Super Bowl LII Pick

February 3rd, 2018 Comments off

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

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

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

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

It’s possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the postseason? Completely different story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conference Championship Picks

January 19th, 2018 Comments off

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

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

Here’s what not to expect (mostly).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Divisional Round Picks

January 11th, 2018 Comments off

I suppose I should be happy to have come out of the wild card round with a picks record of 2-2 both straight up and against the spread.

I was only half kidding last week when I said I expected to go 0-4. I certainly believed 0-4 was a stronger possibility than 4-0. You never know where upsets are coming in the wild card games, only that they’re coming. So I picked the games straight and split the results. I’ll live with that. Because while I suppose I should (or at least might) have seen Atlanta’s win over Los Angeles coming, and while Andy Reid-coached teams melting down in the postseason is nothing new, there’s absolutely no chance I ever would have picked the Titans to beat the Chiefs in Kansas City. None. In fact, if they were to play that game again this weekend, I absolutely promise you I’d pick Kansas City to win and cover.

So, you know, consider that overwhelming evidence of my wisdom as you ponder my picks in the divisional round.

Or, put another way, here’s what not to expect.

Atlanta (-3) at Philadelphia
I don’t have any better idea than anyone else of what’s likely to transpire in this game. I do know that Nick Foles isn’t the quarterback I’d want starting for my team in the divisional round of the playoffs. Not on any field. I think (by which I mean I know) Foles was playing far better football than he is now the last time (the only other time) he started a postseason game, and he wasn’t quite good enough to carry the Eagles to a victory then. But that doesn’t really matter. Four years is forever in NFL time. Plus, the 2017 Eagles are a better team than the 2013 Eagles were, and the 2017 Falcons probably aren’t quite on par with the 2013 Saints. Also, while Foles is a undeniably a big step down from Carson Wentz, Philadelphia’s success this season has had as much to do with defense as offense. Through the regular season, Philadelphia had the league’s third highest scoring offense and fourth stingiest D. That’s a solid combination. And it tells me that with the Eagles hosting this game and coming off a first round bye, Philadelphia may be in a position to take a step or two back on offense and still come out on top. That is, all the Eagles may really need Foles to do is play conservatively and not lose the game for them. So the question is, can the Falcons O overcome the Eagles D to enough of an extent that Foles and the Philly offense are forced to take some risks? Or maybe it’s, can the Atlanta D force some early errors, or at least create some three-and-outs, keep the Philadelphia D on the field and wear them down? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, because I still don’t feel like I know what the Falcons are as a football team. Atlanta’s run hot and cold all season. And I’m confident that’s going to become a problem for the Falcons in the postseason. But I’m not entirely sure it’s going to happen this week. My gut says the Eagles D steps up, hems in the Falcons offense, keeps this a low scoring game, and produces a narrow victory for the home team. I won’t be in any way shocked if what I end up seeing is a runaway win for Atlanta, but since I’ve got to make some kind of prediction, I’m going with the Eagles by a point.

Tennessee (+13.5) at New England
Any given Sunday (or Saturday night, I suppose) and all that, right? Honestly, I just don’t know about that principle here. I don’t want to dismiss the Titans or anything. I did that last week and it bit me on the ass. And, you know, one wants to believe one has the capacity to learn from mistakes. But I still have a hard time seeing a path to victory for Tennessee in this game. Take a look at this stuff.

I could do more, but I’m guessing you get the point. And, yeah, I know it’s not all about quarterback play. But it’s kind of a lot about quarterback play. Still, you know, just to be safe, let’s look at the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, New England +5.1; passer rating differential, New England +11.9; takeaway-giveaway differential, New England +10. There’s nothing in any of those numbers that says the Titans go into Foxborough to play in a third straight elimination game and a second straight road game and upend the Patriots who are coming off a first round bye and looking healthier than they’ve been in months. Could it happen? Sure. Anything can happen, and sometimes it does. But anything can happen isn’t a real prediction. Patriots by 17? That’s a real prediction.

