Archive for October, 2017

Week 8 Picks — Late Games

Posted: 10/29/2017 by levcohen in Football

Because of the heavy BYE week, there are just two late afternoon games along with the two primetime games. Luckily, these might be the four best games of the week. Every other game this week includes a team with a losing record, while none of these four do. Sure, five of the eight teams are 3-3, but all five have shown potential. There are two pivotal divisional matchups, and two intriguing cross-conference ones.

Houston Texans (3-3, 4-2) at Seattle Seahawks (4-2, 3-3):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 6.5
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: Here’s the real test for Deshaun Watson. Everyone’s very excited about Watson, and for good reason. He’s been very good in his rookie season, making a lot of big plays and throwing for 1297 yards and 15 touchdowns (against only five picks) in five starts and a little relief action in Week 1. But Houston’s last four games have come against weak defenses. The last time Watson played a tough defense was Week 2, when the Texans won 13-9 but struggled in the passing game. Now, it could be that Watson has just gotten a lot better since then, or maybe his performances against poor defenses won’t carry over against the Seahawks. I’m betting on the latter. Watson’s going to have trouble throwing the ball deep against Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. He’s going to be under pressure early and often. He’ll put up a valiant effort, but the Seahawks will end up winning 21-17. I do think the spread is too high given the struggles Seattle has had offensively.
Texans cover

Dallas Cowboys (3-3, 3-3) at Washington Redskins (3-3, 2-4):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 2
Over/under: 48
My prediction: I don’t want to overreact to Dallas’s performance against the Niners, because it was against the Niners. But they looked tremendous in that game, and their run game was especially impressive. Plus, the Redskins are very banged up. They could be without four starting linemen in this game, which is bad news against a Dallas team that has really gotten to the quarterback, especially since David Irving returned from suspension. Kirk Cousins is bad under pressure, which is bad news for the Redskins. Cowboys win 31-24.
Cowboys cover

Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2, 4-3) at Detroit Lions (3-3, 3-3):
Spread: Steelers favored by 3
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: I was close to picking the Lions here, because they’re coming off a BYE and because I don’t think we fully realize yet that Ben Roethlisberger isn’t very good anymore. But I’m going to pick the Steelers for a few reasons. First of all, I don’t trust the Lions’ defense. They were good for the first month of the season, but gave up 52 points to New Orleans before the BYE and probably won’t put that much pressure on Ben. Second of all, I think Pittsburgh’s defense is really, really good, good enough even to go into Detroit and quiet the Lions’ offense. The Steelers are simply the better team, and I’m going to pick them to win a close one. Steelers win 24-20.
Steelers cover

Denver Broncos (3-3, 2-3-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (5-2, 5-2):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 7
Over/under: 43
My prediction: I think I may have been too quick to say that the Broncos were good. They might not be good! This is also a tough matchup for them. Their offense has been lackluster on the road, and they just got shutout in Los Angeles. Quarterback Trevor Siemian is banged up, the Broncos are without one of their top weapons in Emmanuel Sanders, and they’re going up against an explosive offense and a team coming off consecutive losses. The Chiefs will want to get back on the right track here, and I expect them to do so in a big way. Chiefs win 30-17.
Chiefs cover


Week 8 Picks — Early Games

Posted: 10/29/2017 by levcohen in Football

This week of NFL games has been marred by yet another off the field occurrence. This one came from Bob McNair, the owner of the Texans and a man who (shockingly) gave $1 million to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. McNair posited that “we can’t have inmates running the prison.” There’s no other rational way to look at that comment than as a horrific, racist one. To those saying that because McNair didn’t specify the black players he wasn’t being racist, please stop kidding yourselves. The NFL is a majority black sport, and almost every player who’s been causing poor Bob McNair problems is black. This was a comment indisputably aimed towards the black players. I expect players throughout the league, and especially on the Texans, to ratchet up their protests today. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the NFL will hold McNair responsible for his comments, because of course they won’t. On to the matchups, which aren’t very good this week.

BYE teams: Green Bay, Tennessee, Arizona, Los Angeles, New York Giants, Jacksonville

Minnesota Vikings (5-2, 4-2-1 ATS) vs. Cleveland Browns (0-7, 2-5) in London:
Spread: Vikings favored by 9.5
Over/under: 38
My prediction: How the heck are the Browns going to move the ball against this Vikings defense? They haven’t had a passing game all year, and now they’re without stud left tackle Joe Thomas, which means Everson Griffen, owner of a 90.1 PFF rating, is going to have an ideal matchup against a backup left tackle. In Griffen, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, and Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings have five tippy-top talents on their defense. DeShone Kizer and the Browns couldn’t score points against the Titans, so how are they going to do it against the Vikings? Plus, the fact that Hue Jackson changes quarterbacks every half doesn’t help things. As long as Case Keenum protects the ball, the Vikings should romp. Vikings win 24-7.
Vikings cover

San Francisco 49ers (0-7, 4-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-1, 5-2):
Spread: Eagles favored by 12.5
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: This is a huge spread, and it’s worth noting that, while they’ve been very good, the Eagles have only won by more than 13 points once. Of course, the spread is understandable. The Niners just got waxed by Dallas, and they’re starting a rookie quarterback — C.J. Beathard — who looks out of his element. The Eagles should dominate every facet of the game today, even with Jason Peters and Jordan Hicks out for the year. I think we may have to wait another week or two before we see how much the team has really been hurt by their injuries. And I don’t think this is going to be a letdown game for the Eagles, because Carson Wentz is just too locked in and the defense will have something to prove after an average performance against the Redskins. It’s worth noting that the Niners are 3-1 against the spread at home and haven’t lost by more than three points away from home. That should change this week. Eagles win 31-17.
Eagles cover

Chicago Bears (3-4, 4-2-1) at New Orleans Saints (4-2, 4-2):
Spread: Saints favored by 9
Over/under: 47
My prediction: To me, this looks like an excellent matchup for the Saints. The Bears have been much better at home than on the road over the last few years, especially defensively. We know the Saints are going to put up points at home, which means that the only way to beat them is to score a bunch of points on their defense. You know what the Bears can’t do? Move the ball on offense. They won last week despite scoring three offensive points on five first downs, and Mitchell Trubisky had four completions on seven attempts. Something tells me he’s going to need to throw the ball a lot more often against the Saints, and that’s probably not a good thing for Chicago. Now that the Saints are more balanced offensively, they should have no trouble getting in front early and cruising to a victory. Saints win 28-14.
Saints cover

Los Angeles Chargers (3-4, 3-3-1) at New England Patriots (5-2, 3-4):*
Spread: Patriots favored by 7
Over/under: 48
My prediction: Guess what? The Patriots are giving too many points! I’m very high on this Chargers team. I think they’re talented, and I think they match up very well with the Patriots. The strength of their defense is their pass rush. It’s pretty hard to stop one of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, let alone both. They’ve combined for 16 sacks this season. The best way to slow down New England is to make Tom Brady feel uncomfortable in the pocket, and the Patriots’ offensive weakness has been the play from their tackles. Both of LA’s outside corners are also playing very well, and they’re above average against tight ends. On the other side of the ball, Philip Rivers is still very good when given time. And I’m still pretty sure the Patriots have a bad defense. I think the Chargers may be the better all-around team, and they’ve played better on the road this season than at home. I’m going to pick them to win 28-24.
Chargers cover

