Saturday, October 29, 2011

Week 8 NFL Picks + Some long overdue World Series/Sabres thoughts

Just awesome. Even if you hate the Cardinals

Ok, so baseball is probably number three on my list of 'favorite sports,' and while I can always be suckered into watching a Cubs game on TV (and I can never deny the chance to actually go to Wrigley), if the Cubs aren't in it, then I lose interest. So much of a good baseball season is getting to know the players, their idiosyncrasies and their strengths and weaknesses. It's about listening to the local radio or TV guys and growing to love them in their homer-ism. The season is long enough to create these sustained storylines, and a playoff run is downright magical once you know so much about the team. With these playoffs, though, I had none of that connection. National broadcasts of teams that I frankly knew only on a surface level. (To be fair, I spend most of my summer in the woods, away from most baseball coverage, so I am at a disadvantage.)

The Cardinals are a hated rival of the Cubs, but damnit, I couldn't help but feel happy for them once Game 7 finished and they had won their 11th World Series. It's too good of a story to hate. The Cardinals were three games out of the playoffs with five games left in the season, managed to play themselves in (with some help from the free-falling Braves) and then beat the two best teams in the NL (the presumed favorite Phillies and the NL Central champion Brewers) en route to the World Series. Then came one of the best World Series of my lifetime. At first I held back from watching, because I didn't think I'd be interested (call me a bad baseball fan, fine, whatever), but the series pulled me in. Game 1 was an exciting 3-2 win for the Cards, Game 2 featured an ninth inning comeback by the Rangers for a 2-1 victory. I missed Game 3 up in the woods, but Albert Pujols showed off why he's one of the best of all time with a three HR opus. Game 4  feature Derek Holland's pitching gem that evened the series at 2 all. Game 5 was marked by Mike Napoli putting the team on his back as Tony LaRussa had communication issues with his bullpen, giving the Rangers a 3-2 lead in the series. Then came Game 6, which might be the most dramatic, best World Series game I have ever seen. It started sloppy, with both teams committing errors leading to a 4-4 tie. The Rangers pulled away to a two run lead behind back to back homers and seemed destined for their first title in the ninth inning, up 7-5. The Cardinals were down to their last strike. Literally. And they converted. There is nothing more dramatic than that- little kids dream about hitting home runs in the bottom of the ninth with only one strike left. That's something out of fairy tales. What happened next was, therefore even more ridiculous. The Rangers pulled away in the 10th, taking another two run lead, and the Cardinals, AGAIN down to their last strike, pulled back. Finally, in the 11th, they won on a walk off homer.

Sorry, who was saying baseball was boring? Because for every awful game of baseball we get, every four hour, 5-2 game, there's also brilliance like these games. Game 7 was nothing special- but of course, it had to follow Game 6, so it was dead from the start. But the Cardinals won. They were one pitch away from a losing the whole thing- twice. If you saw a movie with that sort of ending, you'd call it hacky or unrealistic. But we saw it happen. That's why we can still love baseball. There's no clock, nothing to tell us the game is over until the final out is recorded; there is an infinite amount of time for comebacks.

(Looks at roster) "What did I just get myself into?"
Onto some more Cubs-ish news, the Cubs successfully lured away Theo Esptein from the Red Sox (although it probably wasn't that hard to get him away from the circus that was the Red Sox over the last two months) and have installed him as the President of Baseball Operations (I love sports organizations, because they have ridiculous titles like that). Epstein promptly brought in a former protege of his, Jed Hoyer, to be the new GM. Listen, I'm very excited to have a new braintrust running the "Baseball Operations" of this team, because Jim Hendry has been struggling since 2008. He needed to be replaced, and Epstein and Hoyer are certainly sharper baseball minds at this point. But really, the unbridled optimism that has come with it needs to stop- there is a lot to fix on this team, and it won't be quick. Plus, we have no idea if Epstein and Hoyer will actually produce. Epstein was handed a pretty good team in 2003 when he took over the Red Sox, and then they won the World Series (twice). This Cubs team is nowhere near as good. They have no pitching ace and a weak rotation. The offense is a mess, with Starlin Castro being about the only consistently good hitter on this team. So it's going to take a ton of work to mold this team into a winner. And remember, Esptein was behind this summer's Carl Crawford deal, a mega contract which turned out to be a huge bust- something Cubs fans are used to (ALFONSO SORIANO...). Epstein is certainly not bulletproof. Hoyer's talent apparently comes in building a great farm system, which is a better move for the long term future, but he also presided over this year's Padres team, a 90 loss disaster. Things are looking better for the Cubs, but I wouldn't say anything is guaranteed. I guess we'll have to see in a couple of years. But watching last night's game, all I could think was, "I want that to be the Cubs. Sometime. Please." The waiting game will most likely continue.

Luke Adam and Captain Pominville celebrate a goal
Quickly onto hockey, where my beloved Buffalo Sabres have ripped out to a 6-3 start behind sterling play from their top line of Pominville-Adam-Vanek and an improving defense in front of a usually solid Ryan Miller (and finally, a dependable backup in Jhonas Enroth.) They started gang busters in Europe, with two wins over quality teams from the West, with eight goals over two games. The early season back in the States has been marked by some inconsistent play at home (two really annoying 4-3 losses) and mostly sterling play on the road. The team is rolling out three lines that can score, with the aforementioned top line doing most of the damage. Lindy Ruff's decision to put Luke Adam on the top line was brilliant- why not put the rookie with the best wingers and see what he can do? He's responded so far with three goals and five assists, giving the Sabres another dependable center that they desperately needed. The other lines are playing inconsistently but still are a threat to opposing teams, though free agent pick up Ville Leino has struggled early and asked to be moved back to the wing and Tyler Ennis was trying too hard with the puck before his ankle injury. Right now the top line is shouldering the load, but the other lines have enough talent to pick it up eventually, leading to a deep,dangerous scoring attack. The defense has markedly improved- Robyn Regehr is a pure defenseman who makes great plays in his zone. Ehrhoff has started slow but is a fixture on the power play and is no slouch on defense. Tyler Myers has had a maddening start to the season, littered with turnovers and bone headed mistakes, but it's early and he's adjusting to yet another new defensive partner. Jordan Leopold has stepped out as a very dependable fixture on D and the third pair of Sekera (who has played very well) and Gragnani (who is great on the power play but struggles in five-on-five) isn't being forced into big time, pressure situations. (I can only hope that Mike Weber starts to get more playing time instead of watching from the booth.) Ryan Miller has had some bad games, but has also been transcendent in stealing games from Montreal and a shutout in Florida. Enroth has been able to step in after poor Miller starts and get the job done. Overall, the team looks to be in good shape. If the offense gets more consistency from all the lines, the defense picks it up even more, and they can figure out whatever's ailing them at home, this should be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference for the rest of the season. That's a beautiful thing to think about. This is a quality team, built for success. I haven't seen too many of that in my personal fan experience.

