Thursday, November 26, 2009

Week 12 Pick: Fins -3 @ Bills

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope everyone out there in BadNFL Nation has a good day having some turkey, watching some football, and settling in for this week's BadNFL pick. A reader was recently questioning why I gravitate towards favorites so often (8 of my 10 picks this year have been favorites), and I don't have a great answer; maybe it's a cognitive bias that leads the majority of the betting public to always pick heavy favorites. Regardless, this week I have good feeling about several underdogs (Texans +3.5 in particular) and a similar feeling about only one favorite. But even so, I'm picking that favorite, because I just like the Fins at the Bills too much to pass up. Here's why:

1. The Bills' miserable offensive line.

The Bills have the worst offensive line in the league. As I pointed out in my week 3 pick against the Bills, the Bills entered the year with the least collective experience--and arguably the least talent--of any offensive line this decade. The week that I made that observation, their terrible offensive line held true to form, turning in an abysmal performance while the Bills failed to cover. Incredibly, since then, the situation has deteriorated, as injuries have ravaged their bad starters and forced in their even worse backups. Given this mix of inexperience and instability along the line, I expect the Bills to have a miserable day on offense. The Fins have one of the best defensive fronts in football, and Joey Porter, Jason Taylor and company are likely to have a field day in the Bills' offensive backfield. And when they're not, look for the Bills' offensive line to commit a couple of drive-killing penalties, a stat in which they're worst in the league by far.

The failure of the offensive line should negate any positive momentum established by the Bills' offense, particularly given the pedestrian talent level at most offensive positions. In fact, most analysts have identified Joey Porter vs. the offensive line as the key match-up of this game, and for good reason: as the Giants demonstrated against Tom Brady in the Super Bowl two years ago, offensive line failures can negate even a potent offensive attack. And of course, potency the Bills' offense does not possess. Ryan Fitzpatrick entered last week with a career passer rating under 50, and his skill set is more suited for a backup than a starting role. True, the Bills' passing game, and T.O. in particular, was solid against the Jags last week. But I don't think that portends trouble for the Fins for two reasons. First, a good game by T.O., particularly on a dysfunctional team like the Bills, can spell doom for a young QB. Owens had a similar breakout game last year the week before Thanksgiving against the Giants, and it ultimately contributed to both the Cowboys' failure to make the playoffs and Owens' departure from Dallas: after that, Romo really locked on to T.O. and targeted him excessively. The Cowboys' offense wasn't the same for the rest of the year. And you can already see the signs of this in Buffalo, as T.O. has really upped his public griping lately. Thus, look for Fitzpatrick to force the ball into T.O. a few times, and for Sparano's Dolphins (Sparano coached T.O. in Dallas) to be ready for it.

Second, the Bills' performance last week against the Jags, which some are heralding as a fine performance and a sign of things to come, is not in and of itself very impressive. The Bills still lost to a Jaguars team that is not as good as its record suggests, and T.O.'s huge 98 yard pass play came against inexplicable 1 on 1 coverage by a rookie CB who said afterward that he spent the whole game in awe of Owens. Don't expect the well-coached Fins to make the same mistake. Moreover, the Jags feature an anemic pass rush that ranks dead last in the league in sacks. They are not the type of defense that can exploit the Bills' weakness up front. The Dolphins are.

2. The Dolphins should have success running the ball, enough to control the clock and generate a sizable margin of victory.

First, the stats: the Bills have the second worst rush defense in the NFL. The Dolphins have the 4th best rushing offense in the NFL. In fact, it was their first game against the Bills that really jumpstarted the Fins' strong rushing attack for the year, as Miami's 250 yards on the ground led them to a dominating 38-10 win. True, as you all know, Ronnie Brown is out for the year now. But Ricky Williams was superb last week in the Fins' gritty win last Thursday against the improving Panthers, and he has a history of success running against Buffalo. Moreover, the Fins should be rested after getting last weekend off, which is a good sign for their strong running game. Although the Bills may be getting DT Marcus Stroud back this week, he missed last week with a knee injury and if he plays it will likely be at a reduced level of effectiveness. In other words, I just don't expect them to stop the Dolphins' running game, and if they sell out to do so, the rapidly improving and surprisingly effective Chad Henne should be able to make them pay over the top. It's simply hard to see why this spread is so low given that the last time these teams played, Miami won by 28 points.

One possible explanation for the line is Miami's injuries. It's true that Miami suffered several injuries last week, including the potentially crippling loss of NT Jason Ferguson. But after the aforementioned long rest, the Fins will be returning a lot of their players this week. Moreover, I just have faith in the Sparano/Parcells regime's ability to replace players and not miss a beat. In fact, the Dolphins had to break in a lot of young players in their first game against the Bills this year, and they still dominated. This game is more about how terrible the Bills are than it is about the Dolphins being a juggernaut. And Joey Porter missed the first Fins-Bills match-up with an injury, but he won't miss this one. His pass rushing capabilities spells trouble for the Bills' pathetic protection schemes in the rematch. And that should set up Miami's ability to run the ball effectively and milk the clock. True, they'll miss Brown and Ferguson, but I think they'll still play well.


