Tuesday, December 26, 2006

NFL Week 17 ATS: Home Stretch Finds 12 Nags Vying for 4 Wild-Card Berths

Twelve teams are out of it altogether. Eight teams are taking home divisional crowns. That leaves 12 remaining wannabes who wanna be in the playoffs as wild-card teams.

The NFC is so chock-full of not-very-good football teams that, theoretically, someone (the Giants) could enter the postseason with a record below .500, which is, in a word, pathetic. But even if the conference avoids this embarrassment, it’ll still be looking at some pretty woeful squads as potential entrants into the playoff fray. Besides the Giants, there’s Green Bay, St. Louis, Carolina and Atlanta sitting there with 7-8 records, each one hoping to win this weekend while all the others lose. (There’s only one open at-large spot in the NFC, because both Dallas and Philly are guaranted a playoff berth, one as the NFC East winner, the other as a wild card.) The Giants have the upper hand: beating the Redskins in Washington would lock it up for them, barring a Packers victory in Chicago and some weirdly improbable twists in the “strength of schedule” and “strength of victory” tiebreaker formulas.

Things are even crazier in the AFC, where the Jets and the Broncos have the inside track to the postseason. That is, all they need do is win. They’re both at home, and they both play weak teams (Oakland and San Francisco, respectively). But if one or both falters, all hell breaks lose, with the Bengals, Titans, Jaguars and Chiefs, all at 8-7, jockeying for viable position.

It’s pretty confusing. Those seeking a handy guide to keep near the television this weekend might want to print out this page from the online Hartford Courant, which offers a clarifying rundown of the playoff possibilities.

The last week of the regular season presents the handicapper with all sorts of extracurricular considerations. You’ve got teams desperate to make the playoffs, in some cases facing off against teams going nowhere. Will the playoff hopefuls lose focus and tank out? Do the also-rans play up to maximum potential out of pride? Does having a spoiler role really matter to a team that’s 2-13? Then there’s the case of the Patriots, who have won their division title but can’t secure the home field throughout the playoffs. They’ll be hosting a first-round wild-card game no matter what they do on Sunday, so will they care how well they play in Nashville, where the Titans are looking to win their seventh game in a row and snag a playoff berth?

The SMA swami was 9-7 last week, with road underdogs like the Eagles, Jets, Ravens, and Saints coming through with outright wins. Another road ‘dog, the Bengals, did their duty; they lost but beat the tight spread. The yearly record is now 105-97-6. If nothing else, that’s better than the 7-9 the Giants could wind up with while still being considered postseason-worthy.

These early-line spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. NY GIANTS (-2) @ WASHINGTON Once they were 6-2. Now they’re 7-8. Yet a victory over the 5-10 Redskins could vault this seemingly heartless Giants squad into the postseason. In the past two weeks, the Skins have beaten the Saints and lost in overtime to St. Louis, displaying moxie in both road games. Skins RB Ladell Betts is making a strong case for why he should be a first-string player, and young QB Jason Campbell gains valuable experience with every outing. I suspect the Skins would love to stick it to the Giants, and they just might. Prediction: Redskins.

2. PITTSBURGH @ CINCINNATI (-6) This matchup hearkens back to the days of the old AFC Central Division. The 8-7 Bengals are desperate for a win, but getting one doesn’t guarantee the playoffs. Losing last week in Denver on a missed extra point has put them behind the 8-ball. They need to win and get help from the likes of the Raiders and 49ers. For a team with so much talent and promise, it looks like a bitter end. The 7-8 Steelers would probably like to make it back to .500 after a bitter year of their own. If the Steelers bring their pride, this’ll be a dogfight. Prediction: Steelers.

3. DETROIT @ DALLAS (-12) Once 8-4, and in the driver’s seat of the NFC East, the Cowboys are now 9-6 and can only get the division crown if the Eagles lose their game at home versus the Falcons. That’s also presuming the ‘boys beat this lost Lions franchise, now 2-13 after dropping a close one to the sleep-walking Bears last week. It would be priceless to see the look on Bill Parcells’ face if the Lions upended his inconsistent squad, which certainly has talent but seems lacking in the esprit de corps category. The Lions flat-out stink, but 12 points is a lot of esprit de corps to summon out of nowhere. Prediction: Lions.

4. CLEVELAND @ HOUSTON (-3.5) The locals are pretty happy in Houston, where the Texans beat the Colts last week and boosted their record to 5-10. Finishing at 6-10 would be a moral victory for Coach Gary Kubiak and would give the team something realistic to shoot for in ‘07. Alas, the Texans are recidivists of the highest order, and the 4-11 Browns are just the type of team to catch them napping. On the other hand, the Browns will be led this week by former Miami Hurricane Ken Dorsey at quarterback. Who knew he was even still in the league after his two less-than-stellar seasons in San Francisco? Prediction: Texans.

5. JACKSONVILLE @ KANSAS CITY (-2.5) A must win for both 8-7 teams, made all the more nerve-wracking because getting the victory still doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth. It’s appropriate that these two should face off at this juncture: both are talented and erratic and equally capable of playing good football. Seems like maybe the Chiefs have the upper hand with Trent Green at QB; his Jags counterpart, David Garrard, is not the kind of guy who can bring you back from behind. If Green and Larry Johnson get the Chiefs a lead, that could be the game. Hard to know if amazing Jags rookie RB Maurice Jones-Drew has any miracles left in him. He’s pretty darn good, though. Usually, so is the Jags’ defense. This should be a highly entertaining scrum. And very close. Maybe it’s Chiefs, 24-23. Prediction: Jaguars.

6. ST. LOUIS (-2) @ MINNESOTA Rams need a victory for even a shot at the playoffs, and then they need help. Vikings now 6-9 and out of it after flirting with success all season long. Vikings have no offense, while Rams have it in spades, with Marc Bulger leading the passing attack and hulkish Steven Jackson pounding out the ground game. The Vikings’ defense has been stalwart all year, but at this point they might ease up. Prediction: Rams.

7. CAROLINA @ NEW ORLEANS (-3) The Panthers need a win plus help from others to get a wild-card spot. The Saints are 10-5 and have gained a first-round playoff bye, so the outcome here for them is superfluous. If they want, they can rest up the troops and maybe hand the Panthers a sympathy “W.” Prediction: Panthers.

8. OAKLAND @ NY JETS (-12.5) The 9-6 Jets are poised to make the playoffs, and all they have to do is defeat possibly the worst team in football. At home, no less. Can’t see how the Jets can miss the victory. But they might not cover. Prediction: Raiders.

9. SEATTLE @ TAMPA BAY (-3.5) The defending NFC champ Seahawks limp into the postseason, and the best record they can have is 9-7, presuming they beat the bad, bad Bucs (4-11). The Hawks could really use a good tune-up game here, to at least show us that maybe they’re not what we suspect they are, i.e., a .500 team lucky to be playing in a lousy division. Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck could use the work, so look for Seattle to grind out the victory. It might not be so easy, but they’re getting points, so the play is made a lot easier. Prediction: Seahawks.

10. NEW ENGLAND @ TENNESSEE (-3) The Titans are on a six-game winning streak and playing magical football. A win here would put them at 9-7 and give them a playoff shot, which would happen for sure if the Broncos, Bengals and Jaguars all lost. It’s a meaningless game to the Pats. Seems pointless to even play Tom Brady, as a matter of fact. This game will be played concurrently with the Bengals-Steelers and Chiefs-Jags tilts, so scoreboard-watching will be hard to resist. Prediction: Titans.

11. BUFFALO @ BALTIMORE (-9) With the Bills out of the playoffs and the Ravens marching onward into them, this might look like a meaningless affair. In fact, the Ravens, at 12-3, could gain home field throughout the playoffs if they win and, by some miracle, the Cardinals defeat the Chargers in San Diego. The Ravens have been nipping at the Chargers’ heels all season, and if they tie at 13-3, the Ravens win the key postseason advantage by virtue of their victory over San Diego in Week 4. Failing that, the Ravens at least want to stay ahead of Indy in the race for a first-round bye. Prediction: Ravens.

12. SAN FRANCISCO @ DENVER (-11) A lot of AFC wild-card hopefuls are pulling for the 49ers (6-9) to play over their heads in Denver and deal the 9-6 Broncos a lethal blow. Broncs won a biggie last week over Cincy, and they’re holding up under rookie QB Jay Cutler. The Niners are scrappy and they have Frank Gore running the ball, so a Denver “W” is not automatic. Plus, Cutler’s still young and mistakes can happen. Hefty spread for such an up and down team to cover. Prediction: 49ers.

13. MIAMI @ INDIANAPOLIS (-9) This game has some potentially important implications for the Colts. If they win and Baltimore loses, they’ll gain a first-round bye, which is a huge advantage in the postseason. It means extra rest and the opportunity to host a divisional playoff game. Maybe the Colts will use this game to try some new defensive schemes against the run. If they don’t improve in that department, it may not matter how great Peyton Manning is. Dolphins playing out the string at 6-9, and Cleo Lemon (??) replaced Joey Harrington at quarterback in their Monday night game versus the Jets. (Pop quiz: Where did Cleo Lemon play his college ball? Answer below.) Dolphins could still beat this spread. Prediction: Dolphins.

