Saturday, December 20, 2014

NFL Picks, Week 16

We're getting down to the end of the season, just 31 games left to pick. Unlike the last two seasons I have a realistic shot to keep my head (slightly) above water (.500) for the entire season.
In order to stay above .500 I need to pick 12/31 games correctly over the next two weeks.
In order to get above .550 I need to pick 25/31 games correctly over the next two weeks.

So let's get to it. Home team in CAPS.

Saturday Games:
Philadelphia (-8) over WASHINGTON
I know the Eagles haven't looked great over the last two weeks, but I've seen the Seahawks and Cowboys play this season, and Washington, you're no Seahawks or Cowboys. Seattle and Dallas were able to get pressure on Mark Sanchez, cover the short passes well to get Sanchez outside of his comfort zone, and score early to punish the Eagles for early three-and-outs. I have no faith that Washington can do any of those things.

San Diego (+1) over SAN FRANCISCO 
Of Seattle's last nine opponents, eight have lost their next game.
Team
Game vs Seattle
Next Game
Result
St. Louis (1-4)
W, 28-26
Kansas City (3-3)
L, 34-7
Carolina (3-3-1)
L, 13-9
New Orleans (3-4)
L, 28-10
Oakland (0-7)
L, 30-24
Denver (6-2)
L, 41-17
New York Giants (3-5)
L, 38-17
San Francisco (5-4)
L, 16-10
Kansas City (6-3)
W, 24-20
Oakland (0-10)
L, 24-20
Arizona (9-1)
L, 19-3
Atlanta (4-7)
L, 29-18
San Francisco (7-4)
L, 19-3
Oakland (1-11)
L, 24-13
Philadelphia (9-3)
L, 24-14
Dallas (9-4)
L, 38-27
San Francisco (7-6)
L, 17-7
San Diego (8-6)
???

Add in the fact that the 49ers are incredibly beat up, and their general offensive malaise, and I think San Diego overcomes the Harbaughs, even with a gimpy Philip Rivers, no Ryan Mathews, and no Keenan Allen.

This also seems like the space to congratulate the 49ers for taking a stand with now-former defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who made the mistake of getting involved in an incident (he's a suspect in an alleged rape investigation) after his team had been eliminated from playoff contention.

Sunday Games: 
Minnesota (+6.5) over MIAMI 
Since Miami's season peaked (in their narrow loss at Denver in week 12), here are their opponents' rushing statistics:
Week 13 (New York Jets): 49 rushes for 277 yards
Week 14 (Baltimore): 31 rushes, 183 yards
Week 15 (New England): 29 rushes, 108 yards

I think it's safe to say that you can run on the Dolphins defense. And if you can run on them, it hampers the top strength of their defense: the pass rush. Add in an almost-Chiefs like inability to make plays downfield, and Miami is simply flat-lining at the worst possible time.

Green Bay (-11.5) over TAMPA BAY
Angry Aaron Rodgers going up against a toothless Tampa Bay defense? Why yes I'll have seconds...and even thirds!

Detroit (-8.5) over CHICAGO
This seems like a good time to remind everyone that Bears coach Marc Trestman benched Jay Cutler this week. That's right, 14 games into a 7-year, $126 Million deal, Cutler was benched. That's not fair, you say? NFL contracts are inflated with funny money, you say? You're right, but Cutler's deal guaranteed his salaries for the first 3 years of his deal, salaries that total $49 Million.

That's not reason enough to pick Detroit? Okay, it's true that Cutler was leading the league in turnovers this season, so maybe the backup could improve the play at the Bears' QB position. Except the backup is Jimmy Clausen. So that's not going to happen.

Atlanta (+6) over NEW ORLEANS
This line confuses me. I believe the Saints are a more talented team than the Falcons. I believe the Saints should win this game. But I don't understand how a Saints team that has been as up-and-down as this one has (including a current home losing streak of 4) is a 6 point favorite in this game.

Now, if you tell me that Julio Jones can't go, it's more understandable. But he has to play, this is essentially a playoff game for the Falcons.

New England (-10.5) over NEW YORK JETS
This is the sixth (and probably last) season the Patriots will play Rex Ryan's Jets. In the previous 5 seasons, a pattern has emerged:

Year
First Matchup
Second Matchup
2009
Week 2: Jets 16, Pats 9
Week 11: Pats 31, Jets 14
2010
Week 2: Jets 28, Pats 14
Week 13: Pats 45, Jets 3
2011
Week 5: Pats 30, Jets 21
Week 10: Pats 37, Jets 16
2012
Week 7: Pats 29, Jets 26 (OT)
Week 12: Pats 49, Jets 19
2013
Week 2: Pats 13, Jets 10
Week 7: Jets 30, Pats 27 (OT)
2014
Week 7: Pats 27, Jets 25
Week 16: ???