It's true that the Bills looked better last week in the first game of the post-Jauron era than they had previously in the season. But while I might normally be wary of this bet because of the new young energetic coach, the media circus surrounding the Bills' ongoing search for a new coach--particularly regarding Mike Shanahan--negates any such positive momentum. Almost all fo the stories this week relating to the Bills pertain to their next head coach, and as such, I can't imagine that interim coach Perry Fewell has much credibility in the locker room. The Bills' fans, and those who cover the team, are clearly thinking about next year. Conversely, the Dolphins are coming off a nice victory and in the thick of the playoff race, giving them plenty of motivation. Thus, the coaching change doesn't worry me too much.

In that light, this line seems way too low; 3 points is simply not enough to account for the differences in talent between these teams, particularly given the match-up. The Bills are 1-8 ATS in their last 9 home games, and I expect that trend to continue. Fins cover.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Upon Further Review: Colts Cover 17-15

Whew. Colts got BadNFL back to .500, but only barely, as they beat the Ravens 17-15, exceeding the 1.5 point spread by a mere half point. Here's how they did it:

The Ravens were pathetic in the red zone.

Sometimes, a game boils down to one simple stat: the Ravens only got 2 FGs out of their 4 trips inside the red zone. Responsible were a confluence of factors, chiefly that the Colts' defense stiffened in the red zone, making plays all game including a game sealing interception by Gary Brackett. But even more than the Colts' defense, which was solid--and has statistically climbed to become one of the elite defenses in the league--I thought the problem came down to poor decisionmaking by Joe Flacco. As I wrote in my prediction for this game, I've never been on the Flacco bandwagon, and he was quite pedestrian on Sunday. Part of it is certainly his woefully inadequate collection of pass catchers, but a major part of it was the sheer predictability of his reads. Breaking down the film on Flacco, it's obvious that he locks onto Ray Rice short over the middle when under pressure in the red zone, and on the crucial Brackett interception, the Ravens put three defenders on Rice and Flacco tried to force it into him anyway! That ended the game, and it was symptomatic of the Ravens' struggles of late; Flacco has now gone 3 straight games without a TD pass.


1. The Colts are barely winning right now. Many analysts thought that the Colts were generally outplayed in this game. Manning certainly wasn't happy with the way the offense played. His stats weren't pretty, the Colts had an uncharacteristic fumble inside the 10 yardline, and they never seemed to get in a rhythm the whole game. But somehow, as they've done all year, they squeaked out the win. In other words, I am really not confident in the Colts right now, and I could see their run coming to an end sooner rather than later.

2. The Ravens' special teams are a reason to hate them in close games. The one aspect of my prediction that I did get right was this: "Finally, in a close game, you have to trust the Colts to eek out the win, since the Ravens' kicking game has been an unmitigated disaster this year." That was borne out, as Billy Cundiff missed a huge FG that would have been the difference in the game. Moreover, the Ravens' lack of confidence in the kicking game, combined with their fear of giving the ball back to Manning with 2 minutes left, led them to call an aggressive pass play at the end of the game when they were already in field goal range. It's true that the Ravens still have a point differential that suggests they are one of the top teams in the NFL. But as I noted earlier after one of my picks premised on that exact logic fell through, the Ravens have been finding ways to lose close games, and their late game futility was on display Sunday. That's why, although this bet barely came through, I'll gladly take it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Update: Recency Bias Influencing This pick?

ESPN's Chad Millman reports:
There is some recency bias at play, by bettors. Jay says: "This is actually a lot of public money right now, and I think the main reason for that is people bet what they last saw. The Colts had a dramatic finish and the Ravens had a dud offensive game. That's the driving force. If this number goes to 1.5, I can see sharps taking the Ravens because sharp money always favors defense.
It is true that the Ravens played a dud game last week against the Browns. Yet as I documented, their general ranking ticked upward after that game, while the Colts are still somewhat underrated as everyone obsesses about Belichick's bad decision instead of the Colts' miraculous comeback. Far from being infected by a recency bias, my assessment is colored by the Ravens' performance over the past 5 weeks, a span in which they've played only one good game, and that one coming off a bye against the freefalling Broncos. Finally, as I said earlier, the Ravens defense is simply not dominant, as they've allowed 21 points a game against teams with a .500 or better record.

