NFL Power Rankings: Sorting Out Each Team’s Playoff Candidacy

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Diego Chargers

At the conclusion of week 6 last year, my against the spread record sat at 37-51-4 and I wrote the following week how my year picking games most closely resembled the New York Giants. That Giants team was 0-6, and Eli Manning was trying to rewrite the part of the record books that focuses on interceptions.

For this young 2014 season, I just suffered my worst week. I went 6-9 against the spread, bringing my season record to 42-47-2. Sure, it’s not a smelly trash fire of a season, but it’s not good. It looks fine compared to 2013, but it’s been a season of “one step forward, two steps back” for me.

So which 2014 NFL team does my current season best compare to? It’s gotta be a team under .500. One that has looked great at times and awful at times. One who you can’t write off just yet, but they better do something soon to restore your faith. And one who probably won’t bottom out, but also won’t go on to win 10+ games. We’re looking for a team in that 7-9 to 9-7 range.

Crazy enough, the Giants might be the best comparison once again! Another option is Miami. But the one I like best (and it works well because I really haven’t been able to get a read on them this year) is the Chicago Bears.

They look great on paper. They have all the talent in the world. You fully expect them to be good and compete with the big boys of the NFC. But something causes them to hover near that .500 range, and they’ll likely need some luck to make the playoffs.

And I’m depressed.

Oh, and just for that extra kick to the sack, I also went 0-3 in fantasy football this week, lost my hold on 1st or 2nd place in my Pick ‘Em leagues, and maybe most frustrating of all, I’m out of my Suicide Pool thanks to Seattle’s antics against the Cowboys.

One horrible week.

You know what I’m going to do? Take a page out of Tony Sparano’s book—a page he apparently borrowed from Rex Ryan’s book—and bury week 6 in the ground. That’s right. I’m going to pull up my Week 6 picks blog on a computer, throw that computer into a hole and cover it with dirt. That should make everything better.

Now that every team has played at least five games, it feels like the right time to step back and see what the NFL landscape looks like. I personally think it’s pointless to assign power rankings every single week, but every six weeks or so feels about right.

My power rankings divide the teams into four distinct categories. Unlike some other rankings that purely focus on how a team is playing at this exact moment, I’m putting a lot of weight on the teams that are best positioned to get into the playoffs.

Let’s dive in.

Teams that are already out of playoff contention

32. Oakland

31. Jacksonville

  • Ahh, the two teams keeping my longest of long shot bets alive (will any team go 0/16?). And yet, both showed lots of life on Sunday as the Raiders nearly beat division-leading San Diego at home while the Jags came up just short of embarrassing the Titans right out of the league in Tennessee (more on that in a second).
  • Jacksonville gets the slight edge despite having lost one more game than the Raiders because they play in an easier division and Oakland’s schedule is brutal going forward.
  • But at least both of these teams have to feel decent about their young starting quarterbacks. All you can ask for is to not be writing those guys off as busts yet. With QBs like JaMarcus Russell, Blaine Gabbert, Brady Quinn and EJ Manuel (seriously), you kinda knew within the first couple games. Maybe even the first couple throws. But for the first time in about 10 years, there’s hope for both franchises.

30. Tampa Bay

  • Readers of this blog who have a memory good enough to recall something from five whole days ago will remember that I wasted their time discussing the Bucs’ chances to make the playoffs. I even went and put a bet down on the 25/1 odds that said they would.
  • I’m over it already. One embarrassing no-show per year for each team is acceptable, but a second one just three weeks later?
  • The hesitation to put them in this category is based off their seemingly subpar division and the fact that after a bye in week 7, three of their next four games are against Minnesota, Atlanta and Washington.
  • But we can probably safely say they’re not going 8-2 the rest of the way.

29. Tennessee

  • The only two-win team in this group, but I feel confident they’re done.
  • Their quarterback situation is a mess (in fact, it might be the biggest mess of any team whose name doesn’t rhyme with “the Schmets”).
  • They play in a division with two teams who are clearly better than them.
  • And before you get all excited about that second win this past Sunday, keep this in mind: At home, the Titans got two turnovers from the Jaguars, were up by nine points with 38 seconds left, allowed Jacksonville to recover an onside kick in an obvious onside kick situation, and only escaped with a win because Gus Bradley decided a 55-yard field goal attempt was a better option than gaining an extra 10 yards and trying a makeable game-winning kick.

28. St. Louis

  • The Rams have actually been better than their 1-4 record. Three of those four losses were very competitive, and in two of them, they had a double-digit lead during the game.
  • But this ranking is all about playoff viability, and unfortunately the Rams play in the NFL’s toughest division. If it was a case where Seattle was a powerhouse but the other two teams were bad, I’d keep the Rams around a bit longer.

27. NY Jets

  • It still wouldn’t shock me to see the Jets get to 7-9 or 8-8 by the end of the year because historically that’s exactly what they do. But they still have two games against the Patriots, and six of 10 on the road.
  • You also may have heard that their quarterback situation is bad.
  • You might have even heard that their defensive back situation is possibly worse than their quarterback situation. I’m reluctant to say it, but maybe, finally, this is the year that the Jets go 4-12.

26. Washington

  • To paraphrase legendary Washington coach Mike Shanahan, I think it’s time the PotatoSkins evaluate players for next season. Specifically the quarterbacks.
  • Despite 10-point losses in each one, their last two games really haven’t been that bad. And those were losses to Seattle and Arizona, currently two of the NFC’s best.
  • The problem, of course, is that the ‘Skins no longer play in the NFC Least. They play in the NFC…Beast?
  • Two teams in that division are 5-1, and the Giants at 3-3 still have a chance. It’s just a numbers game and Washington’s on the losing side.

Teams that could be out of playoff contention after week 7

25. Kansas City

  • This category has only four teams, all of whom are on the road in week 7, strengthening the chances that they lose and effectively fall into the only category that’s worse than theirs.
  • Not only are the Chiefs not good, but they also could be three games back of two other teams in their division. The math just doesn’t work in their favor.

24. Atlanta

  • After their 2-1 start, I abandoned my preseason notion that Mike Smith could be fired during the season. But if they drop to 2-5, suddenly it’s not that inconceivable. And if they were to lose a home game in week 8 to Detroit, falling to 2-6 at their bye, does Arthur Blank make me look like a genius?
  • The NFC South has only one team at .500 or better, the Panthers. But a loss this week would put Atlanta in a big hole, and quite honestly they might be legitimately bad. Their two wins—an overtime home win against the can’t-play-on-the-road Saints and a blowout of a Tampa team that appears disinterested in football—seem less impressive with each passing week.

23. Miami

  • This one gives me the most pause because I think their floor and their ceiling are both in that 7-9 to 9-7 range.
  • But a loss at Chicago in week 7 would likely put them two-and-a-half back of the Patriots. And it appears the Chargers or Broncos are going to grab one of the wildcard spots. In that case the Dolphins are competing with the entire AFC North for that second wildcard entry.
  • If they don’t win at Chicago, what confidence do you have that they can win at Detroit, at Denver or at New England? They can’t go 0-4 in those games and still have a chance.

22. Minnesota

  • Teddy Bridgewater looked bad enough last week that I probably could have stuck them in the “already out” category.
  • But we still don’t know if their division’s three other teams are all good or all mediocre.
  • Considering they play Buffalo, I’m giving them the best chance out of the four teams in this category of winning this week, and therefore staving off elimination for at least another week.

Teams that likely won’t decide if they’re in or out until the final month of the season

21. Buffalo

  • Even with Kyle Orton being by far the best quarterback on their roster, the Bills have a good chance to be 4-3 after week 7.
  • And their next five games are all winnable. Brace yourself for Buffalo to be 7-5 at the start of December only to see them finish 7-9.

20. Houston

  • Even with the Colts looking like a lock to win this division, the Texans will probably hover close enough to .500 that they’ll always be one Andrew Luck injury away from being the new AFC South favorites.
  • There’s also the J.J. Watt factor. I love watching him play, but you can’t convince me he’s an MVP candidate. There’s no way you could say, “J.J. Watt might put this team on his back and carry them to the playoffs,” much like Adrian Peterson did for the Vikings in 2012. A defensive player just can’t swing a game that much.

19. NY Giants

  • In the suddenly scary NFC East, it’s not good to see four division games still remaining on the Giants’ schedule. They also have Indy, Seattle and San Francisco.
  • So far the Giants have lost by double digits to three teams with winning records (Detroit, Arizona and Philadelphia), and have won by double digits against three .500 or under teams (Houston, Washington and Atlanta).
  • It feels like we’re heading for 8-8.

18. Cleveland

  • Well looky here, the Browns are 3-2, AND, more importantly they could be 5-0 if it wasn’t for last second losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore in September.
  • Here’s what we’ve come to with the Browns: Football Night in America put up a graphic that said “Browns face QB dilemma” and for once it wasn’t in the context of picking the lesser of two evils such as Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn. It was because their veteran who was only supposed to be keeping the seat warm for the rookie 1st round pick is suddenly on fire!
  • Cleveland gets Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay next. Could they go into Cincinnati on Thursday in week 10 with a 6-2 record?
  • Because it’s the Browns.
  • For those of us who still consider LeBron James to be a giant ass, wouldn’t it be fantastic for the Browns to win a Super Bowl before he can deliver them an NBA Championship?

17. New Orleans

  • Worst division in football + a possible 8-0 home record = Can’t write them off yet no matter how enticing it is to do so.
  • But then again, they are looking at 2-4 if they can’t beat the Lions in Detroit this weekend.
  • Of course that 2-4 record could still leave them only a game-and-a-half back in the South.

16. Pittsburgh

  • I just realized the Steelers have neither won nor lost consecutive games yet. Beware of the win-loss-win-loss rhythm to their season. Some team always seems to follow that exact blueprint to an 8-8 record.
  • Their next five games could result in four wins, but their final five could be the exact opposite.
  • They’re probably going to have to get some help from a stumbling Ravens or Bengals team to make the playoffs.

15. Carolina

  • The lowest-ranked of the current division leaders.
  • On the plus side they’ve played well against good competition so far this year.
  • Unfortunately their next four games are: @Green Bay, vs Seattle, vs New Orleans and @Philadelphia.
  • This is one of those divisions where tiebreakers could be huge because it’s likely that two or more teams finish at 9-7.

14. Chicago

  • One interesting observation from this column: Every time I look at a team’s schedule and see the Cowboys, I have to consciously force myself to consider them to be one of the better teams. It’s unnatural.
  • The Bears have a lot of difficult games left. I’m guessing they’ll be 8-7 heading into week 17 at Minnesota.

13. Arizona

  • How in the hell does a team that’s already used three different quarterbacks for a significant amount of time over just five games lead the NFL’s hardest division?
  • For one, the Seahawks have slipped up enough to open the door.
  • And secondly…magic.
  • I don’t expect the Cardinals to hang on and win the West, but the wildcard’s in play.
  • I’d love to see Arizona at San Francisco in week 17 mean a lot to both teams.

12. Detroit

  • The Lions are 4-2, have already beaten the Packers once and boast the NFL’s best defense through six weeks. For once maybe the Lions are for real?
  • You’ll notice they’re ranked lower than Green Bay even with that game in hand. That’s because of nervousness over Calvin Johnson’s injury and the Lions’ less-than-stellar track record.
  • Unless they run away with the division making December’s schedule irrelevant, Detroit ends the season with key road games against Chicago and Green Bay.

11. San Francisco

  • You’re going to notice that with the 49ers and the Seahawks, even though they’re not currently leading the division or looking like a lock for the playoffs, we’re giving them the benefit of the doubt.
  • But the 49ers aren’t going to have an easy time going forward. For one, they haven’t even looked great in any of their home games.
  • They’re in Denver on Sunday night and have to deal with the weekly Peyton Manning LoveFest (With Manning’s assault on Brett Favre’s touchdown record, you can expect a Jeter-level Media Frenzy surrounding him for the rest of the year).
  • They still have to travel to the Eastern Time Zone in back-to-back weeks to face the Saints and the Giants.
  • And of course they still face Seattle twice.
  • For those of you who agreed with me on the 9ers finally missing the playoffs, don’t worry, it’s still looking OK.

10. Baltimore

  • They’ve gotta be the odds-on favorite to be the #6 seed in the AFC Playoffs.
  • It’s certainly important that they win a home game against the 2-4 Falcons this weekend, but the following Sunday should determine if they’ll even have a chance to win the AFC North. That’s when they face the Bengals for a second time. They’d need a win in Cincy to have a realistic chance at the division title.

9. Green Bay

  • If I had to make a bet on any of these first 24 teams I’ve mentioned in this column to win the Super Bowl, I’d have to go with Green Bay. This is still a QB-centric league, and they’ve got the best one.
  • But we could still be in for a very good battle among the Packers, Bears and Lions. The Packers’ deficiencies on defense and at head coach will cause them to struggle a lot more than they should. Sure, they’ll sprinkle in a 42-10 beatdown of the Vikings every now and then, but they’ll probably have to scratch & claw their way to 10 wins.
  • If the Lions can live up to their side of the deal, we might be in for a great finish between these two teams in Detroit on December 28th.

Teams that look like playoff locks…at least for now

8. Dallas

7. Philadelphia

  • Both teams seem to be doing it with a little bit of smoke & mirrors. The Eagles have had a number of defensive and special teams touchdowns. They’ve also won three games by the skin of their teeth.
  • I don’t know what the smoke & mirrors are with Dallas, but I refuse to believe they’re this good. They’ve also won three of their games by a touchdown or less. It feels like each team could just as easily be 3-3 as 5-1.
  • The Cowboys get three home games and then they’re at Jacksonville. Expect them to be 8-2 at worst going into their week 11 bye.
  • The Eagles seem a bit realer because they’re getting some key guys back from injury soon.
  • These two teams play twice in 17 days in November and December.

