Revisiting Preseason Over/Unders and Saturday Preview

Posted: 01/02/2015 by levcohen in Football

Before the year started, I did six over/under NFL bets, picking three teams to go “over” their preseason bets and three to go “under.” I predictably had varying success, with a few homers and a few strikeouts. The biggest thing I noticed when looking back on these picks is that I really didn’t have to sweat it out over the last few weeks of the season; the fate of each of the six bets was pretty much sealed a month ago. Let’s go over them right now:

Winning bets:
San Francisco 49ers, under 10.5: The 49ers fell apart this year, ending at 8-8 and parting ways with wildly successful coach Jim Harbaugh. They went under this total comfortably.

Indianapolis Colts, over 9.5: They actually struggled more than I thought they would, but this was never really in doubt either. Andrew Luck won 11 games for the third consecutive year (his first three in the NFL), which makes me wonder why the over/under was so low. The Colts were terrible against good teams, but they played so many bad ones that it didn’t matter.

Houston Texans, over 7.5: This was probably my closest call. The 9-7 Texans fell to 5-6 before winning four of their last five and clearing the bar by 1.5 wins. Like the Colts, they won the games they were supposed to win (7-1 against sub-.500 teams). In the end, their overtime loss in Dallas early in the season was a lot more important than it looked at the time, as it ended up keeping the Texans out of the playoffs.

Losing bets:
Cleveland Browns, under 6.5: This actually turned out pretty close, as the Browns finished 7-9. But they won their seventh game in week 12, improving to 7-4, before losing five straight. If only that losing streak had started a week earlier.

Dallas Cowboys, under 7.5: These next two failed with flying colors. Rather than dropping below .500, the Cowboys were the biggest surprise in all of football, improving to 12-4 thanks to a great offense and a not-as-bad-as-expected defense. I don’t think they’ll make the Super Bowl as others have predicted, but the fact that it’s even a conversation means this was a complete failure.

Chicago Bears, over 8.5: And picking the 5-11 Bears to go over was almost as bad. They were possibly the biggest disappointment in the NFL and ended up benching expensive quarterback Jay Cutler and firing both the coach and GM. So this didn’t go as expected, either, leaving me at 3-3.

Before I get to the wild card weekend picks, I also have to update my weekly totals. I’m not doing a full week 17 review because I don’t see the point of it given that the regular season is over, but I went:
2-3 on upset picks… 31-37 on the season
1-0 on lock of the week… 12-5
11-5 straight up… 166-89-1
10-6 against the spread… 134-117-5
8-8 over/under… 116-137-3

I’m going to keep making these predictions in the playoffs, so I’ll keep a running total. I notched my second or third perfect prediction of the year with Saints-Buccaneers, which is ironically the one I said I wanted no part of. Now for the playoff predictions for the two games tomorrow:

Arizona Cardinals (11-5, 11-5 ATS) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1, 8-8):
Spread: Panthers favored by 6.5
Over/under: 38
My prediction: For most of the season, the question was not whether the NFC South team would be an underdog but by how many points. When it looked as if Seattle might be the #5 seed, people said the NFC South winner could be double-digit home underdogs. Of course, because this is the NFL, the NFC South playoff team is a 6.5 favorite against the NFC West wild card team. It’s gotten to the point that it’s kind of hard to imagine the Panthers losing this game, both because they have played well recently and (more so) because Arizona has struggled both offensively and defensively and will start Ryan Lindley.

It’s still probably a good idea to be cautious about picking the Panthers, since their four game winning streak has come against the rest of the NFC South and the Browns, but they look like the lesser of two evils in a game that might be one of the worst playoff games ever. Cam Newton is obviously much better than Lindley, and he has been consistently solid for an offense that doesn’t have much else. This offense has a lot of flaws (exhibit A: the offensive line), and I think some of them are going to be exposed even against an injury-ravaged defense, but it should be good enough to outscore the Cardinals. After ranking as a top five team against the run over the first 11 weeks, the Cardinals have allowed a league-worst 5.6 yards per carry since. If they can’t stop the run, they can’t really do anything, and run defense will be vital against the run-heavy Panthers.

It’s on the defensive side of the ball that the Panthers excelled both in their 12-4 season last year and over the past four weeks. They’ve allowed fewer than 11 points per game over the course of their winning streak, including just 13 combined to Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. This week they have the task of going against Arizona’s high powered offense that features Carson Palmer and Andre Ellington… er, Ryan Lindley and Kerwynn Williams. The Cardinals won’t be able to move the ball. Is Lindley the worst quarterback to ever start a playoff game? Probably not, but he’s in the conversation.

If Lindley has the game of his life, the Cardinals can keep this game close and win it in the end. I don’t think that’s very likely, though, which is why I’ll take the Panthers comfortably. Panthers win 21-13.
Panthers cover
Under

Baltimore Ravens (10-6, 7-8-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5, 9-7):
Spread: Steelers favored by 3
Over/under: 45
My prediction: Here we go again with Ravens-Steelers. It’s the third time they’ve played this season, with the first two matchups being decided by 20 points each. While this is still among the better rivalries in football, it’s not going to be the ground and pound game we’ve come to see in AFC North showdowns. I expect to see a somewhat high scoring game, even though Le’Veon Bell, the running back who had a breakout year for the Steelers, will be out.

You can easily make the argument that losing Bell will doom the Steelers here. They put the ball in his and Antonio Brown’s hands all season at a very high rate, and now they have lost one of their two playmakers. But while losing Bell and replacing him with an inexperienced back obviously isn’t ideal, I don’t think it will cost them the game. The Steelers were always unlikely to move the ball very well on the ground in this game. The Ravens have one of the best run defenses (and front sevens) in football, and the way to attack their defense is through the passing game. That’s why I think the key to this game is whether Baltimore’s pass rush- featuring Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs- can get to Ben Roethlisberger quickly. If Roethlisberger has time to throw, he’ll carve up the Ravens like he did in their regular season game in Pittsburgh (six touchdown passes). But if the pass rush can hit home, the Steelers’ offense won’t look as dominant. Antonio Brown is probably going to get his stats, given that he’s had success against much better pass defenses than this incredibly banged up Ravens one, but Roethlisberger won’t be able to hit the deep throws that have come so often if he’s under constant pressure.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens offense is solid but won’t be able to keep up if the Steelers score like they have at times this season. They have some weapons, from Steve Smith to Torrey Smith to Justin Forsett, but we generally know what we’re going to get from Joe Flacco and company. And while the Steelers’ defense has improved recently, they aren’t better than mediocre and won’t be able to carry a struggling offense.

Again, the question is: Baltimore pass rush or Pittsburgh passing game? In a game that is expected to be played in inclement weather (rain), the Ravens might have the advantage, but I think it’s pretty much a coin-flip. I’m going to take the Steelers because they have been playing so much better than the Ravens of late and because, even given Bell’s injury, they are still the healthier team. Steelers win 27-20
Steelers cover
Over

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