The Face of A Franchise?

(Exhales). Alright. Onto the Week 8 NFL picks, as my Bills return from their bye week (more on that in the preview). Last week I went 7-6 Overall and ATS. Kind of a rough week, looking back, with some real swing and a misses (like the Titans). Well, it's over .500, so I can take that.

Indianapolis at Tennessee (-8.5)

The Colts basically threw up a white flag in the first quarter of their game last Sunday and ended up losing 62-7 to the Saints. Which basically explains the size of this spread. But look at the Titans the last couple of weeks- they've imploded. Without Kenny Britt, the offense has stumbled behind the awful running of Chris Johnson and no pass game, and the defense has been destroyed. The Colts are an awful team, to be sure, but they can stay in this game. They've shown flashes of competence, and the Titans are nowhere close to the Saints. The Titans can bounce back this week for a win, but it won't be pretty.
Pick: Titans win, Colts cover

Jacksonville at Houston (-9.5)

Houston was supposed to have made some sort of grand statement last week in demolishing the Titans, but I'm still not convinced. This team is definitely good enough to win the AFC South (which is the second worst division so far), but they still lack, to me, a signature win that puts them among the NFL's elite. The return of Andre Johnson in this game, or soon, should help immensely, though. The Jaguars have a nasty defense, which uglies up the other team and keeps them in games. The Jaguars, even with their anemic offense devoid of talent at wide receiver, should be able to stick around long enough, thanks to Maurice Jones-Drew, to make the Texans sweat a little bit. Also, SHOUTOUT to loyal reader Ben Quazzo, a Jaguars truther who successfully predicted the Jaguars win in last week's column's comments. While the prediction might have been behind a layer of irony, you can't tell on the internet, so, good for you!
Pick: Texans win, Jaguars cover

Minnesota at Carolina (-3)

Christian Ponder actually showed a spark at QB for the Vikings last week, although it might've just seemed that good after seven weeks of Donovan McNabb. Ponder now goes on the road to take on the presumptive rookie of the year in Cam Newton, who has led the Panthers to two wins now and is good for about three or four awesome plays per game. It's scary to think about how good he is now and about how good he has the potential to be. The Panthers don't do much on defense, but their offense has been able to make up for it. The Vikings have a decent defense (with an awful secondary), and an offense that hasn't been trustworthy, especially since we haven't seen how Ponder will handle the road. In this case, I've got to take Cam and the Panthers to get the win at home.
Pick: Panthers win, cover

New Orleans (-13.5) at St. Louis

So, you saw the Colts-Saints game last week, right? The Rams are just as bad as the Colts, and are going without Sam Bradford this week. The Cowboys were able to trample the Rams last week, and I'd say the Saints are a step above the Cowboys in all respects. So, St. Louis, enjoy your World Series, because the Rams are brutal. Look for Drew Brees and co. to keep chugging along.
Pick: Saints win, cover

Arizona at Baltimore (-12.5)

Baltimore is coming off an embarrassing loss to the Jaguars. Suffice to say, they're going to be playing angry. The Cardinals D is a long ways off from being the Jaguars D, and the Cardinals offense with Kevin Kolb is just about as good as the Cardinals offense last year behind Derek Anderson. Which is to say, terrible. The Ravens should be able to fix any lingering offensive problems in this one.
Pick: Ravens win, cover

Miami at NY Giants (-9.5)

The Dolphins managed to lose a game last week that they were winning 15-0 in the final five minutes, in the process building the legend of Tim Tebow. That's a new level of futility. I feel like this team won't even fire Tony Sparano at this point because he gives them the best chance to lose and therefore get Andrew Luck. It's that kind of season in Miami. The Giants can be maddeningly inconsistent, but I don't think they'll be able to let this one slip; the Dolphins won't let them.
Pick: Giants win, cover

Washington at Buffalo (-5) (In Toronto)

Ah, the yearly Toronto game, the one which the Bills have never won since it started three years ago. The Rogers Centre is simply no home field- the fans are usually split 50/50 or are neutral observers. It's not a good atmosphere for a football game, and barely a Bills home game. The Bills are now entering the second half of the season off their bye with some lingering issues. They've lost Shawne Merriman for the season and the rumors about Kyle Williams are not optimistic. These two losses weaken an already poor defensive unit (Merriman wasn't getting much done on passing downs but he was an effective run stopper). I do think Arthur Moats should be able to step in and rush the passer effectively in Merriman's place. The offense is still good, and the return of key offensive linemen and receiver Donald Jones should help in the upcoming weeks. The Bills also just resigned Ryan Fitzpatrick for the long haul, establishing him as the face of the franchise. (I still worry that Fitzpatrick is streaky and maybe not fit for a long term role, but he's the best QB the team has had since Jim Kelly.) I would be worried about this game and all the injury trouble (especially on the offensive line), but the Redskins are starting John Beck at QB, lost Santana Moss for 5-7 weeks, and one of their running backs tore his ACL, leaving the team depleted on offense. The Bills defense might not be great, but they should be able to shut down the suddenly anemic offense of the Redskins, while the Bills offense should be able to put up points against a merely decent Washington unit. These are the games the Bills need to win in order to stay in what will be a crowded playoff hunt in the AFC.
Pick: Bills win, cover

