Sunday, November 23, 2014

NFL picks - Week 12

Record doesn't mean everything.

Sure, it's a team's record that decides playoff spots. A record, however, is not a true reflection of a team.

For example, are the Seahawks and Browns, both 6-4 entering Week 12, equal to one another? Of course not.

The Rams may be the best 4-6 team in recent memory. Certainly an unpopular opinion around my place of residence, the value of the 7-3 Packers is inflated thanks to a soft schedule. The Cowboys are also overvalued, with only one quality victory among the seven they're collected thus far in 2014.

Going forward, wins are crucial, and losses can become back-breaking. Ask the Chiefs.

Let’s get to the picks.

Kansas City (7-3) over Oakland (0-10)
Line: Kansas City -7.5
Spread pick: Kansas City

In my power rankings post earlier this week, I said the Raiders weren't as bad as their record indicated. Thursday's 24-20 victory over the Chiefs proved as much. However, the loss was awful for Kansas City, which had just pulled even with the Broncos for the AFC West division lead. The Chiefs will now have to be virtually flawless to win the division this year.

Cleveland (6-4) over Atlanta (4-6)
Line: Atlanta -3.5
Spread pick: Cleveland

If the Falcons can't effectively work their passing game, life becomes very difficult for the team with the worst DVOA defense in the league. The Browns have been up and down all season, but their pass defense rank 11th in the league. A late field goal send Cleveland home with a crucial victory, and continues Atlanta's futility against non-NFC South teams.

Chicago (4-6) over Tampa Bay (2-8) 
Line: Chicago -5.5
Spread pick: Chicago

Tampa Bay's offense is terrible. Chicago has too many weapons on offense for the Bucs' defense to contain. This game will be played at Soldier Field. This game is Chicago's to lose, and if Marc Trestman wants to be coaching in the Windy City next season, his Bears will win.

Houston (5-5) over Cincinnati (6-3-1)
Line: Houston -1.5
Spread pick: Houston

This game is proof positive that a great rushing attack can carry a team in the NFL. It won't carry a team to a playoff victory, but it can keep them in the playoff fight. Ryan Mallett and Andy Dalton represent mediocrity in its purest form, but a home-field advantage and a more accomplished run game will give the Texans their sixth victory of the season.

New England (8-2) over Detroit (7-3)
Line: New England -6.5
Spread pick: New England

The Lions have the defense, and more specifically, the defensive line to beat New England. Even with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Matthew Stafford, though, Detroit's offense has sputtered all year. It takes something more than a sputtering offense to walk into Foxborough and leave with a victory.

Green Bay (7-3) over Minnesota (4-6)
Line: Green Bay -9.5
Spread pick: Green Bay

The national media has fallen in love with the Packers, who have taken advantage of overmatched defenses in recent weeks. Green Bay, however, is only 1-3 on the road, a record that will almost certainly be improved upon in the Twin Cities this weekend. The Vikings simply don't have the offense to hang with the Packers, even if the Green and Gold have an off day on offense.

Philadelphia (7-3) over Tennessee (2-8)
Line: Philadelphia -11.5
Spread pick: Tennessee

There is no good reason a team with Mark Sanchez starting at quarterback should be favored by double digits. The Titans are a dumpster fire on both sides of the ball, but even Tennessee should be able to stay close to the Eagles. Philly has utilized myriad defensive and special teams touchdowns to run away from opponents, but those types of scores are certainly something any team cannot rely upon.

Indianapolis (6-4) over Jacksonville (1-9)
Line: Indianapolis -13.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

Last week's loss to New England exposed the problems the Colts have on defense. The poor Jaguars, however, often cure what ails its opponents. Look for the Colts to put plenty of points on the board en route to a very important victory.

St. Louis (4-6) over San Diego (6-4)
Line: San Diego -5.5
Spread pick: St. Louis

Coming into the season, the Rams' defensive line was considered one of, if not the, best unit in the NFL. Only recently have they begun to play up to the hype. San Diego's offense has been potent, but  has run into issues as of late. The Chargers' biggest offensive problem has been the men in the trenches, an advantage St. Louis will exploit in an upset victory in southern California.

Seattle (6-4) over Arizona (9-1)
Line: Seattle -6.5
Spread pick: Arizona

Play this game in Glendale, and the Cardinals likely win. However, this game will be played in the Great Northwest, where the Seahawks roughshod on opposing defenses. Arizona's rush defense is fantastic, but their inability to control the clock through the run game will cause the Cards to drop only their second contest of the year.

Denver (7-3) over Miami (6-4)
Line: Denver -7.5
Spread pick: Denver 

Every now and again, the media questions Peyton Manning and his offense. Oftentimes, the result isn't great for the team getting ready to play Manning. The Broncos' offense was hit hard by injuries last week in St. Louis, and fell victim to a bit of criticism this past week. Peyton Manning doesn't need motivation, but he likely has all he'll need to lead Denver to victory on Sunday.

San Francisco (6-4) over Washington (3-7)
Line: San Francisco -8.5
Spread pick: San Francisco

Washington's coach is throwing his players under the bus. San Francisco's coach is supposedly distant and uninterested in his team. The difference between the players on the field presents Washington with a significant disadvantage. The 49ers are too talented to fall victim to a dysfunctional team like Washington.

Dallas (7-3) at New York Giants (3-7)
Line: Dallas -3.5
Spread pick: Dallas

If the Giants had any semblance of a rushing defense, they may have a shot at upsetting the pressure-sensitive Cowboys. However, it just isn't likely. Eli Manning is completing more passes to the opposition than he is to his teammates, and DeMarco Murray is poised to have a big day for Dallas.

Buffalo (5-5) over New York Jets (2-8)
Line: Buffalo -2.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

There are few teams in the league that find themselves at a level of disarray currently achieved by the New York Jets. An offense with Michael Vick and Chris Johnson would have been potent in 2010, but it's not 2010. Buffalo will use the ground game and a solid defense to hold off the Jets in Detroit Monday night.

Baltimore (6-4) over New Orleans (4-6)
Line: New Orleans -3.5 
Spread pick: Baltimore

Maybe this is a pride pick. Maybe, as someone who has been a Ravens fan since the beginning (the 1996 season, for those of you who are uninitiated) I'm sick of listening to the so-called experts and superfans pile on the Baltimore hate train. Maybe I'm sick of seeing a 6-4 team that could just as easily be 8-2 get picked as underdogs week after week.

