Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 2 Pick: Cowboys -3 @ Niners

Sincere apologies for last week's failure to make a pick; I was in Vegas losing real money on my bad sports picks! Never fear though, I'm back this week (just in the nick of time)!

And with my inaugural pick of the 2011 season, I'm ignoring my own previous promise and picking the Cowboys. The reasons are pretty simple:

1. The luck disparity: my season preview echoed a sentiment that is common among sharps this week -- value emerges from lines based on fluky results the previous week. Thus, there have been some wild swings in the lines this week, as handicappers try to determine whether surprising week 1 results reveal fundamental truths about teams, or whether they merely reflect the quirks of one solitary week in the NFL. For the most part, I'm going with the latter.

In that vein, the 0-1 Cowboys look much better than the 1-0 Niners. Yes, the Cowboys lost the game. But they dominated the game for 3+ quarters, and lost on an excruciating series of unlikely events: a fumble at the 1 yard line, a blocked punt, a great penultimate drive by the Sanchize (itself hard to believe), and a 50 yard game winning FG from the shaky Nick Folk. Of course, there was also the painful interception thrown by Romo to Revis with a minute left that set up that field goal. Peter King called that interception a "total, absolute, utter debacle for Romo." It does look horrible, but several scouts have suggested that it was actually more the result of a sterling coverage disguise by the Jets than any unforgivable brain freeze by Romo. 

And on top of all of this, let's not forget the difficult environment facing the Cowboys: going into the Meadowlands on 9/11 and playing a primetime game on the road against a team that has been to two straight AFC Championship games, one that is generally considered a top-5 team in the NFL.  Even though the loss was excruciating, all in all it reflected a pretty solid level of play by the Cowboys.

The contrast could scarcely be any more stark with the Niners uninspiring win week 1. Yes, the final score read 33-17, but that score was significantly inflated by two late consecutive returns by Ted Ginn Jr. In reality, this game was essentially 19-17 after 57 minutes. This should trouble Niners fans, as they were playing the Seattle Seahawks, a truly putrid team, one with a miserable offensive line, inexperience at almost all the key positions, and a rebuilding mindset. Not only that, but it's a team that has historically been decent at home but atrocious on the road. And I haven't even mentioned that they started Tavaris "why is a rebuilding team starting him?!?" Jackson at QB.

In other words, color me not impressed at all by the Niners week one win. I think the Cowboys are a significantly better team, and that this line would normally be -6 or even higher were it not for the fluky week 1 results. Thus, it's a perfect time to jump on the Boys.

2. The Hilton 150 theory.

I've explained this ad nauseum on this blog (most recently here), but the Hilton contest theory strongly counsels in favor of making this pick. But first, a proviso: we're going to need to up the number of picks that we require from 100, because the number of entrants this year is significantly higher. In fact, it looks like the contest has grown from 345 to 517. This is a 49% increase, which suggests that we boost the requirement from 100 to 150. So that's what we'll do. Of course, I'm a little concerned about this simple fix, given that the growth in the field could have diluted the quality of the entrants and thus devalued it as a prediction market. Case in point: last week the Hilton 150 theory went only 1-1, with the Bills easily covering but the Steelers falling woefully short.We'll have to continue to monitor it.

In any event, the Cowboys got a whopping 208 picks in the contest this week. That bodes well for them, even if the contest has been devalued (which I'm not prepared to admit yet). 

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT: ROMO IS DAMAGED GOODS?

There has been endless media speculation this week about whether Romo and the Cowboys are becoming accustomed to losing and are psychologically unable to recover from this game. These types of reports are exactly why I'm picking this game. The Jets game was frustrating for fans but was really pretty fluky; those types of close games, Football Outsiders pointed out repeatedly in their Almanac this year, turn essentially on chance. Plus, Romo actually has a pretty favorable history in big games, and in bouncing back from bad losses. Beating the Niners is a much easier task than beating the Jets. Boys will cover this line.

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