Friday, December 6, 2013

NFL Week 14 Primer - Tie-Breaks Are Getting Confusing

The next chapter in the Pete Caroll-Jim Harbaugh rivalry will be written Sunday. Man, these guys really don't like each other.

By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

We're reaching the point in the season where there really isn't much to say. After seemingly half the AFC was 4-6, some of the riff-raff was weeded out (Oakland, Cleveland, Buffalo), but there are still six teams at 6-6 or 5-7 that are battling for one playoff spot. The NFC East is still tied up, and the Giants are still inexplicably in the mix despite being 1-3 against Dallas and Philadelphia. The Packers are seemingly in free-fall but could still turn things around if Aaron Rodgers is back by next week, which means the Lions and Bears aren't out of the woods yet.

Even the order of seeding hasn't gotten any clearer. The Patriots are currently sitting in the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but the Bengals are only a game back and hold a head-to-head tiebreak. The Bengals play the Colts this week in a game that has a huge bearing on the AFC's No. 3 seed. The Lions, Bears, Cowboys, and Eagles are all within a game of each other, fighting for the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the NFC. The NFC South is undecided (and the No. 2 seed with it). We still don't really know anything.

What we DO know:

1. Seattle is the overwhelming favorite for the No. 1 seed in the NFC
2. Kansas City is the overwhelming favorite for the No. 5 seed in the AFC
3. The Colts will (probably definitely) win the AFC South
4. The Patriots will (probably definitely) win the AFC East
5. The Broncos will (probably definitely) win the AFC West
6. Whoops, that's it. That's all we know.

For now, we're just waiting for the last few chips to fall.

Game(s) of The Week:

Indianapolis @ Cincinnati (1 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Both teams are still (technically) in the mix for a first-round bye. Both Cincinnati (via a head-to-head win) and Indianapolis (via Conference Win %) hold tiebreakers over New England, so if either team wins out and New England stumbles against Miami or Baltimore, the Patriots will drop down to the No. 3 seed. If the Patriots lose BOTH of those games, the tiebreaker for a three-way tie at 11-5 would be decided by this head-to-head.

(Unrelated to this game but might as well note here - a New England loss at Miami in Week 15 would all but guarantee Miami a playoff spot, even without a tiebreak over Baltimore. The Ravens still have to play New England, plus Detroit and Cincinnati on the road, so the likelihood of them finishing at 9-7 seems slim)

Detroit @ Philadelphia (1 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

The winner here grabs the inside track for the No. 3 seed in the NFC.

Chip Kelly's offense vs. Megatron. There's a lot to like here.

Seattle @ San Francisco (4:25 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

San Francisco, believe it or not, isn't as secure as people think. A loss here and a loss at Arizona in Week 17 would leave them at 10-6, and they would lose tie-breaks to 10-6 Philadelphia, 10-6 Dallas, AND 10-6 Detroit (although a 10-6 Detroit team would win the NFC North and not be applicable here). They hold tie-breaks over Chicago and Arizona, but those aren't likely to come into play anyway. So a win here would put San Francisco in the driver's seat. 

Carolina @ New Orleans (8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

More tie-break info: Because New Orleans has two non-conference losses (New England and New York), while Carolina only has one (Buffalo), a split of the home-and-home taking place this week and in Week 16 and a tie at 12-4 would give New Orleans the No. 2 seed (better Conference Win %). For Carolina to pick up a first-round bye, they either need to sweep New Orleans (possible), or split with New Orleans and have the Saints slip up in Week 15 at St. Louis (not likely) or at home in Week 17 against Tampa Bay (not possible). If New Orleans sweeps, it's impossible for Carolina to win the division.

Dallas @ Chicago (8:40 p.m. Sunday, ESPN)

Bad news for Chicago - even if they win out and get to 10-6, they don't win the division unless Detroit drops two games (which isn't out of the question, but they have a favorable schedule remaining). Their only hope for making the playoffs is Detroit losing at Philadelphia Sunday, then again at home to either Baltimore or the Giants, meanwhile, Chicago needs to win out (which would include a win at Philly in Week 16). Not the easiest of paths.