6. Cincinnati

  • It really bothers me to have to take ties into account when looking at NFL standings.
  • Could we see a three game winless streak out of the Bengals? They lost to the Patriots two weeks ago, then tied the Panthers last week, and now they’re at Indy in week 7. What looked like the AFC’s best team after three weeks now looks like a team that might get swallowed up in the AFC North’s clusterfuck of mediocrity.
  • Note to my future self: Don’t put so much stock in “team X is coming off a bye so I’m giving them an edge over the team that’s not coming off a bye.” The Bengals have looked horrible since their week 3 bye and that has specifically hurt my bets.
  • With five home games remaining and an eventual return of A.J. Green, they still feel like a near certainty to win the North and get bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Ravens.

5. Seattle

  • Hey, Seattle fans, I don’t make the rules. In its last three games, your team allowed the Broncos to mount a big comeback in Seattle, then you let the PotatoSkins hang around on Monday Night Football, and this past week you lost at home to the Cowboys.
  • I can’t knock the Seahawks down too far, and I’ve got to put them above the Cardinals and 49ers even with the current standings how they are. I hope we’ve learned with the Patriots (among others) that teams can struggle a bit early on and still turn into the contender they’re supposed to be. The Seahawks’ track record says they’ll be fine.
  • This will be their gauntlet to conquer later in the year: vs Arizona, @San Francisco, @Philadelphia, vs San Francisco, @Arizona. Good luck.

4. New England

  • Before you get mad about how highly ranked I have the Patriots, keep in mind that they’re a much more sure thing for the playoffs right now than Seattle, and they already beat Cincinnati. I think this spot is a perfect fit for them.
  • Of course we already know that even if their talent doesn’t add up to a top playoff seed, the division they play in will certainly give them a great chance at securing a first round bye.
  • They’ve yet to reach the hard part of their schedule. Starting in week 8, it goes like this: vs Chicago, vs Denver, BYE, @Indianapolis, vs Detroit, @Green Bay, @San Diego.
  • It’s very possible they only go 3-3 in that stretch, and that would mean 10-6 is probably their best bet. You’ll see the final three teams on my list may all have a leg up on the Patriots in the AFC.

3. Indianapolis

  • Andrew Luck has already turned into someone you never want to bet against, and it just so happens his Colts pretty much have the AFC South by the balls. Sure, the Texans are only one game back, but we all know those three wins by Houston were an aberration. The Colts spotted the division a nice head start when they began the season 0-2, and already they’ve made up the ground.
  • Even with a tricky few games in weeks 7-11, it’s hard to picture them winning less than 10. Even if they don’t secure a first round bye, it appears as though Luck has matured enough that he should be feared in January.

2. Denver

  • If you’re tracking them against the two other teams they’ve played in the top five, I have them ahead of the Colts because they beat Indy in week 1 (possibly an important tiebreaker), and I have them in front of the Seahawks because the NFC, and particularly the NFC West, is a lot murkier than the AFC, where the Broncos will at worst get the #5 seed.
  • A lot will be learned about Denver and some of its competition in the next three weeks. The Broncos host San Francisco in week 7 and San Diego in week 8. They follow that with a week 9 game in New England. By then we’ll probably know if Denver is once again head & shoulders above the rest of the AFC, if they’re still the best but barely, or if they might have to slug it out for a wildcard spot. Of course, that only happens if the #1 team in my power rankings can beat the Broncos at least once this year…

1. San Diego

  • The Chargers host the Chiefs this week and the Broncos host the 49ers. At worst, San Diego is going to be a half-game better when they face Denver in week 8.
  • The Chargers get the nod in the #1 slot because quite frankly they’ve been the most impressive team in the NFL. They appear to be unstoppable at home, and with one lucky break in week 1 they’d be the last undefeated team right now.
  • I know that the Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos have more of a track record with delivering over a full season, but the Chargers just look too good right now.
  • With their schedule being a lot easier than Denver and New England’s the rest of the way, it’s possible they get the #1 seed. But soon we won’t be wondering if the Chargers are going to make the playoffs, but rather what they can do against the perennial contenders when they get there.

Interestingly enough, AFC teams occupied five of my top six power ranking spots. Don’t mistake that for me thinking the AFC is much more loaded than the NFC. This was an exercise in figuring out which teams are most likely to get into the playoffs. The NFC is a lot more competitive from top to bottom than the AFC.

Back with week 7 picks on Thursday.

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Final NFL Predictions: Playoff Teams & the Super Bowl Champ (Plus my Thursday Night Pick)

lombardi

Welcome to Christmas Day, NFL style!

In just about nine hours, our annual summer nightmare of no football ends as the Seahawks and Packers face off in the always-interesting Thursday Night NFL Opener.

Only the most negative person would have a complaint about the start of the NFL season, and here it is: We have to wait a little more than 60 hours for more football after tonight’s game ends.

That blows, but I’m not going to let it get me down. Soon enough our senses will be overloaded with nonstop Sunday football.

We’ve been pumping out article after article of NFL previewy goodness over the past couple weeks, and now it’s time for our final preseason post.

Neil and I have staked our claims to each team’s win-loss record (with a ridiculous bet to back it up) and we’ve gone through all the individual accolades. We’re moving on to the only thing that truly matters, which 12 teams make the playoffs and who’s left standing in Arizona on February 1st, 2015, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Neil will take you through his seedings and rationalizations first, and then I’ll finish her off.

Neil’s Playoff Seedings

  • AFC
    1.  New England
    2. Denver
    3. Houston
    4. Pittsburgh
    5. San Diego
    6. Cincinnati
  • NFC
    1. New Orleans
    2. Seattle
    3. Green Bay
    4. NY Giants
    5. Chicago
    6. Philadelphia

Neil’s Playoff Results and Explanations

  • Wildcard Round:
    • (5) San Diego over (4) Pittsburgh – San Diego is probably the 3rd best team in the AFC this year.
    • (3) Houston over (6) Cincinnati – We’ve certainly been here before.
    • (5) Chicago over (4) NY Giants – Part 1 of the “NFC North is way better than the NFC East” invitational.
    • (3) Green Bay over (6) Philadelphia – Part 2.
  • Divisional Round:
    • (1) New England over (5) San Diego – The Chargers are not going to New England in the middle of winter and beating Belichick and Brady.
    • (2) Denver over (3) Houston – Not even Houston’s defense can overcome Fitzy in a road playoff game in Denver.
    • (1) New Orleans over (5) Chicago – I do not think the Chicago defense is going to be good enough to go into New Orleans and win a playoff game.
    • (3) Green Bay over (2) Seattle – The Seahawks finally get too cocky, and Green Bay gets some revenge for the replacement ref debacle.
  • Conference Championships:
    • (2) Denver over (1) New England – REVERSE JINX ALERT! REVERSE JINX ALERT!
    • (1) New Orleans over (3) Green Bay – I think these teams are actually fairly equal, but New Orleans has a huge home field advantage.
  • Super Bowl Pick:
    • New Orleans 43, Denver 8 – Payton > Peyton

Ross’s Playoff Seedings

  • AFC
    1.  New England
    2. San Diego
    3. Pittsburgh
    4. Indianapolis
    5. Denver
    6. Miami
  • NFC
    1. New Orleans
    2. Seattle
    3. Philadelphia
    4. Chicago
    5. Green Bay
    6. Tampa Bay

Ross’s Playoff Results and Explanations

  • Wildcard Round:
    • (4) Indianapolis over (5) Denver – DREAM MATCHUP! CAN MANNING WIN AS THE VISITOR IN INDY? Remember that last year was the exception in Peyton Manning’s career. Time to get back to the rule: Manning puts up great numbers in the regular season, but the Broncos bow out early. After all, the guy’s only made it to four Conference Championships in 15 years of playing.
    • (3) Pittsburgh over (6) Miami – This game will get hyped as the “Mike Wallace Revenge Game” by absolutely no one. The Steelers have 100% of the playoff experience between these two teams. They win, and the Pouncey twins wear t-shirts showing their support of ISIS.
    • (5) Green Bay over (4) Chicago – I guess I’m forced to nominate the Packers as “the wildcard team that limps into the playoffs, gets hot and rolls to the Super Bowl.”
    • (3) Philadelphia over (6) Tampa Bay – This could actually be a bad matchup for the Eagles if these two teams turn out how I think they will. But I’d never bet on Josh McCown or Mike Glennon in a road playoff game.
  • Divisional Round:
    • (1) New England over (4) Indianapolis – I was listening to Grantland’s football podcast featuring Bill Barnwell & Robert Mays yesterday, and one of them mentioned that the Patriots aren’t that dominant at home anymore. For anyone who reads this that also heard that comment, I’d hate for you to think it’s true. The Patriots are 41-6 at home over the past five seasons (including playoffs). That’s a long-winded way of saying the Colts don’t have a prayer.
    • (3) Pittsburgh over (2) San Diego – Mini-upset. People like me hope for the Brady-Manning throwback game, but instead we’re getting the Brady-Roethlisberger semi-throwback game in the next round.
    • (1) New Orleans over (5) Green Bay – If these teams are evenly matched otherwise, the home field advantage and the GIGANTIC mismatch at Head Coach swings this game New Orleans’ way.
    • (3) Philadelphia over (2) Seattle – Chip Kelly returns to the Pacific Northwest with a futuristic offense, the only kind that can beat the Seahawks at home.
  • Conference Championships:
    • (1) New England over (3) Pittsburgh – The Pats have beaten Pittsburgh in two of these games on their way to Super Bowl wins in the past. I’m ready to live 2004 over again.
    • (3) Philadelphia over (1) New Orleans – I don’t have a good reason for this pick other than the bet I made in Vegas six months ago on Philly to win it all.
  • Super Bowl Pick:
    • New England 34, Philadelphia 31 – A perfect hedge. New England wins and it’s the greatest moment in Boston sports since the 2004 Championship Red Sox. The Eagles win and I get a nice payday while also looking extremely smart for picking the Super Bowl winner 11 months in advance. All along I was thinking Brady vs Brees, one of the few marquee quarterback matchups that we’ve never seen in the playoffs. But #1 vs #1 is so last year.

BONUS! MY THURSDAY NIGHT PICK

Normally my picks against the spread for all games will come on Thursday, but since I’ve been working on preview articles all week, I need a little more time on the other 15 games. But here’s my pick for tonight’s game:

Green Bay @ Seattle (-6)

  • The Pick: Seattle
  • The Score: Seattle 27, Green Bay 20

Over Labor Day weekend I went on a 25-mile backpacking trip on the Lost Coast Trail in Northern California. So you can understand that I’ve never thought about a single point spread in my entire life as much as I thought about this opening game (lots of thinking time while setting the world record in the quickest blisters to ever form category). I came to one conclusion: If Seattle’s favored by more than six, I’m taking Green Bay. If Seattle’s favored by less than six, I’m taking them to cover. The line lands exactly on six, perfect. I think it’s far more likely that the Seahawks are still a significant level above a team like the Packers than it is that Green Bay’s closed the gap enough to cover less than a touchdown on the road in the Super Bowl Champ’s opening game.

I’ll be back on Friday with the rest of the week 1 picks. Enjoy the Richard Sherman over saturation tonight!

AFC Predictions: The 1st Bet In History Between 2 Men That Involves An Appleitini

OK, technically that title is false. I know a bet has been made in the past between two guys where the stakes involved the loser drinking an Appletini. I know because I was on the losing end of the bet.

Guest blogger Neil and I are running back our “closest to the pin” challenge this year. We’ve each guessed the exact record for every NFL team, and whoever ends up closer to the actual record for more teams at the end of the year is the winner.

The loser, once again, has to drink eight beverages chosen by the winner over a 12-hour period in Vegas next March. Last year Neil didn’t go the route of force-feeding me terrible, vomit-inducing libations. Instead he went with the strategy of “how embarrassing can I make each order considering we’re in a sports bar surrounded by 500 men.”

Here’s how it turned out:

vegas

I’d say the most displeasing one was the “nice glass of Zin.”

Warning to anyone else considering drinking eight beverages like the ones above while also sipping your own beers & whiskey drinks throughout the day: This may cause you to accidentally announce to the entire sports book that you desperately want to propose to your girlfriend.

Anyway, after two straight losing years with this bet, I’m determined to not let Neil three peat.

The NFC guesses will come later this week. Let’s start off with our breakdown of the AFC:

 

Baltimore

  • 2013 Record: 8-8
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 40/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 8-8
  • Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: I might be underrating their defense and the fact that they won’t be defending a Super Bowl title. I’m not convinced Joe Flacco bounces back though.
  • Ross: It bothers me that while knowing they need to keep up with offenses led by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck, the Ravens did practically nothing to improve their 30th ranked offense from 2013. Steve Smith does not count as a game-changing addition.

Buffalo

  • 2013 Record: 6-10
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 100/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 8-8
  • Ross: 4-12

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: They should easily be the 2nd best team in the AFC East this year. That might only require seven wins though.
  • Ross: Early prediction for next Spring: The Bills’ quarterback situation is debated ad naseum leading up to the draft as they become next year’s “should they move on from their first round pick of just a couple years ago and go for a QB with the first overall pick.”

Cincinnati

  • 2013 Record: 11-5
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 40/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 9-7
  • Ross: 8-8

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: If Vegas posted a line on “qualifies for the playoffs, loses first playoff game, Marvin Lewis fired” would that even be plus money? I say “no” (-120).
  • Ross: The deciding factor on whether to pick the Bengals to win eight or nine games was the turnover on the coaching staff. If it took a player the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger time to adjust to his new offensive coordinator a couple years ago, I imagine there will be some initial disconnect between Andy Dalton and Hue Jackson.

Cleveland

  • 2013 Record: 4-12
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 75/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 6-10
  • Ross: 7-9

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: Regardless of the QB, this team could have been a decent sleeper with Josh Gordon.
  • Ross: I have Brian Hoyer as being worth two more wins than Johnny Manziel this year. This is likely the dilemma for Cleveland management: Do we assume we’re not a contender this year and just use the season to get Manziel as much experience as possible, or do we go with the guy who can get us to 7-9, possibly 8-8, maybe in the weak AFC we sneak into the playoffs, but of course we risk still missing the playoffs and wasting a year of perfectly good Manziel experience?

