Week 4 2016 NFL Predictions: Is it Parity or Bad Football?

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With the close of this weekend, we will have reached the end of the first quarter of the 2016 National Football League schedule. The number of well-known pros that have been injured in just the first few weeks of the year, including Adrian Peterson, Robert Griffin III, J. J. Watt and Jamaal Charles (who is supposed to make his season debut this week), has been unprecedented, but it is also (along with the preseason injuries and suspensions) making many ask an important question – is it parity between the teams in the NFL or is it just bad football?

Back when he was the commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle didn’t like the fact that a handful of teams – like the Miami Dolphins, the Dallas Cowboys or the Pittsburgh Steelers – dominated the pro football landscape. His thought was to see all teams finish as closely together as possible – hell, Rozelle thought that, in a perfect season, all the teams would finish 8-8 – something that Rozelle called “competitive balance” or parity. Over the years, there’s been situations where it has come close to that – recall the 2011 Seattle Seahawks, who won the NFC West with a 7-9 record. There’s also some occasions, though, when it is just bad football and the 2016 season may be one of those deals.

A look at the standings is an opening salvo for this discussion. At this time, only five teams – the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos and two surprises, the Teddy Bridgewater-less Minnesota Vikings and the Carson Wentz rookie-led Philadelphia Eagles – are undefeated. On the other side of the spectrum, there are four teams – the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns – that haven’t won a game as of yet. Of particular interest, however, are the 11 teams that have only one win after three games this year (and a twelfth team, the Miami Dolphins, went to 1-3 with a loss on Thursday night). Of course, this does leave the 11 teams that are 2-1, but none of them have been particularly powerful in reaching that record.

While you mull those numbers, take a look at the NFC West, where the Los Angeles Rams and the Seahawks are tied atop the division with a 2-1 record, despite the fact that neither team is averaging more than 20 points a game (Rams are averaging 15.3 points, Seahawks 17.3) or the fact that the Seahawks pounded the Rams to start the season by the score of 28-0 and have done little since. This type of situation can also be seen in the AFC South (the Houston Texans atop the division despite averaging 14 points per game) and in the AFC North (the Ravens are averaging 19 points per game).

In an era when the offenses have carte blanche to do whatever they please with opposing defenses, quarterbacks are flinging the ball like it’s an Arena Football League game and the running backs have become an afterthought in the offense (the leading rusher in the league is the Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount, who is averaging just under 100 yards a game; even the Atlanta FalconsDevonta Freeman, currently the fifth ranked running back in the NFL, is averaging less than 90 per contest (88.3), there should be some signs of dominance by teams (and maybe we’re seeing that with the Patriots). Instead, right now perhaps we’re watching the fruition of Rozelle’s “any given Sunday” dream, where parity is the rule and boring football becomes the norm.

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After this week, maybe some of these trends will be changed. But it will be a tough weekend for the prognosticators to find good value or good bets to take.

(Home team in CAPS, pick in bold.)

Seattle Seahawks vs. NEW YORK JETS (+2)

This is a game that could be greatly affected by two things. One, the weather conditions expected at game time – rain and wind on the Meadowlands plains – are going to favor the running game, admittedly a rarity for the 2016 NFL. In that parameter, the Jets have the player to keep an eye on. RB Matt Forte, no longer wanted by the Bears (and you know they wish they had kept him now), is the sixth ranked back in the NFL and, along with his pass catching abilities out of the backfield, provide headaches to an aggressive defense such as the ‘Hawks. Two, Seattle comes east for a 1PM game, traditionally believed (and statistically true) to be a detriment to the West Coast team.

The Seahawks aren’t aided by a gimpy QB Russell Wilson being under center, but that is offset by Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is having confidence issues and isn’t playing well. This could be like the Seahawks’ season opener – when they won 12-10 over Miami – at which point it’s a push. I can see, however, the Jets perhaps taking this one outright.

Carolina Panthers vs. ATLANTA FALCONS (+3)

This is a juxtaposition game, one where you would expect the two teams to be switched. The defending NFC champion Panthers have been in some doldrums to start the season, surprisingly getting manhandled at home by the Vikings last week. Teams seem to be focusing much of their attention on league MVP QB Cam Newton in particular, forcing him to make decisions that take the ball out of his hands and force someone else to beat them. The Falcons are flying high right now, scoring almost 35 points per game and sitting atop the division.

Most telling in this game will be whether the Panthers defense can come to life on the road. They’ve been a bit silent early in the season and, with the ‘Birds making the scoreboard look like a pinball machine, they are going to have to staunch QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones and Freeman early and often. They’ll also have to hope that Newton will figure out what’s going on or they’ll be going two games back of Atlanta way too early in the season.

Tennessee Titans vs. HOUSTON TEXANS (-4); UNDER 40

You might wonder why I’m taking the Texans, who haven’t exactly stunned anyone to this point in the season and especially after losing their defensive superstar Watt for the season. While I do like QB Marcus Mariota and RB DeMarco Murray for the Titans, they still don’t have enough to overcome a Texans defense that will be looking to show that they are more than Watt. Don’t expect this to be an offensive juggernaut, though. Both teams are averaging 14 points per game, so a 17-10 win out of the Texans wouldn’t be abnormal.

New York Giants (+4.5) vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS

The Vikings should be one of those teams that is beginning to change minds, especially after losing so many key players so early in the season. They’ve been able to overcome those issues, though, even to the point of beating the defending NFC champions last week on their home turf.

Win this week and I’ll believe you.

