Friday, September 30, 2011

Week 4 NFL Picks

Week 3 of the NFL was AWESOME. Besides the Bills literally unbelievable comeback against the Patriots, which might be the best Bills game I've ever seen in my life, there was:
-A monsoon during a football game! (Panthers-Jaguars)
- The excitement of the Texans-Saints game, a 40-33 barnburner with some gaudy throws by Drew Brees and seeing the Texans fail in the clutch yet again
- The Lions coming back from a 20 point deficit to beat the Vikings (who have led at halftime of all their games, and lost all three- call them the bizzaro Bills). The Lions improved to 3-0.
- The 49ers Bengals and Seahawks Cardinals games... nope. Nevermind. Let's never speak of this again.
-Michael Vick getting absolutely battered by the Giants defense. When you watch Vick, you're either watching the most talented football player in the league do amazing things, or watching the most talented player in football get beaten to a pulp and trying not to scream at his offensive line.
-The Dolphins lost! The Jets lost! The Bears lost!
-Ok, sorry, it had to make the list twice, but the Buffalo Bills came back from a 21-0 deficit, picked off Tom Brady 4 times (and made him cut his hair), out Belichek-ed Belichek with halftime adjustments and playcalling, and won on a drive in the final two minutes. THESE THINGS DO NOT HAPPEN.

So, on, on to week 4 the NFL moves forward. This is one of those weird weeks the NFL scheduled during the lockout in case they missed games- meaning there are no divisional match ups. There are a couple of good match ups to be had out of it, though. Last week I went 10-6 overall and 8-7-1 against the spread. Not bad.

Detroit at Dallas (-1.5)

Dallas has shown me pretty much nothing over the last 3 weeks. They bumbled away victory against the Jets, struggled to beat the 49ers, and then beat the Redskins by hitting six field goals. With no touchdowns. (Meanwhile, Ron Jaworski, in the MNF booth, was giving Tony Romo the most ridiculous tongue bathing I've ever heard. Made it sound like Romo's no TD performance was one for the ages. Ugh). Detroit has shown the ability to win from behind and when they're not playing at their best. They have an explosive offense led by WR Calvin Johnson, and the defense is absolutely nasty up front. I don't care if the Cowboys claim they're going to put tons of coverage on Johnson- the Lions still have Jahvid Best at running back, Nate Burleson as a capable if not exceptional #2 option at receiver, and Brandon Pettigrew as a solid tight end. The Cowboys don't have Miles Austin back at receiver, Dez Bryant is playing through an injury, and the running game has been slow to develop. Dallas doesn't have the weapons on offense to match Detroit right now, and it will take a monumental effort from their defense to win this game, an effort I don't think Dallas has in them. Detroit to 4-0.

Pick: Lions win, cover

New Orleans (-7) at Jacksonville

In the lead up to the NFL draft, I did some low level film study of Blaine Gabbert, the Jaguars presumed quarterback of the future, and even I could see that he had serious "happy feet"- he was not comfortable in the pocket. It's fitting, then, that the Blaine Gabbert era in Jacksonville began with a safety, as he ran back into the endzone and was summarily sacked. It'll take a while for Gabbert to be good if he continues with that. With no threat at QB, the Saints can stack the box against Maurice Jones Drew and make Gabbert beat them. On the other side, the Jaguars don't have much of a chance against Drew Brees and the Saints absurd offense. Most defenses don't, to be fair.

Pick: Saints win, cover

San Francisco at Philadelphia (-9)

Philadelphia has bumbled their way to a 1-2 start, looking like a team not quite ready for all the hype that's been placed on them (to be fair, a lot of it was self inflicted). Michael Vick has played fine- when he's played. Otherwise he's been off the field, nursing any amount of injuries due to a porous offensive line and Vick's propensity to take hits. The defense has looked just as porous- the linebackers seem to be apparitions, as opposing running backs run right through them. Despite all this, they face the 49ers, a team that looks only good enough to win the NFC West. If you haven't been paying attention, that's not a good thing. The Eagles need a win to right their ship, and the 49ers have arrived at a perfect time. Don't like the big line, though. Philly hasn't shown dominance yet.

Pick: Eagles win, 49ers cover

Washington (-2) at St. Louis

Well, I'm sure a lot of people would like to get a mulligan on predicting the rise of the Rams as NFC West champions. They look downright broken right now. Sam Bradford can't seem to handle a snap at this point (3 fumbles returned for touchdowns in 3 games), always a promising sign for a presumed franchise QB. The Redskins were stuck in the dirge that was their MNF game against the Cowboys last week, but at least showed they had a decent defense and they've previously shown some offensive spark. As long as Good to Middling Rex Grossman shows up for this game, the Redskins should be fine against the sputtering Rams.

Pick: Redskins win, cover

Tennessee at Cleveland (-1)

Pretty uneasy about this game, because we have yet to see how the Titans will respond to the loss of their biggest offensive weapon in Kenny Britt. The Browns have gotten to 2-1 as a result of the Colts no longer having a viable offense and the Dolphins being...well, the Dolphins, and choking away a game. I think the Titans have a pretty good defense, and Matt Hasselbeck should be able to find other options than Britt with receiver Nate Washington leading the charge. And if Chris Johnson manages to wake up from his sleepwaking through the past three weeks, well, this should be an easy game for Titans. Even without him, they can still beat the Browns, who look to be the quintessential 7-9 team this season. Decent, but nothing special.

Pick: Titans win, cover

Buffalo (-3) at Cincinnati 

Welcome to 2011, where the Bills are road favorites! While many people have touted this game as a possible trap game (myself included...), I can't see the Bills losing this one. They still seem to have this hunger in them- they want to keep proving to the league that they're not to be taken lightly. They love the attention they're getting, but coach Chan Gailey has warned them about media attention- it's gone once you start to lose, especially games you should win. The Bills have won the past 10 meetings with the Bengals, including last year's thrilling 49-35 comeback win. The Bengals are now led by a rookie QB (Andy Dalton) and an accused criminal at running back (Cedric Benson). Good old Bengals. The Bengals boast one of the best defenses in the league, statistically, but they've also played the Browns, Broncos and 49ers- and Willis McGahee shredded them on the ground in the Broncos game. Yes, Willis McGahee. Fred Jackson and the rest of the offense should do just fine against the defense, and I feel like the Bills defense might finally dial up some pressure on an opposing quarterback this week.

