Thursday, September 25, 2014

NFL Week 4 Primer (With Picks): Vegas Course-Correcting?

Steve Smith will likely go down as the greatest player in Carolina Panthers history, and he welcomes his old team to Baltimore this Sunday.

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

Since Week 1, people have been harping about this being The Year of The Underdog. We mentioned a few stats in our Week 2 Primer after underdogs went a staggering 11-5 in Week 1. They went 9-7 in Week 2, and, as you'll see below in our Underdog Update (which we'll keep tossing into the primer until it seems to even out - if it ever does), finished at .500 last week. We aren't quite sure that downward trend is enough to suggest that Vegas is already accounting for it (after all, favorites still haven't beaten underdogs in any full week, and dogs are still eight games over .500 for the year), but the lines this week may give us a clue.

In Week 1, nine of the sixteen games had lines higher than four points. In Week 2, there were eight. In Week 3, there were eight. When there are that many lines higher than a field goal, it would stand to reason that underdogs, on average, have the advantage (that's just common sense - the higher the spread, the more likely it is the underdog will cover). So what do the Week 4 lines look like?

Only four teams are favored to win by more than four points. That leaves nine games that can be covered with a field goal and an extra point. It's too early to say that this is a conscious decision by bookmakers to shrink the lines (it's entirely possible that this slate of games is uniquely even and we'll be back to big lines next week), but with this many small(er) lines, it's difficult to stick with the "when in doubt, take the points" philosophy, if for no other reason than you aren't getting as many points as you normally do. You might be better off just picking winners, regardless of the spread, and letting the chips fall where they may.

Underdog Update:
Last Week: 8-8
Season: 28-20
Home Dogs Last Week: 1-3
Home Dogs; Season: 5-6

Game(s) of The Week:

Green Bay @ Chicago (1:00 p.m. Sunday, FOX)

This game always seems to take on more resonance than the average divisional tilt - it's probably the premier rivalry in the league (it's the longest-running one at least - this will be the 189th meeting between the two clubs). It will take on a bit of added significance this year, as Green Bay will want to avoid starting the year 1-3, with two of those losses coming within the division. There's no need to bore you with the numbers (mostly because we were too lazy to look them up), but let's just say that the historical record of teams starting 1-3 with an 0-2 division record isn't exactly stellar. 

Carolina @ Baltimore (1:00 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

The Steve Smith Bowl!

Also, the slate is pretty brutal. The only other early game with two winning teams is the sure-to-be-thrilling Buffalo at Houston.

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

Seriously, the slate is terrible. At least this one will have a lot of points. 

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

WASHINGTON (-3.5) over New York Giants

JC: I'm rolling with home teams on Thursday night until I see reason not to. Through three weeks, home teams are 3-0 against the spread and have outscored opponents by 82 points (all three games were decided by at least 20). Washington should be able to tear up the Giants' secondary.

JP: All that, plus I actually think Washington's defense has the horses to get after Manning.The Giants haven't been able to block anyone, and I would expect this performance to be more like the game against Jacksonville two weeks ago, than the loss to Philadelphia last week for Orakpo, Kerrigan and Co.

INDIANAPOLIS (-7.5) over Tennessee

JC: Indy beat Jacksonville, in Jacksonville, by 27. And I don't think Tennessee is *that* much better than Jacksonville.

JP: Luck and the Colts are rolling offensively, and it's hard to see any team with Jake Locker taking snaps keeping up with them.

Carolina (+3.5) over BALTIMORE

JC: I'm starting to turn around on Baltimore, but the half-point scares me. The transitive property would say Baltimore is roughly five touchdowns better than Carolina (Baltimore beat Pittsburgh by 20, Pittsburgh beat Carolina by 18), but I think Carolina surrendering anywhere close to 264 rushing yards again (that's what Pittsburgh put on them last week) is far-fetched. Give me the points.

JP: I actually won betting on Baltimore last week, but the Ravens' performance against the Browns scared me. They don't do any one thing particularly well, and the loss of tight end Dennis Pitta, one of Joe Flacco's favorite targets, really hurts. Carolina was embarrassed up front on both sides of the ball, and should come out looking to prove itself against old buddy Steve Smith.

Detroit (-2) over NEW YORK JETS

JC: I think the two things we've established pretty well through three weeks is that (a) the Jets can stop the run as well as any team in football, and (b) they can't cover anyone. And that's just fine, because Detroit doesn't really want to run the ball anyway, and they have Calvin Johnson.

JP: Yeah, and you can add in that the Detroit defense is tied with New York for best in the league at 2.8 yards per carry allowed. So, when neither team will be able to run, are you taking Geno Smith and Eric Decker or Matthew Stafford and Megatron?

PITTSBURGH (-7.5) over Tampa Bay

JC: This one is pretty simple - I pick against Tampa Bay until I see a reason not to.

JP: There is plenty of reason to think Tampa Bay will bounce back. Teams coming off Thursday Night losses, even lopsided ones, often improve after 10 days of rest, and the Bucs will start Mike Glennon at quarterback after pulling the plug on the Josh McCown experiment.