Jacksonville (+7.5) at Pittsburgh
The disparity in quarterback numbers here (there are more than what you see above) isn’t nearly so stark as it is in Saturday’s AFC game, but it’s not exactly insignificant. I suppose that’s more meaningful if you’re someone (as I am) who needs to see more than a solid run against mostly middling competition before he buys into the Blake Bortles resurrection myth. If the Jaguars are going to win this game, they’re going to have to do it behind an offense driven not by Bortles but by Leonard Fournette, and a defense that figures out how to turn its well established ability to get to the quarterback into some actual sacks against Ben Roethlisberger, who is about as hard to bring down as any QB I’ve ever seen. Can they do it? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m going to need to see it before I’m ready to believe it. Until then, I’ll just look for the Jaguars to make this a game. Pittsburgh by three.

New Orleans (+4.5) at Minnesota
We all know this is the real NFC Championship game, right? I mean, I know there’s still a solid chance that I am — that many of us are — significantly underestimating the defending conference champion Falcons. Barring that, however, I don’t think anyone outside of the teams’ fan bases believes that either of Saturday’s NFC competitors can stand up to either of these teams on the big stage. This is a terrific matchup between two very talented and very well balanced football teams. And, assuming Tennessee doesn’t find a way to sneak through, I think this game sets up a phenomenal matchup in the Super Bowl. If the game were being played in New Orleans, I’d probably pick the Saints. But it’s in Minnesota. The Vikings have the benefit of a first round bye. And the Minnesota defense, I suspect, has a great chance to take away the run and make the Saints offense a bit more predictable and a bit less robust. I have to lean toward the home team. I expect a great game. And I expect the Vikings to win by four.

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Wild Card Picks

January 4th, 2018 Comments off

Well, I managed to get through the entire regular season without embarrassing myself too badly. That’s a relief.

Despite a few completely unpredictable results in week 17, I managed to come in at 11-5 straight up, 8-8 against the spread.

I end the season with a fairly respectable record of 177-79 (.691) picking them straight, and a not completely awful 124-119-13 (.510) with the points.

Of course, this all points to an awful showing in the postseason. In fact, I kind of expect to go 0-4 this week. Wild card weekend always packs a few surprises, and I’ve never been particularly good at figuring out where they’re likely to come. This weekend, I can’t see a single upset in the offing, even though I know a few are bound to happen. Which means we’ll probably see all four road teams walk away victorious.

Here’s more on what not to expect in the days ahead.

Tennessee (+8) at Kansas City
The more I hear from the experts about how the Titans don’t really belong in the tournament, the more tempted I become to think Tennessee’s going to find a way to pull off an upset in this game. But that’s about the only reason I can think of to like the Titans here. I haven’t bought in to the notion that Kansas City has completely turned things around following the brutal 1-6 run they went on from week six through week thirteen. But neither do I see anything impressive in Tennessee’s journey to 9-7 and the six seed. The Titans really just don’t do anything well enough to lead me to believe they can keep up with the Chiefs, particularly not while playing in Kansas City on short rest. I can’t even bring myself to hedge and take the Titans with the points. Kansas City by 10.

Atlanta (+6.5) at LA Rams
The Falcons absolutely can win this game. If the Atlanta defense can limit the Rams’ ground game, while the Falcons’ offense leans on its own rushing attack and doesn’t commit turnovers, they can move on to a divisional round match with Philadelphia, which likely would mean a return to the NFC Championship (which they would lose). Can they do all of those things? I doubt it. But perhaps they can manage to of three. So while I’ll take the Rams straight up, I guess I like the Falcons to make it a game and keep the difference to something like a field goal.

Buffalo (+8) at Jacksonville
Listening to Bills players talk this week, it’s struck me that they accomplished their goal for this year simply by qualifying for the postseason. That’s nice and all, I suppose. Buffalo overcame some obstacles, ended the league’s longest playoffs drought, and blah, blah, blah they’re “on the right track.” But being content just to make the playoffs doesn’t typically add up to winning games once January rolls around. I think this one’s over by halftime. Jaguars by 17.

Carolina (+6.5) at New Orleans
Although both of these teams bring solid defenses to the field, I still think this game turns into an airshow. New Orleans wins the turnover battle and that’s what makes the difference in a high scoring game. Saints by four.