The Giants have quietly put together a 2-1 record, QB Eli Manning is doing a quietly excellent job and the triumvirate of WRs Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and the rejuvenated Victor Cruz are quietly rambling all over the field making plays. The Giants ARE on the road this weekend so I don’t expect an outright win, but I do expect them to keep this game closer than the spread is saying.

Last Week:  1-4
2016 Season Overall: 8-9-1

Another week that was abysmal and saved only by the Eagles thrashing of the Steelers…perhaps I should just bet them for the rest of the year? A two-week losing streak is bad enough. It is time to turn it around and get back on the positive side of the ledger.

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Week 3 2016 NFL Predictions: So Which Is It? Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

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We are only two weeks into the 2016 National Football League schedule and there’s already a few things that we can set in stone. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick could probably roll out Marcia Brady at quarterback and the team would win. We’ve seen big name pros fall to season-ending injuries (or essentially season-ending injuries, in the case of Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson), but what has been intriguing is in how a team can look so good one week and, literally seven days later, look like utter dog crap. This is what I like to call the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde Effect.

In the literary classic written by Robert Louis Stevenson, a mild mannered doctor creates a drug that, upon ingestion, allows him to indulge in his particular vices without losing his station in life. While in that transformed state, however, he is a sociopath, interested in only his own pleasures and completely uncaring as to the desires or needs of others. Eventually, the transformations begin to occur without the assistance of the drug and he needs to create an antidote to prevent it from happening. It is the place where we get the term “Jekyll and Hyde,” basically a demonstration of the two extremes that can occur in one person.

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So far this season, we’ve seen these “Jekyll and Hyde” transformations go off on several occasions. Perhaps the biggest of these conversions is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In their first game of the season, Bucs QB Jameis Winston (who has probably taken the award for “Jekyll and Hyde” player – we’ll get to this in a minute) blasted the Atlanta Falcons defense for four touchdown passes and a 31-24 victory over their division rival. Seven days later in taking on an admittedly energized Arizona Cardinals team (one that had been beaten by the Tom Brady-less Patriots in their season opener), Winston basically couldn’t identify his own team’s uniforms, tossing four interceptions and losing a fumble on the way to a 40-7 thrashing by the Redbirds.

The same holds true for some other teams in the NFL this season, but perhaps not to the same lengths. The Green Bay Packers had their way against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1, but couldn’t muster any offense in another road game against the Vikings last week. The Los Angeles Rams have looked very Hyde-ish in two games, but they are 1-1 after holding the Seattle Seahawks (another Jekyll/Hyde candidate) to only three points last week.

Why does the “Jekyll and Hyde” Effect matter? Because it makes it very difficult to decide on whether to wager on a team or not. Which team are you going to get when you’re looking at the lines? Are you going to get the team that does the right things and wins with ease, or are you going to get the team that basically craps itself on the field and, by the midpoint of the third quarter, everyone is looking at padding their stats instead of winning the game? It usually takes about four weeks to be able to get a true feel for some of the teams but, with the “Jekyll and Hyde” teams, you’re never quite sure even after this point.

We’re going to try to avoid those “Jekyll and Hyde” teams this week, especially after the debacle that was Week 2 (more on that later). Remember, these are the insider’s best…what? Oh, OK…these picks are for entertainment purposes only!

(Home team in CAPS, pick in bold)

Minnesota Vikings vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (-7); OVER 41.5

Normally I wouldn’t even look at a touchdown favorite in the NFL, let alone pick them to win the game. This is a rare circumstance, however. The Vikings have basically had the season pulled out from under them, first with the season-ending injury to QB Teddy Bridgewater and then the Week 2 “virtually all of the season” ending knee injury to Peterson. While Sam Bradford came in for Week 2 and did an adequate job, that was with the threat of a Peterson-led running game; going with a Matt Asiata/Jerick McKinnon poo-poo platter, Bradford won’t be having the same success, especially against the vaunted Panther defense.

Carolina arguably should be 2-0 at this point, with a Graham Gano missed field goal being the difference in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos and the thrashing of the hapless San Francisco 49ers at home in Week 2. A second home game in a row for QB Cam Newton and Company is almost cruel for the Vikings to have to face. Look for a lot of scoring out of the Panthers, not so much with the Vikes.

Los Angeles Rams vs. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (-5)

Remember how I said I was trying to avoid “Jekyll and Hyde?” I couldn’t help myself.

For the first time this season, the Buccaneers return to their home at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa (three other teams – the Miami Dolphins, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Packers – also are making their home debuts this weekend) and that is a remedy for many ills. It should help out Winston the most, who is coming off a horrendous start against the Cardinals but has reportedly put in a solid week of work towards the home opener. Losing RB Doug Martin might be a slight setback, but look for Winston to utilize his corps of wide receivers even more.

The Rams are a perplexing team in their own right. Beating the Seahawks last week would have been impressive in the past, but only scoring nine points on three field goals doesn’t exactly tell me you have an offensive juggernaut. Then there’s that whole “West Coast team going east” bugaboo…give up the points and take the Bucs and we’ll see if we get Dr. Jekyll this time around.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (+3)

I’ve seen Eagles QB Carson Wentz play two games now and am astounded at the poise presented by the rookie. Instead of just managing the game, the first-year man is making moves that even veterans don’t seem to make: audibles at the line of scrimmage, protection changes, route adjustments, Wentz is doing it all and making it look pretty easy. They’ve had it pretty easy in their first two games (against the Cleveland Browns at home and the Chicago Bears on the road last Monday night), so this will be a big test for the rook.

