NFL Week 7 picks: Will there be a letdown in Dallas?
By MARIO MERGOLA
Things are starting to take shape.
Better teams are winning – favorites were an incredible 12-2-1 overall and 9-6 against the spread – and we finally saw some separation amongst division teams. Throughout the league, only the NFC East and NFC North feature two teams tied for first place.
More impressive than favorites winning is the success of the 'obvious' pick, something we generally use as an indicator for a potential trap. The Colts, Broncos, Lions, Patriots, Packers, Cardinals, Chargers, and 49ers all entered Week 6 as teams largely considered 'safe'. Six of the eight teams covered. It is worth noting, however, that the Broncos and Cardinals each covered their spreads via a last-minute interception for a touchdown. Of course, this is part of the game, but 6-2 looks a lot different than 4-4, and the latter was two plays away from happening.
This outburst by 'better teams' does little to affect the overall view of the season, let alone any given week. We can now stop toying around with whether or not the Cowboys are any good – they are – but that truly means little when assessing their chances against the Giants this week. Other teams, like the Browns with their blowout of the Steelers, opened people's eyes, but it is still far too early in the season to anoint Cleveland this year's 'Big Sleeper.' If they lose in Jacksonville, are they suddenly terrible again?
Some trends, as expected, finally began to return to their norm – the Raiders became this year's first touchdown underdog at home to beat the spread, and the Jets nearly did the same against Denver – while others continued in their insanely one-sided direction – favorites winning on Thursday Night Football. Where the redirection occurred for some patterns, we still patiently await the next and try to catch it before it happens.
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.
Minnesota Vikings (+5)* at Buffalo Bills
Teddy Bridgewater beating the Falcons in Week 4 was one of the worst things that could have happened for those trying to correctly assess the Minnesota Vikings. When Bridgewater went down towards the end of the game, the thought was that the Vikings had a realistic chance to beat the Packers the following Thursday night if the rookie could play. Now that we watched a second complete game by Bridgewater, it seems clear his ascension in everyone's mind was a bit premature. However, so is the precipitous drop.
Looking at Bridgewater's two games, it could be argued that the Falcons are simply not a great team and that the Lions might actually have the best defense in the league – at least, their stats would argue that. The real Teddy Bridgewater should fall somewhere in between the two men we watched play these teams, but the bigger question isn't the talent of the Vikings, but the Bills.
Losers of three of their last four games, the perennial 'Don't Buy into Them' Buffalo Bills look like they have arrived at Ralph Wilson Stadium. No one should be surprised if the Bills finish another season 6-10, and the bigger shock would occur if they went the opposite way and put together a winning season on the arm of Kyle Orton. Orton is 36-36 lifetime, and is now playing for his fifth team. There's a reason why he was backing up EJ Manuel to start the season.
Teddy Bridgewater, fresh off a poor performance against a stout defense, reverts back to the quarterback we saw knock off the Falcons, and the Vikings win in Buffalo by a touchdown, beating the spread.
Miami Dolphins (+3.5)* at Chicago Bears
Every year, there are those teams that play, but lose, close games. These teams hardly garner favor in the eyes of analysts and fans, not only because they come away empty-handed, but because they are nearly impossible to figure out. Sunday's matchup between the Bears and Dolphins contains two of this year's enigmatic teams.
Miami has beat the spread both times they were underdogs this season, but only covered once as a favorite. Chicago has only been the favorite once, and lost outright to the Bills. As underdogs, the Bears are 2-1 against the spread while the Dolphins, as favorites, are 1-2 against the spread. What does this mean?
Neither team has met expectations when asked to do so, and they perform better when the level of competition is higher. This is evident by the Dolphins beating the spread – and almost winning the game – against the Packers last week.
In fact, if Aaron Rodgers failed to lead the Packers to a last second comeback, the Dolphins suddenly look a lot better. While Jay Cutler is no slouch under center, Miami just went toe-to-toe with the league's second highest rated passer.
The Dolphins win by a field goal on the road and beat the spread.