Games played in the first half of the season, average points scored: Jets 22.3, Pats 21.3
Games played in the second half of the season, average points scored: Pats 40.5, Jets 13.0

The first matchup of the season is usually close, but the Patriots tend to run away with the second matchup. The only year this wasn't true? 2013, when the second matchup came in week 7.

PITTSBURGH (-3) over Kansas City
Great offense and no defense against good defense and bad offense. In a situation like this I'll use the quarterbacks as a tiebreaker, and I'll go with the guy who has successfully thrown a touchdown pass to any receiver on his roster (hint: that disqualifies Alex Smith).

CAROLINA (-3.5) over Cleveland
Good news, Cleveland fans: I believe Johnny Manziel will lead your team to at least one score this week. In fact, I believe he'll lead your team to multiple scores. What's the bad news (how did you know there was bad news)? Carolina's three-headed (four, if you count Cam) backfield will run all over your defense, meaning those scores won't be enough.

Baltimore (-5) over HOUSTON
Baltimore has no secondary at this point. Injuries and poor play have really de-fanged that back four. Luckily, they're playing a team that just signed Case Keenum off the scrap heap, because their top 3 choices at the quarterback position are all injured. Can JJ Watt throw and catch the touchdown passes? Have they tried Watt at quarterback? Doesn't that seem like a better plan?

ST. LOUIS (-5.5) over New York Giants
Eli Manning against that pass rush? No thank you.

Buffalo (-6) over OAKLAND
I'm picking the Bills while acknowledging the fact that shutting down Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back weeks only to lose the following week to Derek Carr, thus eliminating themselves from playoff contention would be about the most Buffalo ending to a season since Scott Norwood.

Indianapolis (+3) over DALLAS
I think this will be a shootout, and Dallas' offensive line and workhorse back (DeMarco Murray) are pretty nicked up, so I trust Andrew Luck to make a couple more plays than Tony Romo. Presumably the Colts will put up something approaching resistance to the Romo-Dez Bryant connection.

Seattle (-8) over ARIZONA
On the one hand, the Cardinals defense is much better than Vegas is giving them credit for. This could very well be a 10-6 or even 12-9 game. On the other hand, the Cardinals are starting Ryan Lindley at quarterback. The last time Lindley played in a game against Seattle...this happened. I'm going to continue to roll with the Seattle defense against a quarterback who should not be starting an important game.

Monday Game:
Denver (-3) over CINCINNATI
Andy Dalton in prime time against Peyton Manning in the regular season.

This Week: 1-0 (Whoo-hoo!)
Last Week: 8-7-1 (.531)
2014 Season: 114-106-3 (.518)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

NFL Picks, Week 16 - Thursday Night Edition

This week's NFL TV maps: 506sports


  • The "national" late afternoon game is Indianapolis at Dallas, on CBS. 

JAGUARS (-3.5) over Titans
I'm picking the Jaguars. Since this game features two 2-12 teams who would each be better served to lose the game rather than win it, and since you should spend exactly 0% of your life paying attention to this game (added "bonus": Phil Simms will be involved), let's instead analyze what the final game of the NFL's regular season will be. 

A couple of points before we begin:
  • As of right now (as usual), there is no scheduled Sunday Night Football game for week 17. Every game is currently scheduled to be played at 1:00 PM or 4:05/4:25 PM Eastern. The NFL does this so it only has to move one game for week 17, rather than the game originally slated for prime time and the new game being moved into prime time. 
  • The NFL wants as much on the line (in terms of playoff qualification) as possible. For the last 4 years, this game has featured two teams in competition for their division title. Each of the 8 teams involved in the final game of the season has entered this final regular season game of the season knowing that a win gets them into the playoffs, and a loss eliminates them.
So what games are likely to be featured in prime time next week? Let's take a look:

The No-Chancers:
Jacksonville (2-12) at Houston (7-7) - Too much would have to break right for Houston to be alive for a playoff berth by this Monday, let alone next Sunday night. 
New York Jets (3-11) at Miami (7-7) - Too much would have to break right for Miami to be alive for a playoff berth by this Monday, let alone next Sunday night. 
Indianapolis (10-4) at Tennessee (2-12) - Indy is in the playoffs already. Tennessee is...well, terrible. 
Chicago (5-9) at Minnesota (6-8) - Do you hate Jimmy Clausen? Would you like to watch him get pounded behind the Bears' offensive line? No? Then there is no reason to watch this game. 
New Orleans (6-8) at Tampa Bay (2-12) - Tampa Bay will not be involved in game 256. 
Oakland (2-12) at Denver (11-3) - Not going to happen. But, but Peyton Manni...No. Just no. 
Philadelphia (9-5) at New York Giants (5-9) - The Eagles could face a "Win-and-they're-in" scenario. But it would leave too much to chance and the 2014 New York Giants are not going to be a part of game 256. 
Arizona (11-3) at San Francisco (7-7) - Arizona'a already in. San Francisco is already on their way to Michigan out of the playoffs. 