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Don’t take this pick as thinking that QB Ben Roethlisberger are going to lose this game. He’s still got WR Antonio Brown and RB DeAngelo Williams, two powerful offensive components that will be very active in this game. I just think that the Eagles will keep this closer than the three-point spread and, if they are still hanging around at the end of the game, they might be able to steal one against the men from Steel City.

New York Jets (+3) vs. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

The Jets have been another intriguing team at the start of the season. RB Matt Forte has solidified a running assault for the former Titans of New York and WR Brandon Marshall has been a reliable target for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (still finding his groove after extended contract negotiations in the offseason). The Jets racked up 37 points against the Buffalo Bills and looked to have things moving in the right direction.

Kansas City has once again been beset with injuries. RB Jamaal Charles has yet to play this season (no status for Sunday’s tilt yet) and one of QB Alex Smith’s big protectors, OL Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, is out for the game. Like the Steelers/Eagles game, I’m not going to say that the Chiefs aren’t going to win this game, but I can definitely see the Jets keeping it closer than three points.

Last Week:  1-4 2016 Season Overall:  7-5-1

Week 2 was a complete embarrassment. Other than seeing the Eagles beating the spread against the Bears (they won outright), there wasn’t any other pick that came home. Let’s just hope that was a one-week anomaly and that the chakras have cleaned themselves!

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Week 2 2016 NFL Predictions: Don’t Fall for the Overreactions

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The first week of the National Football League season is in the books and what do we know? That’s the question that all the sports channels, whether they are on television, internet or radio, are trying to tell you. The problematic thing is that NO ONE knows anything about the NFL season at this point; to say that you KNOW anything after one week of playing either means you’ve got great insight into one team and/or you are out there breaking the legs of the players so that their season is over!

Consider this tidbit of information. Last week, the Jimmy Garoppolo-led New England Patriots went into the desert in Arizona and everyone thought they were going to be thrashed, especially after it was learned that TE Rob Gronkowski was also going to miss the game. The line was +6 and the Pats went out and blew it away, winning outright over the Cardinals.

Fast forward to this week. One of the Patriots’ arch rivals, the Miami Dolphins, are coming to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday. The Dolphins have just come off a tough road trip to Seattle, where they put their own hurt on the Legion of Boom before falling at the end 12-10. Do you think that the ‘Fins get any love for that effort? No, they are currently a -6.5 dog to the Pats.

This is what I mean when I say you shouldn’t fall for the overreactions. It is typical that it will happen in the early part of the season (personally have always believed that they shouldn’t do a college football ranking until at least the third week of the season – then you actually know who is a contender or a pretender…are you listening Florida State?) because…well, that’s what the talking heads are paid to do…talk. Look at the Bills on Thursday night, who started off as a -3 favorite against the Jets. By the time the game started, the line had swung over to the Jets being the favorite and giving a point.

Injuries can also explain some of the swings, but it shouldn’t be that much especially if there is a quality backup. Cleveland Browns QB Robert Griffin III went down in Week 1 with a shoulder injury that has put him on the IR. Enter Josh McCown, who has been a serviceable backup/starter with NINE NFL franchises, tossed 73 TDs in his career and generally will have earned his NFL pension by the time he hangs it up. To put it bluntly, McCown isn’t a dewy-eyed rookie and there’s no reason that their opponent this week, the Baltimore Ravens, should have moved from a -4 favorite to a -6 favorite, especially with the game being played in Cleveland.

The best thing to remember is don’t fall for the overreactions. Go through your usual research and impartially analyze the information at hand. That will keep you from making ill-advised bets on the whims of the overreactions.

(Home team in CAPS, pick in bold)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+7) vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS

The Cardinals did not look like the same team that made the Final Four in the NFL last year. Perhaps it is another year of age on QB Carson Palmer and WR Larry Fitzgerald, perhaps it was a defense that wasn’t ready for the Patriots. They certainly are going to have to improve on all aspects of the game (their second straight at home) if they are going to have an impact on the Bucs.

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Tampa Bay is much like the Cardinals except younger. QB Jameis Winston, RB Doug Martin and WR Mike Evans are coming together nicely and the defense, long the stalwart of the team, now doesn’t feel like it has to win every game. If the Buccaneers O-line can do the same job it did in Week 1, it could be another long afternoon for the Redbirds.

Atlanta Falcons vs. OAKLAND RAIDERS (-4.5)

Again, we have a team that didn’t look very good playing at home last week (ironically against the Buccaneers) that is going to the West Coast. The Falcons are solid with QB Matt Ryan and RB Devonta Freeman, it is the defense that needs the work. Giving up four touchdown passes to Winston – who isn’t known as the second coming of Dan Fouts – is something that should have embarrassed the Dirty Birds.

It’s not going to get any easier for the Falcon defensive backs as they get another young stud of a quarterback in Derek Carr. With an arsenal that includes WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and RB Latavius Murray, Carr can basically pick apart nearly any defense. The Raider D is once again a formidable force, which should give the not-very-mobile Ryan some issues. The bookies aren’t giving any respect to the Silver and Black and they may regret it.

Green Bay Packers (-2) vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS; OVER 43.5

The Packers impress me this year that they will do just enough to get the job done and little more. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, they didn’t cover the spread but did pull out a four-point win. This is a very similar game in that the Pack doesn’t have to wow anyone, they just have to go in and pull out the victory. With veteran QB Aaron Rodgers, that shouldn’t be a problem with the array of talent behind him.

The Vikings…ah, what could have been. Although they went south last week and beat the Tennessee Titans, the team didn’t look like the powerhouse it would have been with QB Teddy Bridgewater (out for the season – knee injury) under center. The Vikings might be a surprise and get into the playoffs with a wild card, but they’re not going to beat the Pack in this game.

