Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2017 No comments

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 No comments

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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Week Fourteen Picks

December 8th, 2016 Comments off

Here’s something. I actually managed to finish above .500 (if only just) picking against the spread in week thirteen. That feels all right. I suppose. I mean, the way this season’s gone so far, I’ll take it.

I had an OK week picking straight up, too. Came in at 11-4 there, which brings me to 121-69-2 (.635) for the season. And with my 8-7 finish against the spread, I’m now 86-103-3 (.456) overall.

Of course, one kind of good week probably means I’m due for an offsetting pretty bad week. Let’s plunge in. Here’s what not to expect in week fourteen.

Oakland (+3) at Kansas City
The Raiders might be the better team here. Or they might not be. And either way, it might not matter. Oakland looks (slightly) better on paper. And Kansas City continues to look to me like a team waiting for an opportunity to collapse. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the Chiefs thumped the Raiders in Oakland back in week six. Thumped as in took a lead in the second quarter and never relinquished it. Thumped as in shut out the home team in the second half. Thumped as in won by more than two scores. You take that and add in the difficulty of traveling on a short week and a forecast that calls for brutal cold at kickoff, and I think you get to a Chiefs sweep of the season series. I don’t foresee another thumping, though. Kansas City by a point.

Denver (+1) at Tennessee
I know the Broncos of 2016 aren’t the Broncos of 2015. But they still have to be good enough to take a critical game against the Titans, don’t they? I mean, don’t they? Maybe they don’t. But I’m still saying Denver by a field goal.

San Diego (+1.5) at Carolina
Neither of these teams is going anywhere. But I suspect the Chargers are prepared to fight their way through the last quarter of the season even if the effort only gets them to a .500 record and the middle of the draft order. And the Panthers on Sunday night looked to me like a team ready to move on to the offseason. (Not because they got beat by the Seahawks, mind you. That can happen to any team. It just didn’t look to me like the Panthers were full participants in that game.) San Diego by four.

Houston (+6) at Indianapolis
The Texans have lost three in a row, mostly to good teams. The Colts have won one in a row, beating a mostly bad team. Indy’s probably still the better pick at home, but I’m not giving six. Colts by half the spread.

Cincinnati (-5.5) at Cleveland
Robert Griffin III is ready to play again. So that’s a rare bit of good news for the Browns, I suppose. I hear the over/under on how long the Browns will be able to keep him (relatively) healthy and on the field halftime. I’m tempted to bet the under. Bengals by a touchdown.

Pittsburgh (-1.5) at Buffalo
The Bills’ strong run game should be enough to propel them to a close win at home. Should be. But won’t. Steelers by two.

Arizona (+1) at Miami
It’s tempting to think the Dolphins were somehow exposed in last weekend’s blowout loss at Baltimore. But I’m not sure that’s the case. I think the Dolphins are who we thought they were; a team that beats fair to bad opponents and loses to good ones. The Cardinals fall into the fair category (I think). In Miami, that should translate to a Dolphins win. I suspect the difference will be more than a field goal but less than a touchdown. For fun, let’s put it at five.

Chicago (+8) at Detroit
You can’t really hope to sneak up on a team you beat just two months earlier, which is to say the Bears don’t have any realistic path to victory here. Lions by nine.

Minnesota (-3.5) at Jacksonville
The Vikings may be fading, but they’re still close to the top of the leader board in takeaways, with 22, which is tied for fourth most in the league. The Jaguars don’t have anywhere to fade to. And they’re tied for most giveaways in the league, 25. Minnesota by three turnovers and 14 points.

Washington (-1) at Philadelphia
The Racists are the better team. But not by enough to win in Philly. Eagles by a field goal.

NY Jets (+2.5) at San Francisco
The Jets have given up on this season. I think we can all agree on that. I mean, right? 49ers by a point.

New Orleans (+2.5) at Tampa Bay
The first of two meetings between these teams over the course of three weeks goes to the home team. Buccaneers by six.

Seattle (-3) at Green Bay
I don’t think the Packers have really turned anything around over the past couple of weeks. I think we’ll see the evidence of that in this game. Seahawks by four.

