Archive for January, 2016

Conference Championship Picks

January 21st, 2016 Comments off

Well, picking straight up wasn’t a disaster for me in the divisional round. So I’ve got that going for me, even if I came out looking like an idiot with my picks against the spread. (The real reason I don’t gamble may turn out to be not that I’m too smart to bet but that I’m too stupid to bet successfully.)

I finished 3-1 straight up for the second week of the postseason, which gets my overall playoffs picking record to 7-1. That ain’t bad. Against the spread, I was 0-3-1 in the divisional round, which gets me to 2-5-1 overall. Ugh.

Maybe this is where it gets better. Probably this is where it gets worse.

What not to expect in the conference championships.

New England (-3) at Denver
This is what I wrote last week as I looked ahead to the Chiefs-Patriots divisional round game: “Whichever team comes out on top in this match is going to end up the AFC champion. … These are the two best teams remaining in the AFC playoffs — and I don’t think three and four are terribly close.” Then I watched the games. And at the end of the Broncos’ win over the Steelers Sunday evening, I felt even better about that statement than I did when I wrote it.

The Broncos have a great defense. And it’s served them incredibly well. Hell, the fact that the Broncos are hosting the AFC Championship is almost entirely attributable to the fact that their outstanding D has more than compensated for quarterback play that has ranged from depressingly bad with the guy who used to be Peyton Manning behind center to periodically adequate in games when Denver had Brock Osweiler taking the snaps. Almost entirely, I say. Because there’s one specific step in the Broncos’ path to the AFC one seed that needs to be considered: The week 12 victory over the Patriots, which ultimately determined the seeding order among teams that finished the regular season with identical 12-4 records.

I’m sure I don’t need to walk anyone through the details at this point, but just the same, let’s review the circumstances of that game. The Patriots were playing without Julian Edelman, who had been injured two weeks earlier. They were without Danny Amendola, who was hurt the previous week. They were still adjusting to playing without Dion Lewis, who’d been having a breakout season running the ball and, more important, catching passes out of the backfield, until he suffered a season-ending injury in week nine. And, as they’d done all season, the Patriots were forced to juggle the offensive line in response to an unending string of injuries. The Pats also faced some meaningful injury issues on defense, both before and during the game. And still, as the fourth quarter began, Tom Brady threw his third TD pass of the game, giving New England a 21-7 lead. And the Pats D held the Broncos without a yard on their next possession, forcing a punt that it appeared for a second would give New England possession at their own 35 and a chance to chew clock, add points and put the game away. Except that rookie receiver Chris Harper, who had been pressed into returning punts because of injuries, muffed the punt, giving Denver the ball at the New England 36 and new life in the game. And even then, even though the ensuing Patriots meltdown allowed the Broncos to surge to a 24-21 lead, New England was able to force overtime with a field goal at the end of regulation — and may have been in a position instead to put the winning TD on the board in those final seconds if not for the fact that Rob Gronkowski had been knocked out of the game during New England’s previous possession. It’s also hard not to wonder whether the Patriots might have been able to move the ball with the first possession of OT if they’d, you know, had anyone for Brady to throw to.

Denver won. And the Broncos are hosting the championship as a result. And it’s just as well for the NFL, I suppose, since home field advantage is about the only reason Denver has any hope in this rematch.

The simple realities of this game are this: The Patriots offense that put 24 points on the board vs. Denver’s D in week 12 now has a full complement of players, including Edelman, Amendola and Gronkowski. James White has become a meaningful pass-catching thread out of the backfield. The O line is more stable than it’s been all season. And that offense is balanced by a defense that is considerably healthier this time around and that has given up an average of 19.7 points per game through the regular season and one postseason game (1.3 points per game more than Denver’s vaunted D). And just as the Patriots offense faces a D that it has already shown an ability to overcome short-handed, the New England D faces an offense that is relying on a broken down quarterback who finished the season with a passer rating of 67.9, the worst of his career (and worse by far than all except his rookie season, when he was thrown to the wolves as the #1 overall draft pick by a bad Indianapolis team) and, more important, worst in the league and worst by far among the QBs participating in this weekend’s games.

You can talk all you want about the Patriots’ difficulties in Denver over the years. You can talk about Manning’s success in his last two conference championship matchups with New England. You can find all kinds of magical reasons to like the Broncos. But the meaningful facts all point in one direction.

On that subject, here’s how the holy trinity of predictive stats lines up (and keep in mind, Denver’s offensive passer rating is pulled up by the games started by Osweiler): Scoring differential, Patriots +2.7; passer rating differential, Patriots +9.6; takeaway-giveaway differential, Patriots +11. (Denver, by the way, is the only team among the final four with a negative turnover differential, -3 through the divisional round.) That’s a formula for a decisive victory.

