Archive for December, 2014

Coming into this season, the Bulls were co-favorites with the Cavs in the East. They were believed to have as good of a shot as any team to make the finals, although their fate against a Western Conference team was probably going to be a loss. But even though the Bulls were well-regarded, they still had a ton of question marks heading into the season. Their defense and big man depth were main strengths, and probably why so many people picked them to go far in the playoffs. But Derrick Rose was a question mark, and the Bulls still seemingly lacked a wing player who could score in crunch time.

It’s telling that the Bulls went after Carmelo Anthony this offseason to the extent that they were considered favorites to get him at one point. Anthony was thought to be a perfect fit for the Bulls, because Tom Thibodeau could get improved defense out of him and, more importantly, because he was the scorer they lacked. That’s why it was a big letdown when Anthony decided to stay with the New York Knicks. In retrospect, though, it’s a good thing the Bulls didn’t sign Anthony, thanks to the amazing breakout by Jimmy Butler.

In the first three years of his career, Jimmy Butler was a very important part of the Chicago Bulls’s playoff runs. He was their defensive specialist, frequently shutting guys like LeBron James and Paul George down. He earned second team all-defense honors last season and was a key cog in Thibodeau’s always-terrific defense. He wasn’t, however, known for his offensive prowess. In fact, it would be fair to say Butler had a terrible offensive season last year. Despite playing 38.7 minutes per game, tied for first, ironically, with Carmelo Anthony, Butler averaged just 13.1 points, shooting below 40% from the field and 29% from three point range. He was a 77% free throw shooter, and scored about 30% of his points from the line, but he was terrible from the field. All but one other player (Chandler Parsons) in the top 10 in minutes per game averaged at least 19 points per game.

Butler was really raw offensively in the first three years of his career, which basically is a nice way of saying he was really bad offensively but had the tools to be better. His rapid development, though, was not expected by anyone, including, as evidenced by the Melo pursuit, the Bulls. I thought now was a good time to talk about Butler, given that the Bulls have won seven consecutive games and given his late-game heroics last night against the Pacers.

He’s absolutely exploded, to the point that he’s not only the clear Bulls MVP but also likely in first team all-NBA consideration. Butler’s playing even more minutes (40.1 per game, 1.8 more than any other player), and has ramped up both his usage rate and efficiency. His PER, which was a surprisingly-low 13.6 last season, is up to 22.9. He’s averaging 22 points and six rebounds per game, up from 13 and five. Butler has added close to 100 points to his field goal percentage, which has risen to a very respectable 48.7% and 60 points to his three point percentage, up to 34.5%. He’s clearly a much more aggressive player this year and is much better at finishing at the rim and drawing fouls. His free throw percentage is at 83%, and he’s shooting 8.3 free throws per game after shooting five last season. This improvement is unlike any other in this year’s NBA, and has picked up the slack for a team that is still hurting elsewhere.

Here’s why Butler’s development is so crucial, both to the Bulls and the rest of the East: if Butler were the same guy this year that he was last year, the Bulls would be in real trouble. Their defense has actually regressed this season, and neither Rose nor Joakim Noah looks like they used to. The Bulls might not be able to make the finals with an ailing Rose and Noah, but they’ll be able to go a lot further with a wing who’s shockingly improved from 94th to seventh in the NBA in offensive RPM. And if Rose and Noah improve, the Bulls go from an underdog to make the finals to the prohibitive favorite.

It’s possible to be a contender without having a wing who can score at will; just look at Memphis, who’s 22-8 despite having just one wing averaging more than 7.9 points per game (Courtney Lee, 11.4 points per game). But it’s a heck of a lot easier if you don’t have to rely so heavily on a point guard and big men, especially in close games. Thanks to Butler, the Bulls are probably the favorite in the Eastern Conference as is despite not playing their best. I’m not sure anyone would be excited for a Memphis-Chicago finals, but it seems as if we might be headed that way. This much is for sure: in a year, Jimmy Butler has gone from being a defensive stopper but offensive liability to one of the most important (and valuable) players in the NBA. The biggest fans of Butler thought he might reach this level at some point down the road, but nobody thought he’d be this good this soon. He’s become one of the NBA’s storylines; will he keep this up, or will he fade down the stretch? It’s something to look out for in a conference in which there isn’t much to watch.


Week 17 Picks

Posted: 12/28/2014 by levcohen in Football

It’s finally here, guys: week 17. It doesn’t look as if it’s going to be an especially exciting week on the surface, but remember back to week 17 last year, when the Eagles dramatically won the NFC East title over the Cowboys, the Chargers shocked the Chiefs’ backups in overtime to sneak into the playoffs after having slim odds in the weeks leading up to week 17, and Aaron Rodgers returned to lead the 8-7-1 Packers over the 8-8 Bears 33-28 on the road to make the playoffs. Week 17’s are already difficult to predict, because you never know how teams that have nothing to play for will do. Will the Raiders put up a valiant effort against the BYE-seeking Broncos? Will the Buccaneers lose and secure the top pick or win against the Saints? How about the oddity of Chargers-Chiefs in week 17 again with backup QB Chase Daniel starting for the Chiefs? Yes, I’m serious; after starting last year because the 11-4 Chiefs were resting their starters, Daniel will again replace Alex Smith, this time because of Smith’s lacerated spleen. The Chargers are still 2.5 road underdogs, but have garnered 77% of the bets with a playoff spot on the line. I’ll try my best to make the picks, but I guarantee that there will be some surprises. I’m also going to try to breeze through the games that are absolutely meaningless.
*= upset pick