Atlanta (-6) at Los Angeles
Well, I’m not picking the Rams, I can tell you that. Falcons by 13.

Dallas (-3) at NY Giants
The Giants can’t lose this game and win the NFC East. But the Giants aren’t winning and NFC East anyhow. And they can lose those game and still land in the postseason as the NFC five or six seed. Which, I guess, will be a nice thing for Giants fans to keep in mind as the game clock ticks down to zero. Cowboys by a touchdown.

Baltimore (+7) at New England
Seven seems like a lot, doesn’t it? It certainly does to me. Here, let’s look at the big three predictive stats. Scoring differential, Patriots +2.7. That’s not much. Passer rating differential, Patriots. +11.7. That fairly meaningful. Takeaway-giveaway differential, dead even at +5 per team. What’s interesting to me about that last thing is that the team’s have taken significantly different paths to get there. The Patriots have 13 takeaways (seven interceptions, six fumble recoveries), against just eight giveaways (one pick, seven fumbles). The Ravens have logged 22 takeaways (14 INTs, eight fumble recoveries) and committed 17 giveaways (11 picks, six fumbles). One kind of gets the feeling that the outcome of this game may come down to which team’s turnover game prevails. That should bode well for the team that protects the ball better, especially with that team playing at home. But I’ll offer this qualifying thought: It may not favor a team that has Fumblina Wilkinson returning kicks. We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, Patriots by three.

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Week Thirteen Picks

December 1st, 2016 Comments off

You might think it would be easy to make your peace with being awful picking against the spread if you were someone who never actually wagered any money on football. Seriously, why should I care? Point spreads are for gamblers. Gambling is for fools. And while I’m certainly a fool, I’m not a fool of that particular variety. So I make the picks, and if I get them wrong, I should be able to laugh it off and walk away.

Not so much.

I made a pretty decent show of it picking straight up in week 12. Finished 12-4, which gets me to 110-65-2 (.627) on the season. That should feel good, I suppose. But all I can focus on is the fact that I went 6-10 against the spread. And that lands me at a dismal 78-96-3 (.449) for the season. I don’t like any of it. Not one little bit.

I don’t expect to get any better, either. Still, somehow, I persist. Because I’m that variety of fool.

Here’s what not to expect as we hit the three-quarter mark of the 2016 season.

Dallas (-3.5) at Minnesota
The Vikings pass defense is sufficiently tough that one has to imagine they’ll be able to slow the Cowboys down a bit. If it weren’t for fact that both teams are playing on a full week’s rest (that is, if Dallas was traveling on a short week), that might be enough to make this a tossup. But I don’t think Minnesota can control the Dallas ground game. And that, I expect, will make all the difference. I think Dallas keeps the Minnesota offense off the field, controls the tempo of the game, and comes out on top by six.

Denver (-5) at Jacksonville
Denver needs a win. Jacksonville needs an actual pro football team. (Or maybe it doesn’t need a football team at all. I don’t know. Don’t really care.) It doesn’t matter much where this game is being played, the Broncos win it by at least double the spread.

Kansas City (+3.5) at Atlanta
Maybe if the Chiefs hadn’t just played a bruising, 75-minute game at Denver … . But, you know, even then Kansas City would be playing its second straight road game against a strong opponent. And they’d probably need to come out ahead by at least two turnovers to be able to pull off the upset, which isn’t likely against the Falcons. So I’m going to say Atlanta by a field goal.

Houston (+6.5) at Green Bay
This may be the Packers’ best remaining opportunity to string two wins together. (No, I don’t think Green Bay can run the table.) It certainly looks like a great opportunity for the Texans to keep the AFC South race tight by extending their losing streak to three games. Green Bay by four.

Philadelphia (-1) at Cincinnati
Neither of these teams is very good. The Eagles are probably a bit less not good than the Bengals. But location may equalize that. I like the underdogs at home here. Cincinnati by a point.

Detroit (+5.5) at New Orleans
The over/under on this game is 53.5. That’s 7.7 points more than the average total scoring in NFL games this season. One of these teams has a D that probably can’t contain the other team’s highly productive offense. The other team has virtually no defense at all. So, yeah, I’m gonna say bet the over. Also, Saints by three.

