By MARIO MERGOLA
This is the week it happens.
Much like the teams themselves, picking games in the first quarter of the season is similar to that of the early stages of a boxing match or playoff hockey game - tentative and cautious with the intent of discovering the true nature of the opponent. Few risks are taken, and even fewer moves deviate from the norm.
For the first few weeks, the trends are careful and aligned. Underdogs outperformed favorites slightly in each of the first two weeks for the third time in the past four years, then saw a slight regression in Week 3, followed by a 6-7 Week 4 record.
This is the week underdogs explode.
Favorites are bait - they are 'favored' because they are the easier team to take. They should win their games, but winning is irrelevant when spreads are attached. More importantly, they represent the team most likely to be picked.
It's no wonder, therefore, that in weeks where favorites outperform underdogs, few people appear shocked. When underdogs dominate - as they did in the first two weeks of the season - the reaction is that something is 'off', as noted in last week's column.
With an unprecedented nine games featuring spreads of six points or higher - this season's previous high was six such games - the opportunities for underdogs to beat their spreads are everywhere. In addition, it has been a relatively quiet few weeks as the 'conventional wisdom' has avoided getting burned.
That changes in Week 5.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team and an asterisk denotes one of the week's most confident picks.
*Confidence Picks: 3-1 (Season: 12-9)
All Picks Against Spread: 7-6 (Season: 31-29-1)
Houston Texans (+5.5)* at Dallas Cowboys
By the time the Texans had knocked off the Bills, the home win could have been considered more a function of luck than talent. EJ Manuel was largely responsible for giving the game away, highlighted by a botched screen pass that turned into a J.J. Watt interception return for a touchdown.
To downplay Houston's 'Impressive Win Factor' would be equivalent to boosting Dallas' after thrashing the Saints on Sunday Night Football. But how much of Dallas' victory could be attributed to their play versus that of the reeling Saints?
Both 3-1, and both coming off home victories against teams suddenly scuffling, the Texans and Cowboys have yet to reveal their true identities. A win in this game goes a long way for either team, improving to 4-1 and giving credence to the argument of a potential playoff chase.
The key matchup of the game will feature Dallas' offensive line against Houston's defensive line. While J.J. Watt anchors what appears to be a ferocious pass rush, his team will have to turn pressure into sacks or turnovers to keep up with the Dallas offense. In addition, they will have to find a way to stop the league's best rushing attack.
Dallas tends to receive favorable spreads due to their sprawling nationwide fanbase and the impact it has on public perception, but the 3-1 Texans are clearly being overlooked in this matchup. Houston's defense allows the Texans to beat the spread, but Dallas ultimately wins by a field goal.
Buffalo Bills (+7)* at Detroit Lions
In one fell swoop, the Bills went from 'Possible Surprise Team' to 'Told You So.' It was tough to find too many believers in the Bills after their first two wins, but those who climbed on the bandwagon have since departed. It should come as no surprise to discover that the Bills have a combined 6-3 record over their first three weeks of the season from 2011-2013. Each year, they finished 6-10.
Things aren't looking much brighter at the moment.
After their gut-wrenching loss in Houston that featured a critical interception returned for a touchdown, a blown ten-point lead, and seven three-and-outs, the Bills subsequently benched EJ Manuel.
Detroit appears to finally be getting some respect after mercilessly disposing of the New York Jets on the road. The Lions are favored by a touchdown, their biggest spread of the season. All three times Detroit has given points, they have won and covered. Asking for a fourth is rather dangerous.
Turning to Kyle Orton should not result in a road victory for the Bills, but the veteran quarterback will instill a much-needed sense of urgency, at least for one game. Moreover, it has been argued that wide receiver Sammy Watkins is being underutilized with Manuel at the helm.
Kyle Orton and the Bills beat the spread - after all, they have won half of their games - but lose to the Lions by a field goal.
Cleveland Browns at Tennessee Titans (-1)
It's the numbers. It's always the numbers. It may appear to be stubbornness or an unwillingness to admit defeat, but it is actually neither.