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Week Seventeen Picks

December 30th, 2017 Comments off

I don’t think I can mess up my straight-up picking record for the season too badly.

I don’t think.

With a 13-3 week 16 under my belt, I’m now at 166-74 (.692) on the season. That points to a pretty good finish even if I manage to totally Browns out (go 0-16) in the regular season’s final set of games.

Against the spread? Yeah, uh, different story there. I was a miserable 5-9-2 in week 16, which lands me at 116-111-13 (.510). I feel pretty good about my chances of landing at below 50% when all’s said and done.

Here’s what not to expect on the last Sunday of 2017.

Green Bay (+6.5) at Detroit
Let’s figure the Lions don’t want to end their season to a chorus of boos from the home fans. And let’s figure that gives one of these teams something resembling motivation to play sort of hard. Detroit by four.

NY Jets (+15.5) at New England
I can’t say for absolute certain, but I’ve got a hunch the Jets actually may not end up winning the Super Bowl this season. But no worries; I’m sure they’ll win it all sometime between March 14 and April 26. As usual. New England takes its foot off the gas in the fourth quarter and still comes out two touchdowns ahead.

Houston (+5) at Indianapolis
The Colts are less bad than the beat-up Texans, I suppose. And the Colts are at home and all. So, I guess let’s go with Indianapolis by a field goal.

Cleveland (+7) at Pittsburgh
I’ve got this feeling the Steelers could decide to give the whole damned team the day off and the Browns would still find a way to lose this game. Pittsburgh by six.

Washington (-3) at NY Giants
You know who actually cares a lot about this game? I mean, I’m actually asking, because I can’t name one person. If you can, ask them how they think it’s gonna come out. I’m just gonna say Washington. By four.

Chicago (+12) at Minnesota
With a win here, the Vikings wouldn’t just lock up the NFC two seed and a first-round bye. Given the extreme likelihood that the Eagles are going to bow in the the divisional round, Minnesota would also have a chance not only to host the conference championship, but to become the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Minnesota by 17.

Dallas (-3) at Philadelphia
The Eagles, having wrapped up the top seeding in the NFC, have nothing to play for. And with abundant reason for Philadelphia to rest starters, it’s hard to imagine Dallas doesn’t find a way to win. Cowboys by five.

Cincinnati (+9.5) at Baltimore
I’m going to start out by cutting and pasting what I wrote about Baltimore last week (adding one link): “The Ravens will be riding a four-game win streak when they show up in Foxborough for the divisional round of the playoffs, having wrapped up their regular season with wins over the Browns in Cleveland, and the Colts and Bengals at home, then knocked off the Chiefs on wild card weekend. And certain Patriots fans are going to freak out, because they honestly believe the Ravens are possessed of some anti-Pats magic. Should be a fun week; I’m really looking forward to it.” And now for a little something new (well, not actually new, but not from my pick of last week’s Ravens game): The Bengals are really, really terrible. Baltimore by 20.

Buffalo (-2.5) at Miami
The Bills can still earn a playoff berth. They just need a win and a ton of help, most of which they’re incredibly unlikely to get. And, you know, I’m not even confident they can get the win. I’ll still pick Buffalo, mainly because all Miami would get out of a victory is a slightly lower spot in the draft order. But I’m not inclined to give more than a point.

Carolina (+3.5) at Atlanta
If I know the Saints aren’t losing to the Buccaneers and you know the Saints aren’t losing to the Buccaneers (and the Buccaneers know the Saints aren’t losing to the Buccaneers) what are the odds the Panthers don’t know the Saints aren’t losing to the Buccaneers? Carolina’s the five seed no matter what happens in this game. I expect them to ease up just enough for the Falcons to make it three NFC South teams in the tournament. Atlanta by three.

New Orleans (-7) at Tampa Bay
See Carolina at Atlanta immediately above. Saints by 19.