It just seems to me that people who are picking the Ravens are trying to be too smart this week; a 9-0 team against a 5-4 team that's missing one of its best defensive players simply should not be this even.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Week 11 Pick: Colts -1.5 @ Ravens

Well on the one hand, this has been a terrible week here at BadNFL HQ, as every time I open up my homepage I have to see the indignity of the 4-5 below .500 record. But on the other hand, it's been a strangely exciting week, since I could barely believe my eyes when the lines came out earlier this week. Specifically, I couldn't believe that the undefeated Colts opened as a pick'em against the quite ordinary Baltimore Ravens. I immediately knew that this line was going to be the one that would catapult BadNFL back to .500. Since then, the line has shifted to -1.5, and I still like it. Here's why:

1. The Ravens are overrated.

I've watched the Ravens now 2 weeks in a row, and I've looked at film from a bunch of their early games, and I don't think they're a great football team. True, every report or analysis on the Ravens prefaces its assessment by gushing about how tough the Ravens' defense is, but as Matt Williamson astutely pointed out in his Monday podcast this week, the Ravens no longer have the fearsome defense that they've had in the Ray Lewis era. True, they still allow the 5th fewest points in the league this year, but their schedule pretty much explains why: 2 games against the Browns, 1 against the Chiefs, 1 against the Broncos, and 2 against the Bengals, all of which are well below-average offensive teams. On film, they're really just not that impressive. They're not forcing turnovers at the rate they have in the past, they let Cedric Benson dominate them twice this year (can you see the Ravens of old coming out flat twice against a divisional team in the same year?), and while they showed one flash against the Broncos 3 weeks ago, they've pretty much done nothing else impressive.

I also love that the Ravens are coming off a 16-0 victory over the Browns last week. The Ravens shot up in the power rankings after their win over the Browns, feeding the calls that the Ravens still have a dominating defense. They should have gone down instead; the Ravens played an uneven and unconvincing game, winning more due to the Browns' ineptitude than to Ravens' dominance. Beating the Browns is simply not something at all to be proud about. The Browns sport a historically inept offense, on pace to set the all-time record for fewest points scored in a 16-game season, and Brady Quinn does not look like an NFL-caliber QB. The Browns came out with a pathetic game plan, and played like they have all year: they didn't show up. As such, I think the power rankings, and the oddsmakers, overreacted to that Ravens' win. Remember, this was a tie game at halftime. The same level of performance by the Ravens this week will likely get them blown out. And if it's close, I don't trust the Ravens to pull through; although they've been decent against the spread this year, they have found a way to choke away close games.

2. The Colts match-up well to exploit the Ravens' shortcomings, while the reverse is not true.

I love this Colts team right now. True, they've benefited from some lucky breaks the last couple of weeks, and they barely eeked out a win against the Pats. But this much is obvious: their passing game is dominant. Case in point was last week: although Manning and his non-Wayne WRs looked somewhat out-of-sync for much of the game, they still put up 35 points against a good Patriots team. That, to me, is the sign of a dominant offense, even more so than eyepoppingly good yardage statistics. Even if not everything goes right for the Colts, I have confidence that Manning will find a way to win the game in the 4th quarter. After all, despite struggles with injuries and an anemic running game, the Colts know how to win ugly. They boast the best WR in the NFL, and I think indisputably the best QB, who has come through for BadNFL twice already this year. Their passing attack is (obviously) the key to this game.

The Ravens are ill-suited to stop that attack. Let's face it, this Ravens team is not the team of Chris McAllister and Rod Woodson. Far from it, the Ravens have one of the worst secondaries in the league. In particular, their cornerbacks struggle against above-average WRs. In fact, their glaring problems at cornerback constitute the biggest weakness of their team. That is an absolutely terrible problem to have when playing against Manning and the Colts. Even worse, Terrell Suggs, an irreplaceable part of the Ravens' defense and their only consistent pass rusher, is out for this game. Because of the extra time Manning will have in the pocket, I like the Colts to move the ball pretty easily in this game, leading me to think that Brian Burke's Advanced NFL metrics have it about right when they put the Colts at a 67% win probability; with the Suggs injury, I like the Colts even more than that. In essence, the Ravens struggle with explosive passing offenses, and consequently this miniscule line seems way off.

All of the above is particularly true given the Colts' historical domination of the Ravens. The Ray Lewis-led Ravens have played the Manning-led Colts each of the last 4 years. The results? All Colts wins: 24-7, 15-6, 44-20, and last year 31-3. That's right, last year the Colts beat Joe Flacco's Ravens 31-3, and by all numerical accounts this year's Ravens team is worse while the Colts are better. True, that game was in Indy, but I actually prefer the Colts on the road, as they get a more favorable line, and data shows that this year road teams accordingly cover spreads better than do the home teams. If history shows anything, it's that Manning is quite comfortable against the Ravens' defense.