Philadelphia Eagles (+3) vs. CHICAGO BEARS

The Eagles were a bit of a surprise in Week 1 with their rookie QB Carson Wentz, but it was a win over the Browns (predicted to win four games this year). The test will come when they go on the road, many said…but they didn’t expect the Bears to be this dismal, never seriously in the game against the Houston Texans on the road last week. These aren’t the old “Monsters of the Midway” and the offense is QB Jay Cutler and whomever they can find to put around him. The Eagles should come out of this game with a 2-0 record, but I’ll settle for covering the three-point spread.

Last Week:  3-1-1
2016 Season Overall:  6-1-1

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The Titans failing to cover the spread against the Vikings (Tennessee +2.5, lost 25-16) and the push by the New York Giants over the Dallas Cowboys (Giants -1, won 20-19) were the only blemishes on what was otherwise a pretty good week (and good for you if you found the Giants in a “pick ‘em” as some odds makers had it). If you can go 3 for 5 (with one push) over the course of a season, you’re going to do pretty well. Let’s see if this week holds up to the scrutiny.

Super Bowl 50, Part Two: So Who Wins the Big Game? Depends On What the Bet Is…

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After two weeks of hype, waiting, practice and some drama – people tried to turn Panthers QB Cam Newton’s “black quarterback” comments into a controversy, without much success, and the Broncos practice team player S Ryan Murphy was sent back to Denver (and will probably be cut from the team at first opportunity) after being questioned in a prostitution sting – we’ve actually come to the point where the teams will actually play the game. The Carolina Panthers, the champions of the NFC, will square off against the Denver Broncos, the victors of the AFC, to determine who will receive the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the 50th time in the National Football League’s history. The two teams that have made it this far have definitely shown they are worthy contenders for the crown.

For the Carolina Panthers, if you would have told them in Training Camp they would be playing in the Super Bowl, they would have thanked you. Coming off a 7-8-1 season – although the champions of the NFC South – the Panthers weren’t exactly scaring anyone. The team had let RB DeAngelo Williams go to the Pittsburgh Steelers, preferring to stick with Jonathan Stewart as the full-time running back, and during Training Camp lost their electrifying WR Kelvin Benjamin to a devastating knee injury. While Newton was a known commodity, it was expected that the Panthers would have some difficulties doing much of anything with a revamped offensive line, a no-name wide receiving corps and a suspect defensive unit.

For the Denver Broncos, it almost seemed as if this was their final shot. After being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos came back and won the AFC West again with a 12-4 record. After taking their first round bye, however, they were upset in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last year by QB Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. This led to the firing of John Fox, the hiring of new head coach Gary Kubiak and the “now or never” approach as QB Peyton Manning entered his third year at the helm of the Broncos and they came into this season with questions lingering about his health.

As they always say, that’s why they play the game. Carolina rocketed off on a 14-game winning streak, only losing to the Atlanta Falcons on the road late in the season, before righting the ship and beating their last three opponents (last regular season game against lowly Tampa Bay and two postseason games against Seattle and Arizona) by a combined 118-49 score. Denver, despite losing Manning for more than a quarter of the year, rode the #1 defense in the NFL to a punishing victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

In taking a look at Super Bowl 50, we’re going to break down the offense, the defense, the special teams and the coaching. Then we’ll reveal our all-important pick…but be assured, there’s many ways to win on Super Bowl Sunday.

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks – When it comes to the men running the teams, it is difficult to say who has the edge. Athleticism definitely would go to Newton, but experience would by far go to Manning. Both fit perfectly into their own systems, have faced adversity during the season and pulled their team through the problems. If you’re really going to get nit-picky, Manning’s been to this dance four times now (he’s 1-2 in his previous trips), while Newton is making his first appearance. By the slimmest of margins, Manning will take the edge in this category. EDGE:  BRONCOS

Running Backs – This category is a no-brainer. When Manning is on the field, the running game is somewhat of a second thought, used more as a change-up from the passing game than the “run the ball to set up the pass” style of the Panthers. The Panthers will pound a defense mercilessly, even when it doesn’t look like it is doing anything. The Panthers philosophy is that, eventually, the running game will weaken a defense after enough time that Stewart will break out on a run. Stewart, who finished the season 11 yards short of 1000 yards (and missed the final two regular season games) has been outstanding during the playoffs; expect him to at the minimum keep the Broncos defense honest by adding the potential for a running attack alongside Newton’s running and passing abilities. EDGE:  PANTHERS

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends – This one is going to be a push. Manning has WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders as his options but, even though he had a decent season, Thomas led the team in dropped passes, letting a ball hit the turf on roughly 5% of his targets. Newton’s favorite target, TE Greg Olsen, can be shut down if a team is willing to risk putting a defensive back on him. The Broncos may try this, but they have to be concerned that WR Ted Ginn, Jr. (who led the Panthers with 10 TD receptions) or Devin Funchess (5 TD receptions) doesn’t burn them somehow. As I said, this is…EDGE:  PUSH

Offensive Line – The Denver offensive line has been held together with baling wire and bubble gum for much of the year. The exact opposite holds true for Carolina, which has been able to have a relatively steady lineup through the entire year. This is going to benefit the Panthers greatly as the Broncos, with the #1 defense in the NFL, are a tenacious and aggressive unit who will look to pressure Newton into mistakes. Whichever side controls the game will probably dictate which way the Super Bowl goes but, for the purposes that we have spelled out here, I’ve got to give…EDGE:  PANTHERS

DEFENSE

Defensive Line/Linebackers – Both teams have front sevens that are the best in the game today. The Broncos are technically ranked as the #1 defense in the NFL, but the Panthers gave up fewer points per game than their counterparts from the Rocky Mountains. Both teams are led by a tandem of outstanding linebackers – Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware for the Broncos, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (who is expected to see a great deal of action despite having a broken arm sustained in the NFC Championship Game) for the Panthers – but it is the Broncos who have the better pass rush, sacking the opposing quarterback 59 times during the season versus the Panthers’ 44.

