Thursday, September 11, 2014

NFL Week 2 Primer (With Picks): The Year of the Underdog?

Underdogs like Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins were inordinately successful in week one. We explain why that trend may continue throughout the season.
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Week 1 is in the books. The lesson is always "don't overreact to Week 1." If you're good at this whole picks thing, just stick to your guns from Week 1. That's what we did last year - after getting creamed in Week 1 (Jeremy was 5-10-1, Joe was 6-9-1), we just rolled it all back and turned it around Week 2 (Jeremy was 9-6-1, Joe was 10-5-1). Vegas overreacted, we didn't. And it worked for us.

Everyone comes into the year with a few preconceived notions, and a few of those get challenged in Week 1. If you thought the Rams would be able to survive without Sam Bradford, you got a rude awakening. If you thought the Panthers would regress horribly and Tampa Bay would pick up some of that slack in the NFC South, you might have left Week 1 pretty confused. If you thought the Patriots and Saints were potential 13-3 juggernauts (gulp), you might be scrambling to re-calibrate. But we preach caution. Don't completely change up your strategy based on 60 minutes of football. There's plenty more to come.

There is one trend that's worth keeping an eye on, which Bill Simmons actually covered in his 2014 Gambling Preview, but it came into light in Week 1 - last year, favorites covered an inordinate amount of spreads (52.2 percent, the third-highest number in the last 25 years, according to the Sporting News). But, in the years following inordinately successful favorites, the lines swing the other way, and favorites cover just 47 percent of spreads. The last two times favorites covered more than 52.2 percent (last year's figure), the following seasons saw swings of 13.2 percent (from 57.8 in 2005 to 44.6 in 2006) and 6.4 percent (from 52.9 in 1998 to 46.5 percent in 1999).

So what happened in Week 1? Underdogs went 11-5 against the spread. Hmmmmm....

Game(s) of The Week

Pittsburgh @ Baltimore (8:25 p.m. Thursday, CBS)

This is a huge divisional rivalry that will always have meaning, even when the teams stink, but they're both real contenders in the AFC North this year. And when you throw in the Ray Rice saga, it evolves into something else entirely. Either you'll boycott the game because you're so angry with the NFL, or wild horses won't be able to drag you away. There's no in-between.

Atlanta @ Cincinnati (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Probably the best inter-conference game of the week - both teams picked up key divisional wins last week and will try to keep it up Sunday. Either A.J. Green or Julio Jones will always be on the field, so this is one to keep an eye on in case something crazy happens.

Chicago @ San Francisco (8:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC)

Chicago didn't look as good as (some) people thought they would in Week 1, and San Francisco looked better than (some) people thought they would in Week 1. Of all the games on the slate, this is the most obvious "something's gotta give" game.

Philadelphia @ Indianapolis (8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN)

Comeback Andrew Luck on national TV? The Eagles' offense playing in a dome? Sure. Twist my arm. 

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

Pittsburgh (+2.5) over BALTIMORE

JC: I think Pittsburgh is better than Baltimore to begin with, and the Ravens just had to deal with this whole Ray Rice thing during a week that was already short. I could see them possibly rallying around each other to persevere, but not three days after.

JP: I begrudgingly picked against my Steelers in week one, but I like them getting the points on a short week with Roethlisberger and the young receivers playing well. You never know what will happen in this rivalry, but my best guess is Pittsburgh picks up the road win and Baltimore begins a downward spiral toward 7-9.

CAROLINA (-2.5) over Detroit

JC: Carolina looked better than most people expected them to do, at home, against a team that might suck. Detroit looked better than I expected them to do, at home, against a team that might suck. I believe in Carolina before I believe in Detroit. The Panther defense should be able to force Stafford into some ill-advised throws.

JP: This should be a really good game, and I love the potential match up of Lions tight ends Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron (whichever is on the field) against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechley. If any of them can do any damage, it will be a long day. If not, Carolina will get to continually double Megatron and help with Golden Tate, leading to another smothering performance from the Panthers defense. I'm leaning toward the latter, especially with Detroit showing zero ability to run the ball, but the Lions have the potential to be explosive and Stafford is playing out of his mind.