Not so fast. This Colts team appears to be unique in that they never get too high or too low, and it's more likely that they'll use the Pats win as motivation. While it's true that the atmosphere is likely to be quite intense and hostile in Baltimore, I expect the Colts to come out focused and prepared, looking to shut everyone up about the Belichick 4th down call. Plus, history is comforting on this front: the Colts have beaten the Belichick-led Pats around this time of year (weeks 8-10) 3 separate times since 2005, and they've followed it up with a win the next week all 3 times. And in 2 of those years, the Colts were similarly undefeated in two of those years. In these types of years, the Colts simply don't lose to anyone except the Pats and the Chargers.

Moreover, I think the Ravens are more likely to be unprepared. We all saw how atrociously they played the week after their last dominating defensive performance, and they're coming off a short week, a situation in which they've failed to cover the spread the last 5 times. Finally, in a close game, you have to trust the Colts to eek out the win, since the Ravens' kicking game has been an unmitigated disaster this year.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. wrote up this game for ESPN this week, and he predicted a 31-20 win. That sounds about right to me, and I'm taking the Colts to handily cover.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Lose 7-17

It's bad times for BadNFL. Three losses in a row, and the luster is all off. This loss was particularly brutal to watch because it involved both my favorite team losing and a pick backfiring. I felt particularly good about this pick heading into Sunday (unlike some of the previous weeks), but not only did the Cowboys fail to cover the 3 points, they lost in an ugly game.

The story of the game was the Cowboys' inability to protect Romo. I wrote before this game that the Packers' pass rush had struggled, and it had. But not on Sunday; the Packers looked like they had totally confused the Cowboys' offensive line, and they generated incessant pressure on Romo. Sure, the injury on the 2nd drive to RT Marc Colombo didn't help--as that injury may spell trouble for the Cowboys heading forward--but the real key was Jason Garrett's inexplicably decision to abandon the run. The Cowboys became one-dimensional, which allowed the Packers to unleash every blitz in their playbook. Coming on the heels of two games that I thought Garrett called extremely well, I thought he put together a miserable gameplan against the Packers, and it showed.

I was right that the Packers didn't protect Rodgers very well; the Cowboys got 4 sacks, 19 pressures, and several hits on plays that were negated by penalties. But Green Bay played their best defensive game of the year, and that was enough to lead them to victory.


I stand by the logic of this bet. I'm really not sure what to take away from this game, other than the Cowboys had an inexplicable letdown and a poorly called game. Maybe I should have been wary of betting the Cowboys given that they were riding high and were due for a poor performance. But as I wrote in the pick, the Cowboys have put together huge winning streaks in November before, and Romo had won 13 games in a row in this month. Yet he played quite poorly in Lambeau.

Green Bay was coming off a terrible loss to Tampa Bay. The chance of the Green Bay bounceback was what worried me more than anything before the game, and maybe that argument was borne out. But I still think the bet was sound, and I think that this game more evidenced the unpredictability of the NFL than any major problem with the reasoning.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Week 10 Pick: Cowboys -3 (even) @ Packers

It's finally happened. BadNFL has slid back to .500 after a poor pick last week, and to bail me out, I'm going with the Cowboys for the first time this year. Before you call me a homer, I should let you know that this pick is more about betting against the Packers than it is anything else. Here's why:

1. The Cowboys pass rush should destroy the Packers' offensive line.

It's no secret that the Packers are surrendering sacks at a historically high rate this year. The most troubling aspect of their sacks allowed is that teams aren't even blitzing them that much; the pass protection has been vulnerable to 4 man rushes. There's really no reason to think that the protection will get any better this week, as the line is still plagued by injuries. While much has been made of how long Rodgers holds the ball, one report that studied every Rodgers dropback concluded that he doesn't actually hold it that long, and that the sacks are mostly the fault of the Packers' putrid offensive line. In other words, this is not something that can be fixed by a simple mechanical tweak. Analysts have been all over the Packers for weeks about their terrible pass protection, and it appears to be getting worse, not better; this week the Packers will make yet another personnel change up front. McCarthy doesn't appear to have any bright ideas about how to change protection schemes, and frankly, I'm not sure what he can do.

The Cowboys are well-suited to exploit these protection problems. The Cowboys pass rush has been one of the primary drivers of their turn around, and it was on full display last week as they "overwhelmed" the Eagles' protection schemes in their impressive win at Philly. The Cowboys' ability to subject McNabb to constant duress last week jumps out on film, especially their ability to generate that pressure with 4-man rushes. In particular, Cowboys' NT Jay Ratliff is in my opinion the best interior lineman in football--at the very least a severely underrated one. He should be able to seriously exploit the Packers' interior protection, particularly the overwhelmed and undersized center Scott Wells. Last year when the Cowboys played the Packers at Lambeau Field, they sacked Rodgers 5 times in an 11 point win. I think they get similar pressure this game. And if you've watched the Packers this year, they've struggled against every single team they've played with an elite blind side pass rusher. Antwan Odom destroyed them week 2, and Jared Allen similarly dominated the game in both Vikings games. Luckily, the Cowboys boast a formidable pass rusher, one who many have rated as the best linebacker in the NFL, in Demarcus Ware. And as was the case in the games against the Vikings and Bengals, the sacks and the pressure will be decisive in this one: plain and simple, QBs who are sacked a lot do not win.

