One thing that always fascinates me more than the average human about the NFL is the balance of power between the AFC and the NFC. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I guess it’s easy stimulation for me. The two conferences face each other every now and then throughout the regular season, but for the most part, we think of them as entirely separate entities. And it’s a fun exercise to try to compare the top teams from each conference. Which conference has more juggernauts? Which conference has the easier path to the playoffs? Does the AFC winner stand a chance in the Super Bowl against whoever comes out of the NFC? What’s the deal with the Pro Bowl again? They cancelled it? No? They moved it back a week? They used one of those Men In Black mind erasers to wipe our memories of any past Pro Bowl games? Cool.
Through the early part of this season, it looked like the AFC might be taking some of the power back. The NFC has been the better conference over the past couple years. But the AFC got off to a fast start in head-to-head matchups with their rivals in the NFC, and it looked like Kansas City, Denver, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and New England were all true contenders.
Fast forward to mid-November and now the NFC vs AFC matchup in 2013 is an even split, 23-23. So the NFC has certainly caught up over the past month. But does that mean the conferences are finally balanced?
Not really. According to Football Outsiders (which, in case you didn’t realize by now, is like the Bible to me in terms of ranking teams), five of the top 6 teams in the NFL come from the NFC, and if we go farther down the list, it gets even worse: 11 of the top 16 teams are from the NFC. And just like that it feels like 2010-2012 all over again.
While the best team in all of football is Denver (AFC), the rest of the top five goes: Seattle, Carolina, New Orleans and Chicago (all NFC). In fact, Football Outsiders claims that the 10th and 11th best NFC teams ( Philadelphia and St. Louis, ranked 15th & 16th overall) are only slightly worse than the 5th best AFC team (Indianapolis, ranked 14th overall).
And that’s where the big difference is between the two conferences. While the best of the NFC continue to look like true contenders, the best of the AFC (Denver excluded) looks pretty weak. The Chiefs are 9-0 but no one really buys that they’re very good. The Bengals look great for a couple weeks, then drop back-to-back games against non-playoff teams. The Colts took down some of the best teams in the NFL earlier this year, but have looked horrible against lesser teams like Oakland, Miami, Houston and most recently St. Louis. And the Patriots have enough injury concerns that I can totally understand why people won’t take them seriously even if they beat Carolina and Denver in their next two games.
And in case you weren’t convinced that quarterback play has a huge effect on how good a team is overall, I should probably let you know that 9 of the top 11 rated quarterbacks in the NFL right now are from NFC teams. C’mon, AFC, we’re getting friggen owned out there. This is embarrassing.
The point of all this useless info? I don’t really have one. There are four NFC vs AFC matchups this week, and I honestly can’t picture the AFC winning more than one of them.
The beat goes on, I guess.
Speaking of the beat going on, let’s jump into my week 11 picks!
(Remember my week 10 NFL recap where I said I’d start telling my readers which of my weekly picks I was most confident in? Well I’m actually following through with that this week. If you see the words “CONFIDENCE PICK” next to a matchup, that means it’s one of my five most confident picks this week.)
Indianapolis (-3) @ Tennessee
With Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm for the rest of Tennessee’s season, we know exactly what we’re getting: Many games of three touchdown passes cancelled out by three costly interceptions, frisky games at home and blow outs on the road. I think they’ll be pretty predictable. But I don’t have a friggen clue which direction this Indianapolis season is heading. Are they the team that seemingly solidified their contender status when they knocked off San Francisco, Seattle and Denver? Or are they the guys who played quit-on-your-coach football in three of their past four halves? As much as I want to believe Andrew Luck is one of those “don’t bet against him after a loss” level quarterbacks already, I can’t get past how bad they’ve looked since Reggie Wayne got hurt in week 7. Under normal circumstances I’d be backing the Colts blindly one last time this week. But nine times out of 10 this season, my instinct has been wrong on these 50/50 games. I’m picking Tennessee to cover and win, 29-23.
Side Note: Believe it or not, this is going to be the Colts’ 4th nationally-televised primetime game already this season. Another reason I’m choosing the Titans is to try to offset some of my natural bias. Whenever I see a lot of a certain team, and they’re doing well most of the time I see them, I tend to get overconfident in just how good they actually are. I think our exposure bias (if that’s a thing) might lead us to pick the Colts when there’s no real reason to do so. Sticking with the Titans.
Atlanta (-1.5) @ Tampa Bay (CONFIDENCE PICK)
One of four unwatchable games on the Sunday morning slate. Blacklist it from the Red Zone. Welcome to the Week 11 “don’t think, just do it” Pick. No need to study stats and analysis for this one. Two bottom five NFL teams, and the home team’s getting points? Take those points. Go Tampa Bay. They win 34-24.