New Orleans Saints at Detroit Lions (-2.5)
Before the season started, most people would have said that the Saints would be entering this game at 4-2 while the Lions sat at 2-3. Sure enough, the roles are reversed and Detroit, behind the top ranked defense in both fewest yards and points allowed, is the team looking to improve to 5-2.
The Saints have an extra week to prepare for their trip to Detroit – New Orleans has won five straight games following a bye week, but are only 4-3 under Sean Payton in such conditions – and the last time they took the field, they were narrowly escaping the lowly Buccaneers in New Orleans.
It seems difficult to imagine with the talent the Saints bring to the table, but they simply have not looked good over their first five games. They have yet to play a team with a top-5 defense – Dallas, ranked eighth in points allowed per game is their only top-10 defensive opponent – but the Saints are still only 2-3.
Detroit takes advantage of home field with a statement win over the Saints by a touchdown, covering the spread.
Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers (-7)
Carolina enters their second straight game as a touchdown underdog on the road after their scintillating tie in Cincinnati one week prior. After Green Bay's scare in Miami, they return home to Lambeau Field, where they are 2-0 this season with an average margin of victory of nearly 20 points.
The Panthers have yet to return to their 2013 form, and the defense that led them to a 12-4 record one year prior has yet to show up this season. The fact that Carolina is 3-2-1 (writing three numbers for a record is disgusting and will be an annoyance for the rest of the season) despite the ninth-worst defense in points allowed is actually surprising. In fact, they should have left Cincinnati with a loss. The Panthers escaped by a fortunate field goal miss.
No such luck will be present in Green Bay on Sunday. The Packers win by ten and cover the spread.
Cincinnati Bengals (+3)* at Indianapolis Colts
It appears as if both beneficiaries – more likely, victims – of Sunday's tie between the Bengals and Panthers have suffered a hit in the spreads for Week 7. Cincinnati, everyone's darling after their 3-0 start – so much so that the Bengals have been the favorite in every game after Week 1 – has quickly flipped sides to play the role of the underdog in Indianapolis.
The Bengals have one loss – a Sunday Night Football clash with a Patriots team historically excellent following a losing effort – and their three wins have an average margin of victory of three touchdowns. How would this spread have differed if Mike Nugent's field goal in overtime led to a win instead of a tie?
Furthermore, how would this game look if Indianapolis ended up choking away their 24-0 against the Texans last Thursday night?
This spread is too harsh for a Cincinnati team that might be the best in the AFC and too forgiving for the Colts riding a four-game winning streak and due for a setback. The Bengals get back on track with a field goal win on the road, beating the spread.
Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams (+6.5)
In every way, the Rams have done nothing to deserve the respect of being the pick in this game, but the Seahawks giving less than a touchdown worth of points appears to be one of the 'obvious' games of the week. The more obvious it seems, the more cause for concern.
St. Louis is 2-2 against the spread as an underdog, despite their overall record of 1-4, and the one time Seattle covered as a favorite on the road came via a meaningless field goal in Washington. Also consider that the same 10-point victory against the Redskins was their biggest win since Week 1 against the Packers. The other three games have been decided by nine points or less, and Seattle has only won one, by six.
The Rams look lost at the end of games, incapable of actually mounting any semblance of a comeback once they fall behind, but they have found ways to play closer games than expected. The same should happen on Sunday, as the Seahawks win by four, but St. Louis beats the spread.
Tennessee Titans at Washington Redskins (-4.5)
It happened. We jumped ship on the Titans (with confidence) and were finally right. Of course, it would have been nice to also win the game – silly thought, we know – but beggars can't be choosers.
Once again, we go against Tennessee.
Washington, for the second-straight game, looked much better than their pathetic 1-5 record. Had it not been for a gut-wrenching interception for a touchdown at the end of the game, the Redskins would have beat the spread in Arizona and, potentially, won the game outright. Instead, the errant throw altered the final score and the perception of the team.
Tennessee barely escaped the pathetic Jaguars, at home, and now travel to take on a Washington team on a four-game losing streak. The Redskins aren't very good, but the Titans look much worse. In fact, Washington's only win was a blowout victory, at home, against a bad AFC South opponent.