2. It's still November, and Romo is on a roll.

I also like Romo in this game. While there's always a chance he implodes like he did week 2 against the Giants this year, he has been playing very controlled and smart football, making smart reads and minimizing the types of negative plays that the Packers depend on. He's been demonstrating uncharacteristic maturity both on and off the field, and for the first time in several years, I feel really good about him. He's also won 13 starts in a row in November, and his numbers in this month over his career are eye-poppingly good. Not only is the Cowboys' offense playing efficient football, but the Packers boast an anemic pass rush that will struggle to pressure Romo into poor decisions. This is partly because the Packers are stupidly trying to run a 3-4 defense without a good NT, a flaw that will be even more exposed this week, since they will likely be missing their best pass rusher in Aaron Kampman. And I don't feel that returning to Lambeau will intimidate Romo; he's from Wisconsin, and he idolizes Favre. He led the Cowboys into Lambeau last year, also coming off a 4-point win against Philly (just like last week), and came away with an 11 point win. We know that Favre, despite his gunslinging ways, tore apart the Packers twice this year already. I think Romo does the same, and although his numbers might not be as incredible as Favre's were against the Packers, I think he plays clean and efficient football.


The Packers are undeniably coming off the worst loss of their season, where they gave a pitiful Tampa Bay squad its first win of the season. As such, the Packers are calling this a must win game. There is a chance that the Packers will bounce back with a vengeance, while the Cowboys will get a little full of themselves trying to coast off the momentum that they've generated with recent wins. The Packers' desperation, particularly when contrasted to Cowboys' complacency, motivated Scouts' Inc. Matt Williamson to call a Green Bay upset this week in the Football Today podcast. I can certainly see where he's coming from, but I disagree.

First, if this Packers' team was one that could rise to the occasion and draw motivation from adversity, they should have performed much better against Favre in Lambeau. Rodgers has been under fire the whole season because of the Favre circus, but yet inexplicably the whole team came out flat against the Vikings. Similarly, I think that the "crisis" being faced by the Packers right now will fail to inspire them to play better football. Instead, the team appears to be falling apart; reminiscent of the disaster that is the Washington Redskins, former players are prominently calling for McCarthy to be stripped of his play-calling duties. The Favre drama has surrounded them all year long, leading to constant media attention and headaches somewhat analogous to the endlessly frustrating 2008 Cowboys. In other words, I think the Packers are a seriously overrated bunch who fail to play inspired football and have way more talent than they do moxie. As Simmons pointed out this week, since November of last year, the Packers have precisely six wins, all over the absolute dregs of the NFL. Their inability to put together good wins does not inspire confidence in them this week to bounce back.

On the other hand, I don't think the Cowboys will overlook the Packers. For once, the Cowboys aren't engaging in pointless trash talking and media self-promotion; their statements this week reflect a team that's not taking the Packers for granted. They've shown steady improvement since their 2-2 start, and they are playing as a cohesive unit, a quality that has been lacking in years past. Moreover, I take comfort from the fact that predictions are split over this game, with most analysts concluding that it will be a close game that the Cowboys might even lose. I love the fact that the Cowboys are flying under the radar right now. They're not the subject of a lot of stories, they're not in anyone's top-5 power rankings, and people universally think this game will be close. You hear a ton about the explosive Colts and Saints' offenses, but it's the Cowboys that are leading the league in yards per play. In other words, this is the type of week where the Cowboys should be able to avoid distraction and focus on letting their front 7 overwhelm the Packers' protection.

Finally, every Cowboys' win has been by more than 3 points, and every Packers' loss has been by more than 3 points. The Packers have also lost 2 straight by double digits, including one to the woeful Bucs. There is a chance that this game is quite close, and I wish the line was at -2, which is where it started this week. But the Cowboys should be able to cover this line, which appears too low, particularly since the Cowboys at -3 are paying out at even money. They've covered 8 of the last 10 ATS against the Packers, and they've won a whopping 11 out of the last 13 against them. That trend continues this week. Cowboys cover, and BadNFL gets back in the win column.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Upon Further Review: Ravens Lose 7-17.