NY Jets @ Buffalo (-1)
Unwatchable game #2. It doesn’t matter that the Jets are balls deep in the playoff race and that this is a key divisional game. We’re talking about two of the worst offenses in the league against two top-10 defenses. Could truly see a field goals only game. I’m once again basing this pick solely on the home team. Buffalo covers with a 18-9 win.
Side Note: How many high fives do you think Rex Ryan gave out around the Jets’ facility after they signed Ed Reed? You know he was just going around slapping people on the ass, saying things like, “Belichick always wanted this guy, and look who got him again!” The thing is, if Reed was even half the safety right now that Nate Ebner is, you know he’d be in New England at this very moment. If Belichick didn’t want him, and the Texans thought he was dead weight…yikes.
Detroit (-3) @ Pittsburgh (CONFIDENCE PICK)
Even though I picked Buffalo to cover in Pittsburgh last week and they got blown out, I’m actually happy that it happened. Because now we get another week of people thinking the Steelers aren’t a terrible team. The Lions have already won three road games this year, no worries about their ability to win away from Ford Field. There’s simply too big of a talent gap between these teams. Detroit is so obvious it hurts. Lions cover with a 38-27 win.
Side Note: The level of confidence I have in this pick is borderline dangerous. Someone should lock down my online betting account before I’m allowed to put myself into debt over this game.
Washington @ Philadelphia (-4.5)
It’s frustrating that two teams this bad are allowed to stay in the playoff race. Even more frustrating is that I can’t get a read on either team. It feels like the Redskins truly suck and the Eagles just kinda suck. But the Skins have played a slightly more difficult schedule, and this whole thing about the Eagles never being able to win at home is just too much fun. I’m going to predict the streak continues. Washington keeps the NFC East looking terrible with a 30-27 win over Philadelphia.
Baltimore @ Chicago (-3) (CONFIDENCE PICK)
This is a huge mismatch. The line is obviously low because Jay Cutler’s out, but this offense is almost QB-proof. Matt Flynn could probably get inserted into the Bears’ lineup and put up 300 yards and a couple touchdowns. Josh McCown has so many weapons to work with, he’s experienced…he won’t be that big of a drop off from Cutler. I see no reason the Bears won’t win by at least a touchdown. Chicago wins 31-20.
Side Note: Caution! The Bears have been one of the worst teams against the spread this year as they’ve only covered two of their nine games. Personally I’m of the mindset that this type of record will even itself out in the long run. But I wanted to give full disclosure that Chicago has been really really bad for bettors so far this year.
Cleveland @ Cincinnati (-6)
As I predicted before last weekend, the home team continues to win all games featuring two AFC North teams. So I feel good saying the Bengals are going to win. They’ve lost two straight games on the road, but they haven’t lost a home game yet this year. It feels like Cincinnati will be playing their third consecutive overtime game, but this time they’ll win, 25-22 (meaning Cleveland covers).
Oakland @ Houston (-7)
The Raiders may not win a road game this season, but that doesn’t mean a Houston team in shambles should be favored by a full touchdown against them. The Texans are now without Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Brian Cushing and Ed Reed. Has any team lost more guys that were supposed to be key contributors going into the season? How does this line make any sense? Houston’s going to win by more than a touchdown? It’s one of those “sure it might happen, but you can’t possibly pick it” games. Our hands are tied with the Texans being such a heavy favorite. Oakland covers and wins, 23-20.
Arizona (-7) @ Jacksonville
I’d like to be the first to congratulate the Arizona Cardinals for improving to 6-4 after this game and officially being in playoff contention for the first time since 2009! But to completely legitimize this season with a playoff berth, they’re going to have to win two of these three games: home vs Indianapolis, @Philadelphia and @Tennessee. That’s the only way they get to 10 wins. I think they’ll fall just short. Meanwhile, getting to bet against Carson Palmer as a 7-point road favorite seems too good to be true. Maybe it’s just Vegas’s way of saying “thank you” to all its loyal gamblers? I’m taking Jacksonville because no one should be betting on Arizona with this large of a spread on the road. Arizona wins, but only by 4…27-23.
San Diego (-1.5) @ Miami (CONFIDENCE PICK)
Regardless of how this Miami turmoil ultimately shakes out, nobody is making out better than Ryan Tannehill. If he continues to look average or slightly below average, he’s got a ready-made excuse now that his offensive line is decimated. And if he somehow performs at a decent level, we’ll marvel at how hard he battled even though he’s getting knocked down 46 times a game. I still think he’s going to be garbage, but we’ll have to wait until next year to really find out.