14. ATLANTA @ PHILADELPHIA (-7.5) For the 9-6 Eagles, this game means the difference between a division title (with a first-round home game) and a wild-card berth (with a first-round game on the road). A letdown here is simply not acceptable, not for a team that’s shown so much grit. The Falcons will probably wind their way to their inevitably sluggish 7-9 destiny, even though victory keeps them theoretically alive in the wild-card race. (Fact is, if the Giants win on Saturday, the Falcons will be out of it anyway.) For all that, there’s no guarantee the Eagles cover. Prediction: Falcons.

15. ARIZONA @ SAN DIEGO (-13.5) The 13-2 Chargers sometimes struggle with lousy teams. They’ve shown a tendency to keep ‘em hanging around for a while before eventually getting the “W.” But if the Chargers want the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they need to win this one, because the Ravens are right behind them and are playing a home game of their own. The Cards, once 1-8, are now 5-10, which means they’re playing at a 4-2 clip and showing signs of respectability. They don’t have Matt Leinart, though, out for the season after injuring his shoulder against the 49ers. Old vet Kurt Warner has taken over; he could have problems with that swarming Chargers defense. Prediction: Chargers.

16. GREEN BAY @ CHICAGO (-2.5) Yet another game that means nothing to the Bears, now 13-2. Still, it’s a home game and it’s against the rival Packers and who knows if it isn’t maybe Brett Favre’s last appearance at Soldier Field. The Packers are 7-8 and with an outside playoff shot (though by the time this Sunday night game rolls around, the Giants may have already made that proposition academic). Bears haven’t really been playing very well of late, and if the game turns out to really mean something to Green Bay’s playoff chances, then it could be a barn-burner. Prediction: Packers.

Pop Quiz Answer: Arkansas State.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

NFL Week 16 ATS: Anybody’s Ballgame

Heading into the penultimate weekend of NFL play, only seven teams are absolutely eliminated from playoff contention. That leaves eight current division leaders (most of them with the top spot locked up) and an unbelievable 17 other teams still harboring a mathematical shot at a wild-card berth. This is the way Pete Rozelle dreamed it up years ago: a system designed to keep interest high right to the very end, and to ensure that even the smallest-market football teams have a chance to get a piece of the pie. Hence we have six 6-8 teams—St. Louis, San Francisco, Minnesota, Green Bay, Carolina and Miami—who are technically still in the running, though the cards would have to fall in almost impossible ways in order for one of them to advance to the post-season. Still, it could happen, especially in that crazy-quilt NFC, where mediocrity rules and even division leaders like Dallas and Seattle don’t look secure.

As for adventures against the spread, the SMA swami exhibited his own brand of mediocrity last week, going 8-8. That leaves us 96-90-6 on the year. Not very prescient, to be sure (there’s parity everywhere). It sure doesn’t get any easier, either. This week’s slate is loaded with critical contentious matchups.

Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. MINNESOTA @ GREEN BAY (-3.5) Two 6-8 teams, each looking for a playoff Christmas miracle. The Packers are on a mild rebound, though they’ve only posted a 2-5 record at home this season. The Vikings lost an important game at home last week against the Jets, and now are handing the quarterbacking duties to rookie Tarvaris Jackson. The odds are that he’ll struggle, and it could be that the Vikings are finished for good. Prediction: Packers.

2. KANSAS CITY (-6.5) @ OAKLAND Sigh. The Chiefs (7-7) are sorta like the Jaguars: a totally mystifying team ATS, but with legit playoff chances. With Denver and Cincy facing off this week, one of them will emerge from that game at 8-7, which is what the Chiefs can be if they take care of business in Oakland. The Raiders (2-12) still look confused. Prediction: Chiefs.

3. TENNESSEE @ BUFFALO (-4.5) Two of the better stories in the AFC this year. Both teams have overcome rocky starts and stand at 7-7. The Titans have won five in a row, often in most improbable fashion; the Bills have had two impressive recent victories, over the Jets in New York and a shutout at home last week against Miami. Pretty tough call, but the Bills’ offensive execution has improved, and the team looks hungry. And they’re at home too. Prediction: Bills.

4. NEW ORLEANS @ NY GIANTS (-3) The 9-5 Saints kinda shot themselves in the foot at home last week, losing to the Redskins. Now they go to the Meadowlands, with its memory of last season’s Katrina “home” game. At 7-7, the Giants are desperate for a win to stay in the wild-card race. They’ve lost five of six, and frankly they have only themselves to blame for their predicament. Saints an appealing road ‘dog. Prediction: Saints.

5. CAROLINA @ ATLANTA (-6) Hard to believe that, after a season of ugly on-field play and ugly off-field behavior by players and coaches as well as disparaging remarks from the owner, the Falcons (7-7) are still in the running for the wild card. In fact, there are some tasty scenarios that could play out in their favor, and all they need do is keep winning. The Carolina saga is also negative, but at 6-8—and even with a four-game losing streak—they’re still in it mathematically. They probably still won’t have sore-thumbed QB Jake Delhomme, however, and his absence makes this a different (and much weaker) squad. The Falcons could certainly blow it, and this spread is a potential trap, but they still get the nod. Prediction: Falcons.

6. WASHINGTON @ ST. LOUIS (-2.5) The 5-9 Redskins defy analysis, after they beat the Saints last week in New Orleans. The Rams are one of those 6-8 teams hoping for wild-card mathematical magic. It’s a modest spread, and the home team, in theory, should be able to cover it. But anything’s possible here. Prediction: Rams.

7. INDIANAPOLIS (-9) @ HOUSTON The AFC home-field advantage game is still afoot, and the Colts would love to continue playing well, as they did against Cincy on Monday night. It’s a short work week for them and they have to travel, but to Houston, where a 4-10 team awaits yet another thrashing after getting shellacked 40-7 in New England. Hefty spread, but Colts are able. Prediction: Colts.

8. BALTIMORE @ PITTSBURGH (-3) Losing here doesn’t deal the 11-3 Ravens a fatal blow, but it would make getting the home field throughout the playoffs impossible if San Diego wins its game against Seattle. Steelers, on a three-game win streak, and now at 7-7, are playing well enough to be dangerous. Ravens QB Steve McNair expected to play after getting his hand stepped on last week. Ravens in the unusual position of being an underdog. I’d be surprised if they didn’t play a competitive game. Prediction: Ravens.

9. TAMPA BAY @ CLEVELAND (-3) Okay, here’s one that truly doesn’t matter to anyone. The 3-11 Bucs extended the Bears to overtime last week before losing, and the 4-10 Browns kept things close versus the Ravens before capitulating. Prediction: Browns.

10. CHICAGO (-4.5) @ DETROIT The Bears have nothing to play for. At 12-2, they’ve wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They’d probably like to rest up, though it wouldn’t hurt QB Rex Grossman to keep honing his skills and execute that offense. Detroit is 2-12, and the record speaks for itself. In the interest of pride, the Lions could muster some effort here; meanwhile, the Bears could slack off. For a meaningless game, it’s a very tough play. If the spread were higher, the Lions might rate. Even so, this could very well be “one of those games.” Prediction: Bears.

11. NEW ENGLAND @ JACKSONVILLE (-2.5) Just when you think there can’t be a tougher game to pick, along comes this important tilt. The Jags, at 8-6, must win, because either Denver or Cincy will be at 9-6 by day’s end, and the Jets could be also by Monday night. Jags facing a 10-4 Patriots team coming off a 40-7 rout of Houston. Jags are tough at home usually, but they must be smarting from their improbable loss last week at Tennessee, where they piled up huge yardage and time of possession advantages but lost on critical turnovers, all by quarterback David Garrard. It’s basically a must-win for Jacksonville, but New England also has to watch its back because they could still blow the AFC East divisional title by losing their final two games while the Jets win theirs. Should make for excellent television at any rate. Prediction: Jaguars.

12. ARIZONA @ SAN FRANCISCO (-4) The 6-8 49ers have little chance to make the playoffs, but it would be a surprise if they didn’t expend some effort in their final home game. Not a necessarily tough spread to cover under the circumstances, though the 4-10 Cardinals seem to be improving. A bit of a crap shoot. Prediction: 49ers.

13. CINCINNATI @ DENVER (-3) A big-time head-on battle for control of the AFC wild-card picture. Both teams are 8-6, with Cincy coming off a disappointing Monday night performance against the Colts, and the Broncos winning as they should against Arizona. Denver rookie QB Jay Cutler had a big-league game, which can only help his confidence. Bengals looked ragged against Indy, giving the handicapper pause, and rumors swirled this week that QB Carson Palmer has a sore shoulder. He’s probable for the game though. The Broncos would probably look better as the underdog. Prediction: Bengals.