Denver

  • 2013 Record: 13-3
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 6/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 12-4
  • Ross: 11-5

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: I’m already excited to see them lose to the NFC Super Bowl representative by four touchdowns on February 1st.
  • Ross: Some brilliant football analysts have already noted how insanely difficult the Broncos’ schedule is in 2014. While they’ve added guys like DeMarcus Ware and half a season of a healthy Aqib Talib, don’t forget that they lost Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno, Wes Welker might be out for a bit (or possibly one hit away from hanging up the cleats against his will) and they just lost a key linebacker for at least a month. And let’s just assume Talib will miss at least a handful of games. All this makes me a think a couple less wins than 2013 is very likely.

Houston

  • 2013 Record: 2-14
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 66/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 8-8
  • Ross: 6-10

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: If you are a serious Super Bowl contender, bench your starting QB when you play Houston this year.
  • Ross: The defense, running backs, receivers, special teams and coaching are all good enough to get Houston back to .500 this year, but unfortunately their quarterback is not. Ryan Fitzpatrick is at least two wins worse than an average starting QB.

Indianapolis

  • 2013 Record: 11-5
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 20/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 9-7
  • Ross: 11-5

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: Is any team more reliant on one player than Indy is on Luck?
  • Ross: They actually have a 12 or 13 win schedule, but some offensive injuries concern me. Also extremely concerning, they’ve essentially been an extremely lucky team since Andrew Luck came into the league. In 2012, they made the playoffs despite having a negative point differential. In 2013, they had the second worst point differential among division winners even though they played at least five games against the worst teams in the league. Can’t put them in the elite 12+ wins tier until they prove it a bit more.

Jacksonville

  • 2013 Record: 4-12
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 250/1 (worst odds in the NFL)

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 5-11
  • Ross: 4-12

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: When Chad Henne and Toby Gerhart have you saying things like “wow, much better situation than last year” it is important to remember “much better” is relative.
  • Ross: Right or wrong, you gotta respect the Jaguars for pulling off the “we don’t care if he’s the 3rd overall pick, we’re not letting Bortles start his career trajectory on the same path as Blaine Gabbert.” Their gun shyness on starting Bortles right away is understood with the way their last 1st round quarterback turned out.

Kansas City

  • 2013 Record: 11-5
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 50/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 7-9
  • Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: This team started last year 9-0 and ended the year 2-6. I expect more of the 2-6 team this year.
  • Ross: Strange career from Alex Smith so far, right? Looked like a sure fire bust after his first four or five years, but then puts up a 30-9-1 win-loss record over the past three years and was at the helm of three straight playoff teams (obviously in 2012 he didn’t play the 2nd half of the year). It’s going to be a particularly odd career when it’s all said and done. I bet he’d take “odd” over “monumental bust” any day.

Miami

  • 2013 Record: 8-8
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 66/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 7-9
  • Ross: 9-7

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: Blah.
  • Ross: Confession time…As a child, I was actually as much a Dolphins fan as I was a Patriots fan. I once bought THIS awesome wardrobe piece to show my allegiance. No joke. And for the first time in about 18 years, I find myself kind of liking this team again. I’d never root for them, of course, but I’m on board with all their pieces. They seem to be just above average enough to make the playoffs in the AFC (Confession #2: I wrote this as I watched them play the Cowboys in the third preseason game so that might be massively skewing how good they look right now).

New England

  • 2013 Record: 12-4
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 7/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 11-5
  • Ross: 12-4

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: If I remember correctly, last time the Patriot’s defense was better than the offense they won a Super Bowl.
  • Ross: The Patriots have won less than 10 games just once in the past 13 years. Incredible. It feels like a useless endeavor to try to figure out if they’ll end up with 11, 12 or 13 wins this year. The second half schedule is downright scary (Chicago, Denver, @Indy, Detroit, @Green Bay, @San Diego in consecutive weeks) so an 8-0 start might be necessary if they have aspirations for the #1 seed.

NY Jets

  • 2013 Record: 8-8
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 66/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 6-10
  • Ross: 8-8

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: I guess the plan here is to try and build up a young team for when Brady and Belichick retire?
  • Ross: The Jets have turned into the AFC’s version of the Cowboys right before our very eyes. It feels like we’re heading for another year where they’ll play just decent enough to hover around .500 and be part of the playoff conversation in December, only they’ll fall just short. Right down to going 8-8 almost every year, they are very Cowboyian.

Oakland

  • 2013 Record: 4-12
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 150/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 4-12
  • Ross: 3-13

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: Prediction for combined score in their four games against the NFC West: Oakland 13, NFC West 144.
  • Ross: This team might be scary bad. I mentioned in a previous post that they play nine games against last year’s playoff teams. Their roster sucks. And believe it or not, they might be worst than last year’s 31st-ranked passing offense. I really don’t know if Matt Schaub is an upgrade over the Terrelle Pryor/Matt Flynn/Matthew McGloin triumvirate. They should probably be the odds-on favorite to “earn” the 1st overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Pittsburgh

  • 2013 Record: 8-8
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 33/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 9-7
  • Ross: 10-6

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: Bor-ing.
  • Ross: Part of the reason for the 10-win prediction is because it feels like they have all the parts for 11 or 12 wins, only we know Ben Roethlisberger can’t possibly make it through 16 games. Therefore, we gotta dial it back a bit to account for the atrocious Bruce Gradkowski starts in October/November.

San Diego

  • 2013 Record: 9-7
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 33/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 9-7
  • Ross: 11-5

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: Maybe a little better than last year, but they play the NFC West, so similar record.
  • Ross: Hmm. Why does it feel like we’re all going to wake up some Monday morning in November and collectively say, “Wow, why didn’t I see this elite San Diego offense coming?” Phil Rivers, Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates & Ladarius Green, a healthy Ryan Mathews complemented by useful guys like Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown. The tough schedule is the only thing worrying me, but I’m going with the surprise division win for these guys.

Tennessee

  • 2013 Record: 7-9
  • 2014 Super Bowl Odds: 100/1

2014 Prediction

  • Neil: 6-10
  • Ross: 4-12

Comment We Strongly Feel You Need To Read

  • Neil: If you combined the best of Jake Locker with the best of Ryan Tannehill, would you have a top 12 QB?
  • Ross: Add them to the mix of AFC teams vying for the #1 pick in the 2015.

 

Touring the NFL: Finishing Up the AFC In the South & West

If you missed part one of the “Touring the NFL” series where we covered the AFC North and East, you can find it HERE.

Today we get to put the AFC behind us for a while, which is nice because it’s really difficult to get excited about more than three teams in this conference.

 

AFC South

afc-south-collection

Best known for…

  • The Colts’ deal with the devil that allowed them to transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck without skipping a beat while the other three teams continue to march out guys with names like Fitzpatrick, Henne and Locker

Most likely to…

  • Mimic the AFC East right down to Indy winning 12+ games and no other team cracking the .500 mark

Quick Hits

  • By my rough math, those other three teams have used more than 30 different starting quarterbacks since Peyton Manning came into the league with little or no success.  And the Colts’ fortunes went like this: Best regular season QB in history for 13 years, one fortuitous neck injury, one year of abysmal football, luck into drafting the best quarterback prospect anyone’s ever seen. Whatever the opposite of an ancient Indian burial ground is, that’s what the Colts obviously built their stadium on.
  • The reason I voted the AFC North most likely to be the most boring division in football and not this joke division from the south is because we have actual intrigue here. Will the Colts vault into the Denver/New England stratosphere? Will a new coach and a ferocious rookie pass rusher immediately get Houston back into the playoff mix? Will Jake Locker sustain a significant injury in week 1, week 2 or week 3? Will the Jaguars even once be shown on the Red Zone Channel during the regular season? And will the Colts mathematically clinch the division title by week 4?
  • Even with this division getting the gifts of facing the AFC North and the NFC East as their out-of-division opponents, I’ve got the following win totals for these non-Colts teams: Tennessee 3, Jacksonville 4, Houston 5. So yeah, I’m predicting even less than the 13 combined wins those three teams had last season.
  • Speaking of easy schedules, here’s why I love Indy this year: The least amount of games any team can play against playoff teams from the previous year is three. The Colts have only four such games, plus the near-guarantee of 6-0 against their division.

Fun with gambling

  • The only division winner bet worthwhile in the South, and you’d have to feel really awesome about their bounce back potential, is Houston +300. The others are: Indy -200, Tennessee +700 and Jacksonville +1400.
  • One bet I love–though not necessarily my favorite for this division—is Andrew Luck to win the MVP (12/1). He’s on a team that lacks other stars and doesn’t have much of a defense. Their record gets inflated by their cakewalk division. And the other AFC contenders (Manning & Brady) are old, have much more challenging schedules, and have won it before. The voters might be ready for a new king of QBs.
  • My favorite bet is a tie: Tennessee under 7 wins (-125) and Houston under 7.5 wins (+120).

AFC  West

AFCWest

Best known for…

  • Being the only AFC division in 2013 that could actually make the claim it was competitive and interesting

Most likely to…

  • Produce the biggest shocker of the year (see below)

Quick Hits

  • Here’s how it works, Denver fans. Your team steamrolls the competition on its way to a record-setting season only to fall just short in the Super Bowl (OK, in your case it was like 35 points short). You’re ready to run it back the next year, even conceding that record-setting regular season pace in exchange for finishing the job in the playoffs. Only your Hall of Fame quarterback suffers a season-ending injury in the first quarter of the first game. You miss the playoffs that year, it takes you a full three seasons to recover from all this chaos and you still wake up in cold sweats every night seven years later thinking about what should have been.
  • Hey, can’t a bitter Patriots fan hope?
  • This division has the unfortunate scheduling quirk of having to play itself and the NFC West. In those eight teams, there are five playoff teams from 2013, a 10-win team that missed the playoffs (Arizona) a consensus awesome defense going into 2014 (St. Louis) and…the Raiders.
  • That Raiders team plays nine games against playoff teams from last year. They’re clearly fucked, as if that wasn’t a given. You know who else faces 2013 playoff teams nine different times?
  • The Broncos. Is it crazy for me to predict only a 10-win season out of them? Denver’s first half schedule reads like this: Indianapolis, Kansas City, @Seattle, Arizona, @Jets, San Francisco, San Diego @New England. Seven out of eight games against 10-win teams from last year.
  • Sorry to belabor the point, but I’m in awe of that schedule. Lower your expectations for any record setting this year.

Fun with gambling

  • Well, well, well. Did we finally find our value bets for a division winner? If we believe that gauntlet of a schedule is going to slow Denver down, then indeed we have. The Broncos are the expected -300 while San Diego is +500 and Kansas City is +600. I’ll be backing the Chargers, in case anyone cares. Oh, and if you’re absolutely nuts, the Raiders are +1800 to win the West.
  • A word about the Super Bowl…You know how ever year that random team limps into the playoffs and gets hot & lucky while going on the unexpected Championship run (last year was a fluke)? If you’re looking for an AFC team to nominate, why not go with San Diego (40/1) or Kansas City (50/1)? Just a thought.
  • My favorite bet in this division is: Denver under 11.5 wins (-125).

Phew. We made it through the crummy AFC. Good work, everyone! I’m going to take a three-day shower to cleanse myself from that filth, and then I’ll be back early next week with the NFC.

Enjoy preseason week 2.

NFL Wildcard Weekend Picks: The March to 11-0 Begins

old-man-crystal-ball

Welcome to Wildcard Weekend!

Wooooooooohooooooo!!!

Or maybe it’s more like wooooooooh (LOUD MOUTH FART SOUND)…

If your memory is as sharp as mine, you’re probably having trouble getting excited for this first round of the NFL playoffs because last year’s opening round sucked major nutsack.

To refresh your memory:

  • All four favorites covered (Houston over Cincinnati, Green Bay over Minnesota, Baltimore over Indianapolis, Seattle over Washington).
  • Six of the eight teams didn’t crack 20 points (and the two that did only put up 24 points each).
  • Four of the eight quarterbacks threw for less than 200 yards (and not one of them got to 300).
  • There were few memorable individual performances (Anquan Boldin had 145 yards on 5 receptions, Arian Foster had 174 total yards…but you never would have remembered those performances if I didn’t write them here).
  • Three of the four games saw at least a 10-point final margin of victory.
  • While I would argue that there can be plenty of excitement in a blowout, it doesn’t come by way of a 24-9 final score. There wasn’t that 45-28 jaw-dropper like the 2011 wildcard round when New Orleans handled Detroit by 17 points in a super-exciting game.
  • I’m not exaggerating when I say the most interesting moment of last year’s wildcard round was when the Vikings announced just minutes before their Saturday night game that Joe Webb would be starting at QB over the injured Christian Ponder…because for a second there was hope that we’d get treated to a decent game. But then we all saw Webb’s first pass attempt and remembered this was a guy who couldn’t overcome Christian Friggen Ponder on the depth chart.
  • We also witnessed a maniacal head coach blatantly try to ruin the career of one of football’s newest stars when Mike Shanahan continued to march Robert Griffin out onto FedEx Field on one good leg. I’d hate to think the lingering memory of the 2012 playoffs is “the day the RGIII magic went away for good.”

Let’s move on because this is getting depressing.

While the wildcard round traditionally has at least one blowout, there’s reason to be hopeful for a much more entertaining slate of games this time around. Look no further than the offenses that are getting ready to play this weekend. Exit Baltimore, Minnesota and Houston. Enter Philadelphia, San Diego and New Orleans. Seven of the eight teams playing in round one ranked in the top half of the league on offense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.

That may not seem like a big deal, but for reference, last year’s opening weekend saw five teams in the bottom half of the league from an offensive standpoint.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s back up a step and take stock of the entire 12-team playoff field. It’s a particularly intriguing one.

In the AFC we have…um…well, what the hell do we have with these six teams? No overwhelming favorite. No team really peaking on its way into the playoffs. No quarterback having a record-setting year that we can look to as the X factor of the conference (I’m kidding, I’m kidding). Oh, and let’s not forget backbreaking injuries to the top four seeds that could easily be used as an excuse if/when any of them lose over the next month. The AFC is up for grabs because everyone kinda sucks.