Defensive Backs – Counteracting the front seven is the fact that the Panthers led the league in takeaways (+20) versus the Broncos (-4). The Panthers intercepted the ball 24 times during the season versus the Broncos’ 14, with Panthers DB Josh Norman having a breakout rookie season in returning two of his four picks for touchdowns and, with teams trying to avoid him, Kurt Coleman ending the year among the league leaders in interceptions with seven. The best Bronco in that category was DB Aqib Talib, who could only pull in three on the season (although he did return two for touchdowns).

The effectiveness of Davis could very well be the linchpin of which defense will have the better success. Without Davis, the Broncos will be able to focus more on occupying Kuechly and be able to have their offense dictate more of the game. If Davis is able to play effectively, it could be a long day for Manning. Both teams, at their current strength this moment, have to be rated…EDGE:  PUSH

SPECIAL TEAMS

This is a category that the Panthers have firm control over. Ginn is the teams punt returner and he is a threat to break a game wide open at any moment with the ball in his hands. Their kick returning duties have been in the hands of Fozzy Whittaker, who averages nearly 24 yards per return. The Broncos counter with Sanders, who has more fair catches than returns this season on punts, and Omar Bolden, who has only 15 kickoff returns this season.

The kicking games rate about even, although the distance is going to be tough to judge. Denver’s kickers, P Britton Colquitt and K Brandon McManus, have the advantage of kicking in the rarefied air of the Rocky Mountains, thus their distance statistics might not be applicable kicking at sea level in California. Carolina P Brad Nortman and K Graham Gano did outstanding jobs in 2015, with Gano especially sound at distance through the season.

The pick in this aspect of the contest will have to go to the boys from the NFC. With both Ginn and Whittaker, they possess the threats that can break the game open…the Broncos, not so much. EDGE:  PANTHERS

COACHING

There is no way to choose one coaching squad over the other in this contest. Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak has been to the Super Bowl as a player (he backed up John Elway in Super Bowls XXI, XXII and XXIV, all losses) and as an assistant coach (with the winning San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX and with the winning Broncos in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII), but this is his first trip as the man in charge. The same can be said for Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who was a part of arguably one of the greatest Super Bowl teams in history (the Super Bowl XX champion Chicago Bears) as a player, but this is his first trip as a head coach. Thus, this is definitely EDGE:  PUSH

SUPER BOWL 50

As was stated at the start, it depends what you’re betting on as to which way to take the winner in this situation.

For some people, they want to just bet the straight game itself. I pick one team, you take the other and may the best team win. If that is the case, then I would have to say that you would have to pick the Panthers in this game. Both defenses are going to cause fits for Newton and Manning but, by the second quarter, I can see both of them beginning to figure out some things that will work. Manning might be able to get some of the passing game operational – if his patchwork line can keep the Panther D off of him long enough – and, for Newton, the Panthers might be able to start running the ball effectively enough to be able to start the freewheeling Panther passing game (it also would open up the pass/run option for Newton…look for the Broncos to play Newton for the run until he beats them with his arm a couple of times). Newton has more weapons at his disposal and a better defense, hence I believe the Panthers will take the game.

For the more traditional bettor out there, here’s how you’ve seen me put it all year:

(home team in CAPS, pick in bold)

Carolina Panthers vs. DENVER BRONCOS (+5); OVER 44

Once Manning and Newton get things figured out, then the game will get exciting. The line originally opened up at Panthers -4 and, if it had stayed at that point, I would have taken the Panthers because I see a final of 28-24 with the Panthers winning (that would be a push, if you’re keeping score at home). That extra point going against the Panthers switches my pick to the Broncos, who I believe will cover the spread and, between the two teams, they will go OVER the 44 projected points; hell, it could be something along the lines of 38-34, even, if the offenses erupt early.

This isn’t a contradiction; this is simply a demonstration on how it depends on what your betting as to what your pick might be!

Conference Championships:  2-2
Overall Season:  55-37-5

All in all, it has been a good season. Once we add these three picks in (the straight game pick of the Panthers, the spread pick of the Broncos and the O/U), I will have an even 100 picks for the 2015-16 NFL season. I would have preferred a better record than 55% – and may earn it with the final three picks of the year – but it goes to show how difficult it is to bet any sporting contest. After Super Bowl Sunday, we will have to go into a slumber until next September, when the pigskin will come out for real once again and the prognostications will arise from their slumber…maybe for better but potentially for worse!

2015 NFL Postseason Picks, Conference Championships: My First Super Bowl Bet and What is the “Back Door?”

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We’re only two weeks away from the 50th rendition of what was originally called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, meaning we have a whole afternoon of football this Sunday to decide the two teams that will represent the conferences that have descended from the lineage of that first game. Now the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference make up the National Football League and the Super Bowl has become a cultural phenomenon, nothing like that first game that was played so long ago. It makes you think back about your first experiences with the game…

My first experience with betting the Super Bowl came when I was in the Marines in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Chicago Bears had dominated everyone that year, coming to the Louisiana Superdome to take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX with a swagger that everyone knew was just going to crown them the champion. Thus, many were trying to find angles to bet the game and a gunny I worked with found one with me. He wagered that the Bears’ RB Walter Payton would fumble within his first ten carries for $20, a bet I willingly picked up knowing Payton’s abilities to protect the ball.

