Week 11 Picks

Posted: 11/19/2017 by levcohen in Football

The Colts, Jets, and Niners are all on BYE this week, which is nice. But there are still a lot of unappetizing matchups, which says a lot about where the NFL is right now. Ravens-Packers, Chiefs-Giants, Bengals-Broncos, and Patriots-Raiders would all have seemed like great games before the year, and now… aren’t. On the flip side, we have one unexpected jewel: the 7-2 Rams go to Minnesota to take on the 7-2 Vikings. That, along with the Philly-Dallas game and the Atlanta-Seattle one (which, despite losing some of its luster with both teams struggling, has huge playoff implications), is a game we all should be looking forward to. Other than that, there just isn’t much.
BYE teams: Indianapolis, New York Jets, San Francisco, Carolina

Detroit Lions (5-4, 5-4 against the spread) at Chicago Bears (3-6, 5-3-1):
Spread: Lions favored by 3
Over/under: 41
My prediction: Last week’s loss to Green Bay aside, the Bears have been stingy at home. Their defense gets another test this week. The Lions have not been great offensively this year, as they’ve played under their talent level until it’s become absolutely necessary for them to move the ball. But they still have a lot of talent, especially in the passing game. They’re the better team, and they should win this game. But I don’t trust Detroit enough to feel very confident about picking them. I’ll pick them anyway because it’s hard for me to believe that the Bears will put up enough points to beat them, but I think it’ll be close. Lions win 20-16.
Lions cover

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6, 2-7) at Miami Dolphins (4-5, 3-5-1):
Spread: Buccaneers favored by 1.5
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: This is the game that was rescheduled from Week 1 because of Hurricane Irma. Perhaps that hurricane was a harbinger of things to come for these two teams, because both have disappointed massively en route to being the 23rd (the Bucs) and 32nd (the Dolphins) ranked team by DVOA. The quarterback matchup is Ryan Fitzpatrick against Jay Cutler, the first of many horrendous QB battles on the slate this week. I know both of these teams stink, but I’m also confident that the Dolphins are way worse. I don’t know if I’ll pick them to win another game this season. Bucs win 27-20.
Buccaneers cover

Arizona Cardinals (4-5, 2-6-1) at Houston Texans (3-6, 5-4):*
Spread: Texans favored by 2.5
Over/under: 38
My prediction: Next on the list of horrible QB matchups… Tom Savage vs. Blaine Gabbert. Hard to imagine many uglier matchups. I’m not going to waste a lot of words on this game. I think I trust Arizona’s defense more than any other unit on the field, and I also think that Gabbert may have the edge over Savage. The Cardinals always seem to play respectably without their starting quarterback, while the Texans, well, don’t. Cardinals win 20-14.
Cardinals cover

Kansas City Chiefs (6-3, 6-3) at New York Giants (1-8, 3-6):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 10
Over/under: 45
My prediction: My head is screaming for me to take the 10-point home underdogs coming off an embarrassing loss to the previously-winless 49ers. My heart is telling me to take the Chiefs, because it’s Andy Reid off a BYE (very good) and because it sure seems as if the Giants’ players have completely lost faith in their head coach and lost interest in playing hard for him. As usual, I’ll go with my heart here. Chiefs win 31-17.
Chiefs cover

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3, 5-4) at Cleveland Browns (0-9, 2-7):
Spread: Jaguars favored by 7
Over/under: 37
My prediction: I continued my trend of picking the Browns to cover the spread way more often than I should last week. It looked good early on, as the Browns led 10-3 after a quarter and were tied at 24 after three. But then the inevitable happened. The Lions scored two late touchdowns and covered the spread. It is with that in mind that I know I can’t pick the Browns to cover this spread, even though something’s telling me that Blake Bortles may throw up a complete stinker in Cleveland (that something, by the way, may or may not have a little bit to do with having watched Blake Bortles before). Jags win 24-15.
Jags cover

Los Angeles Rams (7-2, 6-3) at Minnesota Vikings (7-2, 6-2-1):
Spread: Vikings favored by 1.5
Over/under: 46
My prediction: The idea that this would be the headliner of Week 11 would have seemed ludicrous heading into the year. The Rams were coming off of a 4-12 season, while the Vikings were 8-8 last season after slumping severely down the stretch. The two starting quarterbacks were also the LA Rams’s QBs last season. Here were Jared Goff’s stats last year: 112-205 (54.6%), 1,089 yards (5.3 per attempt), 5 TD, 7 INT. And here were Case Keenum’s: 196-322 (60.9%), 2,201 yards (6.8 per attempt), 9 TD, 11 INT. Not great, and in Goff’s case, historically bad. So the fact that these two quarterbacks are now leading great offenses is shocking and says a lot about Jeff Fisher, LA’s coach last season. This is going to be a telling game. The Rams are 4-0 on the road, while the Vikings are 4-1 at home and have won five straight games overall. These are two of the most balanced teams in the NFL: the Rams have the 11th ranked DVOA offense and the #1 defense, while the Vikings are #7 and #9 respectively. That, I think, contradicts conventional wisdom, which is that the Rams are better offensively and the Vikings have the better defense. The Rams have the best player — defensive tackle Aaron Donald — but I believe that the Vikings are deeper overall defensively. I think they’ll get to Goff this week and win a close game. Vikings win 24-17.
Vikings cover

Baltimore Ravens (4-5, 5-4) at Green Bay Packers (5-4, 4-5):
Spread: Ravens favored by 2.5
Over/under: 38.5
My prediction: Next up on the list of terrible QB matchups is Joe Flacco-Brett Hundley. This is a matchup that should favor the Ravens. Their offense is terrible, with Flacco averaging 5.3 yards per attempt and throwing more picks than TDs (actually similar to Goff’s 2016 season, which is not good). But their defense is great and their special teams — led by stud kicker Justin Tucker –helps produce offense. They don’t have much of a chance in games in which they fall behind early, but they generally have the upper hand in close, low scoring games. This should be one of those games, because this Packers team isn’t going to blow out anybody. It’s become a run-first team, and Baltimore is a rested team that shut down Jay Ajayi and Tennessee’s run game in their two most recent games. I think the Ravens will win this one 19-13.
Ravens cover

Washington Redskins (4-5, 3-6) at New Orleans Saints (7-2, 6-3):
Spread: Saints favored by 9.5
Over/under: 53
My prediction: Here’s a list of the quarterbacks the Saints have faced these last four weeks: Brett Hundley, Mitch Trubisky, Jameis Winston/Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Tyrod Taylor/Nathan Peterman. I mention this because it’s the reason I’m still not convinced that the Saints’ defense is as good as it has looked of late (fifth in DVOA, third in weighted DVOA, which puts increased emphasis on recent games). This will be a good test, because Kirk Cousins and the Washington offense can put up a lot of points. They scored 30 against Minnesota last week, for example. I think they’ll be able to score some points in this game. The question is: can Washington’s D, which looked good early on but has given up 30+ points in three of the last four games, slow down New Orleans’s explosive run game? They rank 12th in DVOA against the run, so it’s possible but seems unlikely. The Saints are just so relentless offensively. I think the Redskins will keep things close but will fall short of the upset. Saints win 37-30.
Redskins cover

Buffalo Bills (5-4, 6-3) at Los Angeles Chargers (3-6, 4-4-1):
Spread: Chargers favored by 6.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: This spread seems off given the records, but the Bills are nowhere near as good as their record indicates while the Chargers have again been unlucky not to win a few more close games than they have. Nathan Peterman is starting for the Bills, and let’s just say I don’t have a lot of faith in Nathan Peterman. This could be a rough debut, as he faces a defense with two A+ pass-rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. The Chargers aren’t good enough offensively to blow this game open, but if they play to their potential they should win and cover. Peterman-Philip Rivers is another bad QB matchup. Chargers win 26-14.
Chargers cover