The Ravens are one of five NFL teams that rank in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive DVOA, a list that does not include Arizona or New England. The Ravens have given away two games against Cincinnati, a team that just walked into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and dominated the Saints. Baltimore keeps pace with the rest of the AFC North pack with a victory Monday night.

Last week: 8-6
Last week v. spread: 6-8
Season record: 97-63-1
Season record v. spread: 78-83

Thursday, November 20, 2014

NFL power rankings - Week 11

This isn't the way the 2014 script was written.

Comparing a preseason power ranking list to one written with Thanksgiving just over a week away would cause a sort of deep, guttural reaction. The contenders separate themselves from the pack, and teams like the Cardinals, Cowboys, Chiefs and Lions weren't supposed to be in the thick of the race.

Behold, the wonder of the National Football League. Now that each team has at least 10 games in the books, we can honesty say that each team has presented its identity. Some have presented something great, some have presented a rather putrid odor.

ESPN, the great bastion of sports hype, posted a preseason power ranking shortly after the 2014 draft. Only six of the top 10 teams in ESPN's preseason ranking appear in the top 10 spots below. One of those four outliers, Cincinnati, sits outside my top 15. Another, New Orleans, sits outside my top 20.

It's a fool's errand ranking NFL teams four months before meaningful games are played. It may even be a ridiculous practice to do it after Week 11, but flying in the face of conventional wisdom hasn't stopped me before.

1. New England (8-2) - The Packers might get all the hype, but the Patriots just spent the last two weeks beating two of the AFC's best teams by a combined score of 85-41. They can run, pass, and play great defense. New England will not go quietly this season.
Litmus Test: The Pats play the NFC North elite in back-to-back weeks, starting with Detroit on Sunday.

2. Arizona (9-1) - No Carson Palmer, no problem. Arizona kept on winning despite Drew Stanton taking meaningful snaps against the league's best defense. The stats don't look kindly upon Arizona's defense, but the Cardinals are good. Really good. The road to Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale may run through ... well, Glendale.
Litmus Test: Um ... the rest of the regular season? Nobody has it harder than the Cardinals, who play Kansas City, San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle (twice) before the season concludes.

3. Denver (7-3) - New year, same old story for Peyton Manning. Stats come natural, but wins over Bill Belichick and Tom Brady don't. The Broncos have largely dominated their opponents, though, including at 21-point win over Arizona and a 25-point victory over San Francisco.
Litmus Test: A November 30 trip to Arrowhead Stadium, with both teams likely 8-3. The winner of that game takes control of the AFC West and remains on track for a first-round playoff bye.

4. Kansas City (7-3) - Excluding an ugly Week 1 loss to Tennessee, the Chiefs' other two losses have come in San Francisco and Denver by a combined 12 points. Kansas City throttled the Patriots and Dolphins, and added a win over the defending champs last weekend. A popular pick to fall off from last year's success, the 2014 Chiefs are for real.
Litmus Test: After the aforementioned Week 13 return bout with Denver, the Chiefs travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals. K,C. can make a huge statement by winning both.

5. Detroit (7-3) - Who knew Detroit's weak link would be its offense? Blame for a sputtering offense can be placed squarely at the feet of the injury bug, which has had extended runs with Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush this season. A healthy Lions team is a scary Lions team.
Litmus Test: Detroit's next game, as well as their last. A trip to Foxborough beckons on Sunday, while Week 17's trip to Lambeau may decide the NFC North. Detroit can lose one, but not both.

6. Dallas (7-3) - Subtract the October 27 loss to Washington, where Tony Romo was injured, and the Cowboys' resume looks impressive. Tennessee and Jacksonville are the two bad teams on Dallas' schedule to this point, and the Cowboys have easily handled both.
Litmus Test: Avoiding the annual late-season choke job. Dallas has four divisional games remaining, including two games against Philly. One of those two interdivisonal games is against Indianapolis as well. It won't be easy, but it rarely is for good teams. We will see if this Cowboys team is for real.

7. Indianapolis (6-4) - The Colts have lost four games, all to teams with seven or more victories. The only team left on Indianapolis' schedule that sports seven or more victories is Dallas, and that game isn't played until the weekend before Christmas. Indianapolis about ready to rattle off a long string of victories.
Litmus Test: The December 21 trip to Jerry World. Win that game, and the Colts could finish 12-4. Andrew Luck will have something to say about the AFC playoff race.


8. Green Bay (7-3) - The pundits are already crowing the Packers as champions, but the truth is, Green Bay's wins aren't all that impressive. Sure, beating the Eagles looks good on paper, but that was an Eagles team led by Mark Sanchez. Green Bay has played three other teams currently above .500, losing by double digits to Seattle and Detroit.
Litmus Test: The Packers still have two teams listed in the top five of these rankings left on their slate, but both the Patriots and Lions come to Lambeau. The Packers must prove they can win on the road - they're 1-3 away from home, and needed a last-second touchdown to avoid an 0-4 road mark - but may not get a chance to do so until January. Or the 2015 season.

9. Seattle (6-4) - When you win the Super Bowl, there's only one place to go: down. The Seahawks have done just that, but four losses have come against very talented teams. The loss to St. Louis doesn't look good on paper, but Seattle isn't the only heavy-hitter to fall at the hands of the Rams. It won't be easy for the champs, with two games against left San Francisco and Arizona, but Seattle can hang.
Litmus Test: Seattle plays Arizona and San Francisco in back-to-back games. Twice. Before Christmas.

10. Philadelphia (7-3) - Nick Foles isn't a franchise quarterback, but he's miles ahead of Mark Sanchez. It will be up to the former Jets scapegoat to lead Philadelphia to the playoffs this winter. Green Bay exposed Philly's awful defense, which will be exploited at least three more times before everything is said and done this season.
Litmus Test: A three-week run through some of the NFC's best starts on Thanksgiving Day when Philly travels to Dallas. The Eagles will have extra time to prepare for a visit from the defending Super Bowl champions before a second tilt with the Cowboys on December 14.