Also, Tampa Bay might get All-World defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and star running back Doug Johnson back this week. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, loses three starters from last week's starting defense as ILB Ryan Shazier, OLB Jarvis Jones and CB Ike Taylor will all miss extensive time for injuries suffered against the Panthers Sunday. Still, after watching Tampa endure one of the worst prime time losses ever, and Pittsburgh lay the wood to Carolina, it's hard not to like the Steelers here.

SAN DIEGO (-13.5) over Jacksonville

JC: See above, but replace "Tampa Bay" with "Jacksonville."

JP: Ditto.

Philadelphia (+5) over SAN FRANCISCO

JC: So, there's two teams that can't seem to stop anybody. These games usually come down to who has the ball last, but when you're picking against the spread, it just comes down to who is getting the points.

JP: San Francisco's defense isn't what it used to be, and the once-feared Niners have fallen apart in the second half the last two weeks. I actually think they'll bounce back and play well, but I'm still not comfortable giving five points to Chip Kelly and that offense.

Atlanta (-3) over MINNESOTA

JC: Minnesota has mustered a total of sixteen points in their last two games. Atlanta scored 56 their last time out. What am I missing here?

JP: Put this in the same category as last week's Jets (-3) vs Chicago, because I have no idea where this line came from. Looks like a "lock of the week" to me.

New Orleans (-3) over DALLAS

JC: New Orleans barely covered their 10.5-point spread last week against Minnesota, which is never a great feeling. Dallas is a surprising 2-1, but their wins came over Tennessee (who sucks) and St. Louis (who might suck, and Dallas should count themselves supremely lucky that they won the game in the first place). New Orleans is the first team they've played that should really be able to chew up their secondary.

JP: Brees and the offense haven't really gotten going, but we saw some signs of life from the Rob Ryan-led defense last week. Though, admittedly, that was against the Vikings. Still, I think Brees and the passing game break out against a Cowboys secondary that's been pretty bad and doesn't seem to know who it should start at corner.

New England (-3.5) over KANSAS CITY

JC: The Patriots still haven't played a good game start-to-finish yet. If they can't pull if off against a potentially Jamaal Charles-less Alex Smith, I might be off the bandwagon.

JP: Now this is a line I feel comfortable taking the Pats at. Last week's 14.5 points was ridiculous for a team that hasn't been able to move the ball consistently, and a direct result of their turnover-produced blowout of Minnesota. The Patriots are still a very good team, but like the Saints, they haven't realized their juggernaut potential quite yet. Playing against a bad team, but one with a great home field advantage in prime time, just over a field goal sounds about right.

Here Are the Picks We Don't (Home Team Still in CAPS)

JC: Miami (-4) over Oakland (Neutral Site - London)

Oakland is still terrible. Miami has looked like garbage the last two weeks, but Oakland should be getting close to a touchdown against anyone unless they happen to be playing Jacksonville at home.

JP: Oakland (+4) over Miami (Neutral Site - London)

I'm going to flip this back the other way and say that Miami shouldn't be giving points away to anybody after their disastrous performances the last two weeks. The Dolphins are about a quarter away from the second player mutiny in as many years, and the Raiders showed enough defensive strength to hang with the Pats in New England. Here's hoping they can do the same in a game that will serve as the league's worst possible export.

JC: Green Bay (-1.5) over CHICAGO

Brandon Marshall is still gimpy, and would have been held out of practice Wednesday had the Bears practiced. He was a non-factor Monday night against the Jets, catching just one of the six balls thrown to him. All that being said, this is more a bet against Green Bay starting the year 1-3. 

JP: CHICAGO (+1.5) over Green Bay 

The Bears aren't as good as Detroit defensively, but the Lions were able to hold Green Bay to seven points, tackle running back Eddie Lacy in the end zone for a safety, and hold the high-powered Packer attack off the board for over three quarters. Aaron Rodgers isn't hitting anything down the field  (only one completion beyond 15 yards, and none that traveled farther than 15 yards in the air), and the Pack are misusing Lacy and failing to run the ball at every turn.

Again, Detroit's defense, particularly up front, is better than Chicago's, but the Bears are inching toward being a Top-10 defense again, and Cutler is playing really, really well right now. Plus, I'm getting a point at home, and I like that.

JC: Buffalo (+3) over HOUSTON

Both teams started a promising 2-0 before looking very, very bad in Week 3. The reasons Houston lost (Arian Foster didn't play, Ryan Fitzpatrick is their quarterback) aren't expected to change by Sunday, while the reasons Buffalo lost (they were playing a very good San Diego team) will. (Note: this pick may change if Arian Foster is cleared to play - if so, I'll post an updated pick with a current line to Twitter on Sunday morning)

JP: HOUSTON (-3) over Buffalo

I don't really know what to make of this game, but I do know that before last week I thought Houston was significantly better than Buffalo, and the Texans still put up over 410 yards of total offense last week at the Giants. I have a feeling they'll cut down on their three turnover performance from a week ago, and I think Buffalo has already used up its chance to sneak up on somebody on the road.

Jeremy's Record:
Last Week: 9-7
Season: 26-22
Last Week's Disagreements: 2-3
Season's Disagreements: 8-5

Joe's Record:
Last Week: 10-6
Season: 23-25
Last Week's Disagreements: 3-2
Season's Disagreements: 5-8

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