By MARIO MERGOLA
For once, there were no trends. No numbers. No patterns.
Week 5 featured the most sporadic system of outcomes this season. Nearly every trend was at or near 50 percent accuracy – favorites, road underdogs, division favorites, underdogs at 1PM, 4PM, and at night – and there were no runaway successes. Looking back, this is largely aligned with Week 5 results of the past three seasons. This relatively calm week – both historically and in 2014 – is what led to the expectation that one group (in this case, underdogs as a collective whole) was going to pull away from the pack.
It didn't happen.
Not only did favorites edge out underdogs – favorites were 8-7 against the spread – Week 5 was largely influenced by a factor dreaded by those of us who pick games: randomness.
This forbidden word leads to the most indicting stat of the week: an incredible seven of the 15 games were within four points of their spreads.
Of these seven games, few of which were as close in the final score as in the spread, six were within one field goal – made or missed – of redefining the week. If Jacksonville doesn't throw an interception for a touchdown immediately after recovering a Pittsburgh fumble or if Seattle gets a first down in the final minute of play and elects to kneel instead of kick a field goal, the landscape of the Week 5 outcome is vastly different. Instead, almost nothing was remarkable or noteworthy. The week was, in effect, boring.
Logic, therefore, would dictate that Week 6 should carry the torch dropped by its predecessor. With eight division games – the most since Week 3 (6 games) – Week 6 has the natural ability to realign some percentages, whether by returning back to the norm or skewing them further for a later regression.
Furthermore, this week contains no double digit spreads – the first time all season – and, while this is typically an argument for underdogs to sneak in under the line, there is an equal observation that games should generally be closer than usual. As noted many times, 'weaker teams' benefit from the familiarity of playing a division foe.
While certain go-to trends have failed to deliver as expected – home teams getting a touchdown are 0-2 against the spread despite historic success – the numbers suggest that these misses are natural, yet randomized as to when they occur.
The law of averages is powerful. This week's games provide the perfect opportunity to offset early-season deviations and begin the road back towards the mean.
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: 3-3 (Season: 15-12)
All Picks Against Spread: 7-8 (Season: 38-37-1)
New England Patriots (-3) at Buffalo Bills
What a difference one week makes. After their crushing defeat in Kansas City, the Patriots were treated as if they had suddenly lost every shred of talent and would never again win another football game. Apparently, Cincinnati must have bought into this nonsense as well.
While the Patriots suffered their share of criticism, few teams received less respect than the Buffalo Bills after their 2-0 start. As documented many times in this column, the Bills are notorious for hot starts that sizzle by season's end. Included in these hot starts are typically impressive wins, such as Sunday's victory in Detroit. New England, however, is known to win games in October.
The Patriots win big on Sunday in Buffalo, beating the Bills by two touchdowns, covering the spread, and making all rumblings of a sudden collapse a distant memory.
Carolina Panthers at Cincinnati Bengals (-7)
The Bengals certainly deserve the benefit of the doubt after Sunday night's loss in Foxborough, and the line appears to remain confident in Cincinnati's ability to bounce back, and do so in style. Carolina, fresh off completing a 14-point comeback against the Bears have trailed in the second half of all but one game this season. The Panthers cannot rely on the same 'comeback mentality' in Cincinnati.
The Bengals not only have their sights set on the AFC North crown, but are legitimate contenders for a first round bye. Carolina is no pushover, but if Cincinnati wants to establish itself as an AFC powerhouse, they must dispose of the Panthers.