Cleveland Browns (7-8, 8-5-2) at Baltimore Ravens (9-6-1, 7-7-1):
Spread: Ravens favored by 14
Over/under: 40
My prediction: After opening at 8.5, this line has ballooned with the news that Connor Shaw will start at quarterback for the Browns, who are playing for absolutely nothing. I’ve taken the Ravens to cover double-digit spreads twice so far this season (against the Titans and Jags) but have lost my confidence in them after a disheartening performance in Houston. The offense is predictable (Justin Forsett runs, short passes, a deep pass to Torrey Smith or two) and has lost much of its firepower with the sudden decline of Steve Smith. And a different team would be able to take advantage of Baltimore’s poor secondary, which is why I don’t want to see the Ravens in the playoffs. It’ll be closer than people think and probably pretty unwatchable, but I like the Ravens at home 24-17.
Browns cover

Dallas Cowboys (11-4, 9-6) at Washington Redskins (4-11, 5-10):*
Spread: Cowboys favored by 6
Over/under: 47
My prediction: A second consecutive win for Washington??? You bet. The Cowboys technically have something to play for, but they should rest their starters in the second half. Then again, we’ve seen them give the ball to DeMarco Murray up by 30 points in the fourth quarter, so they aren’t exactly the smartest team. Redskins win 27-23.
Redskins cover

Indianapolis Colts (10-5, 9-5-1) at Tennessee Titans (2-13, 3-11-1):
Spread: Colts favored by 7.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: You couldn’t make this spread high enough. Chuck Pagano has a history of not resting his starters in meaningless games, and the Colts need to get back on track before the playoffs. They are always good in these easy divisional games, and the Titans need to lose to maintain their chance at the top pick. This feels like a blowout. Colts win 34-14.
Colts cover

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12, 5-9-1) at Houston Texans (8-7, 9-5-1):
Spread: Texans favored by 8
Over/under: 38.5
My prediction: This spread is down from 10, so I guess oddsmakers didn’t realize how averse people were to betting on Case Keenum as a huge favorite. The Texans always do well against bad teams, though, and are 6-1 against the spread as a favorite. Meanwhile, the Jaguars are still playing hard, but they have a bad offensive line going against J.J. Watt. Texans win 24-13.
Texans cover

San Diego Chargers (9-6, 7-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (8-7, 9-6):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 3
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: This is a really dangerous game for bettors, who are backing the Chargers at a pretty high rate. This might be the type of game that Vegas wins a lot of money on, as the fact that the Chiefs are still favorites even with a backup QB is pretty telling. Chase Daniel might be the best backup QB in the NFL, and I’m not sure we see a huge dropoff from Smith. It feels like it should be an upset pick, but it isn’t. Chiefs win 24-20.
Chiefs cover

New York Jets (3-12, 5-9-1) at Miami Dolphins (8-7, 7-8):*
Spread: Dolphins favored by 7
Over/under: 41
My prediction: They’ve played hard recently, and I expect the Jets to send Rex Ryan, likely to be fired after this week, out with a bang. Jets win a meaningless game 20-17.
Jets cover

Chicago Bears (5-10, 6-9) at Minnesota Vikings (6-9, 10-5):
Spread: Vikings favored by 7
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: This spread seems a bit high, but I’m not going to pick the Bears to win this game. I could easily see it happening, but they’ve been a complete trainwreck recently. I think this will be a close game, though, ending in a 24-20 Vikings win.
Bears cover

Buffalo Bills (8-7, 8-7) at New England Patriots (12-3, 9-6):*
Spread: Patriots favored by 5.5
Over/under: 44
My prediction: This line would obviously be a lot higher if the Patriots had anything to play for, but with the starters unlikely to play more than a half, it’s come down from a likely double-digit spread to 5.5. And I like the pesky Bills! They have nothing to play for, but will want to close this surprising season with a win. Bills win 21-17.
Bills cover

Philadelphia Eagles (9-6, 8-7) at New York Giants (6-9, 7-8):*
Spread: Eagles favored by 1
Over/under: 51.5
My prediction: Odell Beckham against Bradley Fletcher and Philadelphia’s secondary. All I have to say. Giants win 34-27.
Giants cover

New Orleans Saints (6-9, 6-9) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13, 6-9):
Spread: Saints favored by 5.5
Over/under: 47
My prediction: The Buccaneers need to lose this game if they want to have a shot at the cream of the QB crop in the draft, likely Marcus Mariota. Unfortunately, they face a Saints team that is frankly terrible. All I ask of you is not to watch this game. It’s going to be bad, and I have no idea what the final score will be. I guess I’ll pick the Saints, though, because they gain less by losing. Saints win 23-20.
Buccaneers cover

Oakland Raiders (3-12, 8-7) at Denver Broncos (11-4, 7-8):- Lock
Spread: Broncos favored by 14
Over/under: 48
My prediction: Yeah, the Broncos aren’t losing this game. And if Peyton Manning doesn’t have a big game, I’ll be surprised. Broncos win 40-20 as their offense gets back on track before a week off.
Broncos cover