Pick: Bills win, cover

Minnesota (-2) at Kansas City

Oh, the wretched 0-3 game of the week. One of these teams will be put behind the eight ball early in this year's race for the worst record in the league and, ipso facto, Andrew Luck. Because one team improbably will win this game. The Vikings have been masters of fast starts and crumbling finishes; the Chiefs have been the masters of slow starts...and slow middles...and slow finishes (though they did manage to keep it close with the Septemeber Chargers last week). The Vikings, if they're smart, will just pound the ball with Adrian Peterson from start to finish. I can't guarantee that the Vikings will be smart (they've been iffy the last three weeks), but that's what I think they'll do, and Kansas City will slip a little further into oblivion. Kansas City just doesn't have the personnel or game plan to compete with anyone right now.

Pick: Vikings win, cover

Carolina at Chicago (-6)

In my gut, I see a trend here- this is the game the Bears lose, at home, which sends the fans into catalectic rage. My 18 years in Chicago have given me enough a sense of these things. It's just a feeling, but I can see Cam Newton, fresh off his first win, having a pretty solid game against the overrated Bears defense, and, on the other side of the ball, the Bears offense continue to implode under Mike Martz's pass happy attack. Look for big woe-is-us headlines in the Chicago papers monday morning. It's just about a yearly tradition.

Pick: Panthers win, cover

Pittsburgh at Houston (-3.5)

Houston's high powered offense and improved defense are no match for the stigma that hangs over the team- can't close against the NFL's best teams. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has ground out two straight wins, not always at their prettiest, but wins none the less. The main concern for the Steelers is if they're defense has gotten too old- the team has started to give up chunks of yardage on the ground, not a common trait for the Steelers. The Steelers couldn't even stop the Colts running game last week. The Colts! That running game was built to be a sneaky little thing Peyton Manning called every once in a while, not the focal part of  the offense. With the Steeler's looking so overwhelmingly...decent...I have to take the Texans, who, even though they can't close, have looked the better team this year, and play at home. It takes one win to break a stigma, and this should be Houston's week, even if the Steelers will ugly up the game enough to make it difficult.

Pick: Texans win, Steelers cover

Atlanta (-4.5) at Seattle

While Atlanta has hardly looked the part of the Super Bowl contender they were made out to be at the beginning of the season, they're still playing the Seahawks, who appear to be only able to beat other NFC West teams at home. Atlanta, even in their weaker state, while they figure things out, are still leagues ahead of the NFC West.

Pick: Falcons win, cover

NY Giants (-1) at Arizona

Well, the bettors have come in against the Giants, for some reason doubting the Giants and believing in Arizona's home field advantage. But after last week's loss to the Seahawks, can you really put any faith in the Cardinals? Besides, the Giants are starting to return players from their lengthy injury list, and seemed fired up by their win over the Eagles. As long as the NFC West remains the football purgatory that it is, I won't be picking them against most other teams. Especially not a seemingly rising Giants team.

Pick: Giants win, cover

Miami at San Diego (-7)

San Diego managed to get through September with a winning record, which probably elicited a champagne shower in their locker room. I have a feeling Dolphins players would have a similar reaction if coach Tony Sparano were fired. The Dolphins are a team with tons of talent, but they look like they've given up on their coach, and have a sort of self fulfilling prophecy in terms of losing. Now, on the road, they play a team that gets better as the season rolls on, at home. As much as the Chargers like to bungle early season games, it'll be hard against a team determined to lose.

Pick: Chargers win, cover

Denver at Green Bay (-12.5)

It's the Packers. They're the preeminent team in the league right now. They've been playing at a level below their best and still impressively winning. Denver, meanwhile, doesn't have enough to beat the Titans, and could barely beat the Bengals. With the Packers at home, it's hard to see any chance the Broncos have in this game, besides an injury to Aaron Rodgers. Even then, it would be close, and the Packers might still win. There's just too much talent on the roster.

Pick: Packers win, covers

New England (-4) at Oakland

Last week was an emotional victory for the Raiders, as they shook off a bad Week 2 loss to the Bills and manhandled the Jets, taking revenge for last year's blowout loss. As much as I would like to say the Raiders are going to pull another upset, the Patriots are still the Patriots, and they usually respond after losses. Brady is not going to have another game like he did last week unless the Raiders get a ton of pressure on him, which seems unlikely. The Patriots are going to come out focused and put any fears of a slide to bed; still, I like the Raiders to keep it within range because they now have a top 5 running back in Darren McFadden and the Patriots defense is atrocious.

Pick: Patriots win, Raiders cover

NY Jets at Baltimore (-3.5)

Nothing would make me happier than to see the Jets be crushed under the mountain of hype they put on themselves; and it looks a real possibility this season, especially with this game and the Patriots coming up next week. The running game has disappeared, Mark Sanchez still has plenty of room to grow as a quarterback, and the defense hasn't been their usual stellar selves. The Ravens, meanwhile, re-focused after a sloppy Week 2 loss and crushed the Rams in Week 3. The Ravens have one of the best running backs in the league so far in Ray Rice and the semblance of a passing game this year; and the defense is as stingy. So, goodbye Jets, down the rabbit hole where all your brash statements are thrown right back at you.

Indianapolis at Tampa Bay (-10)

This is the eight year anniversary of an exciting game once played between these two (a huge comeback for the Colts, who were down 35-14 at one point in the 3rd quarter, and came back to win 38-35); but the anniversary will not be marked by a repeat performance. The big change is that Curtis Painter starts for the Colts, while Tampa Bay has a team full of young studs on offense and an improving defense. The Colts are still dead in the water without Peyton Manning, and I can't see them making any movements towards life anytime soon, unless Peyton Manning magically wakes up with a new spinal system. The 2011 Colts are the San Antonio Spurs the year they got Tim Duncan- horribly bad at the perfect time. If Andrew Luck ends up with the Colts... well, we'll know that God loves Indianapolis. But only the football team.