In the NFC we have…well, we also have a cluster fuck, but it’s not a cluster fuck of mediocrity. It’s a cluster fuck of competence and goodness. The obvious names that we expected to be here in September are here: Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans (Green Bay’s 8-7-1 record seems like it belongs in the AFC, but let’s not forget Aaron Rodgers missed eight games). And the two surprises, Carolina and Philadelphia, are beyond scary. The Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 games (while only allowing an opponent to score more than 20 points once…in the loss at New Orleans). The Eagles have won seven of their last eight (including five wins by two touchdowns or more). These two newcomers to the playoff party might be the most dangerous. The sucky part of all this for the NFC teams (but to the delight of us fans) is that wildcard weekend features two incredible matchups between four NFC teams that could lay claim to being the best in the conference.

Can we petition the NFL to have the two AFC games decided by computer simulation while extending the length of the two NFC games to 120 minutes each? Would anybody be upset with that?

Before we jump into this weekend’s picks, let me throw some random numbers and facts out there for you. Use the info, don’t use the info, I don’t care…I already got you to click on this blog post, didn’t I?

  • Since the start of the 21st century, the 2007 Giants was the worst team to win the Super Bowl, coming in at #14 on Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings.
  • This year only the Packers are ranked lower than that mark. They’re 21st in DVOA, but there’s a huge caveat there…Mr. Rodgers’ broken collarbone that forced him to the sidelines for eight weeks.
  • San Diego (12) and Indianapolis (13) are the other two teams walking that fine line between playoff-worthy and mediocrity.
  • Five of the top 10 teams in Defensive DVOA made the playoffs (and eight of the top 16 teams).
  • The two worst defenses, statistically speaking, made the playoffs: Green Bay and San Diego (interestingly enough, if Dallas had won the NFC East instead of Philly, it would be the three worst defensive teams in the playoffs).
  • On the other side of the ball, nine of the top 10 teams in Offensive DVOA made the playoffs.
  • No playoff team is worse offensively than Cincinnati (#17). Kansas City (15) and Indianapolis (13) are close.
  • And looking at the unit that correlates the least to making the playoffs, only four of the top 10 teams in Special Teams DVOA made the playoffs.
  • And two of the 10 worst special teams units made it to January: New Orleans (24) and Philly (25). Since these two teams play each other this weekend, are we going to see neither team being able to return a kick or a punt more than five yards? Or does it swing the other way and we see special teams touchdown after special teams touchdown?
  • Eight of the top 10 quarterbacks according to QBR are in the playoffs.
  • Alex Smith is the worst playoff QB, ranking 20th in QBR.
  • Cam Newton (17) and Andy Dalton (16) are right in Smith’s neighborhood.
  • There are four Super Bowl-winning QBs in the playoffs (Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers).
  • There are three others who have made it at least to a conference championship game (Smith, Rivers, Kaepernick).
  • There are three more who have made the playoffs but haven’t yet gotten past the divisional round (Dalton, Luck, Wilson).
  • And then there are two making their playoff debuts (Newton, Foles).
  • None of that means anything, of course, as Joe Flacco proved last year.
  • Beware of the #5 seeds. San Francisco and Kansas City both deserved to win their respective divisions in a normal year, but they just so happened to be playing in the same division as their conference’s #1 seeds. Even though neither the 49ers nor the Chiefs are going to play a home game in the playoffs, the rest of the league might want to be on high alert still. Both of those teams went 6-2 on the road this year.
  • So did Philadelphia, who will take their road success to Carolina in the second round if they can get past New Orleans on Saturday.
  • If you’re looking ahead to the Super Bowl already, remember that the NFC went 34-30 against the AFC during the regular season.
  • But here’s the interesting thing: the NFC West went a ridiculous 13-3 against the AFC in 2013, meaning the rest of the NFC went 21-27 against the other conference.
  • Does that mean there is one elite division in all of football and seven mediocre ones? Possibly. If Seattle and San Francisco run rampant through the playoffs, we’ll have our answer.
  • The NFC is currently a 2.5-point favorite over the AFC in the Super Bowl.

A final note before we pick these first four games. I have a sports gambling bucket list that is becoming quite the nuisance, mostly because I haven’t been able to knock anything off the list in my 13 years of gambling. One is to win a March Madness bracket pool (if Illinois had beaten UNC in the National Title game in 2005, I would have been able to cross this off the list). Another is to win an NFL Suicide Pool (have never even come that close…I usually make it to week 5 or 6). The third is to go undefeated during a fantasy football season (there’s gotta be a way to do this). And the final bucket list item is one that I plan to take care of over these next five weeks…going 11-0 against the spread in the NFL playoffs. Last year I went 8-3 (after a 1-3 start in Wildcard weekend I’ll have you know). Not bad. But not the bucket list sweep that I need.

Let’s see if I can keep that dream alive beyond the first game of the first weekend of the playoffs (something I couldn’t do last year). Here are the Wildcard round picks:

Kansas City @ Indianapolis (-1) – Saturday, 1:35pm PST

What the numbers say: It all tilts in Kansas City’s favor, but not drastically. The Chiefs are the better overall team (7th in DVOA vs 13th for the Colts), the better defensive team (9th for KC, 16th for Indy) and they have the best special teams unit in football (compared to Indy’s 17th-ranked group of specialists). Only the offensive numbers favor the Colts (Indy was the 13th-ranked offense while Kansas City was 15th). While the Colts had a respectable +55 point differential in the regular season, Kansas City blew them out of the water by outscoring their opponents by 125 points.

The Chiefs went a ghastly 1-5 against playoff teams this year (caveat alert: Their week 17 loss to San Diego was accomplished with mostly backups). The Colts went 4-2 against eventual playoff teams. And the Colts crushed the Chiefs in their head-to-head matchup 23-7. And that game was in Kansas City!

You can see why Vegas made this game essentially a coin flip.

What I say: Both teams could play the “no respect” card. The Chiefs won 11 games (starting the season winning nine straight), but are underdogs against a team that looks inferior in every aspect of the game on paper?? The Colts beat the Chiefs by 16 points just two weeks ago on the road, but now they’re only favored by one point at home???

I’m siding with the Colts on this one. They should be favored by the standard three points. The biggest knock against Indy in the regular season is that they played down to their competition. Obviously that’s not a concern in the playoffs. These teams are very evenly matched, and I don’t feel right betting against Andrew Luck in his first home playoff game. He got that “welcome to the playoffs” moment out of the way last year, now it’s time for him to make a mark in the postseason. I’ve got a six-point win for Indianapolis (the same margin of victory they had in home wins against Seattle and Denver earlier this year). Indianapolis covers and wins 27-21.

New Orleans @ Philadelphia (-3) – Saturday, 5:10pm PST

What the numbers say: New Orleans rates out as the 4th best team in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. Philly wasn’t far behind, coming in at #8. While the Eagles have the offensive advantage (2nd vs 5th), the Saints have the edge on defense (10th vs 23rd). The special teams difference is negligible as I already mentioned both teams are in the bottom third of the league in this area. As was the case in our first game, one team had a far superior point differential in the regular season. And once again, it’s the road team that wins in this category (New Orleans’ point differential was +110 while Philly’s was +60).

Neither team was particularly awesome against the other good teams of the NFL. The Eagles went 1-3 against playoff teams while the Saints went 2-3. And if you’re into the “Drew Brees struggles on the road” theory, his team did manage to lose five of its final six road games this year.

What I say: I’m eliminating that “can’t win on the road” factor from my decision…because if you’re going to make a decision based on the Saints’ 3-5 road record in 2013, then you also have to ding the Eagles for only going 4-4 at home. Let’s pretend those two anomalies cancel each other out. I have to pick the Saints in this game. If all other things are equal, I have to go with the offensive juggernaut that’s been an offensive juggernaut for many years…the genius NFL coach who’s been a genius NFL coach for many years…and the Pro Bowl QB who’s been a Pro Bowl QB for many years. What I’m trying to say is that while the Eagles offense, Chip Kelly and Nick Foles appear to be on the same level as their New Orleans counterparts, I just have to give the nod to the guys who have proved it over and over.

You know why else I love the Saints in this game? Because this just might be the overflowing bandwagon game. The one where 85% of the public money comes in on one team because of one statistic or narrative that gets overplayed in the media. Drew Brees and the Saints can’t win outdoors and they can’t win in the cold weather! Turns out they’ll be forced to play outdoors AND in the cold on Saturday night! They have no chance!

Give me a Saints mini-upset as they win 31-26.

San Diego @ Cincinnati (-7) – Sunday, 10:05am PST

What the numbers say: A little closer than you think, actually. The Bengals check in as the 9th best team in the league (17th on offense, 5th on defense and 12th on special teams). The Chargers got all the way to #12 in the league after their late season push (3rd on offense, 32nd on defense and 15th on special teams). The Bengals also had a solid +125 point differential while the Chargers outscored its opponents by only 48.

Both teams were awesome against the stiffest competition: San Diego went 5-2 against playoff teams (including the week 17 win over Kansas City’s B team), and Cincinnati went 4-0 (including a 17-10 win over San Diego in week 13).

The Bengals obviously have a decided advantage…more so than any team in the first two games we previewed, but considering the magic it took for San Diego to even get into the postseason, the gap’s not as large as you might expect.

What I say: As improbable as it seemed a few weeks ago, I kept telling people I was rooting for San Diego to get that #6 seed over the other teams vying for the spot. My thinking was that the Chargers’ offense would be far more entertaining this weekend than whatever the hell Miami, Baltimore or Pittsburgh could throw out there. Unfortunately I no longer think that’s the case. Remember how there must be at least one blowout in every Wildcard round? This is it. Cincy has been a monster at home this year. I don’t totally distrust Andy Dalton at home. There are so many weapons on that offense now. AND despite the numerous injuries, the Bengal defense has still performed  very well in the second half of the year. I don’t see where the Chargers will get the advantage (and if you point out that Andy Dalton just tossed a cool four interceptions in his team’s final home game one week ago, I will quickly change the subject and look at you like you’re crazy).

I hate to do it because I’m not rooting for this to happen, but I’m seeing a Cincinnati cover and win by a score of 34-13.

San Francisco (-3) @ Green Bay – Sunday, 1:40pm PST

What the numbers say: This is a pointless exercise for this game. Aaron Rodgers’ half-season injury makes any numbers Green Bay put up in 2013 completely useless. The Packers were 21st in total DVOA (9th on offense, 31st on defense and 19th on special teams). San Francisco was the 6th best team (8th on offense, 13th on defense and 7th on special teams). The 49ers were certainly much more balanced. And that second-to-last rated defense for Green Bay is scary. You can’t blame too much of that on Rodgers’ injury (sure you can blame some…not as many long offensive drives leading to a more tired defense, etc, etc, etc).

The point differential is another useless stat this time around: San Francisco’s was +134 (the 3rd best mark in football), Green Bay’s was -11 (the only team in the negative in the playoffs).

Somewhat surprisingly, both teams were terrible against playoff teams. The Packers were 0-3 (one of those losses coming when Rodgers was out) and the 49ers were 2-4 (including an opening-weekend win over these Packers in San Francisco).

It’s probably best to ignore all stats related to Green Bay’s season when picking this game.

What I say: It seems like almost every year a wildcard team that won 11 games in the regular season is forced to travel to a divisional champ that finished with only seven, eight or nine wins. And every time, we all bet heavily on the road favorite because “how could they possibly lose??” And every time, we’re proven wrong. Don’t you remember Denver 29, Pittsburgh 23 during the 2011 playoffs? The one where Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos got a huge overtime win against the 12-4 Steelers. Or how about the 2010 playoffs? There was outrage that the 11-5 Saints had to travel all the way to Seattle to face the 7-9 division-winning Seahawks. What a slap in the face. Except that Seattle won by five.

What am I trying to say? That I think Aaron Rodgers finally gets his revenge on San Francisco for not drafting him in 2005 (and more recently, revenge for three straight 49er wins over the Packers, including last year’s embarrassing playoff blowout at Candlestick Park).

Rather than flip a coin on this game, which is what I really want to do, I’m going to use the weather as the final deciding factor. I hear it’s supposed to be something like -45 with the windchill when this game kicks off on Sunday night. I’ll take Rodgers in the elements and count on an incredible 38-35 win for the Packers (and if I turn it out to be wrong, maybe Green Bay will at least only lose by 1-2 points so we can still complete the four-cover weekend).

Just for shits and giggles, here are my girlfriend’s picks for Wildcard weekend:

  • Indianapolis (-1) over Kansas City: “Because every time I pick KC they lose, and most of the time that I pick Indianapolis they win. Natural conclusion, Indy wins.
  • New Orleans (+3) over Philadelphia: “The Saints are one of the teams I tend towards usually, and Philly is one of the teams I tend away from…for no real reason.”
  • San Diego (+7) over Cincinnati: “Cincinnati probably got some snow this week so maybe their muscles are tight from all the practicing in the cold? That’s not good for your body.”
  • San Francisco (-3) over Green Bay: “I just feel like San Francisco wins so much.”

Enjoy the Wildcard round. Hopefully we get some actual wildness this year.

Midseason NFL Power Rankings: Ignoring the Worst 15 Teams and Writing Too Much About the Best 17 Teams

In my week 9 NFL picks blog, I said we were looking at the most difficult week of the season in terms of picking against the spread. Sadly, my record for the week reflected that. I didn’t break the .500 mark for the first time this year. I finished 7-7 for the week, and the disturbing trend of picking the primetime games incorrectly continues as I went 0-3 in the Thursday, Sunday and Monday night games. My overall record on the season is still a solid 74-53-5, but I can’t stand for mediocrity. I noticed that four of my seven incorrect picks from week 9 were games that featured a team we should consider a “contender” versus a team we know for sure is not a “contender.” In those four games, the contender covered the spread, leaving me scratching my head and wondering why I didn’t see this coming. At the halfway point of the season, I should have expected the legit teams to be pulling away from the teams that are “already preparing for next year” (Mike Shanahan’s words, not mine).

