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Quick Picks for Saturday’s Two Games

Posted: 12/16/2017 by levcohen in Uncategorized

Because there aren’t enough days with football already, this is the time of year that the NFL decides to randomly schedule two games on a Saturday. One of these games is super important and could determine the winner of the AFC West. The other features a wild card hopeful making its last stand and a 4-9 team that just drubbed Cincinnati on the road. Both games are intriguing, with Chargers-Chiefs obviously serving as the marquee game. Who would’ve thought that was to be the case after Week 4, when the Chiefs improved to 4-0 and the Chargers fell to 0-4? For what it’s worth, I picked LA to win the division before the season, but I abandoned that position after the 0-4 start. Clearly, I shouldn’t have.

Chicago Bears (4-9, 6-5-2) at Detroit Lions (7-6, 6-6-1):

Spread: Lions favored by 4.5

Over/under: 44

My prediction: Clearly, Vegas has lost any respect it once had for these Lions. A week after Detroit-Tampa closed at a pick before the Lions won by a field goal, Detroit is giving just 4.5 points against a bad Chicago team. Some of that might be due to lingering concerns about Matthew Stafford’s health. Some of it, of course, has to do with the fact that the Lions aren’t as good, especially defensively, as they were touted to be early on. But I think too much of the spread movement — it opened at 6 or 6.5 — is the result of Chicago’s dominant win last week. And frankly I’m not buying it. The Bears played admirably, but they also capitalized on a horrendous performance from a Bengals team that quit in the second half. This is still a team without a viable passing game, and if the Lions slow down Jordan Howard they should win the game. Lions win 24-14.

Lions cover

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Los Angeles Chargers (7-6, 7-5-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-6, 7-6):

Spread: Pick ’em

Over/under: 46.5

My prediction: The Chiefs finally broke their skid last week with a much needed win over the Raiders. I maintain that the Raiders are terrible, though, and I wasn’t particularly impressed by the performance. It certainly didn’t wash away the memory of KC’s 1-6 stretch. I’ve seen the point made that a lot of their losses were close and hinged on a few key plays, which is true, but the same can be said about most games in the NFL, and particularly about the Chargers’ losses early this year. Lately, LA has left nothing to chance. They thrashed the Redskins last week in a game I thought would be close. I just think the Chargers are the better team, and they aren’t phased on the road. Chargers win 27-21.

Chargers cover

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MNF Pick With Mariota Starting

Posted: 10/16/2017 by levcohen in Uncategorized

Indianapolis Colts (2-3, 3-2) at Tennessee Titans (2-3, 2-3):

Spread: Titans favored by 8

Over/under: 48

Marcus Mariota will start tonight after missing a game with a hamstring injury. I think we can assume that the Titans wouldn’t have brought him back if he weren’t anywhere near full strength, but I do thinks it’s likely that he won’t have his normal ability. This is obviously a very important game for both 2-3 teams. The winner can climb into a tie for first in the division with Houston and Jacksonville, both of whom have glaring holes. This division is up for grabs, and the winner of this game will be in a great position. I expect the Titans to run the ball early and often, returning to the game plan that made their offense such a success last season. I think they fell in love with their passing game overall, but the fact that Mariota will be less than 100% should force them into more balance. If Mariota is anywhere close to himself, Tennessee should have no trouble moving the ball at home against a weak defense. This is a good test for Jacoby Brissett, as it’s a decent matchup but comes on the road in a prime time game. I could see Brissett making a few mistakes early and turning this game into a rout (with 40+ carries for the Tennessee backs), but as long as he gets the ball out of his hands quickly and puts it in the hands of TY Hilton, he should be fine. In a week in which there have been so many upsets and near upsets, I’m wary about picking a substantial home favorite to cover, especially with Mariota coming off an injury. Titans win 26-21.

Colts cover

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Saturday Night Football Pick

Posted: 12/17/2016 by levcohen in Uncategorized

Saturday Night Football is back with a bang, with the Dolphins traveling North to face the New York Jets. Ok, so it might not be back with a bang. But it’s back, and it has playoff ramifications for the Dolphins, so I guess it’s worth watching.

Miami dolphins (8-5, 8-5) at New York Jets (4-9, 4-9):*

Spread: Dolphins favored by 3

Over/under: 38

My prediction: I know the jets suck, but something about picking Matt Moore as a road favorite makes me feel uneasy. Jets win 17-14.

jets cover

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Half of Week 10 Review, TNF Pick

Posted: 11/19/2015 by levcohen in Football, Uncategorized

Last week had all the makings of a crazy one. There were a lot of unpredictable games, with a ton of point spreads falling in the 4-6.5 “who the heck knows” range. Sure enough, the week was defined by its weirdness. Underdogs went 10-4 straight up and just three teams won at home. The Bengals, Broncos, and Packers in particular all disappointed in losses to mediocre teams. I have plenty of takeaways from this week, but I’ll post those when I have more time. For now, here’s my performance from last week, my team eliminations, and my Thursday Night Football pick.

