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.

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