Pick: Buccaneers wins, covers

Season: 31-17 Overall, 20-26-2 ATS

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I am never comfortable, I am afraid of heights

Why do people fear heights? Whenever I'm at the top of any tall thing, whether it be a mountain, skyscraper, or even a balcony, it's looking down and seeing that you could fall. On the edge of destruction.

The Bills 3-0 start has me in a state of confused bliss. I wear my Bills shirt every Sunday and Mondays after wins, a classic throwback with the standing buffalo, long sleeve. I've worn it enough this year where it now fits as a shawl; the arms are too loose, and it drapes over my shoulders and fans out over the rest of my body. It fits as well as the Bills fit as NFL contenders. This isn't something I'm used to; the Bills last made the playoffs when I was six, and, in true Buffalo fashion, they lost a heartbreaker in what came to be known as "the Music City Miracle." (Or, total horsecrap,if you ask the city of Buffalo.) That's my first clear Bills memory- the Bills being beaten in the last seconds on a call that was ostensibly wrong. So wrong. And in my naive understanding of the play as it happened, I just couldn't understand how the Bills could lose like this, how things weren't fair.

After twelve more years of grizzled sports experience, I get it now; in fact, for a while, I've been almost resigned to losing, to heartbreak, to things not being fair. Not to say that the pain is any less painful, but it's not unexpected. The 3-0 start by the Bills, to me, is new and terrifying. These things don't happen to the Bills (at least in my lifetime)- 2nd half comebacks, favorable penalty calls, high scoring offense, timely turnovers, beating the Patriots (well, I saw it once, but it seems like a mirage sometimes), and last second drives to win the game. They're playing at a level few could foresee, and they look poised for success. They have an attitude, a presence; they're the castoffs of the league, and they want their revenge. Unfortunately, I have seen the depths that sports can take me to, and the Bills, with their current play, are approaching a pinnacle. They have a long way to fall. And that's the worst part of being a fan for me right now. I am not comfortable with this. I cannot simply just enjoy; I must worry, as much as other fans try to exhort me to live in the moment. Because I've seen this before. I've seen this before.

2008, we start 5-1, the hot new contenders of the league, poised for success. We finish the season at 7-9. Now, this team seems different- better QB, already a 'better' win in the Patriots victory (although the Bills did beat the Chargers in 2008, but the Chargers suck in the beginning of most seasons and finished 8-8.  They still made the playoffs though!), a better offensive line, better defensive front. That's what I'm telling myself, at least, that the 2008 team is different than this year's team. But it's still nagging at the back of my mind- the Bills could slip right back into mediocrity.

This is why I find this upcoming game against the Bengals highly important. Last week, I didn't expect the Bills to win, just to play a good game. Now comes the burden of expectation. They should beat the Bengals. In fact, they should roll the Bengals if they're a true NFL contender. It's a classic letdown game. The Bills, high off their win against the Patriots and looking ahead to the Eagles next week, blow it to the Bengals. And envisioning a loss for them this week begets visions of more losses, of a slippery slope right back to a depressing season. It is a bleak horizon, the one I don't want to see, but presses on the back of my mind. We've been here before. They have to start strong in this game (no more comebacks, please), they have to take this one easily, to calm my fears even a little bit.

This season already has given me exuberant highs. The last two weeks, what with their dramatic, my-heart-is-going-to-explode-with-anxiety comebacks, their ability to move the ball in the clutch, and their amazing halftime adjustments, I have bought into this team. I'm along for the ride. I just wish I could sit in the backseat without constantly fearing a ten car pileup. When will there ever be security? Probably only when the Bills have clinched a playoff spot. Until then the abyss of uncertainty will hang over me. Because there's always one more game they can lose, one more 'sure thing' that can go wrong. The classic expectation is that they'll stumble after such a start as this, and while I don't believe it (I think the players are staying remarkably grounded and remember 2008), I have to consider it, out of past experiences. I wish it could be different, that I could just enjoy. Climbing so high, though, I have to look down.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Week 3 NFL Picks- Make or Break Time

David Nelson's Game Winning TD...With a packed Ralph in the background!

Week 3 in the NFL presents for many teams a critical point in the young season. For every team that's started 0-2, it's a chance to turn around the momentum of their season before they've dug themselves into a hole that's too deep to crawl out of. The 1-1 teams want to get on the right side of the 2-1/1-2 split, obviously, but they also want to show that what happened in their sole loss was an aberration, a blip in what will be a successful season. And for every team that's started 2-0, including my own Buffalo Bills, it's trying to prove that they are, as the media loves to put it, "for real", that they can keep up the pace, that they are as good as advertised. It's still early in the season- everyone still has hope (except for Colts fans), and this week goes a long way in either proving that the hope is warranted or extinguishing belief in many fans.

Anyway, onto the picks. Last week I went 12-4 overall, but a ghastly 4-11-1 ATS. If you were desperate enough to follow my gambling advice, well, don't. Unless you're just picking winners, of course.

San Francisco at Cincinnati (-2.5)

Well, I wouldn't touch this game if I had any money on the line, because both teams haven't presented a consistent identity. Which 49ers are going to show up? The team that needed a bunch of special teams TDs to beat Seattle or the team that hung around with Dallas and took them to overtime? The Bengals had a dreary win over the Browns and then a close loss to a depleted Broncos team. Still, Andy Dalton and AJ Green have shown the beginnings of some chemistry and are making plays. For the 49ers, there's still Alex Smith and no one at wide receiver, but a pretty solid defense. I can't make sense of this game, couldn't say why I think this, but I'll take Cinci to win and cover.