Oakland Raiders (3-4, 3-4) at Buffalo Bills (4-2, 5-1):*
Spread: Bills favored by 2.5
Over/under: 46
My prediction: This should be a tight game. Talent-wise, the Raiders have the edge, but the Bills have been playing better all year long. They’re also generally very tough at home, although they almost lost to Tampa Bay last week, when they gave up 27 points. I actually think that game against Tampa could have been the beginning of some struggles for Buffalo’s defense. Remember, this defense wasn’t good last year, then lost its top two corners going into this season. It was an excellent defense throughout the first month of the season, but could Buffalo’s lack of talent be coming back to bite the Bills? Also, these are the types of games that the Raiders have generally won over the past year and a half. I just have more confidence in Oakland’s roster, and I’m going to pick them to win 27-21.
Raiders cover

Indianapolis Colts (2-5, 3-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (2-4, 3-3):
Spread: Bengals favored by 10.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: This is a game I’d advise against anyone watching. After a few solid weeks, the Colts have turned into a truly horrific team without Andrew Luck, as we all probably expected. They’ve lost three of their last four games by 14+ points, with the lone outlier being an overtime win against the winless Niners. On the other side, the Bengals aren’t great, but they have enough talent to cover this number if they avoid turnovers. I hate picking so many heavy favorites, but I’m going to pick the Bengals here. Bengals win 31-13.
Bengals cover

Atlanta Falcons (3-3, 2-4) at New York Jets (3-4, 4-2-1):
Spread: Falcons favored by 6.5
Over/under: 45
My prediction: I understand why some people are hesitant to pick the Falcons given the struggles they’ve had of late, but this should be a classic “get right” game for Atlanta. The Jets have fought valiantly this season, but they still stink. It’s pretty hard to allow the Dolphins to score 31 points, but the Jets managed it last week. The talent gap is extreme here, and I expect the Falcons to win and cover. Falcons win 27-17.
Falcons cover

Carolina Panthers (4-3, 3-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-4, 1-5):*
Spread: Buccaneers favored by 1.5
Over/under: 46
My prediction: It’s possible that both of these teams are horrible, but I’m much more confident that the Bucs are horrible. Let’s be clear: the lows for the Panthers are very, very low, as they showcased last week. But remember that, two weeks ago, the Panthers were riding high at 4-1 and were considered to be one of the best teams in the NFC. Cam Newton’s been known to play well when he’s been counted out. He also gets to face a banged up defense that’s dead last in the NFL in DVOA. This is simple for me. I’m going with what I think is the better team, especially with Luke Kuechly back. Panthers win 23-20.
Panthers cover

I want to get this out before the London game starts, so I’ll do the rest of my picks in a separate post.

Upset picks so far:
Chargers over Patriots
Raiders over Bills
Panthers over Bucs

In terms of both excitement and quality of play, last week was one of the worst weeks of NFL football I can remember. It sure didn’t start out that way. Raiders-Chiefs, also known as the game that ended with multiple untimed downs, was awesome, ending in a 31-30 Oakland victory. After that, though, there wasn’t much to get excited about. Three teams were shutout. The Panthers scored three points. After TNF, four of 14 games ended up being decided by one score: Baltimore-Minnesota, which ended 24-16 but only after the Ravens scored a meaningless touchdown on the last play of the game; Miami-Jets; Tennessee-Cleveland; and Buffalo-Tampa. Notice a theme? None of those teams are all that good! Of course, maybe nobody’s good period, but outside of the Vikings and I guess the Bills, those teams are bad even relative to the rest of the NFL. Here are my biggest takeaways from Week 7:

  • I’m going to go against the grain here and say that I kind of like the fact that the Bears won despite quarterback Mitchell Trubisky attempting only seven (and completing only four) passes. Trubisky’s thrown 23 combined passes in the last two games, and the Bears have won both of them. Their 17-3 win over Carolina this week was of course aided (more than aided, really) by two defensive touchdowns, but still, it’s a unique and pretty cool game plan. By the way, that’s a game the Panthers can’t lose. They out-gained Chicago 293 to 152, had 20 first downs to the Bears’ five, and ran 32 more plays than Chicago did… And they still lost by two touchdowns. This was one of Cam Newton’s worst games.
  • I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: even after another convincing effort, I’m not convinced by the Patriots’ defense. Holding last year’s Falcons to seven points would have been an extraordinary feat. This year? Not so much. Matt Ryan missed a ton of opportunities, and the Falcons left a lot of point on the board, as they’ve done all year. New England was still letting guys get open, and they allowed Atlanta to gain 6.1 yards per play. They tightened up in the red zone, and that’s what the best New England defenses always did, but I think that was more about failures by Atlanta (see: running an end around on fourth and goal instead of giving the ball to Devonta Freeman) than about a transformation by the Patriots. I said earlier that this would be the measuring stick game, but I overestimated Atlanta. Aside from five divisional games, the Pats still have games against the Chargers, Raiders, Broncos, and Steelers, offenses that have had varying success this season. If they can shut down those offenses, I’ll be more convinced.
  • Seahawks are gonna Seahawk. People probably shouldn’t freak out every time the Seahawks start slowly, because it happens every year and it never lasts. Look: Seattle’s offense again wasn’t impressive, this time against the Giants. But all of a sudden the Seahawks are 4-2 and have two home games to get things right before a game in Arizona against a suddenly crappy team. It wouldn’t surprise me if they turned things on and ended the year at 12-4. In a league without many sure things, the Seahawks — and especially their defense — still seem to be one of them.
  • More than ever, the Steelers are a two-man offense, and it seems to be working. Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have combined to account for 64.3% of Pittsburgh’s yards from scrimmage, up from an already high 51.3% last season. They’ve handled 70.6% of the touches. Maybe that won’t last (although with the news of Martavis Bryant’s trade request and subsequent demotion to the scout team, it may well). But maybe the Steelers have just thrown away any semblance of trying to get everyone involved and are just committed to getting the ball in the hands of their two best players. We’ve yet to see a team successfully stop both of them. The two-dimensionality could become a problem for Pittsburgh come playoff time, but that’ll only be the case if the Steelers run into a great defense. And guess what? Among the AFC playoff contenders, the Steelers probably own the best defense. New England and KC are shaky. I’m not yet ready to call the Jags contenders. The Broncos haven’t been as dominant this season. Pittsburgh may well be the favorite to come out of the AFC.
  • One major reason this season has really been hard to watch is the fact that a number of good aging quarterbacks have taken a step back, while very few young ones seem ready to take their places. Carson Palmer (even before he got injured), Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers all look a step away from being washed up and are two or three years past their primes. Joe Flacco was never in Ben’s class or Rivers’s class, but he’s gone from being good enough to being an absolute train wreck. Neither Drew Brees nor Matt Ryan has been bad, per se, but both have been markedly worse than their were last season. Among young quarterbacks, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott have stepped up. Deshaun Watson has been a revelation. Marcus Mariota’s pretty good. But neither Derek Carr nor Jameis Winston has taken the next step people expected, and you can’t get too excited about Jared Goff, even though he’s on a good team. Throw in the Aaron Rodgers injury and we’re left with relatively few teams with settled, reliable quarterbacks. That’s a big reason the product has been poor.

9-6 straight up… 63-43
8-6-1 against the spread… 52-51-3
9-6 over/unders… 54-50-2

1-4 on upset picks, moving me to 14-13. I guess that’s what I get for picking more upsets!