Jacksonville (+3) at Tennessee
The Jaguars are in a tough position. It’s probably in their best interest to lose this game in order to ensure that they get a rematch with the Titans back in Jacksonville next week rather than having to face the Chargers in the wild card round. It’s certainly in their best interest to show the Titans nothing of what they’re likely to see in a meaningful meeting next week. But at the same time, they probably don’t want to simply lie down and take a loss. What the Jags want next week is an overconfident Titans team, not an angry one. So I expect Jacksonville will figure out how to look like they’re trying and still end up losing by a touchdown.

Oakland (+8) at LA Chargers
The NFL should schedule a special Monday night game January 8 in which the Chargers and Seahawks battle for the title of best team to miss the playoffs. Los Angeles by 10.

Arizona (+9.5) at Seattle
See Oakland at LA Chargers immediately above. Seahawks by nine.

Kansas City (+3.5) at Denver
Locked into the four seed, the Chiefs have nothing to play for. The Broncos, on the other hand, just plain old have nothing. Denver by a point.

San Francisco (-3.5) at LA Rams
I don’t know. If I were the Rams, I think I’d rather catch the Falcons than the Panthers in the wild card round. But clearly the Rams don’t feel that way. 49ers by a touchdown.

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Week Sixteen Picks

December 23rd, 2017 Comments off

My week 15 started out rough (I was 1-2 both straight up and against the spread from Thursday through Saturday) but ended up OK.

I finished the weekend 14-2 straight up and 8-6-2 with the points. I can live with that.

I can also live with my results on the season so far: 153-71 (.683) straight up and 111-102-11 (.520) against the spread.

And that contentment can only mean that the pigskin Grinch is on his way to steal my last can of Who-hash.

Here’s what not to expect in week 16.

Indianapolis (+13.5) at Baltimore
The Ravens will be riding a four-game win streak when they show up in Foxborough for the divisional round of the playoffs, having wrapped up their regular season with wins over the Browns in Cleveland, and the Colts and Bengals at home, then knocked off the Chiefs on wild card weekend. And certain Patriots fans are going to freak out, because they honestly believe the Ravens are possessed of some anti-Pats magic. Should be a fun week; I’m really looking forward to it. Oh, yeah, and in the meantime, Baltimore airs its grievances against Indianapolis with a Festivus beatdown. Ravens by 21.

Minnesota (-9) at Green Bay
Shutting down Aaron Rodgers for the season once they’d been officially eliminated from postseason contention absolutely, unquestionably was the right move for the Packers. But at the same time, you can’t raise the white flag on Tuesday and expect your team to come out and fight for a win on Saturday. The Vikings would have won by four if the Packers had been trying. In this context, the margin moves to 10 or better.

Detroit (-4) at Cincinnati
I think there’s a pretty decent chance the Lions make the tournament as the NFC six seed. The Bengals, on the other hand, are well past done. Detroit by six.

LA Chargers (-7) at NY Jets
The Chargers next loss comes in Jacksonville two weeks from now. Los Angeles by six.

LA Rams (-6.5) at Tennessee
If the playoffs started today, both of these teams would be in. When the playoffs actually start two weeks from today, just one of these teams will be in. The one that belongs there. Rams by nine.

Cleveland (+6.5) at Chicago
There’s no real reason to believe the Browns can win this game. Just a nagging sense that 0-16 is incredibly hard to achieve. And still, I think 0-16 is in the cards. Chicago by four.

Tampa Bay (+10) at Carolina
The Panthers still have a shot at the division. The Bucs have a solid shot at a top 5 draft pick. Carolina by 13.

Atlanta (+5.5) at New Orleans
When these teams came together in Atlanta two weeks ago, the Falcons were able to leverage home field on a Thursday night and pull of a three-point victory. With no such advantage to be exploited here, Atlanta suffers the first of two straight losses that ultimately drop the Falcons out of the postseason. Saints by a field goal.

Denver (+3.5) at Washington
The Racists are at least marginally better than the Broncos. And they’re at home. So, sure, why not? Washington by six.

Miami (+10.5) at Kansas City
I don’t expect the Chiefs to have much success in the postseason, but they’ll be fine until the end of December. Kansas City by two touchdowns.