Pick: Bengals win, cover

New England (-7) at Buffalo

Well, here's the ultimate test for the Buffalo Bills. The media has been quick to anoint the Lions as "The NFL's newest contender!" but, for some reason, look upon the Bills with wary eyes, saying that this is the week where we'll see if the Bills are "for real." What, does that mean the Bills have to lose by a certain amount to be "real"? Or do they have to win? Well, we'll just have to see after the game. The Bills have what looks to be an explosive offense paired with an underachieving defensive secondary- ESPECIALLY YOU, LEODIS MCKELVIN- and face the Patriots, a team explosive offense paired with an underachieving defensive secondary. Neither team has shown an ability to stop the pass and aren't fantastic against the run, either. This game is going to come down to a shootout, where whoever gets the ball last might be the winner. Whichever defense can create turnovers, either by fumbles or interceptions, will take control of the game. The Bills, to me, have a shot in this game, especially if Fred Jackson gets rolling and keeps Tom Brady off the field. I don't have enough blinding optimism to pick them to win, but I still harbor the expectation that it will be close, close enough that the Bills might be considered "for real".

Pick: Patriots win, Bills cover

Houston at New Orleans (-3.5)

The Texans are another 2-0 team trying to prove that they're "for real." The defensive secondary, statistically, is vastly improved over last year's unit, but they've only faced the decaying corpse of the Indianapolis offense and the Chad Henne led Dolphins. Their biggest test comes now as they face the high powered machine that is the New Orleans Saints offense. I have yet to see the Texans defense perform against a good offense and the Saints have carved up better defenses already (the Packers and Bears). The Texans might be able to get their offense going, but they won't be able to make any stops when they need it, as opposed to the Saints defense.

Pick: Saints win, cover

NY Giants at Philadelphia (-8.5)

The Eagles are just plain weird, seemingly altering between mediocrity and brilliance between drives on offense, with or without Michael Vick (he will play this week). The defense, however, is weak against the run, something opponents will now try to exploit. The Giants, on the other hand, look to be a mess in all facets of the game. There's something off. Eli Manning has been completely pedestrian, the receivers are all injured, the running game hasn't picked up, and the defense is also ripped up by injuries (real or feigned). I'll take the schizophrenic over the just plain broken, I guess.

Pick: Eagles win, cover

Miami (-1) at Cleveland

Miami's awful record at home in the past two seasons belies the fact that they've been fantastic on the road during that stretch. The Browns just got by last week against the decaying corpse of the Colts, haven't looked impressive this season, and now go into this game without Peyton Hillis. Miami has a lot to play for- they've started 0-2, and everyone else in the division is 2-0, so, if they want to keep up, they have to win ASAP. I'll take Miami's desperation over Cleveland's boring mediocrity.

Miami wins, covers

Denver at Tennessee (-7)

Tennessee burst out last week and shred the disinterested looking Ravens behind strong performances from  Matt Hasslebeck and Kenny Britt, winning in spite of Chris Johnson's lackluster performance. The Broncos managed to pull out a win last week seemingly without half their starting lineup, as a ton of key players sat out the game. Call it a hunch, but I see the Titans as a better overall team- more weapons on both sides of the ball, and healthier. I see them winning this one, but I can't quite count out the Broncos yet.

Pick: Titans win, Broncos cover

Detroit (-3) at Minnesota

Detroit's offense has looked like a juggernaut so far, with Matthew Stafford living up to all the hype as a top tier quarterback. They have a nasty front seven on defense, although they haven't been tested much in two weeks (a game against the Chiefs, sans Jamaal Charles, is a cakewalk). The Vikings blew a 17 point lead last Sunday, and seem to have about one option on offense- Adrian Peterson. The Lions, with their huge defensive line, look built to stop the run, and the offense looks capable of moving the ball on anyone, even with the return of Kevin Williams to the Vikings defensive line. I'm looking at another Lions win here. 3-0 in Detroit! Can't say much else is going right for the city (cue tons of sportswriters covering that angle for the rest of the season if Detroit is a true contender). Looking at the games this week, though, this is one where picking the upset wouldn't be that farfetched. Adrian Peterson can still control games.

Pick: Lions win, Vikings cover

Jacksonville at Carolina (-3.5)

So far, Cam Newton has made all his doubters look like fools, passing for over 400 yards in his first two starts. He has a chance to really prove something by winning a game against the Jaguars and his draft day nemesis Blaine Gabbert, who is making his first start for the Jaguars after the Luke McNown experiment, as was foreseen by pretty much everyone, failed. For everyone who said Gabbert would be a better pro quarterback, well, he'll have to do a lot today to try and prove them right- and he does not have the weapons around him that Newton has, at least receivers wise. I look for Carolina to get their first win, but an inspired performance by Maurice Jones Drew could certainly shift this one the other way.

Pick: Panthers win, cover

Kansas City at San Diego (-14.5)

Last week I asked, "Kansas City can't be that bad, right?" Well, they are, and with the loss of Jamaal Charles, it's gone from bad to worse. This should be no problem for the Chargers, who come off a tough loss to the Patriots that was decided by some costly turnovers. They'll be able to take their anger out on the Chiefs.

Pick: Chargers win, cover

NY Jets (-3) at Oakland

Watching the Raiders last week, I actually came away pretty impressed- they have a power running game and a franchise running back to make it work, and they can pass the ball when they need to. They're defensive front is improving, and the corners are good (but not against quick, short routes). Is that enough to beat the Jets? Mark Sanchez has been decent-to-awful so far, and the defense has picked up the slack for the team. Their running game has been awful, and that's bad news for a team built around the running game. I definitely think the Raiders can stay in this game, but I'm having trouble putting my faith behind them fully- it seems as if the Jets are masters at pulling wins from the jaws of defeat, creating good luck for themselves.

Pick: Jets win, Raiders cover

Baltimore(-5.5) at St. Louis

Well, I think it's fair to say that the Ravens weren't as up for their game against the Titans as they were for their game against the Steelers. They looked as if they were sleepwalking, still dazed at the prospect of beating their hated rivals. Hopefully the shellacking they received was enough to wake them up. St. Louis, on the other hand, is playing out a string of very difficult games, and they haven't looked good doing it- they can't score in the red zone. The funny thing is, this team could start with 5 or 6 losses and still contend for the NFC West crown. St. Louis, though, is definitely not the league-wide contender many thought they'd be.