Arizona Cardinals (11-4, 10-5) at San Francisco 49ers (7-8, 6-8-1):*
Spread: 49ers favored by 7
Over/under: 37.5
My prediction: A bizarre spread for a bizarre game. On one side, you have a 49ers team that is coming off a huge collapse at home against the Chargers and has all-but fired coach Jim Harbaugh. They’ve lost four straight and clearly quit on this season long ago. On the other side, you have Ryan Lindley’s Cardinals, who still have a chance at the top seed but have scored all of 70 points in six games since Carson Palmer’s injury. Oh, boy. Do I pick the team that’s not trying or the one that has Ryan Lindley at quarterback? Can I please not pick a winner for this game? I’ll pick the Cardinals 14-13, but only because I like upsets.
Cardinals cover

St. Louis Rams (6-9, 7-8) at Seattle Seahawks (11-4, 8-6-1):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 11
Over/under: 41.5
My prediction: I know that the Rams have generally performed well against good teams, including wins over the Broncos and these Seahawks, but the Seahawks have given up all of 33 points in the last five games. In fact, the anemic performance Philadelphia’s offense posted against the Seahawks is the only time in that stretch that they’ve given up more than seven points. This defense is elite, and St. Louis’s offense, well, isn’t. Given that the Seahawks need this win to lock up the top seed in the NFC, I think they’ll play smothering defense again in an easy win. Seahawks win 20-10.
Rams cover

Carolina Panthers (6-8-1, 7-8) at Atlanta Falcons (6-9, 7-8):
Spread: Falcons favored by 3
Over/under: 48
My prediction: Like a mid-December bowl game, this is a game that means way more than it should. A playoff spot is on the line, and this is going to be an exciting game. The Falcons, though, look to have the advantage. While their defense is bad, they have been solid covering top receivers (thanks to cornerback Desmond Trufant) and tight ends, which is good given that the Panthers’ top weapons are receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen. The Falcons will have more trouble offensively than they had against the Saints, but as long as Julio Jones is healthy they should have enough weapons to score some points. To me, the outcome depends on how much time and space Cam Newton has. If he’s able to run around in and out of the pocket, I expect him to make the plays necessary to lead the Panthers to the playoffs. But the Falcons have been much better defensively of late, and I think they’ll make just enough stops. Falcons win 27-23.
Falcons cover

Detroit Lions (11-4, 7-8) at Green Bay Packers (11-4, 8-6-1):
Spread: Packers favored by 7.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: 67% of bettors like the Packers here, and I’m surprised that number isn’t closer to 80%. It would be really difficult to bet against the Packers at home, where they are 5-1-1 against the spread including some really dominating performances. This is going to be a really interesting game, because Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have really struggled against good defenses but have not played one at home yet this season. The Lions have the best defense in football, and I think their historically good run defense will make the Packers a one-dimensional team. But that dimension is extremely dangerous, and Matthew Stafford has struggled mightily in road, outdoor games. In a close game, I just don’t see the Lions scoring enough to pull this one out in the end. Packers win 23-17.
Lions cover

Cincinnati Bengals (10-4-1, 8-6-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-5, 8-7):
Spread: Steelers favored by 3.5
Over/under: 48
My prediction: The final game of the regular season will determine the AFC North champion and Indy’s first round opponent. The Steelers beat the Bengals by 21 in Cincy just three weeks ago, but they really piled it on in garbage time in a game that was much closer than the final score indicates. And aside from that game, the Bengals haven’t lost since early November and are 7-2 in their last nine. Are they better than we think? The Steelers have also gone 7-2 in their last nine, but nobody’s underestimating them, either. Despite really weird losses against the Saints, Jets, and Buccaneers, they are 10-5 and have proven that they can beat good teams. Every win in the nine game span with the exception of a nail-biter over Tennessee has been against a team that still has a shot at the playoffs. And since they are home here, I’m going to pick the Steelers 31-28. It should be a good one, though, and I’m grabbing the half point because I think it will be a close game.
Bengals cover

Upset picks:
Redskins over Cowboys
Jets over Dolphins
Cardinals over 49ers
Bills over Patriots
Giants over Eagles

Lock of the week:
Broncos over Raiders

Because there was no Thursday Night Football game this week (week 17!), I didn’t do my week 16 review on Thursday. I’ll do that now and then look ahead to tomorrow later on in this post. First, my five takeaways from a week that had a bunch of nail-biters if not too many surprises:

  • I’m going to talk about the ideal possible playoff matchups in the first round later in this post, but how about Cardinals-Panthers/Falcons? Could that first round matchup be the worst ever? I mean, it’s going to be between a team with a losing record and one with Ryan Lindley or, at best, Drew Stanton as quarterback. Heck, we’re a Cam Newton injury and Panthers away from seeing Lindley-Derek Anderson in round one! Is that even possible? Anyway, last week the Panthers and Falcons both actually played well, setting up a winner-takes-all week 17. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were embarrassed at home against the Seahawks, which was their first home loss of the season. They now have a -39 point differential in six games since Carson Palmer got hurt. They are 6-0 with Palmer and 5-4 with Stanton or Lindley.
  • After a nice stretch in the middle of the season, the Colts have looked really bad recently. Because they are in a manageable division, they will still be the #4 seed in the AFC and have a matchup against either the Steelers or Bengals. But is anyone confident in a Colts team that has one scary weapon for Andrew Luck to throw to (T.Y. Hilton), no running game and a suspect defense? I know I’m not.
  • Odell Beckham is going to win rookie of the year, and he should. His current stretch isn’t just unprecedented for a rookie but up there with the best to ever play wide receiver. Given his stats (79 catches, 1120 yards, 11 TD), it’s hard to believe he missed the first four games of the season and had just 106 total yards in the next three.
  • In this pass-heavy, wide receiver friendly era, it’s amazing and shocking that Alex Smith still hasn’t thrown a touchdown to a wide receiver. The Chiefs have capsized down the stretch, and it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to come back from even small deficits if your wide receivers have combined for just 1551 yards. As a comparison point, Ben Roethlisberger, who defeated the Chiefs last week, has thrown 1570 yards and 12 touchdowns… to Antonio Brown alone. Wow.
  • There were nine games last week that were decided by a single possession, but it didn’t really feel like there were many good games. Chargers-49ers and Dolphins-Vikings are exceptions, but many of these games were yawn fests. And the two games that were supposed to be good (Colts-Cowboys and Seahawks-Cardinals) were decided by 35 and 29 points. Bummer.

I went 1-2 on my upset picks, moving to 29-34 on the season. I barely missed with the Vikings for the second straight week, as they were defeated on a block punt that ended in a safety. I won by a single point with the Patriots to move to 11-5 on locks. The Jets always seem to play the Pats close.

8-8 straight up… 155-84-1 on the season
9-7 against the spread… 124-111-5 on the season
7-8-1 over/under… 108-129-3 on the season

Now, time to focus on week 17. I’m first going to go through playoff scenarios, which means sorting out who is likely to make the playoffs their likely seeds. Let’s start with the easy stuff and then get to the more confusing, of which there thankfully isn’t much of this season.
Note: I’m assuming there are no ties tomorrow, because that could make things more confusing and is also very unlikely to happen. Ties happen once per year, and there’s already been a tie this season.

The AFC as a whole is pretty straightforward. The New England Patriots have already clinched the top seed in the AFC, while the Indianapolis Colts are locked into fourth place. Meanwhile, the Broncos clinch a first round BYE with a win… and they are home against the Raiders. Doesn’t get much easier than that. The winner of the Bengals-Steelers game in Pittsburgh wins both the AFC North and the three seed, while the loser will face the Colts. That leaves just one spot, which is where it gets more confusing. Four teams have a shot at the six seed, but this is probably coming down to two teams. If the San Diego Chargers beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, they will make the playoffs. If the Chargers lose the game and the Ravens beat the Browns at home, which they will almost certainly do, Baltimore will make the playoffs. If BOTH lose and the Texans beat the Jaguars, then we will see J.J. Watt and Houston in the playoffs. Finally, if Houston and Baltimore lose, both extreme long shots, the Chiefs will make the playoffs with a win over the Chargers. Make sense?

Over in the NFC, things are a bit more muddled, which means I’m going to make some assumptions. As well as assuming that the Packers and Lions won’t tie, I’m going to assume the Seahawks will beat the Rams. I know the Rams won their earlier meeting, but Seattle isn’t losing this game at home given the way they have been playing recently. So the Seahawks will be the top seed in the NFC, leaving the Packers-Lions winner second and the Cowboys third. The winner of the Panthers-Falcons game is locked into the four seed, Arizona will be the five regardless of whether they win or lose (unless, of course, Seattle loses, which changes everything), and the Packers-Lions loser will be sixth.

Now that the scenarios are settled, what would be the dream wild card weekend from a neutral viewer’s standpoint? Given that I will be a neutral viewer this January, I thought I’d give my subjective take:

I really want to see Pittsburgh play Indianapolis, because there would be a boatload of points in that game. Who wouldn’t want to see a shootout between Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger? I’d bet on at least two 50+ yard touchdowns given the talent at skill-positions (Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, T.Y. Hilton) and the lack of talent on each defense. Pittsburgh’s playing better right now, but they would be coming off a loss (in order to play the Colts, they must lose to the Bengals tomorrow night) and the game would be in Indianapolis. It would be a fun one.

I’m then left with Cincinnati against… Baltimore? This was a difficult one for me, because it was tough to find many juice storylines regarding the Bengals. I mean.. Andy Dalton in primetime? I guess?? But our best bet is a third game between two evenly matched division rivals, right? Actually, I remember the first two games between these two, both narrow Cincinnati wins, and they were pretty darn boring. I actually really don’t remember a Baltimore game I enjoyed watching. I’m going to change my pick to Houston. Yes, Case Keenum is Houston’s quarterback, and I’d be fascinated to see a playoff game between Andy Dalton and Case Keenum. Who would self-destruct first? But the main reason I’m picking Houston is, of course, Watt. I want to see him win the MVP, which he would have a much better chance of doing with a playoff berth, and I want to see him terrorize quarterbacks in the playoffs. I actually think Houston could win this game, which means we’d see Watt against the Patriots in the second round. That game wouldn’t go well for the Texans at all, but J.J. Watt deserves to be in round two.

The NFC is complicated by the fact that Arizona and Atlanta/Carolina are two of the teams who are likely to play on wild card weekend. They’ll likely luck into playing each other, and I’d rather see Cam Newton’s Carolina in the playoffs than Atlanta. Sure, Julio Jones would be fun, but we already saw the Arizona-Atlanta matchup. The Falcons won handily. I think the Panthers are the slightly less scary matchup for the Cardinals, so we’d see a closer game. And Newton really deserves to play in January for the second consecutive year. He hasn’t had much help this year, and his team is just 6-8-1, but the way he bounced back from the bad car crash to win last week was impressive. I hope he wins again tomorrow and leads the Panthers to a home playoff game (!) against the Cardinals.