Buffalo (+12) at New England
The last meeting between these two teams came in the middle of a brutal stretch that saw New England playing five of six games on the road. This one comes as the Patriots settle into a home stand looking that they hope will run through the AFC playoffs. The Patriots make a big statement while the Bills take a big step toward the offseason. Patriots by 17.

Jacksonville (-4) at San Francisco
I’ve been as impressed as anyone with what Jimmy Garoppolo has been able to accomplish since taking over as the starter in San Francisco. But, um, let’s be realistic, OK? Jacksonville by 10.

NY Giants (+3.5) at Arizona
I just hope for the sake of all the wide-eyed little kids out there that Santa doesn’t get too caught up watching this game for the ages to start his route on time. Cardinals by three.

Seattle (+5) at Dallas
I’m not sure either of these teams is going to be playing two weeks from now. But a win here at least gives the Cowboys a solid chance, especially if the Eagles can lock up home field on Monday night, which would give them nothing to play for when Dallas travels to Philadelphia next weekend. I suspect Dallas gets the job done, though it would be very un-Seahawks-like for Seattle not to go down fighting. Cowboys by three.

Pittsburgh (-9.5) at Houston
The Steelers have shown signs this week that they’re having a hard time moving on from their heartbreaking loss to the Patriots on Sunday. I won’t be surprised if that gives way to a slow start for Pittsburgh in this game. But the Texans are so weak and in such disarray that I can’t believe it matters in the end. Pittsburgh by a touchdown.

Oakland (+9) at Philadelphia
I don’t expect anything to be settled for either of these teams on Saturday or Sunday. So I do expect the game to go to the more balanced team that’s also playing at home and playing for a result it can achieve all by itself. Philadelphia by six.

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Week Fifteen Sunday and Monday Picks

December 17th, 2017 Comments off

I’m not off to such a great start with week 15.

Three games in, I’m 1-2 both straight up and against the spread.

Let’s see how much worse it can get.

Here’s what not to expect in the remaining 13 games.

Philadelphia (-7.5) at NY Giants
I think there’s a decent chance the loss of Carson Wentz doesn’t catch up with the Eagles until mid-January. I’m confident it won’t catch up with them this week. The Giants run defense is so bad, I’m not sure Nick Foles will actually need to attempt a pass. Still, it’s a division game. So let’s say Philadelphia by just a touchdown.

Green Bay (+3) at Carolina
The return of Aaron Rodgers makes this one interesting. But even if Rodgers were completely healed, I’m not sure I’d see the point of bringing him back at this point in a season. I just don’t see a path to the playoffs for Green Bay. Or a path to a win here. Panthers by a field goal.

Cincinnati (+10.5) at Minnesota
The Vikings are two wins away from a first round bye, and perhaps three wins away from clinching home field advantage through the NFC playoffs. They should have no trouble getting one of those wins here. Minnesota by 17.

Miami (+3.5) at Buffalo
The Dolphins won their Super Bowl on Monday night when they caught the Patriots short handed and sleepwalking. The Bills are pushing for a spot in the actual postseason. I think it adds up to the Bills coming out ahead by a touchdown in a game they might otherwise have needed to dig deep to win by a point.

Houston (+11) at Jacksonville
The Jaguars started turning heads by stomping on the Texans in Houston way back in week one. I expect them to make it clear that they aren’t just kidding with yet another beatdown here. Jacksonville by 21.

NY Jets (+15.5) at New Orleans
YepThe only way the Jets are getting another win before September is if the Patriots end up locked into a seeding and give them a gift in week 17. They’re certainly not likely to compete with a Saints team that’s in a battle for the NFC South title and in the hunt for a first-round bye. New Orleans goes to the ground after building a comfortable lead and as a result wins by “only” 18.

Arizona (+4.5) at Washington
Bad news: If you care about this game or either of the teams involved in it, you’ve already lost. Racists by three.

Baltimore (-7) at Cleveland
The Browns have two more chances this season to avoid an 0-16 finish. They could conceivably pull off an organic win next week in Chicago. Or they could get a gift in week 17 when they visit the Steelers — if Pittsburgh is locked in to a postseason seeding by then and takes half the game off. One might note that I didn’t discuss the possibility of a Browns win here in their final home game of the 2017 campaign. That’s because there is no such possibility. The Ravens take the first of three easy steps toward a postseason berth with a win by a margin of at least 20.