Miami Dolphins (4-2, 3-2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (3-4, 3-4):
Spread: Ravens favored by 3
Over/under: 38
My prediction: I’m writing as little about this game as I can. It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible football game. Jay Cutler’s out for the Dolphins, although perhaps that will make it slightly easier to watch. Neither of these teams is any good, and yet the Dolphins could move to 5-2 if they win this game. Crazy. Even if Miami has upgraded at quarterback with Matt Moore, it’s unlikely that they’ll score many points in this game on the road against a tough defense. Of course, Joe Flacco has been absolutely horrendous this year, but the Ravens should be able to find some holes in an exploitable Miami defense. I think Baltimore, while bad, is slightly better than the Dolphins. So I’ll take them to win 20-13 in what’s sure to be an ugly game.
Ravens cover

Eastern Conference Preview

Posted: 10/23/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

I previewed the Western Conference last week, so it’s now time for the much less intriguing Eastern Conference. There’s already been a wrench thrown into the playoff race: Gordon Hayward’s horrific leg/ankle injury. It’s the type of injury that’s excruciating to even watch, and yet it’s hard to take your eyes off it. That’s a special pantheon of injuries — recently, it’s a list that includes Hayward, Paul George, and Kevin Ware. Going back a little, Shaun Livingston obviously has to vault near the top of that list. It happened five minutes in Hayward’s Boston career. Poor guy. Anyway, I don’t think the Celtics were going to beat the Cavs anyway, but this opens up a two seed (or potentially a one seed if the Cavs don’t try) for the Wizards or Raptors (or even the Bucks?). Boy is this a weak conference.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25): I’m relatively bullish on the Cavs this year. They won 51 games last season and tied with the Raptors for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, proving definitively that LeBron James and company don’t care at all about the regular season. I’m betting that they’ll care slightly more this year for a number of reasons. First of all, there have been all sorts of rumors about LeBron potentially leaving after this season. LeBron has very noticeably refused to shoot down said rumors. And if LeBron’s going to leave, he’s going to want it to be in a much better way than he did last time (see: The Decision, the terrible series against Boston, etc.), when he became the most hated athlete in Ohio. That’s going to entail a great regular season and at least another trip to the Finals. Second of all, I’m pretty sure LeBron wants to win another MVP. He’s won four, but his last one came in the 2012-13 season, as he’s been penalized for taking it easy during the regular season (plus, voter fatigue). He’s stuck on four MVPs. Guess how many Michael Jordan won? Five. LeBron’s 33 now, so I’m going to assume that he wants to win the fifth sooner rather than later. So combine reasons one and two and you have a very incentivized LeBron James. That’s good for Cleveland’s record.

Also good: the Kyrie Irving trade should make things easier during the regular season. Kyrie is a great weapon to have, but I’d argue that he didn’t actually add that much during the regular season. When he comes back from his hip injury, Isaiah Thomas should be able to replace his regular season production. Even if he doesn’t, the Cavs have other guys who can score without feeling that they deserve to be mentioned in the same stratosphere as LeBron. This is unequivocally good for Kevin Love. Jae Crowder is a solid player who will give the team good minutes. The ceiling may be lower, but I think this team is going to mesh better in the regular season than recent Cleveland teams have.

2. Washington Wizards (52-30): This is going to be a good team, health permitting. Markieff Morris is already hurt, but he’s scheduled to come back fairly soon. When he does, the starting lineup is going to be really good. How do I know this? Because we saw it last year! Last year, the Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Gortat lineup had a net rating of +8.1. And it makes sense. Wall’s the focal point, a guy who can always get his own bucket, is devastating in the fast break, and has underrated court vision. He’s one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. Beal is the sweet-shooting secondary ball-handler who seems destined to have a breakout season after he averaged 25 points per game in the playoffs. Porter’s a perfect third option. He can hit spot-up threes or dip in and be a proficient midrange shooter. Morris is a solid all-around power forward, and Gortat’s the huge, tough center who does the dirty work, is a tremendous rebounder, and sets thunderous (and often illegal?) screens. It’s a good starting five. The problem is that there’s nobody we can really trust on the bench. That’s why Kelly Oubre is so important. If Oubre, who’s now in his third season, can take a big step up this year and become a solid sixth man, the Wizards can be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and win 50+ games for the first time in a long, long time. I’m pretty confident that it’s going to happen as long as Wall and Beal can play 70+ games a piece. I’m nervous, though, because Beal has a long injury history and Wall has some injuries in his past and plays a style that could lead to more pain. Fingers crossed.

3. Toronto Raptors (50-32): The Raptors are slightly worse on paper than they were last year, when they went 51-31 and had one of the best regular season offenses in the NBA. Their team, of course, then cratered in the playoffs, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan continued to struggle to put the ball in the net in the postseason. It’s hard for me to get excited about this team. I’ve made that mistake before. And before that. So I’m going to keep this short. This is still a good regular season team. P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson are gone. So is Terrence Ross. But the Raptors managed to bring C.J. Miles in to add some shooting, and losing Ross may be addition by subtraction, both because Ross isn’t very good and because this will mean more Norm Powell, and I really likely Norm Powell. Plus, they were able to hold onto Serge Ibaka, which is good. Lowry and DeRozan are still the focal points, and they’ll lead this team to a top-four seed. But what everyone wants to see is if the offense can finally translate to the playoffs. They’re trying to move away from the isolation ball that has made the Raptors the Raptors, but can that last when you have such a prominent isolation scorer in DeRozan and a lug at center in Jonas Valanciunas? We’ll see.

4. Boston Celtics (47-35): The Celtics obviously won’t be as good without Gordon Hayward as they would have been this year. They also won’t be as good as they were last season, because they have nowhere near the depth they had last year. There are obviously a few major reasons to be concerned. First of all, this team has had and will continue to have rebounding problems. They’ve tried and succeeded to build a team around a bunch of interchangeable 6’6″-6’8″ wings. The upside of that is obvious. The downside is, well, also obvious. The Celtics have nobody taller than 6’10”. Their tallest players are Al Horford, a very skilled big who is a notably poor defensive rebounder, and Aron Baynes, who’s strong, tough, and a brute. Marcus Morris, who’s missed the first three games of the year, will definitely help when he returns. But rebounding is certainly an issue. Second of all, while I think both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are solid young players with potential to be better, I don’t believe that they’ll be particularly helpful this year. Actually, Brown may be, because he can play defense and already has a year of experience under his belt. But the fact is that the Celtics tried hard to get both Gordon Hayward and Paul George on their roster because they knew they needed more wing talent. They barely missed on George, are now without Hayward, and had to move Jae Crowder — made expendable because of the Hayward signing — to get Kyrie Irving. You know what that means? 30+ minutes per game for both Brown and Tatum! Look, Jayson Tatum’s a polished player for a rookie, but he’s not going to be an efficient scorer. Neither is Brown, whose shot needs a lot of work. Marcus Smart is erratic, and Horford should be no more than a third scorer on a good team. You know what all of this means? It’s Kyrie Irving hero-ball time! Brad Stevens probably isn’t happy about it, but Irving’s going to get what he wanted: a huge, star role on a solid team. I like Kyrie and was not one of the people who criticized him for asking for a trade (the opposite, actually). But having a one-dimensional offense around a shoot-first point guard isn’t a recipe for 50+ wins. Just ask Oklahoma City. Now, you may say that the Celtics were exactly that last year, but that’s not true. They had Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, two solid complementary scorers, last year. And more importantly, they got a magical, career year out of Isaiah Thomas. Thomas was better last year than Irving has ever been. It was an anomalous year. Can Kyrie do the same this season? It’s possible, but I’m not betting on it. Instead, I’ll bet that the Celtics will be a decent team that has some dry stretches offensively and sometimes can’t buy a defensive board.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (45-37): I’m not all that high on the Milwaukee Bucks. Even after a headline-grabbing 2-1 start, I’m predicting that they’ll fall short of their preseason over/under line of 46.5 wins. But they’re the five seed by default. Their best player is better than any player on any of the teams below them, and it isn’t particularly close when you account for Joel Embiid’s injury problems. Giannis Antetokounmpo is very, very good. He put up a 23/9/5/1.6 steal/1.9 block line last season. He’s a freak (a Greek Freak even) with ginormous hands and the ability to run the point at 6’11”. Scarier than all that, though, is how quickly he’s progressed. When he was drafted, the skinny teenager was supposed to be years away from contributing in the NBA. By his second season, he was a regular starter. The next season, he was Milwaukee’s best player. Then came last year. What’s coming now? well, it could be an MVP season. It’s probably not going to be that far off. Giannis still can’t really shoot threes, but he’s still impossible to stop and (crucially) can shoot free throws at a 75%+ clip. The supporting cast is fine, and will obviously be a lot better when Jabari Parker returns much later in the season. I’m a big Khris Middleton fan and think he’s a really good Giannis sidekick. Malcolm Brogdon’s a good player, although I’d prefer him as a sixth man than as the starting point guard. Thon Maker, who’s (wink wink) still 20-years-old, came on strong at the end of last season. Tony Snell can shoot, and Greg Monroe can still score off the bench, even if his game is out of place in today’s NBA. I’m not inspired by the team outside of Giannis. But it’s ok, and (Giannis + ok) x Eastern Conference = five seed.