11. San Francisco (6-4) - Jim Harbaugh may be a Nick Saban-level jerk, but, like Saban, he's also a very good coach. San Francisco has had encountered more than its fair share of obstacles this season, but the Niners continue to overcome. With a good bit of help, San Francisco's Week 17 match-up with the Cardinals could determine the division winner.
Litmus Test: Two games against the hated Seahawks in the span of only 18 days will reveal the true mettle of this 49ers team.

12. Pittsburgh (7-4) - This team doesn't make any sense. Pittsburgh slapped Baltimore and Indianapolis around in consecutive weeks, but were also dominated by the same Ravens team in Week 2. The Steelers have also lost to the Jets and Buccaneers, both 2-8. With two games against Cincinnati remaining, the Steelers control their own destiny.
Litmus Test: The final two weeks of the regular season, when the Steelers face off with the Chiefs and Bengals. Expect both games to be rife with playoff implications.

13. Miami (6-4) - Like the Packers, the Dolphins don't fare well against teams above the .500 mark. Miami is 1-3 in such games, with the only victory come in the season opener. The Dolphins will have to prove they can beat quality teams to win the dogfight that is the AFC wildcard race.
Litmus Test: It won't get much bigger than Sunday's game in Denver. Well, not until December 14, when the 'Fins head north for their rematch with the Patriots.

14. Baltimore (6-4) - The Ravens haven't lost to a team with fewer than six victories. They also haven't beaten a team currently above .500 since late-September. The road to the postseason isn't terribly difficult, but three of Baltimore's six remaining games are against teams above the .500 mark. If John Harbaugh wants to bring his team back to the playoffs, the Ravens will need to start beating quality teams.
Litmus Test: Baltimore's toughest remaining game may be their trip to Miami on December 7. Games against Cleveland and San Diego will be tough, and Monday night's game at New Orleans will be tricky.

15. San Diego (6-4) - If you're looking for a candidate to fall off the proverbial cliff, you've found your team. San Diego is 1-4 against teams better than .500, and their final games a sub-.500 opponent comes this Sunday against a Rams team with victories over Seattle, Denver and San Francisco this season.
Litmus Test: Everything after Thanksgiving. If the Chargers don't beat St. Louis on Sunday, they may be lucky to finish 8-8.

16. Cincinnati (6-3-1) - How can a team be 6-3-1, lead the best division in football, and barely make the top half of these rankings? Blowout losses to New England, Indianapolis and Cleveland don't look very good. Neither does a 37-37 tie with the 3-7-1 Panthers. If not for a pair of last-minute defensive breakdowns by the Ravens' barren secondary, the Bengals would be 4-5-1.
Litmus Test: Two games against Pittsburgh will likely determine who wins the AFC North. Week 16's visit from the Broncos will determine if the Bengals have any chance of winning a playoff game this season.

17. Buffalo (5-5) - Handing the reigns to someone like Kyle Orton isn't so much a vote of confidence in Orton, but more a vote of no confidence in whomever Orton replaced. Orton's passing numbers have dipped each week, down to a paltry 193 yards in last week's loss to Miami. A reliable quarterback might put the Bills into the playoffs.
Litmus Test: Three of Buffalo's final four games come against teams currently in the playoff field. Even if the Bills can get hot, 10 wins might not guarantee a wildcard berth.

18. Cleveland (6-4) - Only in the 2014 AFC North can you fall from first to last by losing a single game. The Browns held a rare division lead heading into last weekend's game against Houston, then promptly got throttled by J.J. Watt and company. Cleveland could make some noise in the playoff race if the Brownies can figure out how to stop the run.
Litmus Test: The toughest remaining game for the Browns is a Week 14 visit from the Colts, but Cleveland's 2014 season will likely be defined by it's two divisional games that follow. The Browns welcome in-state rival Cincinnati to town in Week 15 before finishing up the season in Baltimore.

19. Houston (5-5) - The Texans may have the best player in all of football, but there isn't much to speak of outside of J.J. Watt. Arian Foster is still very good, but is also still injury-prone. Andre Johnson is on the downside of his career, and Ryan Mallett certainly isn't the answer at quarterback. Jadeveon Clowney must justify his high draft placement to not be considered a bust.
Litmus Test: If Houston wants to make a run, they'll have plenty of chances. The Texans still have two games against the Jaguars, as well as a match-up with the Titans and Colts. Only a game behind Indianapolis, Houston is anything but out of the race.

20. St. Louis (4-6) - There aren't many 4-6 teams that look like the 2014 St. Louis Rams. Saddled with one of the toughest schedules in football, St. Louis has played only two games against teams below .500. Yikes. With wins over Denver, San Francisco and Seattle, the Rams have proven they can give just about anyone a run for their money. If only they had a decent quarterback.
Litmus Test: In all reality, the Rams will have to run the table to have a fighting chance at a wildcard spot. The Rams play more sub-.500 teams in the next six weeks (three) than they have all season, and they have already beaten their Week 17 opponent (Seattle) once this season. It's not likely, but it's not impossible, either.

21. Atlanta (4-6) - If only the Falcons could play their divisional foes all year long. Atlanta is 4-0 against the NFC South, and 0-6 against the rest of the NFL. Keep that pace, and the Falcons will finish 6-10. The sad part is that may be enough to win the division.
Litmus Test: Beating literally any team outside of the division. It hasn't been easy for the Falcons all year, but it's really going to be hard down the stretch. Atlanta's next four opponents: Cleveland, Arizona, Green Bay and Pittsburgh.

22. New Orleans (4-6) - Nine points stand between the Saints and am 8-2 record. New Orleans has lost two games in overtime by a field goal, another by two points and one more by a single point. Few teams have been as unlucky as the Saints, but they're still tied for first in the sorry NFC South. The odds-on favorite to win the division, New Orleans may only need three more wins to claim the division crown.
Litmus Test: After a pair of games against the AFC North, New Orleans finishes with four very winnable games, three of which come against division foes. 8-8 almost certainly clinches the division for the Saints.

