The National Football League is known as a league of parity. The talent disparity between a very good team and a very bad team is never as vast as we imagine. Sure some teams draft better than others or spend money to sign marquee free agents, but things like team chemistry, matchups, coaching quality, and other more intangible things affect the outcome of the game as well.
One of these factors is the “Our Backs Are Against the Wall,” scenario. When the margin between victory and defeat is so slim, any extra motivation can swing the outcome of the game. Last week, was a big backs against the wall week for several teams and I failed to recognize how huge of an impact it can make when a team’s season is on the verge of early collapse.
And so, I picked against the Eagles, Falcons, Bears and Jets. All of these teams came into the season with Super Bowl aspirations, but came into Week 6 with a sub .500 record. They all got wins to end losing streaks and gave their local suicide hotline operators some much needed respite. When a team really believes they are good despite their results, they can come together and get the little extra effort needed to win games when in tough spots.
Any little advantage can often make the difference. Playing at home is usually the most obvious difference, and it is significant for NFL teams as the host has won over 62% of their games so far. However, that number comes way down to about 50%, or basically a coin flip, against the spread. Gambling is our main concern here so home field advantage in a broad sense is not of much interest.
This season more often than not, the free points given to underdogs have made a huge difference to those who dabble in wagers if none at all on the field. So far the underdogs are beating the favorites against the spread 49-41 against the spread (Keep in mind, I am using numbers calculated from the ESPN Pig Skin Pick ‘em game, as spreads change and vary between casinos and websites there are a lot of different numbers out there online). Home underdogs have covered against road favorites 16-12 and the road dogs are edging the home favorites 33-29. So what does this tell us? Teams are very even this year. Another stat tells this as well; in 15 games where the spread has been over 8 points the underdogs have covered nine of them.
All except for the Packers. The Packers are the only undefeated team left and have obliterated every point spread set against them excepting Cam Newton’s Garbage Time Hall of Fame worthy performance in Week 2. Every other good team has flaws and have turned in at least one bad game. The Lions have been explosive but inconsistent on offense and have struggled to stop the run. The Ravens have a dominant defense, but can go only as far as Joe Flacco takes them. The Patriots’ defense is playing better, but is still a weakness and the 49ers start the admittedly improved, but still Alex Smith at quarterback. All those teams deserve to be considered among the NFL’s best but all are capable of playing a bad game and getting upset any given week.
So, in the one of the most parity-est seasons in the most parity-est professional sports league in the world, I’ll consider the smallest and seeming most insignificant factors that will nonetheless play a role in the final result. Let’s go to the picks!
Lines are taken from the ESPN Pig Skin Pick ‘Em Game (my entry is in the top 5% even after an off week, http://games.espn.go.com/pigskin-pickem/en/entry?entryID=310755 ), and my pick is in BOLD.
Last Week: 6-7
Sunday 1:00 PM EST
Falcons @ Lions -3.5
I think the Lions will still be in the playoff picture at the end of the year, but I see a mid-season swoon coming. The loss of Jahvid Best will hurt them more than most think. He hasn’t been putting up huge fantasy numbers, but he still has accounted for over 30% of the Lions’ offensive production on a wide assortment of screens, draws, and short passes. Without him, they are left with no running back depth behind him and only one viable offensive play; just throw it up to Megatron. They got run over by the 49ers last week and that’s the formula the Falcons will use against them with Michael Turner playing the role of Frank Gore. The defensive line that is so good rushing the passer has not cured the Lions’ problems defending the run, and as long as these problems persist, the Lions will not live up to their potential.
Bears @ Buccaneers +0.5
Two schizophrenic teams meet across the pond in the annual NFL in London game. The Buccaneers knocked off the Saints last week after losing by 45 the week before in San Francisco. The Bears have played really good games and really bad games. With their defense and the impact in the return game Devin Hester has, Chicago seems to count on breaks in the game and momentum than most others. If the breaks go their way, they look pretty impressive. When the ball is bouncing the other way, they struggle. However, their offensive line did a good job of keeping Jay Cutler away from Jared Allen’s dirty facial hair last week so I like the Bears more now going forward.
Seahawks @ Browns -3.5
Charlie Whitehurst put up 20 points in the 4th quarter against the Giants the last time he was on the field to seal their big upset win on the road. He looks like a clear upgrade from Tavaris Jackson and has had the bye week to get ready to start. The Seahawks have a stout run defense and Colt McCoy is too erratic as a passer to take advantage of Seattle’s weaker secondary. One of these teams will be surprising 3-3 Sunday and my money is on Pete Carroll’s boys.