New England by 10.


Arizona (+3) at Carolina
It will shock you to know that I’m not going to go into nearly as much detail with this pick as I did with the AFC game. Please don’t take that to mean I’m overlooking this game. I’m not. I think this is going to a fantastic football game, likely a much better game than the AFC Championship. Because these are both phenomenal football teams, either of which I could envision taking home its first Lombardi Trophy in a couple of weeks.

The predictive stats say this is Carolina’s game. But only narrowly. Scoring differential, Panthers +0.5; passer rating differential, Panthers +2.6; takeaway-giveaway differential, Panthers +14. That last one’s pretty big, but it has to be considered in context. The Panthers picked off 24 balls during the regular season, most in the league, and another two against the Seahawks last week. But Carson Palmer this season hasn’t been given to throwing a lot of interceptions (though he did manage two against Green Bay in the divisional round). And most of those Panthers picks came against QBs who either aren’t terribly good or who were having bad seasons. That’s not to dismiss Carolina’s impressive turnover differential. It’s simply to say I’m not sure that one big area of statistical differentiation between these two teams can be taken to point to a likely blowout.

This is a close matchup. And those typically come down to home field and/or quarterback play. And since I suspect Cam Newton can likely accomplish more against the Arizona D than Palmer can against the Carolina D, I believe the Panthers have the edge in both areas. So I’m taking the Panthers straight up and looking for a push with the points.

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Divisional Round Picks

January 14th, 2016 Comments off

You’d think the fact that I went 4-0 on wild card weekend (picking all the road teams) would have me feeling confident. Hell, even my 2-2 finish against the spread was pretty decent (I mean, you know, since I didn’t actually have any money on the games).

But it all means nothing. Or I should say that at best it means nothing. Because either the whole thing resets in the the much more difficult to pick divisional round — or I’m headed for a giant correction (read: 0-4).

Time will tell, I suppose.

Here’s what not to expect.

Kansas City (+5) at New England
You know what? I don’t know which team is winning this game. I just don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time this week looking at it, and I’ve yet to come up with anything approaching a strong opinion. What I will say with confidence is that unless they suffer a couple of meaningful injuries en route to a win, whichever team comes out on top in this match is going to end up the AFC champion. I don’t care if that means beating Pittsburgh at home or traveling to take on Denver. These are the two best teams remaining in the AFC playoffs — and I don’t think three and four are terribly close. But that’s just noise for the moment. And maybe a handy distraction from the confused rambling that follows.

I don’t want to focus on schedules. Or not much, anyhow. I’ve heard a lot around New England this week about how the Chiefs during their 11-game winning streak “didn’t really beat anybody.” I’m not sure I know what that means. The Chiefs beat the each of the last 11 teams that were set before them. That included three postseason qualifiers, the Pittsburgh Steelers (albeit with Landry Jones behind center), the Denver Broncos (who, yes, had some QB issues of their own in that game), and, of course, last week the Houston Texans. So that’s not really nobody. And here’s the other thing: It’s not like the Patriots spent 2015 battling it out against the best the NFL has to offer. In terms of quality of opposition, I think it’s really a wash between these two teams. The only other matter I’d note regarding schedule is that in games against postseason qualifiers, the Chiefs went 3-4 in the regular season, 4-4 including last week, while the Patriots are 3-1. Is that meaningful? I don’t think so.

So what about the big three predictive stats: scoring differential, passer rating differential, and takeaway/giveaway differential? Generally speaking, I like a team that comes out ahead in all three areas no matter where the game is played. But we don’t have one of those here. (Note: I’m looking at Kansas City’s cumulative numbers here — that is, factoring in the big win over Houston — an approach that benefits the Chiefs, but doesn’t really swing anything their way.) Scoring: Patriots +0.3. Passer rating: Chiefs +3.8. Turnover: Chiefs +11. That last one looks huge. And by “looks huge,” I mean it is huge. The Chiefs finished the regular season with a +14 (second best in the league), then added a +4 last week. The Patriots came out of the season with a +7. But here’s what makes considering that data kind of tricky: Kansas City logged the fourth most takeaways in the league during the regular season with 29. And of those 29 takeaways, 22 were interceptions. Then they intercepted Brian Hoyer four times a week ago. The Patriots, meanwhile, committed a league-low 14 giveaways during the season, including seven interceptions by Tom Brady, which is tied for the fewest in the NFL … with Alex Smith. (I’m going to note here for the record that Brady’s seven picks came on 624 attempts while Smith’s came on 470. An interception percentage of 1.1 is better than an interception percentage of 1.5, even if not by terribly much.) Nothing’s impossible, of course, but Brady isn’t likely to throw four picks in this game. And while it only took two to help the Chiefs record a blowout win against the Pats in Kansas City early last season, I think it’s fair to say this is a different New England team than the one we saw in that game. The more pressing point is that I’m not sure how to read the Chiefs’ big takeaway numbers in relation to this game. Can a team that appears to live by the takeaway succeed against New England? We’ll see. But I’m not going to predict that turnovers will prove the difference in this game.

