Thursday, October 8, 2009

Week 5 Pick: Colts -3.5 @ Titans

How does that old adage go? "Fool me once, shame on you. Try it again, and I'm going to bet big the other way." Or something like that. In any event, the Tennessee Titans have been on the mind over here at BadNFL, and ever since they roped me into an ill-advised pick last week, I have been eagerly awaiting their odds in week 5. And once I saw that they were getting only 3.5 points against the Colts, I thought they would provide a strong candidate for a week 5 pick. And I'm going to do precisely that, and so I say to my (5 or 6) readers: take the Colts in week 5. Why? Keep reading.

1. Peyton Manning and the Colts should have a field day on offense.

It would be an understatement to call the Titans pass defense "porous." They entered week 4 terrible, and words can barely do justice to how atrocious they were against Jacksonville. It wasn't just that they allowed the mediocre David Garrard-led Jacksonville aerial attack to generate more yards than it had in almost 2 years; it was the total absurdity of how open Jacksonville's crew of middling WRs were on nearly every play. This was not an aberration, as the Jags were able to expose serious structural deficiencies in the Tennessee secondary, primarily their lack of depth, Nick Harper's age-induced sluggishness, and a regression in field awareness by both their safeties. True, Cortland Finnegan has declared that he will return this week, but even if he plays, his hamstring injury is likely to linger--as he's still limited in practice--and he was playing terribly before the injury anyway. Thus, not surprisingly, the Titans have statistically the worst pass defense in the NFL.

On the flip side, the Colts have the best passing offense in the league. That's right, this game features the top passing offense against the worst passing defense, leading one to think that if Peyton has even an average day for him, they should statistically dominate the Titans. That being said, I expect him to have have more than an average day. Peyton is simply playing at a superhuman level right now; according to Football Outsiders' advanced opponent-adjusted metrics, he is on pace for the 2nd most productive and efficient season by a QB in the modern era. Of course we all know about his football IQ and legendary preparation, and he has been applying all his considerable talents to orchestrate a nearly unstoppable passing attack. The Titans will undoubtedly try to scheme to take away Manning's strengths, but this season has seen other teams try that and fail. The Colts passing offense appears to be historically in sync right now, no matter what other teams try, and there's little reason to think that the miserable Titans pass defense can change that.

Moreover, this game is at night. Simmons and Sal surmised this week that the Colts, and Manning specifically, always seem to play well at night. They're correct, as Manning's already lofty passer rating over his career jumps 15 points in night games. The entire team also seems to play well at night, on national TV; they've won 8 or their last 9 Monday Night Football games, and in this era where NBC's Sunday Night Football has essentially replaced the MNF of old as the biggest game of the week, I expect Peyton to be in top notch form. And that should be more than enough for him to feast on the Titans.

2. The Colts success through the air will set up their defense, creating the risk of blow out.

If the Colts generate an early lead with their passing attack, the game could get out of hand for the Titans very quickly. As last week demonstrated, the Titans offense is not well situated to play from behind, and an early deficit can force them away from their running game. And if they are placed in the position of having to air the ball out to make up a deficit, the Colts defense will make them pay. The Colts pass rush, led by the speedy Robert Mathis, has been extremely effective of late. Collins is an immobile quarterback who hangs around in the pocket, and at his age, it is unlikely he is going to play as well as he did in his somewhat fluky 2008. The Colts are likely to generate sacks and turnovers--for the Titans offense has been quite vulnerable to the negative play this year--and an early lead is likely to get bigger. The Colts struck early last week against the Seahawks, staking out an early lead that they never came close to relinquishing. If that happens again, the Titans will not likely even threaten to cover this spread.