6. Charlotte Hornets (43-39): Odds are that a sixth and maybe even seventh team will go over 43 wins. But I couldn’t bring myself to giving the Hornets or anyone below them more than 43. I’m lower on Charlotte than most people seem to be. People think they can be a top-four seed! I don’t. I will say this: I understand the love, and I think this is a well designed team. It’s almost certainly a better roster than Miami’s (my seven seed, spoiler alert), because it’s just as deep and in Kemba Walker has a real go-to scorer. However… there’s the Dwight Howard factor. I buy the Dwight Howard is a locker room problem theory, largely because there’s a lot of evidence to support it. One of the funniest reports from a busy offseason came from Zach Lowe of ESPN, who said that, upon hearing news of the trade, multiple Hawks players “screamed with jubilation.” How great is that? More to the point, how telling is that? The other reason I hated this trade for the Hornets is that it sends Cody Zeller to the bench, because Cody Zeller and Dwight Howard can’t play together and OF COURSE Dwight has to start because he’s a total superstar. Believe it or not, Zeller was a key player on this team last year. On a 36-win team with a net +.3 rating (yep, it was an unlucky team), his net rating was +5.4. That was the best mark on the team, well ahead of #2 Kemba Walker. I wrote about Zeller last season. That guy’s going to be on the bench? I’m not usually a big team chemistry guy, but I can’t see how adding Howard made this team a whole lot better. I do think they’ll be a solid team, because Kemba is good and they have a lot of young players (Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb, and rookies Dwayne Bacon and Malik Monk, both of whom have Sixth Man of the Year potential) who can put the ball in the net. But I don’t see 50 wins and a three seed.

7. Miami Heat (42-40): There’s a lot to like about the Heat. They’re deep, with a lot of useful pieces. They have eight players playing 24+ minutes per game, and there’s a lot to like about those eight players. They’re all very good at what they do. Hassan Whiteside is very good at dunking, getting rebounds, and blocking shots. Goran Dragic is very good at finishing at the rim and he shot 40.5% from three last year. Dion Waiters is a great gunner and microwave. Need a shot? He’ll take it. And if he gets hot, watch out. Josh Richardson is a good wing defender with the potential to be a great 3-and-D role player. James Johnson is GREAT at dunking (yes, better than Hassan). He’s also quietly good as a passer and playmaker from the power forward position, especially when he’s playing with the second unit. Tyler Johnson is a good shooter. I very much dislike Kelly Olynyk, but he’s a skilled (ish) power forward who fits nicely next to Whiteside. And Justice Winslow, once a high-profile college basketball player who helped (with Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones and a freshman Grayson Allen, for those of us who want to remember previous Duke successes) lead Duke to the title. Ok, there’s not much I can say about him, because he’s shaping up to be a bust. But maybe Miami can trade him for someone who can help their team? Anyway, the point is that this team has depth. The problem: what’s their go-to play? Where do they go when they need a bucket? It’s probably a Dragic-Whiteside pick-and-roll, but, meh. It’s hard for a team without a go-to crunch-time scorer to be all that successful. 42-40 it is.

8. Philadelphia 76ers (40-42): I’m not panicking about the 0-3 start for a few reasons. First of all, the losses came against the Celtics, Wizards, and Raptors, three top-four seeds. The Sixers don’t need to be as good as those teams to make the playoffs. Second of all, they were close to winning each of their first games and really should have come away with a win. Third of all, they’re a young team with a lot of players who have never played together. It would have been crazy to expect Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to immediately mesh, for example. The problem is that expectations were sky high before the year, and people expected the Sixers to be good straight away. Guess what? They’re going to take their lumps this year. They just are. And they aren’t that good. The game against the Raptors shows that they’re still heavily dependent on Joel Embiid. But as long as Embiid stays relatively healthy, this is a playoff team. He’s just that good. Remember, this was a team that was a net positive when Embiid played last year. And the supporting cast is a lot better this season. Simmons is already a dynamic player. He’s not anywhere near as good as he’ll end up being, but he’s scoring more off the bat than I expected. J.J. Redick is one of the best shooters in the NBA and is a perfect fit next to Simmons and Embiid. Robert Covington, perennially underrated, is much more confident in his shot and has developed into a lockdown defender. Jerryd Bayless, injured for all but a few games last year, brings more shooting, although he’s a sieve defensively. Dario Saric can do some stuff off the bench. This is a team that’s going to score a lot of points once Simmons and Embiid have a little more chemistry. The defense has been bad so far, and it’ll continue to be bad when Embiid’s off the court, but Joel showed last year that he can make up for a lot of lackluster defense elsewhere. I’m predicting a sub-.500 record, but it’s the same record that I would have predicted three games ago. In terms of the team’s long-term prognosis, I must say that I am worried about Markelle Fultz, because he has no idea how to shoot a basketball. This is bizarre, and I don’t think it’s because of a shoulder injury. If Fultz were hurt, the Sixers would already be sitting him and letting him rehab. This is a mental block, and I think it’ll only get worse if Philly keeps throwing him out there and he keeps embarrassing himself at the line. They need to take him out of the lineup until he remembers how to shoot. It’s that simple.

9. Detroit Pistons (37-45): The Pistons get this spot by default. I don’t like this roster. In fact, I would say I dislike it. How’s that for a bold statement. The Pistons can make all the excuses in the world for Reggie Jackson, but I think he’s a bad point guard and will continue to say that until proven otherwise. I don’t think Andre Drummond helps the team win. Same with Tobias Harris, who scores a lot of empty points. Stanley Johnson hasn’t developed in the way the Pistons had hoped. The only guy I’m high on in their lineup is Avery Bradley, who’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and who’s a great shooter and secondary ball-handler. But… No.

10. Orlando Magic (36-46): New year, same Magic. Actually, the Magic only won 29 games last year, so this would be a significant improvement. In fact, they’ve only cracked 30 wins once since the 2011-12 season. For a team that’s been so bad for so long, it’s incredible how few blue chippers (or even any chippers) they have. Who’re the keepers on this team? Aaron Gordon? Sure, he’s intriguing, but maybe a bit overrated due to his dunking acumen. Evan Fournier? He’s fine, but nothing more than a solid shooting guard. Jonathan Isaac? Maybe, but they just drafted him so it’s way too early to tell. This is not a good team. Nikola Vucevic is a gifted offensive player, but he gives most of that back on the defensive end. For some reason, the Magic gave $17 million a year to Bismack Biyombo, who can’t play with Vucevic and who is playing 14 minutes per game. The only reason I’m predicting that they’ll win this many games is that someone has to.