Detroit (-2.5) at Denver 

Detroit suddenly finds themselves slipping with two straight losses. Denver and their walking religion metaphor QB Tim Tebow managed to pull out an improbable 18-15 win last week over the Dolphins. Here's the thing, though- the Lions aren't the hapless Dolphins. Even without Matt Stafford (who's questionable at this point) and Jahvid Best, I would put the Lions above the Dolphins. Tim Tebow is, sorry, NOT a good quarterback- he has found ways to manufacture wins, but that's also come with the help of the rest of his team and in opposition to his poor mechanics and accuracy. Sometime, his luck has to run out, and I see it ending this week, even with the banged up Lions.
Pick: Lions win, cover

New England (-2.5) at Pittsburgh

This should be a great game. If you've listened at all to the hype building up to this one, you'd know that "Tom Brady OWNS Pittsburgh", going 6-1 in his career against Pittsburgh. I look at this one differently, though. Both teams have high powered passing offenses. The Steelers depend on the deep ball while the Patriots move down the field with ruthless efficiency in their two tight end sets. Now, the Steelers defense is not as good as it has been in years past, but I trust them way more to get a stop than the porous defense of the Patriots. They have better personnel, plain and simple. If the game comes down to a shootout, the Steelers have the better chance of making a stop. Which is why I like the Steelers to reverse the trend of Brady domination and win this one at home.
Pick: Steelers win, cover

Cleveland at San Francisco (-8.5)

I've bought into the 49ers as a legitimate NFC contender, and they should definitely take the NFC West. Cleveland could only score six points last week against the Seahawks (and should've lost due to a Seahawks special teams TD that was called back). The Browns have almost no offense and the defense is no elite unit. The 49ers have a great defense and an offense that doesn't make mistakes and scores when they need to. No chance for Cleveland in this one.
Pick: 49ers win, cover

Cincinnati (-2) at Seattle

The Bengals have been a good enough team so far, winning behind a solid defense and the heroics of Andy Dalton (never thought I'd type that). They grind out victories. The Seahawks are usually awful, sometimes managing to fluke out a victory. What makes me hesitate is that fact that the game is in Seattle, where, somehow, the Seahawks become a tough team. I'm not 100% confident, but I'm going with Cinci, because the Seahawks are fresh off scoring three points in an entire game. Sometimes home field just isn't enough.
Pick: Bengals win, cover

Dallas at Philadelphia (-3) 

Philadelphia is coming off the bye and looking to continue climbing up the NFC East standings, and I feel like they've had enough time to iron out some of the mistakes that were plaguing them in the previous weeks. The Cowboys are able to beat up on bad teams (the Rams) but can't find a way against good teams, showing a special ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Not sure why I still trust Philadelphia, but I think their talent wins out here and they can outscore Dallas, even with Dallas' good pass rush- Vick neutralizes that.
Pick: Eagles win, cover

San Diego (-3) at Kansas City 

The Chiefs have stormed back from the grave to bring themselves back to respectability and back into the AFC West race. The Chargers have meanwhile stumbled through their season, managing to win unimpressive games against bad teams (like the Chiefs a couple of weeks ago) and losing to good teams (the Patriots and Jets). I'm still going with the Chargers here, because the Chiefs have risen from the dead with plenty of luck, playing some very poor teams and playing the Raiders last week with Kyle Boller at QB (followed by a fresh off the street Carson Palmer) and without their best player, Darren McFadden. The Chargers received a wake up call with last week's bad, give-up-a-comeback loss, and now, with the division in the balance, I see the Chargers winning this one even if the Chiefs manage to keep it somewhat close.
Pick: Chargers win, cover

Season: 67-36 Overall, 52-49-2 ATS

Thursday, October 20, 2011

NFL Week Seven Picks: Relaxation Station

I'm going to be relaxing in the woods this weekend. Ahhh. 

Along with Week Seven comes the Bills' bye week, which means I can kick back and not nearly have a heart attack during every game. Honestly, the tension I feel during all these close games is not healthy. Too many emotions at once, too much tension, all wringing in my chest. Deep breaths. Deep Breaths. So I'm going to the woods this week. Fresh air, cool breezes, what have you.

Anyway, since I won't get to talk about in a preview, the Bills game last week was disappointing, but not too crushing- they lost to a solid team on the road. If Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't throw one of his two picks, the Bills probably win the game. The offense did well, but only in fits and stretches, showing a lack of consistency at some points. The defense was bad, bad, bad though. They couldn't get a pass rush (how much longer till Arthur Moats is on the field every third and long? Please?) and the pass defense was atrocious. If they weren't leaving guys open, our secondary was probably getting a pass interference call.  As the game wore on, the run defense also broke down, critical in the late stages of the game when the clock is a key factor. The Bills definitely need this bye week to recover from injuries to key players such as Donald Jones, Kyle Williams, Shawne Merriman, Terrence McGee and a lot of the O-Line. In spite of the loss, though, they still look like a good football team, one that should be a joy to watch for the rest of the season. (Of course, in classic Buffalo fashion, there's always the chance they fail miserably.)

Anyway, onto the picks. Last week I went 8-5 overall and ATS. I definitely whiffed on some upsets, but...uh... you miss 100% of the shots you don't take? Also, an anonymous commenter (I have commenters!) stated that last week actually was a good slate of games and cited SF/DET, NYG/BUF, PHI/WSH, HOU/BAL and CAR/ATL as the best of the week. Well, with hindsight, two of those games were good- SF/DET and NYG/BUF, while PHI/WSH was a blowout, CAR/ATL was merely decent, and HOU/BAL was an exercise in red zone futility. (NE/DAL was no fun until the end.) It was also a weak week in that none of these match ups presented any natural rivalries or story lines to make the games more interesting (which was kind of what I meant at the beginning...). Either way... anonymous commenter, that shows you.

Chicago (-1) at Tampa Bay (London)

I really don't get the push to put games overseas or build a market in London. The NFL already is the most popular sport in the US. It doesn't need this extra fan base, unlike, say, basketball, which has moved into China with great success. American Football will never have a solid footing in Europe or England as long as there is Football (Soccer). It's a national and regional identity in England- you identify with the national squad and the hometown team at a level matched only by other Football (Soccer) loving countries. It can't be replaced. You can't rip the soul out of the people. And if not to replace it, why go to be the little sister of the Premier League when there are plenty more viable markets? Whatever, NFL. Keep shipping the Buccaneers over every year to play one schedule altering game a year.