14. SAN DIEGO (-5) @ SEATTLE San Diego, for all the great football they’ve played so far, still have not nailed down the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Baltimore and Indy, both 11-3, are breathing down their 12-2 necks. The Seahawks team they face is 8-6, and only 3-3 in their own weak division. The Seahawks of 2005 would match up well against this Chargers squad, but this year’s Seattle team has been hampered by key injuries and erratic play. Just a hunch but maybe the Seahawks will get it together enough to beat the spread. Being home helps. Prediction: Seahawks.

15. PHILADELPHIA @ DALLAS (-7) It’s been tough to believe in the Eagles this year, but they’ve proved they have heart. At 8-6, they trail the division-leading Cowboys by only a game, and a win here could really muck with the NFC playoff picture. They might lose, but that doesn’t diminish the betting value of Jeff Garcia and the points. Prediction: Eagles.

16. NY JETS @ MIAMI (-2) The 8-6 Jets scored a huge road victory at Minnesota last week. They’ve got themselves in a very nice position to snag a wild-card berth. In fact, if the Jets win out and the Patriots drop their final two games, the Jets can win the AFC East. Miami is 6-8 and mostly in a spoiler role despite a faint playoff hope. The Jets control their destiny, and they’re getting a couple of points here. Will they lose focus? Prediction: Jets.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

NFL Week 15 ATS: Road Warriors

It’s getting so going 10-6 against the spread has become the desired realistic standard. That’s a .625 percentage, and given how uncertain this handicapping biz can be sometimes, we’ll take it. It’s particularly sweet in a week where almost every single game was a head-scratcher. But the SMA swami got some serious assistance from spread-busting squads like the Giants (over Carolina), the Ravens (over Kansas City), the Dolphins (over New England), the Saints (over Dallas), the Packers (over San Francisco) and the Titans (over Houston). Except for the Dolphins, every one of these underdogs was playing on the road. That’s a lot of road ‘dog success, and every single team didn’t just beat the spread—they all won their games outright.

With a 36-27-1 record ATS the past four weeks, we now stand at 88-82-6 on the year. It’s not that great, to be sure, but the swami stays afloat, and we’re having some fun.

Spreads, as always, courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. SAN FRANCISCO @ SEATTLE (-10) The 5-8 Niners are firmly back to earth after now losing three in a row. Seattle, 8-5, just lost to Arizona, which possibly indicates some sense of growing NFC West parity. If the right Niners team shows up, they can beat this spread. Prediction: 49ers.

2. DALLAS (-3.5) @ ATLANTA After getting trounced at home on national TV by the Saints, the Cowboys require reevaluation. They had appeared to assert themselves as the kings of the NFC East, but at 8-5 they now find themselves only a single game ahead of the Giants and Philly. The schizoid Falcons have won two straight and at 7-6 have rejuvenated their playoff hopes. There is no obvious indicator as to who wins this game. But the Falcons seem to have steadied their ship—unless that’s yet another mirage—and as the home team getting the points, they might be worth a tumble. Prediction: Falcons.

3. NY JETS @ MINNESOTA (-3) The 7-6 Jets lost a key home game to Buffalo last week, cramping their wild-card style in a serious way. Meanwhile, the 6-7 Vikings beat Detroit like they were supposed to and kept their own playoff aspirations alive. The Vikes get the obligatory home-team points here, but otherwise these are two almost identically matched squads. The Jets have an edge with QB Chad Pennington, but the Vikings’ defense has played tough all year long. This should be so close that the only logical choice is the underdog. Prediction: Jets.

4. CLEVELAND @ BALTIMORE (-11) It shouldn’t take a titanic effort from the homebound 10-3 Ravens to defeat the 4-9 Browns. But after last week’s big victory in Kansas City, the Ravens might be inclined to ease up on the intensity, even if they’re still hearing the Bengals’ footsteps behind them in the AFC North. Of course, they could romp too, the Browns being who they are. Still too many points to be easily trusted. Prediction: Browns.

5. HOUSTON @ NEW ENGLAND (-11) After getting shutout in Miami, the 9-4 Patriots have something to prove. Houston, at 4-9, might provide the tonic. The Texans aren’t the worst team around. They scrap and fight and try real hard, and through some combination of unknown forces have managed to beat the Jaguars twice this year. Strangely, the Pats are better on the road (5-1) than they are at home (4-3). A daunting spread here, and the Pats rarely blow anybody out. Very tough call, but it’s easier to believe in Tom Brady than David Carr. Prediction: Patriots.

6. MIAMI @ BUFFALO (-1) Two AFC East teams, both at 6-7, each with remote but not impossible chances for a wild-card berth. The Fins are off a big victory over the Patriots, and the Bills spanked the Jets convincingly last week in New York. It’s a virtual toss-up. Home team wins. Prediction: Bills.

7. PITTSBURGH (-2.5) @ CAROLINA Two 6-7 teams that both had Super Bowl aspirations, but now neither is sure where they’re going. The Panthers have lost three straight, all to NFC East teams, and they were the favorite in each game. Now they’re at home for the second straight week, only now they’re gonna get some points. The Steelers have won four out of their last five, including two straight against weak sisters Tampa Bay and Cleveland, and harbor only a mathematical shot at the playoffs. It’s a virtual pick ‘em here. The Steelers have a 1-5 record on the road, yet the Panthers are playing like a team that’s definitely lost its mojo. As tough a play as any this week. Hard to ignore that the home team is the underdog, though. Prediction: Panthers.

8. WASHINGTON @ NEW ORLEANS (-10) The Skins are now 4-9, and the remainder of their disappointing season gives young QB Jason Campbell a chance to grow. Otherwise, this team is flat-out unpredictable and also lacks the killer instinct. The Saints are 9-4, look great, and have a multi-dimensional offense capable of eating opponents alive. A formidable spread here, but don’t underestimate the home team, which would love to secure a first-round playoff bye and needs to keep winning to do so. Prediction: Saints.

9. JACKSONVILLE (-3.5) @ TENNESSEE The 8-5 Jags are one of the handicappers’ least favorite teams. They look like they’re gaining consistency at the moment—coming off a rout of the Colts, too—but the problem with that is, that’s just when they lose unlikely games. The Titans are surging under Vince Young, having won six of their last eight, and, at 6-7, they even have a mathematical playoff chance, however improbable. Titans will have their hands full with the Jacksonville running game and defense, and it might be too much to expect a fifth straight miracle from their gifted rookie QB. But don’t bet the farm on this game, ‘cause Young is the real deal and the Titans look motivated. Prediction: Jaguars.

10. TAMPA BAY @ CHICAGO (-13.5) This spread looks right, given it’s the 3-10 Bucs versus the 11-2 Bears. But it’s still a lot of points, and what if Rex Grossman reverts to bad form? Bears win, but will they cover? Bucs are averaging 11.6 points per game this year. Bears averaging 27.6 PPG. And it is cold in Chicago. Prediction: Bears.

11. PHILADELPHIA @ NY GIANTS (-5.5) An NFC East wild-card wannabe matchup. Both teams are 7-6. While the Giants have been losing lately, they won at Carolina last week, and have simply looked to be a better team than Philly this year. Can Eagles’ QB Jeff Garcia keep up his recent magic? The points here are playing havoc with the logic of parity. Here’s hoping the Giants play to potential. Prediction: Giants.

12. DETROIT @ GREEN BAY (-5) Packers now 5-8 after getting a decisive victory in San Francisco. Lions are 2-11 and desperately seeking validation—of any kind. Packers are only 1-5 at home; Lions winless on the road. Seems like a lot of points for the mediocre Packers to yield. Prediction: Lions.

13. DENVER (-2.5) @ ARIZONA The Broncos have risked a lot in making Jay Cutler their starting QB. The rookie has lost two in a row, and it’s clearly a case of on-the-job training. The team’s in the middle of a four-game losing streak. They used to be 7-2 and the odds-on favorite to take the AFC West; now they’re 7-6 and fighting for their playoff lives. Arizona meanwhile has won two straight (!) and continues to strive for respectability. This game looks like a sucker play. Still, the Broncos have to be considered the better team, and they’re not ceding enough points to pick against ‘em. Prediction: Broncos.

14. KANSAS CITY @ SAN DIEGO (-8.5) The 11-2 Chargers look like world-beaters after stomping on the Broncos last week. Sometimes, where the spread is concerned, they seem to ease up against lesser teams, though KC doesn’t exactly fit that category. The Chiefs are 7-6, with legit wild-card hopes, but have dropped two straight winnable games. It’s LT vs. LJ and could be a fun game to watch. Best to rely on the Chargers’ tendency to win but not cover. Prediction: Chiefs.

15. ST. LOUIS @ OAKLAND (-2.5) The Raiders (2-11) finally failed to cover a double-digit spread last week, against Cincy. Now they’re favored, against a 5-8 Rams team that’s lost seven of its last eight. The Rams, despite their problems, clearly look like the better team; so much the better that they’re receiving points. Prediction: Rams.