Granted, one area in which the Titans seem to have an advantage is their running game against the Colts run defense. Even putting aside my previous point that they also appeared to match up well schematically against the Jags to set up their rushing game and yet failed to do so, the Colts might be more successful at stopping the Titans ground game than you think. Primarily, the Colts struggle with power rushes, but their Tampa-2 philosophy is actually quite effective at containing the home run long rush. As the Jags proved last week, the Colts can survive allowing Chris Johnson a moderately high YPC, as long as they limit his touches and prevent the home run. They are well situated to do just that. Moreover, Lendale White is having a terrible season, and his touches are down along with his effectiveness. Looking at the advanced metrics, he would appear to be a better fit against the speedy, undersized Colts front seven. But with his production non-existent so far, I'm more confident in the Colts ability to contain, even if not totally stifle, the Titans ground game. One final point: the Colts are improving every week, and they no longer look much like the team that opened the season with a 2 point win against the Jags. They are getting healthier every week, as LB Gary Brackett will probably return for this game---a great sign, given that Brackett is a key cog in the Colts run defense and particularly adept at diagnosing rushing schemes and controlling quicker RBs. If Bob Sanders were to return, which is possible, that would obviously be an additional huge boost to the Colts. These additions to an improving Colts rush defense that allowed only 73 yards combined the past two weeks should spell trouble for the Titans.

These match-ups, combined with the fact that the Colts are statistically the best team in the league right now in terms of estimated win percentage, lead one analyst's advanced metrics to give the Colts a 71% chance of winning this game, which also suggests that they are likely to possess at least a 7-point lead for a majority of the game. True, these statistical prediction engines are imprecise, and can't account for the large role played by luck and psychology, but it is worth noting that this system went 12-1-1 last week. ESPN's accuscore, a conservative system that doesn't tend to predict blowouts, also predicts a Colts win by 7+ points. From what I've seen on film of both of these teams, I similarly expect a sizable Colts victory.


The counter-argument proceeds from the assumption that there is a phenomenon in sports, one I've observed but have not been able to statistically document, that there are sometimes pairs of teams--usually division rivals--whose games are always close, irrespective of the surrounding context of the season. One example that looms large in my mind is the Giants and the Cowboys; the Giants are all by all accounts a much better team than the Cowboys, yet their week 2 match-up resulted in a 2-point Giants win, by far their narrowest of the season. Could the Colts and Titans form such a pair, whose games are always competitive, despite the surrounding circumstances or talent disparities?

Jeff Fisher and Peyton Manning seem to think so, noting that these teams always play each other tough. The Titans won last year in the only meeting involving the starters, and in 2007, they split their games with an average margin of victory of 3. But the most worrisome example of this phenomenon is almost freakish in its parallels to the present circumstance: in 2006, the 4-0 Colts (averaging 30+ points a game) played the 0-4 Titans in week 5, and eeked out a 14-13 win. Since even a FG victory won't suffice to cover this line, another close game would doom this bet.

However, the specific circumstances of this season militate against a repeat of 2006. Besides the glaring match-up problems facing the Titans detailed above, these Colts have generated a progressively larger margin of victory in all 4 of their games so far, which comports with assessments that the Colts are getting better at adapting to their personnel and scheme changes each week. In contrast, those 2006 Colts were coming off 7 and 3 point wins in their last 2 games, and they were moving in the opposite direction. And the Colts historically, when they get on winning streaks, tend to start blowing teams out. The last time the Colts started 4-0 was in 2007, and their wins in weeks 5-7 (before their streak was halted by that historic undefeated Pats team) were by an average margin of 21+ points. And in 2004, the last time that Peyton was playing at such a statistically incredible pace, the Colts beat the Titans by 14 and 27 in their two games.

Moreover, this Titans team appears psychologically dead. Last week appeared to be a must-win game for them, they came out lifeless and without passion. They continue to exhibit zero urgency, as if they don't even care that they are winless. I don't know if Fisher has lost this team, but this no longer appears to be the same Tennessee team that has gone 32-19 against the spread in a week after failing to cover; instead, it seems like the team that is 0-3 against the spread after a loss this year. And the Colts, once they get on a roll, tend to cover the spread pretty well; they are 13-8 ATS after 2 or more consecutive wins over the past 3 years. Given that they are playing the worst pass defense in the NFL, I expect that trend to continue, and I see a final score closer to Peter King's 31-16 prediction for this game. Ultimately, I think this line reflects the allure of the Titans' 13 win 2008 season. This version of the Titans is not as good, and I'm taking the Colts to cover.

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