San Francisco (+1.5) at Chicago
If you’re going to be one of the top prospects in the 2017 NFL draft, it might be a good idea to watch this game. Otherwise, if you’re unfortunate enough to live in a media market where this is your only choice, for god’s sake find something better to do with your time. Go chop down a tree and drag it into your living room. Make a giant baking soda volcano in your bathtub. Watch one of those overlong, pointless Gilmore Girls episodes. Anything. It’s entirely possible these two teams stumble into some previously undiscovered way for both of them to lose. If not, I don’t know, 49ers by a point. (Because that’s where the damned dart stuck, OK? That’s why.)

Los Angeles (+13.5) at New England
If you follow me on social media, you may have seen my rundown of the (somewhat limited) history of the Belichick-Brady era Patriots vs. teams coached by Jeff Fisher. It’s not terribly helpful in terms of predicting the outcome of this game, but I thought it was kind of interesting just the same. Here’s what I’m thinking in regard to Sunday afternoon. Bill Belichick’s got two games worth of film to study on the Rams rookie quarterback. That ought to be sufficient. And, hell, it’s not like opposing coaches having less film to review has proven particularly helpful to young Mr. Goff. So that would seem to put the home team in a fairly comfortable position. And here are your big three predictive stats: scoring differential, Patriots +7.4; passer rating differential, Patriots +18.1; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +7. I think it’s likely to be a long afternoon in Foxborough for the Rams. New England by 17.

Miami (+3.5) at Baltimore
The winner of this game stays in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs. The loser not so much. (And neither gets out of the wild card round, anyhow.) I suspect the Ravens defense will be just a bit too much for the Dolphins to overcome. Baltimore by three.

Buffalo (+3) at Oakland
There’s just no way a one-dimensional team like the Bills keeps ups with the Raiders in Oakland. It’s really that simple. Oakland by nine.

Tampa Bay (+3.5) at San Diego
If you can beat the Chiefs in Kansas City one week, and you can beat the Seahawks anywhere the next, you ought to be able to follow it up by beating the Chargers in San Diego. I think. At the very least, you can usually count on the Chargers to beat themselves. Bucs by four.

Washington (+2.5) at Arizona
The second of three straight road games losses for the Racists. Cardinals by one.

NY Giants (+6) at Pittsburgh
I think these teams are fairly evenly matched. But I also think the Steelers need a win here a whole lot more than the Giants, who can drop their next two and still finish 11-5 and grab the NFC five seed, which is about their most realistic seeding anyhow (they’re not overtaking the Cowboys). I suspect the need factor, home field, and probably a key takeaway, add up to Steelers win. But not by six. Let’s go with three.

Carolina (+6.5) at Seattle
The last time these two teams met … well, the Panthers were a lot better and the Seahawks were a lot more banged up; and the game was played in Charlotte; and Seattle still very nearly battled back from at 31-point halftime deficit. So I guess what I’m saying is, no, I don’t much like Carolina’s chances here. Seahawks by a touchdown.

Indianapolis (-1) at NY Jets
Last I checked, the Colts still hadn’t figured out how to play run defense. Jets by six.

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Week Twelve Picks

November 23rd, 2016 Comments off

Well, I guess I’ve got something to be thankful for.

Straight up, anyhow, I had a decent go of it in week 11. Finished 11-3, which ain’t so bad. And, sure, I went 6-7-1 against the spread. But what can you do? Baby steps.

I now sit at 98-61-2 (.615) straight up, 72-86-3 (.457) against the spread.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Here’s what not to expect on the football field.

Minnesota (+2.5) at Detroit
You could probably set the over/under on total run plays in this game somewhere around 40. Which is to say that it may be Christmas before the damned thing’s over. The Lions come out ahead by a point.

Washington (+7) at Dallas
The Racists couldn’t handle the Cowboys in Washington back at a point in the season when Dak Prescott was just getting his pro football legs under him. Kind of hard to imagine, in that context, that Washington has much hope of making this game competitive. Dallas by 13.