16. CINCINNATI @ INDIANAPOLIS (-3.5) A huge game featuring high-powered offenses and suspect defenses. The Colts are now 10-3, having lost three of their last four, and are desperate to get back to winning ways. The 8-5 Bengals want to keep pace with AFC North-leading Baltimore and also solidify their hold on a wild-card berth. Look for a shoot-out. Tricky play here, especially with the Indy run defense providing all the resistance of wet tissue paper. Prediction: Colts.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Handicapper’s Monopoly Money Guide to the College Bowl Games

I only know what the average fan knows about college football. I catch the big games on TV, I listen to what the radio/TV pundits have to say, I keep fairly well informed. But the NFL keeps me busy enough where serious analysis and attention is concerned, so there are things about the college game that pass me by. For example, just how good is this Northern Illinois team that enters the Poinsettia Bowl a 13-point underdog versus the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian? Or, what were the oddsmakers thinking when they installed East Carolina as a 4-point underdog to South Florida in the PapaJohn’s.com Bowl? And just how fair is it that the University of Hawaii Rainbows get to play in the Hawaii Bowl—in Hawaii!!??

Never mind that you know the old-timey romance is definitely out of the college bowl picture when a storied team like Navy faces off with Boston College...in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. (Think about that front-end alignment you’ve been postponing while you watch the game!)

There are 32 bowl games, 64 teams. It’s enough to make Beano Cook break out into a cold sweat. And frankly, I don’t think even Beano could make consistently astute predictions about the outcomes against the spread in this motley assortment of games.

So here, for the whimsically likeminded, is a quick overview of the bowl landscape, with spreads, along with some random, semi-informed choices versus the odds. It’s fun, and everyone can play along!

12/19 Poinsettia Bowl: NORTHERN ILLINOIS (+13) vs. TCU For the sake of accuracy, this is actually the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. Weird. LaDainian Tomlinson went to TCU. Northern Illinois is in the Mid-American Conference. MAC teams are always a pain in someone’s ass during March Madness. Pick: Northern Illinois.

12/21 Las Vegas Bowl: OREGON (+4.5) vs. BYU An occasional PAC-10 stalwart confronts the Mormons. They have some oddball religions in Oregon, too, you know. Pick: Oregon.

12/22 New Orleans Bowl: TROY (+7) vs. RICE Troy is one of those little southern programs that’s starting to produce NFL players. They probably can’t read or spell, but they can sure play some mean defensive tackle. Rice is probably just happy to be here. Pick: Troy.

12/23 Papa John’s.com Bowl: EAST CAROLINA (+4) vs. SOUTH FLORIDA Just what the college football world needs: another program in Florida that’s starting to achieve big-time results. South Florida beat West Virginia this year. Anybody have a clue as to their team nickname?? Pick: South Florida.

12/23 New Mexico Bowl: SAN JOSE ST. (+5) vs. NEW MEXICO Hmmm... New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl... Sounds like a stacked deck to me. Still, how can you not root for a team from San Jose? It’s so pretty there. Pick: San Jose St.

12/23 Armed Forces Bowl: TULSA (+3) vs. UTAH Is it just me, or is it suspiciously strange that the Armed Forces Bowl couldn’t manage to snag Navy for the big game? Utah has been a pretty good team of late. NFL QB Gus Frerotte went to Tulsa. Pick: Utah.

12/24 Hawaii Bowl: ARIZONA ST. (+8) vs. HAWAII This set-up is patently unfair: Hawaii at home in their very own bowl game. But if you’re gonna give me a PAC-10 team and 8 points, I’m there. Pick: Arizona St.

12/26 Motor City Bowl: MIDDLE TENN. ST. (+10.5) vs. CENTRAL MICHIGAN MTSU is the Blue Raiders, by the way. They were 7-5 this year, 6-1 in the Sun Belt Conference. They’re trying to build a legit Div. I program, and among their out-of-conference opponents this year were Louisville and Oklahoma. They got their asses kicked. Maybe they can stay with good ol’ CMU. Pick: MTSU.

12/27 Emerald Bowl: FLORIDA ST. (+5) vs. UCLA The Bruins hit their high-water mark with the big defeat of USC. For that, they were gifted with a trip to the Bay Area and a date with the legendary Bobby Bowden, whose team was only 6-6, practically an insult to Floridians. I like the really old ball coach’s chances. Pick: FSU.

12/28 Independence Bowl: ALABAMA (+2.5) vs. OKLAHOMA ST. It’s irony, right? Mike Shula coaches his team to a bowl game and himself right out of a job. Now we know what the “A” in Alabama stands for: assholes. Someone must think this’ll be close. In that case, let’s win it for the Miker. Pick: Alabama.

12/28 Holiday Bowl: TEXAS A&M (+5) vs. CALIFORNIA Can a bunch of knee-jerk lefty liberals from Berkeley really beat good ol’ boys from College Station? I think not. Pick: Texas A&M.

12/28 Texas Bowl: KANSAS ST. (+7) vs. RUTGERS I, too, was in thrall to the Scarlet Knights’ Rudy-like feel-good story, how they were an eyelash or two away from maybe even taking on Ohio St. in the biggest game of all. Then the clock struck 12. Anybody catch K-State’s victory over Texas? These guys are good. If you’re giving me 7 points to boot, it’s a no-brainer. Pick: Kansas St.

12/29 Music City Bowl: KENTUCKY (+10) vs. CLEMSON Okay, this game sounds kinda ho-hum—an SEC also-ran against an ACC also-ran. But it’s an excellent regional match-up, both teams will travel well, and in many ways this is what the bowl season should be about. Clemson should win, but the decibel level of Kentucky fans might exhort their team into beating the spread. Pick: Kentucky.

12/29 Sun Bowl: MISSOURI (+3.5) vs. OREGON ST. OSU is the team that beat USC a good while back. Mizzou plays Big 12 football. Take the team with the points. (Besides, my mother was from Missouri.) Pick: Missouri.

12/29 Liberty Bowl: HOUSTON (+6.5) vs. SOUTH CAROLINA I wonder if the ol’ ball coach Spurrier gets bored as hell having to play these bowl games. After his failure in the pros, it must be a bring-down to have to take his college squad to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. In Memphis, no less. Pick: Houston.

12/29 Insight Bowl: MINNESOTA (+7) vs. TEXAS TECH I was in Lubbock once, home of Texas Tech. Bobby Knight lives there now. Buddy Holly was from there. There’s no tree line in that part of the country. I saw Tech play Houston in football, and it was cold as a witch’s tit, with the wind blowing through the stadium like an icy dagger from hell. But the Red Raiders won. Other than that, I have no insight into this game. Pick: Texas Tech.

12/29 Champs Sports Bowl: PURDUE (+2) vs. MARYLAND Welcome to the All-Ugly Coaches Bowl, where Purdue’s Joe Tiller faces Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen. This one’s a toss-up. But Friedgen is fatter. Go with the fat. Pick: Maryland.

12/30 Meineke Bowl: NAVY (+7) vs. BOSTON COLLEGE Come Dec. 31, they’ll be shouting with rapturous glee in beautiful old Chestnut Hill, “We won the Meineke Bowl! We won the Meineke Bowl!” Pick: Boston College.

12/30 Alamo Bowl: IOWA (+11) vs. TEXAS Okay, is this one in honor of Davy Crockett or car rentals?? Those Iowa farmboys can play some football, but if this game’s in Texas, they’ll want to get back to milking cows. Pick: Texas.

12/30 Chick-fil-A Bowl: GEORGIA (+2.5) vs. VIRGINIA TECH Georgia wasn’t as good as they usually are this year. Come to think of it, neither was Tech. There are more chickens in Georgia, though. Pick: Georgia.

12/31 MPC Computers Bowl: NEVADA (+3) vs. MIAMI What happens when people who can readily avail themselves of legalized prostitution come up against a bunch of thugs? The thugs bring more mojo to the game, of course. Pick: Miami.

1/1 Outback Bowl: PENN ST. (+4.5) vs. TENNESSEE You won’t find a more mystifying “good” team than the Vols anywhere. I don’t know about you, but I’m pulling for JoPa, wheeling himself up and down the sideline, egging on his troops. Pick: Penn St.

1/1 Cotton Bowl: NEBRASKA (+3) vs. AUBURN Nebraska is coached by Bill Callahan, the guy who took the Raiders to the 2003 Super Bowl. Ever since he took over that Cornhuskers job, he looks like a guy waiting for his mother to find out he did something bad. Auburn plays kick-ass football. Pick: Auburn.

1/1 Gator Bowl: GEORGIA TECH (+7) vs. WEST VIRGINIA The Mountaineers have that Slaton guy. He can run like crazy. Tech plays defense. That’s all I know. Pick: West Virginia.