Cincinnati Bengals (3-6, 4-5) at Denver Broncos (3-6, 2-6-1):
Spread: Broncos favored by 2.5
Over/under: 38
My prediction: Another matchup of horrendous QBs here as Andy Dalton faces Brock Osweiler. This is a terrible game. I think this spread is deflated a bit by the fact that the Broncos have played New England and Philadelphia these past two weeks. Sure, they gave up 92 combined points in those games, but this is a much friendlier matchup at home against a team that has scored 27 combined points in their last two games, both of which were also on the road. It’s worth remembering that the Broncos have been much better at home than on the road in recent years. That’s remained true this year, as they’re 3-2 at home and 0-4 on the road. This is a game Denver should win, as I think they’re the better team and match up well with Cincinnati, especially defensively. The Bengals have a horrible offensive line, which means this could be a monster Von Miller week. Broncos win 21-14.
Broncos cover

New England Patriots (7-2, 5-4) vs. Oakland Raiders (4-5, 4-5) in Mexico City:
Spread: Patriots favored by 7
Over/under: 54.5
My prediction: I think it’s pretty cool that this Mexico City game seems to be becoming an annual event, because the fans over there really seem to be passionate about football. They could be treated to a high scoring game between teams that rank first and fourth offensively and 30th and 32nd defensively (per DVOA). The Patriots actually haven’t given up more than 17 points in their last five games, and perhaps their defense has been transformed, but the Raiders should be able to score some points in this one. It’s still impossible to pick against the Pats with confidence. There’s also the fact that New England played in Denver last week, which should give them the edge in terms of managing the altitude. Patriots win 31-21.
Patriots cover

Philadelphia Eagles (8-1, 7-2) at Dallas Cowboys (5-4, 5-4):
Spread: Eagles favored by 6
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: This spread opened at 3.5, then ballooned to 6.5 as news came out that both Sean Lee and Tyron Smith will miss this game. It’s now starting to go back down as sharp money comes in on the heavy home underdog. It makes a whole lot of sense to bet on the 5-4 home dog here. It’s possible that people are getting a little too carried away with the Eagles and that the Cowboys will make enough adjustments to cover for the losses of Smith and Lee. But Philadelphia is the better team across the board and doesn’t have the glaring holes that would make the Eagles susceptible to upsets. Dak Prescott will make some stuff happen, as he always does, but the better team should win comfortably. The Cowboys have been horrendous defensively without Lee, and this is not the front you want to go up against without your left tackle. Brandon Graham and Philly’s pass rush should make an impact. Eagles win 34-21.
Eagles cover

Atlanta Falcons (5-4, 3-6) at Seattle Seahawks (6-3, 3-5-1):*
Spread: Seahawks favored by 2
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: I was already leaning towards picking the upset before the news came out that the Seahawks would be without Kam Chancellor as well as Richard Sherman. That leaves the Seahawks really shorthanded in the secondary, and this is not the week to be shorthanded in the secondary. Seattle will need to get pressure on Matt Ryan, but Atlanta’s offensive line is pretty good. There will be holes in Seattle’s defense, so the Seahawks have to hope that Ryan continues to miss open passes and that the Falcons’ receivers continue to drop pivotal passes. That’s not a great place for the defense to be. Russell Wilson will rally the troops and keep things close, but I like the Falcons to win 26-23.
Falcons cover

Upset picks:
Falcons over Seahawks
Cardinals over Texans


Week 10 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 11/16/2017 by levcohen in Football

If we’ve learned anything these past three weeks, it’s that the NFC is far superior to the AFC. The NFC ripped off wins in all five interconference games in Week 10, moving the conference’s record against the AFC to 10-1 over the last three weeks. I’d argue that four of the five best teams in football are in the NFC, and the conference’s wild card race is also much more competitive than the AFC’s. Chief among the AFC’s concerns: who the heck are the good quarterbacks in the conference? The NFC has seen an influx of young talent at the position over the last handful of years — Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz all last year, for example. The AFC, well, hasn’t, and that’s what makes the loss of Deshaun Watson so much tougher to stomach. I think a big reason that Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr were hyped up so much before the season was that people were desperate for someone to jump into the tier that’s been occupied exclusively by Tom Brady since Peyton Manning’s departure. Don’t get me wrong, I like Carr and especially Mariota, but neither is anything more than a good quarterback, at least not yet. Combine that with the injuries to Watson and Andrew Luck and the drop-off from Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, and Philip Rivers — all QBs who recently made up that second or third tier of AFC quarterbacks and you have a very dark picture indeed. Brady’s still at the top of the hierarchy, which is why the Patriots will remain the AFC’s best team for the indefinite future. After him, I guess Alex Smith, Carr, and Mariota are next in some order, followed by Rivers and Roethlisberger. And then it gets super gloomy. Andy Dalton, Flacco, Josh McCown, Jay Cutler, Nathan Peterman (after the benching of Tyrod Taylor), Blake Bortles, Tom Savage, and Jacoby Brissett are all starting quarterbacks right now. So, unbelievably, is Brock Osweiler. And who the heck knows who will start for the Browns — 28 different QBs have started for them since Cleveland regained a franchise in 1999. This is why the Jags and Steelers, teams with struggling offenses, are bonafide contenders in the AFC. Here are some observations about the more interesting conference:

  • It sure seems like the Eagles, Saints, Vikings, and Rams have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the NFC. Philadelphia remains the default answer for best team in football, while the other three put up 43, 38, and 33 points in comprehensive victories. The Saints and Vikings tore apart two good defenses on the road, which tells me pretty much everything I need to know about them. These teams are all legitimately good and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the four win the Super Bowl. I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that heading into the season.
  • Atlanta has the feel of a playoff team, but their schedule down the stretch and the strength of the other NFC wild card contenders may prohibit that. They go to Seattle this week and also have to play the Saints twice and the Vikings and Panthers once apiece. The reason I say that they have the feel of a playoff team is that they’re 5-4 despite playing about as poorly as imaginable so far this year. Matt Ryan has missed a ton of open throws, Julio Jones has dropped passes, and the offense has been downright sloppy. I still have a feeling that they’ll have a game or two where they explode, although it seems less likely that they’ll be able to permanently click like they did last season. They’ll probably have to win 10 games to make it, which means they can only afford two more losses. But I wouldn’t sleep on Atlanta.
  • Another team I wouldn’t sleep on, but for very different reasons, is the Detroit Lions. It hasn’t been pretty so far for the Lions, who have one impressive win (@MIN) and four unimpressive ones (ARI, @NYG, @GB minus Aaron Rodgers, CLE last week). The good news is that they won’t have to face much in the way of difficult opposition going forward. While Atlanta has the toughest future schedule in football (per Football Outsiders), Detroit has the 24th. That’s the second easiest schedule in the NFC behind Washington’s. They have the same record as the Cowboys, Falcons, and Packers, so that schedule (home against the Vikings is their only tough game left assuming Aaron Rodgers fails to return in Week 17) may well give them the edge over those three.
  • I haven’t yet mentioned the two teams currently in the lead for the wild card spots. That’s the Panthers, who at 7-3 will finally go on BYE this week, and the 6-3 Seahawks. Both teams have obvious warts, but they’re also a game ahead of the others in the loss column and are good enough to maintain those leads. The Panthers are 7-1 in games that Luke Kuechly starts and finishes. The Seahawks always seem to find a way to make the playoffs, although it’ll be a lot harder without Richard Sherman and with the third toughest schedule down the stretch. A win over the Falcons would obviously be huge on many fronts.
  • The darkhorse in this race is the Packers. Aaron Rodgers returned to practice today, which is obviously interesting given he can return in Week 15. The Packers won’t take any risks, but if Rodgers is healthy and they’re still in the playoff hunt, everyone else should look out. How likely is that? Well, the schedule over the next month (vs BAL, @PIT, vs TB, @CLE) is friendly. I wouldn’t count them out.
  • The 5-4 team I’d be most willing to count out in this race is the Cowboys. They have head-to-head losses to the Falcons and Packers. They still have to play the Eagles twice. Zeke Elliott is now officially out for five more games. Sean Lee, the key to their defense, will likely miss a few more before coming back and probably getting injured again. Left tackle Tyron Smith is still out, and his backup gave up six sacks to Adrian Clayborn (Adrian Clayborn!) last week. Congratulations, Cowboys, for single-handedly giving Adrian Clayborn his first Pro Bowl berth. With Smith and Lee out, it’s going to be tough for Dallas to beat Philadelphia this week. Even with a win, they’ll have their work cut out for them given that they lose the tiebreaker to both Atlanta and Green Bay. They may need 11 wins to make it, which I don’t see happening.