11. Indiana Pacers (33-49)
12. Brooklyn Nets (30-52): I’m grouping these two teams together because I consider them to be the two bad but not hopeless teams right above the three hopeless teams. The big difference between these two and the next three is that I don’t think these two are trying to lose, while the next three certainly are. The Nets certainly aren’t tanking, because they owe their pick to Cleveland (via Boston). And the Pacers have shown a reticence to tanking in the past, and I have no reason to believe that’ll change. Also, both teams have sneaky “can bother better teams” potential. The Nets showcased that potential down the stretch last year. Even without Jeremy Lin, who ruptured his patella tendon (ouch), they have three guards who can do some things in D’Angelo Russell (look for 20+ points per game), Allen Crabbe (great shooter), and Caris LeVert (I loved him coming out of his draft, and he’s now healthy and producing). Outside of that? Ok, this team sucks. But they’ll win some (?) games. The Pacers are clearly better. Myles Turner is a good young player. Huge contract aside, Victor Oladipo is solid. Thaddeus Young is pretty good. Darren Collison and Cory Joseph are playable point guards. Yeah, this team is going nowhere. But they’re the team I’d pick out of the bottom five to make a run at the eight seed.

13. Atlanta Hawks (26-56)
14. New York Knicks (26-56)
15. Chicago Bulls (23-59): All you need to know about the Bulls is that, right before the season, Bobby Portis punched Nikola Mirotic, breaking his jaw and concussing him. Portis was suspended for eight games. Also, the Bulls’ surprisingly long playoff streak is about to come to an end. They lost Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo, all three thirds of their ill-fated experiment last season. Their starting backcourt is Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday. Their best player is… Robin Lopez? The Hawks lost Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. One of their bright young players, DeAndre Bembry, broke his wrist. They’re handing the keys to Dennis Schroder. This isn’t going to end well, except it is, because they’re going to get a nice pick.
The Knicks are also going young. They have Kristaps Porzingis, who’s way better than any other player on one of these three teams, but their starting point guard is Ramon Sessions right now. Ron Baker is playing 20 minutes per game. I rest my case. I’m probably being optimistic about these teams, and originally had them pegged for 24, 22, and 19 wins, but I had to even out my total wins and losses.

Week 7 Picks

Posted: 10/22/2017 by levcohen in Football

A week after all the craziness that came in Week 6, there isn’t a single team favored by as much as a touchdown. That’s partly down to the matchups, of course, but I think it’s also because people are snakebitten after betting heavily on big favorites last week. This isn’t a week of marquee matchups, although that might just be the fact that their aren’t any marquee teams. I can tell you that before the season the Super Bowl rematch seemed guaranteed to be one of the games of the season. It may still be, but neither the Patriots nor the Falcons have been impressive this season. Saints-Packers lost a lot of its buzz after the Aaron Rodgers injury. Eagles-Redskins is a big divisional matchup, but Washington’s secondary is banged up (Josh Norman is out, Breshad Breeland may be). It seems like it could be another week full of upsets, albeit smaller ones than Dolphins over Falcons and Giants over Broncos. It’s also a relatively light BYE week.

BYE teams: Houston, Detroit

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3, 1-4 against the spread) at Buffalo Bills (3-2, 4-1):
Spread: Bills favored by 3
Over/under: 45
My prediction: Jameis Winston is playing with a hurt shoulder and now has to face Buffalo’s smothering defense. The Bills are coming off a BYE and are playing at home, where they’re 2-0. The Bucs had to fly across the country after losing to Arizona. My gut says the Bills should be favored by more than three points, but the low spread scares me, as does Buffalo’s offense. I’m going to go with my gut and pick the Bills to manufacture enough points against a floundering Tampa Bay defense. LeSean McCoy should have a nice day against a defense that just got gashed by Adrian Peterson. Bills win 23-17.
Bills cover

Arizona Cardinals (3-3, 1-5) vs Los Angeles Rams (4-2, 3-3) in London:*
Spread: Rams favored by 3
Over/under: 46
My prediction: This is a rare normal time-slot game in London, where it’ll be a night game. It’s actually one of the best matchups ever in London. I think both of these teams are decent! I don’t want to make too many conclusions from one week, but it’s quite possible that the combination of Adrian Peterson and the return to health of a few offensive linemen have really transformed the Cardinals’ offense. Let’s also not forget that LA’s defense isn’t all that great. Shutting down Blake Bortles doesn’t prove a lot. I think Carson Palmer might be able to have his way against the Rams, setting up a high-scoring game. And I still don’t quite trust Jared Goff in close shootouts. Cardinals win 31-24.
Cardinals cover

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-3, 3-3) at Indianapolis Colts (2-4, 3-3):*
Spread: Jaguars favored by 3
Over/under: 43.5
My prediction: I really do not like the Jaguars as road favorites. We saw it a few weeks ago in New York, and the Jets beat a sluggish Jaguars team. I especially don’t like the Jags as road favorites without Leonard Fournette, who’s expected to sit this one out. How is Jacksonville going to generate offense? Well, the Colts have been gashed on deep passes all season, so their may be hope for Blake Bortles, but the most likely answer may be from their defense, which has been exceptional all season. But I don’t like betting on defensive scores, and I like the Colts here. Indy has shown some feistiness in the passing game over the last few weeks, and while it won’t be enough to score a bunch of points on Jacksonville, it should keep the Colts in the game at least. I like picking against Blake Bortles. Colts win 21-20.
Colts cover

New York Jets (3-3, 4-2) at Miami Dolphins (3-2, 3-2):*
Spread: Dolphins favored by 3
Over/under: 38.5
My prediction: Somehow, the Dolphins are 3-2. I should probably be more bullish about them after a win in Atlanta, but I think that was far more of a flop from the Falcons than it was an inspiring comeback from Jay Cutler and company. I’m not going to get cute with this one. The Jets aren’t good, but I’m pretty sure they’re better than the Dolphins. I don’t think Miami has a homefield advantage. Jay Cutler is horrendous. Could this be the game where we see the Dolphins change quarterbacks? Cutler’s favorite target, DeVante Parker, is still out. This is danger-zone stuff for Miami’s quarterback. It’ll be a heck of a lot closer than the first game between these two was, but the same team will come out on top. Josh McCown is just better than Jay Cutler! By the way, the Dolphins haven’t given up many points this year, but I think that’s a mirage. The defense isn’t very good. Jets win 24-21.
Jets cover

Carolina Panthers (4-2, 3-3) at Chicago Bears (2-4, 3-2-1):
Spread: Panthers favored by 3
Over/under: 41
My prediction: On paper, this looks like a good spot for Carolina. They’re 3-0 both straight up and against the spread on the road, and Cam Newton has a 122.9 passer rating away from home (8 TD, 2 INT, 9.68 yards per attempt, while at home it’s 1 TD, 6 INT, 5.76 yards per attempt). This could and should also be a get-right game from the run game after its disastrous performance against Philadelphia. But there are some warning signs for Carolina. First of all, the Bears have been very good at home. They lost to the Falcons but covered and were a play away from winning. Then they beat the Steelers before losing 20-17 to the Vikings in Mitch Trubisky’s first start. Second of all, the Panthers are without their linchpin, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Since 2015, they’re giving up three more points per game without Kuechly than with him. Crucially, they’ve given up 4.2 yards per carry without him and 3.8 with him. I say that’s crucial because the Bears are going to run early and often in this game. It’s not easy for anyone to stop Jordan Howard, but the Panthers were well setup to do so with Kuechly. Without him, they should still be able to limit the run game, because Trubisky doesn’t provide much of a threat through the air. If Trubisky can come up with a few big plays through the air, the Bears will probably win this game. I haven’t seen that yet, though, so I’m going to pick the Panthers to win 20-14 in another tough home loss for Chicago. By the way, weather could be a minor factor in this one, as rain and wind are both expected.
Panthers cover