The Unlike-lies: 
Cleveland (7-7) at Baltimore (9-5) - The drama of old Cleveland playing new Cleveland with a playoff spot on the line? Hoo-boy. Unfortunately, there are just too many moving parts that would all have to cosmically align for that to happen. While even the drama of Cleveland standing in the way of a Baltimore "Win and you're in" would be delicious, even that scenario is mostly a pipe dream. 
Dallas (10-4) at Washington (3-11) - Contrary to popular belief, the Cowboys are not contractually obligated to be involved in game 256. Really this game should be in the no-chancers section, but NBC would at least think about putting this game in that slot, only because it involved the Cowboys. 
Detroit (10-4) at Green Bay (10-4) - Both teams will very likely be in the playoffs already by the time Sunday night rolls around, so while it should be an interesting game, there won't be enough on the line. 
Buffalo (8-6) at New England (11-3) - Buffalo's a longshot to still be alive by Sunday night, and the Patriots will likely already have sewn up at least a bye by next weekend. 
St. Louis (6-8) at Seattle (10-4) - Seattle could face a "Win and you're in" scenario, but it would rely on too many other pieces falling into place to be a realistic option.

The Options: 
2nd runner up: Carolina (5-8-1) at Atlanta (5-9)
For the last 4 years, game 256 has been a winner gets the 4th seed in the NFC affair. In 2010 it was St. Louis vs Seattle. In 2011 it was Dallas vs New York Giants. In 2012 it was Dallas vs Washington. In 2013 it was Philadelphia vs Dallas. In 2014, it could be Carolina vs Atlanta. If Atlanta beats New Orleans this week and Carolina beats Cleveland, then this game will decide the NFC South, no matter what the Saints do against Tampa Bay. The problem with this option is if the Saints win this weekend then Atlanta is eliminated and this game just becomes a clash of two terrible NFC teams. 

First runner up: San Diego (8-6) at Kansas City (8-6)
Right now these are teams 7 and 8 in the AFC playoff field. Unfortunately for them, only 6 teams get in. So this game could easily be a win and you're in battle for the 6th and last AFC spot, but that requires losses from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and/or Baltimore between now and then (multiple losses in Cincinnati's case). It's just as likely that these two teams are playing out the string come next Sunday night. 

The likeliest pick: Cincinnati (9-4-1) at Pittsburgh (9-5) 
Best case scenario? Winner takes the AFC North, and the loser is out of the playoffs. But even the worst case scenario likely has the AFC North division on the line (if both teams are in the playoffs), and it could hold a wildcard spot on the line too. Because this game will mean something across most of the possible outcomes between now and then, this game is my pick for likeliest to be flexed by NBC into the final game of the regular season.  

2014 Midweek Picks: 12-5

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

NFL Power Poll, Week 15


Rank
Team
Record
Score
Last Score
Last Month Score
Week Difference
Month Difference
1
10-4
67.84
67.76
47.37
0.08
20.47
2
11-3
54.63
47.31
31.92
7.32
22.71
3
10-4
41.84
42.11
28.26
-0.27
13.58
4
9-5
36.42
37.22
24.08
-0.8
12.34
5
10-4
28.6
28.9
19.39
-0.3
9.21
6
7-7
23.22
20.69
11.55
2.53
11.67
7
10-4
18.29
13.26
16.7
5.03
1.59
8
7-7
14.57
14.95
34.43
-0.38
-19.86
9
11-3
12.96
7.63
15.77
5.33
-2.81
10
11-3
12.78
9.62
17.03
3.16
-4.25
11
9-4-1
6.58
-2.58
0.22
9.16
6.36
12
6-8
6.39
11.71
-15.31
-5.32
21.7
13
7-7
6.2
10.53
24.93
-4.33
-18.73
14
9-5
5.64
4.19
0.67
1.45
4.97
15
8-6
4.21
5.15
4.92
-0.94
-0.71
16
10-4
1.95
5.29
-3.18
-3.34
5.13
17
3-11
-0.32
-5.42
2.28
5.1
-2.6
18
7-7
-0.34
8.57
7.9
-8.91
-8.24
19
3-11
-0.74
-2.78
-9.35
2.04
8.61
20
5-8-1
-2.75
-5.03
-19.28
2.28
16.53
21
9-5
-6.48
-0.88
-6.07
-5.6
-0.41
22
8-6
-15.99
-7.92
-6.41
-8.07
-9.58
23
5-9
-16.64
-15.39
-14.58
-1.25
-2.06
24
6-8
-16.75
-16.95
-2.75
0.2
-14
25
5-9
-18.9
-15.47
-6.24
-3.43
-12.66
26
8-6
-24.07
-27.47
-12.21
3.4
-11.86
27
6-8
-24.11
-28.3
-16.64
4.19
-7.47
28
2-12
-29.73
-28.24
-24.82
-1.49
-4.91
29
2-12
-35.97
-37.14
-33.52
1.17
-2.45
30
2-12
-37.86
-37.35
-24.25
-0.51
-13.61
31
5-9
-46.51
-42.33
-40.51
-4.18
-6
32
2-12
-50.78
-48.41
-39.58
-2.37
-11.2