Pick: Ravens win, cover

Atlanta at Tampa Bay (-1.5)

Both teams have played sloppy, inconsistent football, and both teams find themselves at 1-1. The Buccaneers have played 2 good quarters of football so far, and might have been awakened by last week's second half comeback. The Falcons looked bad in week 1 and then won a topsy turvy affair with the Eagles. That win, though, was at home, in the dome, where Matt Ryan flourishes. On the road, he goes into his shell. Without brilliant play from Ryan, I can't see the Falcons winning this one. The Buccaneers have weapons on offense and look as if they've hit their stride- a come from behind win can do wonders for a team.

Pick: Buccaneers win, cover

Arizona (-3.5) at Seattle

Literally the only thing the Seahawks have going for them is their very loud home stadium. The rest of the team is a dreck, with two touchdowns through two games and a ton of points allowed. Arizona has played decently enough, beating Carolina and keeping it very close with Washington. Decent beats out horrible, though, and that phrase ought to be the slogan of the NFC West.

Pick: Arizona wins, covers

Green Bay (-4.5) at Chicago

Green Bay hasn't even hit their stride yet and they're sitting at 2-0; the Bears have played one great game and then got shredded by the Saints. The Packers were able to beat the Saints while playing an off game defensively. The Bears simply don't have the weapons on offense to keep up with the Packers, even if their defense stays strong and limits the Packers attack. So far, Aaron Rodgers has looked too good, too precise, to be knocked off his game. The Bears have shunned their best offensive option in Matt Forte and have tried to put the game on Jay Cutler's shoulders, but he doesn't have an offensive line, which creates some problems. It's probably why he's pouting all the time.

Pick: Packers win, cover

Pittsburgh (-10.5) at Indianapolis

As with every Colts appearance on prime time television, well, this game would've been awesome if Peyton Manning was healthy. He's not, and his team is a mess. The Steelers get the luxury of playing this team before they've started to sort everything out, and a week after they got to rip up the Seahawks. It's a luxury cruise for the Steelers, who will coast back to 2-1 after a week one embarrassment.

Pick: Steelers win, cover

Washington at Dallas (-4)

Ah, Monday Night Football is always willing to either put a terrible game on TV between two teams with high expectations going into the season or put the Cowboys, Jets, Patriots or Eagles on. The Cowboys come in after Tony Romo's gutty performance last week (did anyone ever think they would say that about Tony Romo?) led the Cowboys to a win over the 49ers. The Redskins eked out a close win over the Cardinals last week and have improbably improved to 2-0. The Cowboys are without Miles Austin, and will have to rely on a reality show winner to pick up some of the slack. Still, I find Dallas' defense scarier than Washington's, and I don't trust the Redskins offensively. With Rex Grossman slinging the ball, you can only really just close your eyes and pray it doesn't fall into a defender's grasp.

Pick: Cowboys win, cover

Season: 21-11 Overall, 12-19-1 ATS

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 2 NFL Picks. Indulging Delusions.

After an oftentimes thrilling and record setting first week of the season, we finally get to see these teams in action again. This is critical because in seeing a team play again, we get to expand our frame of reference- right now, all we know is the result of week 1, which doesn't give us much because we don't know if the team that won is really good or if the team that lost is really bad. For instance, the Bills unexpectedly demolished the Chiefs, 41-7, last week, but its still tough to get a read on the Bills- did they beat a talented team (meaning that the Bills are really good)? Or did they beat an awful team (meaning that the Bills are just decent?) This is the question that faces a lot of teams, and now, thankfully, we get to see them play again and start to figure out the direction this season is headed. Until then, the picture is still muddy. Anyway, onto the week 2 picks.

Last week I went 9-7 overall and 8-8 against the spread. A decent week. Totally missed on the Ravens and...the Buffalo Bills. I did not properly Billieve, I suppose.

Chicago at New Orleans (-6.5)

Nothing like a fluky win (5 recovered fumbles) last week to give delusional Bears fans hope for a Super Bowl this year. The Bears have what might be the best luck in the NFL pretty much every week, and I continue to doubt them and they continue to back themselves into wins. It's like the opposite of being a Bills fan. Somehow everything just works out. Still, the defense was good enough to shut down the Falcons offense (when they weren't fumbling) and Jay Cutler had one of his good statistical days (although he got plenty of yards off two short throws that the receiver took for long gains). The Bears now travel to New Orleans to play a team that just came off a heartbreaking loss to the Packers. The Saints were able to move the ball well against Green Bay and, at the end, just couldn't punch it in with no time remaining. There's no shame, though, in playing close with the Packers, who look to be among the year's strongest teams. The Saints also have the advantage of more rest- they played last Thursday and should be more fresh than the Bears. The Bears defense might be fired up, rallying around Brian Urlacher, whose mother recently passed, but I don't see it being enough to shut down the Saints. The Bears offense hasn't shown, to me, that it can keep up with an offense like the Saints', so if it comes down to scoring points, the Saints should be in control for his one. Hopefully this is one week where every ball doesn't bounce Chicago's way.
Pick: Saints win, cover

Kansas City at Detroit (-8)

Well this is odd. When was the last time Detroit was an 8 point favorite in any game? Detroit has been the one team as bad as the Bills since 1999, and they now enter the season as a dangerous team, looking to finally break through. They handled the Buccaneers while playing their "C" game- they won below their best, which usually portends future success, especially if they can start playing at their peak. The Chiefs, meanwhile, played some seriously sloppy football last week and ended up getting crushed by the Bills. The Lions should be riled up to play at home and also boast a more dangerous offense and defensive front than the Bills, which is a good sign for them. Even if the Chiefs play remarkably better this game, I don't think they can match the offensive and defensive pressure the Lions will put on them. Still, the Chiefs can't be THAT bad, right? They should be able to at least stay in this one.