This all brings us back to where we started. And it’s frustrating, isn’t it? So let’s end it. As much as I’d like to have found some definitive reason to pick this game one way or the other (no, New England’s return to health, particularly on offense isn’t it; not because it doesn’t matter — it does — but because Kansas City is good enough to overcome it under the right circumstances) I’m left to take the default position in a close match, which is to pick the home team (which also happens to be the team playing on two weeks rest — always nice — and the team not playing its second straight road game ). So that’s what I’m doing. Patriots by a field goal.

Oh, here. With the Patriots off, I didn’t get to post this last week.


Green Bay (+7) at Arizona
Remember last week when I couldn’t get my head around the fact that Washington was favored over Green Bay? Of course you don’t. I barely remember it myself. But I was. You can scroll down and see for yourself. It wasn’t because I think the Packers are awesome. It was because I knew the Racists were awful. I didn’t predict the decisive Packers victory we ended up getting, but I called a Green Bay win, and I wasn’t exactly shocked by the actual result. This week, I foresee a decisive victory, but not by Green Bay. This is hardly an original thought, but I just don’t see that anything of any substance has changed since these teams last met a scant three weeks ago. The Cardinals remain the stronger, more balanced team. And, no, I don’t see the Packers repeating the mistakes that turned that game into a rout. But where does that get Green Bay? Do they cut Arizona’s margin of victory in half? Let’s say they do. And let’s then round it down to the nearest typical football multiple. Cardinals by 14.

Seattle (+2.5) at Carolina
One expects this will be the most competitive game of the weekend, which means it probably won’t be. Still, as with the early game on Saturday, I’m having trouble finding any strong indicator of a likely outcome. And given the Seahawks’ weird habit of winning games they ought to lose, I can’t even feel safe just going with the home team. What I can come up with that feels substantive to me is this: Much as I like Cam Newton (and I like him a lot) I think the Seahawks are stronger at QB, the the most important position in the game. So I’m running with that. Seattle by two.

Pittsburgh (+7) at Denver
I’m just gonna get right to it. If they were healthy, the Steelers would win this game. But the Steelers are really, really not healthy. I don’t think the Broncos have enough offense to make this a blowout, even against the Steelers’ questionable D. But Denver has all the defense it needs to render offense a luxury. Denver, 13-3.

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Wild Card Round Picks

January 8th, 2016 Comments off

It would be entirely too kind to call my week seventeen results disappointing. I went 7-9 straight up, 5-10-1 against the spread. That’s just plain old ugly.

I finished the regular season with a barely respectable record of 156-100 (.609) straight up and an awful 118-132-6 (.473) against the spread.

But, you know, I’m picking all the road teams this week. So that should work out well, right?

Here’s what not to expect.

Kansas City (-3) at Houston
These teams are much more evenly matched now than they were back in week one, when the Chiefs beat the Texans by a touchdown in Houston. They’re much more evenly matched than the (well-deserved) hype about Kansas City’s ongoing 10-game winning streak might lead you to believe. I don’t think there’s an easy win here for either team. But I suspect that, as with their last meeting, this one ultimately comes down to ball security. The difference is going to be a turnover. And I think it’s Houston that commits the game-deciding giveaway. Chiefs by four.

Pittsburgh (-3) at Cincinnati
Last time these teams met, the Bengals lost Andy Dalton to a broken thumb. This time, with Dalton still sidelined, I think the Bengals lose whatever little they have left of their hopes of finally advancing past the first round of the playoffs. The Pittsburgh D is highly suspect, and AJ McCarron may actually be able to take advantage of that. But even then, it’s a track meet unless the Cincy defense can shut down Ben Roethlisberger. And I just can’t envision that. Steelers by a touchdown.

Seattle (-5) at Minnesota
I don’t know if the Seahawks are going to get terribly far in their push for a third straight NFC Championship, but I feel pretty confident that they’ll make easy work of the Vikings. (Then again, I’ve been underestimating Minnesota all season. So who knows?) You can’t run the ball against the Seahawks. And that’s really bad news for a team like the Vikings. I won’t be surprised if this one’s over by halftime. At the very least, I expect Seattle to come out ahead by a solid 17.

Green Bay (+1) at Washington
Someone’s gonna have to explain to me how the Racists are giving a point here. (I mean, don’t. I’m just talking. I don’t care.) Sure, Washington has finished with four straight wins. But they’ve been wins over nobody. And, yeah, the Packers are a flawed team that has little chance of advancing past the divisional round. But Green Bay still has a great quarterback, who this week faces a Washington secondary that’s questionable at best. That’s about all I need to know. Green Bay by six.