Well, I'm getting pretty tired of analyzing what went wrong with my picks, so this installment of Upon Further Review will be briefer than usual. In essence, the Bengals thoroughly beat the Ravens for the second time this year. Although I predicted that the Ravens defense would be full of swagger and would dominate by relying on a similar game plan to that which they used to stifle the Broncos, they did no such thing. They played undisciplined, soft defense most of the game, and demonstrated that their secondary is a legitimate weakness. The Bengals also dominated in the trenches, both blowing the Baltimore front off the line of scrimmage--a place where Ngata was sorely missed--and subjecting Flacco to constant pressure on the other side of the ball. The Ravens also couldn't get out of their own way, missing a key late field goal and allowing 3 consecutive sacks to snuff out their last comeback attempt. And the Bengals thoroughly owned the time of possession stat, possessing the ball for 40 minutes. Not only did Benson generate another 100+ yard day on the ground, but when the Ravens stacked the box, Carson was a perfect 8/8 for 100 yards. In other words, Cincinnati looked largely really good, while Baltimore was pretty unimpressive. This prediction was just sorely off base.


1. Cincinnati has a really good secondary. As Bucky Brooks pointed out, and as my own view of the game confirmed, the Bengals' DBs were simply spectacular, completely shutting down Baltimore's passing game. Moreover, the Ravens were only able to convert on a pitiful 10% of their 3rd downs (1/10). I've never been that high on Joe Flacco, despite his impressive stats to open the year, but the Bengals totally shut him down. And much of the credit goes to Bengals' defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who as they pointed out on Playbook this week, came out with a fantastic game plan that appeared to take the Ravens out of their comfort zone. In other words, despite the Bengals' historical struggles coming out of the bye, they appeared to put it to good use this week and come up with a great defensive performance. As Simmons pointed out on his podcast this week, the Bengals are still not getting a lot of respect in the betting marketplace, and it makes me like them against pass-heavy teams, given the fantastic pass defense they displayed. The Bengals are no joke this year.

2. Do not overreact to one game. Looking back at the prediction, too much of it was premised on the Ravens' dismantling of the Broncos last week. It seems like most analysts were a little too quick to jump back on the Ravens' bandwagon after one good game; their defensive swagger and dominance sure didn't look like it was actually back this week. It is pretty difficult to explain the awful letdown against the Bengals after such a dominant performance against the undefeated Broncos, but the lesson here is not to overreact to one good game at this point in the season.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Update: Ngata Out

Well, this has been a possibility all week (and I should have written about it in my prediction post), but ESPN's Rachel Nichols just reported that Ravens stud DT Haloti Ngata is definitely out for this game. That certainly is not positive news for the Ravens' ability to stop the Bengals' ground attack, and while I still like this pick, it's not the total lock that I think it would be were Ngata playing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Week 9 Pick: Ravens -3 @ Bengals

A huge week for BadNFL looms, a week that will determine if the record remains safely above .500 or not. Luckily, there are lots of games that I like this week, none more so than the Ravens -3 (+105) at Cincinnati. Here's why:

1. Both of these teams' records are deceiving.

One of my burgeoning beliefs, one that might help check against unwise bets that leave too much to chance, is to look for a structural explanation for why the public's (and thus the casinos', as they are attempting to mirror the public) expectations for a game are seriously off-base. I suspect that the public has misdiagnosed both of the teams involved in this match-up, thus making it a particularly attractive bet. In short: the Ravens are underrated while the Bengals are overrated.

The Ravens are better than a typical 4-3 team. Some Vegas insiders refer to the concept of "coin flip games," which are games that are decided by the bounce of a ball in the last few minutes. The Ravens have essentially lost 3 of these games, and accordingly, many sharps have them high in their power rankings. In other words, had a few plays turned out differently, the Ravens could very easily be 6-1 or even 7-0. Even more reassuringly, the Ravens have largely dominated in their wins, generating a point differential of nearly double that of the Bengals despite the Bengals' superior record. As such, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings--which accurately predicted the Ravens' blowout of the undefeated Broncos last week--the Ravens are the 3rd strongest team in the league, despite their middling 4-3 record. Advanced NFL Stats' prediction system also has the Ravens ranked higher than the Bengals. But because of the Bengals' solid 5-2 record, and their consequently high placing in most media power rankings, this line is a very manageable three points.

The Bengals are in some sense the inverse of the Ravens; they won a series of big AFC North games on last second drives. At some point, that luck is going to run out, and the Bengals won't be able to pull out the win as time expires. While they were certainly have proved better than expectations, I think the Bengals are now overvalued because of their series of extreme late game wins. In fact, they've played probably the most emotionally exhausting first half of football in the entire league, and I'm not sure they have enough left for the second half. Their one convincing win of late was their 45-10 shellacking of the Bears in week 7. That win is another reason I like the Ravens in this game; I think it said far more about the overrated Bears than it did the Bengals. Just watch the second half of this clip to see the NFL Playbook crew break down the Bears' lack of gap discipline and shoddy all-around play to see why. Also watch this to see a convincing film demonstration of the atrocious state of the Bears' offensive line. The perennially overrated Jay Cutler's best explanation for his inconsistent play is that he can't believe teams are blitzing him! In short, the Bengals win over a fundamentally unsound Bears' team with few good wins of their own does not make me a believer, and I think the Ravens are a superior team.