Baltimore Ravens (3-3, 3-3) at Minnesota Vikings (4-2, 3-2-1):
Spread: Vikings favored by 5
Over/under: 39
My prediction: At this point, I think we can say with certainty that Joe Flacco and Baltimore’s offense suck. The Ravens have no consistent run game, and Flacco is averaging 5.42 yards per attempt. I’m pretty confident that the Vikings will win this game, because this is a matchup that suits them. When Minnesota goes down early, they struggle. But in games that their defense can control, their offense sees a corresponding boost in efficiency. Case Keenum has been quietly solid this year, especially at home, where he’s averaging 8.19 yards per attempt. I would stay away from this spread, because Baltimore is quite stingy against the pass and gets stud run stopper Brandon Williams back from injury. I’ll pick the Ravens to cover, because their defense is good and they can make some special teams plays. But it’ll be ugly. Vikings win 24-20.
Ravens cover

New Orleans Saints (3-2, 3-2) at Green Bay Packers (4-2, 3-3):*
Spread: Saints favored by 4
Over/under: 47
My prediction: This spread has moved down a few points over the course of the week, and for good reason. This is a game the Packers have a very good chance to win, even without Aaron Rodgers. Let’s throw out Brett Hundley’s performance in relief of Rodgers against the Vikings and assume that Hundley will be solid in a much more inviting matchup at home and with a week to prepare. I’m pretty comfortable assuming that. Remember, also, that Drew Brees has been much better at home and indoors than he has outside. Now, he’ll be playing in a drizzle at Lambeau. The Saints have put together three great performances in a row, but something tells me their defense isn’t as good as it’s looked over the last few games. Green Bay’s gameplan will be far more conservative than it would have been with Rodgers, leading to a depressed score, but the Packers will win it anyway. Packers win 26-20.
Packers cover

Tennessee Titans (3-3, 3-3) at Cleveland Browns (0-6, 1-5):
Spread: Titans favored by 6
Over/under: 45
My prediction: Vegas is begging me to take the Browns with this preposterous spread. That, I suppose, is the point. I think this very easily could be Cleveland’s first win of the season, with DeShone Kizer returning to breathe life back into the offense and capitalizing on Tennessee’s 26th-ranked defense (per DVOA). Plus, Tennessee is coming off a short week and could easily be looking ahead to their BYE week. The Titans want to run the ball, but the Browns have actually been excellent (third in DVOA) against the run. That means that a (probably) still hobbled Marcus Mariota is going to have to do a lot of playmaking. You can see that I’m trying to talk myself into picking the Browns to win this game. In the end, I can’t do it. But I will pick them to cover, if only to give me some satisfaction if the Browns do in fact get off the schneid. Titans win 28-24.
Browns cover

Dallas Cowboys (2-3, 2-3) at San Francisco 49ers (0-6, 4-2):
Spread: Cowboys favored by 6
Over/under: 49
My prediction: The Niners have lost their last five games by a combined 13 points. That’s five losses in a row by three points are fewer, which is really quite incredible. You may expect me to pick the Niners to cover again at home against a 2-3 Cowboys team that has been a defensive sieve, but I’m going to go the other way and pick the Cowboys to win easily. They’re coming off a BYE, and Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, and the rest of the offense will almost certainly have their way with the Niners’ defense. The question then becomes whether, in his first NFL start, C.J. Beathard can keep up. I’m going to say no. Cowboys win 35-17.
Cowboys cover

Cincinnati Bengals (2-3, 3-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2, 3-3):
Spread: Steelers favored by 4.5
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: This is an intriguing matchup, as AFC North showdowns that don’t include the Browns often are. These are the two best teams in the division, and the Bengals will be able to fully re-insert themselves into the mix after an 0-3 start if they can win this game in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are generally very tough at home, but that’s largely because in the past Ben Roethlisberger was always much better at home than he was on the road. This year, it seems like Roethlisberger stinks both at home and on the road. There’s still plenty of time for Big Ben to turn it around, but I’m not sure it’s likely to happen against a Cincinnati defense that ranks third in DVOA. To make matters worse for Pittsburgh’s offense, the Bengals have been strongest defensively against #1 receivers (5th in DVOA) and running backs (5th against passes to RBs, 7th against the run). If anyone can slow down both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell (which is unlikely), it’s these Bengals. For the Bengals to win this game, they’re going to have to get a whole lot more out of their run game — and Joe Mixon in particular — than they have recently. Pittsburgh’s dominant against the pass, as they showcased last week in Kansas City. In the end, it’s hard for me to pick against Pittsburgh at home, especially given how good their defense has been this season. Steelers win 24-14.
Steelers cover

Denver Broncos (3-2, 2-2-1) at Los Angeles Chargers (2-4, 2-3-1):*
Spread: Broncos favored by 1
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: I was going to say that it’s a bit strange that the Broncos are favored on the road, but I then realized that “home” games for the Chargers are actually more like road games. It’s no coincidence that the Chargers are 2-1 on the road and 0-3 at “home.” This seems pretty much guaranteed to be a close game, much like the first game between these two (ended 23-20) was. It’s a true tossup, and I’m going to pick the Chargers because Broncos’ QB Trevor Siemian is banged up and LA can get after the quarterback. Chargers win 24-21.
Chargers cover

Seattle Seahawks (3-2, 2-3) at New York Giants (1-5, 3-3):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 3.5
Over/under: 39.5
My prediction: This spread opened at a frightening Seahawks -8. After the Giants performed admirably in a Monday Night Football win in Denver, it plummeted to 3.5. I think this may be a bit of an overcorrection, because the Giants are still quite bad at football. With that being said, it’s not a great spot for Seattle’s maligned offensive line, so I don’t expect an offensive explosion from the Seahawks. Let’s try to remember from now on that the Giants still do have a super talented defense. Unfortunately for New York, so do the Seahawks. Seahawks win 20-13.
Seahawks cover

Atlanta Falcons (3-2, 2-3) at New England Patriots (4-2, 2-4):
Spread: Patriots favored by 3
Over/under: 56.5
My prediction: This is an interesting line. When’s the last time the Patriots have been favored by as little as three points at home with Tom Brady? I’d wager it’s been a long, long time. But perhaps this is the new normal for New England, who just don’t have a dominant team this season. The big concerns, of course, come on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots have the worst defense in the NFL, and it isn’t close. Before the season, and even a few weeks ago, I would have been very confident that Matt Ryan could make New England pay. Now, after two sluggish home losses? I’m not so sure. This spread is assuming that the MVP version of Matt Ryan comes to play. If last year’s Atlanta offense shows up, it’s a fair spread. But I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that everything will just click for the Falcons. Sure, New England’s shoddy defense will gift them some points. But even now, it’ll take more than that to beat Tom Brady at home. Patriots win 30-24.
Patriots cover

Washington Redskins (3-2, 2-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (5-1, 4-2):
Spread: Eagles favored by 4.5
Over/under: 48.5
My prediction: Is it possible that this spread isn’t giving the Eagles enough credit? My answer: yes! Even before it was reported that stud corner Josh Norman would be missing this game, I thought it was a bit low. The Eagles are a legitimately good and maybe even great team on both sides of the ball. They’re also relatively healthy now that Jordan Hicks and Fletcher Cox are fully back. There’s even a chance that top corner Ronald Darby, who’s been out since getting hurt in Week 1, could return for this game. That would just be icing on the cake for a team that has very few holes. For the Redskins to have a chance, they’re going to have to run the ball on a great defensive front. Rob Kelley couldn’t do it the first time these teams played, and now he’s banged up. Will the Redskins move the ball and score some points against the Eagles? Sure they will. Kirk Cousins is good, and he has some dangerous weapons. But the same is true on the other side of the ball with Carson Wentz. The difference is that the Eagles will really get after the quarterback, and Cousins has been very shaky when under pressure. Look for Cox, Brandon Graham, and company to force a few costly mistakes, and for the Eagles to take a lead and hold onto it, as they’ve done so well over the past few weeks. Eagles win 30-21.
Eagles cover

