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Week Nine Picks

November 4th, 2005

Here’s what makes this week dangerous in terms of straight-ahead picking: Ten road teams are going into the weekend as favorites. That’s 10 out of 14. Now, consider that in relation to the fact that home teams are 76-40 so far this season. That is, home teams win nearly two thirds of the time. So looking at things from a purely statistical point of view, in a week when there are 14 games, you can expect at least nine home teams to pull off victories. So, assuming all four of the home favorites come out ahead (hardly a given considering that those home favorites include the Buccaneers, who are giving a point to the Panthers — and whom the oddsmakers had rated underdogs earlier in the week — and the Browns, who are giving the home-team default three points to Tennessee), that means we should see at least five upsets. At least five. And the thing is, when you get five upsets in a single week in the NFL, you usually get more. (That last part’s not stats speaking, mind you. It’s spooky upset mojo shit, which you should certainly ignore. Forget you even read it, actually.)

Sure, none of this is the kind of thing you want to base picks on. But neither can you feel too good about going with teams that are giving a point and a half or two points while playing in someone else’s stadium, especially when those teams are the Lions, with Joey Harrington back under center, facing the Vikings, now featuring Brad Johnson under center, or even the Bears traveling to no man’s land to face the Saints.

So what do you do? Do you try to ID upsets and risk getting killed? (Pick five upsets, get all of them wrong, and watch upsets happen in five other places, and you’re looking at a 4-10 week.) Do you go with the favorites and just figure that gives you as good a shot at 9-5 as it does at 5-9 and the most likely result is 7-7, which, if everyone else is getting socked trying to tag upsets, amounts to not getting hurt too bad? I don’t know. I do know what I’m doing. I’m picking the teams I think are likely to win and hoping for the best, because as far as I can tell, that’s all you can ever do.

Atlanta (-2.5) at Miami
Look, here’s the situation: the Dolphins are absolutely gonna win this game. I know this because the Dolphins consistently do the exact opposite of what I expect them to do, and this week I expect them to lose. Here’s how I see it: Both defenses stop the run OK, but Atlanta’s offense runs the ball a good bit better than Miami’s (like 80 yards a game better). And while Miami’s offense has had more success in the air (70 yards a game), that’s largely had to do with the fact that Atlanta almost never throws (the two teams are virtually even in yards per passing attempt: Atlanta gets 6.06, Miami 6.02). Atlanta’s D does give up half a yard more per passing attempt than Miami’s, but that only adds up to 27 yards a game, so there’s no major difference to be found in that area. So, as I said, all trends (except for home field advantage) point to an Atlanta win, which is what I’m picking straight ahead. But since that means Miami’s gonna win the game, I’m taking the Fins with the points.

Carolina (+1) at Tampa Bay
The opening line on this game had Carolina going into Tampa favored by a point and a half. One can only guess the change had more to do with evening out the money than anything else. That is, I’m thinking the early bets must have been coming in heavy on the Bucs’ side. I wonder if the two-and-a-half-point shift in the other direction has made much of a difference. I know I continue to like Tampa, mainly because they’re at home and because they match up better in the running game. While both teams stop the run very well (Tampa has the best run D in the league; Carolina the second best), Carolina will have more to stop than will Tampa. The Bucs have been gaining a yard more per carry than the Panthers. And it’s a big yard. Tampa’s 4.1 per carry is enough for them to gain first downs on the ground. Carolina’s 3.1 falls short of that. That means Carolina’s gonna need its league-leading receiver, Steve Smith, to shoulder a good bit of the load. It’s something he’s clearly capable of doing, but he’ll be trying to do it against the third-best passing D in the league, in their stadium, and that’s not an easy task. Ultimately, I think given Tampa QB Chris Simms’ difficulties since taking over for Brian Griese, the teams are pretty evenly matched here. But in that situation, the only smart move is to go with the home team. I’ll go ahead and give the point, too. Why not?

Chicago (-2) vs. New Orleans (at Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge)
I’m sure the folks in Baton Rouge are simply heartbroken about Saints owner Tom Benson’s vow never again to step foot in their fine city (or whatever it is Benson’s promising not to do). Benson, who’s preparing to Texas two-step his team all the way to Los Angeles (with a one-season stopoff in San Antonio), wasn’t too happy about having to hear from the fans who have supported his team for years and are upset about its pending departure while he was in Baton Rouge for last week’s loss to Miami. And can you blame him? I mean, who wants to be told he’s a carpetbagger by a bunch of ingrate hurricane victims? Especially if that’s exactly what he is. Of course, this has all of nothing to do with the game. It’s just more interesting than the game is all. Because when you look at the game, all you see is a homeless 2-6 Saints team that can’t run (anymore), can’t pass, can’t stop the run and can’t stop the pass taking on a Bears team that’s leading its division at 4-3 despite the fact that it can’t do much of anything on offense, because its defense doesn’t allow anyone to do much of anything against it. And when you look at that, even when you’re looking for places where upsets might happen, all you can possibly see is the Bears winning by something like double the spread.