We continue to pick the Titans because the trends continue to point in their favor. After a while, the trends are irrelevant when compared to the results, but Tennessee is simply one team that helps balance the scales, as nothing has a 100 percent success rate. Evidence of this can be found in Indianapolis' mauling of the Titans, the only incorrect confidence pick from last week.
Alas, the same reasoning needs to be applied, yet again. A 1-3 Titans team, losers of their last three games by a combined score of 100-34, have no business being listed as the favorite, especially against a team coming off a bye who has not lost a game by more than a field goal. Whenever the spread cannot be explained by the value of recent play, an immediate red flag comes up.
While Cleveland gets credit for losing two games by a combined score of five points, there is something to be said about the inability to finish close games with a win. The Browns are 1-2 for a reason, and rookie head coach Mike Pettine has shown nothing to indicate that an extra week of preparation will lead to better on-field performance. In fact, the Browns' worst half of football came in their opening game against the Steelers. If Cleveland was ill-prepared with months leading up to their first game, two weeks of game planning is relatively moot.
The Titans hand the Browns their third close loss of the season, beating Cleveland by a field goal and covering the favorably small spread.
Baltimore Ravens (+3.5)* at Indianapolis Colts
All the Ravens have done since releasing Ray Rice is go on a three-game winning streak by a combined score of 87-37. The Colts, equally hot in their own right, have destroyed their last two opponents 44-17 and 41-17, respectively.
The difference? The Ravens beat the Steelers, Browns (away), and Panthers, while the Colts beat up on the Jaguars and Titans.
The Colts have struggled to tally wins when facing offenses led by quarterbacks other than Chad Henne, Blake Bortles, Charlie Whitehurst, or even Zach Mettenberger, and they now face Joe Flacco riding high on the heels of the rejuvenated Steve Smith Sr.
Both teams appear to have washed away any doubts from their respective Week 1 losses, but the Ravens have been the more impressive team over the first quarter of the season. Baltimore goes into Indianapolis, wins by a touchdown, and beats the spread.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+10.5) at New Orleans Saints
While the Titans continue to fail to beat the spread seemingly every week, the Buccaneers finally reversed course on their pathetic season and followed the trend not only to beat the spread, but the Steelers, as well.
The Saints are coming off a similarly embarrassing nationally televised loss as the Buccaneers did one week prior, and New Orleans' 1-3 start has its season hanging in the balance. With a treacherous road ahead, the Saints will need to win every game on the schedule against opponents with losing records, and that begins Sunday against Tampa Bay.
The Saints win the game, but have simply not done enough to warrant giving a double-digit spread to a division opponent. Buccaneers lose by a touchdown and beat the spread.
Atlanta Falcons (+4.5) at New York Giants
Whatever happens Sunday at MetLife stadium does not erase the memory of how each team started their season. It wasn't long ago when the talk around New York was how to address the Giants' struggles and whether or not 2014 would quickly turn into a rebuilding year. It was during that same time that Atlanta was being discussed as a potential powerhouse.
Atlanta is coming off a disappointing loss in Minnesota while the Giants are returning home following their stomping of the Redskins in Washington D.C. on Thursday night. The two games appear to be directly responsible for the spread tilting so far in New York's favor.
It shouldn't. The Falcons win the game by six and beat the spread.
St. Louis Rams (+7)* at Philadelphia Eagles
One yard away from being the first 4-0 team in the NFL, the Eagles return home still sitting atop the NFC East. The last time the Rams stepped on the field, they were squandering a 21-0 lead to the Cowboys. Interestingly enough, the Eagles have made it a habit to fall behind early in games, only to come from behind and win. St. Louis' collapse combined with Philadelphia's ability to return from the dead would suggest that no Rams lead will be safe on Sunday.
As always, the spread is somewhat curious - the Eagles are only giving a touchdown. In fact, the line everywhere appears to be exactly seven points. If teams like the Broncos and Cardinals (arguably two of the league's better teams) are separated by this same seven-point margin, are the Eagles and Rams really that close?