23. Chicago (4-6) - Plenty has been made of Chicago's back-to-back drubbings, but the most concerning defeat is Chicago's 31-24 loss to Carolina. The Bears secondary is atrocious, and the pass rush isn't much better. Marc Trestman may not be long for the Midway.
Litmus Test: Chicago has two realistically winnable games, and four likely losses. 6-10 almost certainly costs Trestman his job, and may cause further roster shake-ups.

24. Minnesota (4-6) - Expectations can't be very high when you lose your franchise quarterback and leave the offense in the hands of a rookie quarterback. The running game hasn't been awful - the Vikings rank 12th in the league in rushing - and Teddy Bridgewater has shown flashes of his spectacular college play.
Litmus Test: The schedule is kind after this weekend's game against the Packers, with very winnable games against the Panthers, Jets and Bears. Win those, and pull an upset over Green Bay, Detroit or Miami, and the Vikings finish at .500 with a first-year coach and quarterback.

25. New York Giants (3-7) - Super Bowl rings work wonders on ownership. 2014 has been another disappointment for the Giants, yet Tom Coughlin apparently needs only to flash his two Super Bowl rings to remind Giants brass why he deserves to stick around. Eli Manning may be cooked. The Giants can't keep a running back healthy. They can't figure out how to stop a passing attack. Other than that, there really isn't anything wrong in New York.
Litmus Test: New York is stuck in the role of spoiler for Dallas and Philadelphia. Upsetting their rivals may give Giants fans something to look fondly upon, as the season hasn't had many bright spots.

26. Carolina (3-7-1) - The Panthers are proof positive that trotting out a piecemeal squad at wideout and on the offensive line will not lead to great results. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin looks like a bona fide no. 1 receiver, but he shouldn't have to carry the load offensively during his first season. There's plenty of work to do before the Panthers contend again.
Litmus Test: Miraculously, the Panthers will enter Week 13 no worse than 1.5 games out of first place in the NFC South. Carolina's toughest remaining game is a trip to New Orleans, which is an illustration of just how close the Panthers are to a playoff berth.

27. Tampa Bay (2-8) - There is no good reason for the Buccaneers to be this awful. Tampa Bay is a talented team coached by a man who led a team to a Super Bowl and two NFC title games. Might Jameis Winston stay in-state and lead the Bucs next season?
Litmus Test: If they can play up to their talent level, they can give plenty of teams looking toward the postseason a headache.

28. Tennessee (2-8) - Erase the Week 1 victory over Kansas City and the Titans only have a two-point victory over Jacksonville to look back on. It's been ugly in Nashville this year, and it will get worse before it gets better.
Litmus Test: There's potential for some cheap victories on the horizon, as Tennessee plays the Giants, Jets and Jaguars before the season ends.

29. New York Jets (2-8) - Sometimes, you have to wonder if "disaster" is spelled J-E-T-S (Jets! Jets! Jets!). Their starting quarterback is immature and lazy, and just got benched for Michael Vick, who the Eagles didn't need because they thought Nick Foles and Matt Barkley were better. Their coach is the Flavor Flav of the NFL.
Litmus Test: Making it through the rest of the year without Geno Smith sulking on the sideline or Rex Ryan talking. About anything.

30. Washington (3-7) - Ladies and gentlemen, the Jets of the NFC! Their quarterback is overrated and throwing his teammates under the bus. Their coach is riding the coattails of a famous last name and throwing his players under the bus. Their owner is steadfast in his defense of his team's blatantly racist and offensive nickname. Yeah, things are great in Washington.
Litmus Test: Getting out of their own way.

31. Jacksonville (1-9) - Teams could take a page or two from Jacksonville's proverbial playbook. The Jaguars sure give it their all each and every week, but inexperience and a lack of overall talent is holding them back. Blake Bortles looks like a keeper, and Denard Robinson represents the first Michigan Wolverines-related football success since he left Ann Arbor a few years ago. The Jags are a few years away, but they're certainly heading in the right direction.
Litmus Test: Experience. These reps are going to matter more and more in 2015, 2016 and beyond.

32. Oakland (0-10) - The Raiders really aren't as bad as their record indicates. On four separate occasions, Oakland has lost by a touchdown or less against a 2013 playoff team, including last week against San Diego.
Litmus Test: History. Oakland's "easiest" game is a Week 16 home match-up with Buffalo. That game, or a Week 17 tilt against a Broncos team with nothing to gain, might be Oakland's best chance to avoid 0-16.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NFL picks - Week 11

Ladies and gentlemen, big-time football has arrived.

To be fair, each game has an impact on the final regular-season standings, and no team is interested in a slow start. However, the games being played in the shadow of the Thanksgiving holiday have even more meaning.

Miami's victory on Thursday night gave the Dolphins a huge leg up in a surprisingly competitive AFC East. Even more, it allowed the 'Fins to keep pace with Steelers, Ravens and Chargers in the AFC wildcard race.

Thursday night's divisional tilt will not be the only game this week with playoff implications. Detroit and Arizona meet in Glendale, where the winner leaves with the top seed in the NFC. Green Bay and Philadelphia clash at Lambeau, with the winner taking home a tiebreaker that may be very important come January. Sunday wraps up with a similarly important game in Indianapolis, where the Colts welcome in long-time rival New England.

Winter may be on the doorstep, but the 2014 NFL regular season is ready to heat up.

Let's get to the picks.

Miami (5-4) over Buffalo (5-4)
Line: Miami -5.5
Spread pick: Miami

Kyle Orton may be better than E.J. Manuel, but he's still Kyle Orton. The Bills shot out to a hot start, but subpar quarterback play has submarined Buffalo since. Miami's Ryan Tannehill was nearly benched early in the season, but has responded well. The Dolphins are 5-2 since starting 1-2, with both losses coming in the last second against the top teams in the NFC North. Miami will not be going away.

Atlanta (3-6) over Carolina (3-6-1)
Line: Carolina -1.5
Spread pick: Atlanta

The Panthers are overly reliant on Cam Newton and Kelvin Benjamin being on the same page. Benjamin is having a great season, but it's not a good position to rely on a rookie wideout and a banged-up quarterback. Neither team has played good defense all season, but Atlanta's options on offense give the Falcons the advantage.