9-5 straight up… 89-57
6-7-1 against the spread… 72-69-5
8-6 on over/under… 75-68-3

0-3 on upset picks again, moving me to 15-21. There haven’t been many upsets recently — Niners and Packers were the two last week — and I’ve been picking the wrong ones.

Tennessee Titans (6-3, 3-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-2, 5-4):
Spread: Steelers favored by 7
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: Another week, another unimpressive performance for the Titans in a win. Of course, the same thing can be said about the Steelers. These teams are actually on pretty similar runs — both have won four in a row but unimpressively. Ben Roethlisberger is 18-3 at home in primetime, including a 5-0 mark on Thursday Night Football. But I don’t put much stock into that because Roethlisberger isn’t the quarterback he used to be. Once dominant at home, he’s averaging just 6.8 yards per attempt and has more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4) at Heinz Field. Last year, his home figures were 8.5 yards per attempt, 20 TDs, and five picks, which were pretty much in line with his 2015 numbers. Something’s different this year, and I don’t think it’s been a fluke. On paper, this would be a nice chance for the Steelers to put up monster offensive numbers, something I was expecting to happen for a while. The Titans aren’t exactly dominant defensively, as they rank 22nd in defensive DVOA and 24th against the pass. I just don’t have enough faith in Roethlisberger to predict a breakout, which means this game will likely be close and low scoring. I don’t expect the Titans to have much success against one of the best and fastest defenses in the NFL. They averaged 5.0 yards per tote last week at home against the Bengals, but this is a much tougher spot, and the Steelers will know that the key to stopping this offense is making it one dimensional, especially with Mariota still banged up. I think the Steelers (who rank second in the NFL with 29 sacks) will make things tough for Mariota and limit Tennessee’s offense in a 21-13 Pittsburgh win. It’ll be interesting to see if the Steelers can solve some of their red zone problems against a defense that’s tightened up in the red zone. If they can, they should cover.
Steelers cover

Every NBA team has now played between 11 (the Bulls) and 15 (the Suns) games. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s a good portion of the season. It’s important not to glean too much from the 15-ish% of the season we’ve seen, but it’s also important to realize that a lot of what’s happened is both interesting and potentially sustainable. There are 50 different five-man lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together, and because 50 minutes seems like a good sample size and because I like that symmetry, I’m going to write about some of those lineups! All of the usual warnings about small sample sizes apply, but here goes. I’m breaking these up into a few different groups, starting with…

No Duh, These Lineups are Good:

Rockets Starters (James Harden/Eric Gordon/Trevor Ariza/Ryan Anderson/Clint Capela): These five have played 151 minutes together and have a net rating of +25.7, third-best among the 50 lineups. They know how to play together — their 274 minutes together last year made them the Rockets’ second most used lineup. And the lineup is good for the exact reason you’d think a lineup with James Harden, three shooters, and Clint Capela would be good — offense. They’re scoring 126.6 points per 100 possessions, the best among the 50 lineups by more than five points. 53.7% of their shots have come from beyond the arc. They are who we thought they’d be. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Chris Paul gets back.

Wiz Starters With a Twist (John Wall/Bradley Beal/Otto Porter/Kelly Oubre/Marcin Gortat): Last year, the Wizards’ starters played more minutes together than any other unit in the NBA, and it wasn’t particularly close. And that’s because they played very well together, which makes sense. This is what I wrote 55 games into last season about the lineup:

Washington’s starting lineup makes a whole lot of sense, and it’s also worked (unlike many lineups that make sense on paper). Put two lethal shooters on the wings in Beal and Porter, add a power forward who can create his own shot and shoot from beyond the arc in Morris, add a rim-runner in Gortat and top it off with a point guard who will take advantage of any space he’s given in Wall and you have a well-oiled offensive machine. The lineup has played 965 minutes together this season and has a +13 net rating in those minutes.

You may notice that there’s a different member of the group I’ve labeled the starters. Because Markieff Morris was injured to start the year, Kelly Oubre began the season in the starting lineup and played very well. Morris is back and starting now, but Oubre is still playing slightly more. That’ll likely change going forward, but it doesn’t matter whether Markieff or Kelly is the fifth starter, because the lineup’s going to be good either way. The five have posted a +23.6 net rating, fourth out of 50, in 147 minutes together. They’re holding opponents to 42% shooting and 29% from three. The lineup with Morris instead of Oubre has been better offensively, but the addition of Oubre to the lineup has transformed the defense into one of the better ones in the league.

Warriors Starters (Steph Curry/Klay Thompson/Kevin Durant/Draymond Green/Zaza Pachulia): The biggest “no duh” of all. This lineup has played 144 minutes together and has a +19.2 net rating, fifth among the 50 lineups. Yeah, any lineup with those first four guys in it is going to be pretty good. Their assist rate is 77.5%, which is absurd. I don’t need to say much more about this monster.

Honorable mention to the Blazers’ starters — especially with Noah Vonleh in the lineup instead of Al-Farouq Aminu. Also, any lineup that has all three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon is going to be productive. It’ll be interesting to see how Eric Bledsoe fits in there.

Wait, What? How is this lineup so good?

Sixers Starters (Ben Simmons/J.J. Redick/Robert Covington/Dario Saric/Joel Embiid): Early on in the season, the Sixers shuffled their starting lineup, replacing Jerryd Bayless with Dario Saric. The starting five had already been pretty successful, but this one has been downright dominant. In 68 minutes together, these five have posted a +29.6 net rating, best of the 50 lineups by a good margin. On the surface, it’s strange that this lineup works together. First of all, it’s strange when any Sixers lineup works given the recent history of the franchise. Second of all, Saric is a weird fit next to Simmons. He likes having the ball in his hands and rebounding the ball and pushing it, but that’s Simmons’s job, so Dario has been relegated to spot-up shooting duties. But it’s worked. It’s worked because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are really, really good. It’s worked because Robert Covington is shooting the lights out and because J.J. Redick is such a feared shooter that he opens things up for everyone else even when he’s not at his best. But the real strength of this lineup has been its rebounding and defense. Any lineup with Simmons at the point is going to have a head start rebounding-wise, because he’s a 6’10” point guard with outstanding rebounding instincts. Redick is the only one under 6’9″, and this lineup has gobbled up 60.8% of available rebounds, first among these 50 lineups. That includes 89.2% of available defensive rebounds, which helps explain why the lineup has been so good defensively. Also, Simmons has been better than expected defensively, and Covington and Embiid are both excellent defensive players. This lineup won’t keep being this good, because Covington isn’t going to shoot 50% from three and Saric probably won’t keep up his 38% shooting from three. But I see no reason to believe it won’t be one of the better lineups in basketball. By the way, the lineup also has a 73% assist rate, third among the 50 lineups. This all says a lot about Ben Simmons.

Magic Starters (Evan Fournier/Terrence Ross/Aaron Gordon/Nikola Vucevic + Payton or DJ): I’m cheating a little here, because D.J. Augustin and Elfird Payton have each started about half of Orlando’s games. But pair either of them with the other four and you have a terrific lineup (+25.9 net rating with Augustin in 66 minutes, +11.7 with Payton in 62 minutes). Obviously, this goes hand in hand with Orlando’s all-around success so far this year. I certainly am surprised by their 8-6 start. Both lineups have cut down on turnovers — they rank first and third in assist to turnover ratio at 3.0 (with Payton) and 2.3 (with Augustin). They both have collected more than 20% of available offensive rebounds. They’ve played at a super fast pace (second and fourth most possessions per game). It’s been exciting to watch, but I don’t think it’s going to last. They don’t get to the line very much, and they rank eighth in the league in frequency of midrange shots and next-to-last in shots at the rim (per Ben Falk, Cleaning The Glass). Historically, those frequencies have been more predictive than accuracy numbers are, so it’s probably safe to say that the Magic are going to remain reliant on the least productive shots in basketball. They’re also getting unsustainable shooting performances. Aaron Gordon is somehow shooting 52% from three, this after shooting below 30% in each of his first three seasons. Meanwhile, his free throw percentage is about in line with previous seasons. It’s likely that he’s gotten better, but not this much better. Nikola Vucevic, meanwhile, had hit 30 threes in 101 attempts before this season. He’s already knocked down 25 triples in 62 attempts this year. Again, he’s probably better, and he’s definitely going to keep shooting more, but he’s not this much better. Vucevic and Gordon are probably Orlando’s two best players, and they should keep powering a decent starting unit, but the net rating is going to go way down. They aren’t going to keep shooting 40% from three.