Perhaps this game has less to do with talent than it does timing. In Rams head coachJeff Fisher's last 15 games following a bye (dating back to his '98 Tennessee Oilers), his teams are 10-4-1. While we discredited the power of the bye week for unproven coaches like Mike Pettine, we cannot ignore those who have shown the ability over a long career to use two weeks of preparation for their advantage.
The Eagles must win the game to keep pace with the surging Cowboys, and they should pull it out in the end via a late field goal, but St. Louis beats the spread as Fisher leads a vintage post-bye week assault in Philadelphia.
Chicago Bears at Carolina Panthers (-2.5)
Two weeks ago, the Bears escaped MetLife Stadium with a Monday Night Football win over a Jets team who did everything in their power to flirt with victory without ever approaching it. Less than a week later, Chicago was blown out at home by the rival Packers.
The Panthers have quickly turned a 2-0 record to start the season into 2-2 with losses against two AFC North opponents in consecutive weeks (Steelers and Ravens). Carolina is beaten up at the running back position – undrafted Darrin Reaves is currently listed as the team's starter - and quarterback Cam Newton has yet to score more than one touchdown in a game - passing or rushing.
What makes the Panthers the pick? The Bears. Chicago continues to perform an act of unknown identity, as evident by the aforementioned win in New York prior to the crushing defeat at the hands of the Packers. In addition, the Bears followed up a disappointing loss at home against the Bills with an impressive road victory in San Francisco. Wherever the Bears end up, they aren't there yet.
The Panthers have lost their two games to superior teams (even the Steelers were one play away from being 3-1), and Chicago has done nothing to warrant such respect. The Panthers hold serve at home, winning by six and covering the spread.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars (+6.5)
What started out as a potential upset in the making for the Jaguars - leading 14-10 late in the first half - quickly turned into a 33-14 blowout at the hands of the Chargers on Sunday. The Steelers dropped one of the two biggest upsets of the week at the hands of the Buccaneers and travel to Jacksonville thirsty for a victory.
Pittsburgh is, in every way, the better team in this game. But again, the fact that the Jaguars are 0-4 against the spread this year (all of which they have been getting at least six points) provides a perfect setup for a rebound. In addition, Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles provides a new look for the team's offense, and could surprise the Pittsburgh defense who have declined each of the past three seasons (1st, 13th, now 18th in points allowed).
Jacksonville has done enough harm to warrant caution, so they won't receive the confidence pick, but they should beat the spread at home on Sunday, losing to the Steelers by a field goal.
Arizona Cardinals at Denver Broncos (-7)
Two of the league's best teams - a combined record of 5-1 - square off Sunday following concurrent bye weeks. The touchdown spread is relatively large considering the 'underdog' in this game is undefeated, but if any team is capable of putting up points in bundles, it's the Broncos. More accurately, it's the well-rested Broncos.
Coming off a heart-breaking loss in Seattle despite an eight-point comeback in the waning minutes of the game, Denver has sat and stirred in its anticipation to return to the football field. Still awaiting a similar return to the gridiron is injured quarterbackCarson Palmer, whose status continues to remain in flux.
The Cardinals may be legitimate contenders in the NFC West, but a meeting in Denver is less than ideal, given the circumstances. Since Manning joined the team in 2012, the Broncos are 5-1 following a loss. In those five wins, their average margin of victory is a robust 19.4 points.
Denver wins by two touchdowns and cover.
New York Jets (+7)* at San Diego Chargers
The New York Jets and San Diego Chargers are exactly what their numbers indicate. The 1-3 Jets are a below average football team who allow exactly 24 points and scores roughly 20 points per game (in reality, they have only broken the 20-point barrier once). The 3-1 Chargers, impressively sitting atop the AFC West, have exactly one loss by exactly one point.