Chicago (3-6) over Minnesota (4-5)
Line: Chicago -3.5
Spread pick: Chicago

One team was an afterthought, the other had eyes on the playoffs. While neither the Vikings nor Bears will see playoff football outside of their living rooms this season, this game is a matter of pride for Chicago. The Bears are 0-3 at home and are coming off back-to-back 50-point losses. This is not a game the Bears can allow themselves to lose.

New Orleans (4-5) over Cincinnati (5-3-1)
Line: New Orleans -6.5
Spread pick: New Orleans

The record may not indicate it, but the Bengals are probably the worst team in the AFC North. Cincinnati ranks last in team DVOA among the four AFC North teams, are 20th in the league against the pass and next to last against the run. The Saints may not be the team most expected them to be this season, but they're still a force at home.

Houston (4-5) over Cleveland (6-3)
Line: Cleveland -3.5
Spread pick: Houston

Arian Foster will miss Sunday's game, but that won't sink the Texans running attack. Cleveland has struggled to stop the run as of late, and J.J. Watt will make Brian Hoyer's life very difficult as Houston leaves with an important victory.

Denver (7-2) over St. Louis (3-6)
Line: Denver -9.5
Spread pick: Denver

Peyton Manning versus Shaun Hill. If Manning doesn't get hurt on the first play from scrimmage, the Rams don't have a chance.

Seattle (6-3) over Kansas City (6-3)
Line: Kansas City -0.5
Spread pick: Seattle

If you're looking for an aerial showcase, this isn't your game. These two teams rank at the bottom of the league in passing offense, but both can run as good as anyone. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they're not terribly great at stopping the run. That's a problem when welcoming the league's top rushing offense to town.

San Francisco (5-4) over New York Giants (3-6)
Line: San Francisco -4.5
Spread pick: San Francisco

After early struggles, it appeared as though Eli Manning had grasped Ben McAdoo's West Coast offensive scheme. Since then, Manning has proven he hasn't been up to task. New York has lost each of its last four contests by double digits, and will struggle against San Francisco's defense.

Washington (3-6) over Tampa Bay (1-8)
Line: Washington -6.5
Spread pick: Washington

Most will argue that the Raiders are the worst team in football, but the Buccaneers need to be in that conversation. Tampa Bay is a talented team with issues at quarterback, but that is simply no excuse for a 1-8 record. It won't be an excuse for a ninth loss, either, after Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris have their way with Tampa's defense.

San Diego (5-4) over Oakland (0-9)
Line: San Diego -10.5
Spread pick: Oakland

When these teams met in Week 6, San Diego needed 10 points in the final six minutes of the game to rally past the Raiders. The Chargers won't need a late rally to win this one, but Oakland will hang around and scare the Bolts again.

Detroit (7-2) over Arizona (8-1)
Line: Arizona -1.5
Spread pick: Detroit

Arizona's offense was ranked 25th in offensive DVOA before Carson Palmer blew out his knee last week. Now the onus is on Drew Stanton, who has completed only 53.8 percent of his career pass attempts and has thrown more career interceptions than touchdowns. Detroit's top-ranked defense will give Stanton fits, and the Lions will take control of the NFC with a victory in the desert.

Green Bay (6-3) over Philadelphia (7-2)
Line: Green Bay -5.5
Spread pick: Philadelphia

I want to pick the Eagles. I really do ... but I just can't. The likelihood of Mark Sanchez going to Lambeau Field and winning a game in the cold - the temperature at kickoff is expected to be in the high-20s - is just way too low. The Eagles can, and will, find success on the ground, but Sanchez will be the reason Philly loses Sunday.

Indianapolis (6-3) over New England (7-2)
Line: Indianapolis -2.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

On a neutral field, this game would be a toss-up. Indianapolis has one of the best home-field advantages in football, and with the primetime lights shining on Lucas Oil Stadium, Andrew Luck leads a last-minute charge down the field to give Indianapolis the victory.

Pittsburgh (6-4) over Tennessee (2-7)
Line: Pittsburgh -5.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

The Steelers have shown a tendency to play down to their competition - see: losses to the Buccaneers and Jets - but Mike Tomlin is too good a coach to allow it to happen again.

Last week: 7-6
Last week v. spread: 6-7
Season record: 89-57-1
Season record v. spread: 72-75

Sunday, November 9, 2014

NFL picks - Week 10

The NFL is a story of two very different conferences.

The NFC was supposed to be a shark tank of contenders, but four of those preseason contenders - Green Bay, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta - aren't in the current playoff field. In fact, the Bears and Falcons will likely need a miracle to sniff the playoffs, while the Niners have major issues to correct to ensure a return trip to the postseason.

On the other hand, the AFC has turned into just about everything the NFC was supposed to be. Entering Week 10, 11 of the 16 teams in the AFC are above .500, including all four teams in the AFC North.

It's going to be an interesting winter in the league.

Let's get to the picks.

Cincinnati (5-2-1) at Cleveland (5-3)
Line: Cincinnati -6.5
Spread pick: Cleveland

Joe Flacco received a ton of heat for being paid like a franchise quarterback while not always playing like one. It's time for that heat to find Andy Dalton. The Bengals are a good team, but will never be anything more than that with Dalton, who did just about everything wrong against a quietly good Cleveland Browns team now tied with the Steelers for first place in the AFC North.

Atlanta (2-6) over Tampa Bay (1-7)
Line: Atlanta -0.5
Spread pick: Atlanta

If the Falcons lose to the Buccaneers on Sunday, Mike Smith won't be long for his current position. Tampa Bay may be the worst team in the NFC. Atlanta has no excuse - with the talent on offense, a 2-6 start is completely unacceptable.

Buffalo (5-3) over Kansas City (5-3)
Line: Kansas City -1.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

Alex Smith doesn't seem the type to lead a team to road victory in a hostile environment. The Bills rank eighth in rushing defense, and will almost certainly look to corral Jamaal Charles and Kansas City's rushing attack. Sammy Watkins and Fred Jackson will both be in the lineup after injuries left them questionable. Their presence, along with a hot Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd, lead the Bills to victory.

Dallas (6-3) over Jacksonville (1-8)
Line: Dallas -7.5
Spread pick: Dallas

Snap ball. Hand to DeMarco Murray. Repeat. Even if Tony Romo doesn't play, Murray can carry the load and keep the Cowboys from losing a very winnable game.

