Sunday, December 26, 2010

Week 16 Pick: Raiders +3 vs. Colts

Well after Comcastgate last weekend, I won't be able to get back to .500 for the season. Disappointing, but hopefully things will still break favorably down the stretch. To try and bounce back from last week's loss, I'm going with the Raiders +3 at home against Indy. Here's why:

1. Raiders will control this game on the ground.

The Raiders are 2nd in the NFL in yards per game on the ground, and they also rush for the 2nd best per-carry average at a healthy 4.7 YPC. On the other hand, the Colts have surrendered the 5th most rushing yards in the league, and they also yield a healthy 4.7 YPC. These stats are not misleading in the aggregate, as the Raiders' ground game appears to be peaking at the right time. They absolutely destroyed the Broncos' rushing defense last week, which was typical of their ground dominance over the past 2 months. Moreover, the Colts have struggled against even mediocre rushing teams like the Cowboys; I don't see them patching up their undersized and injury-riddled defensive front this week. It's true that they stacked the box on over 40% of the Jags' offensive snaps last week, effectively shutting down the Jags' powerful run game. But that game seems like an outlier, and I don't think people should overreact to that one performance. The Raiders have run the ball well against all different types of fronts, and I think they'll have substantial success there on Sunday. 

On the flip side, the Colts offense isn't powerful enough -- like it has been in years past -- to take huge leads and nullify the opposing ground game. For one, their own running game, notwithstanding one good game by Donald Brown last week, has been non-existent, which in turn has nullified Manning's play action fakes. In addition, they've now lost Austin Collie -- arguably their most effective receiver -- for the season. The Colts have admittedly won two in a row, but one was a narrow, pretty lucky win against Jacksonville, and the other came over a spiraling and decimated Titans' club. This is not the same Colts' team we remember; they'll struggle to overcome the Raiders' ball-control offensive gameplan.

2. This is a perfect opportunity to deploy contrarian logic.

I've written about the contrarian theory of betting before: the theory posits that popular conceptions about the NFL are usually wrong, and that therefore smart prognosticators pick against the crowd. This week, nearly 80% of the action is on the Colts. In games like that this year, the team receiving fewer bets has a record of approximately 60% against the spread. Nor is this a statistical anomaly, as shown in a nice writeup on the theory in the WSJ this week -- since 2003, the more popular a team is, the worse it performs against the spread. And the person who popularized the theory and runs the great website said this week that Oakland presents a perfect opportunity for bettors to utilize the insight of the contrarian logic. Indeed, Indy is a historically successful team who looked good last week (a week in which everything that hadn't been going well for them went well); both factors may lead many bettors to foolishly take them this week.

Moreover, Oakland is getting 3 points. Millman points to research this week showing that home dogs in weeks 15-17 cover about 60% of the time. I like that trend to continue here; this is a cross-country road trip for an Indy team that has always played better on turf.

The counter-argument is simple: Peyton Manning is a formidable QB whom I don't like picking against. But I think he has the worst team around him in quite a while, and while many people's first instinct may be to take the Colts, I like the Raiders getting the points.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Upon Further Review: Cowboys win, but don't cover, 33-30

Thanks a lot, Comcast. Because of my non-existent Internet last week, I was unable to put together a well-researched prediction, and now I'm paying the price.  The Cowboys won the game 33-30, but failed to cover the 7 point spread. The most frustrating part of it was that the Boys looked like they had this game well in hand, leading by 20 points midway through the third quarter. But then Rex Grossman went to work, ultimately throwing for 322 yards and 4 TDs. How the Cowboys allowed him to throw it so prolifically escapes me, given that the Skins mounted no credible rushing attack (only 14 attempts). But the Dallas secondary looked quite poor, especially after Gerald Sensabough went down with an injury. Not only that, but the Cowboys reverted to some of their stupid, penalty-inflicted habits characteristic of the Wade Phillips era. The result was a narrow 3-point win in what should have been an easy cover.


1. As a commenter implored me, stop picking the Cowboys. The stats are undeniable: they are now 0-3 ATS when I pick them, yet I am 2-0 when I pick against them (the commenter forgot this game from last year).  On the one hand, I know more about the Cowboys than any other team in the league; I follow them more closely, and I feel more attuned to their strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, emotion might very well cloud impartial judgment when it comes to predicting their games -- this week I think I gravitated to it because my internet was out and it was the game with which I was already most familiar.