I’m going to eliminate the Chargers,  Cowboys and Ravens after losses sent them to 2-7 records (the Chargers had a BYE, but I forgot to eliminate them last year) that tie for the worst in football. I’ve now eliminated 11 teams after 10 weeks, although I’m starting to second-guess my KC and Chicago eliminations.

Eliminated teams: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, Kansas City, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Dallas, Baltimore, San Diego

8-6 straight up… 83-49
8-6 against the spread… 65-62-5
5-6-3 over/under… 64-63-5

Upset picks:
4-0… 18-16

Lock of the Week:
0-1… 7-3 (really Packers???)

Tennessee Titans (2-7, 4-5) at Jacksonville Jaguars (3-6, 5-4):
Spread: Jaguars favored by 3
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Does this game mean anything? You would think not, given that its participants are 2-7 and 3-6. In most games between teams with those records, the only thing on the line is a better draft picks. But these teams reside in the AFC South, the division that is co-led by the Colts, who are without their quarterback for at least the next few weeks, and the Texans, who lost their quarterback, looked terrible offensively, and still managed to knock off the previously-undefeated Bengals in Cincinnati. That’s football, folks. But the point is that the Jags in particular have a decent chance at making a run for the division (20.3%, per Football Outsiders), largely because they also have the easiest remaining schedule (their opponents the rest of the season have a combined 24-44 record). The Titans are in a much tougher position, but they too have a better shot than a 2-7 team normally would. So this game could have some importance.

The Jaguars just look like the better team at this point. They’ve played very well in their last three games, with a tough five point loss at the Jets book-ended by upset wins over the Bills and Ravens. Sure, their win last week was gift-wrapped by the most boneheaded of boneheaded mistakes by Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil, but they played the Ravens to a draw nonetheless (not that that’s really something to be proud of). I’m not saying the Jags are good, but they have some offensive talent with Blake Bortles being surrounded by T.J. Yeldon, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns, a trio of dynamic skill-position players.

I have no such optimism about Tennessee. They’ve scored more than 13 points in a game once in the last six, and that was against the Saints’ infamous defense, which is on pace to be one of the worst of all-time and was so bad that Rob Ryan was fired mid-season. Their defense is good, but with the exception of the wins over the Bucs and Saints, Marcus Mariota and his limited weapons just aren’t getting it done. Delanie Walker is a consistent tight end, but who else is there?? Antonio Andrews, who rushed the ball 11 times for eight yards? Sorry, I can’t pick the Titans, even against the road, where they are 2-2 straight up and against the spread. It’s scary to pick the Jags, especially after a fluky win, but I’ll take Jacksonville. Jags win 27-20.

Jaguars cover
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Week 9 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 11/12/2015 by levcohen in Uncategorized

Week nine served to further clarify things in a lot of ways, as I wasn’t surprised by much of what happened. In the last two weeks, I’ve seen enough to eliminate the Chargers. I’m close to crossing off Dallas, Miami, and Baltimore, but I’ll wait another week to do that.

Eliminated teams: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, Kansas City, Tennessee, Jacksonville

Here are five takeaways from week 9:

    • Tyrod Taylor is really good, and a lot better than I thought. I picked the Dolphins to beat the Bills last week, discounting the fact that Taylor was returning from a two game absence. When Taylor got injured, the Bills were 3-2. They lost the two games he missed and didn’t look particularly good in either game. Sure enough, though, as soon as Taylor came back, the Bills rebounded. Taylor went 11/12 for 181 yards and a touchdown (most of which went to Sammy Watkins, who was coming back from injury himself) and added 10 carries for 44 yards as the Bills hung 33 points on the Dolphins. Granted, Taylor was helped by a great running game (or atrocious run defense), with LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams tearing the Ndamukong Suh-led defense to the tune of 25 carries for 224 yards and three touchdowns. But Taylor, who’s now looking like the best offseason signing of them all at his price, looked calm and composed as he led the Bills on four touchdown drives. Buffalo, now 4-4, has a reasonable chance of making the playoffs, but their schedule toughens up; it’s the third-hardest in football from here on out.
    • With Denver losing in Indianapolis, I think it’s now very fair to say that the remaining undefeated teams — 8-0 New England, Cincinnati, and Carolina — fully deserve their unblemished records. The teams rank first, third, and fourth in DVOA, and each of them has notched impressive wins. The Panthers have beaten Green Bay and Seattle, the Bengals have beaten the Raiders, Seahawks, and Steelers, and the Patriots have drubbed too many teams to count en route to a league-best +133 point differential. It’s looking more and more likely that we’ll have an undefeated team this season, especially since all three teams have reasonable schedules going forward. My prediction: the Patriots go 15-1 while the other two go 14-2.
    • The Raiders are legit. They lost in Pittsburgh by three points, but in doing so they showed that they have a real chance to make the playoffs. Their offense is top-10, with Derek Carr breaking out this season and having plenty of targets around him. Meanwhile, they have a below-average defense, but Kahlil Mack and Co. should improve at least a little down the stretch. At this point, their playoff chances are probably a coin flip.
    • The Eagles are still a confounding team, but it looks like their offense is slowly getting better. Sam Bradford has looked more comfortable in back-to-back competent efforts against the Panthers and Cowboys, while the running game has been one of the best in football since week three. Given their week division and their strong defense (although the loss of rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks, the DROY frontrunner, really hurts), the Birds have to be favored to win the NFC East. Now, they’re unlikely to do much in the playoffs, but they should be able to get that far.
    • It’s kind of creepy how, in many cases, backup players and especially running backs can fill in so well for injured stars. Just look at Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Kansas City, teams that lost Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte, and Jamaal Charles, three of the best backs in football. All three teams have gotten great games out of their backups, who have looked almost as good as the injured stars. Maybe that tells us that successful running is more due to a good offensive line and system than anything else.

7-6 straight up… 75-43

9-4 against the spread… 57-56-5

6-7 over/under… 59-57-2

Upset picks:

1-2… 14-16

1-0… 6-2

Buffalo Bills (4-4, 4-4) at New York Jets (5-3, 4-3-1):*

Spread: Jets favored by 2.5

Over/under: 41.5

My prediction: total toss up here, but since I just talked up the Bills, I might as well defend them here. Bills win 20-17.

Bills cover

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Because I’m in a place with very limited internet connectivity and no computer (I’m using my phone), I don’t think this is the time or place to do my week 8 recap. I’ll do that later this week, but I do have to make a Thursday night pick, so I’ll do that quickly. Sorry if the formatting is off slightly; that would be thanks to my phone.

Cleveland Browns (2-6, 4-4) at Cincinnati Bengals (7-0, 6-0-1):

Spread: Bengals favored by 12

Over/under: 45

My prediction: The Bengals are really good, but 12 is a lot of points to be giving. Bengals win 26-16 in a game not as close as the final score indicates.

Browns cover

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This is around the time in the baseball season that it makes sense to start looking ahead to the playoffs and to the award races. I started doing the former with my Mets post and figured that I’d get going on the latter today with one or both of the MVP races. The problem is that both the NL MVP and the AL MVP races are effectively over, with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout running away with their respective races. The comparison between those two is another post entirely, one that’s probably been over-analyzed already. And the NL Cy Young is Zack Greinke’s to lose, given that Greinke is 11-2 and has a sub-2 ERA. If Greinke has more starts like the one he had against the Phillies (six runs in six innings), the back door could open up for Max Scherzer or Gerrit Cole, assuming Greinke and fellow-Dodger Clayton Kershaw split votes. But the award is Greinke’s if he continues to pitch well, which is something that can’t be said about any pitcher in the AL.

This race is refreshingly wide-open. You’d normally see a semi-decent candidate from the best team in the league gaining momentum, but there’s nobody on the Royals who deserves much of a look, barring a 2008 CC Sabathia stretch from new acquisition Jhonny Cueto (in 2008, Sabathia finished sixth in the NL MVP voting despite starting just 17 games for the Brewers after a mid-season trade. In those 17 games, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA while averaging nearly eight innings a start. Cueto won’t do that.). The Yankees, the team with the second best record in the AL, also don’t have a viable starting candidate for Cy Young, although reliever Dellin Betances might have an argument (more on that later). Many of the best pitchers in the AL pitch on teams that are below .500, which, while in no way a death knell, is a big negative for some voters. Another problem is that there’s no pitcher who’s racked up an anomalous number of wins. Felix Hernandez leads the AL with 14 wins, and even he has a less than 50-50 shot at 20 wins. Lastly, nobody’s having a Greinke-esque season in the AL when it comes to ERA, with no pitcher currently posting an ERA under 2.00 as we slog through the dog days of August.