Since it’s basically the midpoint of the season and I seem to be losing my way when it comes to filtering out the good teams from the riff raff, I wanted to take a stab at a Power Rankings post. But this particular post is going to ignore the 15 teams who are effectively eliminated from postseason contention. Basically, any team that has a negative point differential or has at least five losses is out. There are actually 16 teams with a positive point differential, and all of them have four losses or less. The one team who’s record is .500 or better but has a negative point differential will be included in the power rankings—that would be the Indianapolis Colts, who potentially have larger forces working in their favor. (Side note: In 2011, two teams finished the regular season with a negative point differential and made the playoffs: the Broncos had a -81 differential, but had God on their side, and the Giants had a -6 differential, but had Satan on their side. In 2010 the Seahawks finished with a -97 differential and made the playoffs, but they had the worst division in football history on their side. The point is the Colts could absolutely make the playoffs without having the stats to back it up.)

So we have 17 teams in contention. Of course a few of these teams will be dropping out of this category by season’s end since only 12 teams can make the playoffs. But for the rest of the season, when I’m considering my weekly picks, I’m going to remember that these 17 teams are worthy of playoff and possibly Super Bowl consideration. No longer will I stupidly pick Cincinnati to play a close game against Denver just because I’m not sure how well Denver plays on the road.

If you’re upset that I’m ignoring 15 teams entirely, there are plenty of websites you can visit that debate the merits of the Titans versus the Rams and which one should be 24th in the Power Rankings.

Let’s look at the (fill in catchy name here like “Slick 17” “Sexy 17” or something even more creative) from “most likely to follow the Arizona Cardinals’ path of crashing & burning” to “most likely to give Roger Goodell a ‘fuck you’ handshake on February 3rd.”

The format is pretty random, but I’ve included the following: the team’s actual record, the predictions that Nkilla and I made for their record before the season started, the team’s point differential (often a better indicator of how good a team is than their win-loss record), their record against the spread (because it always comes back to gambling), a season highlight and lowlight, and whether they’re on the rise (heading north) or fading (heading south).

This is part one of the power rankings. Part two will follow shortly. Enjoy.

17). Minnesota

Record: 5-4

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 7-9

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 6-10

Point Differential: +7

Record Against the Spread: 3-5-1

Season Highlight: Beating the 49ers by 11 during their 4-1 start

Season Lowlight: Any one of Christian Ponder’s last five games

Direction They’re Heading: Way South

As decent as the Vikings have looked through their first nine games, they really needed to put up a spotless record over that time to have a shot at the playoffs. That’s because their schedule gets brutal in the second half—two games against Green Bay, two against Chicago, one against Houston and only three of seven games at home. At 5-4, it’ll take a miracle for them to stay in contention. This team is a perfect example of how important a good quarterback really is in the NFL. They have arguably the best RB in football, the best all-purpose player in football (Percy Harvin), a top-10 passing defense and a middle-of-the-road running defense. What are they missing? A QB worthy of starting in pro football is the answer.

16). San Diego

Record: 4-4

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 8-8 (right on track)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 6-10

Point Differential: +28

Record Against the Spread: 4-4

Season Highlight: Hearing the media constantly refer to them as “the Cowboys of the AFC.” Norv Turner is honored to be compared to America’s Team and aspires to be as competent as Jason Garrett someday.

Season Lowlight: Having to deal with two challengers for the title of “most self-destructive team” —the Cowboys and the Eagles. Or I guess scoring only six points in a 7-6 loss at Cleveland would qualify.

Direction They’re Heading: East because they have three more games on the east coast and because they’re likely going to stay the course with a .500 record.

A competent coach and quarterback tandem would be able to get this team to 9-7 based on the remaining schedule. But remember who we’re dealing with here. The Chargers will go 8-8. But when Norv Turner has to answer to his superiors in the offseason, he’ll likely point to a 4-2 divisional record as the way to judge the success of his season.

15). Tampa Bay

Record: 4-4

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 3-13 (oops…I thought they were playing in a “tough” NFC South)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 7-9 (probably nailed it)

Point Differential: +41

Record Against the Spread: 5-2-1

Season Highlight: The honor of being the talk of the NFL after week 2, even if it was because of their overly aggressive handling of the Giants’ kneel downs at the end of their game.

Season Lowlight: Having the only black quarterback that the media doesn’t refer to as a “scrambling quarterback.” Josh Freeman is offended by that, apparently.

Direction They’re Heading: Slightly North, maybe Northwest?

The Bucs gotta feel good about 4-4 after starting the season 1-3. While it’s great that they have the best rushing defense in the NFL, the problem is their last-ranked pass defense and the fact that they still have to face Matt Ryan (twice), Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in the second half. The only way I see them sneaking into the playoffs is if they go into week 17 with a 9-6 record and are fortunate enough to be playing a Falcons team that already has the top spot in the NFC locked up. Then they could get that 10th win and possibly beat out a Seattle or Detroit for the final wildcard spot.

14). Miami

Record: 4-4

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 4-12 (crossing my fingers that they lose the rest of their gams)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 5-11 (predicted Dolphins to get 1st pick in 2012 draft)

Point Differential: +21

Record Against the Spread: 4-3-1

Season Highlight: Being able to say “If we had just won our two overtime games, we’d be 6-2 right now.”

Season Lowlight: Losing all three of their games that were decided by three points—two of which were to the Jets and the Cardinals. How embarrassing!

Direction They’re Heading: Slightly south, maybe all the way to Cuba?

It’s a fun story: football team that everyone pegged to be at the bottom of their division and possibly the bottom of the entire league rides a rookie QB and a group of unheralded players to the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Dolphins we already have one of those stories (with an added dose of playing inspired football for a sick coach) later on in this post. The Dolphins are going to regret all three of their close losses from the first half, but none more so than last week’s loss at Indy, considering that’s one of the teams they’re competing against for a wildcard spot in the AFC. Just like the Bucs, the Dolphins have a great rush defense and a horrid pass defense. The reason they get the nod over the Bucs is because they don’t play nearly as many good passing teams the rest of the season as the Bucs do.

13). Detroit

Record: 4-4

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 9-7

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 8-8

Point Differential: +4

Record Against the Spread: 3-4-1

Season Highlight: Setting the unofficial record for playing in the most consecutive games determined by one score to start a season with seven (unofficial because I made it up).

Season Lowlight: Losing four of those seven one-score games.

Direction They’re Heading: South by Southwest?

Give Detroit some credit for hanging around. They’ve played five of their first eight games on the road, including at San Francisco and at Chicago. They were also the preseason popular pick to take the big slide from a 2011 playoff team to a 2012 also-ran (turns out the Saints would have been the right pick there). They’re still in the hunt even though they’ve had to give a significant amount of carries to a running back named Joique Bell. On the one hand, they do play five of their final eight games at home, but on the other hand, they still have to face Green Bay (twice), Chicago, Atlanta and Houston. The home games probably won’t offset the stiff competition, but if they can get to 9-7, at least they can feel good about putting up a winning record in the hardest division in football.

12). Indianapolis

Record: 5-3

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 4-12 (underestimated the Luck factor)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 6-10 (probably underestimated the Luck factor)

Point Differential: -32

Record Against the Spread: 5-3

Season Highlight: Getting Andrew Luck, clearly a franchise QB, for only $6 in the auction draft…oops, I crossed over to my fantasy team for a second…But choosing Luck in the real NFL draft and already overachieving against projections that most people had for them this year has to be the highlights so far for the Colts.

Season Lowlight: If this was a normal year, it would clearly be allowing Mark Sanchez and the Jets to drop 35 points on them. But this isn’t a normal year for them. Obviously their coach getting diagnosed with leukemia is probably the right answer.

Direction They’re Heading: Slightly North?

I might have the Colts a little higher up on this list than people think they should be, but that’s for two reason: 1). Andrew Luck just might be even better than we thought, and we can’t rule out the possibility of Luck carrying the Colts singlehandedly to 10 wins, and 2). this Chuck Pagano thing is really giving them a boost. I’m not afraid to admit that if the Patriots were one of those 15 teams already out of playoff contention, I’d be 100% in on rooting for the Colts. For now, I’ll continue to hope for my dream scenario of the Colts getting the 6-seed in the AFC and playing in Denver against Peyton Manning in the wildcard round. The biggest thing working against the Colts’ playoff chances is the tough games remaining on their schedule: at New England, at Detroit and two against Houston. Even the boost they get from Pagano being at the games will be limited because they’ve only got three more home games. Doubtful that he’ll be traveling with this team anytime soon. But the sentimental part of me says they claw their way to 10 wins and get that final playoff spot. Go Colts! (except on November 18th when they play New England)

11). Seattle

Record: 5-4* (legitimately 4-5, but I guess legitimacy doesn’t matter in the NFL)

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 7-9

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 8-8 (predicted them to win the NFC West)

Point Differential: +16

Record Against the Spread: 6-3 (again, should be 5-4)

Season Highlight: They said it themselves: beating the Patriots was their Super Bowl. But I have a feeling if they sneak into the playoffs by one win, or by the conference record tiebreaker, they’ll be considering the replacement referees’ debacle of September 24th as their season highlight.

Season Lowlight: Every time Pete Carroll celebrates a marginally-important touchdown by acting like he just got elected Prom Queen.

Direction They’re Heading: Not sure, this directional gimmick seemed a lot better when I thought of it after my third joint last night.

Since we pretty much know there are five locks to make the NFC playoffs—Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, the Giants and Green Bay—that means one spot is up for grabs between Seattle, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Minnesota. Does nine wins get it? Or do you need 10? All I know is Seattle got a complimentary win from the NFL that those other three teams didn’t get. When the Seahawks only get to nine wins and fall just short, at least they’ll always have that Super Bowl win over New England from earlier this year.

10). Baltimore

Record: 6-2

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 9-7

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 10-6

Point Differential: +23

Record Against the Spread: 3-5

Season Highlight: I guess beating the Patriots in week 3? (interesting that multiple teams consider beating New England to be the greatest thing that could happen to them)

Season Lowlight: Dropping a cool nine points on the Chiefs’ vaunted 30th-ranked scoring defense.

Direction They’re Heading: Just as a Raven is known to do in the winter, they’re heading south quickly.

I haven’t given the Ravens much respect this year, and I still won’t even if their record says 6-2. Other than beating the Patriots, did you know the combined record of the other four teams they’ve beaten (they beat Cleveland twice) is 9-24? And everyone knows they’re going to be short on defense the rest of the season due to injuries. We also know Joe Flacco is the definition of “average,” and that the Ravens still have to play the Steeler twice. Yes, they’re almost a lock to make the playoffs because they just have to go 4-4 the rest of the way to get there. But they’re starting to look like the worst team of all the playoff locks.

9). Denver

Record: 5-3

Rmurdera’s preseason prediction: 10-6 (was completely sold on Manning’s health)

Nkilla’s preseason prediction: 8-8 (wasn’t sold on Manning’s health)

Point Differential: +60

Record Against the Spread: 5-3

Season Highlight: Getting to play in the AFC West.

Season Lowlight: When Peyton Manning kept being mistaken for Tim Tebow earlier in the season because of the similarity between their spirals.

Direction They’re Heading: North

Before the season began, I had the Broncos pegged for a playoff spot, but I certainly didn’t think they’d be in the discussion of who the top two seeds in the AFC are. But that’s where they find themselves now. And it’s not just because of the Peyton Manning renaissance. Their defense is playing at a higher level than 2011, and they also have a pretty soft schedule in the second half of the season. That schedule is the reason they can’t be higher than 9th right now. By the way, when I come out with my MVP rankings (tentatively scheduled for next week or the week after), where do you think Manning will rank? I’m not even sure, but considering the guy’s got the highest QB rating in the NFL, he’s gotta be in the top three, right?

Tune in to the blog sometime later today or tomorrow for part two, where we’ll count down from #8 to #1.

Week 9 NFL Picks: Guiding You Through the Most Difficult Picks in the History of the NFL (only slightly exaggerating)

This is the hardest week to pick against the spread so far in the 2012 season. Don’t feel bad if you’re struggling to make that phone call to your bookie. I am too. Why is it such a hard week? For a lot of reasons. Green Bay and Houston are both favored by more than 10 at home, and while they’re locks to win outright, is any team in this year’s NFL really good enough to have you feeling confident about laying 10+ points? Good teams like Chicago and Denver are both on the road, and both are favored by four. Is that too many points for a Denver team that hasn’t played well on the road yet, and a Chicago team that has to lose another game eventually? In the Thursday night game, we know the Chiefs are the worst team in football, but can you ever really have confidence in taking San Diego as an eight-point favorite? The Falcons are 7-0, but we know they have to lose eventually, and they’ve had some very close calls at home. Is this the week they finally lose? To Dallas of all teams??

So many questions…

Let’s get on to my best guesses to some very perplexing questions (home team underlined):

Kansas City (+8) over San Diego: I sound like a broken record at this point, but the underdog on the Thursday night game is nearly unbeatable…7-1 against the spread! And adding to the list of reasons for taking the underdog this week is that the Chargers are your favorite. Of course, a huge negative for buying into the underdog is that it’s the worst team in football, but still. Do you really trust the Chargers to win a game by nine or more? Here’s my crazy, bold prediction for the day: the Chiefs will have their first lead of the season in this game, probably like 3-0 in the 1st quarter until the Chargers score. Actually, screw it…the Chiefs are gonna get up for a divisional game, and Cassel will probably play better on the road since he won’t have to hear people screaming for him to get injured. I’m calling the upset. Kansas City gets their second win of the season, and all eyes turn to San Diego ownership to make the next move (hint: it should be to fire Norv Turner).

Green Bay (-11) over Arizona: For all of the offensive problems the Packers have right now–health, inconsistency, forced trickery when trickery isn’t needed–I’m still willing to take them as a huge favorite. And that’s because…say it with me now…the Cardinals can’t score! Yes, that’s right. In their last four games (all losses), the Cardinals have scored 36 total points, or to put it another way, if the Cardinals took their last four offensive outputs and went up against the Patriots offense from just the London game, the Cardinals would lose by nine.

Detroit (-4) over Jacksonville: Has there ever been a midweek trade where a team acquires a guy from their upcoming opponent that got less attention than Mike Thomas going from Jacksonville to Detroit this week? I guess that’s because it’s Mike Thomas? What do we make of this Jaguars team anyway? They’ve won one game, lost two overtime games, had a chance to beat the Packers in Green Bay last week, and have been blown out in three home games. Meanwhile, Detroit’s just humming along right around .500, still undecided whether they want to make a run at a wildcard spot this year. I’m going against my instincts here, but I like Detroit not to make a last-second comeback and instead cruise to a comfortable win.