I hate to make a strict rule forbidding any picks of the Cowboys anymore (as I basically have already done for the Seahawks and Chiefs this season), but I should certainly not knee-jerk focus on the Cowboys like I did this week.

2. Beware the backup QB. I thought that the Redskins were in shambles -- the Shanahans had lost the team, they were forced to jettison their expensive and celebrated veteran QB, and they were coming off a brutal loss, courtesy of a bobbled snap on a PAT. But Grossman played pretty well, appearing to energize the sorry Redskins. I've said before that picking heavy favorites playing against backup QBs can  be risky (witness the 14-point favorite Pats barely escaping Johnny Flynn last week). It's hard to say exactly why the Boys blew the lead like they did -- maybe they're just bad, or maybe the game demonstrated their resilience in winning a close one -- but they did appear to coast for a while in the second half, thinking that they had sealed things up.

3. The Hilton 100 theory went only 1-1. The Cowboys (at -6) amassed the most picks, followed closely by the Bears over the Vikings. The Cowboys obviously did not cover, missing by 3, while the Bears dominated the Vikings by 26. The theory now moves to 12-4, with a still impressive average margin of victory. Too bad it couldn't have come through for the Boys this week, since BadNFL really needed it.

I'm wishing that I had picked the Jets +6 @ Pittsburgh instead. I think that Troy Polamalu may be the most valuable player in the league, and I've really hated the way that the Steelers' offense looked. That game was the most picked game, by a wide margin, among Hilton top contestants, and it's one that I was strongly considering taking. Oh well.

4. East Coast Travel Theory is validated: the Cardinals had to travel for an early game at Carolina, whom I've said (and most agree) is now the worst team in the league. The Cardinals easily failed to cover that game, losing by a touchdown, and most analysts agree that they essentially self-destructed against a team that's generally even worse than they are. Interesting.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Week 15 Pick: Cowboys -7 vs. Redskins

Unfortunately, the Internet is down at BadNFL HQ, thanks to the despicable incompetence of Comcast. Because of that, my research has been seriously abbreviated this week, and unfortunately this post will also have to be short. I don't love taking Dallas again, but the Redskins seem like they're an absolute mess, and they're starting Rex Grossman. The Cowboys should win by more than 7.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Upon Further Review: Jags Cover 38-31

Another nice win for BadNFL, although I must admit that it was a nerve-wracking cover. The Jags ultimately won the game by 7, enough to cover, but it was hardly the type of comfortable blowout that BadNFL fans enjoyed last week. My pick, which was largely premised on the Raiders' struggles when traveling east, may have been right for the wrong reasons, as the Raiders actually came roaring out of the gate strong only to blow the lead late. In fact, many game recaps are crediting Maurice Jones-Drew's halftime speech with rallying the lethargic Jags and propelling them to an impressive second-half comeback. And comeback they did, scoring 31 second-half points and demonstrating impressive resolve in fending off a late Raiders' charge.

In doing so, the Jags exposed the Raiders' poor rush defense. The Jags' ground game continued to impress, generating 200+ yards for the 3rd week in a row and even deploying several sophisticated option plays that yielded significant positive yardage. Many analysts have pinned responsibility directly on the Raiders' defense, which continues to be vulnerable to committed rushing attacks. And in my defense, I predicted that this game would be decided in the trenches, and that the Jags' two-pronged attack would prevail over the Raiders' overexposed defense. Fortunately, the strength of that rushing attack was enough to overcome a superb day for Jason Campbell and a subpar day, YPA-wise (albeit with 3 TDs), for Gerrard.

At the end of the day, the Raiders surged back to tie the game with under two minutes left, thanks to an incredible run by the streaking Darren McFadden. But luckily, the Jags got a nice kick return, and on their first play from scrimmage (as a 3-point non-cover is looking exceedingly likely), MJD busted a 30-yard gamewinning TD. It may not have been the prettiest victory, but I'll take it.