Pittsburgh (-9) at Indianapolis
The Colts wouldn’t have won this game even with Andrew Luck. They’re certainly not winning it without him. Steelers by 10.

San Diego (+1.5) at Houston
I think the Chargers are, in many ways, the better team in this match. Except for that thing where they keep finding creative ways to lose. I think the story of San Diego’s season continues here. Chargers lead for most of the game, but the Texans end up on top by a field goal.

Tennessee (-5) at Chicago
Every time you think this season couldn’t possibly get any worse for the Bears, it does. Tennessee by nine.

Jacksonville (+7.5) at Buffalo
It’s not the reason to pick Buffalo in this game — because there is no the reason; it’s all of the reasons — but this really stands out, so I’ll note it: takeaway-giveaway differential, Bills +23. These teams are 10 games into the season. It really doesn’t get a whole lot uglier than that. Buffalo by a gazillion. Or 17 anyhow.

Cincinnati (+4.5) at Baltimore
The Ravens are a one-dimensional team whose season will be over soon enough. The Bengals now are officially a no-dimensional team whose season is over already. Ravens by a touchdown.

Arizona (+4) at Atlanta
I like the Falcons offense’s chances of overcoming the Cardinals defense better than the Arizona offense’s chances of exploiting the weak Atlanta D. But not by a lot. Falcons by a field goal.

San Francisco (+8) at Miami
One of these teams really isn’t that good. But the other one really is that bad. Dolphins by seven.

Los Angeles (+7) at New Orleans
Years from now this will be remembered as a game no one remembers at all. Saints by 12.

NY Giants (-7) at Cleveland
This game could easily feature more total turnovers (by both teams) than points scored by the home team. Giants by 14.

Seattle (-5.5) at Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers may indeed be better than I’ve tended to think. But they’re not on the same level as the Seahawks. Seattle by seven.

Carolina (+3.5) at Oakland
What will work out to be a season-ending two-week West Coast swing for the Panthers starts with a what will likely be the less humiliating loss. Raiders by 10.

New England (-8) at NY Jets
There come these moments, not in every season, but certainly once in every three or four, when the sports media and Patriots fans decide that there’s something seriously amiss with New England. Often, the story goes that Bill Belichick the GM has hamstrung Bill Belichick the head coach. (Belichick’s failure as a GM is most often attributed either to cheapness or to an inability to assess talent accurately.) Sometimes the story is that Belichick has outsmarted himself, come to believe his own press, decided that his schemes, his genius, are so great that his team can win with any group of players. The players hate their coach. Belichick has lost the locker room. That kind of thing. Once, not so long ago, the story was that Tom Brady was in a steep decline. And that one will come back around at some point, but probably not this season. This season, it’s Belichick for sure. He traded Chandler Jones in the offseason. He traded Jamie Collins in the middle of the season. He demoted Jabaal Sheard to a role player, then a healthy scratch, for reasons he arrogantly refuses to reveal. He’s taken so many pieces away from his defense that they’re now giving up 18 points a game, which we know is a problem because only 29 teams in the entire league have allowed a higher average. I love these moments. I love them for the long term because they provide a nice bit of conflict (artificial, but not my artifice) that I can tap into when the comes time to build a narrative about the season. And I love them in the short term because they’re invariably followed by a series of games that make those who have been spinning tales of doom look like fools. And here, one suspects, we go again. Divisional games are always tough. Playing on the road for a second straight week is always tough. And it appears the Patriots run defense is going to have to overcome the absence of Alan Branch, which is going to make stopping Matt Forte any easier. Still and all, the reality is that the Jets are one of the league’s worst teams. Even in New Jersey, they shouldn’t pose much of an obstacle. Let’s look at the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, Patriots, +7.8; passer rating differential, Patriots +23.3; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +13. Those numbers point to a bloodbath. (They also potentially point to the Patriots finally getting a few takeaways, maybe even their first defensive touchdown of the season.) New England by three touchdowns.

Kansas City (+3.5) at Denver
Last week’s home loss to Tampa Bay established that the Chiefs are frauds. This week’s road loss at Denver will punctuate that point by ending any thought that Kansas City can contend for the division title. Broncos by four.