Chicago (-4) over Tennessee: What does it say about the state of the NFL that Chicago, a team that most people would put in the top five of their power rankings, is only a four-point favorite over Tennessee, a team that’s currently ranked 27th in ESPN.com’s weekly power rankings? I guess it says that even the best teams are flawed? Or that road games are tough? Or that the combination of Chicago’s offensive line + Jay Cutler is so scary that people wouldn’t possibly put money on them if the line was higher than four? Either way, Tennessee scares no one when it comes to pressuring the quarterback–their 11 sacks on the season have them tied for 28th best in the NFL. Cutler should be plenty comfortable all game, which means the Titans don’t have a chance. This is also my suicide pick for the week (so very scared).

Cincinnati (+4) over Denver: I realize that after last week’s showing against New Orleans the NFL has decided to end the rest of the AFC’s season early and just award the Broncos a Super Bowl berth (along with already giving Peyton Manning the following awards: Comeback Player of the Year, the 2012 League MVP, and the 2011 League MVP), but I’m going with the Bengals for one reason: I’m not yet convinced that Denver is competent on the road. They lost by six at Atlanta (could have been a lot more if the Falcons knew how to finish off an opponent), they lost by 10 at New England (ditto), and they beat San Diego by one in the game that was officially the death of anyone ever mentioning Philip Rivers as a good quarterback again. I need to see them do it on the road some more before I’m convinced.

Washington (-3.5) over Carolina: After the Redskins’ epic fail last week at Pittsburgh, I’m shifting into “take Washington at home, stay away from Washington on the road” mode. Against the 1-6 Panthers, the Redskins have to win. And that extra half point isn’t sucking me into going with the underdog. If the Redskins have any hope of getting to 8-8 or better this year, they win this game by at least six points.

Cleveland (+4) over Baltimore: Did you know Baltimore is only 2-5 against the spread this year? The 5-2 Ravens feel like a sinking ship to me. They’ve been extremely unimpressive in most of their wins, and they got destroyed by Houston in their first game without the defensive guys they lost for the year. On the road, I don’t think they should be giving more than a couple points. Cleveland just might have enough in them to keep it close (and I’ll bet there are a lot of people out there picking this as their upset special of the week. Not me, but a lot of other people).

Indianapolis (+1) over Miami: This week’s winner of “the line Ross missed the biggest on when guessing the lines” award. I don’t understand how Indy isn’t favored. Both teams are 4-3; the Colts are at home; the Dolphins’ starting QB is banged up. What am I missing? Also, rumor has it that Chuck Pagano made an appearance at the Colts facility earlier this week. That probably gave his team a boost. I’m gladly taking Indy as a home underdog in this one.

Houston (-10.5) over Buffalo: Here’s a trend that probably a surprise to no one: When the Bills lose, they lose BIG (their week 7 loss vs Tennessee is the lone exception). And it’s not just in their three other losses in 2012. Last year, a lot of their losses were exactly the same. It just seems like when they smell a loss, they don’t even bother showing up. On the other side, it seems like Houston is suddenly flying under the radar because they had a bye last week and they got blown out by Green Bay three weeks ago. People seem to forget just how complete of a team they are. Can’t you totally picture a game update about halfway through the early games on Sunday where Andrew Siciliano says, “And the route is on in Houston as the Texans now lead the Bills 38 to 3…”?

Seattle (-4.5) over Minnesota: Yeah, I hate Seattle, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid when it comes to evaluating them each week. This one boils down to one simple question: How in the hell is Minnesota gonna score in this game? By running the ball? I doubt it. Seattle’s run D is sick. By throwing the ball? Ha, post-September Christian Ponder is their QB. Special teams? Without even looking, I have to assume Seattle’s special teams coverage is solid. My heart is rooting for the Vikings, but my head knows better. Seattle gets their fourth legitimate win of the season.

For Molly’s pick this week, the theme is “the epitome of laziness.” That’s because I was extremely lazy in getting her pick setup, and she was even lazier making the pick. She’s probably just sick and tired of having to choose a game involving the Raiders. I gave her Tampa Bay (+1) at Oakland. Let’s see which team she reluctantly decided on:

You heard the dog…Tampa (+1) is the pick.

NY Giants (-3.5) over Pittsburgh: After starting the season 5-0 when picking the Steelers game each week, I’ve picked against them the last two weeks and lost both times. Yeah, yeah, the Steelers fooled me. I was too confident that they were an old, injured and fading team. But most importantly, I forgot just how mediocre the NFL was. No fooling me this time though. Against one of the five best teams in football, on the road, with a ton of injuries still, the Steelers lose by at least a touchdown. I won’t shortchange them anymore when they’re playing the middle-to-lower tiers of the NFL, but against the elite, they don’t stand a chance.

Dallas (+4.5) over Atlanta: If you count the bye week as a “win” for Dallas (and really, you should, they need all the help they can get), did you know through eight weeks their record looks like this: win, loss, win, loss, win (bye), loss, win, loss. That’s the definition of consistently inconsistent. That means this week should be a win, right? Well they might not win, but I think they can cover. Atlanta’s actually played better on the road, and the Cowboys biggest strength (at least statistically speaking) is their pass defense. What if Dallas shuts down Matt Ryan and his receivers? Can the Falcons win with mostly a running attack? I’ve never had less confidence in one of my picks than I do with this game.

Philadelphia (+3.5) over New Orleans: The pick is Philly because the entire world is expecting them to self-destruct every week, and it’s just too obvious to assume they have no shot. Plus, the Saints shouldn’t really be giving more than a field goal against any decent team right now. New Orleans can’t stop anyone on defense, meaning they’ll have to be up 21 points in the 4th quarter for you to feel confident in them covering the three-and-a-half. I’d like to pick no one in this game, but then I wouldn’t be doing my job voluntary blogging that I treat like a job.

Week 4 NFL Picks: The Kolb/Skelton-led Arizona Bandwagon Causes Larry Fitzgerald to Set Himself on Fire

Now that the referee lockout is over, we can begin the healing process. For most fan bases, the healing process is simple. Just move on and forget the replacement referees ever existed. For Green Bay it’s a little different. The Packer fans will move on, but they’ll continue to think back to Monday’s game whenever they look at the standings in their division and in the greater NFC landscape. And god forbid the Packers miss the playoffs by one game…the entire officiating debacle will be rehashed and we may even get a government hearing. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. The WBFF blog is moving on, but first let’s make a few final predictions on this issue:

-Roger Goodell gets booed louder than Gary Bettman got booed in Vancouver after the 2011 Stanley Cup. Let’s face it…Goodell isn’t showing his face in public until he absolutely has to, which is February 3rd, 2013, when he presents the Lombardi Trophy to the Super Bowl winner. We all know he deserves—and will receive—an amazingly loud boo, but the question is which fan base is most motivated to not only throw the most hatred at him, but possibly rush the field and decapitate him as well? Before week 3 I would have said the Saints. They’re motivated by all the Bounty stuff that Goodell put the team through in the offseason, and the Super Bowl’s actually in New Orleans this year. If the Saints made it and won, that could be epic. But of course that train has sailed because the Saints are 0-3. After Monday night, can we all agree that having the Commissioner hand the Lombardi Trophy to the Packers would result in the most awkward moment and loudest chorus of boos in the history of sports? Even as a Patriots fan who desperately wants my team to win another Super Bowl, I’m almost rooting for this Packers/Goodell scenario. Of course if the Packers aren’t careful this week they could be 1-3 and staring at the same odds as the Saints of making the playoffs.

-The real referees will get a Reverse Goodell—a super loud ovation from the crowd—in their first games back this weekend. The tough decision if you’re part of the 70,000 fans at a stadium is when do you give the ovation? When they take the field for first time? When they review a play and make a call for the first time? Every time they speak to the crowd? (Note: I wrote all of this before Thursday’s game…very happy to see the fans came through with some loud cheers for referee Gene Steratore.)

-Golden Tate, Russell Wilson and anyone else directly involved in the play from Monday night will be remembered as the people who saved football. Right? They have to be remembered as the catalysts for the NFL and referees finally settling. So Green Bay’s loss is everyone else’s gain I guess? And should Tate and Wilson be locks for the Hall of Fame purely because they saved an entire season?

Let’s move on to my Week 4 picks (home team underlined):

Baltimore (-12.5) over Cleveland: Yeah, yeah, I already lost this one. But here’s what I wrote yesterday before the game: “Even though the Ravens are 2-1 and the Browns are 0-3, you can make the case that this will be a much more competitive game than the line suggests. The Browns should be 1-2 (if they didn’t fuck up the Philly game), and the Ravens could easily be 1-2 if the NFL would just extend the field goal posts 10 feet higher. This line should be closer to one touchdown. Doesn’t that mean we should be picking the underdog? We should, but we’re not. I dread that moment in the 4th quarter when the Ravens are up 14 and driving for another touchdown as the NFL Network announcers gush about how great Joe Flacco is. I don’t want to be the guy stuck with the Browns at that moment. I’ll pick the Ravens and be happy if they win big and happy if they somehow get upset.”

San Diego (-1) over Kansas City: If you’ve been reading me for the last few weeks, you know by now that early in the week I like to guess the lines of each game before I look at them on bovada.lv. I always like the surprise of any lines where I’m way off. This game was one of them. I had San Diego -6. The Chargers are going to get crushed by the cream of the NFL crop this year, as we saw when Atlanta visited San Diego last weekend. But the Chargers will make their living beating up on the basement teams of the NFL—Kansas City is the Chargers’ third basement team in the first four weeks. Easy win.

San Francisco (-4.5) over NY Jets: The 49ers got a reality check last week in the form of my preseason sleeper pick Christian Ponder. For 9ers fans who aren’t used to having a perennial juggernaut to root for, let me tell you how this works. Your team loses a gimme, realizes they can be beaten any Sunday by any team, and then they refocus and don’t lose another game the rest of the season. So when San Francisco rolls on the road this weekend, just be thankful that the loss came early and was pretty harmless overall. Yes, I’m picking the team with some weapons over the team with absolutely no weapons. (By the way, Ross jinx example #476: I picked Darrelle Revis for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.)

St. Louis (+3) over Seattle: There’s no justice in this world if Seattle’s allowed to win their week 4 game and move to 3-1. And before people go and pencil in Seattle to win just because the media is talking them up with the likes of Arizona as surprise teams who might be better than we think, keep in mind that the Seahawks are actually 1-2 and they actually only scored seven points in a home game on Monday night. I don’t have much faith in them on the road. St. Louis keeps their mini-resurgence going and moves to 2-2.

Atlanta (-7.5) over Carolina: Another game that I missed wildly on when it comes to guessing the line. I had Atlanta -13. I know it’s dangerous to base future results on past performance, but Carolina seriously played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen last Thursday night, and they were at home. Atlanta, on the other hand, went all the way across the country and cockslapped San Diego across the mouth. We’re talking about possibly the NFC’s best team vs possibly the NFC’s worst team. Don’t over think it.

Minnesota (+4.5) over Detroit: I believe in Christian Ponder so much that I staked my only chance to become a legitimate fantasy football writer to my belief in Ponder as a great sleeper choice in fantasy football this year (Seriously, I did. Read all about it HERE.) Detroit seems to be regressing before our eyes. After last week’s debacle in Tennessee, the Lions have now given up 98 total points to three teams absolutely no one would put in the top 15 of expected offenses this year (St. Louis, San Francisco and the aforementioned Titans). The regression continues and the media gets whipped into a Ponder frenzy as I sit back and smile at my own genius.

New England (-4.5) over Buffalo: As I’m watching NFL Network on Thursday afternoon, I see that five Super Bowl-winning QBs currently have losing records on the season, and all five lost last week. The men in question would be Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. With the way their teams are currently constructed, I believe exactly two of those QBs have the ability to go into Fuck You mode, put their team on their backs and get things back on track. Tom Brady is one of those QBs. Not only will the Pats not lose a third consecutive game, but it won’t even be close.

Houston (-12) over Tennessee: With so many of the expected juggernauts losing at least once if not twice already this season, it’s forgivable that the media hasn’t quite gotten the “which undefeated team has the best chance of going 16-0” conversation started yet. But it won’t be long before we’re all arguing whether it’s Atlanta or Houston that’s most likely to run the table. Most likely neither of them will, but with the way the Texans are playing on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to envision them losing anytime soon. They have back-to-back home games against Green Bay and Baltimore and then have a late-season road game at New England. Outside of those three games, the Texans shouldn’t lose, and you can expect them to be double-digit favorites in most of those contests. This is my suicide pick for the week.

Cincinnati (-3) over Jacksonville: If Cincinnati can just keep pace with Baltimore for most of the season, they’d be a lock for the playoffs. During this extended preseason—playing Jacksonville, Miami and Cleveland over the next three weeks—it shouldn’t be hard to keep pace, but starting with week 10 they face a mix of the NFC East’s best and their own divisional games. I think they continue to feast on the lowest of the low, but could see a huge drop off in the second half.

Miami (+6) over Arizona: I’m getting off the Arizona bandwagon now. Why so early, you ask? Because here’s what’s going to happen to that bandwagon over the next few weeks: Kevin Kolb is going to get behind the wheel of the bandwagon completely inebriated and start driving it down the wrong side of the freeway. Then John Skelton’s going to hop up front from the back seat and offer to help Kolb drive. A power struggle will ensue as the bandwagon zigzags its way through traffic, injuring everyone in its path. Then Kolb and Skelton will decide that they work best as a team, so Kolb will steer the bandwagon while Skelton mans the gas and brake. This will only make things worse. The result will be Larry Fitzgerald setting himself on fire and throwing his body on top of the bandwagon’s engine, causing a massive explosion and killing everyone who ever believed in this team. Basically I’m saying they’re due for a big fall back to earth soon.

For Molly’s week 4 pick, I’m letting her decide between Oakland and Denver. The Broncos are at home and favored by 6.5. I tried to tell Molly before she picked that if it was up to me, I’d be picking the Broncos because I think Manning’s gonna have a “I’m not dead yet” game. But Molly doesn’t necessarily acknowledge things like logic. Let’s see what she came up with:

You heard the dog…Oakland’s the pick.