If 'must-win games' exist in the first half of an NFL season, the Denver Broncos looming in the Jets' schedule makes their matchup in San Diego as a critical a matchup as a 1-3 team could play. However, the Chargers are tracking the same Denver team, although in a different battle - the AFC West division race. If the Chargers want to keep their feet on the gas pedal, the Jets are, statistically, the worst non-division team San Diego will face in their next six games. They need a win on Sunday to stay ahead of the Broncos as badly as the Jets need a win to stay alive.
As evident by their ability to play one-possession games with their opponents - albeit, losing three of four - the Jets' defense should prevent the Chargers from pulling away. In addition, getting away from the brutal New York media and fanbase might actually help the Jets, as every Geno Smith pass that hits the grass will not be followed by a parade of boos and chants for Michael Vick.
San Diego holds off the desperation of the Jets and wins by a field goal, but New York beats the spread.
Kansas City at San Francisco 49ers (-6)
Prior to the Chiefs dismantling the Patriots on Monday Night Football, Kansas City was being viewed as 2014's disappointment in the making. With a nationwide statement win that included the benching of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the Chiefs appear to back in control.
Unfortunately for Kansas City, so do the 49ers.
The numbers will indicate that San Francisco allowed 21 points against the Eagles, but all three touchdowns were scored via defense or special teams. The 49ers' defense held Philadelphia's offense to exactly zero points.
The area surrounding Kansas City has been swirling in emotion following the Monday Night Football win coupled with the Royals' dramatic come-from-behind victory in their American League Wild Card game less than twenty-four hours later. Feeding off this energy, the Chiefs peaked on Monday night, and now travel to San Francisco to play a non-conference game against a 49ers team currently sitting third in the NFC West.
San Francisco puts together a statement win of their own, beating the Chiefs by ten and covering the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots (+1)
What do we believe?
When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, it seems almost impossible to accept how good they have become over the past few years. But every time the New England Patriots stumble we find it hard to believe they are truly bad.
The answer is simple - Bill Belichick and Tom Brady - but the question is still worth asking: why do we expect success when the quality of play appears to have declined?
No matter how poor they look on a given night, the Patriots still manage to win an incredible amount of games - double-digit wins for eleven straight seasons. While the time might be approaching where we consider the Bengals to be in a class above the Patriots, nothing has indicated that it has arrived. Yet.
The Bengals are every bit as good as advertised, but head coach Marvin Lewis holds a lackluster 4-6-1 record coming off a bye week with Cincinnati.
The Patriots are a mere 8-0 in their last eight games following a loss.
New England wins by a touchdown, silencing some critics for the time being, and beats the spread.
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins (+7.5)*
Both the Seahawks and Redskins enter Monday Night Football with a prolonged period of rest - Seattle was on a Week 4 bye while Washington played on Thursday night. When each team took the field last, their results could not have been more opposite. The Seahawks held off the Broncos while the Redskins were crushed by the Giants. The two games contribute to the large spread.
As stated in the past, this column will always take the points when the home team is receiving at least a touchdown. Part of the reasoning behind any hesitation in Week 2's pick of the home Jaguars was that a lack of a raucous crowd largely prevents home field advantage from impacting the game. That won't be the case on Monday night.
A passionate fan base will be in full force as the nation watches on for the second straight week. When the Redskins failed to deliver in Week 4, it was as a division home favorite - a tall task by all accounting - and the loss has a direct carry-over effect similar to the Buccaneers turning their Week 3 Thursday night loss into a win over the Steelers.
The Redskins are the confidence pick for the home touchdown spread on a nationally-televised game. If further proof was needed, the seven-and-a-half points the Seahawks are giving seems to have not scared anyone away. The Seahawks are overwhelmingly being considered an 'obvious pick.' Buyer beware.
On the field, itself, it seems inconceivable that the Redskins can find any way to move the football against the Seattle defense. Using a combination blueprint from the Chargers and Broncos (at least, the Broncos of the fourth quarter), the Redskins' only chance for success would come from an effective passing game that chews the game clock. With neither of those likely, Washington won't be able to pull off the complete upset in the form of a win, but will lose by four and beat the spread.
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