Posted by Chase Stuart on September 14, 2011
When it comes to grading teams or analyzing games, I like to do so by looking at past performance and key statistical indicators. Objectivity is the name of the game. After one week, though, that's not really an option. So I figured I'd change course and, if you guys don't mind, shoot straight from the gut, giving my thoughts on each of the 16 games this weekend. (If you guys do mind, that's why this was placed in the 'totally useless' category.) I may not even do this next week, but that won't stop me from structuring this article in such a way to make it look like an every week column.
Games I like
Seattle @ Pittsburgh (-14.5): As everyone knows, the Seahawks are running into a buzzsaw this week. Cross-country road trip traveling west to east, 1:00 game, and against an angry and focused Steelers team. The last time Seattle went to Pittsburgh was four years ago, with that game also scheduled with a 1:00 kickoff. Coincidentally, 2007 was also the last time the Seahawks were respectable (SRS score of +1.8; they've had an SRS score of -7.5 or worse every year since then). That game was still an ugly 21-0 Pittsburgh victory, and I expect the same on Sunday. SRS said Pittsburgh was 19.6 points better than Seattle last year, which roughly translates to a 24 point-line, in my opinion, given the location and time of the game. Pittsburgh looked terrible against Baltimore, but I'm more than willing to give the Steelers the benefit of the doubt. Pittsburgh won't have 7 turnovers again this week, and while Vegas is trying to elicit action on the Seahawks thanks to that extra half-point on the line, I'm not falling for it. Pittsburgh covers and wins easily.
Kansas City @ Detroit (-9): Nine points is a lot for Detroit to give: the Lions haven't been favored by as much as a touchdown since week 17 of the 2000 season. On the other hand, most of those games were started by someone other than Matthew Stafford. The Lions had a very difficult schedule in 2010, while the Chiefs had an easy one; as a result, Detroit's SRS grade was 2.6 points higher than Kansas City's in 2010. Tack on HFA, and a line of 9 isn't unreasonable given what we saw in week one. Jamaal Charles indoors could be scary, but I don't like anything that's going on in Kansas City. The Lions should win this one easily -- although I can't say I'm not frightened at the prospect of taking the Lions.
Dallas @ San Francisco (+3): The Cowboys and the 49ers. Troy Aikman vs. Steve Young; Danny White and Joe Montana; Roger Staubach and Craig Morton against John Brodie. Tony Romo and ... Alex Smith. Yes, the rivalry has lost a bit of luster. Perhaps this is a trap game for the Cowboys, coming off a heartbreaking defeat against the Jets and before the home opener against rival Washington -- but the Cowboys are a much, much better team than San Francisco. Sure, the Cowboys are banged up in the secondary, but the 49ers are banged up at quarterback and wide receiver, and Alex Smith isn't even hurt. Dallas was 3.6 points better than SF according to the SRS last year, and the teams are moving in opposite directions. I thought the 49ers were hurt more by the lockout than any other team, as they really needed the practice time to help them install their new, timing-based offense. They lost Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, Travis Laboy and Aubrayo Franklin on defense, without adding much. The 49ers beat the Seahawks, but (i) it's the Seahawks, and (ii) the 49ers were actually outgained by six first downs, went 1-12 on third down conversions, won the turnover battle by 3, and still needed two Ted Ginn return touchdowns to ice the game. The Cowboys should win and cover, perhaps in blowout fashion.
Houston @ Miami (+3): The Texans will win the AFC South, but if things were aligned differently, they might be the worst team in the AFC East. Miami is not a bad team by any stretch, and shouldn't be a three-point home dog to a team like Houston. The Miami passing attack looked strong against New England, and the Texans' pass defense still needs to show that it's improved against non-Kerry Collins teams. Houston's probably the better team, and they get Arian Foster back. But Miami was 1.5 points better than the Texans' last year, despite finishing 30th in turnover margin (the Texans had the same number of takeaways and giveaways). Have these two teams really gone in such a direct that the Texans should have a 7 point swing over a predicted line from 2010? I don't think so. Take the Dolphins to cover, because this is a coin-flip game.
Philadelphia @ Atlanta (+1.5): Last year, the Falcons had the better SRS grade. But the 2010 Falcons weren't all that good at anything, other than winning the turnover battle (+14, 3rd best). The Falcons ranked in the bottom half of the league in net yards per attempt, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards per attempt allowed and rushing yards per carry. Until the oddsmakers treat the Falcons like a .500 team, take their opponent each week. Yes, Michael Vick returns to the scene of the crime, a headline that will dominate the Sunday night telecast. Just know that the Eagles are a lot better than the Falcons, and will prove it in spades.