Gimme Carolina, but I don't really know what to expect from either team yet.

Miami (-1) over BUFFALO

JC: This is the classic dilemma - I don't want to over-react to Week 1 (when both Buffalo and Miami surprised me), but I also want to generally stick to the philosophies of "when in doubt, take the points," and "when in doubt, DEFINITELY take the home team with the points." This being Week 2, I'll go with the philosophy of "when in doubt, go with what you'd do if this were a Week 1 line." So that means Miami.

JP: I just think Miami looks better than Buffalo right now. The Dolphins' pass rush, led by Cam Wake, should be able to get after Manual, and Knowshon Moreno was a flat-out beast running the ball against New England. The Bills had an awesome debut against the Bears, but I'm more willing to bet the Bears are a fraud than New England, so I'll take the Dolphins by the transitive property.

Jacksonville (+5.5) over WASHINGTON

JC: When in doubt, take the points.

JP: Jacksonville started hot, but faded fast in Philly last week. Still, I'd expect the Jags to hang in longer against Washington. Plus, 5.5 points is just too much to give a team against a still ineffective RG3.

TENNESSEE (-3.5) over Dallas

JC: A week ago I said that there was a lot of money to be made betting against Dallas. Dallas looked expectedly terrible in Week 1. Tennessee beat up a team that was giving them four points in Week 1. If you want my advice, just keep betting against Dallas until you get a reason not to.

JP: Don't look now, but the Titans may be a decidedly average team. That may sound like an insult, but it's better than Tennessee has been in recent years, and it's the first step toward respectability with quarterback Jake Locker at the helm. Locker was quietly efficient against Kansas City last week, going 22/33 for 266 yards and two TDs with no turnovers. The next step for him will be staying healthy, which I don't know I'd bet on, but hey, he's off to a nice start.

And how about the Titans' skill players? While there is no true "star" in the group, but Tennessee spread the workload on the ground between four solid backs and Locker, posting 4 yards per carry, while eight different players caught a pass. Not saying they're going to be great, but the Titans, at home, should be able to beat Dallas. Will it be by more than a field goal? Unless Romo turns things around in a hurry, I would think so.

Arizona (-2.5) over NEW YORK GIANTS

JC: The Giants can't block. Like, at all. And having Victor Cruz in the slot is great in theory until you realize that the Giants have nobody on the outside to adequately deflect attention, so defenses can just pinch all of their coverages towards the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Arizona showed on Monday night that they aren't afraid to just blitz like crazy when they need to. I think the Giants will be hard-pressed to score in this game.

JP: Surely the Giants can't be as bad offensively as they were last week? Oh wait, Eli Manning is their quarterback and he's playing in a new system... Yeah, it could be a long year with him, Romo and RG3 in the NFC East.

New England (-3.5) over MINNESOTA

JC: Since 2001, the Patriots have lost 45 games during the regular season, not including Week 17. In those 45 games, they are 37-8. That's just over 82 percent of their games, which pro-rates to over 13 wins over a 16-game schedule (13.15). Their overall record during those seasons is 158-50, which pro-rates to just over 12 wins per 16 games (12.15). That's a full win, which is over a seven percent increase, and pretty significant. New England didn't look good last week, and Minnesota looked great. But don't overreact to Week 1.

JP: Yeah, I can't buy the Vikings yet, especially as long as Matt Cassell is their starting quarterback. The Patriots always seem to bounce back in a big way, and I would expect that to be the case this week.

New Orleans (-6.5) over CLEVELAND

JC: New Orleans' offense was pretty amazing. 472 yards of total offense - 5.0 yards per rush, 7.9 yards per pass attempt. The problem was two turnovers (one interception, one fumble), and their defense, which allowed 568 yards to a decidedly explosive Atlanta offense. Cleveland's offense is not explosive, and don't expect New Orleans to turn the ball over twice every week.

JP: Cleveland looked awful for the first 30 minutes in Pittsburgh, then somehow great for 22 minutes, then terrible again for the last eight... They're better than you think, but if they put together 10 bad minutes against the Saints, it could cost them 21 points.