Detroit. Dallas. The two Thanksgiving home teams, both of whom have struggled for a long time and were ridiculed entering this season. These teams both have a lot of tradition, and also both have good football teams this year. Given that the alternative is Dallas-Green Bay (I know the game would be in Dallas, but Green Bay is winning that game eight times out of 10. Aaron Rodgers against that defense? Really?), this game looks pretty appetizing. It’s strength against strength, as Detroit owns the best defense in the NFL while Dallas has the fifth best offense according to DVOA. It’s also mercurial quarterback against mercurial quarterback, with both Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford facing as many doubters as believers throughout their careers. I think this game would be close and probably come down to the final drive, where one of those quarterbacks would either be the hero or goat. Even the thought of Romo choking down 20-16 with a minute left makes me happy and excited for next Sunday.

To recap, here’s what I hope are the seeds going into the playoffs:
#1 Patriots
#2 Broncos
#3 Bengals
#4 Colts
#5 Steelers
#6 Texans

#1 Seahawks
#2 Packers
#3 Cowboys
#4 Panthers
#5 Cardinals
#6 Lions

Two of the games are about individuals (Newton, Watt), and two are about the matchups as a whole, but I would get excited about watching any of the four first round games.

By now, everyone knows that the Western Conference is better than the East. Has been for years. And last year, when lottery bound Phoenix had the same record (48-34) as Eastern three seed Toronto, the difference in quality between the two conferences became even clearer and more visible. It couldn’t be so extreme in back-to-back years, right? Wrong. The West, and particularly the top of the West, is even scarier than it was last season. In fact, the playoff race might even be over already. That’s right; we’re a third of the way through and playoff seeding might be the only suspense left in the regular season. No offense to 16-14 Phoenix or 14-14 Anthony Davis or even 12-16 Sacramento or 12-17 Denver, each of whom would likely make the playoff if they were in the other conference, but none of those teams will sniff the 50 wins the eighth seed in the Western Conference might rack up. Instead of singing the praises of Golden State or Portland (there’s plenty of time to do that in the final few months of the regular season), I’m going to try to figure out what circumstances (read: injuries) would have to change in order for the Suns or Pelicans to playoff basketball. First, here are the teams I think are pretty safe playoff teams unless a huge rash of injuries (meaning to multiple stars) washes away their chances:
Golden State: They are already 23-4 and have enough depth to weather a Stephen Curry injury. Andrew Bogut’s injury might knock them down a couple of pegs, but they will still make the playoffs even with another injury or two.

San Antonio: They’ve “struggled” to an 18-11 start, but that’s with pretty much everything going wrong. Tony Parker hasn’t looked like himself and only Boris Diaw has played in every game. 12 players have started at least one game, and last year’s starting five has missed 30% of the Spurs’ games so far this season. They are comfortably in the playoffs right now and will improve.

Memphis: Sure, a Marc Gasol or Mike Conley injury would hurt, and losing both might be fatal. But an injury to one of them wouldn’t wreck Memphis’s playoff chances, especially when Zach Randolph recovers from injury. They would have to play .500 ball the rest of the year to even come close to missing the playoffs, and I don’t see it happening.

Portland: I know they aren’t as deep as some of their colleagues, but the Blazers are already 23-7 and would realistically make the playoffs even if one of their stars (Damian Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge) is injured for an extended amount of time. They are super underrated, if only because people have expected them to collapse for the better part of two years and they have shored up their biggest weaknesses from last season’s surprise playoff team.

Houston: They kept racking up wins even after Dwight Howard got injured, going 8-4 without Howard. They have also recently added Corey Brewer and Josh Smith to a team that’s slowly recuperating from all their injuries. The question, of course, is whether they would collapse were James Harden, the co-MVP favorite (with Steph Curry) to get injured. They obviously wouldn’t keep playing at the .800 pace they are with both stars healthy or even the .667 pace they played at without Howard, but they wouldn’t need to. Given their increased depth, I think they would make the playoffs anyway.

That leaves three teams who could theoretically fall out of the playoffs with a serious injury: LA, Dallas, and Oklahoma City. Here’s a look at the possible injuries that would give Phoenix and/or New Orleans a chance:

Kevin Durant OR Russell Westbrook: Another long-term injury for either KD or Russ would probably doom the Thunder. People are already locking them into the playoffs, with Grantland’s Zach Lowe putting them tops in a Western Conference power ranking. And I agree that, if their stars stay healthy, the bigger question is not whether the Thunder will make the playoffs but rather how far they could move up. But they are 13-16, and Durant is currently nursing an ankle sprain. The sprain probably isn’t too serious, and the Thunder will start reeling off wins again when he returns, but they need to play at about a .650 pace the rest of the way to make the playoffs. That’s easily attainable with both of their stars healthy, but an injury to either one would give another team a golden chance.