Games I lean
Arizona @ Washington (-4): If this line feels "odd" to you, it's not you, it's Washington. The Redskins have been a favorite exactly once in 17 games under Mike Shanahan, a loss in St. Louis as 4.5 point heavies. In fact, that game last season was the only time in Washington's previous 27 games where they've been favored by more than a point. So yes, it's odd to see the Redskins as a 4-point favorite against a team that's also had more success than them in recent years. That's why I put this game in the 'lean' column. But remember: bet against the NFC West when possible. This is another West to East game with a 1:00 start, which means Vegas essentially views these as even teams. As bad as you probably think the Redskins were last year, they actually were 8.9 points better (according to the SRS) than the Cardinals! There were a lot of things to take away from this weekend's games, but none more obvious than this: Arizona's pass defense is terrible. Rex Grossman could throw for 350 yards and 3 TDs and I wouldn't bat an eye. Arizona may have more "talent" but their defense is infinitely worse. The SRS score understates how much better the Cardinals are with Kevin Kolb, but Washington is a good bet to win; even stronger? The over 44.
Oakland @ Buffalo (-3.5): The third of the West to East games, but the league put the screws to Al Davis in this one. The Raiders will take the field in Orchard Park roughly 5.5 days after Oakland's game ended against the Broncos. I think the Bills could be the breakout team of 2011, so I'm not going to sweat essentially a neutral line against the Raiders. The SRS says the Bills were 4.5 points worse than Oakland last season, so this line is still a decently-sized departure from that. But Buffalo finished last in the league in turnover margin last year and will do better in 2011. This isn't a great line, but I see the Bills more juiced up for a home opener than they've been in years. The only reason this is a lean game? The Raiders are a great running team, and the Bills have had the worst rushing defense in football the past two seasons.
Cleveland @ Indianapolis (+1.5): Take a second and look at that line. From 2000 to 2010 -- ignoring meaningless week 17 games where the Colts announced their intention to rest most of the starters -- Indianapolis was a home dog only one time in that eleven year stretch, and that was when they faced the '07 Patriots. Now the Colts are underdogs in their home opener against Cleveland. I have already written my piece on the 2011 Colts and the Browns entered the 2011 season as a legit sleeper team. But they just fell on their faces as home favorites, so I'm not apt to put this in the games I like category with them as road favorites in a hostile environment. That said, I do lean the Browns, and think they likely win this game.
Cincinnati @ Denver (-4.5): I don't know what's more shocking: taking the Bengals on the road or seeing the Broncos as 4.5 point home favorites. Denver will be playing in front of another hostile crowd this weekend, which seems to happen whenever the Broncos leave Tim Tebow on the bench. Bruce Gradkowski is likely to get the start for the Bengals, but despite playing for two years in the AFC West, never faced Denver. Neither of these two teams are any good, but teams that have won 4 of their last 21 games shouldn't be favored by this much against anyone. Take Cincinnati, although I was so scared when I wrote that sentence that I downgraded this game to a 'lean.'
St. Louis @ New York Giants (-5.5): This line feels perfect, but the old rule is still in place: bet against the NFC West if you can. The Rams aren't all that good and might be the only team more banged up than the Giants. I don't think either team is in line for a good season, but my gut tells me that the Giants are a professional football team and can handle the Rams at home by a touchdown. Big Blue is the more talented team, and the stadium will be loud for the Monday Night home opener.
Baltimore @ Tennessee (+5.5): The betting public loves good teams on the road against bad teams, and Vegas loves to clean up against the public. Believe it or not, the SRS had the Ravens as only 5.4 points better than Tennessee last year, so a 5.5-point line in Tennessee basically ignores home field. The Ravens looked incredible in week 1 while the Titans looked hopeless, so you can understand the justification. The Ravens won six games by more than 6 points in '10, three more by exactly six, and played in seven games where they narrowly won or lost. The line is appropriate here, and I'd stay away. If you have to bet, take Baltimore.