2. The Ravens came out of their bye playing the type of football that will give the Bengals problems.

Veteran BadNFL readers should hear alarm bells going off right now; after all, wasn't one of the "lessons learned" after the debacle of my week 4 Titans prediction that at some point you are what you are? That point is certainly important to keep in mind, as perhaps all point #1 above proves is that the Ravens are a good team that can't finish games. Particularly since the Bengals beat the Ravens at Baltimore this season! But here's what I'm thinking: while the argument above sets the framework for why I think this bet is undervalued by the market, there are independent reasons to think that the Ravens will match-up quite well against the Bengals this Sunday specifically.

First, Baltimore is a different team than the one that lost to the Bengals a few weeks ago. From all accounts, the 3 consecutive losses the Ravens suffered ate at them during their recent bye week, which they used to resolve a few structural issues with their defense, including, first and foremost, their pass rush. The team that came out against the undefeated Broncos last week was a thoroughly dominant one, with the Ravens playing superbly in all three phases of the game. Most importantly, the Ravens defense looked viciously aggressive again, like it did in 2008.

True, it was only one game, and if the Eagles have showed us anything, it's that teams can demonstrate maddening inconsistency from week to week. But most accounts attribute the Ravens' resurgence to both their anger at having fallen behind in the division and to some bye week mechanical tweaks, two things that should sustain themselves throughout this part of the season. The Ravens--particularly on defense--are the type of team for which an event like the dominating Broncos win can ignite the season. There is certainly precedent: last year the Ravens were similarly 3-3 after 6 weeks and then turned it around to go 11-5. When bouncing back from a similar 3 game losing streak that year, those Ravens reeled off 4 consecutive double-digit wins.

As such, I think the Bengals' win at Baltimore, far from portending a repeat this Sunday, will help the Ravens. This Ravens team knows that it needs to play 60 minutes of consistent football to stay afloat in the tough AFC North, and because of the Cincy win earlier this year, there is zero chance of a trap game this week.

Second, there are significant differences between these teams from the last time they played, differences that that bode well for the Ravens. Perhaps most importantly, the Ravens played soft zones against the Bengals last time around, a mistake that allowed Cedric Benson to run wild, and a mistake that the coaches will certainly not repeat. Indeed, if the defense that showed up at Denver last week shows up this week, the entire character of the game will be different. Moreover, Antwan Odom, the Bengals outstanding RDE, is out for the season, and he was probably the hardest player on that entire defense to replace. Even though he flew under the radar somewhat, he was having a truly dominant season, and the strength of the Odom-led defensive line was a crucial propellant of the Bengals' early divisional success, particularly against the Ravens. Not only that, but the Ravens get their solid starting left tackle, who missed the first Bengals' game, back this week. As most football savants know, particularly those who have read Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, the left tackle is the second most important position in football. Although Michael Oher (coincidentally the subject of Lewis's The Blind Side) performed admirably filling in, now the Ravens are in the enviable position of having excellent depth across the offensive line. One advanced metric puts their offensive line as the best in the league. As such, I think the Ravens will control the trenches this week, something they failed to do last time.

In addition, the Ravens have stiffened against the short-to-intermediate passing attack. Breaking down the film from the Broncos game, it jumped out how thoroughly the Ravens suffocated the short passing game. This is not surprising, as their personnel are well-suited to stifle exactly such types of routes, albeit at the expense of leaving them vulnerable to the explosive play. But Carson Palmer is one of the worst QBs in the league this year on downfield vertical passing attempts. The Bengals have not specialized in explosive plays, preferring the type of clock-eating incremental drives that the Ravens are well-suited to stop. I think those tendencies show up this week.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the extreme and unique emotional circumstances surrounding the Bengals' previous win over the Ravens. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife had just died, and the Bengals' players understandably rallied around their defensive coordinator, playing with obvious inspiration and emotion. I remember watching an interview of Marvin Lewis before the game, when he was obviously struggling with the moment, and I thought that the emotional dynamics were similar to the Saints' first return to the Superdome after Katrina and Brett Favre's legendary performance the night of his father's death. Tom Jackson on ESPN Countdown said the same thing, noting that he was switching his pick to the Bengals on the spot (15 minutes before game time) simply after seeing the obvious gutwrenching emotion of the players and the entire team. The emotion of that day simply cannot be replicated this week, and this time, superior talent wins out.