1/1 Capital One Bowl: WISCONSIN (+1.5) vs. ARKANSAS It’s the Big Ten against the SEC. What's fiercer, a badger or a hog? Well, they say a razorback hog should never be angered. Pick: Arkansas.

1/1 Rose Bowl (BCS): USC (+1) vs. MICHIGAN Wait a minute. In one breath we’re told that USC could be good enough to take on Ohio St. Now they’re an underdog in the Rose Bowl? In their own backyard? I don’t buy it. Pick: USC.

1/1 Fiesta Bowl (BCS): BOISE ST. (+8.5) vs. OKLAHOMA How come Boise St. is only getting these points? I thought they were upstarts who had no business playing against an all-world power like the Sooners. Why isn’t it 15 points, huh? They want us all to bet on Oklahoma probably. Okay, let’s do it. If the Sooners kick their asses all the way back to that Smurf-blue artificial turf they play on, big-time college football will have its vindication. Pick: Oklahoma.

1/2 Orange Bowl (BCS): WAKE FOREST (+9.5) vs. LOUISVILLE You’d think the ACC champion Demon Deacons would get more respect than this, but Louisville has that powerful offense. I think Wake will hang in there, simply because that’s what they’ve done all year long. Pick: Wake Forest.

1/3 Sugar Bowl (BCS): NOTRE DAME (+8.5) vs. LSU The Irish have had magical bowl games, but frankly I don’t think they’re that good. It’s the Cajun voodoo against Touchdown Jesus in this one. Voodoo’s in an up cycle. Pick: LSU.

1/6 International Bowl: WESTERN MICHIGAN (+8.5) vs. CINCINNATI How did this dawg get scheduled for after New Year’s Day? Gleeps. Who cares? Pick: Cincinnati.

1/7 GMAC Bowl: OHIO (+7) vs. SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI Ditto this game, which I guess is supposed to remind you to make that January truck payment. Brett Favre went to Southern Miss., and that’s good enough for me. Pick: Southern Mississippi.

1/8 BCS Championship: FLORIDA (+8) vs. OHIO STATE So the Big Enchilada doesn’t have a bowl name attached to it, huh? It’s just the big game. Hmmm... I wonder what the spread would have been if Michigan had been here. Or USC. I mean, if it’s the big game and all, why isn’t it a 3-pointer? Or at least a 5-pointer? Because no one believes that Florida is that good is why. Which is kind of a shame after all that angst expended on this event. Well, from what I’ve seen of Ohio State, they are really good. And that Tressel guy who coaches them is sort of a benevolent Nazi, which could mean hell to pay for the Hurricanes. He’ll rip their hearts out, and then make nice for the cameras. Pick: Ohio State.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

NFL Week 14 ATS: Crunch Time

The wild-card races in both conferences are wide open, while, surprisingly, the division champion slots seem pretty much spoken for. Historic tailspins by front-runners, like what happened to the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, aren’t the rule in the NFL. Near-dominance tends to hold until the playoffs, and that’s where all bets are off. First-place teams like Indy, San Diego, Baltimore, New England, Chicago, Seattle, even New Orleans and Dallas, look like pretty safe bets, but facing all those desperate wild-card wannabes in these final weeks will not be fun for anybody. Except for us, the viewers at home.

The SMA swami regressed to 7-9 last week, leaving the yearly tote at 78-76-6. The oddsmaker is a formidable opponent indeed, and we’ve got our own version of crunch time right straight ahead of us.

Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. CLEVELAND @ PITTSBURGH (-7.5) The Browns are now 4-8 after a stirring victory over the Chiefs under the unlikely leadership of nobody QB Derek Anderson. Anderson might get the nod again, since starting quarterback Charlie Frye is questionable. Meanwhile, the 5-7 Steelers will be without S Troy Polamalu and WR Hines Ward, both important players. Steelers are much better at home, and a win is likely, especially since the Browns are as prone to take a step backward as they are to build on something good. But even if this were last year’s Steelers, this would be a hefty-enough spread. They’re simply not the same team. Prediction: Browns.

2. BALTIMORE @ KANSAS CITY (-3) Chiefs blew a big one at Cleveland on Sunday. They’re 7-5 and still in the thick of the wild-card hunt. The Ravens are 9-3 and are pretty much a playoff lock. If this game were critical to Baltimore, they’d be the clear choice. Still, I doubt they want to lose this one, since Cincy is nipping at their heels and has an easy home game against the Raiders. Very tough play, but the Ravens are a better team and they’re getting the points. Prediction: Ravens.

3. ATLANTA (-3) @ TAMPA BAY There is no crystal ball even in the realm of fiction powerful enough to foretell the Falcons’ future. They vaulted themselves back into the wild-card race with a road victory last week at Washington. At 6-6, they have, in theory, as good a chance as anybody to make the playoffs. This game, against the floundering 3-9 Buccaneers, is tailor-made to jump-start the postseason run, but knowing the Falcons, they’ll blow it. Yet even giving points, they’re worth the desperate gamble. Prediction: Falcons.

4. MINNESOTA @ DETROIT (-2.5) The Vikings, at 5-7, could win four straight to finish the season at 9-7, which actually might snare them a wild-card berth, if all the other NFC wild-card wannabes cooperate with typically lackluster play. Stranger things have happened. The Vikes have quarterback woes, but their defense has kept them in almost every game. The woebegone Lions (2-10) had their Super Bowl last week—they took an 18-13 lead into the fourth quarter at New England before succumbing 28-21. Hard to believe they’re favored here, but that just makes the pick easier. Prediction: Vikings.

5. TENNESSEE @ HOUSTON (-1.5) After an 0-5 start, the Titans have won five of seven games. They still lack consistency in executing a game plan, but they’re pulling out victories with hustle and Vince Young’s flow. What they said about the rookie quarterback is true: he’s got too much natural talent not to flirt with success. He’s already done that, and watching his further development will be fun. The Texans are 4-8, after defeating the Raiders in Oakland, in a game in which QB David Carr threw for 32 yards (!), while RB Ron Dayne found the fountain of youth (for him, anyway) in rushing for 95. Presumably this is anybody’s game, but Titans are impressing of late and worth the nod as a road ‘dog. Prediction: Titans.

6. NY GIANTS @ CAROLINA (-3) Two 6-6 teams with wild-card aspirations square off in a critical game. The Panthers are fresh off losing two straight road games to NFC East teams (Philly and Washington) they were favored to beat. Now they host the Giants, who have lost four straight and have watched a division lead vanish quickly. Both teams are fighting for their lives and neither’s recent play inspires confidence, although the Giants hung in there against the Cowboys last week. All things being frustratingly equal, the road ‘dog looks worth a risk. Prediction: Giants.

7. NEW ORLEANS @ DALLAS (-6.5) Two 8-4 teams hungry for the playoffs and, barring major meltdowns, headed there. The Saints haven’t backed away from anyone this season, and despite the loss of DT Hollis Thomas until the playoffs (an apparently bogus steroid suspension; he takes asthma medication), they’re a solid bet to beat this spread. Prediction: Saints.

8. BUFFALO @ NY JETS (-4) Even if the Jets don’t make the playoffs, Eric Mangini is a shoo-in for Coach of the Year honors in the AFC. His team is 7-5, playing aggressive defense, and led courageously on offense by Chad Pennington at quarterback. It’s a very good story, and all the Jets have to do is keep winning and they might capture that wild-card berth. Surprisingly, they’re only 3-3 at home. The 5-7 Bills can be dangerous, and they’d love to upset New York’s Big Apple cart. It should be a close one, but if the Jets want it badly enough, they can cover. Prediction: Jets.

9. INDIANAPOLIS (-1.5) @ JACKSONVILLE The 7-5 Jags won last week against Miami, so that means it’s time to lose. Be pretty hard to see a spread this close and not throw one’s weight behind Peyton Manning, who, after getting thwarted by the Titans, could use a boost to his self-esteem. The Colts (10-2) have now lost two out of three. Anyone betting they’ll lose three out of four? Prediction: Colts.

10. PHILADELPHIA (-1) @ WASHINGTON Practically a pick ‘em, with 6-6 Philly—back in the wild-card hunt behind QB Jeff Garcia—against the 4-8 Skins who are nowheresville. Pardon my cynicism, but talk about the Eagles and the playoffs seems premature. Even with Donovan McNabb healthy they were losing games they should have won earlier in the year. Skins would love to bring Philly down to earth where they belong. Prediction: Redskins.

11. OAKLAND @ CINCINNATI (-11) The 2-10 Raiders have actually had good success beating the spread this year when it’s of the double-digit variety. If only trends were gospel. The 7-5 Bengals are feeling their offensive oats, and they could put on a fireworks display for the home crowd. Prediction: Bengals.

12. NEW ENGLAND (-3.5) @ MIAMI After winning four games in a row, the 5-7 Dolphins looked weak at home last week versus Jacksonville. They still have a pretty good defense, which could keep ‘em in this game for a while. Plus, it wouldn’t be like ‘em not to get up for the Pats (9-3). It’s only a hunch, but it says here the Fins’ll beat the spread. Prediction: Dolphins.