Current Playoff Teams: 

Seed
AFC
NFC
 1
Patriots (10)
Cardinals (9)
 2
Broncos (2)
Lions (5)
 3
 Colts (16)
 Cowboys (7)
 4
 Bengals (11)
Saints (27) 
 5
Steelers (14) 
Seahawks (1) 
 6
 Ravens (4)
 Packers (3)

Best team in the power poll outside the playoffs: Texans (6)

Biggest 1 week risers: 
1. Cincinnati (+9.16)
2. Denver (+7.32)
3. Arizona (+5.33)
Biggest 1 week fallers: 
1. Cleveland (-8.91)
2. San Diego (-8.07)
3. Philadelphia (-5.60)

Biggest 4 week risers:
1. Denver (+22.71)
2. St. Louis (+21.70)
3. Seattle (+20.47)
Biggest 4 week fallers:
1. San Francisco (-19.86)
2. Miami (-18.73)
3. Minnesota (-14.00)

The Forumla: 
I broke down my formula into three parts: 

Part 1: Yards per play. 
Here I take each teams yards per carry (rushing) and yards per attempt (passing) numbers and subtract from them the YPC and YPA their defense allows.  The theory being that, if Team A's offense is better per play than what their opponent's offense can muster against Team A's defense, Team A should be consistently better than their opponents over a full game's worth of plays (60 to 70 per game approximately). 

Part 2: Toxic Differential
A better yards per play differential is helpful to a team's chances of winning, but just how often is an NFL team able to consistently drive down the field taking 5-8 yards at a time? You're essentiall asking an NFL offense to put together 10-12 plays without more than 1-2 negative plays, be they incompletions, sacks, no-gainers, or worse: turnovers. It's doable, but it's really hard to do with any sort of consistency in a single game.

This is why coaches harp on turnovers so much. A turnover a) takes away an opponent's possession which decreases their chances of scoring more points, and b) can give your team a shorter field so you don't have to put together an 80+ yard drive to get points of your own. The problem with turnovers is you can't count on them. So much of what goes into a turnover is dependent on a) the other team and b) luck that relying on turnovers is a dangerous proposition.

So yes, turnovers are important. But there's something else that can make getting points in a drive much easier: big plays. If my offense can get 20 or 30 yards in a single play, that cuts out 4-6 plays of grinding, or 4-6 plays where something could go wrong. Now my offense only has to put 5-6 plays together on a drive where they also get a chunk play.

Brian Billick is credited with coming up with the toxic differential statistic. This adds your takeaways and big plays generated by your offense and subtracts your giveaways and the big plays given up by your defense. Again, the theory goes that teams with a better toxic differential will be better at turning drives into points and games into wins. Pete Carroll also bases his offensive and defensive identity around turnovers and big plays being the most important indicators for both sides of the ball.

Note: For this formula, a big play is considered a rushing play of 10+ yards or a passing play of 25+ yards.

Part 3: Points Per Drive
What's the most important job of an NFL team? Score more points than your opponent. Rather than look simple points per game differential, I wanted to dig a little deeper and normalize the data a little further. Game-to-game the number of possessions can vary based on team tempo, weather coniditons, etc. So instead I looked at points per drive data for each team's offense and defense, and multiplied the difference by 10. Why 10? A typical NFL game has 12 possessions, but 1-2 of those come at a point where a team isn't really interested in scoring (maybe they get the ball with 12 seconds to go before halftime, or they get it with 3 minutes to go in the game up 14+ points already. 10 seemed like a good number of possessions per game where the end goal is to score points.