As for the game itself, even without a true home field advantage, I still like the Buccaneers here. Last week they shocked me by scoring above 23 points (!) and beating the Saints, who I think are among the top three in the league. The offense is still troubling (they can't go deep), but the defense is solid. The Bears thwarted my too-cute upset pick on Sunday Night, and beat up on a poor, poor Vikings team. The Bears still have no offensive line and bad receivers that can be neutralized by decent coverage (which the Vikings did not have), and a defense with weak safeties. Looks like a Bucs win to me.
Pick: Buccaneers win, cover

Washington at Carolina (-2.5)

Say hello to your new Redskins QB, John Beck! Can't you feel the excitement coursing through your veins? No? Not yet? I honestly have no idea what anyone sees in John Beck- he's a very mediocre quarterback at best, nothing more than a game manager. The Redskins, apart from QB, didn't run the ball all too well against the Eagles and the defense was nothing special. The Panthers have Cam Newton, and they're at home, and I see that as enough to pick them to win this one. Their defense may be shaky, but it's not like John Beck is going to rip them apart.
Pick: Panthers win, cover

San Diego (-2) at New York Jets

The Jets played some ugly football and buried the hapless Dolphins, supposedly righting their proverbial ship. Still, it's the Dolphins, and with someone competent at QB, that game would've been closer. The Chargers are rested, coming off a bye, and typically get better as the season wears on. They're also welcoming back Antonio Gates, who is a huge part of their offense. Ryan Matthews should be able to run on the Jets D, and once that happens, the passing game will be opened up for Philip Rivers. On the other side, Mark Sanchez is still stumbling in his progression as an elite QB, and the Jets will struggle as long as they can't run the ball and have to rely on Sanchez.
Pick: Chargers win, cover

Seattle at Cleveland (-3)

The Seahawks are coming off the bye, having beaten the Giants, in New York, two weeks ago in a topsy turvy game. Cleveland has shown itself to be a wholly decent team- an average defense paired with an offense that is held back by its lack of receivers. I can't put any faith in the Seahawks yet- they've played better recently, but have so much potential to be awful. The Browns, on the other hand, just keep chugging along, scraping by a win every couple games, never in a pretty fashion. They should find a way to win again this week.
Pick: Browns win, cover

Houston at Tennessee (-3)

Tough one to figure here; the Titans got shellacked in their last game before the bye, struggling without Kenny Britt, and the Texans have faltered since losing Andre Johnson and Mario Williams. Both teams have struggled to stop the run, meaning that this one could be decided by Chris Johnson and Arian Foster. Foster's been the better back so far, but Chris Johnson is primed for a big game. What will probably be most important is the defense, and despite Houston's improvements on that side, I still think the Titans have the edge. Add in home field advantage and it looks like the Titans will take this big AFC South match up, but it should be close.
Pick: Titans win, Texans cover

Denver at Miami (-1.5)

God hath delivereth Tim Tebow, and now he gets his shot at the Broncos starting gig. Against any other opponent, I'd say he's bound to struggle, but this is the Dolphins, who made Mark Sanchez look competent. Miami is awful at home, as well, and seems to be in full on Suck for Luck mode- once you start Matt Moore at QB, it's almost a complicit admission. Denver's got Tebow and an OK defense, while Miami is a poorly coached disaster. See ya later, Tony Sparano (presumably as some team's coordinator)
Pick: Broncos win, cover

Atlanta at Detroit (-3.5)

Detroit lost for this first time in nine regular season games last week, and now it's up to them to respond to adversity. The Falcons took care of the Panthers, but I still haven't seen any week to week consistency out of the Falcons where they look like the elite team they were last year. They're passing game isn't what it was cracked up to be when they drafted Julio Jones, and Michael Turner is not quite as good as he used to be. The defense has major flaws, especially on the line. The Lions have a great passing game but are struggling on the ground after Jahvid Best's concussion. No matter, though- their nasty defense should be able to pick up any slack, and the Lions will be able to bounce back against the good but nowhere near great Falcons.
Pick: Lions win, cover

Kansas City at Oakland (-4.5)

While the Carson Palmer trade was arguably a terrible, terrible decision for the Raiders (trading two first rounders for a QB who hasn't been good since about 2007 is not a shrewd move), he's an improvement over Kyle Boller or any other healthy QB on the roster. They won't need to rely on him too much because the Chiefs are still bad- they've just managed to beat bad teams. They'll shoot down back to Earth in this game.
Pick: Raiders win, cover

Pittsburgh (-3.5) at Arizona

Really surprised this line isn't higher, but I guess the oddsmakers like the Cardinals at home coming off the bye. Still, all evidence to this week points to Kevin Kolb being a bust as a starting NFL QB. The Steelers may have a weaker defense than years past, but their offense has started firing on all cylinders, and I don't see the Cardinals being able to stop them on defense or keep up with them on offense.
Pick: Steelers win, cover

St. Louis at Dallas (-12.5)

Dallas managed to fumble away another win last Sunday as they narrowly lost to the Patriots. This week, they have a luxury of playing a team that shouldn't even be able to stay in the game, especially if QB Sam Bradford doesn't play. With the addition of Brandon Lloyd, the Rams improved their horrible receiving core, but the rest of this team is just plain broken. Dallas should be able to easily capitalize on all the chances the Rams give them.
Pick:Cowboys win, cover

Green Bay (-9) at Minnesota

The Packers are clearly the best team in the league at this point, with an offense that has a multitude of weapons and a defense that can create pressure on the QB and force punts or turnovers. Minnesota is starting Christian Ponder in this game, and Christian Ponder looks like a newer version of Trent Edwards to me. The Vikings defense doesn't stand a chance against this Packers offense, and Christian Ponder is no team's savior.
Pick: Packers win, cover

Indianapolis at New Orleans (-14)