Washington wins by a touchdown and covers.
Cleveland Browns at Jacksonville Jaguars (+5.5)*
Don't look now, but the Cleveland Browns, after back-to-back wins, find themselves in actual conversations regarding a potential playoff push. This season!
What's more, the next three games on the Browns' schedule is so obviously easy, that people are already talking about a 6-2 team from Cleveland! The NFL is always that predictable, right?
Well, if that's not the kiss of death...
Cleveland will not go 3-0 against the Jaguars, Raiders, and Buccaneers. It was not so long ago that the Browns were the 'easy win' on everyone's schedule. It was also not until Week 6 where the Browns actually beat anyone by more than a field goal. So, slow down, Browns.
The Jaguars' defense has played better of late – no more than 17 points allowed in each of their last two games – and Blake Bortles, though inconsistent, looks more like the solution than the problem. If the Jaguars can hold the Browns' offense down – a surprisingly hard task as Cleveland has scored at least 21 points in every game – and Bortles can keep improving, Jacksonville has a chance at an upset.
In all likelihood, this doesn't happen. Jacksonville is, in almost every statistical way, the worst team in football. But they should give the Browns a fight. Moreover, the 'obvious' Browns have every ingredient for a potential letdown in Jacksonville.
Cleveland wins by a field goal, but Jacksonville beats the spread.
Atlanta Falcons at Baltimore Ravens (-6.5)
Atlanta's home loss to the Bears dropped them to 2-4 on the season, and started to enhance doubts about this year's squad. Without the swarm of injuries from last year, the Falcons have no excuses to be losing this many games, and it might boil down to the simplest conclusion: they aren't any good.
Baltimore, at 4-2 and coming off an easy thrashing of the Buccaneers, returns home in what is currently a three-team race in the AFC North. While they will receive no style points for demolishing the terrible Buccaneers, they should get credit for consistently handling bad teams. As it stands now, the Ravens' only two losses are to the Bengals (3-1-1) and the Colts (4-2)
Assuming the Falcons still can't put everything together, the Ravens should continue to feast on weaker opponents. Baltimore wins by two touchdowns and covers the spread.
Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers (-4)
It is actually a little surprising that the Chargers are only giving four points in this contest, but it is likely a product of their struggle to put away the Raiders until the final minutes of their Week 6 matchup and Andy Reid's absurd 13-2 record following his team's bye week. Neither, however, should be indicative of this meeting, as the Chargers were due for a letdown in Oakland while Reid's only two losses following a bye were the last two in which he coached.
The Chargers are making a strong case to be one of the league's best teams, and in a division that also features the powerful Broncos, San Diego needs to remain hot against the Chiefs. The Chargers also managed a rare season-sweep against the Chiefs last year, despite Kansas City's impressive 11-5 overall record.
As noted many times, San Diego's only loss this season was by one point, and their average margin of victory is now just over fourteen points. With a top-5 ranking in both points scored and points allowed, the Chargers appear to be every bit as good as their gaudy 5-1 record.
Sunday's game will make it 6-1. San Diego beats Kansas City by ten and covers the spread.
New York Giants (+6)* at Dallas Cowboys
No teams saw their stocks move more after their Week 6 games than the Giants and Cowboys. New York, fresh off a three-game winning streak and looking to cement itself in the NFC East race, got shut out by the Eagles while the 4-1 Cowboys went into Seattle and beat the Seahawks. It bares repeating: in Seattle.
Suddenly, the Giants are horrible and ineffective again and the Cowboys are reminiscent of the Dallas teams of the late '90s. At least, that's the new perception.
In their ten seasons under head coach Tom Coughlin, the Giants are a solid 11-9 against the Cowboys. More impressively, New York tends to play better away from home in this rivalry, boasting a 6-4 record on the road, compared to an even 5-5 in the Meadowlands. Enhancing this trend, the Giants have won four of their last five games in Dallas.
The Giants bounce back after their tough Sunday night loss in Philadelphia, and knock off the 5-1 Cowboys by six, beating the spread.