Hornets Starters (Kemba Walker/Jeremy Lamb/Marvin Williams/Dwight Howard + MKG or Bacon): The first four guys mentioned have started all 12 games, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwayne Bacon have started six apiece. Overall, the two lineups have played 187 minutes and have been very successful, posting +12.4 (with Bacon) and +9.2 (with MKG) net ratings. This is slightly less surprising than the other two, both because they haven’t been as unbelievable as the two other units and because their first unit was supposed to perform well. They’ve both rebounded very well, and they’ve conceded the second fewest shots at the rim. Both of those facts cast Dwight Howard in a very positive light, so credit to Dwight Howard for playing really well despite playing for his fifth team in seven years. But the real stars of these lineups are the backcourt players. Lamb, the shooting guard, is having a breakout season. The 2012 lottery pick traded to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade has found consistent playing time in Charlotte over the last few years but never averaged double-digit points. At least until this year, that is. He’s scoring 16.7 points per game on 46% shooting from three. He’s a clear candidate for regression, but it always amazed me that a guy with a reputation for being a good shooter couldn’t break 33%. If this really is his breakout season, the Hornets will be in good shape. Then there’s Kemba Walker, the best player on this team and one of the better point guards in the Eastern Conference. Walker is again averaging upwards of 20 points per game, but he’s also averaging a career high 6.6 assists. I don’t think these lineups are anything special, but consider them to be a poor man’s Washington. They have a star creator at the point, a pure shooter at the 2, a good two-way player at the 3 (ok, I may be stretching it there with MKG and the rookie Bacon), a solid cog at the 4, and a physical presence who can finish at the rim at the 5. No, it’s nowhere near as good as Washington’s starting lineup, but it should be good enough to keep putting up positive net ratings.

Some other surprisingly productive lineups:
Chicago’s young Jerian Grant/Justin Holiday/David Nwaba/Lauri Markkanen/Robin Lopez: They aren’t going to keep it up, but it’s worth noting that this lineup has a +14.3 net rating through 67 minutes. Replace Nwaba with Paul Zipser and you get a lineup that has played 93 minutes and has a -18.2 net rating, evidence that these numbers can be misleading this early in the season.

Memphis’s bench lineup (Mario Chalmers/Tyreke Evans/Chandler Parsons/Dillon Brooks/Brandan Wright): This lineup has played 71 minutes together and has a +11.9 net rating. It’s also the most Memphis lineup of all-time. There are three reclamation projects. Chalmers is coming off of a torn Achilles’, Evans has played 65 games over the past two years as he’s been sidelined by injuries and coaches decisions, and Parsons has been drastically slowed by a knee injury that made him almost unusable last season. Somehow, those three have all been productive, with ‘Reke leading the way with 18.5 points per game on ridiculous 52/45/85 shooting. Dillon Brooks was a second round pick who has played almost 30 minutes per game, and Wright is the classic backup big who is in and out of the rotation before finally finding regular playing time. It’s been a joy to watch, and I hope they can keep it up.

Surprisingly Bad Lineups:
Among the worst of these 50 lineups are three Sacramento lineups, a Dallas lineup, a Chicago lineup, and a Phoenix lineup. Duh. But there are two teams in particular with lineups that have been shockingly bad.

Jazz starters (Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood/Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert): When Hood has been healthy, the lineup has a -11.2 net rating in 108 minutes. When he’s been hurt or on the bench and Mitchell’s played, it has a -26.2 net rating in 60 minutes, which is better only than a Dallas lineup that’s giving up 130.8 points per 100 possessions. On the one hand, it makes sense that the Jazz have struggled to score without Gordon Hayward, especially when Hood is also out — the lineup without Hood has been the worst offensive lineup of the 50 mentioned. But I can’t believe both of these lineups have been so terrible offensively and sub-par defensively. Quin Snyder has a good reputation, and it would have been reasonable to expect at least a mediocre offense. But that’s never going to happen when your three key guards and shooting sub-40%. Ingles and Gobert are good offensive role players who know what they’re doing, but this team needs someone who can get his own bucket. That should be Hood, but it hasn’t been yet. At the very least, I expect these lineups to improve defensively. The Jazz are a middle-of-the-road defense so far, but that should change when opponents stop hitting 40% of their three point shots against Utah. Past opposing three point percentage is one of the least predictive measures for future success because it’s largely luck. Unfortunately, we won’t see either of these lineups any time soon, because Gobert is out with a knee injury for at least a month. That’s bad news for a team that’s probably going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Cavs starters (DRose/Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Jae Crowder, Kevin Love): I’m talking particularly about the two lineups that have played more than 50 minutes, but this is really a whole team problem. Unsurprisingly, both of these lineups have been horrid defensively. Overall, the Cavs rank 30th in the league in defensive rating (111.1 points per 100 possessions allowed) and 29th in opposing effective field goal % when you remove garbage time (56.1%, Minnesota is last). It’s always going to be surprising to see a team with LeBron James struggle so much, but there’s no denying the fact that this team just isn’t going to be good defensively, especially during the regular season. Love, Rose, Smith, and Crowder all have net ratings at or below -6.9, while LeBron’s is -2.4. That’s just unheard of for LBJ.

Other Interesting Tidbits:

  • Minnesota’s starters have played by far the most minutes together of any unit, which is not at all surprising given that Tom Thibodeau is their head coach. They’ve played 275 minutes together, 77 more than Denver’s starting five, which ranks second. Even more shocking? The fact that they’ve done it in 11 games because Jimmy Butler missed a couple early on. That’s 25 minutes per game together, which is not ideal given the lack of depth this team has. Rotate more, Tom! It’ll make your team better!
  • You know how Detroit has gotten off to a shocking 10-3 start? Well, that has nothing to do with their starting lineup. Last year, the Pistons’ starting five played really poorly together, which is a big reason that they missed the playoffs. This year, the lineup of Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond has played 155 minutes together in 10 games and has a -9.1 net rating. It’s unbelievable that they’ve been so good despite that, but that’s one reason to predict some regression record-wise.
  • OKC’s star-studded starting lineup has a positive net rating, but not by much. The struggles have come on the offensive end of the court. I think it’s just a matter of time before it turns into a dominant unit.
  • It’s really a shame that the Clippers have so many injury-prone players, because there’s evidence to suggest that a lineup including Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan would be a hit. Those four plus Austin Rivers are +8.3 per 100 possessions in 147 minutes but have played just eight games together. All of the preseason talk about the Clippers moving the ball better seems to have been for naught, though, because even that lineup has just a 49.5% assist rate. It’s also the lineup that’s played at the slowest pace of the 50.
  • 27 teams have at least one lineup that’s played 50+ minutes. The three exceptions are Atlanta, Miami, and Brooklyn.

Week 10 Picks

Posted: 11/12/2017 by levcohen in Football

Another game, another injury to a high profile player. On Thursday, Richard Sherman tore his Achilles’. We knew this very soon after it happened, because Sherman was walking around telling all of his teammates what had happened. I thought it was kind of bizarre that Sherman was walking around without a boot on and that he wasn’t getting any attention from doctors. It was also strange to see Sherman seemingly take the news so well. His season — and perhaps Seattle’s — is down the drain, but he just walked around talking to teammates and cheering for his team. I would have gone straight into the tunnel. Anyway, the Sherman injury is latest in a long stream of injuries to star players. I’m not going to go through the whole list, but it’s extensive. It really seems like the Super Bowl winner this year is going to be the good team with the fewest significant injuries. We say that many years, but it’s especially true this season. Fingers crossed that nothing else horrible happens this week, but it probably will.
BYE teams: Philadelphia, Kansas City, Oakland, Baltimore