Oh, pity the poor TV executives who have to schedule games so far in advance. With Peyton Manning, this would be a great offensive match up. Now it's just a game of polar opposites- the high octane Saints team with star QB at the helm vs. the slowly decaying corpse of the Colts, with perennial backup at the helm. The Saints don't have a great defense, but it's not like Curtis Painter has the ability to make them pay for it- so I see the Saints moving the ball with ease and winning with ease.
Pick: Saints win, cover

Baltimore (-7.5) at Jacksonville 

I understand why TV executives would schedule Indy and New Orleans, but I do not at all get this match up from any stand point. This is one of the worst games of the week, and I could've seen that when the NFL released its schedule way back in the spring. Not sure why ESPN jumped on this one. Anyway, Baltimore has a great defense and a great running game, and Joe Flacco is slowly developing into a good QB (emphasis on slowly). The Jaguars have Blaine Gabbert, who's just a boring rookie QB, a criminally underused good running game, and a lack of playmakers on defense. This will be yet another Monday Night snoozefest.
Pick: Ravens win, cover

Season: 60-30 Overall, 45-43-2 ATS

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Week 6 NFL Picks: The Worst Slate of Games Yet?

Pretty much sums up the Bills win last Sunday. Fast Freddy Breaking Tackles

Week 6 this year is pretty bland. Looking at the schedule, there's only one game that jumps out- Dallas at New England- and even that is inflated because of the media's unabashed slobbering over either team. New England is the team that does it the "right way" while Dallas is "America's Team" filled with big name players who create media circuses with every interview. As per usual, I'll be sticking to the Bills game.

Last week I went 9-4 overall and 7-6 ATS. I completely whiffed on the Bucs, the Giants and the Titans. A little too heavy on the underdogs, but still, I was able to do pretty well.

St. Louis at Green Bay (-14)

The Rams could get as much time as they want before this game to prepare (beyond the bye week they just had) and I still wouldn't take them to even cover this game. They've put seven (!) cornerbacks on IR this year, which is roughly the amount of cornerbacks you need to guard all the receivers Aaron Rodgers throws to (12 different players caught a Rodgers pass last week). In addition, the Rams have been gouged by the run this year, and while the Packers aren't world-beaters on the run, James Starks and Ryan Grant should easily be able to open up holes in the defense. Aaron Rodgers can then rip his way through the tattered remains of the Rams secondary. On the other side of the ball, the Rams have no receivers to help Sam Bradford, and the running game is not too worrisome. If Green Bay can beat the Broncos by 29, its not hard to see them beating the Rams by 14+.
Pick: Packers win, cover

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh (-12)

Well, I certainly underestimated the Steelers last week. Even on an injured foot, Ben Roethlisberger was able to throw 5 TDs against what was considered to be a good Titans pass defense. Now they go up against the Jaguars, who are a worse version of the Titans, to be honest. A good running back (Chris Johnson for the Titans, Maurice Jones-Drew for the Jaguars) a QB who you can't completely trust to win the game (Matt Hasslebeck, Blaine Gabbert), no receivers of note, and a decent defense. The Steelers ran roughshod over the Titans last week- and this week against the inferior Jags, it shouldn't be much different.
Pick: Steelers win, cover

Philadelphia (-3) at Washington

This game is brutally hard to pick. I watched the Eagles last week, and even for all the times they shot themselves in the foot, they had chances to win or tie that game- but of course their own mistakes got in the way. The offense is explosive- they have three good receivers and LeSean McCoy is a beast at running back. The offensive line, though, stinks. The Bills anemic pass rush looked halfway decent against them. The defense on the Eagles is especially susceptible to runs up the middle, and the corners, while talented, are stuck in a zone coverage system that hampers them. Also, they can't tackle well. As for the Redskins, they lost in a snooze fest to the Cowboys and had trouble beating the Cardinals and Rams. The Eagles have to put it together sometime, right? There has to be a game where they win in spite of their mistakes, or don't make as many, and their talent wins out. The Redskins don't have quite an explosive enough offense (Rex Grossman at QB is a worry, and the backs are a mishmash of spare parts, able to excel in Mike Shanahan's system). I could see Philadelphia screwing themselves out of it, but I guess I'm going with the Eagles to finally pull it together.
Pick: Eagles win, cover

San Francisco at Detroit (-4)

San Francisco blew out Tampa Bay last weekend, completely surprising me in the process. The team is far and away the best in the NFC West (which isn't much, but still). The team has a great defense and runs the ball well on offense. Somehow, Alex Smith hasn't imploded at QB yet. The Lions, meanwhile, have a scary front seven and a dangerous offense- Matthew Stafford merely has to chuck it up, and Calvin Johnson usually comes down with it. Jahvid Best showed improvement last week at running back. As much as I like the 49ers to win their division, I can't see them winning on the road against a quality Lions team. Not with Alex Smith at QB...I still can't trust him, not yet.
Pick: Lions win, cover

Carolina at Atlanta (-4)

Atlanta hasn't impressed anyone this season- after a strong start to their last game, going up 14-3, the Falcons completely folded. They bet the farm on this season, trading away a future first rounder for Julio Jones, but the offense hasn't been good even with Jones and the defense is eminently beatable. They've taken a step back since last year. The Panthers are the best 1-4 team in the NFL, staying close in every game against some quality opponents. This week, I see the Panthers pulling out another win- Cam Newton has been outrageously good, and should be able to make up for their weak defense.
Pick: Panthers win, cover

Indianapolis at Cincinnati (-7)

The Bengals have a great defense and Andy Dalton is good enough to win games in the clutch with the help of stud receiver AJ Green. The Colts, even with the improvement of Curtis Painter at QB, have found ways to consistently lose games- the defense just isn't good enough. The Bengals should be able to pull this one out pretty easily, because they've shown the ability to shut down better quarterbacks than Curtis Painter and have the offense to beat the weak Indy defense.
Pick: Bengals win, cover

Buffalo at NY Giants (-3)