Arizona Cardinals at Oakland Raiders (+3.5)*
As noted earlier, the Cardinals came up with a game-sealing interception against the Redskins that quickly put out any potential fires that would have surely burned in Arizona had Washington completed the comeback. While the Cardinals controlled the scoreboard for much of the game, the return of Carson Palmer under center did not result in the blowout everyone had predicted.
In a similar fashion, the Raiders avoided their 'expected disaster,' hanging with the Chargers until the final two minutes of the game, before ultimately losing to a better team. San Diego is not only far superior to the Raiders, but also a cut above the visiting Cardinals.
Quietly, Derek Carr is putting up an impressive rookie season, already eclipsing 1,000 passing yards in just five games. His 0-5 record speaks volumes to his team's struggles, but, on an offense where the quarterback position is not a weakness, it seems likely that the Raiders have a few wins up their sleeves in the coming weeks.
Furthermore, the Raiders have allowed the second fewest amount of sacks all season (four). The best way to derail the success of a rookie quarterback – any quarterback, really – is to apply pressure. Which team ranks third-worst in defensive sacks with only six all year? You guessed it: the Arizona Cardinals.
Oakland finally breaks through with their first win of the season, by a field goal, and beats the spread.
San Francisco 49ers at Denver Broncos (-6.5)
Denver hosts its second Sunday Night Football game of the year – in Week 1, they beat the Colts 31-24 – when it takes on the 49ers, no stranger to the national spotlight, themselves. San Francisco will play its second-straight road night game, fresh off their defeat of the St. Louis Rams on Monday night.
Denver is 2-1 as a favorite this season, but the 49ers enter the game as an underdog for the first time all year. San Francisco has, however, found success against the spread on the road –- 2-1 and an incredible 9-1 over its last 10 road games. Clearly, the 49ers benefit from the extra road points. But, points aside, the 49ers are also 19-8 in road games under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The pick ultimately comes down to the matchups between the teams' strengths. It seems best to take the points in a large spread when the underdog has the ability to score in bunches, but that is not necessarily the case with the 49ers. Ranked a pedestrian 17th in points scored, the 49ers have only eclipsed the 30-point mark once this season, completed via an interception return for a touchdown in the final meaningless minute of their game in St. Louis (apparently, 'Week 6′ translates to 'last minute pick-6′).
Denver's top-10 defense – both in points and yards allowed – coupled with their obviously prolific offense – also top-10 in points and yards – gives the Broncos the edge on all fronts in this game. It probably won't be easy to cover the large spread, but the numbers suggest that San Francisco can't keep up with Denver if the points start piling up.
The Broncos win by a touchdown and narrowly cover.
Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5)
When we last left these two teams, one was getting pummeled into submission in the first quarter while the other was getting picked apart in the latter three. Both lost. Both are 3-3. Both have a lot of unanswered questions.
Is J.J. Watt the best offensive player on the Texans? Are the Steelers really a last-place team? Can Houston continue to prevent teams from scoring while still giving up a boatload of yards? Will Pittsburgh continue alternating wins and losses forever?
There exists, between these two teams, absolutely no clear trends. The Steelers, as favorites, are 2-1, but only 1-2 against the spread. Houston, as an underdog, is 0-2, but 1-1 against the spread. Conversely, the Texans are 3-1 as favorites, both straight up and against the spread, while the Steelers are 1-2 as underdogs, straight up and against the spread.
There are absolutely no conclusions to be drawn from these numbers. If anything, the only pattern that exists is that both teams play to their expected level, no more and no less. Roughly speaking, as favorites, they win, and as underdogs, they lose.
Combining this derived conclusion with the fact that Houston has trailed by double-digit points in each of their last four games – three times in the fourth quarter – the Texans appear to be the team more likely to fall behind early and not be able to recover. The reality remains, as exciting and game-changing as J.J. Watt is, Houston cannot rely on defensive touchdowns to stay in the game. While the Steelers have proven little, in their own right, the potential for an upside explosion exists more in Pittsburgh than it does in Houston.
The Steelers win by ten on Monday Night Football and cover.
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