Chris Paul OR Blake Griffin: Unlike the Thunder, the Clippers have given themselves a leg up with a 19-10 start. Also unlike the Thunder, though, they’ve had their stars healthy all year and frankly haven’t looked very good for a 19-10 team. They are just 2-7 against .600+ teams, and their .490 strength of schedule (average win percentage of teams played) is in the bottom third in the West. They will still be fine, albeit more likely to finish in the 6-8 range than with the top seed I projected them to win. But if Paul (18-5-10-2 steals-.490-.880) or Griffin (23-8-5-.490-.730) get injured, they could be in some trouble. Their backup point guard is Jordan Farmar (38% from the field) and their backup bigs are Spencer Hawes and Big Baby Davis. Ouch. If one of them gets hurt, I’m not sure who’s going to step up alongside the other one. J.J. Redick gets a lot of open threes now, but will he get them if Griffin isn’t there drawing double teams or Paul isn’t there making crisp passes? That’s a question I hope we never know the answer to.

Tyson Chandler: Someone who has been on the team for three games is almost certainly not the most important guy on the team, and Rajon Rondo is not the most important player on this Mavs team. They showed they could be successful without a great point guard before, and will do it again if necessary. The Mavericks also have three guys in their starting lineup who are pretty darn good at putting the ball in the basket in Monta Ellis (21 ppg), Dirk Nowitzki (19 ppg), and Chandler Parsons (16 ppg). It would obviously hurt to lose one of those guys, but the other two would be able to pick up the slack offensively. But what if Tyson Chandler got hurt? His 3.42 defensive RPM (Real Plus-Minus, ESPN’s way of isolating each player and determining his value) is 11th best in basketball and miles better than #61 Rondo’s (1.34), the next best defender on the team. The Mavericks have no issue offensively, as they are the most effective offensive team in basketball on a per possession basis as well as overall (109.6 points per game). They are the 10th worst defense per possession, and that’s with Chandler in the lineup. Given that they don’t really have a backup center (I guess Greg Smith would be it, but he’s more of a power forward and isn’t very good anyway), a Chandler injury would be really, really bad for the Mavericks. They are 20-10 right now, which is very good but still not 100% secure in this conference. They’re four games ahead of Phoenix right now after losing to them last night. Could the Suns make that difference up if Chandler is out? I think they could, so Mavs fans better hope their center stays healthy.

While I’m talking about basketball, I might as well mention that Durant and Chris Bosh being out of tomorrow’s games really puts a damper on the Thunder-Spurs and Heat-Cavs games respectively. LeBron’s return to Miami should still be interesting, and the Warriors-Clippers night game is sure to be an exciting one. But the NBA got unlucky with injuries and with the big market teams (Lakers and Knicks) who are playing on Christmas being absolutely awful.

Week 16 Predictions

Posted: 12/21/2014 by levcohen in Football

Compared to last week, which had a lot of important games, this week feels like a letdown. Aside from the Falcons-Saints game that shouldn’t matter but does, the most important games that should also be competitive are Chiefs-Steelers (loser probably misses the playoffs, winner is favored to make it), Broncos-Bengals (Monday Night Football), and… that’s it? Yes, two 10-4 teams in the Cowboys and Colts are playing each other, but after the Eagles’ loss last night, both have pretty much locked up their respective divisions. And the 11-3 Cardinals play the 10-4 Seahawks, but the Seahawks are favored by 7.5… even with the game in Arizona. Vegas isn’t expecting that game to be close, and I’m not really either. Ryan Lindley against the rejuvenated Seahawks defense? Really? Aside from those games, there are none between playoff hopefuls. That’s probably not what the NFL was hoping for when they scheduled this season. The best way for this week to be good? It would probably take a big upset- one of the Patriots or Packers would probably have to lose- or two. So in a week that’s likely to be without a lot of games with (cliche alert) “playoff atmosphere,” neutral fans should root for the upset.
*= upset pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-8, 9-5 ATS) at Miami Dolphins (7-7, 7-7):*
Spread: Dolphins favored by 5.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Are we really sure that the Dolphins are better than the Vikings? Since the start of November, the Vikings are 3-3, one game better than the Dolphins’ 2-4. Teddy Bridgewater has been playing well recently for the Vikings, while the Dolphins have lost back-to-back games by 15+ points each to knock themselves out of the playoff race. I like the Vikings 21-17.
Vikings cover

Baltimore Ravens (9-5, 7-6-1) at Houston Texans (7-7, 8-5-1):
Spread: Ravens favored by 5.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: The Ravens lucked out. This is another game against a team who can’t expose their biggest flaw- a depleted secondary. After losing both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Mallett, the Texans are down to raw rookie Tom Savage and a couple of veterans they worked out just this week in Thaddeus Lewis and former Texan Case Keenum. None of the Texans’ options is likely to burn the Ravens, and if you can’t beat the Ravens deep, you probably won’t be able to beat them at all. They pair a great run defense with a good offense, and I can’t see them losing this game, even though it is on the road. Ravens win 27-17.
Ravens cover

Detroit Lions (10-4, 7-7) at Chicago Bears (5-9, 5-9):
Spread: Lions favored by 8.5
Over/under: 44
My prediction: This seems easy. It’s the 10-4 Lions, who currently lead the NFC North by virtue of a tiebreaker, against the 5-9 Bears, who have seemingly given up and just benched their franchise quarterback (Jay Cutler). The Bears seem likely to clear house after the season after a mess of a season, and are just pulling out the string these final two weeks. But we’ve seen a team that had nothing to play for shock a playoff hopeful as recently as last night in the Eagles-Redskins game. That doesn’t mean I think it will happen, but it does dissuade me from picking the Lions as my lock. Lions win 31-10.
Lions cover