Even though the Chargers burned me two weeks ago when they traveled east and couldn’t finish off the Redskins, I’m backing them for this particular east coast trip. I just can’t see the Dolphins turning things around in six days from that ugly Monday night performance. Give me San Diego to win 28-17.
Minnesota @ Seattle (-13)
This is the Seahawks’ fourth and final “lambs to the slaughter” game. It’s exactly what it sounds like. A certain caliber of visiting team goes into Seattle and becomes the football equivalent of helpless little lambs being viciously slaughtered. In week 3 it was Jacksonville. In week 6 it was a Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Tennessee team. In week 9 it was Tampa Bay, though the Bucs put up a much better fight than the lambs usually do. And now it’s Minnesota. Due to the Vikings’ insistence on ruining as many QB careers as possible in one season, I’m taking the Seahawks to cover with a 42-17 win.
San Francisco @ New Orleans (-3) (CONFIDENCE PICK)
Usually when I preface a pick with “this is one of those lines you don’t bother wasting time analyzing,” I’m talking about a matchup between equally terrible teams. But I’m using that same advice on two equally awesome teams this time. It’s a classic case of the home team most likely winning any time these teams are facing each other. So you gotta go with the Saints to cover. And the added upside by picking the Saints this week is that Vernon Davis could miss the game. He’s pretty much the difference between the 9ers losing by only a touchdown or the 9ers losing by 28 points. I’ve got Saints over 49ers, 33-23.
Green Bay @ NY Giants (-6)
Had a lengthy discussion yesterday about the state of the NFC East with my friend who’s a huge Washington fan. By lengthy, I mean 90 seconds, the largest amount of time anyone can possibly talk nonstop about the NFC East and not blow their brains out. I gave him plausible scenarios for how each of the four teams cold win the division. One-by-one he pondered each argument and then said, “yeah, but they’re awful” and dismissed that team. He did that four times. That’s the best way to sum up the state of the NFC East. He agreed with me that the most obnoxious scenario is the Giants winning the division. Their fans have shown a lot of restraint by remaining quiet during the Giants’ slow resurrection to NFC East relevance. They will be slightly insufferable if this works out for them.
Are any Packers fans out there starting to panic about the Aaron Rodgers era yet? I’m talking about panicking in a greedy way. Like saying, “Jesus, Rodgers could retire with only one Super Bowl title,” or, “I can’t believe after that start to his career, Rodgers never got to play in another Super Bowl.” Things just haven’t gone smoothly since that Championship in 2010-11. The season after that title run, the Packers went 15-1 just for a chance to implode against the Giants at Lambeau. No other 15-1 team has failed to win their first playoff game. Then last year was a strange one. They lost a key game in week 3 on that terrible non-interception call in Seattle, and they didn’t click on offense for most of the season. That debacle in Seattle forced the Packers to face San Francisco on the road in round 2 of the playoffs instead of Green Bay getting to host the 9ers. The Packers got embarrassed by Colin Kaepernick. And now in 2013, the Rodgers Era probably lets another year pass by without a 2nd title run. Even if A-Rodge comes back in time to get them a wildcard spot, they’d likely have to win games at New Orleans and at Seattle to get to the Super Bowl. No chance that’s happening. I guess this is my 2013 Green Bay Packers eulogy. Maybe year 4 of the title drought will be the one! Anyway, I’m picking the Giants to cover with a 34-20 win. I fear for Scott Tolzien’s body and psyche in this one.
Kansas City @ Denver (-8)
Denver has annihilated every team they’ve played at home this year…But I’m not giving more than a touchdown to a banged up Peyton Manning going against one of the league’s best pass rushes and overall pass defenses. This is a point too high. Kansas City covers as they lose to Denver 30-23.
New England @ Carolina (-1)
This game seems simple enough to me: If Carolina can run & field goal their way up and down the field, they’ll win. But if the Patriots offense cracks the code on this Panthers defense and suddenly Cam Newton finds himself in a shootout with Tom Brady, Patriots win. The run defense is a problem for New England, but it’s only a problem if an opponent commits to the run and follows through with it the entire game. As soon as they ditch that plan and Newton’s forced to throw the ball 30+ times, game over.
My pick for this game was always going to come down to whether or not Aqib Talib is playing. And unfortunately I’m going to have to turn in this column before we know if he’s officially playing on Sunday. My guess is that he will play. And my prediction is that Newton will have to win this game with his arm at some point, but a healthy New England secondary won’t let it happen. Pats escape with the win, 33-27.
For those of you keeping score at home, in week 11 I’m taking:
- 7 Favorites & 8 Underdogs
- Of those 8 Dogs, 3 are Home Dogs & 5 are Road Dogs
Enjoy week 11 while I murder your whole f*cking family (I wrote that while a smiling lady & cute dog stood nearby so it doesn’t count as an actual threat).