Dallas, on the other hand, holds just about every relevant tie-break over Philadelphia and Chicago (and a win here would cement that). For the third year in a row, the Cowboys look like they're on a collision course for a do-or-die Week 17 showdown for the division title. The craziest part is that this will be their third different opponent in three years. They lost in 2011 to the Giants, they lost last year to Washington, and this year they seem pre-destined to play the Eagles for a playoff spot on the last day of the season.

Here Are The Picks We Agree On (Home Teams in CAPS):

JACKSONVILLE (+3.5) over Houston

We got one right for once!

Kansas City (-3.5) over WASHINGTON

JC: Vegas doesn't seem to respect the Chiefs, and I'm not quite sure why. Yes, they've lost three straight, but two of those were to the best team in the conference and the third was a very close game. Against a train wreck of a team like Washington, they should win easily.

JP: Yeah, I get that the Chiefs aren't the juggernaut their hot start made them out to be, but they're still a playoff team. I don't know what Washington is right now.

BALTIMORE (-7) over Minnesota

JC: The Ravens have picked up their defense over the last four weeks as they've surged back into the playoff conversation. In the shocker to end all shockers, Minnesota has gained 943 yards over their last two games. Granted, both of those games went into overtime (and resulted in an extra 28:13 of game time), so take that with a grain of salt. Baltimore has been great at home this year (as usual), and Minnesota has been pretty abysmal on the road (as usual), so I'll roll with the Ravens.

JP: Wait, you mean you don't see the Vikings going to overtime a third straight week? Yeah, I guess I don't see how they keep up with Baltimore, who has suddenly righted the ship up front on defense and is getting slightly better play out of Joe Flacco.

NEW ENGLAND (-13) over Cleveland

JC: The Browns don't seem to know how to win football games anymore, and frankly don't seem particularly interested in learning how. Given the state of their team and their pressing need at quarterback, losing isn't the worst thing in the world right now. The Patriots should cruise.

JP: I have no doubt that the Patriots will win, but it's this Josh Gordon fella that's making me nervous. I have an inkling the Browns D is good enough to keep it within 20, then he adds the backdoor cover late. Plus, it's not like the Pats inspired confidence against Houston... Oh hell, what am I saying, I can't take Cleveland here, even with the points.

Indianapolis (+6.5) over CINCINNATI

JC: I'm unclear why the Bengals are giving a touchdown here. Both teams have identical records. The Colts have the more damning losses (blown out by St. Louis and Arizona, Cincinnati has a loss to Cleveland), but the Colts have the more impressive wins (Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco, compared to New England, Detroit, and healthy Green Bay for Cincinnati). All things considered, this line should be three points. I'll take a free field goal.

JP: Dang, this line is high. I was planning on taking the Bengals, thinking it would be around -2 or -3, but I just can't give Andrew Luck, the "Comeback Kid," a full touchdown.

PHILADELPHIA (-3) over Detroit

JC: I think "When in doubt, pick against Dome teams on the road" trumps "When in doubt, take the points." Although it will be hilarious watching Philadelphia's secondary try to cover Calvin Johnson.

JP: When in doubt: FOLES!!!

Miami (+3.5) over PITTSBURGH

JC: For all intents and purposes these teams seem even to me - the half-point sells it for me.

JP: Both these teams are enigmas, but if I'm getting more than a field goal, I gotta take the Fish in the "Mike Wallace/Pillow Fight to Still Miss the Playoffs by a Game" Bowl. Phins Up!

TAMPA BAY (-3) over Buffalo

JC: Tampa Bay is starting to look like a real football team and it's starting to freak me out.