Cleveland Browns (7-7, 7-5-2) at Carolina Panthers (5-8-1, 7-7):*
Spread: Panthers favored by 3.5
Over/under: 41
My prediction: Cam Newton is back for the Panthers after missing just one game, and he returns in a pivotal matchup that the Panthers need if they want to stay alive in the NFC South. If they win out, the Panthers need just one loss from the Saints to win the division, which, given the Saints’ up and down form this year, could easily happen. The Panthers have to be careful, though, against a Cleveland team that’s out of the playoff hunt but should be hungry for a bounce-back after being eviscerated by the Bengals in Cleveland. I don’t know why, but I have the feeling that the Browns will play well in this game and knock the Panthers out of playoff contention. Browns win 24-21.
Browns cover

Atlanta Falcons (5-9, 6-8) at New Orleans Saints (6-8, 6-8):
Spread: Saints favored by 6
Over/under: 55.5
My prediction: Believe it or not, this game between sub-.500 teams could well determine who will host a playoff game (and probably a winnable one against Arizona) and who will be going home early. Coming off a big win over the Bears, the Saints are predictably fairly large favorites against Atlanta. The Falcons are dealing with some key injury problems to their wide receivers, with both Roddy White and Julio Jones missing practice time this week. If White and especially Jones are out or decoys, the Falcons will lose their greatest weapons in a game in which they might not make many defensive stops. It should be a shootout, in which case I’ll take the Saints at home… but barely. These two teams are very similar. Saints win 31-28.
Falcons cover

Green Bay Packers (10-4, 7-6-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-12, 6-8):
Spread: Packers favored by 12
Over/under: 49
My prediction: This spread just seems too high. I know the Packers need to win this game after they lost last week in Buffalo, but they are on the road again against a Tampa Bay team that doesn’t win games but at least keeps most of them close. Should the Packers really be favored by double-digits on the road against any team, given how they’ve played on the road? I don’t think so. Packers win 27-17.
Buccaneers cover

Kansas City Chiefs (8-6, 9-5) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5, 7-7):
Spread: Steelers favored by 2.5
Over/under: 47
My prediction: Neither team is among the NFL’s elite,  but in my book this is the game of the week. It just means so much not just for the two teams involved but also for the Bengals, Ravens, and Chargers. The Steelers will win the AFC North if they win this week and next, while the Chiefs could be in a “win and in” scenario in their game against the Chargers next week if they can pull this one out. The Steelers have generally put up big numbers at home, but they might have a tougher time against a stingy Chiefs pass defense here. Still, I think Le’Veon Bell is likely to have another big game, and the Chiefs just don’t have the manpower to keep up with the powerful Steelers offense. The Chiefs have a chance if they can maintain drives and keep Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline, but I think they’ll come just short. Steelers win 30-23.
Steelers cover

New England Patriots (11-3, 9-5) at New York Jets (3-11, 4-9-1):- Lock
Spread: Patriots favored by 10
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: There are a lot of mismatches this week, and this is another. The Patriots were really lucky to beat the Jets in Foxborough, as the Jets had the chance to win the game with a last second field goal before losing by two. The two teams have gone in opposite directions since that first meeting, though, and the Patriots are still in must win territory if they really want to win the top seed in the AFC. I’m also not going to pick against the Patriots again because it feels like I’ve been doing it every week, which hasn’t worked out for me at all. Patriots win 31-17, and I’m making it my lock. I know I said I wouldn’t take another road team as my lock, but the top six favorites in terms of point spread this week, including the Eagles last night, are road teams.
Patriots cover

New York Giants (5-9, 6-8) at St. Louis Rams (6-8, 7-7):
Spread: Rams favored by 6.5
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: This is basically a matchup between Odell Beckham Jr., the most talented and excited rookie receiver since God knows when, and the stifling Rams defense. I’ll take the unit over the player, but just barely. Beckham is incredible and is well on his way to taking the “best receiver in football” mantle from a bevy of other worthy candidates. It really is a receiver heavy league. Rams win 23-20.
Giants cover

Buffalo Bills (8-6, 8-6) at Oakland Raiders (2-12, 7-7):
Spread: Bills favored by 7
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: I can’t pick against the Bills and their defense here. I wanted to make this my lock, but then remembered that Kyle Orton was the Bills’ starting quarterback. And no, I’m never going to pick an-Orton led team as a lock. I actually think this game will be fairly close, but I can’t see the Bills and their fantastic defense coughing it up. Bills win 20-17
Raiders cover

Indianapolis Colts (10-4, 9-4-1) at Dallas Cowboys (10-4, 8-6):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 3.5
Over/under: 54.5
My prediction: This was set to be a meaningful game, but then the Eagles lost, making this game a lot less important for the Cowboys. Still, it’s big, as they would clinch the division with a win and could be in the running for a first round BYE or even the top seed in the NFC depending on how other matchups turn out. The Colts have been pretty disappointing recently, cementing their status as the team that can beat the bad teams but fails to beat any of the good ones. Cowboys win 28-21.
Cowboys cover

