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.

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