JP: Yeah, the Bucs and Jags have won a combined six of their last eight games, so that's weird. I actually like Buffalo better in the long term, but the Bucs are playing just well enough to keep Greg Schiano around for another year to further sink the franchise, alienate the fan base and torture the players. Everybody wins!

DENVER (-13) over Tennessee

JC: It's been a while since Denver played a real start-to-finish, kick-ass game where they blow the other team out. It's been since Week 8 against Washington, to be honest. An analytical person would say this indicates that they've regressed, while a dumb person would say they're "due" for a blowout win. I think they're due.

JP: I wouldn't say their "due," I'd say their facing a beaten up and quickly sinking Tennessee team at home.

ARIZONA (-6) over St. Louis

JC: There are five teams in the league that are 8-4 Against The Spread this year. Oakland is one of them, Arizona is another. I've spent most of the year harping on how underrated Carolina is, but now people have figured out that they're really good so I'll shift my focus to Arizona. It'll be near-impossible for them to make the playoffs, but I think they're handily the best non-playoff team in the league (unless you want to count Green Bay, but their injuries ruined them).

JP: I actually think both these teams have been undervalued the last month, but Arizona is fighting for a playoff spot at home, so I'll take the Card to pick up the much-needed win by a touchdown or more.

New York Giants (+3.5) over SAN DIEGO

JC: Somehow the Giants are going to finish 9-7 and throw a monkey wrench into the NFC East. It has to happen.

JP: Remember when Eli Manning and his dad really didn't want him to go to San Diego? No, it has nothing to do with this current game, but if you (unfortunately) live somewhere where it's playing, I'm sure they're gonna talk about it a lot.

Carolina (+3.5) over NEW ORLEANS

JC: The Carolina Bandwagon stops for no one.

JP: Yeah, and they're getting points after that ghastly performance from New Orleans last week.

Dallas (PK) over CHICAGO

JC: Speaking of Against The Spread records, The Dallas Cowboys are another team that's 8-4 (Carolina and Seattle round out the five). And, seemingly impossibly, the Bears have the worst ATS record in the league at 2-8-2 (and are 0-4-2 at home). That's enough to earn my vote.

JP: I guess my blindly trusting Tony Romo strategy is working out then. ROMO!!!!

Here Are The Picks We Don't (Home Teams Still In CAPS)

JC: Oakland (+2.5) over NEW YORK JETS

The Jets are 5-7 but have the second-worst point differential in the league this year (only Jacksonville is worse). Most metrics would suggest the Raiders are actually close to three points better than the Jets, not worse. I'll take the points. Also, Oakland is somehow 8-4 Against The Spread this year. Vegas hasn't figured them out yet. I'll ride them as long as I can.

JP: NEW YORK JETS (-2.5) over Oakland 

I'll be honest, I looked at all your picks and pretty much agreed with every single one of them except SF vs SEA... So I'm throwing this one in just so we have more than one disagreement. Maybe the Raiders won't be awake in time for kickoff.

JC: SAN FRANCISCO (-2.5) over Seattle

The standard "home team by three" would have had me agonizing over the pick for a good half-hour, but since the line has moved towards Seattle, it makes it easier for me to go the other way.

JP: Seattle (+2.5) over San Francisco

So, let me get this straight: The best team in football (Seattle), playing the best it has all year, goes to play a talented, but flawed team, and GETS POINTS?!?! I know that home field gives you a field goal, but I'll take the Seahawks.

NCAA BONUS PICKS (Neutral Fields Unless Noted):

We both went 3-2 with our bonus picks last week - We both hit Florida State and Auburn, we both missed Clemson. I nailed Michigan over Ohio State, and Joe was saved by a ridiculous backdoor cover when Purdue covered a 21-point spread against Indiana despite losing by 40 with five minutes left in the third quarter. I hate everything (Just like I planned it. -Joe).

Missouri (+2) over Auburn

JC: Auburn has been getting all the "do they belong in the BCS title game?" buzz, but Missouri by most measurements is probably the better team. This line seems heavily influenced by public perception, which is usually a good sign to go the other way.