Seattle Seahawks (10-4, 7-6-1) at Arizona Cardinals (11-3, 10-4):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 8.5
Over/under: 36.5
My prediction: Could you make an over/under in a game between the Seahawks defense and Ryan Lindley too low? Could you make a spread too high? Well, I say no to both, even though the correct answer is probably yes. Will the Seahawks lose again all season? Seahawks win 23-10.
Seahawks cover

Denver Broncos (11-3, 7-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1, 7-6-1):
Spread: Broncos favored by 3
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: It’s a good one on Monday Night Football between a team that needs to win to keep pace atop the AFC (the Broncos) and one that needs to win to stay atop the AFC North and to avoid making their week 17 game in Pittsburgh a must-win. Remember the last Andy Dalton prime time game? Yeah, it was that Browns one. Not good. Call me crazy, but it’s Andy Dalton Revenge week! The Broncos haven’t look great offensively recently, while the Bengals… who am I kidding? The Broncos are winning this game. So maybe it will be a Dalton Revenge game but still a loss for the Bengals. Is that possible? We’ll see tomorrow night. It better be high scoring. Broncos win 28-24.
Broncos cover

Upset picks:
Chargers over 49ers (last night, correct)
Browns over Panthers
Vikings over Dolphins

Lock of the week:
Patriots over Jets

(Late) SNF Predictions

Posted: 12/20/2014 by levcohen in Football

It slipped my mind, but for the first time, we have Saturday Night Football. Luckily, there are only two games, one of which has started. Since one game has started, I want to get this post out as quickly as possible, so I’ll make it short:

Philadelphia Eagles (9-5, 8-6) at Washington Redskins (3-11, 4-10):
Spread: Eagles favored by 7
Over/under: 51
My prediction: Before this game started, my prediction would have been 34-21 Eagles, so I’ll stay with that. My reasoning? The Eagles are the better team and need this game much more than Washington, who would probably rather lose to ensure a higher draft pick. Of course, it hasn’t worked out like that so far, as Washington currently holds a 10-7 lead. But I’ll stick with my prediction. 34-21 Philly.
Eagles cover

San Diego Chargers (8-6, 6-8) at San Francisco 49ers (7-7, 6-7-1)*:
Spread: 49ers favored by 1
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: The 49ers could absolutely win this game, but I’d have a hard time picking them to win against any competent opponent at this point. Jim Harbaugh is still technically the head coach, but he’s already pretty much gone. The team isn’t competing anymore, and have played very poorly at home. The Chargers aren’t perfect, but they still have a playoff chance, and should get this win to stay in the race. Chargers win 27-17.
Chargers cover

Week 15 Review

Posted: 12/18/2014 by levcohen in Football

Here are my five takeaways from week 15, which gave the final two weeks of the regular season- and the bonanza we call the postseason that follows it- a lot more clarity.

  • Three AFC teams clinched their divisions last week, with only the wild AFC North yet to crown a champion. The Colts, Broncos, and Patriots were always favored to win their respective divisions, so this is not at all surprising. What will be more interesting, though, is seeing who between the Broncos and Patriots finish with the top seed (important) and whether the Colts will finish third or fourth (admittedly, that doesn’t matter as much).
  • I really enjoy watching the Bills and Vikings play. Neither gets great quarterback play, although Teddy Bridgewater has been pretty good for the Vikings recently. But even though neither has had much chance of making the playoff throughout the season, they have both proved to be nuisances to more talented teams, even as their peers started tanking to get, say, the 10th pick in the draft instead of #16. Last week was Exhibit A: the Bills played suffocating defense against a top quarterback for the second consecutive week, defeating the Packers 21-13 and holding Aaron Rodgers to 4.4 yards per attempt and a 17.2 QBR. Meanwhile, the Vikings outplayed the Lions and led for most of the game before some costly mistakes and coaching miscues cost them a chance to win it late, leading to a 16-14 loss. Still, both teams have fun defenses and a brighter future.
  • Why did we ever doubt the Seahawks? No, they aren’t perfect, and they might not even be the same team they were last year. But do they need to be? They’re now 10-4 after their early struggles and are now favorites to win the top seed in the NFC. This is the classic example of an experienced team peaking at the right time and not a post-Super Bowl letdown.
  • Johnny Manziel didn’t play well, but people are writing him off wayyy too quickly. It’s been one start, and while it was a horrific one, it’s rare to see a quarterback perform well in his first taste of the NFL. Troy Aikman joked that his debut was worse than Manziel’s, and while in actuality it wasn’t quite as bad, he did look bad that week and in the weeks that followed. His career turned out pretty well, and Manziel’s could too.
  • I don’t think this is how the AFC wild card race will turn out, but I really hope the Ravens and Chargers make the playoffs. To me, they are better teams than Pittsburgh (no defense), Kansas City (hopeless when 7+ points behind), Buffalo (no offense), and Cincinnati (the win over Manziel was their first impressive one in ages). If I had my pick of wild card weekend playoff matchups, I’d want the Steelers to play the Ravens (rivalry!) and the Colts to play the Chargers (shootout!).

I went 2-2 on my upset picks, moving to 28-32 on the season. The Vikings also nearly beat the Lions (that was my biggest upset pick of the week), while the Bears were embarrassed against the Saints. I won with Baltimore to move to 10-5 on locks, but the Ravens weren’t all that impressive.

12-4 straight up… 147-76-1 on the season
6-8-2 against the spread… 115-104-5 on the season
8-8 over/under… 101-121-2 on the season