Tampa Bay (-3) over Washington: Almost every Washington game this season is coming down to one score. That’s how it works when you have a terrible defense and a frisky-to-good offense. The question is whether the Redskins lose this game by just a couple points, or if it’ll be a full touchdown. I’m picking the full touchdown…taking Tampa and hoping for a push at worst.

Green Bay (-8) over New Orleans: The other Super Bowl-winning QB who has the ability to go into FU mode is Aaron Rodgers. I might be cheating a little by predicting a breakout game for Rodgers and the Packers offense since the Saints defense might be historically bad, but it’s gotta start somewhere. If the Packers can’t channel their anger from the Monday Night Screw Job and demolish a Saints team that’s legitimately on the ropes, then I think it’s time to seriously downgrade our expectations for the 2012 Green Bay Packers.

Philadelphia (-1) over NY Giants: Since the start of the 2008 season, the Eagles are 6-2 against the Giants in the regular season. That surprised me. So Philly kind of owns the Giants in meaningless games huh? I actually got multiple emails this week from people who were stunned that Philly would be favored in this game. I gotta admit, I assumed the Giants would be favored by 3 or so. Based on the way each team played last week (and really, it’s been a season-long thing for the Eagles), there may be no bet this weekend more obvious than Giants over Eagles. And that’s why I’m going with the Eagles. This game is just too obvious and everyone’s going to be backing New York. Something weird will happen in this game.

Chicago (+3.5) over Dallas: This one was painful to pick. Maybe this one should have been the Molly pick because I really can’t decide which team is better. I think Chicago’s slightly better, but they’re on the road. And anytime I convince myself that Chicago’s decent, I just think about how awful Jay Cutler and the offensive line has been this year. But Dallas just seems like a team that’s gonna go the entire year without winning consecutive games. The extra half point makes me feel like even if the Cowboys win the game, I can still cover because it’ll be a close one.

Just know that I feel awful about most of my picks this week.

Week 2 NFL Picks: My Dog Tries To Go 2-0 & I Tell You Which Coach Might Get His Prostate Milked This Week

In my Week 1 recap post, I mistakenly said I went 10-6 in my picks last week. I actually went 9-7. I’m not too upset about that because after I published those picks, I got smart and changed a couple in my Pick ‘Em leagues (most importantly realizing the Jets were going to surprise everyone and handle the Bills). Not a total failure, but I’d like to make my picks and stick with them. None of this back and forth bullshit. So this week I’m being consistent across all my different pick platforms.

Here we go with week 2 picks (home team underlined):

Green Bay (-5) over Chicago: Classic matchup, and I’m not talking about how these two teams have played each other more than any other teams in NFL history. I’m talking about how the Bears are coming off a dominant win over Indy, and the Packers are coming off an ugly home loss to the 49ers. Many will be tempted to pick the Bears to not only cover the five points, but to win the game outright. Before you do that, remember three things: 1). Before week 1, you would have picked the Packers to win by at least a touchdown in a home game against Chicago, 2). the Bears played possibly the worst team in the NFL in week 1, 3). the Packers played possibly one of the best teams in the NFL in week 1. I actually do think this will be a close game, but I’m going to say the same thing I said about the Baltimore/Cincinnati matchup from last week: Can’t it be a close game and the Packers still win by a touchdown? Yes, it can, and that’s what I’m predicting in the Thursday night game.

Tampa Bay (+7) over NY Giants: I liked this line a lot better on Tuesday when the Bucs were getting nine points. Apparently so did every gambler because it’s now down to a touchdown. I’m still taking the points. The Bucs might have a better running game than the Giants, and they might be able to throw a lot on the Giants’ suspect secondary. If Tampa’s defense can just play average against Eli and the Giants’ passing game, they could pull off the upset.

New England (-14) over Arizona: This line seems high, but high is what I’d have to be to go against the Patriots…at home…playing an NFC West team that’s starting its backup QB…a QB who was supposed to be a franchise player when Arizona traded for him last year, but who couldn’t even beat out a guy named Skelton for the job. It seems like this game will be similar to when the Chiefs visited Foxboro last November and had to start Tyler Palko because Matt Cassel was hurt. The Patriots won 34-3, and I think they’ll win by a similar margin on Sunday.

Minnesota (-1.5) over Indianapolis: I picked Minnesota last week with this justification: “I believe the Vikings are a ‘moderately bad team’ while the Jaguars are a ‘pathetically bad team.’” I got that pick wrong because the Vikings only won by three on a four-point spread, but I’m running back the same theory on the Vikings this week. Indy is a pathetically bad team and the Vikings will win by at least a field goal. Could the Packers be two games behind the Vikings in the NFC North after this week? I can’t believe that’s even a possibility, but it is.

My dog Molly got her pick correct last week. She went with Arizona as a three-point underdog at home against Seattle. She just barely got it right as the Seahawks’ last-gasp effort fell short (even with help from the refs in the form of a mysterious fourth timeout). Can Molly move to 2-0? If you remember last week, I said I’m gonna let her pick the game that’s the most confusing to me. I never thought the game I had no answer for would be the Saints vs the Panthers, but that’s what it is this week. Take it away Molly:

You heard the puppy: New Orleans (-3) over Carolina.

Kansas City (+3) over Buffalo: A matchup of two teams who lost by a combined 36 points and gave the ball away a combined seven times in week 1. How exciting. Here’s what I think’s going on with Buffalo…they went from being a sleeper playoff team to a team too many people expected would make the leap and be in the playoffs this year. There were two candidates for that honor, the Bears being the other. Even if the Bears get crushed on Thursday night by Green Bay, I’m staying on that bandwagon. But the Buffalo bandwagon? It’s about to get a whole lot emptier when they lose at home to the Chiefs. When I picked the Bills to make the playoffs, I ignored three glaring questions that needed to be answered before we could really know what kind of team they are: Is Ryan Fitzpatrick even an average QB? Can the Bills offense—and specifically their running game—continue to produce if Fred Jackson isn’t healthy? And is Mario Williams really a difference-maker on defense? I’m already thinking the answer to all three might be NO. Not good for Buffalo, not good at all.

Baltimore (+3) over Philadelphia: Part of my ongoing expert-in-training routine for football is to try to guess the line for each game every week before looking. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as far off on any line as I was with this one. I guessed “Baltimore -6.5,” and as you can see, I was off by 9.5 points. How in fuck’s name is Philly favored in this game? The Ravens absolutely dismantled a decent Bengals team in week 1. About 30 hours before that game, the Eagles were busy getting outplayed by a quarterback who ended the game with a 5.1 QB Rating. They narrowly escaped Cleveland with a one-point win. A win that ugly shouldn’t even be categorized as a win. So tell me why the Ravens are the underdog in this one? It’s weird going from Philly as my lock last week (as a 10-point favorite) to the team playing Philly as my lock this week, but that’s what I’m doing. Bet the farm on this game.

Oakland (-3) over Miami: Oakland might be a six-win team this year, but it feels like they’re immensely more talented than Miami. Even though Oakland lost its opener to San Diego by eight, they sneaky played a decent game…they held the Chargers to just one TD, gained more yards than them, held the ball for basically as long, but they lost a fumble and they apparently decided to put a random fan into the game as their backup long snapper, resulting in three botched punts. I think Oakland’s bad, but had they cleaned up a few self-inflicted wounds, they could have easily beat the Chargers. Miami doesn’t have a chance to beat anyone anytime soon.

Cincinnati(-7) over Cleveland: Is Brandon Weeden still the starting QB for Cleveland? He is, right? Then this pick is a no-brainer. If you were putting together a list of minimum qualifications that a quarterback in the NFL must have in order to be in the league, wouldn’t “hitting a wide open receiver with a pass” be at the very top of that list? Well it’s more than a little alarming how openly Weeden and his coach talk about Weeden repeatedly missing wide open guys in this article. For the time being, Cleveland could be playing against my college flag football team (a team who’s best offensive strategy was “give the ball to the biggest guy and have him repeatedly spin in circles all the way down the field so people can’t grab the flags cleanly”), and I’d bet on the college team even if they were giving seven points.

Houston (-7.5) over Jacksonville: I thought this line would be closer to 14 because Jacksonville is bad and Houston might be one of the top two teams in the AFC. Jacksonville looked decent last week, but without the minor miracle Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts 39-yard TD with 20 seconds left in that game, they would have been just another AFC basement team that wouldn’t get a second thought from football fans. I still think they fit that mold. Houston should roll even on the road.

Dallas (-3) at Seattle: Seattle lost to the combination of John Sketlon and Kevin Kolb last week, right? OK, good. Then this is easy. Dallas is 20 times more talented than Arizona. Road game or not, I can pick Dallas and feel good that a push is my worst case scenario.

St. Louis (+3) over Washington: You can’t fool me, Vegas. This line is based purely on Vegas trying to capitalize on the RGIII euphoria. I’m not dismissing what the ‘Skins did in a tough road game against New Orleans, but I think they caught a team in disarray by surprise. The Rams actually played a solid game in Detroit last week and were only a ridiculous clock error away from winning their own tough road game. I might have been too down on Washington when I predicted them to go 4-11-1 in 2012, but I doubt they’ll get past the six-win mark still.

Pittsburgh(-6) over NY Jets: When the Jets play Indy in four weeks, you could probably make Indy a 17-point favorite and I’d find a way to talk myself into them covering. That’s how badly I want the Jets to fail. So obviously I’m taking Pittsburgh with the points. The Jets probably played their best game of the year against a possibly-shitty Bills team. And with the Steelers, it sort of felt like they were still in preseason mode. Still figuring out which combination of running backs work best. Still working Mike Wallace back into the mix after his lengthy holdout. And don’t discount the absence of Ryan Clark to the importance of that defense (all you had to do was watch the Sunday Night Football broadcast for 30 seconds and you were bound to hear them discussing how big of a key Clark is in allowing Troy Polamalu to do his thing). The Steelers will figure things out pretty quickly and win this one by a touchdown.

Tennessee (+6) over San Diego: The last time the Chargers started a season 2-0 was in 2006. You know they need to lose a should-win game early so that the “fire Norv” chatter can become a weekly topic. A loss to the Titans could set them up for a 2-4 record after the first six weeks. That should be just enough to make every Norv press conference chock full of awkward job security questions. I’m calling the Titans in an upset here (or at least for them to lose by less than six).

San Francisco (-7) over Detroit: Let’s just get this out of the way right now: There’s a better chance of Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz french-kissing in the middle of the field after this game than there is of them getting into another old men’s fake fight. I’ll take it one step further…there’s a better chance of Schwartz sticking a finger up Harbaugh’s ass and milking his prostate (it’s a thing, google it), than there is of any dust-up between these coaches. But every pregame show and the NBC broadcast will try to hype up the pending post-game handshake/finger-blasting as if it’s a big deal. What is a big deal is if the 9ers easily handle another NFC North team, we’re gonna have to take a legitimate look at the rest of their schedule and try to figure out when they’re possibly gonna lose a game this year…could they go 15-1 with their only loss coming at New England? I’ll certainly be glad I fled the Bay Area four months ago if that happens.

Atlanta (-3) over Denver: Clear your head for one second of all the Peyton Manning-related garbage that’s in there (he’s back to his old form! he plays great in domes! he always plays well in nationally-televised games!). I know it’s difficult considering anyone in the national media who picked Manning to win the MVP is already patting themselves on the back as if it’s a done deal. But focus on this question and answer sequence instead: Which of these teams is more talented? Atlanta. And are they significantly more talented than Denver or only marginally more talented? Significantly. Can Matt Ryan throw the ball as well as Manning? Yes. Can the Falcons run the ball as well as Denver? Yes, or at least probably. I can’t imagine a scenario where the Falcons don’t win by at least a field goal.

Round 3 of NFL Predictions: Playoff Qualifiers and Super Bowl Champion

If you look at ESPN.com’s expert picks for the 2012 NFL Super Bowl winner, you don’t see a lot of variety or ballsy predictions. Out of 16 “experts,” nine of them selected the Green Bay Packers to win the title and four chose the Patriots. As a matter of fact, only three out of 16 DIDN’T have the Packers at least playing in the Super Bowl. Whether the Packers truly are the best team from a talent standpoint or not, these predictions are very boooooring.

Keep in mind that almost every year there’s a surprise team to reach the Super Bowl. The Giants did it in 2011 and 2007; the Packers did it in 2010; the Cardinals did it in 2008; the Steelers did it in 2005. We’re almost never seeing the top seed from each Conference face off in the Super Bowl.  Some team will get hot at the right time and randomly make a run through the playoffs. It’s likely to be a team that wins only nine or 10 games, and possibly it’s a team that doesn’t even win its division. So in my opinion, you’ve gotta go for a bit of a reach with at least one of your Super Bowl picks. Should the Packers at least reach the Super Bowl in 2012? Yes. Will they? Who knows? But my philosophy on these type of predictions is to be bold, make a prediction that no one is expecting. Because if you’re wrong about it, no one’s going to remember six months from now anyway. But if you’re right, you make sure to tell the whole world to go read your preseason predictions where you were 100% certain that this crazy thing was going to come true. It’s a win-win.

So on the eve of the NFL’s regular season opener, Nkilla and I are making our bold predictions on which 12 teams are making this year’s playoffs and who is ultimately advancing to and winning the Super Bowl.

I heard a stat last week that in each of the past seven years, five teams made the playoffs that didn’t make it the previous year. Lots of turnover in the NFL, and let’s see if Nkilla and I projected that with our picks (bold = team that did not make 2011 playoffs):

AFC Predictions

Rmurdera:

1). New England

2). Houston

3). Baltimore

4). San Diego

5). Buffalo

6). Denver

In the wildcard round, the Broncos immediately become the team no one wants to play because two-time AFC Champion Peyton Manning has rounded into form and is definitely capable of having a few “Peyton from 2004” kind of games. The Broncos knock off the Ravens, and the Bills stun nobody by beating a Chargers team that aspires to underperform in the playoffs each year. The San Diego ownership immediately gives Norv Turner a four-year contract extension while the Ravens provide plenty of postgame sound bites about how they should be in the Super Bowl, they should have won it all last year and the Patriots are lucky they don’t have to see the Ravens this year. I love when the two teams who have been acting like they’ve actually won something important in the past 10 years (Chargers and Ravens) get booted in the opening round.