Miami (5-3) over Detroit (6-2)
Line: Detroit -2.5
Spread pick: Miami

Detroit's defense has been outstanding this season, but a stacked offense has been notably hindered by the absence of all-world wideout Calvin Johnson. Miami's rushing offense, ranked fourth in the league, will give the Dolphins control of the game and an upset victory over the NFC North leaders.

Baltimore (5-4) over Tennessee (2-6)
Line: Baltimore -9.5
Spread pick: Tennessee

I haven't played cornerback in an organized football game since in 12 years, and I wasn't very good when I did play. Regardless, I may be able to suit up for the Ravens, who just lost Jimmy Smith for the year after cutting Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks. A win over the Titans gets Baltimore to 6-4, but without more than one NFL-caliber cornerback, the Ravens better hope for a miracle if they plan to compete in the hypercompetitive AFC North.

New Orleans (4-4) over San Francisco (4-4)
Line: New Orleans -4.5
Spread pick: New Orleans

If you told NFL fans in August that either the Saints or 49ers would be under .500 entering Week 11, most would have laughed. Here we are, though, with two preseason Super Bowl contenders fighting to stay above water. San Francisco's offensive line is falling apart by the day, and Colin Kaepernick is falling right with them. Ann Arbor has to be looking pretty good to Jim Harbaugh right now.

Pittsburgh (6-3) over New York Jets (1-8)
Line: Pittsburgh -4.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

The hottest team in the AFC takes on the biggest disaster in the Eastern time zone. How do you think this one ends?

Denver (6-2) over Oakland (0-8)
Line: Denver -11.5
Spread pick: Denver

Poor Oakland. The silver lining in this game: It only gets better. Also, Week 17 rematch may be a moot point, as the Broncos may already have the division championship locked up.

Arizona (7-1) over St. Louis (3-5)
Line: Arizona -7.5
Spread pick: Arizona

Rams quarterback Austin Davis hasn't thrown for more than 200 yards in a game in nearly a month. St. Louis hasn't had a 100-yard rusher or receiver all season. That is not the formula for success when visiting the league's best team.

Seattle (5-3) over New York Giants (3-5)
Line: Seattle -9.5
Spread pick: New York

New York hasn't played a team above .500 within 10 points so far this year. That's a massive problem, especially with games against San Francisco and Dallas following this week's match-up with the defending champs. Seattle hasn't been the team that ran roughshod on the league last season, failing to put away poor teams in the last two games.

Green Bay (5-3) over Chicago (3-5)
Line: Green Bay -7.5
Spread pick: Green Bay 

Chicago's defense is a train wreck, and if Jay Cutler keeps acting the way he has been, the offense won't be far behind. Green Bay's defense is nothing to be proud of - 16th in DVOA, 26th in total yards per game and last, by a wide margin, in rushing yards per game - but the Bears just can't win at Lambeau playing the way they have been of late.

Carolina (3-5-1) over Philadelphia (6-2)
Line: Philadelphia -6.5
Spread pick: Carolina

So, why am I supposed to believe Mark Sanchez is suddenly a competent NFL quarterback?

Last week: 8-5
Last week v. spread: 6-7
Season record: 82-51-1
Season record v. spread: 66-68

Sunday, November 2, 2014

NFL picks - Week Nine

The official halfway point of the 2014 NFL season is here.

Eight weeks are in the books, with eight more to come after this weekend's games. Early-season contenders are starting to fade, coaching changes have already begun, and some surprising teams remain in the playoff picture.

Heavyweights clash to thin out a very crowded herd in each conference, deciding division races and crucial playoff tiebreakers. It began Thursday night, when the Saints easily beat Carolina, 28-10, and continues Sunday. Two games feature a pair of teams with six or more victories, and the winners of each will have a leg up in the playoff races.

Let's get to the picks.

Carolina (3-4-1) over New Orleans (3-4)
Line: New Orleans -2.5
Spread pick: Carolina

Maybe someone finally woke up the Saints. After cruising past the Packers last weekend, New Orleans throttled the Panthers in Charlotte. November won't be an easy month for the Saints, but a favorable slate down the stretch gives New Orleans control of the NFC South.

Cincinnati (4-2-1) over Jacksonville (1-7)
Line: Cincinnati -11.5
Spread pick: Cincinnati

The Bengals are a decent team, but there really isn't much more to say about them. They've taken advantage of mistakes to beat the Ravens twice, but were dominated by the Patriots and Colts. Jacksonville's plush secondary will be the perfect situation for A.J. Green's return and another Bengals victory.

Cleveland (4-3) over Tampa Bay (1-6)
Line: Cleveland -6.5
Spread pick: Tampa Bay

There's really no reason for the Browns to struggle in this game, but there also wasn't a reason for Cleveland to lose to the then-winless Jaguars. Tampa's offense is a joke right now, despite the presence of two huge receivers and a cannon-armed quarterback.

Arizona (6-1) over Dallas (6-2)
Line: Dallas -4.5
Spread pick: Arizona

One of the best ways to take your team out of a highly competitive game against a top-notch opponent is to start Brandon Weeden at quarterback. The Cowboys don't necessarily have a choice, however, as Tony Romo is injured and will not play Sunday. With Weeden under center, this game is Arizona's to lose.

Kansas City (4-3) over New York Jets (1-7)
Line: Kansas City -9.5
Spread pick: Kansas City

The Jets rival Oakland as the biggest disaster in the AFC, and that's saying something. New York can't blame a rookie quarterback, a second-rate running game, or a porous defense for their pathetic start. Simply put, they're a bad team, and bad teams don't win at Arrowhead Stadium.

San Diego (5-3) over Miami (4-3)
Line: Miami -1.5
Spread pick: San Diego

These two teams match up evenly in nearly every major statistical category. When it doubt, take the quarterback playing like an MVP candidate, not the one who was at one point rumored to be losing his starting job earlier in the season.

Washington (3-5) over Minnesota (3-5)
Line: Minnesota -1.5
Spread pick: Washington

Stats can tell an interesting story. Washington ranks in the top 17 in both offensive and defensive DVOA, 11th in total defense, and seventh in total offense. Losses to Arizona, Seattle and Philadelphia (combined record: 15-6) have left Washington as a slightly undervalued team. The return of Robert Griffin III adds an air of mystery to Washington's offense, and leads the team to a crucial road victory.