Pick: Lions win, Chiefs cover

Jacksonville at NY Jets (-9)

Jacksonville tried to mask their awful starting quarterback last week by handing the Titans a steady dose of Maurice Jones-Drew, and they ended up winning a close one. The Jets, however, are not the Titans- they have a much better defense. The Jaguars will have trouble running on this defense and will have to rely on Luke McNown to make plays... and there aren't many more quarterbacks in the league that I'd rather NOT rely on to make plays. No matter how sloppy the Jets looked last week, Jacksonville is nowhere near as talented as the Cowboys, so the Jets should take this one pretty easily.

Pick: Jets win, cover

Oakland at Buffalo (-4)

Last week I was cautiously optimistic that the Bills would be able to contend with the Chiefs, so, needless to say, last Sunday's 41-7 beatdown was surreal. I was stationed at a bar in Montreal, found some other Bills fans (BILLS NATION!) and watched the most satisfying Bills opening day since 2003, when they crushed the Patriots 31-0. Unfortunately, we've been down this road before- Bills start well, then fizzle out, which means all my optimism (and many others) is tempered- I can't commit yet. After all that 2003 team ended up being terrible and losing to the Patriots in week 16, by a final score of...31-0. The Raiders come into Buffalo this week coming off a punishing win over the Broncos. The Raiders play a type of smashmouth football on both sides of the ball and love to run the football whenever possible, making this a true test of the Bills run defense. Last week, they were able to limit the Chiefs in part because they had a sizable lead early. The Raiders will probably stick to the run all game, so the fans get to see if all the work done to the defense has made actual improvement. Last week I went with my head over my heart and picked against the Bills. This week, I'm not making the same mistake. I think the Raiders will be tired off a short week and a cross country flight for a day game, and the Bills will be able to move the ball on offense if they can't stop the Raiders run game on defense. I'm trying not to get too excited about this team, and a win these week would make it awful hard to keep tempering those expectations.

Pick: Bills win, cover

Arizona at Washington (-3.5)

Arizona won last week, but that fact was overshadowed by the fact that they gave up 422 yards of passing to a rookie QB last week (I think his name was...Cam Newton? I don't know, he doesn't get that much media attention...). Now they're going cross country and playing a team with an established, if erratic, starting QB in Rex Grossman? Don't see how the Cardinals are going to stay in this game, if they barely beat a team with a worse defense than the Redskins last week. Rex Grossman will be gunslinging his way to a win, and the fans in Washington will become just a little more insufferable.

Pick: Redskins win, cover

Baltimore (-6) at Tennessee 

I think Baltimore made a pretty big statement last week in crushing the Steelers, showing that they've made the step many predicted them to make. Ray Rice looked amazing against what is supposed to be a tough Steelers run D, and he should be able to get through the Titan's defense fairly easily. The Titans don't have much on offense besides Chris Johnson, and it showed last week, as they struggled to 14 points while severely underutilizing Johnson. They plan to give him the ball more this week, but the Ravens are no slouches against the run. Barring a huge game from Johnson (he is capable of winning games by himself sometimes), I can't see anyway the Titans stay in this one.

Pick: Ravens win, cover

Seattle at Pittsburgh (-14)

As I mentioned last week, Tavaris Jackson is an awful NFL quarterback, and the Seahawks will be pretty awful as long as he's under center. Pittsburgh got smoked last week and will be looking to take revenge on the hapless Seahawks this week. It'll be a bloodbath. Pittsburgh might not be Super Bowl contenders this year, but they'll still be able to beat up on terrible teams, and the Seahawks are brutally bad.

Pick: Steelers win, cover

Green Bay (-10) at Carolina

Lost in all the Cam Newton hype last week was the fact that his team still lost to the Cardinals last week. When your quarterback has the best day for a starting debut EVER, yardage wise at least, and you lose, you usually don't have a very good team. This week Cam will be seeing some tricky defenses and, you know, actual coverage (Steve Smith was WIDE open for a lot of last Sunday), which should make Cam stumble a bit. The Packers also have an offense exponentially better than the Cardinals, and I look for them to absolutely destroy the Panthers D here. Green Bay is still in Super Bowl form, and the Panthers are no worthy opponent.

Pick: Packers win, cover

Tampa Bay at Minnesota (-2)

A little confused about this line, seeing as the Vikings are starting the corpse of Donovan McNabb at quarterback (he threw for 39 yards last week. That's over 4 quarters.) and have exactly one weapon on offense- Adrian Peterson. The Buccaneers have a more dynamic offense and some talent on the defensive side of the ball to at least match the Vikings. Barring one of those games where Adrian Peterson has like 300 yards and 3 TDs, I don't see the Vikings pulling this one out, and I see the Bucs getting back on track with a win after a sloppy performance last week.

Pick: Bucs win, cover

Cleveland (-2) at Indianapolis

That's right folks, it's your 2011-12 Indianapolis Colts! Watch as a team crumbles when the pedestal of their team gets a debilitating neck injury! Still, even with that being said, the Browns looked terrible last week in losing to the Bengals last week, causing many people to jump off the "Browns to the playoffs!" bandwagon. I hope to not have to see a second of this game because it just looks awful. I think the Colts can't get any worse than they were last week and maybe have put together a game plan for how to succeed with Kerry Collins. Cleveland, well, I still don't see them having much of an offense with their no name receiving crew, and their defense isn't scaring anyone. The Colts, I guess, will take this one. If they don't...yikes, it'll be a long season in Indy.

Pick: Colts win, cover

Dallas (-3) at San Francisco

Wait, the 49ers are three point underdogs? WHY? Last week they beat the lowly Seahawks on the strength of two special teams touchdowns by Ted Ginn, not something you can count on week to week. Otherwise, they are still starting Alex Smith at QB, which is a recipe for failure. The Cowboys and Tony  Romo especially may have grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory, but they still have enough talent to put away a cruddy team like the 49ers. Unfortunately for the 49ers, you can't play the Seahawks every week.