LA Rams (+2.5) at Seattle
With a win here, the Rams can move on from contenders for most improved NFC team to serious contenders for the conference championship. I think Los Angeles logs a pair of key takeaways and makes the magic happen. Rams by two.

New England (-3) at Pittsburgh
Another huge game in which I think turnovers make the difference. That accords a slight advantage to the Patriots. New England by seven.

Tennessee (-3) at San Francisco
The Titans can prove nothing by winning this game. But they can disprove just about everything by losing it. Too bad for them. 49ers by six.

Dallas (-3) at Oakland
It’s the end of the road for the Raiders, who haven’t been able to get out of their own way all season. Cowboys by four.

Atlanta (-6) at Tampa Bay
The Falcons may well end up missing the tournament. They’re almost certainly not going to make it out of the wild card round. And they may actually get a bit of a scare here. But I don’t see them losing. Atlanta by three.

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Week Fifteen Saturday Picks

December 16th, 2017 Comments off

I guess I’m down to doing this week in chunks.

Hopefully today’s chunk works out better for me than Thursday night’s did.

Here’s what not to expect.

Chicago (+5) at Detroit
The 7-6 Lions don’t have an easy path to the postseason. In fact, they probably don’t have any realistic path. But they have at least some hope. And that, combined with the fact that the Lions are the better team in this match (though not by nearly so much as one might imagine), and the home team, points to a Detroit victory here. Let’s say by a touchdown.

LA Chargers (-1) at Kansas City
It’s not that this may be the AFC West championship. It’s that it is the AFC West championship. And more than that. Not only is the winner likely to end up hosting a first round game as the conference four seed; the loser stands an excellent chance of missing the postseason entirely. Both teams come in at 7-6. The Chiefs have the head-to-head advantage, having taken the first round of the season series in Los Angeles back in week three. But the Chargers have been surging while the Chiefs have been fading. Neither team has a particularly tough schedule over the last two weeks of the season, so it’s unlikely the loser here catches up. And it appears highly unlikely that the AFC West is going to send two teams to the playoffs. So here it is. Win or walk out the final two weeks and then go home. If the Chiefs can keep it close, focus on the run game, and come out ahead in the turnover battle, they should be able to pull off a narrow victory. But if the Chargers go up by more than a touchdown at any point in the game, it’s over. I think the latter scenario is more likely than the former. Chargers by nine.

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Week Fifteen Thursday Night

December 14th, 2017 Comments off

I decided since this is the last week of the season that starts with a Thursday night game, it would be wrong to pass up my final opportunity not to finish all of my picks on time.

I’m coming off a pretty terrible week 14. I went 8-8 straight up, 9-7 against the spread, all of which lands me at 139-69 (.668) straight up and 103-96-9 (.517) against the spread so far this season.

Here’s what not to expect out of tonight’s awful game.

Denver (-2.5) at Indianapolis
I suppose if the Broncos were able to beat up on the Jets on Sunday, they ought to be able beat up on the Colts tonight, right? I mean, right? But you know what, maybe not. Maybe not being able to hold on to the ball isn’t so bad at home against New Jersey, but it hurts you when you have to travel on short rest. That’s what I’m thinking anyhow. Colts by three.

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Week Fourteen Picks

December 7th, 2017 Comments off

My week thirteen results aren’t anything I’m likely to thump my chest about, but they were certainly respectable.

I pegged 12 out of 16 game winners straight up and went 9-6-1 against the spread. I can live with that.

The football gods, on the other hand, probably aren’t terribly thrilled. I’m sure they don’t care for seeing me feeling somewhat comfortable with myself at 131-61 (.682) straight up and 94-89-9 (.513) against the spread three quarters of the way through the season. Accordingly, I’m also sure they’ve got some awful fate in store for me.

Here then is what to expect the exact opposite of in week fourteen.