13. GREEN BAY @ SAN FRANCISCO (-5) Gee whiz, the Packers are annoying. They won three in a row earlier in the season to boost their record to 4-5 and give their fans hope. Now they’ve lost three in a row and stand at 4-8, including a 1-5 home record. But surprise, they’re 3-3 on the road, and they come into this mostly pointless scuffle getting five blessed points. The lovably surprising 49ers are now 5-7 after being outclassed in New Orleans last week. Maybe the Packers will roll over and play dead in this affair, or maybe Brett Favre will have an LSD flashback and think he’s playing the Niners in a 1996 playoff game. If the latter, Pack looks to beat the spread. Prediction: Packers.

14. SEATTLE (-3.5) @ ARIZONA The Seahawks (8-4) are gaining momentum with the return of Matt Hasselbeck. Arizona is pretty darn bad at 3-9, but they’d love to show the home crowd that there’s a future with Matt Leinart. Seattle’s just too good all-around. Prediction: Seahawks.

15. DENVER @ SAN DIEGO (-7.5) This could be the 7-5 Broncos’ season right here. It was one thing for Dallas’ Bill Parcells to switch to QB Tony Romo earlier in the season. Romo at least had been around the scout team for four years and knew his playbook. But Mike Shanahan’s shift to raw rookie Jay Cutler this late in the season is fraught with danger, and the kid looked pretty out of his element last week against Seattle. That said, the Broncs only lost by three, and their running game returned. And who knows—maybe Shanahan had simply seen enough of Jake Plummer, who in fact wasn’t doing any better than three-point losses himself. Presume all these things—Cutler doesn’t self-destruct, the Denver defense comes to play (though probably missing all-rugged LB Al Wilson), and Shanahan inspires his troops—and the end result is that the 10-2 Chargers win but don’t cover the spread. Prediction: Broncos.

16. CHICAGO (-6.5) @ ST. LOUIS The Bears begin the final quarter of their season against the first of a string of lousy teams. There’s plenty of criticism in the Windy City of quarterback Rex Grossman, who, after looking like he was coming of age in the early part of the season, has suddenly looked like a child among men. They’re gonna stick with him because, at 10-2, they can afford to. Meanwhile, the Bears defense is giving up a mere 12.5 points per game, and their secondary and special teams produce enough offense to beat up on the easy schedule. They even covered the spread against the Vikings last week, with Grossman going 6 of 19 for 34 yards, with 0 TDs and 3 INTS. Meanwhile, the Rams, once 4-1, have lost six of seven, including last week at home to the Cardinals, 34-20. They still have that passing game, for all the good it does ‘em. This game could have a surprise result, but if Grossman somehow gets back on the beam, don’t count on the Rams beating the spread. Prediction: Bears.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

ESPN Radio's Freddie Coleman: Who Is This Guy, and Who Gave Him License to Kill the English Language?

I listen to ESPN Radio a lot. I listen to the jocks they have on there as long as I can, then I turn it off. That means that Freddie Coleman gets about 10 seconds of my time. Ever listen to this ultra-maroon? Ever wonder how the hell he got on radio?

I tried to find out more about Coleman. I found no bio on the ESPN Radio website. His name comes up on Google searches, but only referencing the fact that he’s a part of the ESPN Radio GameNight team. There is no hard data on his career or how he came to be hired by ESPN. He’s apparently a cipher—which is maybe no surprise given how he comes across on the air.

If you dig a little deeper on Google, you can come up with the fact that Freddie Coleman attended Mansfield University, located in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, in the north central part of the state. Mansfield plays Division II football, and just concluded a 0-10 season, yet another banner year for the Mountaineers, who usually are lucky to win a single game. And the Mounties don’t just lose—they get hammered. Among this year’s wonderful performances were the 46-0 loss at Slippery Rock, the 61-7 drubbing at the hands of East Stroudsburg, the 51-7 debacle at Kutztown, and the season-ending 41-0 defeat versus Millersville. The Mounties are nothing if not consistent.

So they can’t play football at Mansfield, but apparently they can’t teach the English language there either. Ever heard esteemed alum Freddie pronounce the word radio? He says “RAY-do.” He always says “RAY-do.” You’d think a guy who was having a career in radio would know how to pronounce the very word. It’s “RAY-Dee-O,” Freddie. Get a clue.

The other night, Freddie stumble-bumbled his way through a sentence in which he used the phrase, “in that standpoint.” The cliche phrase, if that’s what he meant, is “FROM that standpoint,” which means ol’ Freddie can’t even use a cliche correctly. But what I think he meant was “in that eventuality,” in which case what he said was simply ignorant nonsense.

How does a guy gifted with substandard pronunciation skills with no sense of English usage—Anybody wanna bet that Freddie can’t spell, either?—qualify as an ESPN broadcaster? And remind me not to recommend Mansfield University to anybody as a seat of higher learning.

I’m not alone, either. Here’s Tom Danehy in a memo to ESPN executives in the 9/21/06 Tucson Weekly:

“Can you find people who speak the language? I don't mind the slang and vernacular (although Stuart Scott's shtick wears thin after the 5,000th invocation of ‘cooler than the other side of the pillow’). What I do mind are people who haven't got a grasp of basic grammar and syntax. It's infuriating to hear an announcer (Freddie Coleman, for example) say, ‘He should have ran’ or ‘She could have went.’ “

So if anybody out there in the blogosphere knows anything at all about this Coleman guy’s resume, drop me a line. He doesn’t appear to be an ex-jock of any repute, which otherwise would have supplied the only logical explanation for how he could have launched a broadcasting career. But even at that, since when are ex-athletes exempt from learning how to enunciate words properly and speak with literate competency? You can bet that when ESPN execs go on speaking junkets to colleges they stress to young wannabe broadcasters the importance of acquiring language skills and all that conventional crap. Then they go back to their offices and hand cushy, high-paying jobs that most of us would kill for to illiterate dummies like Freddie Coleman.

That’s our modern, hypocritical world for ya.

We don’t want anyone to go home empty-handed, though. Here, to the left, is a picture of the infamous Mr. Coleman speaking at Mansfield University. I wonder if anyone understood a word he said...

UPDATE: A reader on the West Coast e-mailed today to inform us that Freddie Coleman was a second-team all-PSAC selection at wide receiver for Mansfield in 1986. That solidifies the ex-jock connection, anyway.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

NFL Week 13 ATS: Positive Outlook

The Monday night Green Bay-Seattle game resulted in a “push” for the SMA swami, leaving us with a 9-6-1 record on the week (and 19-12-1 the past two). It could have been, should have been, a lot sweeter. The Vikings were leading the Cardinals 31-13 and looked headed for an easy cover. But the Cards came back to close the gap to 31-26, and the six-point spread was toast. Then there were the Giants, leading Tennessee 21-0 in the fourth quarter and making a lot of bettors feel secure in handing over an easy three points to the Titans. I’m happy for the hometown team, but their 24-point late-game surge put a dent in the ol’ predictions (and maybe sent the Giants down the drain for 2006). And I can’t for the life of me figure out the Chargers, who do wonders on the road against formidable opponents, then return home to perform as they did against the Raiders, which means winning but not covering the spread.

On balance, it was a fairly good week, with underdogs like Buffalo and New Orleans and San Francisco coming through in fine style. (The Niners lost their game against St. Louis but covered, God bless ‘em.)

Now 71-67-6 on the year, but things don’t get any easier. Meanwhile, the playoff picture looks as muddy as ever. You can’t say parity doesn’t keep us interested in our weekly task.

Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. BALTIMORE @ CINCINNATI (-3) An AFC North matchup holding a ton of interest. At 9-2, the Ravens look like Super Bowl contenders for sure, while the 6-5 Bengals are striving to recapture respectability and aim for the playoffs. The explosive Cincy offense, behind Carson Palmer, appears to have re-ignited itself, which must explain the home-favorite status here. It’s a tall order going up against that Ravens defense, but maybe the hosts can do it. Prediction: Bengals.

2. MINNESOTA @ CHICAGO (-9.5) There’s good history and rich rivalry in this matchup. The Vikes righted their wobbly ship last week, albeit versus Arizona, and are now at 5-6, with an outside chance at a wild-card berth. The Bears (9-2), after losing a close one at New England, will be looking to get back to winning ways. They should win this one, but the Vikings play hard on defense, making the spread pretty iffy. Prediction: Vikings.

3. TAMPA BAY @ PITTSBURGH (-8) Never trust a Florida team in the north in cold weather in an outdoors stadium. Hard to believe the Bucs, at 3-8, are only one game worse than the 4-7 Steelers, who took one on the chin against the Ravens last week. With the Steelers being as Jekyll/Hyde as they are, this play works out to being mostly inscrutable. They are due, though, they’re at home, and the Bucs, try as they might, can’t generate consistency. It could easily be closer than 8, though, so don’t bet the wad on this one. Prediction: Steelers.