Upset picks:
Chargers over Broncos
Colts over Jags
Jets over Dolphins
Packers over Saints
Cardinals over Rams

The NFL Is Crazy, And Nobody Knows Anything

Posted: 10/19/2017 by levcohen in Football

Last week was one of the weirder NFL regular season weeks I can remember. Consider: the Falcons, up 17-0 at halftime at home against a team averaging 10 points pr game (and a team with two offensive touchdowns over the past three weeks), ended up losing 20-17. The Saints scored three defensive touchdowns against the Lions, who had a punt return touchdown and a pick-six of their own. That’s FIVE non-traditional touchdowns in a game between teams who are known for their offenses. Oh, and the Lions almost came all the way back after going down 45-10 on the road. The Cardinals led the Buccaneers 31-0, only to barely hold on at the end (38-33 was the final score). OF COURSE Adrian Peterson had 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his first game for Arizona. The Rams-Jaguars score was 7-7 TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS into the game. In his second career start, Mitch Trubisky led the Bears to a 27-24 victory in Baltimore… despite completing just eight passes for 113 yards and one touchdown. And the craziest thing of all was the Sunday Night Football game, because OF COURSE the Giants, sans all of their receivers, handled the Broncos 23-10. There’s just no way to explain why the Broncos, who had shut down running games all season, got shredded by Orleans Darkwa, of all people. Football is weird, and that’s the biggest takeaway of Week 6. Here are some others:

  • This is the official “Nobody’s That Good” year. Even after their home loss to the Steelers, I think the Chiefs are the best team in the NFL, but they’re not THAT good. There were three double-digit favorites last week: Denver, Atlanta, and Washington. The first two lost, and the Redskins barely held off the C.J. Beathard (yep, the third round rookie quarterback out of Iowa)-led Niners at home. The Patriots, heavy favorites in New York, were lucky to escape overtime after a very questionable call turned a touchdown for Austin Seferian-Jenkins into a touchback. The Chiefs lost at home. The Packers lost their quarterback and the game. I still think all of these teams are pretty good overallbut only the Chiefs have been consistently good, and Kansas City has the type of team that’s always going to have a few stinkers.
  • Controversial take: the Packers aren’t going to be that bad with Brett Hundley at quarterback. We all know they don’t have the Super Bowl potential they had with Rodgers under center, but I think they still have a chance to win a weak NFC North. The fact that they opened the week getting 6.5 points at home against the Saints is ludicrous. Throw away Hundley’s performance against Minnesota last week, because not only was it on the road against a good defense but it also was in relief of Aaron Rodgers with a gameplan tailored for Aaron Rodgers after a week in which Hundley didn’t get many practice reps. Let’s see how the ex-UCLA star performs after a week of first team reps against a Saints defense that’s getting a lot of hype but is far from dominant.
  • Carson Wentz is very good, and so are the Eagles. We already knew they were good before last week, but there haven’t been many more impressive wins this season than at Carolina in a primetime game. Wentz’s numbers didn’t pop off the screen, but he made a lot of plays and didn’t make many mistakes. Now, I think the fact that Carson Wentz is now a +175 favorite to win the MVP is pretty crazy. I would advise against betting on that, and would instead tell you to bet on Tom Brady (+400), Russell Wilson (+1200), Drew Brees (+2000), or even Le’Veon Bell (+2500) if you’re feeling courageous. But Wentz and Philly’s offense is plenty good enough to make this team, which also boasts a tremendous front-seven, a true Super Bowl threat in this wide open NFL landscape.
  • The Chargers, following a second consecutive close win, have officially passed on their losses-in-close-games belt to the poor Niners, who are 0-6 and have lost their last five games by no more than three points. It’s not a product of bad kicking — Robbie Gould is 15-for-16 this season. It’s just terrible luck. I’m interested to see if Beathard can turn things around for this team. The Niners are six point home dogs against the Cowboys this week.
  • On the next episode of Monday Night Football, another brutal cover. In Week 4, the Chiefs covered against the Redskins by scoring a meaningless defensive touchdown as time expired on what started as a desperation hook-and-lateral play by Washington. Week 5 didn’t have a brutal cover, but Mitch Trubisky throwing a pick inside his own territory late in the game and costing his team a chance to win can’t have felt good for the people who had Bears +3 and were saddled with a push. This week, the Colts were losing to the Titans but were set to cover.. until Derrick Henry ran 72 yards for a meaningless touchdown with 47 seconds left in the game. This is why gambling is stupid. On that note…

7-7 straight up… 54-37 for the season
7-7 against the spread… 44-45-2
6-8 on over/unders… 45-44-2

Yup, it’s been that kind of year, and I think I’m actually doing better than most pickers of every game. For reference, 54 correct picks on ESPN’s Pigskin Pick-em game (which is just picking each game straight up) would put me in the 96th percentile.

My upset picks were 2-0, as I hit on both the Steelers and Cardinals. My mistake was not picking more upsets. I’m 13-9 straight up on upsets on the season. Maybe I really should pick more!

Kansas City Chiefs (5-1, 5-1 against the spread) at Oakland Raiders (2-4, 2-4):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 3
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: The Raiders have lost four straight games, and they haven’t scored more than 17 points in that stretch. I think the idea that the offense was going to explode this year was always a bit misguided, because that’s just not the type of offense Oakland has. They don’t push the ball down the field or make many big plays; rather, they want to dink-and-dunk their way down the field, using the short passing game and Marshawn Lynch to score points. Newsflash: that just hasn’t worked. Lynch has just 70 carries all year and is averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Carr is averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt, and Amari Cooper, a former high first round draft pick who posted 1,000+ yards in each of his first two NFL seasons, has just 146 receiving yards all season! Last week, 20 of Carr’s 31 attempts failed to go more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Is Carr just not that good? Is his back bothering him more than the Raiders are letting on? Or have the game plans just been overly conservative and rigid? Whatever it is, something has to change this week. Carr has lost his last five starts against the Chiefs and has completed just 56% of his passes against them in that span. That’s no accident: Kansas City is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 53.5% of their passes, lowest in the NFL. And yet.. they’ve been very susceptible to the deep ball. Their DVOA against the deep ball is below average, and there’s a reason that they’re averaging 7.8 yards per attempt this year, which is 26th in the NFL. This might have something to do with Eric Berry being out, but for whatever reason, Kansas City is really bad against deep passes. The Raiders have to notice this, right? I’ll be shocked if they don’t take some deep shots against the Chiefs. They have a strong offensive line, and their quarterback has a strong arm. Cooper can get open down the field (whether he can hang onto the ball is another question), and Michael Crabtree makes tons of contested catches. I just don’t understand why this offense doesn’t seem to want to be explosive, even when it has the pieces to be explosive. If the Raiders are to pull off the upset tonight, I’m guessing it’ll be in part because they make a few huge plays in the deep passing game. With Marcus Peters likely to line up against Michael Crabtree often, it could be up to Cooper to finally have a big game.

On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs should be able to bounce back after a lackluster offensive performance. They’ve had a lot of offensive injuries on the line, at running back, and at receiver, but as long as they still have Alex Smith, Kareem Hunt, Tyreke Hill, and Travis Kelce, they should boast a degree of versatility and explosiveness that will be tough for a defense like Oakland’s, which ranks 28th in DVOA, to stop. I think we’ll see tonight how good Pittsburgh’s defense really is, because I think Sunday’s game said a lot more about the Steeler defense than it did about offensive weaknesses for the Chiefs.