1. What happened to the East Coast Travel theory? It's hard to say. Of course even a sound theory will fail to explain every single game, so it's possible that the Raiders' fast start here was simply an outlier. But looking back on it, there may be some other explanations. Some have pointed out that Tom Cable implemented a substantial schedule change regarding the road trip leading up to this game, and that the change may have helped the Raiders' biological clocks adjust. Of course, pointing to such a change seems like a simplistic explanation, given that other coaches have no doubt thought of such a stratagem before.

On the other hand, maybe this was a trap game for the Jags as they looked ahead to a huge division clash with Indy next week. BadNFL has obviously struggled with the concept of trap games, and I'm hestiant to blame the Jags' early struggles on the looming Colts, but it's a possibility.

Instead, maybe the East Coast travel factor weighs more heavily in games early in the season. I could see teams like the Raiders learning to adjust to the travel by the time December rolls around. That's one thing I intend to look into in the offseason -- a comprehensive analysis of East Coast travel, broken down by month and type of opponent.

Finally, it's possible that the Travel Theory did pay dividends after all. While logic would suggest that it would impact the beginning of games, as players' feel sluggishness commensurate with the time of day, it's also possible that the effects begin to catch up to players in a major way in the second half. That seemed to be what happened here, as the Raiders' defense completely wilted down the stretch.

2. The Seahawks continue to frustrate -- BadNFL fans undoubtedly noticed the 49ers absolutely waxing the Seahawks this last week. Yes, these were the same teams that played week 1, when BadNFL picked the 9ers -3. And it was primarily those same players, plus stud 49ers' RB Frank Gore, that participated in the Week 1 disgraceful Seahawks' blowout. Very aggravating.

3. Hilton 100 theory hits big again -- the only qualifying pick was Giants -3 @ Vikings, which shifted to -4 once the game moved to Ford Field in the wake of the Metrodome's collapse.  Either way, the Giants easily covered, winning 21-3. Hilton 100 picks now have a record of 12-3, with a vast majority of those 12 being double-digit covers. Wow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Update: Public, but not Hilton Contestants, Like the Pick

I suspected that the Hilton Contestants might like the Jaguars this week, but they garnered only 55 picks, vs. 64 for the Raiders. Although surprising, I'm not that worried about it, since I've explained before that I think the Hilton Contest results are probative only when a game amasses a huge number (100+) of picks. Indeed, I've lacked support of the Hilton prediction market before, and it worked out well.

More troubling is the market data about the money coming in on the Jags. The public has stuck steadfastly with the Jags at just over 60% -- not a huge number but not that reassuring for a contrarian theorist -- even though the line has been moving steadily in the other direction, from Jags -5 down to Jags -4. This would suggest that there is some serious sharp money, placed by a small number of betters, coming in against the prevailing wisdom. Some analysts track this type of "smart money" and have noted that it tends to portend a result disfavorable to the public. I'm not sure what these bettors are thinking; it must be that the Jags' pythagorian W-L is worse than the Raiders'. I definitely sympathize with the perspective that the Jags' are overrated. However, they seem like the type of team who can exploit the Raiders' EST woes. We'll see.

The one entry in the Hilton 100 club this week is the Giants -2.5 @ Vikings. Although that line has now moved to -3, I tend to like it. It's also got a healthy margin of 89. Given that the Hilton 100 entries have gone 11-3 over a significant span, the Giants are probably a pretty good pick this week. But I'm sticking with the Jags. 

Week 14 Pick: Jags -4 vs. Raiders

We're officially entering the stretch run now, and BadNFL really needs to get its act together to try and preserve some modicum of respectability for this season. This week, I'm picking a team I have yet to pick even once: the Jacksonville Jaguars. Here's why:

1. Raiders are playing an early game on the East Coast.

This theory, bandied about by some prognosticators (like Simmons here), posits that West Coast teams struggle playing road games at 1:00 EST (10 PST). The reasoning is pretty simple: the players' biological clocks are out-of-sync for a 10:00 AM start, and they accordingly tend to play the sluggish way that their bodies feel (the same phenomenon tends to benefit West Coast home teams at night). It's an intuitively appealing theory. Do the stats back it up? One look at the stats answers resoundingly in the affirmative: in 2007, teams from the Pacific or Mountain time zones were 4-16 when playing in the Eastern Time Zone, and 18 of those 20 games had early start times. That included some really bad losses -- fully 50% of the 4 wins picked up by the awful pre-Matt Ryan Atlanta Falcons that year were in early home games against traveling west coasters.

