Saturday, October 30, 2010

Week 8 Pick: Lions -2.5 vs. Redskins

Fresh off my first win of the season, will the success continue this week? I started out tempted by Dolphins +1.5 @ Bengals, for reasons essentially captured by Simmons this week, but I couldn't pull the trigger in large part because of the overwhelming amount of public money on the Dolphins. For reasons explained below, I ended up going with the Lions instead.

1. The Skins are deceptively bad right now.

Most writers seem to think that the Skins have acquired an aura of respectability. Peter King even thinks that they may have a shot in the NFC title race. Of course, they're off what seems like a good road win last week against the 4-3 Bears. But their 4-3 record is full of a lot of really close, somewhat fluky wins, wins that have masked some serious deficiencies. Their offensive line is quite precarious and struggling with injury, and McNabb's play has epitomized maddening inconsistency.

But most troublingly, the Redskins' yardage stats are atrocious: they are next-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed on defense. In other words, this has been an extremely porous unit worse than the maligned defenses of the Bills, Cardinals, and Jaguars. To be sure, there have been the predictable stories about how the Redskins are forcing lots of turnovers, due to coordinator's Jim Haslett's practice techniques. In those stories, the Skins' players and commentators compare the Skins defense to that of the 2009 Saints, which was a porous but turnover-forcing unit. But those Saints were able to win with a historically high-powered offense driven by Drew Brees and his array of weapons, something to which this Skins offense, ranked 19th in the league in offensive DVOA, pales in comparison. Moreover, even adjusting for turnovers (as FO's defensive DVOA does), the Skins defense is in the bottom third of the league.

As I pointed out in my preseason analysis of the Saints' likely crash back down to earth (which does appear to be happening), turnovers are a tricky thing that fluctuate wildly week to week. To that point, not every game is going to be as ridiculously ugly as the Skins win over the Bears last week. Instead, this week I expect the Skins' atrocious 4.7 YPC allowed on the ground to rear its head, a facet of the game that will energize Best and the entire Lions' offense.

What is McNabb's explanation for their shaky play, notwithstanding their 4-3 record? Incredibly, he claims that they've been unlucky and that breaks haven't generally gone their way. But to claim that the Skins have suffered bad luck this year severely strains credulity. Let us review the ways in which the Skins have won games this year:
  • A holding call on Alex Barron negates what otherwise would have been the gamewinning touchdown for the Cowboys, converting a sure loss into a Skins win.
  • Against the Packers, in a game in which the Packers lost their Pro Bowl LB and TE to fluky injuries in the 1st quarter, Green Bay's FG bounces off the left upright as time expires to send the game to OT, allowing the Skins to win the game on a field goal.
  • Last week, the Redskins went 7 for 8 in recovering their own fumbles, which has to be an NFL all-time record. As people who read either this blog or FO know, fumble recoveries are generally pure luck. Seven for eight is, needless to say, quite lucky.
  • In that same game, McNabb had what would have been a backbreaking pick-6 negated by his own delay-of-game penalty that nobody heard (remember: they won this game by 3 points). 
  • He's also had passes like this: deflected balls that rebound right to his receivers.
  • Key players on opposing teams have gotten hurt at an absurd rate in the middle of Redskins' games -- and not because of hard hits, but because of pulled hamstrings and other random events.
In other words, the Redskins have been the luckiest team in the league this year. But I'm not sure people in general -- and certainly not McNabb -- have realized it. Instead, they win ugly games, like last week's, in which Jay Cutler was more responsible for the Redskins' victory than anything Washington did. Of course, much is being made of DeAngelo Hall's undeniably nice game, in which he had 4 interceptions. But as I pointed out last week, Cutler is playing scared because of all the hard hits and sacks to which he's been subjected, and the interceptions were largely the fruit of his erratic play. Watch these interceptions: while the first one is a legitimately nice play, the others are classic Cutler -- back foot, wild throws that are easy pickings. This week, Hall is going to be matched up with the supremely talented Calvin Johnson, who is quite an upgrade over the Bears' middling WRs from last week. Given that DeAngelo Hall tends to be inconsistent from week to week, and is generally overrated, I expect him to have a subpar performance this week.

But why did I start out by emphasizing the Skins' inflated value? Because this pick presents a great opportunity to test out the contrarian theory that I briefly explored last week. In short, the Redskins are receiving 70% of the money this week, a fact that the stats suggest is a bad sign for them covering. Also, if you track the betting trends throughout the week (and the way that the line has been pushed up while the overall money stays heavily on the Skins), it confirms what Millman recently reported: that the Sharps have been buying the Lions strong while the public stays on the overrated Skins. The contrarian theory -- perhaps particularly appropriate in a year in which nothing related to the NFL seems to make much sense and in which the public is usually wrong -- suggests that now is a great time to pick the Lions.

2.  Lions are significantly underrated, particularly at home.

The Lions are the best team in the league against the spread with a 5-1 record. Particularly intriguing is their point differential: despite their 1-5 record, they've scored more points than they've allowed. Given this point differential, their pythagorean record, which is in the long run a more accurate assessment of a team's quality than its actual win-loss record -- is closer to 4-3. They're also showing signs of improvement each week and might be a late blooming team this year.

I particularly like the Lions' defensive line, and the Lions' consonant ability to stop the Redskins' zone-blocking rushing scheme. But primarily, the Lions have been somewhat banged up, but they're coming out of their bye week much healthier than they've been. And although they've been somewhat inconsistent in the red zone, as BadNFL followers painfully remember, there are reasons to think that they'll perform better coming off a bye and a previous poor performance. Moreover, the Lions beat the Skins last year to snap a 19 game losing streak, and they look much better at home this year.


My main worry is that Stafford, in his first game back and pressing too much, might throw a lot of Cutler-esque interceptions. But he's looked good in practice and should be ready to run the entire offense. And more importantly, I expect the rejuvenated and talented rookie Jahvid Best to control the game on the ground against the Skins' porous rush defense, obviating the need for Stafford to sling it around too much.

Ultimately, this is the 2nd of back-to-back road trips for the Skins, and they've demonstrated a tendency to play down to the level of weaker opponents this year. I don't think they'll have the same turnover-inducing magic that they did last week, and thus I like the Lions to win. Admittedly, given the Skins' penchant for close games this year, I wouldn't like this game nearly as much if it were at -3. But if it stays below that key number, I'm taking it. Lions cover.

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