4. ARIZONA @ ST. LOUIS (-6.5) The Rams (5-6) broke a five-game losing streak last week against San Francisco. They’d like to keep it going against the 2-9 Cardinals, who are winless this year on the road. Given the uncertainties of handicapping, this one looks like a potential trap. One can only hope that the Rams are that much better at home and continue to believe in their dim playoff hopes. Prediction: Rams.

5. INDIANAPOLIS (-7.5) @ TENNESSEE The Titans, now 4-7 after last week’s surprise comeback against the Giants, lost earlier this year in Indy by 14-13. They are playing scrappy football, for sure, so, typically, this spread is just on the cusp of logic. Rookie Vince Young is improvising his way to victory, and his squad is 4-4 since he took over starting chores at QB. A Colts team on fire would blow them away, but only occasionally this year has Peyton & Co. flexed its ultra-impressive offensive muscle. Even WR Marvin Harrison was complaining this week that he’s not getting the ball enough. I’m sure the Titans will want this one bad, but Peyton’s just too good, and his RB, Joseph Addai, is playing like a hungry young pro in search of more yardage. Prediction: Colts.

6. JACKSONVILLE @ MIAMI (-1.5) The 6-5 Jaguars are no friend to the bettor. They lose when they should win, and they win when they should lose. This intrastate tilt pits ‘em against the 5-6 Dolphins, who have won four in a row and are making wild-card rumblings. The Fins’d have to stay hot, of course, to get within reach of teams like Cincy, the Jets and the Jags, but a victory here would give them serious cred. Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown is out and that hurts their up-and-down offense. This is pretty much a pick ‘em game, but I like the Dolphins’ mojo these days—and their defense—so a point and a half shouldn’t matter. Prediction: Dolphins.

7. SAN FRANCISCO @ NEW ORLEANS (-7) Just how good are these 49ers? They’re 5-6 after dropping a close one in St. Louis last week. Now they head to New Orleans, where the Saints are feeling very good about a 7-4 record and the top spot in the NFC South. The Niners will have all the onus to prove they’re worthy, especially with the Saints’ Drew Brees playing excellent quarterback. Prediction: Saints.

8. ATLANTA @ WASHINGTON (-1.5) Falcons (5-6) have lost four in a row and the heat is on in Atlanta, where owner Arthur Blank has said heads will roll and Michael Vick is giving the finger to the home crowd. It’s a pretty ugly situation, but the team still has more realistic playoff aspirations than the 4-7 Redskins, trying to find themselves under new QB Jason Campbell. The Skins are just too darn inconsistent, and being the favorite here is an off-putting circumstance. Prediction: Falcons.

9. KANSAS CITY (-5) @ CLEVELAND The Chiefs, now 7-4, took over second place in the AFC West with last week’s victory over struggling Denver. If they know what’s good for ‘em, and they really want the playoffs, they should bring their “A” game to this matchup against a limp (3-8) Browns team. Prediction: Chiefs.

10. DETROIT @ NEW ENGLAND (-13.5) The Lions flat-out suck (2-9), and the Pats (8-3) are coming off a solid home victory against the Bears. It’s a lot of points, but Pats worth the gamble. Prediction: Patriots.

11. SAN DIEGO (-6) @ BUFFALO Well, at least we don’t have to confront the Chargers at home with a double-digit spread. Almost any other warm-weather favorite coming into chilly Buffalo wouldn’t get the nod giving six points, but the Chargers (9-2) tend to rise to challenges, and this game actually poses one, with the up-and-down Bills now 5-6. If the Bills are getting better than anyone really knows, it could be close. Prediction: Chargers.

12. NY JETS (-1.5) @ GREEN BAY Chad Pennington continues to demonstrate that, above the neck, he’s one of the top three quarterbacks in the league. At 6-5, his Jets are sniffing wild card. This one won’t be easy, but here’s a twist: the Jets are 3-2 on the road, and the Packers (4-7) are, very uncharacteristically, 1-4 at home. Can the Jets’ defense hold Brett Favre at bay? If the Jets were giving more points, it’d be Favre all the way. Prediction: Jets.

13. DALLAS (-3.5) @ NY GIANTS There’s a lot of sentiment out there to bury the Giants, now 6-5 after losing improbably at Tennessee. But they’re still very much in the playoff hunt in the unpredictable NFC. Yes, the Cowboys are looking good, and they’re rested since their Thanksgiving game. Still, they’ve got to beat the hosts by four points to cover this spread. Well, here’s a chance for the Cowboys to prove just how very good they are. Prediction: Giants.

14. HOUSTON @ OAKLAND (-3) After covering the spread (but losing) the past three weeks against Denver, Kansas City and San Diego, the sad-sack Raiders (2-9) have replaced their offensive coordinator. Now they’re at home and favored, which only induces ulcers for handicappers. Houston QB David Carr keeps completing passes at an amazing rate, but the Texans (3-8) can’t find consistency except in inconsistency. Also-rans in a dawg of a game, but a very tough play. Prediction: Raiders.

15. SEATTLE @ DENVER (-3) The 7-4 Seahawks have gotten stronger with the return of RB Shaun Alexander and QB Matt Hasselbeck. The Broncos, meanwhile, also 7-4, have replaced QB Jake Plummer with rookie Jay Cutler for this important game. It’s a tall order for the youngster, who’s talented but simply has never been in a situation like this before. He’ll be charged with managing the game as best he can, with the hope that the Denver running game and staunch defense can carry the day. The Broncos are certainly due, but giving three points makes the road ‘dog awfully enticing. Prediction: Seahawks.

16. CAROLINA (-3.5) @ PHILADELPHIA Eagles are now 5-6 and falling fast. Neither Jeff Garcia nor A. J. Feeley are Donovan McNabb. The Panthers (6-5) blew a chance to keep pace with the Saints by losing last week to the Redskins. They come in as a road favorite for the second straight week against mediocre NFC East competition. Let’s hope they learned their lesson. Prediction: Panthers.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

If Building a New Baseball Stadium Is Such a Great Idea, Why Do the Sounds Need Our Help?

There’s a new book out called Tailgating, Sacks, and Salary Caps: How the NFL Became the Most Successful Sports League in History (Kaplan Publishing, $24.95). The author, Mark Yost, is a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, where his special focus is the economics of sports.

It’s an eye-opener of a book, mostly along the lines of what a greedy money monster the National Football League has been for the past 40 years. This inside look at shrewd NFL fiscal management since the days of late commissioner Pete Rozelle and on into the current regimes of such money-savvy team owners as Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones will amaze even avid fans who think they know a lot about the sport.

But there’s a particular section in the book that should be required reading for every taxpayer who lives in a municipality that is considering building a new sports stadium or arena. That would include Nashville, which is still in the decision phase of a new baseball facility for the minor league Nashville Sounds.

In the chapter “Stadium Fever: Who Plays and Who Pays?” Yost writes:

“Taxpayers still overwhelmingly pay for new stadiums, covering about 65 percent of new construction costs, including stadium clubs and other luxury amenities. Sports stadiums are among the worst investments a community can make. The returns are lousy, and—for the most part—the stadiums benefit only the NFL owners and the privileged few who can afford their luxury amenities. According to economists, public financing of sports stadiums is nothing more than giving taxpayer money to billionaire owners so that their $10 million players have a $500 million place to play. It’s that simple.”

Elsewhere, Yost writes:

“The reason most [people] don’t know that stadiums are a huge rip-off of taxpayer money is because there are a bevy of local politicians, developers, consultants, and league officials who appear at every press conference to tout the economic benefits of building a new stadium. Taxpayers are told that the new facility will result in millions of dollars in economic development and create thousands of new jobs. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Yost continues:

”And the owners are laughing all the way to the bank. In addition to paying for the stadium, many cities allow teams to keep most of the revenue from ticket sales, parking fees, concessions, advertising, and naming rights, which can be hundreds of millions of dollars. Even the revenues from luxury boxes and club seats, the single biggest source of locally generated revenue for most teams, go into the team’s bank account—all thanks to the generosity of the taxpayers.... [E]conomists have calculated the net economic impact of every ticket, hot dog, parking space, luxury suite, and beer vendor job associated with a season of professional sports. The clear consensus is that the benefits of building a stadium don’t even come close to outweighing the costs.”

Yost draws upon the expertise of committed free-market economist Art Rolnick to support his assertions. Rolnick is against government funding of private enterprise. He believes that if a private endeavor is such a good idea, then it should have no trouble finding private financing. A few Rolnickisms:

“There is literally no—none, zero, zilch—positive economic impact from the public financing of stadiums. None.”

“Whenever government uses public money to finance private enterprises, it’s nothing more than a futile exercise to justify an old Keynesian idea. If you take it to its extreme, it’s no different than the old Soviet model.”

“It’s taking from Peter to give to Paul, and when government does that, Paul is usually a friend.”