10-0 in their last ten home games and 3-1 following their last four losses, Cincinnati has all the makings of a big win on Sunday. The Bengals win by ten and cover the spread.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+2)* at Cleveland Browns
In this 'trading places' rematch of Week 1's AFC North battle, the Browns will now host the Steelers, and enter the game as the favorite. Cleveland not only mounted a furious comeback against Pittsburgh in their opening meeting – ultimately, it fell short – but the Browns have had all four games played decided by a field goal or less. Oddly enough, for Cleveland to cover the small spread, they would need to win by at least three points, which would be the high watermark for their 2014 season, so far.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, and while we prepared for these two teams meeting on Opening Day, we included a caveat for this eventual rematch, citing that Cleveland would be the better pick later in the season. The reasoning? The edge goes to the underdog on the road as the season develops. Few would have expected that, in this matchup, it would be the Steelers.
Inconsistent as Pittsburgh has been – alternating wins and losses, losing by twenty points then winning by eighteen – Cleveland has only curried favor thanks to late-game heroics. They were beaten for three quarters last Sunday against Tennessee, and shellacked in their first two against Pittsburgh weeks ago.
The Steelers make it a complete game on Sunday, handing the Browns a touchdown loss and beating the spread.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+6)* at Tennessee Titans
Thank you, Jacksonville.
Finally, the team that has done this column the most harm (1-4) yet continues to receive the benefit of the doubt will be the other side of the pick this week. The numbers that have forced these hands into picking Tennessee on a weekly basis have finally turned on the Titans of disappointment. It is almost cruel justice that the team that reaps these benefits is the lowly Jaguars. Almost.
0-5 against the spread, outscored by 102 points – that's triple digits, three, if you're counting – in five games played, and on the road, the Jaguars are actually in the more favorable position of the two teams. Despite winning less than one-third of their games (.325 winning percentage) over their past five seasons, the Jaguars have split the season series with Titans all five times. More recently, the Titans are responsible for two of the Jaguars' last six wins – spanning the past two seasons – and only once in their past six meetings have the Titans won by more than six points.
The Jaguars are not only the confidence pick to cover the spread, but should earn their first win of the season against the even more frustrating Titans. Jaguars win by four, beat the spread, and no one watches. Nor cares.
Green Bay Packers at Miami Dolphins (+3.5)*
Few teams have looked as dominant as the Packers over their last two games: 2-0, both wins in their division, and outscoring opponents by a combined 53 points. Green Bay currently looks like an unstoppable force hitting their stride at the right time, but the back-to-back massive wins could lead to a letdown in Miami on Sunday.
Despite an overall record of 22-14-1 since the start of 2012, the Packers are a lackluster 9-10 away from Lambeau Field. The Dolphins, average in their own right with a 2-2 overall record, are 10-8 at home in the same timeframe, and are 1-1 following a bye under head coach Joe Philbin. Their loss was only by two points – a field goal in the final minute of play.
The Dolphins have yet to define the direction of their season, with wins coming against the Patriots and Raiders but losses in Buffalo and against Kansas City. The Packers made their necessary moves in the past two games, and it will be nearly impossible to match the level of urgency they faced during their three-game NFC North blitz. There is too much at stake for the Dolphins on Sunday.
Miami, yet to play a one-possession game all season, catches the Packers asleep at the wheel and pulls off the four-point upset on the legs of running back Lamar Miller, beating the spread, as well.
Detroit Lions (-1.5) at Minnesota Vikings
Will the real Minnesota Vikings please stand up? Or, if that's too much to ask, will the real Minnesota Vikings at least indicate which quarterback is starting, which running back should be trusted, which receiver won't disappoint, and in which quarter will your team quit? Can't answer those? Neither can we.
In what seems to be an ongoing trend throughout the NFC North, no team wants to grab the reins of the division or fall off the map. Either is preferable for those of us picking games, but the balancing act is maddening. Enter the Detroit Lions.
Losing at home to a backup quarterback last Sunday, the Lions, once again, proved why they should not be trusted without first questioning the matchup. Thankfully, the small spread allows for some leeway, and with Detroit entrenched in a division race, they cannot afford to lose back-to-back games, the second against a fellow NFC North opponent.
Detroit wins by six and covers the spread.