New Orleans Saints (6-2, 5-3 against the spread) at Buffalo Bills (5-3, 6-2):*
Spread: Saints favored by 2.5
Over/under: 48
My prediction: Many of the Saints stereotypes that have been cultivated through years of the Drew Brees-Sean Payton partnership have been challenged this year. Normally poor on the road, New Orleans is 3-1 away from home this season. And their maligned defense has been stellar this year, ranking eighth in DVOA. That’s why they’re road favorites against a team that’s undefeated at home in 40-degree weather. While I understand all of that and acknowledge that New Orleans is the better team, I like the Bills in this spot. They’re 4-0 at home, and this is also a good matchup for them. The Saints have been great against the pass (fourth in DVOA) but shaky against the run (28th in DVOA, 29th in YPC allowed at 4.7). The Bills want to run the ball, and I think they’ll be able to control the clock and keep the Saints off balance. The return of Charles Clay and the debut of Kelvin Benjamin should also help Tyrod Taylor open things up a little bit. On the other side of the ball, I’m not going to pretend that the Bills are going to shut down New Orleans. The Saints have the type of balanced offense that is very hard for any defense to slow, let alone a struggling one like Buffalo’s. But I think the Bills will minimize New Orleans’s big plays and force them to move it up and down the field. The Bills will snap the Saints’ six game winning streak with a 27-24 win.
Bills cover

Green Bay Packers (4-4, 3-5) at Chicago Bears (3-5, 5-2-1):
Spread: Bears favored by 4.5
Over/under: 37.5
My prediction: One of these games, Brett Hundley’s going to play really well. That vague prediction doesn’t come from anything I’ve seen on the field from Hundley but rather from the fact that he’s in a situation that should be very quarterback-friendly. Unless it’s a situation that’s just Aaron Rodgers-friendly, which is seeming more and more likely. It’s certainly tough to trust Hundley and the Packers on the road against a rested Chicago team that can get after the passer and that has been good at home. I think the Bears have the edge in what should be a run-heavy game in the rain. Bears 19, Packers 17.
Packers cover

Cleveland Browns (0-8, 2-6) at Detroit Lions (4-4, 4-4):
Spread: Lions favored by 10.5
Over/under: 43
My prediction: Can I see a scenario in which the Browns keep things close against a Detroit team that’s not particularly close? Sure. Do I feel comfortable predicting said scenario? No. The Lions should be able to move the ball through the air against Cleveland’s poor pass defense, and it’s hard to trust DeShone Kizer/whatever quarterback Hue Jackson decides to replace Kizer with after he throws a couple of interceptions. And yet.. I’m still picking the Browns to cover, because the Lions aren’t good enough to be double-digit favorites and because they probably won’t be able to run the ball against Cleveland. I’ll be very, very upset with myself when the Lions inevitably win by 30. Lions win 27-17.
Browns cover

Cincinnati Bengals (3-5, 3-5) at Tennessee Titans (5-3, 3-5):*
Spread: Titans favored by 4.5
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: I’m not sure the Titans are better at football than the Bengals are. They’ve won three games in a row, but those three came against the Colts, the Browns (by 3 in overtime), and the Ravens (by 3). Now, the Bengals have also been unimpressive, with double-digit losses at Pittsburgh and Jacksonville sandwiched by a one point win over the Colts, and their one road win was against Cleveland, but Tennessee is a much easier matchup for Cincy’s offense than either the Jags or the Steelers. The Bengals need to be effective throwing the ball, and they should be here with A.J. Green available after avoiding a suspension. Bengals win 20-17 in a game that really exposes how mediocre Tennessee is.
Bengals cover

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2, 5-3) at Indianapolis Colts (3-6, 5-4):
Spread: Steelers favored by 10.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: The Colts are above .500 against the spread, but Vegas clearly isn’t buying that. Neither am I. This team is clearly one of the worst in football. The one link between their three wins is huge performances from T.Y. Hilton — he’s gone for over 150 yards in all three and under 60 in the other six games. This is a brutal matchup for Hilton and for Indy’s entire offense. Pittsburgh’s allowing just 15.6 points per game on the road, where they’re 4-1. And we know Indy’s going to hemorrhage some big plays and points. I think the Steelers will romp here. Steelers win 30-13.
Steelers cover

New York Jets (4-5, 6-2-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-6, 1-7):
Spread: Pick ’em
Over/under: 44
My prediction: Before the season, this game would have seemed like a likely romp, with the Bucs likely being favored by double digits. Now, it’s a total crapshoot. Not only have the Buccaneers been horrendous this year, but they’ll also be without their quarterback and their best offensive weapon. With Mike Evans out, this obviously isn’t a great spot for Ryan Fitzpatrick. I still think both teams will be able to move the ball, largely because both defenses have struggled (to put it mildly). But I wouldn’t be surprised by any result in this game. It’s going to come down to turnovers, as both Josh McCown and Fitzpatrick are very turnover-prone. The Jets have been far more opportunistic, but I’m going to pick Tampa to win 24-23. I’m not very confident in that pick.
Bucs cover

Minnesota Vikings (6-2, 5-2-1) at Washington Redskins (4-4, 3-5):*
Spread: Vikings favored by 1.5
Over/under: 41
My prediction: I don’t really get this spread. The Redskins just went into Seattle and beat the Seahawks, and they’ve gotten a lot healthier since then. Four of their five offensive line starters have been out, and all four are active (albeit not 100%) this week. Slot receiver Jamison Crowder will also return. Minnesota will be without stud pass rusher Everson Griffen, which, along with the return to health of the o-line, should give Kirk Cousins more time to find his targets. I’m not sure the Vikings are better than the Redskins, so Washington’s status as the home team pushes it over the top for me. Redskins win 23-20.
Redskins cover

Los Angeles Chargers (3-5, 3-4-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (5-3, 5-3):
Spread: Jaguars favored by 5
Over/under: 41
My prediction: There are a lot of similarities between these teams. They’re both exceptional against the pass and great at getting to the quarterback. The Chargers have the dominant Joey Bosa-Melvin Ingram combination, while the Jags have 35 sacks, six more than any other team. Both teams want to establish the run with their young running backs. The difference is that the Jags are better against the pass and better at running the football than the Chargers win. The Jags have been better on the road than at home, while the Chargers are a successful road team. That diminishes the impact of any home field advantage Jacksonville may have. But the fact is that the Jaguars are the better team, so they should edge LA here. Jaguars win 23-16.
Jaguars cover

Houston Texans (3-5, 5-3) at Los Angeles Rams (6-2, 5-3):
Spread: Rams favored by 12.5
Over/under: 46
My prediction: This has to be a blowout, right? The Texans proved last week that they’re awful without Deshaun Watson, while the Rams continued to show that they enjoy blowing teams out. They’re coming off a two game stretch in which they outscored opponents 84-17. That’s why a ridiculous amount of the betting has been on LA (98% at the William Hill sportsbook, for example). I’d normally be wary of that, but… No Tom Savage for me. Rams win 27-13.
Rams cover

Dallas Cowboys (5-3, 5-3) at Atlanta Falcons (4-4, 2-6):
Spread: Falcons favored by 3.5
Over/under: 49
My prediction: I know I’m being super stubborn here, but I still believe that a breakout is coming for the Falcons’ offense. And I don’t want to miss it when it comes. It could come this week against a defense that needs to get to the quarterback to keep offenses from moving the ball. If Atlanta can protect Matt Ryan, Ryan can exploit Dallas’s #23 DVOA defense. It’s been easy to forget this season, but the Falcons still have so many weapons. As long as Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and Mohamed Sanu (etc.) are healthy, I’m going to keep backing Atlanta’s offense. I’m picking the Falcons here, and it isn’t because Zeke Elliott is finally out. Dallas’s offense will be fine, although I am worried about their offensive line without left tackle Tyron Smith. Falcons win 31-24.
Falcons cover

New York Giants (1-7, 3-5) at San Francisco 49ers (0-9, 4-5):
Spread: Giants favored by 2.5
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: The Niners actually opened the week at favorites, but this spread has since moved in the right direction. I know the Giants just got destroyed by the Rams, but it’s important not to overreact to that game. They’re still a better team than the Niners are, especially with C.J. Beathard still at quarterback for San Francisco. Janoris Jenkins will return, strengthening New York’s secondary. On paper, this is a great opportunity for the Niners to get off the schneid. They’re bad at pretty much everything, but they’ve actually been great (#1 in DVOA) against opposing tight ends. New York’s best offensive weapon is tight end Evan Engram. But I think the Giants are just a bit better than the Niners, and I don’t think they’ll lose this game. Giants win 24-21.
Giants cover