Atlanta (+5) over CINCINNATI

[Ed. Note - We accidentally skipped this line in the original publishing, so we don't have explanations written out, but we both feel that both teams are roughly even. Atlanta impressed us in Week 1, so we'll take them getting more than a field goal here] 

Houston (-3) over OAKLAND

JC: Let's put it this way - Oakland is worse than Washington, and Houston safely covered a bigger spread than this against Washington last week. Meanwhile, Houston is better than the Jets, and Oakland barely covered a bigger spread than this last week. It's simple math, isn't it?

JP: I also think Houston's passing game, under the immortal Ryan Fitzpatrick, will get better as the year goes on and DeAndre Hopkins further establishes himself next to Andre Johnson. I doubt Oakland will have an answer for either of them this week.

GREEN BAY (-8.5) over New York Jets

JC: Aaron Rodgers wants blood.

JP: Sure.

Kansas City (+13) over DENVER

JC: Kansas City got blown out last week (by Tennessee, of all teams), and Denver won comfortably (although they didn't cover). I should take Denver, but two touchdowns is too much to give to another playoff team, even if all signs point to them crashing violently back down to Earth.

JP: Yeah, it's too early in the year to touch a line this big, and if a team like Kansas City, with talent, is going to bounce back, you would think it would be in week two, especially against a divisional rival. The Chiefs are feeling the heat and, while I still don't expect them to win straight up, I think they'll backdoor this thing to around 10 points.

Philadelphia (+3) over INDIANAPOLIS

JC: If you're going to give me points with Chip Kelly's offense indoors against a defense in shambles, I'm going to take it every time and you can't stop me.

JP: Agreed. Also, I think I may only take the Colts with points for the rest of the year. I have a sneaking suspicion that Andrew Luck is about to dethrone Cam Newton as the "King of the Backdoor Cover."

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

JC: St. Louis (+6) over TAMPA BAY

In the case of both teams looking terrible in Week 1, I'm just going to take the points. If St. Louis finds their pass rush, I'm not sure Tampa Bay is capable of scoring the six points it would take to cover this spread.

JP: TAMPA BAY (-6) over St. Louis 

I may go down with the ship on this one, but I think Tampa Bay will be pretty good once they sort out their quarterback situation, whether that means Josh McCown returning to last year's form or Mike Glennon coming in and just not screwing up. Also, Shaun Hill is also doubtful for the Rams, which means it could be either Austin Davis or newly signed Case Keenum taking snaps.

If Tampa can't beat a bad team, using it's third or fourth quarterback, at home... Then I will jump off this bandwagon before it flies off a cliff.

JC: SAN DIEGO (+6) over Seattle

I don't think San Diego is as bad as they looked on Monday night. They had a lot of fluky drops, especially on third down, which is where they were so successful last year. They had problems picking up big blitzes (six or seven rushers), but Seattle isn't a team that blitzes a lot - they sit back in their Cover 3 and let their front four put pressure on the quarterback. I think Rivers stays upright long enough to keep it relatively close.

JP: Seattle (-6) over SAN DIEGO 

LEGION OF BOOM BABY! I know they're on the road, but this is a team that made Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense look average. Now they get the inconsistent Chargers with 10 days to prepare (after San Diego played a late Monday Night game). I smell a bloodbath.

JC: Chicago (+7) over SAN FRANCISCO

Don't overreact. I think Chicago is better than they looked, and I think San Francisco is worse than they looked. Also, take the points.

JP: SAN FRANCISCO (-7) over Chicago

Dammit, don't tell me how to react! The 49ers are still one of the four best teams in football, and they'll be opening up a shiny new stadium that allows fans to check food line times from their smart phones! You can't bet against that!

Oh, and if Cutler coughs it up multiple times against Buffalo, the 49er defense that continually picked off Tony Romo has to be licking its chops.

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 8-8
Season: 8-8
Last Week's Disagreements: 3-2
Season's Disagreements: 3-2

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 7-9
Season: 7-9
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-3
Season's Disagreements: 2-3

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