Saturday, September 26, 2009

Week 3 Pick: Saints -6 @ Bills

Taking a road favorite, especially one favored by more than a FG, is generally a dicey proposition. But the way Drew Brees is playing right now, I think this is the best line on the board. Thus, week 3 I'm taking the Saints at -6. Onto my arguments:

1. Brees will absolutely shred the Buffalo Bills.

First of all, Brees is playing simply out of this world right now. You know the numbers: 9 TDs through 2 games, a passer rating over 118 in both games, and only 2 interceptions and 2 sacks allowed this season. Sure, one game was against the dreadful Lions, as Brees totally throttled them with the outcome never in doubt. But game 2 was against the Eagles, who possess a highly-touted defense that was coming off a total dismantling of the Carolina Panthers, against whom they not only forced a ridiculous seven turnovers but rendered the Panthers' formidable rushing game non-existent. Those same Eagles then played against Drew Brees, at home, and were overwhelmed, leading analyst Bucky Brooks to call the Saints offense "not just explosive but unstoppable." What jumps out about that game is not just that the Saints were moving the ball, but that their scoring had an inevitable aura to it, with Eagles defenders singing Brees's praises afterwards and scouts noting that the Eagles looked like they were playing with only 10 defenders.

Of course some might say the Eagles were banged up, playing the young Kevin Kolb and suffering through other various injuries. Not so fast; Kolb was probably the highlight of the game for the Eagles, obscured by the way their defense was totally shredded. And remember, the Eagles under Andy Reid have dealt well with McNabb injuries before, ala Jeff Garcia replacing a similarly injured McNabb and leading the Eagles to a 5-1 record down the stretch in 2007, or A.J. Feeley's famous 4-1 record filling in for McNabb in 2002. So I think the Saints evisceration of a good Eagles defense demonstrates that New Orleans is developing a killer instinct against good teams.

The Bills are just prime for the picking. They did have what most people think was a good showing against the Pats in week 1, and in week 2 they beat a terrible , discombobulated Tampa Bay team. But one cardinal rule of gambling at this point in the NFL season: don't bet on record or on public perception. According to Chad Millman's indispensable ESPN gambling blog, the smartest Vegas insiders use total yardage as a sign of how good offenses and defenses are at this point in the season, because through 2 games, the sample size is just too small to safely rely on points allowed or record. The Bills are are 31st in the league in passing yards allowed. They played one overrated team and one terrible one. And now the Saints juggernaut rolls into town.

Moreover, the Bills cover-2 is vulnerable down the deep seams, as demonstrated by Tom Brady and Ben Watson shredding it twice on the same play late in the 4th quarter. Unfortunately for the Bills, as pointed out by the crew on my favorite show, NFL Network's Playbook, Brees and his favorite receiver Marques Colston are particularly effective at working the deep seams. Add in the fact that the Saints offense is buzzing with confidence and is balanced by a solid running game, and I expect the Saints to put up a ton of points.

2. The matchup lends itself to a big point differential.

First of all, don't be fooled by the Bills' 33 points last week against the Bucs; the Bucs are miserable, having already given the Cowboys offense a cakewalk in week 1, while losing one of their (only) good defensive players to a broken hand during the Bills game. Breaking down the tape from game 2, Brian Baldinger on Playbook noted that the Bills were lucky on several plays, as their protection was breaking down and the Bucs just couldn't quite capitalize on opportunities to get to Edwards. This shouldn't surprise anyone, given the inexperienced and talent deprived Bills offensive line. Said line is also about to get worse, as their best remaining offensive lineman, RT Brad Butler, is now out for the season, and the Bills are also down to their third-string TE for blocking purposes. This is also not the Saints defense with which we have become accustomed, as Gregg Williams has installed an aggressive philosophy that has the Saints playing very sound defense, using a combination of solid playcalling and a revamped defensive roster to generate takeaways, and lots of them. Scouts Inc. sees Gregg Williams exploiting the Bills protection gaps with overload blitzes, enough to generate a 10-point Saints win. I agree, although I think the margin of victory could be even higher.

There is another reason that I think this game is a candidate to generate a high point differential. The Saints have the mentality right now of piling up the points, which means two things: explosive, go-for-the-jugular offense and gambling, aggressive, turnover-generating defense. The combination of these two things is a recipe not for close wins but for huge wins, because the offense never lets up, and the defense gambles for opportunities to generate even more points, knowing that if they give up the big play it just means that Brees and co. just get back on the field. This is an abrupt change from the Saints' previous "bend but don't break" philosophy that was inconsistent and led generally to closer wins. Instead, the combination of brutal aerial attack and gambling defense reminds me of the 1998 Minnesota Vikings; while I'm not saying the Saints will go 15-1, I do think their style of game lends itself to similar point spreads, where of that 1998 Vikings team's 15 victories, only one was by fewer than 7 points. The Saints might lose some games, but when they win, it will be big. This tendency is exacerbated by the Bills' no huddle offense, which generates more total possessions per game, more overall points scored, and thus a greater statistical chance of a higher ultimate point differential.

Finally, this Saints offense is reminding me of one other offense: the 2007 New England Patriots. This shouldn't be surprising, as the Brees-2007 Brady comparisons have become frequent of late. Even the Bills' defensive coordinator sees the similarities. The Saints have won their first two games this year by a combined spread of 44 points. The last team to open the year with a similarly enormous (48 points) combined spread the first two weeks was the 2007 Pats. What did they do week 3? They beat the Buffalo Bills by 31 points. Here, all the Saints have to do is win by one touchdown to cover this spread. I think at only -6, this line provides great value. I'm frankly pretty surprised it hasn't moved to -7.5.


There is something vaguely unsettling about this game, primarily that I keep hearing this is such an "obvious" pick. It's easy to become enamored of Brees's quick start, and some gambling wise guys think the public will overbet on the Saints. Bill Simmons and his buddy Cousin Sal on their weekly podcast call this game a potential sucker bet. I thought about it, and I disagree.

For one, this line opened at -4.5 and jumped straight to -6. This suggests that a ton of smart money came in early in the week on the Saints, which in turn confirms to me that Saints at -4.5 was a pretty smart play. Why would things be that different at -6? 5 and 5.5 are two fairly non-essential numbers for football spread purposes, and a team that covers 4.5 is more likely than not going to get to 6. But more importantly, New Orleans, as explained above, seems like the type of team that will generate big margins of victories.

Finally, the psychology of the public seems to support, not undermine, the above advice. I think the Patriots are seriously overrated at this particular moment , and thus so are the Bills, since everyone saw that Monday Night game and came away thinking the Bills played them well. The Bills' biggest weakness, the offensive line, is also one that is opaque to the public. Ultimately, I think the smart money was on the Saints at -4.5 when this line opened, and it stays there now at -6. At the end of the day, you don't bet against Drew Brees right now.

We will see.

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