New England Patriots (6-2, 4-4) at Denver Broncos (3-5, 2-5-1):
Spread: Patriots favored by 7
Over/under: 45
My prediction: The Broncos are another team coming off an embarrassing loss, and the spread is probably a few points too high because of it. The Patriots are 6-2, but they’ve been far from dominant this season. They rank just 13th in DVOA, with a top-ranked offense paired with the 31st ranked defense. If there’s any week that Brock Osweiler will have success, it’ll be this week. But guess what? It’s quite likely that there’s no week that Osweiler will have success. I think picking the Broncos to cover here would be getting too cute. The Pats are coming off a BYE and have Tom Brady. Patriots win 27-16.
Patriots cover

Miami Dolphins (4-4, 3-4-1) at Carolina Panthers (6-3, 5-4):
Spread: Panthers favored by 9
Over/under: 38
My prediction: For some reason, the NFL thought it would be a good idea to give the Dolphins three straight primetime games. I’d try to make an excuse for the NFL, but I don’t like Roger Goodell or the owners, so I’ll pass on that one. Plus, there’s no possible excuse for this one. Anyway, the Dolphins are 0-2 so far in the primetime games (shocker) despite playing the mediocre Raiders and Ravens. They’ll lose again, but it’s hard to trust the Panthers’ offense when they’re giving this many points. Panthers win 20-14.
Dolphins cover

Upset picks:
Bills over Saints
Bengals over Titans
Redskins over Vikings

Week 9 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 11/09/2017 by levcohen in Football

We all already knew this, but in case we needed a reminder, last week served as said reminder that it’s really, really important to have a competent quarterback. It was most evident in Houston and Green Bay, where the Texans and Packers continued to slide, losing at home in games they wouldn’t have lost with their starting quarterbacks. But Baltimore and San Francisco blew golden chances to win games largely because of poor quarterback play, and a host of other teams (including Tampa Bay, Denver, and the New York Giants) with questionable-at-best QBs were eviscerated. That’s not to say that having a good QB guarantees a victory or that lacking one guarantees a defeat (see: Jacksonville this year), but just that the margin for error is a lot greater when your quarterback knows what he is doing. That’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s also one that we — or at least I — forget sometimes. Here are some other Week 9 observations in what was a pretty mediocre week:

  • It’s rare to see blunders from A.J. Green, Mike Evans, or Julio Jones. But you know it’s been a weird week when all three make huge mistakes. Green, generally one of the calmest players in football, and Evans both lost their temper in losing efforts, leading to a Green ejection and an Evans suspension. Meanwhile, Jones had an egregious drop of a would-be touchdown. All three of these players are exceptional and have some monster weeks left in them this season, but it’s worth noting that they’re a combined 9-15 and all play for teams that have been extremely disappointing. Throw in DeAndre Hopkins, who plays for the 3-5 Texans, and four of what I would consider the clear top five receivers (minus the injured Odell Beckham) play for bad or mediocre teams. Even Antonio Brown, the fifth member of that top five, plays for a team without a dominant offense. On the flip side, the best offenses in football belong to teams without clear #1 receivers: Philadelphia, the Rams, Oakland, the Patriots, etc… Of course, having an elite receiver isn’t disqualifying, but it also isn’t the complete game-changer many people make it out to be.
  • Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension was again upheld, and this time it looks like the ruling will stand for good. That’s obviously bad news for the Cowboys, who have a tough slate of games coming up, but I’m not sure it’ll keep them out of the playoff hunt. They have a good quarterback, a good offensive line, and some other offensive weapons. Just as importantly, they’ve been much better than I expected defensively. It’s a different defense when Sean Lee is on the field, and they usually get enough pressure on the opposing quarterback to shield their so-so secondary. Dallas is probably going to have to go at least 10-6 to make the playoffs, which means five wins in their last eight games, but I think that’s doable, especially if the Eagles, who they play in Week 17, have the top seed locked up and are in a position to rest their starters.
  • There may not be any amazing teams, but there are some really, really bad ones. The winless Browns and Niners are obviously two, the Colts are another, the Giants seem to have quit on Ben McAdoo, the Bucs are putrid, and the 4-4 Dolphins are sneaky-awful. That’s six teams who can get blown out in any given week and often are, and I haven’t even mentioned the three teams that lost their QBs, Green Bay, Houston, and Arizona.
  • Shockingly, neither the Jets or the Bears were among the hopeless teams I mentioned. Why? Because they’ve both proven to be tough and hard to put away. The Jets are 4-3 with a +18 point differential since they struggled in their first two games, while the Bears are bad on the road but have been tough to score on at home, where they’re 2-2 and have allowed under 16 points per game. Now, neither of these teams is going to make a run in the second half of the season, but you can’t have an off day against either of these teams and know they’ll gift you a win anyway.
  • The Jaguars and Rams are no longer just lovable underdogs off to an unsustainable start. These teams are both legit, and they’re both likely playoff teams and odds-on favorites in their divisions. Jacksonville is a defensive monster — they’re allowing 14.6 points per game and have the #1 defensive DVOA by far. They’re conceding just 156 passing yards per game on 5.8 yards per attempt. And it’s not a fluke. Combine a front seven that can consistently get to the quarterback and two lockdown corners (one of whom, Jalen Ramsey, managed to get under A.J. Green’s skin, which is quite a feat) and you have a defense that can usually make up for the quarterback’s deficiencies. The Rams’ success has been even more shocking because it’s come on both sides of the ball. Wade Phillips’ defense has been predictably awesome in the last month, and the team is averaging 32.9 points per game. Not all of those points were scored by the offense, and that number will obviously go way down, but I have to give credit where it’s due. I don’t remember too many turnarounds like the one made by Jared Goff this year. His yards per attempt are up from 5.3 to 8.3, and his TD:INT rate has moved from 5:7 to 13:4. A lot of credit has to go to Sean McVay, and the additions made to the offense — tackle Andrew Whitworth and all three starting receivers — have helped. This team is a real contender in the NFC.

6-7 straight up… 80-52
6-6-1 against the spread… 66-62-4
6-7 on over/unders…67-62-3

0-3 on upset picks, moving me to 15-18. I was this close to adding the Jets and Colts as upset picks… Oh well.

Seattle Seahawks (5-3, 3-5) at Arizona Cardinals (4-4, 2-6):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 6
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: I guess I overreacted to Seattle’s offensive performance two weeks ago in the gem that was the Seahawks-Texans game, because the ‘Hawks scored just 14 points in a home loss to the Redskins. But the offense wasn’t really that bad. The Seahawks really dominated the Redskins, out-gaining them 437 to 244 and gaining 5.8 yards per play to Washington’s 4.1. They just couldn’t punch the ball in, and three missed field goals from Blair Walsh didn’t help. They get a nice matchup against Arizona this week, and I find it hard to believe that the Cards will score many points in this game as long as Seattle’s offense doesn’t turn the ball over. That’s why I expect Seattle to play conservatively in a game with a lot of points. Eventually, the Seahawks will begin to dominate the game against Arizona’s terrible offensive line and their backup quarterback, and they’ll win the game 26-10.
Seahawks cover

Week 9 Picks

Posted: 11/05/2017 by levcohen in Football

It’s another heavy BYE week, as six more teams will be off this week. There are a few games that are very important and should be pretty good — Carolina-Atlanta and Dallas-Kansas City are chief among them (see what I did there? Chief…) — but all in all it’s another uninspiring week. Everyone still seems stunned by the injury to Deshaun Watson, who was probably the biggest pleasant surprise of the 2017 season, at least for me (I was already high on Carson Wentz, the other competitor for biggest surprise). There have been a ton of brutal injuries this year. I know it seems that way every year, but apparently this season has been especially bad injury-wise. Players keep getting bigger, stronger, and faster, but their ligaments don’t. Seems like that could be a factor. Alas, not everyone can be like Tom Brady and prevent injuries with their minds. He won’t have to do that this week, as the Pats are one of the six teams on BYE.