Philadelphia (5-2) over Houston (4-4)
Line: Philadelphia -2.5
Spread pick: Philadelphia

Both teams have defenses that allow truckloads of yards, so in the end, it's going to come down to offense. Nick Foles is no Peyton Manning, but he's also no Ryan Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately for the Texans, Ryan Fitzpatrick is Ryan Fitzpatrck. The man cannot be trusted under center.

San Francisco (4-3) over St. Louis (2-5)
Line: San Francisco -9.5
Spread pick: San Francisco

We expected three NFC West teams to be good, but I don't think many expected the fourth - St. Louis - to be so bad. The Rams have one of the league's most fearsome front four on paper, but as we have learned thus far, talent on paper hasn't translated to on-field success.

Denver (6-1) over New England (6-2)
Line: Denver -3.5
Spread pick: Denver

The Patriots are the best team in a surprisingly competitive AFC East. The Broncos are the best team in the NFL. Peyton Manning is on fire, and Denver's defense is frightening, ranking second in defensive DVOA and fourth in yards allowed per game.

Seattle (4-3) over Oakland (0-7)
Line: Seattle -14.5
Spread pick: Seattle

If you need an explanation as to why the Seahawks will beat Oakland in Seattle, you should probably stop watching football.

Pittsburgh (5-3) over Baltimore (5-3)
Line: Pittsburgh -0.5
Spread pick: Pittsburgh

Mental errors are going to bury the Ravens. As I said in this week's midseason review, the Ravens could be 7-1 simply by preventing late-game breakdowns on defense. Instead, they're 5-3, stuck in the middle of an airtight race in the AFC North. Only twice since 2007 has this rivalry not been split during the regular season. Number three doesn't happen this year.

Indianapolis (5-3) at New York Giants (3-4)
Line: Indianapolis -3.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

The Giants have faced only one of the top 10 offensive DVOA units this year, and they're still giving up 24 points per game. That lone top-10 team, Dallas, hung 31 on New York. Give up 31 (or more) points to the Colts, lose the game. It's that simple.

Last week: 10-5
Last week v. spread: 7-8
Season record: 74-46-1
Season record v. spread: 60-61

Thursday, October 30, 2014

NFL midseason review

Week Nine kicks off tonight in Charlotte, meaning we have reached the halfway point of the 2014 NFL season.

It's bittersweet, but the second half is shaping up to be one heck of a ride.

Sticking with tradition, I wrote a full-fledged season preview just before the Seahawks and Packers began the 2014 season in Seattle. Now that we're halfway home, let's take a look at the current standings, and how those picks are panning out.

(Apologies to the Bears, who look to the the unlucky winners of the Online Jargon Curse this season.)

AFC Division Leaders

North - Cincinnati
Preseason pick: Baltimore

If not for a pair of last-minute defensive breakdowns, the Ravens would be 7-1 and in firm control of the AFC North. Instead, Baltimore is 5-3, and Cincinnati holds the season tiebreaker thanks to a pair of victories over Baltimore. A tricky second half begins Sunday night, when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh to battle the hated Steelers. It will be a fight to the end in the league's best division.

South - Indianapolis
Preseason pick: Indianapolis

Last Sunday wasn't pretty, but it was likely an outlier. Indianapolis had been very good prior to Sunday's lashing, only losing to the Broncos by a touchdown and the Eagles by a field goal. Games against New England and Dallas will test the Colts, but all signs point to another division title for Indy.

East - New England
Preseason pick: New England

Don't look now, but the Bills are lingering. New England has a brutal second-half schedule, with games against the Broncos, Colts, Lions, Packers and Chargers before finishing with each of the division's three other teams. Could a Week 17 game between the Pats and Bills really determine the AFC East?

West - Denver
Preseason pick: Denver

If anyone is going to catch the Broncos, they'll have plenty of chances - Denver still has four of its six divisional games remaining. San Diego and Kansas City will try, but in the end, the AFC West will belong to the Broncos.

NFC Division Leaders

North - Detroit
Preseason pick: Green Bay

The fate of the NFC North hinges on the health of some very important players. Aaron Rodgers will have to bounce back from a hamstring issue that held him back in last week's loss to New Orleans, while Calvin Johnson will have to return from a tricky high ankle sprain following Detroit's bye week. Detroit travels to Green Bay in Week 17, a game shaping up to be a de facto NFC North championship game.

South - Carolina
Preseason pick: New Orleans

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the worst division in pro football. Carolina and New Orleans have been disappointing in 2014, and that's the best thing anyone can say about any NFC South team. The Saints still have five home games remaining, but three are against the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens. This one is a toss-up.

East - Dallas
Preseason pick: Philadelphia

So this is what happens when all that talent on the Cowboys roster finally comes together. Dallas has been a wonderful story, but reality will come crashing through the hole in AT&T Stadium's roof. This is a Cowboys team led by an overmatched head coach, with the 19th-ranked DVOA defense, a banged-up quarterback, and an injury-prone running back. The Eagles need only wait for the division title to fall into their hands.

West - Arizona
Preseason pick: Seattle

The Cardinals will have to earn this year's NFC West title. Arizona hasn't yet played Seattle this year, and finishes the season in San Francisco. This team can do it, however. The Cardinals have been fantastic this season, and with the Seahawks and Niners looking anything but their dominant selves, it may be Arizona's turn to win the league's toughest division.

Wildcard Teams

AFC - San Diego and Buffalo
Preseason pick: Miami and Houston

Six teams at .500 or better currently sit outside the AFC playoff field. That number will almost certainly thin out, but it calls to the competitive level of the AFC playoff race. Thanks in no small part to a last-place schedule, the surprise team that sticks around this race could very well be the Buffalo Bills.

NFC - Philadelphia and Green Bay
Preseason pick: San Francisco and Chicago

Two good teams will miss the NFC playoffs. The second-place teams in the NFC East and North will compete with the two powerhouse teams that don't win the NFC West for only a pair of wildcard spots. Right now, it's Philly and Green Bay. That could, and likely will, change frequently between now and Dec. 28.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

NFL picks - Week Eight

Week Eight was supposed to be a big week.