The Bills showed last week the ability to run the football and score points. The main problem they face is the passing game- they're now suddenly thin at receiver and weren't trying any deep shots, which allowed the Eagles to press their coverage, which choked the passing game. The Bills need to go deep occasionally to keep defenses honest and open up holes for short throws and Fred Jackson to run. The defense has shown the ability to create turnovers, but I'm not sure they'll be able to do that every game, so they need to find a way to shut down opposing offenses and rush the passer more consistently. Luckily, the Giants D looks susceptible to the passing game (even against the Seahawks) and is missing some key players on the defensive line. The Giants offense can't run the ball but has a dangerous passing game. Eli Manning, though, is susceptible to mistakes. Overall, I think it's a favorable matchup for the Bills, and I see them taking this one on the road. Yep. Still irrationally confident.
Pick: Bills win, cover

Houston at Baltimore (-8)

Houston's lost Andre Johnson for the next couple of weeks and Mario Williams for the rest of the season, limiting their offense and their seemingly improved defense. The Ravens are coming off a bye week, are playing at home, and have a more potent defense. The offense, if Joe Flacco is on his game, is highly efficient, especially with Ray Rice at running back. The Ravens look like a team on the rise with smooth waters ahead; the Texans look to have choppy waters ahead, even if the AFC South has never been easier to win.
Pick: Ravens win, cover

Cleveland at Oakland (-6.5)

The Raiders are playing tough, "classic Al Davis football" (writers are stretching for that point now)- run the ball, play tough defense, and capitalize on big downfield throws. The Browns, even off a bye week, have a weak offense- if Peyton Hillis is shut down on the ground (which the Raiders can do), Colt McCoy has no weapons at receiver. The defense is nothing special. All this leads to another Raiders win.
Pick: Raiders win, cover

Dallas at New England(-6.5)

The Cowboys have talented players on both sides of the ball, to be sure- Miles Austin and Dez Bryant make up one of the best receiving cores in the NFL, and DeMarcus Ware is a premier pass rusher. Unfortunately, they have a weak running game and a weak secondary, and Tony Romo is always good to fail in the clutch with a back breaking interception. The Patriots have a horrible defense, to be sure- susceptible to the pass and run- but their extremely effective offense has been able to make up for it. The Cowboys should be able to keep this one close with their passing attack, but in a close game, can you put any faith in Tony Romo?
Pick: Patriots win, Cowboys cover

New Orleans (-5) at Tampa Bay

The Saints can score at will behind Drew Brees and their multifaceted offense, scoring above 22 points in every game so far. The Buccaneers offense has stalled, never putting up more than 24 points in any game. I don't see the Buccaneers defense being good enough to stop the Saints, and the Bucs just can't score enough. It's that simple.
Pick: Saints win, cover

Minnesota at Chicago (-2.5)

When I look at this game, all I can think of is the image of Jay Cutler sulking after being sacked yet again by Jared Allen and the Vikings pass rush, while the Bears defense gets gashed by Adrain Peterson (last week, Jahvid Best was able to rip to shreds the Bears D). Even if Donovan McNabb is playing like he's been possessed by some terrible-QB-spirit, the Bears lack of an offensive line and the Vikings ability to stop the run (Matt Forte is the only weapon the Bears have) should be enough for the Vikings to take this one.
Pick: Vikings win, cover

Miami at NY Jets (-7)

It is so tempting to take the Dolphins in this game- the Jets are imploding under their own hype and beginning to fight amongst themselves, and the play of Mark Sanchez has never been so deliciously poor. A loss to the Dolphins would put the Jets in a beautiful tailspin. The Dolphins, though, are starting Matt Moore in this game. And they're on the road. So while I'm hopeful the Dolphins pull it off, it's hard to see my fantasy coming true. They can't stop anyone and the offense should be somehow worse with Moore at the helm. And, wow, another awful Sunday/Monday Night combo. Yeesh.
Pick: Jets win, cover

Season: 52-25 Overall, 37-38-2 ATS

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Week 5 NFL Picks: Going with the Dogs

Hopefully what Michael Vick looks like all day Sunday. Or Not Playing.
Week 5, the first of the bye weeks, is also being billed as "Make or Break Week," yet another way for the media to drum up excitement for this week's slate. There are no natural big rivalries, so we're contrived to the first of many "This is it!" weekends in football. Because a team that falls into 1-4 or 2-3 HAS NO CHANCE OF EVER MAKING THE PLAYOFFS. Or, in the case of the Bills, a loss to the Eagles will definitively prove that the Bills are PRETENDERS. Barf. Sometimes I hate sports media. It's too early, still. We're not even halfway through October. Some teams wake up. Some teams fade. Week 5 can give us a glimpse, a further clarifying of what we've seen so far, but this early, it will never be the definitive end all, be-all. For instance, the Bills started 0-4 through 5 in 2004, were 3-6 at one point, then rattled off 6 straight victories followed by a loss that excluded them from the playoffs. Still. Things swing. Also, the 2001 Patriots started 1-3, were stuck at 5-5 at one point, then never lost again that year en route to the Super Bowl.

So, yeah, sorry for lowering the stakes this week. It's a long season. Last week, in my picks, I went 12-4 overall and 10-6 ATS. I'm getting better! Let's see if this newfound confidence completely crumbles in my face. After writing this out, I realized I picked a lot of road underdogs. There's always one week in the NFL where the 'dogs go wild, and I guess I'm choosing this week as the one.

Kansas City at Indianapolis (-2)

Yikes. Unless you're a fervent fan of either team (which has been a rough experience so far), there is no reason to watch this game. There isn't even a compelling fantasy player to watch, because starting Colts or Chiefs at this point means your team is probably pretty awful. The Chiefs managed to grab their first win against the Vikings this week, even with their coach and QB getting into a nasty spat on the sidelines. Maybe dissension is the key to victory? The Colts, meanwhile, showed some life against the Bucs, keeping the game close at Curtis Painter looked to be halfway decent at QB. I can't choose one team as clearly better, but I'll take "competitive against good teams" over "wins against the dysfunctional Vikings, blown out otherwise."
Picks: Colts win, cover

Arizona at Minnesota (-3)

Interesting game here, in that either team cannot be trusted at all. In picking this game, you have to choose between the crappiness of the NFC West or the crappiness of Donovan McNabb and the Vikings. Kevin Kolb has decidedly not been the savior he was anointed before the season, and the Cardinals have no defense. The Vikings have the corpse of Donovan McNabb at QB, a shell of the defense they once had, and Adrian Peterson is seeing about 12 defenders in the box every time he lines up. Both the QBs in this game were passed over by the Eagles, and its not hard to see why. Once again, with no clear indication of a better team, I guess I'll take the Vikings, at home, with the better offensive weapon in Adrian Peterson, over the decent-for-the-NFC-West (awful everywhere else) Cardinals.
Pick: Vikings win, cover