BYE teams: Pittsburgh, New England, LA Chargers, Minnesota, Cleveland, Chicago

Denver Broncos (3-4, 2-4-1 against the spread) at Philadelphia Eagles (7-1, 6-2):
Spread: Eagles favored by 7.5
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: This spread is a few points too high, and understandably so. It’s hard to pick against a 7-1 team at home against Brock Osweiler, so Vegas can and does jack up the spread and beg people to pick the Broncos. I actually think this is a very good matchup for Denver’s defense. There’s not an outside receiver they have to worry about that much, so they can go straight man-to-man on the outside and blitz often against a team without its starting left tackle. You know who the Eagles probably don’t want to see right now? Von Miller. Denver also has the best run defense in the NFL by DVOA and yards per carry, so the onus is really going to be on Alshon Jeffrey, Torrey Smith, and Nelson Agholor to open things up down the field. The Eagles’ streak of 20+ point games (now at 12 in a row) could be in jeopardy here, but I’m counting on Osweiler to make a few costly mistakes and for the Eagles to squeak out a 21-17 win. It’ll be a tough game, though. The Broncos have had horrible turnover luck all season, and that could start to turn around here.
Broncos cover

Baltimore Ravens (4-4, 4-4) at Tennessee Titans (4-3, 3-4):*
Spread: Titans favored by 3.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Every year, there are a few bad teams who stay in the wild card hunt for the whole year by virtue of some lucky wins. Think Miami last year. I think the winner of this game will be the odds-on favorites to take that mantle this year in an AFC that is begging for someone to try to win a wild card. It’s impossible to know what either of these teams is going to give us on any given week. From what I’ve seen, the Ravens’ defense is the most trustworthy unit on the field, and the Ravens’ special teams is second. So I’ll take Baltimore to win 24-20 in an ugly game.
Ravens cover

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5, 1-6) at New Orleans Saints (5-2, 4-3):*
Spread: Saints favored by 7
Over/under: 52.5
My prediction: One of these weeks, New Orleans’s defense is going to get exposed. It was never going to be last week against Mitch Trubisky and the Bears or the week before in Brett Hundley’s first start for the Packers. But I’m betting it’s going to be this week against a desperate Tampa Bay team that still has oodles of offensive talent. For all of the talk about the Saints’ defensive improvement — and the improvement has been real so far — this is still a team that is bad against the run and struggles to get off the field on third down. New Orleans is due for a letdown, and I don’t actually think they have a significant talent advantage here. I don’t think the Bucs are any good, but this just seems like a game the Saints will lose. Buccaneers win 31-24.
Bucs cover

Los Angeles Rams (5-2, 4-3) at New York Giants (1-6, 3-4):
Spread: Rams favored by 4.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: This game screams “upset.” I know the Rams are everyone’s favorite upstart team, and I’ve conceded that they’re not terrible, but this is still a team whose quarterback is Jared Goff. And over the last three games, against three solid defenses, Goff has averaged 6.2 yards per attempt. Now, the Rams are 2-1 in those three games, because Todd Gurley is an excellent running back and because the defense has started to turn things around after a slow start. But I don’t trust Goff to cover a moderately large spread on the road. I do think the Rams will win, because the Giants can do very little offensively, but it’ll come down to the final drive. I’ve taken all four underdogs to cover so far, by the way. That can’t end well. Rams win 20-16.
Giants cover

Atlanta Falcons (4-3, 2-5) at Carolina Panthers (5-3, 4-4):
Spread: Falcons favored by 2.5
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: I was puzzled to see that the Falcons are road favorites against a good team given the way they’ve played recently. I mean, should Atlanta really be a road favorite? They barely beat the Jets to snap a three game losing streak during which their hyped offense scored a combined 41 points. Now they go into Carolina to face a team that held the Bucs to three points in the return of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who clearly makes a huge difference to the Panthers’ defense. And yet.. I still think the Falcons have a clear talent edge here. I keep expecting the offense to have a breakout game. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still inclined to think that more success is coming, even against a good defense. Plus, the Panthers have been bad (1-2 SU, 0-3 ATS) at home this year, while the Falcons are 3-1 on the road. And when a line seems funky, Vegas usually has it right. That’s enough to convince me to take the Falcons on the road against an offense that may be reeling from the trade of Kelvin Benjamin. Falcons win 24-17.
Falcons cover

Cincinnati Bengals (3-4, 3-4) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-3, 4-3):
Spread: Jags favored by 6
Over/under: 38.5
My prediction: This has the makings of a strange game. Vegas is giving Jacksonville’s defense a ton of respect here, and for good reason. Not only are they first in defensive DVOA, but they’re also coming off a BYE and have a great matchup against a team that hasn’t really been able to run the ball. It’s been impossible to beat the Jaguars through the air, because they have the combination of a fierce pass rush and two shutdown corners. It seems unlikely that the Bengals will be the first team to figure things out. And yet, I have a strange feeling that Cincy may well win this game. Blake Bortles is due for a total meltdown game where he gift-wraps the opponent a couple of scores, and Joe Mixon could have a breakout game. Plus, the Jags haven’t been particularly impressive at home. But I’m sick of underestimating Jacksonville, so I’ll pick the Jaguars to win 26-17 in a game with more offense than expected.
Jaguars cover

Indianapolis Colts (2-6, 4-4) at Houston Texans (3-4, 5-2):
Spread: Texans favored by 7
Over/under: 46
My prediction: Until the Watson injury, this seemed like the surest thing of Week 9. Now? It’s definitely not. The spread dropped from 14 (which would have been too high anyway) to seven, which seems like an overcorrection but probably isn’t. I mean… I can tell you that I don’t feel about picking Tom Savage to win a game, let alone to cover a seven point spread. Without Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus, there isn’t all that much to like about this Houston team. There’s no reason to pick the Texans to cover here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised by an upset, either. Texans win 21-20.
Colts cover

Arizona Cardinals (3-4, 1-6) at San Francisco 49ers (0-8, 4-4):*
Spread: Cardinals favored by 2.5
Over/under: 39.5
My predictions: Why are the Cardinals favored in this game? They stink! Drew Stanton is their quarterback now! I don’t think they’ve been much better than the Niners all season, and now they’re without their starting quarterback. And yes, I know C.J. Beathard is also not good, but at least the Niners know how to play without a competent quarterback! The Niners have been unlucky not to win a game so far, and this is a great chance for them to win their first. Niners win 17-13.
Niners cover

Washington Redskins (3-4, 2-5) at Seattle Seahawks (5-2, 3-4):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 7
Over/under: 45
My prediction: The Redskins are without three starting offensive linemen and maybe a fourth. They’re without Kirk Cousins’s two favorite safety blankets, tight end Jordan Reed and slot receiver Jamison Crowder. Starting running back Rob Kelley is banged up. How the heck is this offense going to avoid being killed in Seattle? Ok, so the Seahawks haven’t been the same defensively this year, and they just got lit up by the Texans. But something tells me that isn’t going to happen here, at home against a struggling offense. Washington’s defense is also stout, so Seattle’s unlikely to have the offensive explosion they had last week, but they won’t need it. Seahawks win 24-16.
Seahawks cover

Kansas City Chiefs (6-2, 6-2) at Dallas Cowboys (4-3, 4-3):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 2.5
Over/under: 53.5
My prediction: So Ezekiel Elliott can play, which is annoying. One of these days, his suspension is actually going to be put into effect. This is a tough matchup for Kansas City. There’s a good chance they’re going to be dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They really struggle to stop the run (31st in DVOA), and were recently carved up by Le’Veon Bell. The Cowboys seem to have their mojo back when it comes to the run, and Zeke should have plenty of room to run here. On the other side of the ball, Dallas has done a good job rushing the quarterback. Now, their secondary stinks, but that’s masked a little bit when you get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. I have no doubt that the Chiefs will be able to move the ball when they get it, but I think the Cowboys will control the game and win it 35-27.
Cowboys cover

Oakland Raiders (3-5, 3-5) at Miami Dolphins (4-3, 3-3-1):
Spread: Raiders favored by 3
Over/under: 44
My prediction: This is a horrific Sunday Night Football game. Both teams are bad. But while the Dolphins are very, very bad, the Raiders are only bad. I still think they have the talent to turn this thing around. It’s becoming less and less likely, but a win here will at least get things going in the right direction. This AFC wild card “race” has given teams a lot of room for error, but the Raiders are running out of that. Raiders win 27-21.
Raiders cover