Broncos @ Dolphins -3.5
After a tough primetime loss in New York where they could have easily been up double digits in the first quarter with just slightly better execution, the Dolphins must be happy to be home right? I doubt it. Let’s start with the fact that they haven’t won at home since 11/14/2010 and have only won one of nine at home the last two seasons. Now add to that the Dolphins are honoring the Florida Gators’ 2008 National Championship team on the day that quarterback Tim Tebow will make his first start of the year. I think the familiar atmosphere and outpouring of Tebow love from the crowd will lead to a win for Denver.
Texans @ Titans -3.5
I think at this juncture of the season these teams are incredibly even. The Titans are ranked 9th in total defense, the Texans 10th. The Titans are 10th against the run and 12th against the pass, while the Texans are 13th in both categories. With Andre Johnson still out, neither team has a dynamic playmaker at wide receiver. They will both want to run the ball and impose their will on the other. It’s going to be a close, physical game, but I like the Titan’s defense better and they have played very well at home so far this year.
Chargers @ Jets +1.5
The Jets didn’t impress me in getting their back against the wall win Dolphins. After dropping three straight they had to get a win and will gladly take it, but the Jets defense isn’t scaring anyone like it used to and Mark Sanchez is not doing well on his quest to prove that bros can be successful starting quarterback in the NFL. The Chargers will get a boost this week from Antonio Gates’ return from injury and I think they score enough points to force Sanchez to beat them by throwing the ball, then watch as hilarity ensues.
Redskins @ Panthers -3.5
The Redskins had a chance last week to ostensibly end the Eagles’ season last week and take a clear divisional lead, but 4 Rex picks later, here we are. I think the Redskins have to run the ball here. The Panthers rank 2nd to last in the NFL in rush defense. With John Beck making his debut start for the team, the Shannahans will no doubt call a pretty conservative game. The Panthers have only won one game, and that was in a wild storm. For how good Newton is, there is not enough talent around him for this to be a competitive team.
Sunday 4:05 PM EST
Chiefs @ Raiders -3.5
Like the Redskins, the Raiders are starting a new quarterback this week. Who that is, no one is quite sure yet, but it will probably be Kyle Boller this week while Carson Palmer is getting acclimated to his new team and system. Palmer may be the new sheriff riding in to town to save the day, but someone needs to help hold down the fort until he arrives. Boller does not encourage any faith in his ability to do this, but he luckily has Darren McFadden and the running game to lean on.
Steelers @ Cardinals +3.5
The Steelers have played three times on the road and three times at home this year. At home, they are 3-0 with an average margin of victory north of fifteen points. On the road, they have had bad losses to the Ravens and Texans and squeaked by the Colts for their only win away from Heinz. I still don’t believe in Kevin Kolb, but I do believe that the Steelers’ struggles on the road are real and that Ken Whisenhunt will have a scheme ready and his guys coached up when he meets his former employers.
Sunday 4:15 PM EST
Rams @ Cowboys -12.5
The Rams improved in every area except the scoreboard last week. Against the Super Bowl champion they put up over 400 total yards, actually out gaining the league’s sole juggernaut, but managed only 3 points. Sam Bradford is still a good quarterback and he will benefit immediately from the presence of Brandon Lloyd. The Rams’ season might look very different right now if Bradford had had a dependable veteran target like Lloyd all season. I don’t think I would take Cowboys -12.5 against any team right now.
Packers @ Vikings +8.5
You would expect the Packers to have an off game sooner or later, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The abundance of talent along with the team’s selfless identity makes them favorites to repeat. Christian Ponder makes his first NFL start and we get to stop pondering why Donovan McNabb is still a starting NFL quarterback.
Sunday 8:20 PM EST
Colts @ Saints -13.5
You gotta love them points. The Saints have only beaten a team by 14 or more once this season and the offense has cooled down after scoring 34, 30 and 40 points in their first 3 weeks. The Colts don’t have much going for them, but they are much better in pass defense than in any other category and still have Freeney and Mathis applying frequent pressure to passers. I think the Saints will get a win at home, but I don’t think it will be an easy one.
Monday 8:30 PM EST
Ravens @ Jaguars +7.5
Call me crazy, but when a team is getting more than a touchdown at home on Monday night, it’s hard not to take them. The Jaguars have a good defense and Flacco has struggled to put points on the board at times this season. The Jags will stick to the running game and hang around within a few points of the Ravens the whole time like they did last week in their 17-13 loss to the Steelers. The Ravens will need touchdowns from the defense or special teams to cover this spread.