’t officially done, but their season ended last week. Chiefs by six.

Detroit (+7) at Dallas
In which the Cowboys clinch the NFC one seed (unless the Giants hand it to them on Thursday night) and the Lions take another step toward losing the NFC North title to Green Bay. Dallas by 10.

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Week Fifteen Picks

December 15th, 2016 Comments off

And after two weeks of adequacy, I sink right back into frustration.

OK, maybe it’s not quite that bad. I went 9-7 straight up in week fourteen. I suppose it could have been worse. That puts me at 130-76-2 (.630) for the season.

Against the spread, I came in at 7-9, which gets me to 93-112-3 (.454) overall. And there’s no pretending that’s anything but bad.

Let’s see if I can’t do even worse in week fifteen. Here’s what not to expect.

Los Angeles (+16) at Seattle
Is there really anything that needs to be said about this game? OK, let’s see, team that’s 4-9 overall, 0-4 since switching to a rookie quarterback, fires its coach on Monday, then boards a plane for a Thursday night game against a division rival that features a crushing defense, and is battling for postseason seeding, looking to right the ship after a tough loss, and doubtlessly anxious to erase the memory of an embarrassing loss early in the season. It’s difficult to imagine any way that doesn’t translate to a blowout of epic proportions. Seahawks by 38.

Miami (-2.5) at NY Jets
The Dolphins offense is limping. The Jets two weeks ago looked for all the world like a team that had given up on its season. But then in the second half last week, New Jersey appeared to come back to life (though it could simply be that the 49ers needed to show that they’ve quit even harder than the Jets). All of which leaves me with no way to assess this game. I suppose I’ll take the team that can at least pretend to have something left to play for. So, yeah, Dolphins by a point.

Detroit (+4.5) at NY Giants
I could spend all kinds of time trying to break down which one of these teams needs a win here most. But I won’t. Because it doesn’t matter. Both teams are trying to play their way into the postseason. They both need to win. I see neither desire nor desperation as offering any kind of edge in this match. Here’s what I think matters. First, neither of these teams can run the ball. Second, only one of them can stop the pass. Third, the team with the pass D is playing at home. That’s the edge that matters. Giants by six.

Philadelphia (+6) at Baltimore
Despite their Monday night loss at New England, the Ravens are still very much in the postseason hunt. They may not get there, but if they miss, it will be because they can’t get by Pittsburgh a week from now, not because they stumble over a Philadelphia team that is thoroughly cooked. The Ravens take this one by 10, minimum.

Green Bay (-6) at Chicago
OK, so I was wrong last week. Clearly the Packers truly have turned things around. A win here and another next week against the Vikings, and they’ll very likely head to Detroit in week 17 with a chance to take the NFC North (which likely would come with an opportunity finally to overcome the Giants in the postseason). Even with Aaron Rodgers not fully functional, one has to imagine the Packers extend their winning streak to four games as they face a Bears squad that can’t seem to get out of its own way. Green Bay by nine.

Indianapolis (+4) at Minnesota
The Vikings don’t have their run game back quite yet. But they’re at home. So let’s figure they win this meeting of the mediocre. Minnesota by three.

Cleveland (+10) at Buffalo
I was going to write that the Bills have to be good enough to beat the Browns, but that’s not quite right. More like the Browns are almost certainly bad enough to get crushed by the Bills. That’s a fit. Buffalo by 14.

Tennessee (+5.5) at Kansas City
Considering that they’re already at a tie-breaker disadvantage with the Texans in the division and the Dolphins and Ravens in the wild card race, the Titans really can’t afford to lose this game. And that’s unfortunate for them, because they’re losing this game. Chiefs by a field goal.

Jacksonville (+6) at Houston
The Texans are going to back into an AFC South championship yet again. Sure hope the home fans enjoy watching their team lose in the wild card round. Texans by a touchdown.

Pittsburgh (-3) at Cincinnati
The Bengals are losing their final three games. Maybe they’ll keep this one relatively close, though. Pittsburgh by three.

New Orleans (+2.5) at Arizona
Who ever would have pegged this game as irrelevant? Let’s say home team by three, which saves me from actually expending any mental energy.

San Francisco (+13.5) at Atlanta
Is it realistic to call this a professional football game even though there’s only one professional football team involved? Falcons by however many points they choose to win by. Let’s assume it’ll be at least half a point more than the spread.

New England (-3) at Denver
Let’s start with the big three predictive stats this week. They don’t offer a lot of clarity, but they do set up my thinking about this game. Scoring differential, Patriots +2.4; passer rating differential, Patriots +0.5; takeaway-giveaway differential, Broncos +2. That points to a tossup no matter where the game’s being played. You can crawl around in those numbers if you want. But what I’ve found over the last couple of days is that doing that doesn’t answer a lot of questions. Do you like New England’s strong passing game to overcome Denver’s suffocating pass defense? I’m not sure I do. I mean, yeah, it could happen. But it probably won’t. Then again, neither is it reasonable to expect the Broncos’ wholly pedestrian passing attack to succeed against a Patriots pass D that’s strong and appears to be truly rounding into form. Turnovers can always be a factor. But here you have a pair of teams that typically come out on the right side of the takeaway-giveaway equation, both of them coming off atypically rough games (albeit, one in a win, the other in a loss). Can you project which team comes out on top there? I can’t. And then you get to the ground game, and here’s what you see. The Broncos are OK-ish at running the ball. If they’re able to mount a balanced offensive attack, they can probably expect to pick up some yards, though it’s tough to get into the end zone against the Patriots run defense. Denver’s run defense? Not good. The Broncos allow 127 yards per game on the ground, the fourth most in the NFL. The 4.2 yards per carry they give up ranks them higher than 13 other teams. So that’s nice, I suppose. But it also ranks them lower than 18 teams. The 12 rushing TDs they’ve allowed this season are the eleventh most in the league. Let’s call that just on the bad side of average. The Patriots’ run offense, in the meantime, has been good for 116 yards per game (seventh most in the league), four yards per carry (twenty-first), and 15 touchdowns (tied for third). Since last season, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that I believe LeGarrette Blount is the best running back who has played for the Patriots in the Belichick-Brady era (and, yes, yes, yes, I do remember Corey Dillon). Blount doesn’t get a lot of love from New England fans or the media, but he brings a great combination of inside power and speed to the field. He leads the league with 14 TD carries, and he has a habit of turning in his best runs when his team needs them most. If I’m right about Blount, he should be able to carry the Patriots this week. If Blount’s good for 100 yards and a TD or two, I think that’s enough to get New England out of Denver with a victory. And that’s about what I’m expecting. New England by four.

Oakland (-3) at San Diego
The Chargers give the Raiders a good scare, but fold late. Oakland by two.

Tampa Bay (+7) at Dallas
If the Buccaneers can pull off an upset in Dallas, I’ll be forced to start believing in them. And, oh, boy, won’t we all enjoy watching the Cowboys fans melt down and cry out for their ex-boyfriend (now just a friend — at least for the moment) Tony Romo to come to their rescue? But I don’t see it. Not in Dallas, anyhow. Not this season. Cowboys by six.

Carolina (+6.5) at Washington
The Racists are going to end up watching the playoffs this season. But they’re not going out with a loss to the Panthers. Washington by nine.

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