Philadelphia (-3) at Buffalo

When you're a media created "Dream Team" that's built up to run roughshod over the league, when things go wrong, well, a lot of people are going to be gleefully clapping, watching it all fall apart. Whenever the Eagles lose, it seems as if 20% of SportsCenter (or, SportsCentre, in Canada- but they focus on hockey over everything) must be committed to analyzing every facet of the Eagles game and why they came up short. In their typical hyperbolic manner, this Week 5 game against the Bills has become the crux of the Eagles season. Losing this game means that the Eagles are DONE. To be sure, they need a win after a disastrous 3 weeks- but as Chan Gailey said, "Every team needs a win." The Eagles are going to come out hard in this game, to be sure, and Mike Vick and LeSean McCoy might just have a field day against the Bills defense. But the Bills aren't lacking for motivation either- they've seen how quickly the media gives up on them after a loss to the Bengals, and they're now the underdogs again, fighting for respect. They're more comfortable in that role. Add in an Eagles defense that can't stop the run and hasn't been stellar against the pass, and, well...I see the Bills taking this one at home. It's irrational confidence, sure, but the Bills have the talent to bounce back from their loss and they have a great matchup with the shaky Eagles D/weak offensive line that might allow the Bills to actually get a pass rush.
Pick: Bills win, cover

Oakland at Houston (-5)

Even after last week's win over the Steelers, I'm not sold on the Texans. They let a battered Steelers team back into the game, lacking the killer instinct to just put them away. It worked against the Steelers, but against better teams, it will haunt them. In addition, they lost Andre Johnson, which will undoubtedly affect the offense until he comes back. The Raiders are perfectly suited to take this game- they play a physical style that should overwhelm the more finesse Texans team. They can stop the run, and the Texans will be relying on the run as a focal point without Andre Johnson. The Raiders will also be fired up, playing in memory of their deceased owner, Al Davis. You can't beat that kind of motivation.
Pick: Raiders win, cover

New Orleans (-6.5) at Carolina

Carolina and QB Cam Newton have been highly effective at scoring points in garbage time to give the illusion of a close game- Bill Simmons dubbed Newton "the King of Backdoor Covers," which is the best we can say for him. He has gaudy stats so far, but also throws some backbreaking interceptions and has one win to his name over four games. While some of that can be attributed to the weak Panthers defense, he hasn't shown the ability to win in spite of his defense- yet. The Saints have an offense that will victimize pretty much any defense, and they should have a field day against the Panthers. The defense has been decent, and loves to blitz- which might throw off Newton. Either way, I can't see the Panthers getting much closer than a TD in this game, which makes the line pretty convenient. Even with Cam "the Garbage Man" Newton's late heroics, I still don't think he can keep up with the Saints for 60 minutes.
Pick: Saints win, cover

Cincinnati at Jacksonville (-2)

The main lesson I got from last week was that the Bengals have a pretty good defense and Andy Dalton has the ability to be a pretty good QB in the NFL (especially with AJ Green as his #1 target). The Jaguars just look like a mess. Blaine Gabbert hasn't shown much at all, the team abandons the run for no reason, the defense is at best decent, and the team can't even paint the arrows on the field the right way. Also, the team can't sell out the stadium- they're back to using big tarps to cover up whole sections. Bengals should be able to slog their way to a win here.
Pick: Bengals win, cover

Tennessee at Pittsburgh (-3)

The Titans have looked the more impressive team over the first four weeks of the season, and might give Houston a run for the AFC South crown. The Steelers, meanwhile, have been able to beat cruddy teams (the Colts, Seahawks) and lose to quality teams. So far, Tennessee has been a quality team, even without Kenny Britt. There's always the feeling that the Steelers will go back to being the same old Steelers and start winning ugly, but I don't see it happening quite yet, especially with Ben Roethlisberger hobbling on a sprained foot against the Titan's solid defense.
Pick: Titans win, cover

Seattle at NY Giants (-9.5)

Pretty simple here. Seahawks, on the road,when all they have going for them is their home field advantage. The Giants might just be a decent team (they looked as if they were trying to lose Sunday), but against the Seahawks, it should be more than enough.
Pick:Giants win, cover

Tampa Bay at San Francisco (-3)

Tough one here. The Niners had an impressive comeback last week and looked invigorated by coach Jim Harbaugh, but I don't trust them yet- something about Alex Smith at QB still makes me queasy. The Bucs haven't seemed to hit their stride yet, but keep winning games by performing well in clutch situations. At the very least, I trust Josh Freeman over Alex Smith, so I'll go with Tampa here, but I could definitely see the Niners hanging around with their solid defense.
Pick: Bucs win, cover

NY Jets at New England (-7.5)

The Patriots are a machine on offense- they move with ruthless efficiency, showing no mercy to defenses, picking away with throws to Wes Welker and their Tight Ends. The only thing derailing them is their shoddy defense. Fortunately for them, they're going up against the Jets, who look offensively inept right now. They can't get a running game going, and Mark Sanchez is crumbling under the pressure of putting the game on his shoulders. The Jets defense has remained solid, but is showing cracks- they're not the imposing unit they were two years ago. The Jets luck is seemingly on short supply this year, thank God, and the Patriots don't deal with luck. They just produce. It will be too much for the Jets to handle- they won't be able to keep up even if their offense starts working. Also, Tom Brady and the Patriots are furious after last season's playoff loss to the Jets. Throw in a poorly timed Mark Sanchez pick here or there, and it all spells a humbling defeat for the Jets.
Pick: Patriots win, cover

San Diego (-3.5) at Denver

San Diego has waltzed to a 3-1 record behind an easy schedule, as opposed to their usual slow, 1-3/0-4 starts. This is a team that usually gels as the season goes on, getting stronger with each game. The Broncos, to me, are the definition of a 6-10 team- they'll stick around in some games, win against bad teams, but they'll be crushed by the elite. They just have an overwhelmingly boring roster, full of pretty good players but no one special. San Diego's going to start playing at an elite level sometime, and this week seems as good a time as any to start.
Pick: Chargers win, cover