Baltimore Ravens (-3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For the first time in weeks, Baltimore finally met its match at the hands of the streaking Indianapolis Colts. Tampa Bay put up an inspiring fight against the Saints, leading late and taking them to overtime before ultimately losing by an opening drive touchdown. But Tampa Bay's performance against the Saints is not entirely indicative of future success. Namely, the Buccaneers experienced a boost in their game from playing their division foes in New Orleans. No such comfort level exists in this matchup.
Baltimore, fresh off a loss to what is arguably the league's hottest team, travels to Tampa Bay in search for a much needed win. The Ravens get their wish against a below average Buccaneers team still trying to find their footing. Baltimore wins by a touchdown and covers.
Denver Broncos at New York Jets (+8.5)*
Nothing is impossible in the National Football League, but the Jets beating the Broncos on Sunday is as close to it as it gets. Nothing short of an alien attack forcing a Broncos forfeit could net the Jets a win. In fact, following their embarrassing defeat in San Diego last Sunday, we blasted the Jets equally as hard, stating that the only chance for New York to compete against the Broncos would be for Derek Jeter to un-retire and play both quarterback and cornerback on Sunday. Even that wouldn't be enough.
There is no conceivable way for the Jets to win, and the Broncos have the clear edge in every facet of the game, but the touchdown underdog spread at home always warrants consideration. In fact, the 0-2 record for home underdogs getting at least a touchdown indicates that winners are lurking around the corner.
Even though all conventional wisdom suggests otherwise, the Jets find a way to prevent Denver's quick strike offense from pulling away early and keeps the game low scoring. Probably via a late touchdown, the Jets pull to within seven, only to lose by that margin, but beat the spread.
San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders (+7)*
The Jets aren't the only team this week facing the favorable setup of getting a touchdown worth of points at home. In addition to the trend, the Raiders have the added benefit of hosting a division rival coming off two big wins. San Diego appears to be facing a 'trap game' while Oakland seeks its first win of the season.
It happens on Sunday. Much like the Jaguars' success against Tennessee documented earlier in this column, the Raiders have beaten the Chargers four of their last eight meetings. Oakland has had two weeks to prepare for this matchup, and are 1-1 coming off a bye in their last two seasons. Furthermore, San Diego lost both games against teams coming off their bye week last season.
The confidence pick is for the home division underdog Raiders to beat the large spread, but they should also bring San Diego back down to earth, winning the game by six.
Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons (-3)
Sunday afternoon's matchup between the Bears and Falcons features two teams coming off disappointing road losses against opponents that entered Week 5 at 2-2. Now one game under .500 each, the loser of this meeting finds itself staring at a 2-4 record after six games.
No matter what their expectations are for the remainder of the season, Atlanta continues to play to the one mantra frequently surrounding the franchise: win at home, lose on the road. All five games have followed this pattern. The sixth game will be played in Atlanta.
With almost identical features – tough, but balanced divisions, high-powered offensive talent, a duo of top-flight wide receivers, a defense ranked in the bottom third for points allowed – the Bears and Falcons are nearly mirror images of each other. All told, the edge belongs to the team less likely to break its trend. The hometown Falcons win by a touchdown and cover the spread.
Washington Redskins (+3.5)* at Arizona Cardinals
Arizona drew the short straw last week by facing a Broncos team coming off a loss followed by a bye week. As expected by their typical response to such conditions, Denver handed the Cardinals their first loss of the season. Washington was in no more favorable of a position, also facing a team returning from a week off, hosting the Seahawks on Monday Night Football.
While both the Cardinals and Redskins suffered double digit losses in Week 5 – Arizona's defeat was mathematically worse, but they were on the road – the talent level between these two teams appear to be vastly different. But, what if they're not?
After the first twenty five minutes of play, the Redskins were able to counter the punches thrown by Seattle, and even found a way to somewhat contain Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch for the better part of the second half. Even the ridiculous 30-yard completion on third down on Seattle's final drive of the game was played correctly by the Redskins and was more a function of Russell Wilson's incredible field awareness than poor play by the Washington defense.