Teams such as the Falcons, Saints and Bears have fallen well short of high preseason expectations, making their games against the Lions, Packers and Patriots, respectively, not nearly as attractive on paper as we may have first thought.

Seattle and Carolina both enter the week at .500. Some may consider that a plus for a Panthers team that entered the season with low expectations, and most consider Seattle's 3-3 start a disappointment.

It's quickly becoming time to step up or step out of the way.

Let's get to the picks.

Denver (5-1) over San Diego (5-2)
Line: Denver -7.5
Spread pick: San Diego 

Injuries to San Diego's secondary are going to catch up to the Chargers in a hurry. Thursday night was proof. The Bolts should enter Week 13 at 7-3 or 8-2, but the aforementioned secondary must be healthy and effective. San Diego finishes the season at Baltimore, v. New England, v. Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

Detroit (5-2) over Atlanta (2-5)
Line: Detroit -3.5
Spread pick: Detroit

Can the Detroit Lions really be 6-2? With the league's top-rated defense and a match-up with the porous Falcons defense, the Lions remain atop the NFC North. Detroit's offense will likely be without Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush again Sunday morning, so wins against lesser competition without their stars will be even more valuable with games against Arizona, New England and Green Bay still ahead.

Buffalo (4-3) over New York Jets (1-6)
Line: New York -2.5
Spread pick: Buffalo

I'm sorry - why are the Jets favored in this game? The Bills certainly aren't the poster children for explosive offense, but Kyle Orton and Sammy Watkins are better than anything New York has on its current roster.

New England (5-2) over Chicago (3-4)
Line: New England -6.5
Spread pick: New England

The Bears are a mess. The defense hasn't been as bad as expected, but the offense is slowly falling apart around running back Matt Forte. Chicago could use a galvanizing victory, but it isn't coming this weekend.

Baltimore (5-2) over Cincinnati (3-2-1)
Line: Cincinnati -1.5
Spread pick: Baltimore 

If you ask oddsmakers, the Ravens aren't as good as a team that is 1-2-1 against teams above .500. Baltimore is one of five teams, along with Denver, Indianapolis, Seattle and Green Bay, who rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Only one team - the 6-1 Denver Broncos - ranks ahead of the Ravens in overall DVOA. Sooner or later, people will stop sleeping on the Baltimore Ravens.

Houston (3-4) over Tennessee (2-5)
Line: Houston -0.5
Spread pick: Houston

Sunday's match-up between Zach Mettenberger and Ryan Fitzpatrick won't be confused for Thursday's Rivers-versus-Manning battle. Look for defense to rule in this one. With no. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney returning to the league's 15th-ranked DVOA defense, the Texans roll to victory in Nashville.

Kansas City (3-3) over St. Louis (2-4)
Line: Kansas City -6.5
Spread pick: Kansas City 

Brett Favre may believe in Austin Davis, but he's atop a short list. The Rams' defense has wildly underperformed this season, and with nothing to speak of at wide receiver, St. Louis will struggle to remain consistently competitive all year.

Miami (3-3) over Jacksonville (1-6)
Line: Miami -5.5
Spread pick: Miami

Rookie quarterbacks struggle. It's a fact of life. Blake Bortles has struggled, but he's also shown much more promise than most rookies do in the first half of their inaugural NFL campaign. Bortles will help keep the Jags competitive in most games, but the cupboard is just too bare in Jacksonville to expect wins over quality teams like the Dolphins.

Tampa Bay (1-5) over Minnesota (2-5) 
Line: Tampa Bay -2.5
Spread pick: Tampa Bay

According to the league's DVOA rankings, both the Vikings and Buccaneers have performed worse than the winless Oakland Raiders. Ouch. Minnesota's defense has been pedestrian at best, failing to break 20 points in all of their five losses, and failing to break double digits in three of those five games. Tampa can score thanks to Mike Glennon's arm, and will do just enough to win Sunday.

Seattle (3-3) over Carolina (3-3-1)
Line: Seattle -4.5
Spread pick: Seattle

Which team is more likely to start 3-4? Not the defending champs.

Arizona (5-1) over Philadelphia (5-1)
Line: Arizona -2.5
Spread pick: Arizona

Neither quarterback has lit the world ablaze this season. Arizona's defense, while not the juggernaut it was in 2013, has been effective. Philly's defense can't really say the same. The Cardinals will force Nick Foles into enough mistakes to maintain control of the rugged NFC West.

Cleveland (3-3) over Oakland (0-6) 
Line: Cleveland -7.5
Spread pick: Oakland

Just when you think the Browns can contend, they go and lay an egg against the winless Jaguars. Can the Browns be victims of winless teams two weeks in a row? It's certainly possible. Give me the home-field advantage Cleveland will have, as well as the early start time for the west-coast Raiders, and the Browns hang on for win no. 4.

Indianapolis (5-2) over Pittsburgh (4-3)
Line: Indianapolis -2.5
Spread pick: Indianapolis

The Colts are good. Really good. They haven't been beaten by more than a touchdown all season, and are 2-0 against the AFC North's two best teams. Sunday's victory over an inconsistent Steelers team keeps Indianapolis undefeated against the North, and just a step behind the AFC's top team, the Denver Broncos.

Green Bay (5-2) over New Orleans (2-4)
Line: New Orleans -1.5
Spread pick: Green Bay

Every year, one contender surprises us by having an awful campaign. It looks like New Orleans is the unfortunate winner of that accolade. The Saints' defense has been a disaster so far, ranking 32nd in defensive DVOA and 21st in yards allowed per game. That's not where you want to be when welcoming the NFC's hottest offense to town.

Dallas (6-1) over Washington (2-5)
Line: Dallas -9.5
Spread pick: Washington

Colt McCoy is 6-15 as a starting quarterback in the NFL. DeMarco Murray is having an MVP-caliber season, and Dez Bryant is one of the league's best wide receivers. Unfortunately for McCoy, Murray and Bryant play for Dallas. Washington will find a way to keep it close, but the Cowboys have a decided advantage and will continue their winning ways Monday night.

Last week: 8-7
Last week v. spread: 5-10
Season record: 64-41-1
Season record v. spread: 53-53