JP: Agreed. I haven't gotten to watch a lot of Missouri, but when I have I've been very impressed with them on both sides of the ball. Honestly, I don't know how they've come this far. At least Auburn's turnaround you can blame on Gene Chizik being a moron last year and Gus righting the ship, but in Missouri they didn't make any major changes, just started playing good football. I really can't explain it, but I'll go with Gary Pinkel and the Tigers to make the SEC rue the day it invited them in.

JC: ARIZONA STATE (-3) over Stanford (at Tempe, AZ)

According to Simple Rating System, the two best teams in the country are Florida State and Alabama. Not particularly surprising. Ranked third? The Arizona State Sun Devils. By the same metric they have the top offense in the country. Stanford beat ASU early in the season, but that was in Palo Alto. Look for Arizona State to flip the script and clinch a Rose Bowl berth.

JP:  Stanford (+3) over ARIZONA STATE

Screw your simply rating system, stat nerd! What's so simple about it anyway? (Quickly Googles, realizes it is relatively simple) Well forget that, I go by the eyeball test Poindexter, and my eyeball tells me Stanford is gonna run roughshod over an underrated, but still not tough enough Sun Devils front.

Why do I use the eyeball test? Because if I used two eyeballs I would have peripheral vision, and would have to take facts I don't like into account. I mean, what person at a school like Stanford would bother with facts and rational thought when making a decision? None of that here, googly-eyed trees FTW!

Duke (+29.5) over Florida State

JC: Last week, Florida State barely covered a 27-point spread against Florida (they won by 30). Now they're a BIGGER favorite against a Duke team that's laughably better than the Gators? Something doesn't add up.

JP: Well, I get the spread increase. College football betting is as much about perception as anything, so playing a traditional power from the SEC (Even one that has fallen on the hard times Florida has) on the road is going to be considered a tougher game than playing the less talented Blue Devils at a neutral site.

Still, I agree with you. Duke has been able to score points, something Florida couldn't do with its fourth string quarterback, so I think they can keep this one within three scores early, then add a couple of garbage-minute touchdowns late.

Michigan State (+5.5) over Ohio State

JC: I went with the "Big Ten Sucks" theory last week and it paid off as Michigan easily covered against Ohio State (and nearly won outright). Now Michigan State is primed to throw their hat in the ring and send the BCS computers scrambling with an upset win leaving four one-loss teams (Michigan State, Ohio State, Alabama, and either Auburn or Missouri) with undefeated Florida State while talking heads complain about how even a four-team playoff wouldn't solve this quagmire. It's happening. In the last year of the BCS, I'd feel cheated if it didn't happen. It has to.

JP: I had some faith in Ohio State, since they were at least beating the living hell out of the bad teams they played. But Saturday's game against Michigan brought me back down to Earth. This may be the worst Big Ten in 30 years (And that's saying something, given the decade of mediocrity the conference just went through), and Ohio State has needed breaks to beat "pretty good" Wisconsin, 5-7 Northwestern and "down year" Michigan.

In fact, I've come to the conclusion that the Buckeyes rolled through the Big Ten without even having to face the only other "good" team in the conference. That will change Saturday when they face MSU, a team that is a fluke loss to Notre Dame away from being in the same spot as Ohio State.

The surface inside Lucas Oil Stadium favors OSU's offensive speed, but this has the feel of tightly contested slug fest either way. I actually think OSU slips through to get blown out in the BCS title game, but I'll take the points.

Jeremy's Record:
This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 7-8-1
Season: 87-97-10
Last Week's Disagreements: 1-3-1
Season's Disagreements: 25-27-3

Bonus Picks: 4-3

Joe's Record:
This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 9-6-1
Season: 89-95-10

Last Week's Disagreements: 3-1-1
Season's Disagreements: 27-25-3

Bonus Picks: 4-3

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