Green Bay (-5.5) at Atlanta 

Atlanta has bounced between extremes this season, never gaining any semblance of consistency. Something's just not clicking on offense, yet, and the defense is still not an imposing unit. Still, they always play well at the Georgia Dome. The Packers have run wild over the league, and Aaron Rodgers truly hit his stride last week with a monster performance against the Broncos. While I'm not sold on the Falcons as Super Bowl contenders, they play well enough at the dome to stay in this game, while the true Super Bowl contender wins it. The Packers are every bit as good on offense as the Patriots and have a better defense. Good luck, rest of the NFL.
Pick: Packers win, Falcons cover

Chicago at Detroit (-5)

The Bears finally figured out how to be successful on offense- don't even try to have Jay Cutler throw behind his porous offensive line, just give it to Matt Forte. The Lions, meanwhile, completed an epic 20 point comeback against the Cowboys, perhaps cementing their status as NFC playoff contenders. The Lions are hosting their first Monday Night Football game since 2001, and the atmosphere will be electric. Nick Fairley might play, making Detroit's front seven even stronger. Last week, the Panthers were able to stay close to the Bears despite the Bears getting a Special Teams TD and a Defensive TD- not something you can count on every game. The offense will struggle if Matt Forte can't run the ball effectively, and the Detroit front seven can stop the run. The Lions have the offense (throw it to Calvin Johnson) to beat the Bears, and the defense should be able to clamp down on the Bears running game. Viva le Detroit!
Pick: Lions win, cover

Season: 43-21 overall, 30-32-2 ATS

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Buffalo Bills: Just the Same but Brand New

 Pretty emblematic of the day. If only I could photoshop Leodis McKelvin getting burned in there.

Complacency is a dangerous feeling, especially for the Bills. To feel comfortable with your surroundings, to feel at ease- well, it creates opportunities to fall. Once you put your guard down, it's pretty obvious that it's easier to be struck. I don't know if the Bills got complacent Sunday; but I know I and most other Bills fans did. Watching that game, with the Bills up 17-3 at half, I actually believed that the Bengals had no chance of coming back. To that point, the Bills had played a pretty awful first half, only starting to look good by the end of the second quarter, and still had a fourteen point lead. In the previous two games, the Bills had shown a propensity to make brilliant halftime adjustments and ignite the offense and defense. During the first half, even, the Bills had completely harassed Andy Dalton into two picks, and the Bengals had no running game to speak of. This looked like signed, sealed, delivered, 4-0.

Unfortunately, the Bills looked as if they had the same thought process, like they took the second half easy and couldn't believe what was happening. They had no focus; they let the Bengals take control of the game. They got Buffalo Bills'd (from the past two weeks.) Once the Bengals hit the field goal to make it 17-6, I began to worry, because it was so clear to see how much momentum the Bengals had gained. The defense continued to put Leodis McKelvin on A.J. Green (I'm not sure how the coaching staff hasn't seen that HE IS THE WORST COVER CORNER WE HAVE AND HE CANNOT BE PUT ON ANY #1 OPTIONS), which predictably burned them, and also showed the maddening trait that the Bills have had for seemingly my whole life- they didn't cover the tight end. One thing a rookie QB like Andy Dalton loves is a tight end as a safety valve. Not only that, this is Jermaine Gresham, a talented, big tight end who serves as one of the top targets. The Bills, instead of adjusting the way they did last week (by doubling Ron Gronkowski against the Patriots), simply let him be single covered by linebackers or safeties and he burned us. Also maddening was the complete folding of the run defense- as the second half rolled on, the Bengals just decimated the Bills with huge chunks of yardage on the ground. The defense, as a whole, failed. No pressure, couldn't stop the run, couldn't stop the pass.

No less blame can be put on the offense, who were awful in the second half, mustering three points. When they got those three points to make it 20-13, well, then I was even more worried, because a touchdown could've sealed the game; but a field goal keeps them right in it, hanging around. They let the Bengals hang around. The run game was bad- Fred could not get it going due to interior penetration by the Bengals line, and the Bills never tried anything on the outside, it seemed. The line also failed to give Fitzpatrick time on a lot of throws- even in an offense predicated on quick drop backs and quick routes, the Bengals still made Fitzpatrick's life miserable. Fitzpatrick himself was the erratic quarterback we saw at times last season, with the main problem being inaccuracy and a propensity to wing it long on third and short. Fitzpatrick usually starts games slow, and then heats up; but this time, he couldn't get it going. (Good thing we haven't signed him to that big contract yet, right?)

There's a point to be made about the officiating. Yes, it was terrible for the Bills. That 3rd down completion to Stevie Johnson that was called off was one of the worst calls I've seen in an NFL game. The Bengals secondary looked to be mugging our receivers down field, with no calls. And there were some times our rush was stifled by clear holding. But here's the thing- we've been the beneficiary of good calls so far this year, and the pendulum swings both ways. Also, good teams win in spite of penalties, and the Bills had more chances to win this game. While it didn't help, the Bills are to blame most for this loss.

The game was a classic punch in the mouth to the fan's optimism and to the budding status of the Bills as contenders. The Bills fell right into the proverbial 'trap' game. It was a stern reminder that this season will not just be fourth quarter come backs and gaudy point totals. No season comes without lows. It's also a test. For this was a classic Bills loss- take the lead and then bumble it away; how the team responds will show the fans if this team is any different from the prototypical Bills team. For many past teams, this would be the beginning of a downward slope, one loss feeding into the next one, a self fulfilling prophecy of losing. But there's a chance to take this game, learn from the mistakes, get motivated by it, and use it to get to greater heights. Early returns have been favorable: the team is certainly acting like a team motivated to kill the Eagles next week and regain the respect they scratched and crawled their way towards. We've seen the talent this team has; it's playoff calibre. Now it's time to see whether, mentally, it's the same old disappointing Bills or something brand new.

 (St. Vincent is awesome, and this song is a good summer-upper)