Gathered around the Enlisted Club at the Marine Barracks, we started watching the game and, sure enough, Payton would fumble on his ninth carry of the game. As I handed over the $20 to the gunny, I asked him how did he know such a bet was going to come through. He replied that, knowing how many times Payton had carried the ball since his last fumble and knowing his fumble frequency (how often he fumbled the ball), his computations were that Payton was due for a miscue such as that. And that, my friends, was my first experience with statistical measurements being used against me in a betting atmosphere.

Which brings us to something that has saved my…let’s say account…on a couple of occasions over the past couple of weeks, having a “back door” cover bets. The “back door” cover is one that comes through after it is previously thought that the game is a foregone conclusion. All we have to do is look at two games over the past two weeks to see perfect examples of this type of action.

In the National Championship game, Alabama scored with only 1:07 left in the game to take a 45-33 lead over Clemson, which was more than enough to cover the seven-point spread that the sharps had put out against the Tigers. Within 55 seconds, Clemson drove the length of the field to score a touchdown to bring the score to 45-39 and, after kicking the extra point for the 45-40 final score, had achieved the “back door” score that shifted an estimated $10 million in bets from one side (those that had chosen Alabama -7) to the other (Clemson +7).

It happened again last weekend in the Pittsburgh Steelers/Denver Broncos game. The Steelers, a 7.5-point underdog in the game, were down 10 points with 53 seconds to go in the game. Driving mightily, the Steelers drive stalled out and, knowing that one of their two scores needed to be a field goal, sent kicker Chris Boswell onto the field. His third field goal of the day made the score 23-16 – bringing the score under the spread – and, after the onside kick failed and a kneel down by Broncos QB Peyton Manning, another few million dollars shifted hands (by scoring a field goal, it also kept it under the O/U, another good thing for me especially).

These “back door” covers are lovely when they work in your favor (you know, if you’re in an area where you can bet on these types of events), but they are the most gut wrenching thing that can happen when it works in the other direction. To have a sizeable bet turn on a simple play that has no ramification on the overall game is perhaps the most indignant situation a bettor can find themselves in. This is why the late, great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra probably said, “It isn’t over ‘til it’s over” rather than anything associated with baseball.

(Home team in CAPS, picks in bold)

AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

New England Patriots (-3) vs. DENVER BRONCOS; UNDER 44.5

There is a myriad of reasons that I would rather see the Denver Broncos defeat the New England Patriots on Sunday, but the problem is that they are all sentimental ones. This will probably be the last time that Peyton Manning will have a shot at the Super Bowl – if he plays next year, it is going to be with a team that has far less talent and far less chance at getting to this pinnacle of success. The general arrogance of the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady do not lend themselves to being the team that is “liked” (as a fan of the New York Yankees, trust me, I know how this looks). Finally, it would be great to see Brady pout his way off the field – as he is wont to do when he loses – and Manning be able to graciously say “you know, he’s one of the greats, he’ll be back here” despite the fact that Brady’s only a couple of years younger than Manning.

Here’s the problem:  the Patriots are in much better shape, health-wise, than the Broncos. Despite backing into the home-field for this game, the Broncos are just too beat up to do much with it against a Patriots team that used the last few weeks of the regular season to get some guys rested up. Instead of having to fight to the end just to win their division (as the Broncos did), the Patriots were able to rest some players, lose their final two regular season games against divisional foes YET STILL GET THE #2 SEED after winning their division. Now that they’re in the AFC Championship Game, that’s where they will see it will pay off.

The Patriots won’t dominate this game by any stretch of the imagination, but they will do just enough to be able to cover the spread and punch their ticket to try to defend their Super Bowl title. Because of the weather conditions, however, it isn’t going to be an offensive showcase. Take the Patriots, give up the points and go with the UNDER in a game that is looking to be 24-17.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE

Arizona Cardinals vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (-3); UNDER 47

Strangely enough, these two teams met last year in the playoffs. This time around, however, it is for the NFC Championship, a much different circumstance than that game last year.

Last year the Cardinals, a team that was down to its fourth quarterback after starting QB Carson Palmer and his backup Drew Stanton were knocked out for the year three-quarters through the season, limped into Charlotte for the Divisional Round of the playoffs and put up next to no effort against QB Cam Newton and the Panthers. The depleted Cardinals were only able to generate 77 yards of offense, lost the game 27-16 and had to be left wondering what might have been without the rash of injuries that beset the team.

Flash forward to…well, tomorrow, and they might get their answer. The Cardinals are healthy this year and it shows. Palmer and the Big Red Machine have the best offense in the NFL and can strike through the air (2nd in the league) or on the ground (8th in the league) The problem is they are running into a Panthers team that is also markedly improved over the team that went 7-8-1 in the league last season, starting this season 13-0 before finishing the year with the best record in the NFL at 15-1. Their offense is nothing to sneeze at (11th overall in the NFL) and their defense can also stop someone (6th in the league).

The Panthers have been able to prepare for playing on the cold grounds of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, where Winter Storm Jonas has just ravaged the area (and weather on Sunday could play a factor). The Cardinals, on the other hand, barely got into town on Friday night and may have had the chance to have a walkthrough on Saturday as North Carolina isn’t used to having to deal with winter weather. Due to the travel issues and the cold weather game (remember, Arizona is a dome team), I am taking the Panthers here, but it is going to be a defensive fight and way UNDER the O/U.