The Bengals are coming off their bye week, and the claim that you should be wary of betting against teams coming off the bye is ubiquitous in football circles. My first instinct when looking at this game was to worry about the Ravens coming off a win against a good team in comparison to the Bengals coming off their bye. But as explained above, I think the Ravens will be more than ready for this game. And as for the bye? Surprisingly, since the bye was first introduced, teams have only a 52.7% winning percentage in the week after their bye, suggesting an advantage that is quite modest. And the Bengals have actually been one of the very worst teams at exploiting their bye week, putting up a 4-15-1 record in such games. More importantly, Marvin Lewis is only 1-4-1. Experience suggests that the current Bengals team simply does not benefit much from the bye week. And although they're at home, their only 2 losses this year are at home.

As such, I think this game will be closer to the 34-3 pounding the Ravens delivered last year in Cincinnati than it will be to the 3-point spread that the casinos have unwisely established. And because many books, including, have set the payout at +105 on the Ravens -3 right now, it's an even more attractive pick.

Here's hoping that all of the above means that BadNFL is getting back on track this week!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Upon Further Review: Giants Crushed 17-40

Well this is becoming somewhat like a broken record; a week after a nice prediction, my pick last week missed by a country mile, as the Eagles humiliated the Giants 40-17. For the first time, though, I think that the pick was fundamentally unsound, and in this weekly edition of upon further review, we'll try and figure out what went wrong.

1. McNabb was accurate, after all.

The Eagles offense had been struggling of late, after a stinker in Oakland and an uneven performance against the Redskins. McNabb had been struggling with his mechanics and his accuracy had been suffering. Well, this week all appeared to be right with McNabb. He smirked after the game that he was pretty accurate after all, and the stats bore him out: 17/23 for 240 yards and 3 TDs to 0 interceptions. Even more incredible was the Eagles' stunning 8 yards gained per offensive play run. DeSean Jackson provided his typical 50+ yard TD score, exploiting what is becoming a glaring Giants' inability to guard against the deep ball.

Couple the explosive passing option with fullback Leonard Weaver's shocking emergence for 75 yards on 8 carries--including a long TD run on the first drive of the game--and the Giants fell behind early and had no chance. This game was never close.

2. Eli Manning continued his below average play.

As a Cowboys fan, it's difficult for me to believe that the Eli I saw on the field on Sunday against the Eagles was the same QB who played an essentially perfect game against the Cowboys in week 2. Not only was he inaccurate, but he looked tentative and repeatedly made poor decisions in the pocket. The rest of the offense played fairly decently, as the young WR corps has largely exceeded expectations and the running game is solid. But Eli was absolutely horrendous; while the Eagles burned him for 2 brutal interceptions, they could have easily had twice that number. The Eagles--in one of the least surprising tactics of the weekend--dialed up the blitz all game and forced Eli into quick decisions. And those decisions were poor. To be sure, I think plantar fasciitis is certainly affecting the accuracy of his throws, and is significantly contributing to his accuracy woes. But the lack of confidence, bad body language, and erratic decisionmaking is more troubling than his technique problems, and as of right now, it's very difficult to trust the Giants passing game to bail them out when they fall behind.


1. Giants have been exposed.

It's a problem that crops up in game prediction all the time; does a tough loss (like that first suffered by the Giants against the Saints a few weeks ago) serve to expose a team's weaknesses, leading to further losses, or does it serve to psychologically motivate them to bounce back? It's difficult to predict in advance how a loss will affect a team, but in this case, the Saints appeared to expose the Giants, providing a blueprint for how teams should attack the Giants: run spread formations with a lot of intermediate and deep routes. Beleaguered Giants' safety C.C. Brown is consistently out of position and unable to diagnose the route combinations, and as such, teams the last 3 weeks have torched the Giants deep.

With the Giants' injuries in the secondary, it's not like their deep coverage problems were hard to foresee. But I (and many analysts) thought that the Giants' pass rush would deprive McNabb of the time to deliver the ball downfield. But that pass rush has all but disappeared; the Giants have lost their swagger, they are lately characterized by busted assignments and a lack of execution. What's the difference? Perhaps it's the loss of Spagnola in the offseason; new coordinator Bill Sheridan has so far been unable to recreate the havoc posed by the Giant's front 4 in recent years. I'm not exactly sure what the problem is, but McNabb had entirely too much time to throw on Sunday. Right now, the Giants defense does not seem like it's good, and until they get some of their injured players back, I don't trust them to hold up against good offensive teams.

2. The Eagles are maddeningly unpredictable. I've been pounding my head into a wall trying to figure out how it's possible that a team that I picked to crush the Raiders could lose to that pathetic team, but then when I pick against them, deliver such beating to the Giants. My feeling is that the Andy Reid-era Eagles have done this more than any other team in the league, where they can look incredibly crappy one week and dominant the next. I'm staying away from them for the rest of the year.