Ok, so we know why this is a close and congested race. Who are the frontrunners? First, let’s learn something from previous AL Cy Young winners. Since 2008, the seven winners have averaged just north of 19 wins with only one, Felix Hernandez in 2010, winning fewer than 16. Only one of the seven has posted an ERA higher than 2.60, and that was Max Scherzer in 2013 when he had a ludicrous 21-3 record along with a 2.90 ERA. So anyone with an ERA above, say, 3.20 (anyone below that can easily get under the threshold) and anyone with single-digit wins should be eliminated. Already, we’re left with just six candidates: Sonny Gray, David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Felix Hernandez, and Edinson Volquez. And given that every Cy Young winner since 2009 in both leagues has struck out more than 200 batters, we can eliminate Volquez, who has just 102 strikeouts in 139 innings. Besides, he’s Edinson Volquez. That should have been enough. So we’re left with five candidates.

I wouldn’t have said this a couple of weeks ago, but right now it looks like Price should be the favorite to take home his second AL Cy Young award in four years. Three great things have happened to Price’s stock in the last two weeks. First, he was traded from a sinking team in the Tigers to a team with a much better chance of making the playoffs in the Blue Jays. Second, the Jays have gone 11-1 since the trade, drawing within a single game of the Yankees in the AL East. Price isn’t responsible for most of that, but most voters are frankly too shallow to realize that. The Jays have gone from a fringe playoff contender to a likely playoff team, and that matters to voters, especially if they go on to win their division. Finally, Price has pitched extremely well since the trade, allowing just six hits and one run in 15 innings while striking out 18 and winning both starts as a Blue Jay. So he now sits at 11-4 with a 2.35 ERA. He sits just fifth in the AL in WAR at 4.1, but that won’t matter to most voters. Price ranks fourth in the AL in innings pitched with 161 and has 156 strikeouts, which should allow him to break the 200 mark easily. Minus a few wins, in fact, his season very much mirrors his 2012 Cy Young season; in 2012, he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA for a 90-win Rays team that barely missed the playoffs. Again, though, more important than all of the stats is the fact that Price is making a clear impact on a team that’s exploded since it has acquired him. If the Blue Jays win the AL East with Price pitching well, the former Ray and Tiger will probably win the award. If not, though, there are plenty of other candidates for the award.

The ERA leader always has a chance in the race. This year, barring a late slump, that guy will be either Sonny Gray or Scott Kazmir. And since Kazmir is just 6-6, Gray is the guy with a chance to capitalize on his low ERA. The 25-year old has been good ever since being called up in 2013 but is having his true breakout season this year. He’s 12-4 with a 2.06 ERA and seems to be well on his way to a 17-7, 2.30 type season, numbers that would put him squarely in the race. Unfortunately, Gray happens to pitch for the Athletics, who are 12 games under .500 and are just half a game better than the Red Sox, the worst team in the AL. He’s also not the prototypical dominant Cy Young candidate, as while he throws as fast as any candidate besides Price, Archer, and Betances, he lacks the out pitches the other guys have, as evidenced by his lackluster 7.57 K/9 rate, which, if it remains static, will leave him just short of 200 strikeouts. Gray pitches to contact, and he’s gotten really lucky this year, with a lot of balls finding gloves. That explains why his FIP is nearly a run higher than his ERA, and it could mean that his ERA will regress meaningfully over the final few months. And while a relatively unknown 17-7 pitcher with a 2.10 ERA on a bad team might win the Cy Young, the same guy with a 2.50 ERA would probably fall short. Gray’s a very good pitcher, but I think he could fall short of a top-three finish.

In every way except the traditional ones, Archer would be a better candidate than Gray. The two are at similar points in their careers, and Archer’s 10-8 record and 2.62 ERA pales in comparison to Gray’s profile. Archer’s on pace to go 14-12, and only the 13-12, 2.27 ERA King Felix in 2010 managed to win a Cy Young with a record like that. But everything else about Archer, the candidate with the best WAR, screams “stud.” He throws his average fastball 95 miles per hour, and he uses his deadly slider to strike out 11.06 batters per nine innings. He’s on pace to strike out 275 hitters, more than any Cy Young winner since Randy Johnson in 2002. And even if he ends up with 250 strikeouts he’ll be in great shape. The problem is again that he’s a relatively unknown starter on a .500 Rays team that is unlikely (16.8% playoff shot, per Fangraphs) to make the playoffs. So while Archer might be the deserving Cy Young, he won’t have the pedigree, ERA or record to make a serious run barring a dominant final month and a half.