Pick: Cowboys win, cover

Houston (-3) at Miami

Tough to get a read on this one, because last week Houston beat up on a disheveled Colts team,while the Dolphins got smoked by the Patriots, who are among the league's elite. Chad Henne surprisingly threw for 400+ yards last week, but didn't do so well in the red zone, which ended up screwing the Dolphins. The Texans were able to move the ball well without star running back Arian Foster, and now they get him back in time to face a defense that has the potential to be dominating (even though they really did not show it last week). So, did the Texans just beat up on a bad team, or are they that good? Did the Dolphins just lose to an amazing team, or are they that bad? I can't get a read on it, so I revert back to my preseason expectations, which say that Chad Henne is not that good, the Dolphins won't be that good, and the Texans will make the playoffs. At home, though, I can see the Dolphins putting up a fight.

Pick: Texans win, Dolphins cover

San Diego at New England (-7)

San Diego was pretty underwhelming to start the season, and now they face one of the most impressive teams from week 1, the Patriots. The Patriots one problem, though, was that their defense looked porous against the pass, against a quarterback as decent as Chad Henne. The Chargers have an elite quarterback in Philip Rivers who leads an elite offensive attack that I don't think the Patriots defense will handle too well. Luckily for the Patriots, their offense is more than good enough to make up for any shortcomings on the defensive side, which is why I still see the Patriots winning this one, but the Chargers being able to stay in it.

Pick: Patriots win, Chargers cover

Cincinnati at Denver (-3.5)

Even after their win last week, I can't get behind the Bengals (and neither can Vegas). I don't believe Cedric Benson can run that way against most teams, and the two headed quarterback of Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski is overwhelmingly decent. Denver isn't much better, but Kyle Orton isn't awful and the defense looks improved from last year. Denver has some angry home fans (who want Tim Tebow at QB... now that's delusional), and I think the Broncos will come out hard in this game to show them something. Plus, it's the Bengals. Even a blind squirrel gets a nut every once in a while, and last week's win looks to be the Bengals'.

Pick: Denver wins, covers

Philadelphia (-2.5) at Atlanta

Michael Vick returns to Atlanta, where people inexplicably still love them, even though he torpedoed their team after his arrest. The rest of the Eagles, especially LeSean McCoy, looked good in dispatching the Rams last week. The Falcons played an incredibly sloppy game against the Bears, uncharacteristic of their fundamental style of football. The Falcons should bounce back this week and play their solid game, but I can't see them beating the explosiveness the Eagles have on both sides of the ball. The Falcons bet big on this being "the year" for them (trading next year's first round pick), but so far, they have not shown the look of a Super Bowl team, and I think an 0-2 hole to start the season will create some urgency down in Atlanta, even if they keep this close. Vick and the Eagles, however, should be getting better each week, gelling together, towards Super Bowl contention.

Pick: Eagles win, cover (but it's close)

St. Louis at NY Giants (-6.5)

St. Louis was doing well against the Eagles last week until the injury bug hit them, hard. The Giants are in a similar situation, as defensive starters seem to drop left and right. The Giants still have most of their offense intact, while the Rams are missing Steven Jackson, he of the perennial, it seems, hamstring pull. Justin Tuck might be coming back to help the Giants D. The Rams still haven't shown me they can win big games against quality opponents, and they don't really have a good receiving core, either. The Giants need this one to stay afloat in the NFC East, and should play with energy, while the Rams, I think, still have a ways to go before their anything more than an NFC West contender. They can stay in the game, but win it? Not with these injuries, anyway.

Pick: Giants win, Rams cover

Season: 9-7 (8-8 ATS)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Roger Federer's Endgame

Let me be among the many to join in the chorus about the Djokovich-Federer US Open semi-final match on Saturday, one that will be remembered for years to come, and probably remembered more than the final. Right now, Djokovich is about to put a cap on what may be the greatest tennis season of all time, leading defending champion Rafael Nadal two sets to none and on the verge of winning the third set  (well, he's in a tiebreak now, but he is in control of the match, to be sure) and the US Open, barring a miraculous comeback by Rafael Nadal. This will be Djokovich's third Grand Slam victory of the year, with his only failing coming at the French Open. Yet I sense that when we look back on his career and 2011, in tennis, the first match mentioned will be his semi-final win over Federer. In this epic five set match, Djokovich effectively showed why Federer will no longer be a champion in this sport, why he and Nadal have become the kings of this sport. Djokovich bent reason with his play; and with that, destroyed Federer.

The key moment, as nearly everyone has brought up, was when Djokovich was facing a double match point in the fifth set. He had lost the first two sets; Federer looked particularly strong in the first two, playing the vintage Federer game- impeccable angles, planned shots, clean tennis, finesse. And it worked. In the third and fourth sets, though, Federer's precision started to fade, and he was physically outmatched by the pace, energy and sheer power that Djokovich was putting behind his ground strokes. Djokovich in particular started to attack Federer's backhand, which abandoned him after the first two sets. Djokovich won the third set and then proceeded to go up 5-2 in the fourth, looked to be clearly in control of the set and the match. Federer was down 40-0 in the game, and then, curiously, awoke, almost as if he planned to show Djokovich that he was not done yet, that he would bring everything for the fifth set. He brought the game to deuce behind some thundering forehands. He lost the game, and the set, but still, he had sent a message. The fifth set was to be a dogfight.

Federer took his renewed energy into the fifth set and built up his lead, trading games with Djokovich and then defiantly breaking Djokovich's serve. He was now in command, serving for the match, and he built up a 40-15 lead. Now was the double match point that will go down in history for Djokovich's career, the one in which Federer met his endgame. Djokovich was clearly angry at the crowd's jubilation that Federer was about to win; he glared, and set up to return Federer's serve, exuding bravado. This was his last stand, staring down the barrel of what seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

Federer served, and Djokovich whipped back a cross court shot that defied rational thinking or tennis strategy; here was a man playing in one of the biggest matches in his career trying the riskiest shot he could.

The crowd erupted, thinking, knowing, that that shot could've never gone in, and Federer just watches it, doesn't make a move for it, as it slides by, just hitting inside the line and then disappearing to the side. Djokovich turns toward the crowd and demands their support, for he has truly earned it. He has subjected time and space to his indomitable will.

