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.
THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT: THE NEW COACHING REGIME HAS INSPIRED THE BILLS?
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.