New Orleans (-1.5) at Atlanta
One can say, as many have, that they Falcons absolutely have to win this game if they want to keep pace with the other NFC teams jockeying for a postseason berth. And it’s certainly true. A loss here, among other things, would all but officially put the NFC South out of reach and reduce the Falcons’ hopes to landing the six seed, maybe the five. But I would posit that this game is considerably bigger than that. The Falcons have to know that if they can’t win with the Saints traveling to Atlanta on short rest, there’s little hope they’re going to reverse that outcome in New Orleans two weeks from now. And that’s to say that a loss here would put the Falcons on track for a 9-7 finish at best. With the Panthers and Seahawks both headed for 10-6, nine wins means an early start to the off-season. So Atlanta has home field on a Thursday night, which is big, plus whatever edge may actually come from needing the win more. Is that going to be enough? I don’t know. But if the Falcons are able to avoid committing turnovers in big spots (or maybe in any spots), I think it just might be. The Saints are the better team, but the Falcons find a way to win this game by three.

Detroit (-1) at Tampa Bay
Neither of these teams is very good. But the Lions are at least pretty average, and I sort of suspect that gives them the edge here. Detroit by four.

Chicago (+6) at Cincinnati
There’s at least an outside chance that these two teams spend the entire afternoon fumbling the ball back and forth to each other and the entire thing is played within 20 yards (on either side) of midfield. Truly compelling stuff. Unless it’s a 0-0 tie, the Bengals win it by a field goal.

Indianapolis (+4) at Buffalo
The Bills might yet make the playoffs at 9-7. But probably not. That has almost nothing to do with this game. But, you know, I want nothing to do with this game. So there. Buffalo by six.

Dallas (-4.5) at NY Giants
Oh, bloody hell. This week just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? Cowboys by a touchdown.

Oakland (+4) at Kansas City
The Chiefs keep finding new ways to demonstrate that they’re way worse than I think — probably worse than anyone thinks. I guess, I’m ready to embrace that. Kansas City should win, so I anticipate they will lose. Raiders by a point.

Minnesota (-2.5) at Carolina
The could turn out to be the last game the Panthers lose. Or, you know, at least until wild card weekend when they get crushed by the Saints (again). Vikings by three.

Green Bay (-3.5) at Cleveland
No, this will not be the week when the Browns finally win a game. Stop saying, or even thinking, stupid stuff like that. You’re embarrassing yourself. Packers by a field goal.

San Francisco (+3) at Houston
Can I please ask you to do me a favor? Tune in to this game and let me know if you spot a defense anywhere on the field at any point. Texans by five.

Washington (+6) at LA Chargers
The AFC West belongs to the Chargers. Weird but true. And this game is just another, fairly easy, step on the Chargers’ path to the playoffs. Los Angeles by nine.

NY Jets (-1) at Denver
Getting a point. At home. Against a team that has turned heads only by virtue of its failure thus far to tank the season. That’s gotta feel good. Jets by a touchdown.

Tennessee (-3) at Arizona
I expect the Titans and Jaguars to continue to run neck and neck straight through to their week 17 meeting in Nashville, which will decide which team gets to host the Ravens and which has to travel to the Chargers for the first round of the playoffs. I’ve got the Titans at 10-5 going into that game. In the meantime, I’ve got them 9-4 coming out of this one. Tennessee by four.

Philadelphia (+2.5) at LA Rams
There’s very likely a first-round bye on the line in this game. Bye goes to the home team. Rams by one.

Seattle (+2.5) at Jacksonville
I think the Jaguars right now are the team the Seahawks would like to be. That’s not a bad position to be in. Jags by three.

Baltimore (+5.5) at Pittsburgh
The Ravens defense has picked off a league-best 20 balls this season. One has to wonder whether this is where the Steelers’ recent flirtations with disaster finally lead to a loss. And yet … home field and a chance to wrap up the AFC North championship … mmmmm … I still kinda feel like Pittsburgh finds a way to pull this one out. Steelers turn a 17-19 deficit into a 20-19 advantage as the final seconds tick off the clock.

New England (-11) at Miami
Division games are always tough. And the Patriots are not at full strength. But the Dolphins are just a terrible, terrible football team. And the AFC East title is on the line. New England by 14.

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