Last Week:  5-3
Overall:  53-37-5

Remember how we were talking about the “back door” above? That Steelers “back door” was the game that gave me a winning weekend. Without that field goal, it’s just another “meh” 4-4 slate that helps nobody but the cage collecting the juice. With only four potential bets this weekend, it would be great to sweep the board.

NFL Week 14 Predictions: Why I Don’t Even Look At Thursday Night Football for Betting

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Throughout this National Football League season, I’ve offered picks for the Sunday clashes between teams and, on some occasions, have even went into the Monday night game to make a pick. The one thing that you haven’t seen me do, however, is offer any picks for the Thursday night games. There are a couple of reasons for this (beyond the fact that, you know, betting on sports is illegal in most jurisdictions).

I personally have never liked the Thursday night games. The Thursday night game is a direct derivative from the Thanksgiving Day games that were traditionally the stronghold of the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions. In 1934, the Lions originally did the Thanksgiving game as a marketing trick to draw attention away from the Detroit Tigers (back in those days, baseball was almost as omnipotent as the NFL is today) and get fans excited about the Lions. In 1966, the NFL wanted a second team to have a game on Turkey Day and the Cowboys jumped at the opportunity.

Now usually those two games were just fine but, in 2006, the NFL decided that they needed a third game on Thanksgiving Day to promote their fledgling NFL Network. Initially it was only an eight game schedule that started on Thanksgiving but, in 2012, Thursday Night Football became a staple of the NFL season in running every week but the final one of the season. With this move, however, has come some disagreement.

Many people, including players in the game and some fans, have said the games on Thursday aren’t as good as those games at their regular times because the players have a shortened rest and preparation schedule (three days) to get ready for the games. Research into this has supposedly shown that the level of play in the game is at least that of an average NFL game, but it hasn’t been able to quiet the critics. In another area, there is additional argument that isn’t going away anytime soon.

In 2014, Houston Texans RB Arian Foster accused the NFL of being hypocritical in their drive for “player safety” by having the players make the quick turnaround to play on Thursdays. This season, Seattle Seahawks DB Richard Sherman has made the same comments, but the NFL cites a study that says fewer injuries happen in the Thursday night games than in the Sunday/Monday games. It is a bone of contention between the players’ association and the NFL and it doesn’t look like it is going to be solved anytime soon.

The reasons I don’t even look at the Thursday night games are because of the above mentioned reasons. If it takes the normal NFL team an entire week to prepare a game plan and recover from the previous week’s battle, why would the product or the players be in better shape if you gave them half that time? I usually am someone who will look at a report and take it under consideration. I also remember that the NFL once said that concussions weren’t a problem in the game and see where that is now?

(Home team in CAPS, pick in bold)

Washington Redskins vs CHICAGO BEARS (-3); UNDER 43.5

If you’ve been in a cave of late, the Washington Redskins are still in first place in the putrid NFC East with their 5-7 record. They could have “seized control” of the division with a win against Dallas last Monday night but weren’t able to close the deal at home. What makes you think that they are going to be able to beat a Bears team that, after being hit with an array of injuries, is still in the hunt for a Wild Card spot and getting healthy?

I’ve never had a problem with Bears QB Jay Cutler, especially at home in Soldier Field, and he should have a field day against a so-so defense from the ’Skins. Yes, Cutler’s mates in RB Matt Forte, WR Alshon Jeffrey and TE Martellus Bennett will have to be on the top of their games also, but the Redskins have yet to win a game on the road this season; they aren’t going to start winning them now.

San Diego Chargers (+11) vs. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS; UNDER 44.5

I know it has been a tough season for the Chargers, but they haven’t quite reached the point where a Chiefs team with similar injury issues is a double digit favorite over them. This game seems to be more about what was done on November 22, when the Chiefs went into sunny Southern California and completely undressed the Chargers 33-3. While I don’t see the Chargers winning this game outright, they are going to keep it closer than that game in November.

I still have a great deal of trust in ‘Bolts QB Philip Rivers and he still has TE Antonio Gates and RB Danny Woodhead pushing the offense for the team. They will have to protect better against an aggressive Chiefs defense, which was the undoing of the Chargers in the previous meeting. This isn’t going to be an exciting game – something about it just screams 17-13 or around there – so if you have a different viewing option, be sure to take it.

Indianapolis Colts (+2.5) vs. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS; UNDER 46.5

The Colts can do a great deal for themselves in their pursuit of the AFC South championship if they can put away the pesky Jaguars. QB Tim Hasselbeck has done quite well in replacing an injured Andrew Luck, keeping the ship upright until meeting the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. A win by the Colts here would put the Jags three games back with three to go (leaving the Colts to get Luck back in time to keep the Texans at bay).

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles has been turning heads in the factor that nobody thought he was still in the league anymore. Surprisingly, the Jags’ passing game is better than the Colts’ (a situation that wouldn’t be if Luck were under center), but the 40-year old Hasselbeck has too much “age and treachery” in his war chest to lose this game. Back on October 4, the team’s played in Indy with the Colts taking a 16-13 victory; expect a repeat of that game today in Jacksonville.

Last week:  4-2
Overall:  36-26-3

After the disaster that was Week 11, it was nice to book a winning weekend. While the Raiders didn’t cut the mustard against the Chiefs, the two teams were well over the O/U. That inexplicable loss by the New York Giants in overtime against the New York Jets hurt, but we got the under on that. Monday night was a jewel as we nailed the game (Cowboys were +3.5 and won outright) and the O/U (a paltry 35 points). Perhaps we can duplicate that effort today and improve on the record even more.