Green Bay (+3.5) at Philadelphia
A week ago, I was one of those people who had been left wondering what exactly was wrong with the Packers. Today, I don’t much care. I just know that they’re bad, and that’s more than enough. The Eagles aren’t good, mind you, but they’re good enough for this game. Philadelphia by six.

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Week Eleven Picks

November 17th, 2016 Comments off

Dear god, I just keep getting worse.

I wrapped up week ten with records of 8-6 straight up, 6-8 against the spread. Ugh. I guess it could have been a lot worse considering that the favorites went 6-6 straight up, 3-9 against the spread (with two games going off even). But still. Ugh.

I head into week eleven at 87-58-2 (.599) straight up, 66-79-2 (.449) against the spread. Are you impressed by those numbers? Because I’m not.

So, you know, here’s what you really, really shouldn’t expect this week.

New Orleans (+3.5) at Carolina
I don’t know. I guess in a short week I have to take the hideously unbalanced team that’s playing at home over the hideously unbalanced team playing on the road. Right? Carolina by three.

Tennessee (+3) at Indianapolis
If I were smart, I’d take the squad that already took game one of the season series on the road to close it out with a win at home. And that’s how you know I’m not smart. I just think the better team’s got to win one out of two. Titans by four.

Jacksonville (+6.5) at Detroit
One of these teams may accidentally mount a ground attack this week. And that team will be the Lions. Detroit by eight.

Tampa Bay (+7.5) at Kansas City
If the Chiefs are going to be taken seriously, they’re going to need to prove that they can put away aggressively mediocre teams like the Buccaneers. I think they’ll do just that. Kansas City by 10.

Chicago (+7.5) at NY Giants
The Giants aren’t a great team. But the Bears will make them look like one. New Jersey by 13.

Arizona (even) at Minnesota
I don’t think I can confidently pick either of these teams to win. So I’ll take the Vikings to find a way to lose. Again. Arizona by a point.

Buffalo (+2.5) at Cincinnati
I was going to say that neither of these teams is going anywhere, but that’s not really true. The Bills are going home to Buffalo. That should be a treat. But at least they’ll be going there with a win. Buffalo by a field goal.

Baltimore (+7) at Dallas
One suspects the Cowboys may have a tough time getting their running game going against the Baltimore defense. If that’s the case, it’ll be interesting to see how the Dallas offense responds. As long as they can put up 17-20 points, which I expect they will, it should be enough. Given that, you know, Baltimore doesn’t really have an offense. Cowboys by four.

Pittsburgh (-8) at Cleveland
How do you snap a four-game losing streak? Play a team that’s rocking an 11-game losing streak. It’s a pretty solid formula. Steelers by two touchdowns.

Miami (-1.5) at Los Angeles
Well, I suppose Jared Goff was going to have to start running for his life at some point. It’s tough to scheme against a QB without film to study, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dolphins gave up a few big passes early. But they’ll catch up by the second half. Miami by six.

New England (-13) at San Francisco
Assuming Tom Brady finishes his career with the Patriots (not that I’m arguing this is necessarily a safe assumption), this will be the only game he ever plays in his home town against the team he grew up rooting for. That might not mean a whole lot. It might matter more that the Patriots have to be angry at themselves over last weekend’s lackluster loss and looking for a chance to right the ship. And it certainly matters a lot that the 49ers are a hopelessly weak team. Oh, and look at the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, Patriots +9.6; passer rating differential, Patriots +23.0 (that’s completely insane); takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +1. Gronk or no Gronk, New England wins this one by 20-ish.

Philadelphia (+6.5) at Seattle
I don’t think for a second that the Eagles offense is going to be able to overcome the Seahawks D. Seattle wins 19-13.

Green Bay (+2.5) at Washington
I don’t have an ounce of faith in either of these teams. Racists are at home, so I’ll go with them. Washington by a point.

Houston (+5.5) vs. Oakland at Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
I hope the people of Mexico City enjoy offense. Because that’s likely to be all they get in this game. Oakland wins a high-scoring game by a touchdown.

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