Jacksonville @ New York Jets (-9): Based on last year's SRS, the Jets should be 14 point favorites here. Because of a 9-8 record since 2010, it's easy to forget how bad the Jaguars have been. But Jacksonville lost 7 games last season by 10 points or more, and I don't have any more faith in Luke McCown than I did David Garrard. This is not a very good team, but I am not ready to give the Jets 9 points against many teams. New York looked schizophrenic on offense against the Cowboys and still lack an offensive identity. The Jets would love nothing more than to run, run and run some more against the Jags, but Jacksonville's run defense is much improved. The SRS thinks the Jets are a good bet, but Rex Ryan and crew will try to win this game old-school style and that's not good for a two score line. A 20-10. 21-13 sort of game is what I'm seeing, so I'm not willing to touch this one. The Jets have had a tough schedule since Ryan arrived, but because they've only won 10 of 33 games by double digits under his watch, I can't confidently take the Jets to cover. Picking the Jaguars is tough to stomach. Mike Thomas will feel like he's in quicksand lining up against Darrelle Revis, and Jason Hill isn't going to fare any better against Antonio Cromartie. The safest bet would be to take the Jets and the under (38), as I doubt both are losing tickets while there's decent upside in both paying out.
Tampa Bay @ Minnesota (-3): Two teams tough to get a read on. The Bucs only edged the Vikings out by 1 point in the SRS standings last year, but you felt like these franchises were headed in opposite directions. But the Vikings covered last week while Tampa got obliterated by the Lions, regardless of the final score. On principle, I can't take Donovan McNabb's team to outscore anyone, but I don't love the Bucs having to win in a hostile environment by more than a field goal. Tampa reminds me of the Falcons of a few years ago, where the game script was fine when everything was going well but got ripped to shreds once things get out of hand. LeGarrette Blount has that LenDale White/Michael Turner/Shonn Greene characteristic to him, where he can be dominant when things are going well but disappears when his team is trailing. Josh Freeman is a very good quarterback, but he doesn't have the most explosive set of weapons. When Tampa is winning, they'll be tough to beat. I think we'll see them dominate inferior teams and struggle against the bad ones; unfortunately, I don't think we know exactly where the Vikings fall on that line. Because of Minnesota's good run defense, this game falls into the coin-flip category, but I'd rather side with Tampa than Minnesota.
San Diego at New England (-7): You're a lunatic if you bet this game. My prediction: San Diego outgains New England by 300 yards and has the lead in the final minute. But the Patriots, thanks to a pass that deflects off the umpire's right forearm and into Deion Branch's hands goes for a touchdown, a surprise onside kick by the Chargers returned for a New England score, a screen pass by Philip Rivers to Ryan Mathews that falls to the ground -- but traveled perfectly lateral to the LOS -- and is returned for a score by the ghost of Tedy Bruschi, win the game after Rivers trips while attempting to kneel on the ball. Patriots win, 33-32. So I guess that means I'll take San Diego.
Locks of the Week
Chicago @ New Orleans (-6.5): I love this line if it stays under a touchdown. The Saints could still be the best team in the league while I don't have much faith in the Bears. This game, to me, is the perfect storm of bets. The Falcons have been severely overrated, the Bears were overrated, and Chicago won a somewhat fluky game at home against the Falcons. The Saints, meanwhile, lost on the road to the Super Bowl champs. All the elements are in place to have a line that is way too Bears-friendly, and that's the case here. New Orleans wins going away, maybe by as much as 20 points. (Note that this was written before the surprising passing of Brian Urlacher's mother; thoughts and prayers go out to the Urlachers.)
Green Bay @ Carolina (+10): One obvious takeaway from week 1 is that the good teams are going to be really good. The league pushed parity through the front door with a hard salary cap, and drove parity kicking and screaming through the garage with the pass-friendly rules changes. A pass heavy team is now nigh unstoppable, and there are certain lines that just can't go high enough. Now, let's put last week in perspective: the Packers went up against perhaps the most accurate quarterback in football, while the Panthers went up against perhaps the worst pass defense in the league. I suspect the Green Bay pass D -- #3 last year in NY/A allowed, and #2 in points and yards allowed -- will make life much tougher for Cam Newton, and Cam Newton will make life much easier for Green Bay. If that fails, the Packers can still score at will. Looking at Green Bay's schedule before the bye (@Chi, Den, @Atl, Stl, @Min) makes me think Vegas will struggle trying to set lines up enough to entice action on the other side. Take the Packers and just pray against a backdoor cover.