NFL Week 9 Predictions: Teams Already Blowing Up To Rebuild For Next Season

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Although technically there are no teams eliminated from playoff contention yet, there are a couple National Football League franchises that have begun to blow everything up in looking towards next season. This may sound weird only nine weeks into the season but, by using the last half of the 2015 season as a way to look over their current personnel, many teams will have a head start on knowing what they need to look for come the 2016 NFL Draft or free agency. Sure, these teams may miss not being around for the playoffs, but they’ll be able to rebuild quicker and be more competitive in the future through blowing apart any semblance of a team that will contend this season (at least that’s the theory).

The latest team to go about waving the white flag for 2015 is the San Francisco 49ers. Mired at 2-6 and in the basement of the NFC West, the ‘Niners traded away arguably one of their best assets, TE Vernon Davis, to the Denver Broncos this week for basically a bag of Ramen noodles. After trading Davis, Head Coach Jim Tomsula, despite feverishly backing him all season, benched starting QB Colin Kaepernick in favor of QB Blaine Gabbert, who last started a game in 2013 with the powerful perennial contenders the Jacksonville Jaguars. After the defections from their defense during the offseason, the players on the offense who left (Frank Gore, wherefore art thou?) and these moves by the front office, the surrender banner is up in the City by the Bay.

That banner is also flying on the shores of Lake Huron. The Detroit Lions (1-7, last in the NFC North) fired several offensive coaches prior to their trip to London to play the Kansas City Chiefs and, upon their return, cleared the front office last week by getting rid of General Manager Martin Mayhew and President Tom Lewand. Following the bloodletting, Owner Martha Firestone Ford ironically said the team wasn’t “giving up” the season, a statement that ranks up there in truthfulness right alongside “I have complete confidence in my Head Coach.” The only thing they’ve got left to cut is players and more coaches, with Head Coach Jim Caldwell’s seat perhaps the hottest of them all.

The reason we bring these situations up? If you’re betting on the games (you know, if you live in an area where that kind of thing is legal), you always like to know when teams are just trying to get through the year, pick up that paycheck each week and look to either getting ready for next season or getting away from the team they are on. There’s are several other teams that might fall into this list in the next couple of weeks (Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers…we’re looking at you, guys), but always try to keep a pulse on what the mental state of a team is like when looking over the lines.

(Home team in CAPS, pick in bold)

Green Bay Packers vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (+2.5); OVER 46.5

It was amazing to watch that game last week between the Packers and the Broncos and watch as the Broncos defense completely stifled Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. Here was a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player being completely stuffed by the Broncos, throwing for only 77 yards FOR THE ENTIRE GAME. While the Panthers don’t have (we think) the same defense as the Broncos, they are going to be scouring that Bronco/Packer game film to find some tricks to use against the Pack again.

I really don’t see how the Packers, on the road for the second week in a row and coming off a devastating loss, are favored heading into this game. Sure, the Panthers allowed a sputtering Indianapolis Colts squad back into their contest on Monday night before eking out a win to go 7-0, but the ‘Cats ruled the game for the most part on both sides of the ball. With QB Cam Newton getting more comfortable with his receiving corps, TE Greg Olsen doing a Southern impersonation of Rob Gronkowski and RB Jonathan Stewart continually and consistently pounding the ball on the ground, this should be a game that the Panthers win outright.

Oakland Raiders vs. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (-4.5); UNDER 48.5

The Raiders have been gaining respectability over the past few weeks and, if you can believe it, are currently battling with the New York Jets and the Steelers for the two playoff spots in the AFC (if the playoffs started today). This would be a good time for them to pull out a victory, on the road at Heinz Field against the men from Steel City, and improve their chances for making the playoff for the first time since 2002.

Something is going to have to give in this game. Will Raiders QB Derek Carr and rookie WR Amari Cooper be able to run roughshod over a Steeler D that resembles more of an “Aluminum Foil” Curtain than Steel, or will a rested QB Ben Roethlisberger (back from his injury and working off the rust last week) and WR Antonio Brown bring the firepower back to the Steeler passing game while RB DeAngelo Williams picks up the slack after the season-ending injury to Le’veon Bell? My pick goes to the Steelers, who battled the AFC Central leading Cincinnati Bengals all the way to the end in a 16-10 loss and showed they might not be a team you want to sleep on for the remainder of the season.

Tennessee Titans vs. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (-7.5); OVER 48

What the hell happened to Saints QB Drew Brees last week? His historic performance (505 yards, 7 TDs) against the New York Giants (in the third highest scoring output in regular-season NFL history, 52-49) might signify that the Bayou Boys may have started to wake up from their early season slumbers. That has probably come at a good time as Carolina (undefeated) and the Atlanta Falcons (6-2, two games ahead but lost the first meeting with the Saints) were threatening to run off with the NFC South.

The Titans aren’t exactly going to throw any fear into the face of Brees or the Saints. Although their defense is holding teams to 22.7 points per game (expect the Saints to have that in the first half on Sunday), Titans QB Marcus Mariota has cooled off after his quick start and the offense is only mustering up slightly more than 18 points a game. Firing former Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt during the week also isn’t going to make for a well-rehearsed game plan, so expect the Saints to administer another drubbing.

Last Week:  3-3
Overall:  25-14-2

Another grotesque weekend in breaking even. Despite being Nostradamus on the Seattle/Dallas game (nailing Dallas plus points and the under), I crapped the bed the rest of the way. Only the low scoring 49ers/Rams game eked me out a .500 weekend as everything else went wrong. The record looks good for the overall year, the past couple of weeks needed some work; we’re going to get that started this week.