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Week Seventeen Picks

January 2nd, 2016 Comments off

The thing about 17 weeks is that it’s, like, nothing. One minute you’re marveling at the fact that guys are able to play in pads and helmets while you’re sweating away in a T-shirt and shorts, the next you’re watching sideline shots of guys with steam coming off their heads and wondering whether you’ll get a snow game in the playoffs. And football just keeps happening the whole time. And happening in ways I never quite expect.

Take week sixteen. I finished 10-6 straight up (not terrible, I suppose, given that there were a couple of upsets I wouldn’t have picked even if I’d known they were coming), 5-11 against the spread (pretty bloody awful). For the season, I’m 149-91 (.621) straight up, 113-122-5 (.481) against the spread.

I don’t expect to improve any in this final week, particularly given that I don’t have any idea of which teams are gonna bother to show up to play. But I’ve got this far, so I suppose I might as well press on. Here’s what not to expect.

NY Jets (-2.5) at Buffalo
I’m sure Rex Ryan would love to find a way to derail his former team’s postseason hopes. But I suspect the Bills’ players are ready to move on to the off season. Jets by a field goal.

New England (-10) at Miami
Big spread aside, the Dolphins should be able to find a way to win this game. Sure, the Patriots are playing for home field throughout the AFC playoffs. But New England has chosen to rest several banged up starters. They’d clearly rather be a healthy two seed than an even more hobbled one seed. A division opponent looking to end its season with a satisfying win in front of the home crowd would take advantage of that situation. But I’m not sure that’s Miami. The Dolphins have looked for weeks as if they’ve given up on their season. And I don’t think you can just dial the intensity back up in week 17. Patriots win a fairly sloppy game by a touchdown.



Baltimore (+9) at Cincinnati
The Bengals don’t really have any hope of snagging the AFC two seed and a first round bye after Monday night’s loss to the Broncos. But with Denver’s game not kicking off until 4:25, Cincinnati still as to play as if there were a real chance the Broncos could stumble. And the Ravens already had their big moment last week when they effectively knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs. Cincinnati by 13.

New Orleans (+5.5) at Atlanta
I don’t know which of these teams is worse. I don’t know if either of them cares about this game. But I do know that one of them has to win. And one of them is playing at home. Falcons by four.

Jacksonville (+6.5) at Houston
With a win here, the Texans will be assured of a winning record even after the Chiefs bounce them from the playoffs next weekend. So that should feel good. Houston by three.

Pittsburgh (-10.5) at Cleveland
If the Steelers really were the team that “nobody wanted to see” in the playoffs, it appears everybody’s going to get their wish — courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens. Everybody, that is, for the poor Browns. Angry, angry Pittsburgh by 14.

Tennessee (+6) at Indianapolis
Turns out the answer to the delightful question, “Could the Colts be more of a mess?” is yes. Yes, they really, really can. Don’t you just hate it when bad things happen to nice teams? Lucky for the Colts, the Titans have a reason to lose. Indy by a point.

Washington (+4) at Dallas
The Racists are locked into the NFC four seed. The only question for them this weekend regards which team they’ll lose to in the Wild Card round. Cowboys by a field goal.

Detroit (+1) at Chicago
The Lions aren’t worse than the Bears by much. But they’re worse than the Bears just the same. Chicago by four.

Philadelphia (+3.5) at NY Giants
Complete disarray can be difficult to overcome. Giants by 20.

Tampa Bay (+10.5) at Carolina
A year from now, this may be a compelling matchup. Right now, it’s not. Panthers by nine.

Oakland (+7) at Kansas City
The Raiders couldn’t keep it close with the Chiefs in Oakland four weeks ago. They’re not likely to fare any better in Kansas City. Chiefs by two TDs.

San Diego (+9) at Denver
A win, and the Broncos are the two seed at worst, maybe the one (if Miami can knock off New England). A loss and they probably fall to the five seed. That should be pretty strong motivation to beat a Chargers squad that can’t get out of its own way, don’t you think? Denver by 10.

St. Louis (-3.5) at San Francisco
Yeah, sure. St. Louis. Why not? Rams by six.

Seattle (+6.5) at Arizona
The Seahawks blew their shot at an easy first round trip to Washington with their ridiculous home loss to the Rams last weekend. Now they get the winner of the NFC North championship game. Of course, that all comes after they’re done getting swept in the 2015 season series by the Cardinals. Arizona by a touchdown.

Minnesota (+3) at Green Bay
The Packers should be able to win this game and lock up the NFC North title. But you never know. So I’m going with the hedge pick: Green Bay by a point.

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