To be sure, the raw stats reflect the skewed ineptitude of the Western teams in general. But although each coach is certainly different in his ability to prepare his team for an early start on the East Coast, almost without exception all West Coast teams have had significantly losing records in travel to the East Coast in recent years. Pat Kirwan ran the stats a few years ago and found:
Since 2003, when the Arizona Cardinals, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks travel to the Eastern time zone for a 1 p.m. game, they have a combined record of 19-59 -- a winning percentage of .243. When you look at games played at 4 p.m. or at night, the West Coast teams are 3-5 (.375 percentage).
I don't think most people fully realize this degree of futility suffered by traveling West Coast teams. I know the AFC and particularly NFC West have been terrible, but a .243 winning percentage?! That suggests that the early start time theory really has some juice, irrespective of the basic talent disparities between the teams involved. Kirwan further spoke to several of the coaches involved, who
 all felt it is a real issue, even though it's hard to put a finger on why it happens. They all mentioned a "sluggish" feeling, especially early in games. Anyone can dig up a game like Seattle's 42-0 win at Philadelphia in 2005 and say it's all hogwash, but the numbers over time suggest something different.
It's certainly not just true for bad teams. In 2009, the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals -- two playoff teams who went a combined 17-15, were 0-9 in games played east of the Mississippi River. And the same theory seems applicable to the Raiders. They've played two early road games this season (@ Ten in week 1 and @ Pit in Week 11) and been blown out in both by a combined score of 73-16. They seem to fit the pattern nicely, and I expect it to continue this week.

2. The Raiders are coming off a major win against a divisional rival.

The Raiders just played perhaps their best game in several years, manhandling the Chargers and doling them their first December loss in the Philip Rivers era. This 15-point win, which was never close, felt like a blowout for most of the game. I thus like the Raiders to regress back to normal this week. In recent weeks, I've remarked several times that teams coming off blowout wins seem to lack fire the following week. I also noted something similar in my preseason preview, arguing that teams emerging from cathartic, "now we've arrived" wins tend to dramatically underperform soon thereafter. Well, here we have that situation, and the trend seems to have been borne out by the Raiders' performance this season. They previously had only 1 win over a team with a winning record at the time (against the divisional rival Chiefs), and they followed it up by a 32-point thrashing by the Steelers.

Such inconsistency fits the mold of the Raiders' season in general, as wide fluctuations in quality of play have defined their season thus far. Thus, when ESPN bloggers proclaim the dominance of the Raiders' ground game, it makes me wonder how that rushing attack will look the week afterward. Particularly when the Raiders already have a reason -- the aforementioned time zone issue -- to play with less than exacting intensity.

3. The Jags will have success on the ground.

There seems little doubt that this game will be decided in the trenches. Indeed, neither the Jags or the Raiders pass the ball particularly well, while both have statistically impressive rushing attacks. I think the Jags will do what they do better than the Raiders -- the Jags have been remarkable at minimizing 3 and outs and controlling the time of possession, and the emergence of Rashad Jennings has given them a 1-2 pitch with MJD that is approaching elite level. Moreover, the Raiders are 23rd in rushing defense, which is not only bad but also artificially inflated by a great (21 yard) performance against San Diego last week that was somewhat anomalous. I thus expect the Jags to do what they did to Tennessee last week -- dominate on the ground and impose their will against a sluggish team.


The Jags have undoubtedly benefited from some lucky wins this year (the Mike Thomas Hail Mary and the 75-yard late game MJD screen pass come to mind). And I did just finish writing about the need to stay away from teams that have recently benefited from a spate of lucky wins. After all, the Jags probably aren't as good as their record, given their -43 point differential.

But in recent weeks, the Jags have looked like a legitimate team, not just a lucky one. And they certainly have shown they know how to blow out sluggish teams (see their whooping of the Wade Philips-era Cowboys). Ultimately, I think that the Jags are a mediocre team that plays fairly well at home, and that the Raiders' travel struggles will continue this week. I thought this line would be closer to 7 than to 4, and as such, the Jags will cover.