One thing you might have noticed is that most of these candidates have pretty much come out of nowhere. That’s certainly the case for Dallas Keuchel, who after posting an ERA above five in his first two years has bounced back with a 2.93 ERA last season and a 2.40 ERA this year to go along with his solid 13-6 record. Keuchel’s average fastball clocks in at under 90 miles per hour. He’s one of just seven qualified AL starters without a pitch that averages 90 mph, and Hernandez, the next slowest of the candidates, averages 92.1 miles per hour on his fastball. Keuchel might be the guy with the best story. He’s the ace for the biggest surprise in baseball, as his Astros have quickly gone from being baseball’s laughingstock to leading the AL West for almost the entirety of this season. Unfortunately, it looks as if he’s falling off a little as the season has gone on. Since posting a .73 ERA in April, he’s looked a little more shaky, as evidenced by his 3.71 ERA in July and his 3.29 ERA through two August starts. But those numbers are still pretty darn good, and Keuchel will have a legitimate chance at the Cy Young. In order to win the award, the Astros probably need to hold on for the AL West championship, Keuchel needs to keep his ERA under 2.50. Oh, and it would also be nice if he could hit 20 wins. It might be unlikely, but a 20-8 season on baseball’s feel-good team would probably be enough for Keuchel to take home the Cy Young.

Then there’s Felix Hernandez, who along with Price is a guy everyone knew about before the season. Hernandez probably feels robbed of a Cy Young, as he was just edged out by then-upstart Corey Kluber despite leading the league in ERA at 2.14 and WHIP at .92. He now has four top-four Cy Young finishes and could be on his way to adding a fifth this season. Hernandez is an outlier here because his 3.11 ERA is pretty high for a Cy Young candidate, but I had to include him both because he leads the league in wins and because I think he has a good chance of going on a tear to close the season. Let’s say Hernandez allows 10 runs in his final 10 starts (70 innings) while winning six and losing two. Pretty reasonable for an ace like Felix, right? Well, in that scenario, Hernandez would end the season with a 20-8 record and a 2.53 ERA. That probably still wouldn’t be enough to win him the award given that he plays for a pretty poor Mariners team, but it would definitely put him in the conversation. And the name Felix Hernandez is always going to give him a little bump, especially since he’ll be competing with no-names like Dallas Keuchel for votes.

Finally, I’d like to talk about Dellin Betances, my darkhorse candidate. Now, I know Betances has no real shot at winning this award unless all five of the other guys get shelled a bunch and a few other starters get injured. And given that he’s going to end the season with around two-and-a-half times fewer innings pitched than the starters, he probably shouldn’t be in the conversation. But the guy is so dominant for one of the best teams in the league that I almost feel obligated to bring him up. Betances and Aroldis Chapman are the only relievers to post WAR tallies above 1.8, and the Yankees flamethrower (96.8 average fastball, sixth fastest in baseball) leads the way with 2.3. He also has thrown more innings than all but two relievers, and one of those two, Justin De Fratus, has thrown most of his innings in mop-up situations, as evidenced by his 0-1 record and 5.69 ERA. Betances trails only Chapman in strikeouts per nine innings with 14.28, and he leads all relief pitchers with 92 punchouts. Oh, he also has a 1.23 ERA, second best in baseball. But most important is the role he fills with the Yankees. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually think Betances’ six wins say a lot about what he’s done for the team. He always comes in in high leverage situations, and he almost always gets the job done, including when closer Andrew Miller was injured. He has 18 holds and seven saves while often pitching on back-to-back nights. And while this shouldn’t matter, he also looks incredibly intimidating to hit against, as he’s 6’8″ and not all that lanky. So if he brings his ERA lower and keeps dominating opponents, why shouldn’t he be in the discussion? …. Right, the innings thing. Bummer.

The American League is closer to complete parity than I can remember it ever being, with no team even as many as 10 games out of a playoff spot and only the Royals boasting a winning percentage over .555. With that being said, this might be a year in which pitching for a winning team means less than it otherwise would. That opens the door for guys like Gray, Hernandez, and Archer while giving Betances and Volquez less of an advantage. Here’s the way I see the AL Cy Young award race shaking out:

David Price
Dallas Keuchel
Sonny Gray
Felix Hernandez
Chris Archer
Dellin Betances

This is a crazy race, and I can see it going any number of ways. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned the two leaders in WAR in Corey Kluber and Chris Sale simply because this year they don’t fit the profiles of Cy Young award winners. But I feel pretty confident that, barring a collapse or injury, these five starters are all going to finish near the top of the ballot, with Price or Keuchel winning the award simply because they have the best combinations of stats and storylines. And Betances might even find himself on some ballots too.