Detroit Lions (3-4, 3-4) at Green Bay Packers (4-3, 3-4):
Spread: Lions favored by 2
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: The NFL really screwed up this week of primetime games. First came Buffalo-Jets, then it’s Raiders-Dolphins, and now Lions-Packers? Of course, the NFL couldn’t have known that Aaron Rodgers would be missing this game, but still.. Let’s just say I don’t have all that much faith in Brett Hundley. Hundley looked lost in his first start, and if he looked that way after years of preparation, is a BYE week really going to transform him into a good quarterback? Of course not. But the BYE may well have given the Packers’ defense the boost it needs against a struggling Detroit team. I expect this to be a relatively low scoring game, and the edge has to go to Matthew Stafford, the king of comebacks. Lions win 23-17.
Lions cover

Upset picks:
Bucs over Saints
Ravens over Titans
Niners over Cardinals

Before I get to the NFL stuff, I wanted to touch on the World Series, for obvious reasons. Heading into the series, I must say I had no idea what to expect. On the one hand, I believed that the Dodgers were the better all-around team without the clear weakness that Houston had in its bullpen. But on the other hand, I had been confident in the Astros all season long, and Houston had just outlasted a really good Yankees team. My lack of a feel is one of the reasons I didn’t make a prediction before the series — the main reason being a lack of time, of course. But the World Series obviously wildly exceeded my expectations, which were high coming in. There were two games that became instant classics — back-and-forth extra innings affairs in Games 2 and 5 that, unsurprisingly, featured a ton of homers. This was a series between two titans duking it out, which is how it should be. In the end, the difference was that Houston’s stars contributed more than LA’s did in a series that outside of the aforementioned crazy games had very little offense. Game 7 wasn’t the barnburner that previous games in the series had been, but the Astros played mistake-free baseball and fully deserved to win. What more can you ask for in a Game 7 than a clean, well-played game?

NFL Week 8 was neither clean nor particularly well-played. There were very few good games, and even most of the closer ones were sloppy and sometimes hard to watch. There was one big exception, of course, to a week without much in the way of exciting football. That was the Texans-Seahawks game, which takes a commanding league in the “Game of the Season” sweepstakes. The final score — 41-38 Seahawks — indicates that it was a terrific game, but I don’t even think that does it justice. What made this game remarkable was the quarterback play. We’ve seen jaw-dropping performances from Russell Wilson before, but this may have been his best one yet. Time and time again, he transcends a leaky offensive line and dominates defenses. It’s long past time to consider Wilson an elite quarterback. Who’s better than he is? With Aaron Rodgers injured and Drew Brees beginning to slow down, I think Wilson may be second-best to Tom Brady. But the real story is Deshaun Watson. I picked the Seahawks to win but not cover, and the biggest reason I picked against the Texans was that I didn’t think Watson would play well against a tough Seattle defense on the road. I was right about the outcome but dead wrong about Watson, who threw for 402 yards and four scores and added 67 rushing yards. I’m fully sold on Watson — he can do everything. He’ll still make the inevitable mistakes that come from trying to do too much sometimes, but I think we can forgive him for that. By the way, the Texans should have won this game. The pivotal moment came late, when the Texans, up 38-34, had a third-and-short and could have ended the game with a conversion. Instead of trusting their quarterback, the Texans simply handed the ball to Lamar Miller, who was stopped short of the line to gain. Houston had to punt back to Seattle, and Russell Wilson took over. If you’re the Texans, you have to put the ball in Watson’s hands there. As I write this, news has come out of Houston practice that Watson has torn his ACL in practice today. That’s obviously huge and devastating news for Watson and the Texans (obviously) and for fans of the league. I guess Houston can’t have all the nice sports things.

Here are my other big takeaways from Week 8 (and the trades that followed it):

  • Everyone was thrilled about all the big deals that were completed at the deadline: Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo, Duane Brown to Seattle, Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia, Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco. I was also happy that teams were actually trading good players, but I also think it’s worth tempering expectations about the instant impact those said players will have on their new teams. Benjamin joins a team that has consistently won without utilizing receivers. I doubt he’ll transcend a run-heavy scheme and become a stud in Buffalo. Brown’s immediately the best lineman on the Seahawks, but line play is so chemistry-oriented that plugging in an All-Pro at left tackle won’t necessarily solve that much. Let’s just say I don’t expect the run game to become existent overnight. Ajayi’s a good running back, but he’s not going to get 20+ carries per game on a team that has four other running backs. And the Garoppolo move should be put in a different category altogether. It’s probably the biggest one, but will also have little to no impact this season.
  • After another bad game from Ben Roethlisberger, I think it’s fair to call the Steelers a rich man’s Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s not a bad thing. Both teams have excellent defenses and are probably favorites to win their respective traditions. And Pittsburgh especially has a real chance to make a deep playoff run simply because there isn’t much in the way of scary competition in the AFC. The Patriots are worse than they’ve been in recent years, and the Steelers have had the Chiefs’ number. Neither Pittsburgh nor Jacksonville is getting consistent quarterback play, and that’s often a death knell, but it may not be this season.
  • How quickly things change. At the beginning of the season, and even a few weeks ago, the AFC West looked like a strong division that would certainly get at least two teams into the playoffs. Now? Denver’s offense has fallen apart to the point that the Broncos are starting Brock Osweiler this week. Oakland looks like one of the biggest disappointments in football, and the Chargers still can’t get over the hump. Not only is it KC’s division to lose, but it seems unlikely that there will be a wild card team in the division.
  • Speaking of AFC wild cards, who the heck is going to win them? It seems like the Bills are heavy favorites to take one home, especially since they’ve already banked five wins. But the Bills have a tough remaining schedule, and the other wild card spot in completely up for grabs. The Watson injury figures to remove the Texans from the conversation, but Tennessee and Jacksonville (whichever finishes second in the division) will be in the mix, along with… who, exactly? The Ravens? The Dolphins? Both of those teams have records that would indicate they’d be in the mix, but both have been really bad this season. I may have to recant my previous statement that the AFC West is unlikely to get a wild card team. I could easily see any of the three struggling AFC West teams putting things together and rallying to 9-7 and a wild card.
  • In my mind, there’s a clear favorite to win six of the eight divisions. The two exceptions are the South divisions. The Saints, Falcons, and Panthers all have a chance to finish on top and have played just one out of six games against each other. In the AFC, it should come down to Tennessee and Jacksonville. They have matching records and the Titans already have a head-to-head win, but the Jags have an easier remaining schedule and have looked better. Should be interesting.

I went 11-2 straight up, although the two losses were two of my three upset picks. By my math, that means there was only one upset last week! I’m 74-45 straight up on the year.
8-5 against the spread.. 60-56-3
7-5-1 on over/unders… 61-55-3

1-2 on upset picks, moving to 15-15.

Buffalo Bills (5-2, 6-1) at New York Jets (3-5, 5-2-1):
Spread: Bills favored by 3
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: There are good reasons to be worried about Buffalo’s offense on the road. They’ve averaged just 14 points per game in three road games, and both of their losses have come away from home against teams that shut down their run game and thus their offense. That’s the key for the Jets here. If they can slow down LeSean McCoy and make Tyrod Taylor a pocket passer, they have a good chance to win this game. In past years, this would have been a good matchup for their defense. Not so this season. The Jets have given up 1,026 yards on the ground, fifth-most in the league. They’re also in the bottom third of the league in yards per carry allowed (4.3) and are 18th in DVOA against the run after finishing in first by a decent margin last season. The losses of Sheldon Richardson and David Harris, among others, have hurt the run defense. To make matters worse, Muhammad Wilkerson, perhaps the best player left on the defense, is banged up and may miss this game. Top cornerback, Morris Claiborne, will also miss this game, which means Kelvin Benjamin may have a good chance to make an impact in his debut. But the Jets have been good at home this year, going 4-0 against the spread after keeping it close against the Patriots and Falcons. This is a tough game to pick, but I definitely expect it to be close. I’m going to do something that I rarely do, which is to pick a field goal underdog to lose but cover. Gives me a very low chance at a sweep of straight up/spread/total, but I’m genuinely torn about the pick here, because the Jets have been feisty at home but the Bills have the talent advantage. Bills win 21-20.
Jets cover