Upon Further Review: Pats Cover 45-3

It feels good to be on the right side of a blowout for once. The Pats annihilated the Jets in a game that was as lopsided as some of the previous BadNFL blowout losses, dominating them 45-3. Tom Brady strengthened his position in the MVP race and threw for a whopping 11 YPA. Conversely, the Sanchize looked really bad -- he threw for less than 5 yards per attempt, barely completed 50% of his passes, and threw 3 INTs compared with 0 TDs. In other words, he looked as bad as I predicted he would the last time I (wrongly) predicted this match-up, and he gave the Jets absolutely no chance in this game.

Most of the reviews of this game note how dominating the Pats were in all phases of the game. Indeed, it was so bad that Rex Ryan stole a motivational ploy from Bill Belichick and buried the game ball afterward. In a game that lopsided, it's hard to pinpoint any one cause, but the loss of Jim Leonhard from the Jets secondary undoubtedly affected the Jets pass D -- particularly in the Jets' ability to defense the Pats various multiple-TE sets. Moreover, the vaunted Jets' pass rush, although getting to Brady a couple times early, never made much of an imprint on the game. And the Pats simply avoided throwing at Revis, exploiting the gaping holes all over the rest of the field.


1. Does Mark Sanchez struggle in cold-weather games? Remember, he's a USC kid who lacks ideal NFL arm strength and sometimes tends to obsessively focus on short-yardage throws. That tendency obviously did not manifest itself last time the Jets pounded the Pats at home in week 2. But it's now December, and the weather has begun affecting games like it hasn't so far this season. It certainly looked like the cold windy conditions negatively affected Sanchez in this game; he unquestionably had the worst game of any QB last week. This is a possible trend that bears watching.

2. Picking against teams that have recently enjoyed several lucky wins pays off. One of my main rationales for this pick was the series of lucky, dramatic comeback wins against mediocre teams that the Jets had enjoyed of late. At the time, that led most pundits to label them "resilient" and "tough" etc; in retrospect, maybe they were just getting lucky. And once they played a motivated, streaking team on the road, that luck ran out in a major way.

3. The Broncos continue to frustrate. They have now officially imploded and fired their coach, 3 weeks after administering an asskicking to the (3-0 since) Chiefs in Week 10. My contrary pick, readers will remember, was premised on an assessment that the Broncos were on the verge of collapse and the Chiefs were picking up steam down the stretch. All that appears to have been correct, but just not that week. The result of that one game continues to frustrate me, but the general assessment was right on.

4. The Hilton 100 club had only 1 entry last week: Bears -3.5 @ Lions. I didn't like that pick at all, since BadNFL is a big fan of the covering Lions, especially at home. Nonetheless, the pick barely hit, as the Bears won 24-20. The theory now moves to 11-3, with 2 of the losses (albeit one of its wins now) coming by 1 point.

Not everything about the Hilton Contest appears helpful, however. The most popular pick last week among the contest leaders? Jets +3.5. That obviously didn't work out; maybe those top contestants should have read their BadNFL a little more carefully.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Week 13 Pick: Pats -3.5 vs. Jets

This is a tough week for picking games. Initially, I liked the Browns +5, but then remembered that Jake Delhomme was still starting. Eventually, I settled instead on the Patriots. Essentially, I think that the Pats played remarkably poorly in their first meeting against the Jets, and they'll be at home this time and seem likely to play much better. The Jets also have been on an incredibly lucky streak -- excepting last week's win over the terrible Bengals -- winning 3 in a row in games they should have lost. That luck will run out this week, I think. The fact that this game's in Foxboro, the loss of defensive stalwart Jim Leonhard, and the Patriots' motivation to extract revenge after Brady's abysmal performance last time out all portend a substantial Pats victory.

Of course, it's possible that I'm merely repeating a mistake I've already made once this season. I still like that Pats pick week 2, however, and think that a lot of the same logic will be borne out this week. The Jets are touting their lucky late game wins as a sign of destiny; I think that it's a sign that they're not quite as good as their record indicates. We'll see.