Cincinnati (-3) at Baltimore
You know what’s weird? If it hadn’t been for the fact that they damned near beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh on Monday night, I probably wouldn’t even be considering taking Baltimore in this game. After all, while the Bengals have made it clear that they can’t beat good teams, the Ravens have been anything but good so far this season — until Monday, when they matched up extraordinarily well against Pittsburgh. On the other hand, the very fact that the Ravens are coming off a hard-fought Monday nighter and simply have to be exhausted, both physically and emotionally, makes me wonder whether they can possibly find it in them to beat what is clearly a better team. But you know what? Here’s what I’m thinking: Cincinnati keeps finding ways to lose to teams with good defenses (their victory over Chicago early in the season notwithstanding). And Baltimore’s D is arguably better than either Pittsburgh’s or Jacksonville’s (those are the teams that have beaten Cincinnati). Certainly, they give up fewer points per game than either of those teams. Plus, consider that Baltimore’s pass defense is the second best in the league and the strength of Cinci’s offense is its passing game. (And while the Bengals run the ball pretty well, the Ravens actually do a pretty good job of stopping the run.) Add to that the fact that the Bengals can’t stop the run worth a damn, while the Ravens running game appeared to be on the verge of coming to life Monday night, and I think you have the makings of an upset. So, me, I’m gonna go ahead and take Baltimore straight up. I’d certainly do it with the points if I were you.

Detroit (-1.5) at Minnesota
“So, um, hey, Joey, we know it’s only been two weeks since we essentially told you we’d given up on you (because of how you suck) and handed your job to a 35-year-old guy who, by his own approximation, was only 70 percent recovered from a broken leg, but, um, we were sort of wondering, um, if maybe, um, well, that is, if, um, maybe you might be able to go in an try to win a game for us on Sunday. Um, ’cause the thing is, uh, well, Jeff’s hurt again and he’s not gonna be able to start this game (if he were able, we wouldn’t be talking). And we were thinking that, you know, since it’s just Minnesota and all, and, well, you know, the Vikings defense is pretty awful and everything. And they’ve got their backup quarterback starting (so, OK, yeah, he does have a ring, but still). Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad for you. This time. Maybe. So what do you think? Wanna give it a go?” Offensive incompetence abounds and the Vikings win this one with a field goal late. (Oh, and bet the under.)

Houston (+11) at Jacksonville
I’m not sure what I could possibly tell you about this game. Houston got its one win for the season last week, beating Cleveland at home. So there’s no point picking them to pull off an upset, because they’re done winning. In terms of the spread? Look, this is all I can do: Jacksonville both puts up and gives up an average of 18 points a game. Houston, meanwhile, scores an average of 13 while allowing 28. The median of 13 and 18 is 15.5. The median of 18 and 28 is 23. My math puts the difference at 7.5. The oddsmakers’ formula says home field is worth three. That comes to 10.5, which remains less than 11. So I’m taking the Texans to cover. Or at least that’s what I’m doing in theory and on paper (or whatever the hell this is). In reality, I’m not putting a dime on this game, because there’s no winning and because this matchup wouldn’t be interesting to me if I had a million dollars riding on it.

Oakland (+4.5) at Kansas City
I can’t begin to express to you how badly I want to pick an upset here. I’d love to believe, as a lot of Raiders fans seem to, that Oakland’s offense has really started to click and the team’s begun an impossible run for an AFC wild card slot. And, you know, the Chiefs are pretty damned banged up. Plus, they weren’t all that good to begin with. But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s be realistic. Neither of these teams is making the playoffs. Neither of them. And while one might be tempted to think KC’s marginal superiority on offense is offset by the fact that Oakland is slightly less awful on D, it’s simply impossible to see things playing out in any way but a Kansas City win at Arrowhead. I will take the Raiders to keep it closer than four and half, though. And I’ll be absolutely delighted if I turn out to be wrong about the straight ahead result. So there’s that.

San Diego (-5) at NY Jets
I don’t see this as an easy win for San Diego. Sure, the Jets stink on offense, but New York’s defense continues to play well (at least until the middle of the third quarter when, having spent 30-plus minutes on the field, defensive players start to wear out). And as I’ve noted here recently, it looks to me like the Chargers’ blocking schemes have begun to show the signs of the post-Hudson Houck entropy we all knew would set in eventually. So I kind of expect the Jets to keep the Chargers from running away with things early on. In fact, I think they’ll be able to keep LaDainian Tomlinson out of the end zone for much of the first half, and to get to Drew Brees two or three times during the game. It won’t be enough, of course. It’s beyond hard to overcome the kind of lack of offense New York’s dealing with, and the Jets’ shortcomings on that side of the ball will eventually catch up with them. Still, even though I’m taking San Diego to both win and cover, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Jets manage to keep the Chargers’ margin of victory to a field goal.