Moreover, why is it impossible to believe that something clicked for the Redskins in the second half of their game against the Seahawks?
In a vacuum, the Cardinals are the better team, but the Redskins' late surge coupled with the continued question marks surrounding the health of, now two, quarterbacks in Arizona tip the scales towards Washington. The Redskins' defense stops whatever Cardinals player lines up under center, and Washington wins by a field goal, beating the spread.
Dallas Cowboys (+8.5) at Seattle Seahawks
Is this spread a function more of people failing to buy into Dallas or loving the Seahawks at home? The biggest concern with large spreads is usually the fear that, if one team pulls away, the other cannot catch up. That hardly seems likely with the Cowboys' offense.
Seattle continues to prove why it is worthy of 'Repeat Super Bowl Champion' talk, and they should win at home on Sunday, but the Cowboys are well capable of matching Seattle down to the waning minutes. Unfortunately for Dallas, history has shown that it is not necessarily capable of winning such games in the end.
Seattle wins by a field goal, but Dallas beats the spread.
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5)
"They turn the ball over too much." This go-to phrase was muttered by nearly every analyst when referring to the New York Giants entering 2014. As fate would have it, one of these two teams does, indeed, enter Sunday Night Football leading the league in turnovers.
The Philadelphia Eagles.
With an unprecedented seven fumbles – two more than the next six teams – the Eagles appear to be somewhat of an anomaly to be ranked first in the NFL in both giveaways and wins. Digesting this statistic further, over the past three seasons, the team with the most fumbles lost has had the following win totals: 13, 4, and 8. Simply put, there is little correlation between the two (at least for the top team). More likely, fumbles are a function of luck and, literally, good or bad bounces.
The reality remains that the Giants have looked as good in their last three games as Philadelphia looked in their first three. In fact, the Giants have probably been the more impressive team, as the Eagles trailed by at least ten points in each of their first three wins, whereas the Giants have led through the large majority of each victory.
When the two teams meet on Sunday Night Football, it will serve as a statement game for the rest of the NFC East. A Giants victory would not only bump them to 4-2 on the season, but a more valuable 2-0 in the division. The Eagles face the same reward, except a win would move them even higher, to 5-1 overall.
Ultimately, while they are now weeks removed from the memory of atrocious play, the Giants have shown the bigger propensity to fall apart against good teams, while the Eagles have proven worthy of rising to almost every challenge. Philadelphia's one loss included four attempts at a game winning touchdown in San Francisco, and came up a single yard short.
The Eagles beat the Giants by four, narrowly covering the spread.
San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams (+3.5)*
As poorly as underdogs have performed on Thursday Night Football is as successful they have been on Monday nights: 1-4 versus 4-1 against the spread, respectively. Week 6 concludes with its eighth division game, and, according to the percentages, what appears to be one of the most 'obvious' picks of the week.
As always, beware.
The situation in which these two teams meet is almost identical to the Week 4 matchup just over one year ago. On September 26, 2013 (a Thursday, not a Monday, but still on a nationally televised game), the 49ers went into St. Louis as a three-and-a-half point favorite. San Francisco was considered as much of an 'easy pick' last year as they are this time around, as well.
What happened? The 49ers blew the doors off the Rams, 35-11. The pick was, indeed, that easy.
One slight difference exists between the similar games. Thursday Night Football has featured a high number of blowouts, most of which came from the favorite. One theory behind this result is that the 'weaker teams' (underdogs) suffer greater from the shortened week of preparation. When given a full week – and a day, for Monday night games – the gap is shortened.
The familiarity between the two teams should result in a much closer game than the 2013 version of Week 6's finale, but the 49ers should still prevail in the end. The Rams, however, have played to one-score finishes in each of their last three games. It happens again on Monday Night Football, as the 49ers win by a field goal, but St. Louis beats the spread.
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