This is when Federer has lost his match, and probably lost the chance at more majors. Federer's game, his beautiful game, is predicated on planning, on careful placement, of knowing what the other player will do and using it against him, setting his opponent up such that Federer can control the game, control where the other player will be, and he can place his shot in a place where his opponent will never reach it. He uses the other player, and sets him up to fail. But this approach is based on reason, on careful planning, on a knowledge of things as they are; and Djokovich's shot was an impossibility. Not with that pace, not with that placement, not with that speed, not with that angle. It was luck, maybe, but it was also  a reflection of Djokovich- with his power and shot making ability, he is sometimes above what we, and Federer, consider to be possible.

Federer, suitably shaken, dazed, with the crowd now pulling for Djokovich, faltered, and lost the game, and then the rest of the set. There was nothing he could do. After the match, he could hardly express what had happened.

"I believe in the hard-work's-going-to-pay-off kind of thing, because early on, maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point.".... But like I said, sometimes in sports it just goes the other way. Maybe you've already won so much that it evens it out a bit sometimes. I don't know."

 But this much was clear- this was so far outside the scope of Federer's game, of pure reason. It could only take him so far. You can't plan for the miraculous. You can't beat the impossible.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

NFL Week One Picks/Season Preview

Before I start this hybrid of Week One Picks and a little bit about each team's prospects this season, I just want you to do one thing. Stop. Imagine for a second that the NFL lockout was never solved, that right now we'd be entering fall without NFL football, without the bright horizon of a new season, the endless possibilities that are inherent in each one.

OK. You can stop weeping now. There it is, right in front of us, another start to the best season in all of pro sports. And after hearing for months about the lockout and the CBA, the truncated offseason was a blast of fresh air in the summer heat, a hyper speed version of the NFL offseason we are used to. And it was glorious. The issue that came with less time, though, was less preparation, and now we enter an NFL season where teams with 'continuity' from last season are presumed to have the edge. The quality of play itself could get appreciably sloppier as well, in addition to affecting rookies entering the league. But enough of that pessimism. It's the NFL. It will be awesome.

So, here are my picks for the first week, which is the hardest week to prognosticate because of the lack of data; we haven't seen these teams in action since at least February (don't even try to tell me that pre-season counts for anything but final roster cuts) and have no idea how exactly the teams will mesh together, how the new additions will play, how the new coaching will affect these teams. It's a guessing game. Along with each pick will be some thoughts on how each team looks heading into the season and my prediction for how they'll fare.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

College Football didn't get Ballsier, It Just Got Smarter

Tonight, the College Football season began (go Sconnie!), and with it came some buzz for a couple of games between ranked opponents- Boise St- Georgia and Oregon-LSU, to name the biggest. ESPN, of course, has been hyping up these games, and heralding some new era of ballsiness in College Football. Woah, instead of playing a creampuff in their first week, these teams are playing big time games! How risky!

The problem is, it's not. These games have very little risk versus a very high reward- win or lose- that no team should pass up, and it's because of the dirty secret of the BCS- it's better to lose early than lose late, no matter the opponent.

The worst part of College Football, as I've lamented before, is that every program is extremely risk averse. The system itself rewards that. A team that played the hardest schedule in the league (conference schedule+ top 20 ranked non conference opponents) and lost two games would likely be shut out of the BCS bowls; a team that plays a middling schedule, with the standard conference schedule and no or #20-#25 ranked non conference opponents, and went undefeated, would likely be put in one of the major bowls. And yes, some conferences (the SEC and the Big 10 and 12, sort of) have good conference schedules that challenge each team, and they are usually rewarded for surviving that gauntlet- but for the most part, the undefeated team that played the easier schedule has a better shot than the two loss team that played the hardest schedule, or even a one loss team in many cases. The system doesn't reward stronger schedules- it rewards staying undefeated against decent opponents and playing the conference schedule out. So there's almost no incentive to schedule multiple difficult games during a season, or even any hard non conference game.

Well, besides the opening weekend. A nationally televised opener brings in tons of revenue (millions for each team), tons of exposure to fans and possible recruits, and also acts as either a defining win to start the season or a safeguard for the rest of the season. If the team wins, they instantly get tons of media attention and become national title contenders (unless the team they beat absolutely falls apart during the year, which is rare). If they lose, though, they can always say that they lost to a good team and then run the table and become the best one loss team in the Nation by the end of the year.

Losing once is devastating in College Football- it sends panic into the voters, who move the team down in the rankings, affecting the BCS standings. When a team loses early, though, it is able to build momentum throughout the rest of the season and climb back up the polls, even before the BCS standings are released. The voters have a fairly short memory, and a first week loss is gradually forgotten, forgiven, and the team is given consideration right behind or sometimes in front of the undefeated teams. Losing late in the season effectively shuttles any chance for a BCS bowl- the team has no time to recover from the drop in the polls and it usually ends up with losing at least a shot at the National title if not a chance at a BCS Bowl. For example, the 2008 Texas Tech team that shocked Texas had a chance at a BCS Bowl if not the National Title late in the season; and were then beaten by Oklahoma. They lost the division tiebreaker to Texas, didn't get to play in the Big 12 title game, and were put in the Cotton Bowl. Texas, a team TEXAS TECH HAD BEATEN, got to play in the Fiesta Bowl. Texas lost earlier and could recover; Texas Tech was shut out because of a late loss to a team many thought was #1 in the Nation. It's always better to lose early, unless it's a disaster on the level of Michigan-Appalachian State.

So the programs of these teams entering big games this weekend aren't really taking that big of a risk. They get money, exposure, and the chance to make a huge statement to the voters early in the season. If they lose, they still have the chance to make it up throughout the season instead of suffering a huge setback late in the season. Don't get me wrong- I'm excited to watch these games, but it will be with the knowledge that this is a calculated risk, a game that won't really affect the National title race unless it is a drubbing. It's not ballsy. It's just smart.