Tennessee (+3) at Cleveland
You know when you’re in deep shit offensively? When it gets to be week nine and your running backs have spent more time in the courtroom than the end zone. Of course, Cleveland’s committee of drunks and potheads (OK, and one guy who actually seems to be trying hard at times, but who’s just never lived up to his potential) this season has spent more time pretty much everywhere than they have in the end zone, a location they’ve yet to visit even once. That’s gotta change but soon if people are going to be expected to continue to opine that the Browns are headed in the right direction. Probably not this week, though. Not when the Browns face a Titans squad that’s allowed only three rushing touchdowns all season. The good news for the Browns, and for fantasy owners who have Antonio Bryant or Braylon Edwards on their teams, is that the Tennessee D has operated with a complete open-door policy for wide receivers, having allowed a league-high 17 passing touchdowns so far this season. I think Cleveland should be able to beat the Titans in the air and win this one by about three.

NY Giants (-10) at San Francisco
Yes, sir, San Francisco sure did pull off the upset victory over Tampa Bay last Sunday. Pulled off the big win even though quarterbacks Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett combined for 50 yards on eight completions (18 attempts). That’s pretty remarkable. And pretty unrepeatable. I’m looking for the Giants to finally pull off a road win this week, and to do it by four points more than the spread.

Seattle (-4.5) at Arizona
All around the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought ’twas all in jest … pop! Hey, look. It’s that jackass in the box Kurt Warner back under center for the Cardinals. Apparently Dennis Green likes Warner, who’s 0-3 as a starter, better than Josh McCown, who’s 2-2. That makes sense. (I predicted this move last week, as you probably don’t remember. McCown had a rough outing against the Cowboys, largely because he got no support from the running game, prompting Green, who’s determined that no one ever get comfortable in the starting QB spot for his team, to give him the hook.) Maybe Green’s looking to recapture the magic of the 37-12 beating his team took from the Seahawks the last time Warner started a game. My guess is that’s about what Green and the Cardinals are gonna get regardless of what anybody may want.

Pittsburgh (-3.5) at Green Bay
The way I see it, this game is all about Charlie Batch, who’ll be starting under center for Pittsburgh in place of the recently ‘scoped Ben Roethlisberger. If Charlie can keep his head on straight, complete eight or nine of the dozen passes he’ll be asked to throw (as long as the Steelers get some mileage out of the run), and stop himself from trying to force things and making costly mistakes (the way Packers quarterback Brett Favre did last week in Cincinnati), the Steelers should have no trouble pulling off a win over an increasingly banged up Packers squad. If, on the other hand, Charlie comes out looking to be the hero and attempts to make things happen in the wrong situations, he’ll single-handedly give Green Bay the tools it needs to pull off the upset. (Al Harris remains one of the best cornerbacks in the game, and he will put six points on the board if Charlie gives him the opportunity.) I’m expecting Charlie to take it all on himself and slip up, so I’m taking the Pack to win it outright. If you think Charlie’s a better decision maker than that, by all means go the other way.

Philadelphia (-1) at Washington
So it looks like Terrell Owens, who was listed as doubtful with an ankle sprain early in the week, will play after all. The questions now are: a) Will a hurt Owens will be enough to get the Eagles past a collision with the league’s best pass defense? b.) Will a hurt Donovan McNabb be able to deliver the ball to T.O. to begin with (or even play)? And c.) Has T.O.’s inability to shut his stupid trap finally driven enough of a wedge between him and McNabb that Donovan will be looking everywhere but Owens’ direction? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions (except that I think McNabb’s enough of a pro to look for the open man no matter how much of an asshole that man may be), but I know what I suspect. It’s this: when you’re facing the Redskins in their stadium, T.O. or no T.O., you either find a way to run the ball (and the Skins do give up 130-plus yards per game on the ground), or you lose. Philly hasn’t done much on the ground this season. And I’m sort of expecting stubborn Andy Reid to try to make things work in the air and to go down in flames. I’m taking the Redskins and the point.

Indianapolis (-3) at New England
Fuck it. I’m taking the Patriots to win this game. It’s not because the Pats have a way of getting into Peyton Manning’s head. It’s not because the Colts have beaten exactly one good team so far this season (they’ve played the teams they’ve played, and they’ve won). And it’s certainly not because Tedy Bruschi is back on the field for the Pats (though I do think that’s an amazing thing, and a damned good one for the Patriots). It’s because I feel it going that way. It seems as if the Colts are looking at this game as the most important of their season, while the Pats are looking at this game as just another must-win contest. I like the Patriots’ point of view better. I think it’s a champion’s point of view. And I think that, combined with home-field advantage, makes all the difference here. I like the Pats to pull out another three-point victory at the end of what I expect to be a mostly offensive struggle.

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