The top two seeds in the AFC, New England and Houston, are handed some late Christmas gifts when the 5 and 6 seeds advance. The Texans take care of the Bills without a problem because the Bills are the “just happy to be there” team. The Patriots welcome their old friend Manning back to Foxboro for the second time this season and hang 40 points on the Bronco defense in a boringly easy game.

The Patriots, of course, take care of business against Houston in the AFC Championship to get back to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the last 12 years. Patriot haters across the country start talking about another year of the Pats having too easy of a schedule and not being a Super Bowl-worthy team. Patriots fans ignore them and dig through the back of their fridges to make sure they still have that bottle of victory champagne that’s been sitting on ice since January 2007. Maybe this is the year they finally get to pop it.

Nkilla:

1). New England

2). Baltimore

3). Houston

4). Denver

5). Buffalo

6). Cincinnati

In the wildcard round, Buffalo beats Denver. Peyton is good enough and healthy enough to get Denver to win the division, but I actually think Buffalo ends up with the second best record in the conference. Cincinnati takes care of Houston. The Bengals win the regular season tiebreaker and knock Pittsburgh out of a playoff spot setting up this rematch from last year. This time it’s a different result with A.J. Green having a huge game and carrying the Bengals to round two.

Cincinnati’s momentum (Uncle Mo for short) doesn’t last long as New England crushes them in round two. This game is almost as ugly as the New England vs Denver game last year. In the other second-round game, Buffalo upsets Baltimore. The Ravens blame the Patriots for paying off the refs so they could play Buffalo in the AFC Championship game. Also, Baltimore blows everything up in the offseason. They do not resign Flacco and start to rebuild their aging defense.

In the AFC Championship Game, New England handles Buffalo. Great year, Buffalo, but no way you’re going into Foxboro and winning the AFC Championship.

NFC Predictions

Rmurdera:

1). Green Bay

2). Atlanta

3). San Francisco

4). NY Giants

5). Chicago

6). Philadelphia

In the wildcard round, the two NFC teams that faced each other in last year’s NFC Championship game have their playoff runs end before they even get started. The Eagles beat the 49ers and the Bears knock off the Giants. The good news for San Francisco fans? Maybe a 9-7 regular season record and an immediate playoff exit will cause 49er management to realize Alex Smith cannot be the starting QB for a Super Bowl contender. But hey, at least you got eight years out of him, even if those years can best be described as “uneven.”

Just like the AFC side of the league, in the next round the #1 seed Packers take care of business against the Eagles. But unlike the AFC, the NFC’s #2 seed, the Falcons, have another one-and-done playoff showing when they’re ousted by the Bears.

And finally, just when everyone expects to get a Super Bowl matchup of the league’s two best quarterbacks—Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers—the Bears screw shit up by somehow upsetting Green Bay to earn a date against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVII.

Nkilla:

1). Atlanta

2). Green Bay

3). Philadelphia

4). Seattle

5). Chicago

6). Tampa Bay

In the wildcard round, Chicago gets to be this year’s team that goes 11-5, has three more wins than the NFC West winner (Seattle), and loses a playoff game on the road at said NFC West winner. Tampa has a nice bounce back season as they beat out New Orleans via a tiebreaker to get the final playoff spot. But they lose to the Eagles in their first game.

Green Bay handles Philly in the second round, and Atlanta beats the Seahawks…lots of talk this year about Atlanta and Matt Ryan finally making the leap until…

Green Bay beats Atlanta in the NFC Championship game. Does not mtter that the game is in Atlanta. Green Bay steam rolls them again, just like they did two years ago when they won the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Predictions

Rmurdera:

New England vs Chicago

Come on, you don’t think I can possibly pick the Bears to beat the Patriots, do you? If future hall-of-famer Rex Grossman couldn’t deliver a championship to Chicago in 2006, then I can’t see Jay Cutler being able to do it. The Patriots finally figure out how to play like the Patriots in a Super Bowl game. Tom Brady gets one step closer to the 10 Super Bowls I predicted he’d win back in 2005.

Nkilla:

New England vs Green Bay

Final score: New England 34 Green Bay 30. Safe pick, but the two best offenses, the two best QBs, and each added enough defensive pieces to get to the Super Bowl. Patriots win it because they have Gronk and Green Bay does not.

Final Note: Fine, so neither of us went crazy by picking a long shot to win it all. And sure, both of us were absolute homers in picking the Patriots as the 2012 Super Bowl Champs, but you had to expect that. At least I went out on a limb and projected a #5 seed to get to the Super Bowl.

We’ll be back later today with our final predictions of the preseason.

Round 1 of NFL Predictions: AFC’s “Closest to the Pin” Contest

As mentioned in a post last week, Nkilla and I have made a wager on who can be the better predictor of each NFL team’s exact record for the 2012 season.

The Setup: We both privately picked the number of total wins we thought each football team would get this year and sent them to each other for comparison. Before disclosing the predictions, I had to put a “+” or “-” next to half the teams, and Nkilla had to do the same. This was to ensure that if we both picked the same number, there would be a tiebreaker. For example, if we both picked 10 wins for Pittsburgh and it was my team to pick the tiebreaker, I’d put a “+” next to them if I wanted to up their win total to 11 in the case of a tie, or I’d put a “-” next to them if I wanted to down their win total to 9 in the case of a tie with Nkilla. Confusing, I know. Luckily we only picked the same number of wins for three teams out of 32 (all of our ties were for teams in the AFC North randomly).

The Wager: If Nkilla wins, I agree to a full day and night of babysitting for him and his wife at a future date to be determined. If I win, Nkilla is paying for my buy-in to a $60 poker tournament in Vegas next March (Fine Print: If I win $1,000 or more in that tournament, Nkilla will receive 40% of my profit. Seems fair considering the most he gets out of me is babysitting, but I could possibly win thousands of dollars off him).

We’re starting with the AFC. I’ll name the team, and then share both of our guesses and a comment we each made that elaborates on our prediction.

Here we go…AFC in alphabetical order:

Baltimore

Rmurdera: 10- wins (becomes 9-win prediction due to tiebreaker) “Watch this defense get torched in back-to-back weeks early in the season by Philadelphia and New England. Terrell Suggs will probably say the Patriots are cowards for playing the Ravens while he’s not healthy.”

Nkilla: 10 wins “I’m thinking average year for them in a tough division. They probably win the division, but I think a relatively quiet year.”

Buffalo

Rmurdera: 12 “Feeling like the Bills can go 8-2 outside the division. Whether they can pull off a win against the Patriots this year or not, I think they’re in the playoffs for the first time since 1999.”

Nkilla: 9 “I feel like they made a lot of noise before the draft with free agents, and then everyone forgot about them. I don’t think they challenge the Patriots for the division title, but barring a meltdown from Fitzy I think the playoffs are in play.”

Cincinnati

Rmurdera: 9- (becomes 8-win prediction due to tiebreaker) “Does the AFC North get 3 teams into the playoffs for the 2nd straight year? Is 9 wins good enough once again for the Bengals? Looking at a very weak AFC landscape, it seems like only Cincy, Buffalo and San Diego have a shot at the 2nd wildcard spot (assuming of course that Baltimore or Pittsburgh get the 1st wildcard).”

Nkilla: 9 “Year 2 of the Ginger Prince at the helm. Year 2 of the Ginger Prince to AJ Green. I can’t imagine why they don’y keep progressing. Well, other than the fact that they are the Bengals.”

Cleveland

Rmurdera: 4 “I’m predicting a 4-11-1 record for the Browns this year. Week 15 against the Redskins screams “tie” to me.”

Nkilla: 5 “Assuming that Richardson comes back fine, and assuming that Weeden plays better than the average rookie because of his age, they could be frisky. Unfortunately ‘frisky’ in The Cleve probably means ‘an entertaining 5-6 wins.'”

Denver

Rmurdera: 10 “I believe Peyton will be healthy all year and the offense will immediately jump from 25th in points per game to something like 14th. And the young defense will continue to improve. Weak AFC West = 10 wins and playoffs for Manning & friends.”

Nkilla: 8 “Not sold on Manning’s health, and I think the defense regresses some from last year. I would have gone even less wins if the division was decent.”

Houston

Rmurdera: 13 “If their running game and defense is as good as last year, it almost doesn’t matter if Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson stay healthy. They get to play in an extremely weak AFC South once again.”

Nkilla: 9 “They lost some key pieces on defense, plus they have a first-place schedule for the first time ever. That being said, their running game still makes them a dominant team in a division where the other three QBs are Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and a rookie.”

Indianapolis

Rmurdera: 4 “100% increase in wins from last year gets the Andrew Luck era started off on the right foot. Indy fans try their hardest not to get upset when they see Manning and the Broncos in the playoffs.”

Nkilla: 6 “It has been ten years since we knew before the season started that the Patriots/Colts game would not be meaningful and not be a primetime game. It feels strange.”

Jacksonville

Rmurdera: 2 “Someone has to tie Arizona as the worst team in football. Maurice Jones-Drew or not, this is a terrible team that will only win a 2nd game because the Jets will be in full meltdown mode by the time they visit Jacksonville in December.”

Nkilla: 5 “Vegas should post this prop bet, right? – ‘over/under for combined wins by NFL teams from Florida in the 2012 season: 16.5′”

Kansas City

Rmurdera: 7 “Jamaal ‘fast black’ Charles is back, and I believe he’ll be a top 5 running back, but Matt Cassel is still Matt Cassel. The Chiefs take a backseat to Denver and possibly even San Diego in the AFC West.”

Nkilla: 8 “I cannot figure out why KC is the trendy pick to win their division. The Romeo ‘RAC’ Crennel error (pun intended) in Cleveland was only two seasons ago. How does everyone forget so quickly? I actually think on paper the team is solid and could be a 9-10 win team with an average performance out of Cassel, but Crennel should have followed McDaniels’ lead and gone back to being a Patriots assistant.”

Miami

Rmurdera: 4 “Feels like I’m being generous with 4 wins. The Dolphins basically gave up on the season the moment they announced the rookie, Ryan Tannehill, was their starting QB.”

Nkilla: 5 “With the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the Miami Dolphins select…”

New England

Rmurdera: 15 “I’m having trouble even finding their one loss…at Baltimore is the obvious one to look at, but in a nationally-televised game against a weaker-than-usual Baltimore defense, I think the Pats’ offense can outscore Joe Flacco and the Ravens. But I refuse to predict a 16-0 season for New England, even if it seems like a good possibility once again.”

Nkilla: 13 “Even if they pump the breaks in December, I think 13 wins is in play. Also, there is an 87% chance my son’s first word is ‘Gronk.'”

NY Jets

Rmurdera: 7 “Might be worst offense in the NFL this year. I have them starting the season 0-5. If they start 0-6, that means a week 6 loss to the Colts at home. Looking forward to Tim Tebow’s first start in Week 7 at New England.”

Nkilla: 9 “Emotional hedge. If they somehow pullout 9 or 10 wins, I probably win this one. If someone told me I could either have A) The Patriots go 19-0 and the Jets go 6-10 or B) The Patriots go 8-8 and the Jets go 1-15 and fire Rex Ryan, I would obviously pick A, but I would also at least think about it for five minutes before I decided.”

Oakland

Rmurdera: 5 “More fun than predicting how few wins the Raiders will get this year is trying to guess at which point in the season they’ll be calling JaMarcus Russell’s agent to see if he can come in and compete with Carson Palmer for the starting QB job.”

Nkilla: 7 “I like that McFadden’s goal is to play 16 games this year. Nice to see he has no aspirations of making the playoffs. Or is that 13 regular season games plus a Super Bowl run?”

Pittsburgh

Rmurdera: 10+ (becomes 11-win prediction due to tiebreaker) “Predicting all 4 AFC North teams to go 3-3 within their division makes life easy and may just be the way things go this year.”

Nkilla: 10 “I actually think 10 wins might be a little high, but they have a good coach and they always seem to get about 10 wins, right? I don’t think it is more than 10. Could be less. Their running backs all seem banged up and Roethlisberger has been hit a lot for a not-so-old-yet QB.”

San Diego

Rmurdera: 8 “Going to be a tough year offensively for this team. By the way, is Norv Turner still the Chargers’ head coach? Didn’t he get fired by the fans about 13 times in the past five seasons?”

Nkilla: 6 “Sure seems like they are in for an injury plagued season, doesn’t it? Can I lock them up for a bounce back year and 10 wins in 2013 though? Do I get any advantage by doing that right now?”

Tennessee

Rmurdera: 6 “This team is starting the season 0-7, especially with Jake Locker at QB. They play four games against playoff teams from 2011 and three tough road games in that opening stretch.

Nkilla: 7 “Even if Chris Johnson returns to 2012 form and Kenny Britt played every game, I feel like 8-8 would be the ceiling for this team.”

Final Thoughts on our AFC Picks:

1). The largest gap we had for a single team was 4 wins, for Houston. It sounds like Nkilla expects them to be a little worse on defense this year than last year (I disagree). Regardless of the defense, it seems like we both expect them to win their division even if their top offensive players were to miss some time…that pretty much sums up the AFC South this year.

2). Nkilla and I are really locked in on the AFC North. We picked the same number of wins for three teams—Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pitt—and we would have had the same for Cleveland if I hadn’t come up with my wacky “Cleveland ties Washington” idea. Are we both geniuses with this division?

2). Since I’ve gotten to see all of Nkilla’s picks—NFC included—I can tell you he has the worst record in football being a 5-11 team and the best record being 13-3. I wonder if he realizes that in each season over the past 10 years, there has been at least one team with 4 or less wins. And in eight of those 10 seasons, there has been at least one team with more than 13 wins. Seems like Nkilla is “playing it safe” by not picking anyone to be too good or too bad. Time will tell if that strategy pays off or not.

We’ll be back with the NFC predictions next week.