I know I just said I want to pick more upsets, but this doesn’t feel like the right spot to pick an underdog. The Chiefs are just a better team across the board. They should control this game, and I’ll be surprised if they lose it. I know they’re road favorites and that the public is all over the Chiefs (at a 70+% clip), but I’m going to roll with KC anyway. Interesting tidbit: the Chiefs are 10-1 against the spread as a road favorite since the start of 2015. Chiefs win 27-17.
Chiefs cover

Bottom half of the Western Conference

Posted: 10/18/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

I wrote about the teams I expect to finish in playoff positions in the Western Conference yesterday. Today, I’m going to hit the rest of the Western Conference.

9. Utah Jazz (42-40): I was very, very close to picking the Jazz to finish ahead of the Blazers. You have to love the defense. This team was very stingy defensively last season, allowing the third-fewest points per possession. They used that to power them to a 51-31 season and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Believe it or not, their defense may be even better this year. They replaced point guard George Hill, an average defender, with Ricky Rubio, one of the best (and peskiest) point guard defenders in the league. They also drafted athletic Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell in the first round. Mitchell was one of the best defenders in college basketball last season and has the length and talent to immediately be a solid NBA defender. And really, any team with Rudy Gobert anchoring a defense is going to be just fine. Gobert may not be the best defender in the league, but he’s right up there with Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Utah’s defense is going to be a force. The problem: how are they going to score? They were a pretty good offense last year — 12th in offensive efficiency — but lost their two leading scorers. It’s asking a lot to expect the talented but injury prone Rodney Hood to seamlessly replace Gordon Hayward’s (by the way, poor Gordon Hayward) scoring. And even if Hood does become a 20 point per game scorer, which is unlikely, who will be the secondary scorers that George Hill and Hood were last year? It’s not going to be Rubio. Gobert is who he is, which is not a tremendously refined offensive player. Joe Johnson still has his moments, but he won’t be a consistent scorer at his age. Everyone loves Joe Ingles now, because he hit 44% from three last year and because he’s going to replace Hayward in the starting lineup. But Ingles almost exclusively shoots from beyond the arc, and he’s never going to be a guy who can get a bucket himself. Mitchell? He’s impressed so far, but he’s a rookie who’s going to have a lot of rough patches. This is why I think Derrick Favors, the forgotten man, is so important. He’s one of the only players on the team — heck, besides the 36-year-old Johnson he may be the only one — who has shown the ability to score consistently. He averaged 16 points per game twice in a row before falling off a cliff in an injury-marred 2016-17 season. The problem is that Favors and Gobert may not be able to play effectively together on either end of the court. There’s a reason that Favors has been the subject of trade talk. Plus, Favors, like Hood, is coming off a season in which he played fewer than 60 games (50 for Favors, 59 for Hood). It’s just tough to consider a team with such offensive weakness as a playoff team in this loaded Western Conference. I do love coach Quin Snyder and the defense, though.

10. Memphis Grizzlies (39-43): As long as the Grizzlies have a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, they’re going to be pretty good. They’ve had a positive net rating with those two on the court together forever. And it makes sense. Both of those players are really good! But there are a few holes in the “Conley and Gasol are going to lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs for the eighth straight year” argument. First of all, being “pretty good” has been enough to get the Grizzlies 42-43 wins and a seven seed twice in a row. That may not be enough in the brutal 2017-18 Western Conference, which has not just elite teams but also much improved middle-of-the-pack teams. Second of all, Gasol has missed 40 games and Conley 39 over the past two seasons. They’re now both on the wrong side of 30-years-old. For a team with little margin of error, it’s not a good sign that those two have missed a substantial amount of time over these last few years. Third of all, any margin of error the Grizz had over the last few years is now gone, because their supporting cast just got a whole lot worse. Memphis lost Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, the two guys who encapsulated the Grizzlies’ grit-and-grind mantra. They lost Vince Carter, who at 40 is still remarkably effective. They also just cut 2016 first round pick Wade Baldwin, which, well, that’s not good. They lost Troy Daniels, a role player who was one of their best three point shooters. And their only major addition was Tyreke Evans, who has quickly transitioned from “empty stats guy” to “injury prone no stats guy.” The Grizzlies now have both Evans and Chandler Parsons, two players with a lot of talent who haven’t been good or healthy in a long time. And look at the starting lineup outside of Conley and Gasol: James Ennis, JaMychal Green, Brandan Wright. Not good. 39 wins may be high, but I have a lot of respect for Conley and Gasol.

11. New Orleans Pelicans (37-45): I’m granting the Pelicans 37 wins because they have Anthony Davis, one of the best players in the NBA. But this lineup makes zero sense. I don’t think it’s impossible to build a good team around Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. But I know that the Pelicans did about as bad a job as possible to put the right pieces around Boogie and Brow. They have almost no shooting! They were forced to give injury prone point guard Jrue Holiday a huge extension largely because he’s one of the only players on the team who can shoot. This team finished 19th in the NBA in three point percentage last year, then added Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen, two guys who can’t shoot. Solomon Hill, one of the only players on the team who can shoot, tore his hamstring and may miss the whole season. And the few players — outside of Holiday — who can shoot (I’m talking about Jordan Crawford and E’Twuan Moore and maybe Ian Clark) can’t play a lick of defense. Davis and Cousins could work together, but you have to put the right pieces around them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cousins is dealt again at the deadline. The Pelicans have to do something to make their generational talent happy.

12. Sacramento Kings (32-50)
13. Dallas Mavericks (30-52)
14. Los Angeles Lakers (28-54)
15. Phoenix Suns (26-56)

I’m sorry, but none of these teams is particularly interesting. I don’t think any of them are Bulls or Pacers level terrible, but none of them are anywhere near good enough to compete in the Western Conference. I expect these four to be pretty close together at the bottom of the conference for most of the season. The Lakers are getting the most hype of these four teams, because of course they are. But guess what? They kind of stink! Lonzo Ball might be good, but he’s not Magic Johnson! Kentavius Caldwell-Pope is meh, and only is in LA because he shares an agent with LeBron and the Lakers are already courting LeBron (shoot me now). I still think Brandon Ingram’s going to be good, but he’s not a plus player yet. Julius Randle is a classic empty stats guy. When’s the last time Brook Lopez has been a big contributor for a good team? Jordan Clarkson… please. If Kyle Kuzma leads this team to a playoff spot… I don’t even know what I’d do. It’s not going to happen. Same story for Sac-town, Dallas, and Phoenix. I think Sacramento may be the most fun team of the bunch. They signed George Hill and Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. All of those guys are fun veterans. They have Buddy Hield, a fun young player, and drafted De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson, both of whom have huge “fun young player” potential. I always forget which of their young Kentucky big men — Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein — is good, but I swear one of them might be good. It’s a nice mix of youth and experience. It’d be nicer if their young players and/or experienced players were better at basketball, but they’re good enough to be better than these other three teams. Dallas will be interesting to watch purely because they have Dennis Smith Jr., and Dennis Smith has the potential to shatter rookie usage rate records. They’re going to hand him the keys to the offense right away and let him lead them to a high pick. Phoenix is going to make a few trades, as I expect them to shop Eric Bledsoe, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, and any other veteran another team may want. I think Devin Booker’s good, but I’m not as high on him as an all-around basketball player as some people are. On the other hand, I really like Josh Jackson, so that’s a reason to watch this team. By the way, Brandon Knight’s ACL tear sends the Suns back into a tie with the Kings for most active Kentucky players (3). Phoenix’s UK players are guards — Booker, Tyler Ulis, Bledsoe, Knight — while Sacramento replaced Cousins, who they traded, with Fox, their first round pick.