Yost also quotes economists Roger Noll and Andrew Zimbalist, who wrote in their 1997 book Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, “The economic case for publicly financed stadiums cannot credibly rest on the benefits to local business, as measured by jobs, income, and investment.”

Yost’s chapter concludes: “Unfortunately, despite all this economic data to the contrary, taxpayers don’t seem to be wising up. State legislators and governors are increasingly pressured by active and influential fan groups to fund public sports stadiums. Taxpayers who are so willing to pay for teams and stadiums put added pressure on politicians to fund new ballparks to keep teams where they are.”

In other words, sports teams, with the willing complicity of public officials and power-brokering money-mongers, essentially strong-arm taxpayers to uninformedly pony up money for sports stadiums—money that could be spent in other, more important, more critically humane areas of the public sector.

As for the Nashville Sounds, I still get a kick out of Greer Stadium. It’s quaint, old-timey and the parking is free. Tell me again why I should want to drive further downtown to pay for parking and then spend more money for admission and hot dogs and beer than I currently do at Greer. If the old ballpark needs a facelift or structural enhancements, why wouldn’t that be a better deal for taxpayers?

The rest all looks like window-dressing to me, with our money going into the pockets of people who hardly need it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

NFL Week 12 ATS: Green Is Also the Color of Hope

The SMA swami returned to monied ways with a 10-6 slate in a fairly tough week. We racked up big scores with the underdog 49ers, Cowboys and Chargers in the gutsiest plays, and found additional support from teams like the Dolphins, Steelers and Cardinals. Thankfully, the Ravens, Bears, Panthers and Patriots were all solid favorites that did their duty.

Things don’t get any easier, but now at 62-61-5, we’re back on the plus side of things and hoping for more.

It’s a short work week for six teams, with three Thanksgiving Day (and night) tilts, which should make dealing with the holiday relatives a whole lot easier. (“Oh, I’d love to go out to a movie, Aunt Tillie, but the Broncos-Chiefs game is about to start...”)

Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. MIAMI (-2.5) @ DETROIT The Fins are now 4-6, having won three in a row, and if they keep winning they’re going to put some pressure on teams like Kansas City, Cincinnati, and the Jets for a wild-card spot. Miami QB Joey Harrington returns to Detroit for a big Thanksgiving Day game. After years of frustration and mediocre play in the Motor City, Harrington has done well for Nick Saban, subbing for the injured Daunte Culpepper, and the team’s improvement can be linked to Harrington’s resurrection. The Lions are 2-8 and seem to be going backwards, especially after their loss to the bad Cardinals. The Dolphins got banged up with some injuries in last week’s game against Minnesota, and their running game was completely stifled by the Vikings. Still, the Miami defense has been playing very well, and that could carry the day. Prediction: Dolphins.

2. TAMPA BAY @ DALLAS (-11) The Bucs, at 3-7, are pretty bad. But rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski has shown spunk and RB Cadillac Williams got untracked last week against Washington. Cowboys are 6-4 and glowing after big victory over Colts. A lot of points to cover for a team coming off a very short work week. Prediction: Bucs.

3. DENVER (-1) @ KANSAS CITY The Broncos (7-3) lost a big Monday game at home versus the Chargers. Jake Plummer continues to struggle at quarterback, and the Broncos’ defense yielded 35 points to San Diego and more than 100 yards rushing to LaDainian Tomlinson. They face another great runner here in Larry Johnson, and the 6-4 Chiefs are angling to shake up the AFC West standings. A pretty tough play, but look for the Denver D to step up. Prediction: Broncos

4. JACKSONVILLE (-3.5) @ BUFFALO Very hard to assess this Jacksonville team. After a solid Monday night victory over the Giants, they’re 6-4 behind QB David Garrard and a serious player in the AFC wild-card race. But they’ve lost twice to Houston and also to the Redskins, and that shouldn’t happen to a really good team. Meanwhile, the Bills are aiming at respectability with a 4-6 record, and QB J. P. Losman had a breakthrough game last week (26 of 38 for a career-high 340 yards with three touchdowns). An already erratic Florida team in an open-air stadium in a cold-weather clime, and coming off a short work week—and giving three points—makes the ‘dog an attractive choice. Prediction: Bills.

5. HOUSTON @ NY JETS (-5.5) For a bad team, the Texans (3-7) have shown moxie. But they underscored their futility last week by losing at home against Buffalo. The Jets (5-5) hung tough against the Bears, before falling 10-0. If the Jets want a shot at the playoffs, they better win this one. Prediction: Jets.

6. PITTSBURGH @ BALTIMORE (-3) There is still enough wiggle room in the playoff picture for this game to matter to the Steelers (4-6). The Ravens at 8-2 clearly seem superior, but this one looks like a potential bruiser. Factoid of interest: From 1995-2005, Steve McNair’s Oilers/Titans teams were 11-7 against the Steelers, including an overtime victory in the 2002 playoffs. It all points to Baltimore, especially given the Steelers’ erratic play, but don’t invest a lot of coin on this one. Prediction: Ravens.

7. CINCINNATI (-3) @ CLEVELAND Bengals back to .500 (5-5) after getting a good win in New Orleans. Browns struggling as per usual at 3-7. Cincy offense has scored 72 points in last two games. Prediction: Bengals.

8. ARIZONA @ MINNESOTA (-6.5) Vikings (4-6) are on a four-game losing streak. They’re still playing decent defense, though. Cards (2-8) broke an eight-game losing streak against the Lions last week. Tricky spread given Vikings’ offensive shortcomings. Cards have not won on the road this year. Prediction: Vikings.

9. SAN FRANCISCO @ ST. LOUIS (-6) Here’s a tasty road ‘dog. Niners are 5-5 and beat the Seahawks last week, with RB Frank Gore amassing 212 yards on the ground and an improving defense making big plays. The Rams, on a five-game losing streak, are now 4-6. They’re coming off a shut-out loss at the hands of the Panthers. On paper, the Rams are a better team, and home field should make a difference. But covering the spread is not guaranteed. Prediction: 49ers.

10. NEW ORLEANS @ ATLANTA (-3) Two teams in minor free-fall. Suddenly all that fairyland success for the Saints looks less certain. They’re still 6-4, but have dropped two straight and now share the NFC South lead with Carolina. The Falcons (5-5) are mired in a three-game losing streak, and no one knows where their impressive early-season running game has gone. The problem with analyzing Atlanta is that they defy analysis. In their last home game they lost to Cleveland, and Michael Vick had yet another lackluster game Sunday versus the Ravens (11-21, 127 yards). Saints getting three points and that might be enough to make them a viable pick. Prediction: Saints.

11. CAROLINA (-4.5) @ WASHINGTON Panthers are 6-4, and their defense is holding things together while the offense still shifts into a higher gear. Redskins (3-7) now continue to discover how good Jason Campbell is at quarterback. He impressed in his first start last week in a losing cause at Tampa Bay. The road favorite has a reasonably high expectation to cover. Prediction: Panthers.

12. CHICAGO @ NEW ENGLAND (-3) After two straight road victories in New York, the Bears (9-1) now take their traveling defensive circus to New England. The Patriots, now 7-3 after routing the Packers in Green Bay last week, have a decent chance to grab the “W.” Question is, Can they do it by more than three points? This game will be the Bears last stiff challenge of the year; every team remaining on their schedule is under .500. A very tough play, but if Brady steps up and Grossman falters, Pats might cover. Prediction: Patriots.

13. PHILADELPHIA @ INDIANAPOLIS (-9) Eagles fell to 5-5 last week after losing a home game to Tennessee, and also losing QB Donovan McNabb for the year to ACL injury. Without McNabb, this is an ordinary team, and they’ll be facing a 9-1 Colts team that comes home after suffering its first loss of the season in Dallas. It’s a hefty spread, but tough to buck Peyton & Co. at home. Prediction: Colts.

14. NY GIANTS (-3.5) @ TENNESSEE After a Monday night loss in Jacksonville, the 6-4 Giants come to Nashville looking to get back on the winning track. The Titans, at 3-7, could provide the tonic, but the Giants have struggled of late, enduring injuries on defense, the loss of WR Amani Toomer, and Eli Manning’s sudden insecurities at quarterback. They need a big game out of Tiki Barber to git-r-done. Covering is no guarantee, but tough to rely on inconsistent Titans. (Factoid of interest: Two of Titans’ victories this year have come at the hands of Giants’ NFC East rivals Eagles and Redskins.) Prediction: Giants.

15. OAKLAND @ SAN DIEGO (-13) At 2-8, the Raiders might be the worst team in the league. Yet they’ve covered the spread the past two weeks against way-superior divisional foes Denver and Kansas City. The 8-2 Chargers return home leading the AFC West after an inspiring victory at Denver. They should win it, but by how much? It wouldn’t look too smart to pick Oakland and then watch the Chargers romp as they’re capable of doing. Prediction: Chargers.

16. GREEN BAY @ SEATTLE (-10) Brett Favre hurt his forearm Sunday and had to leave the game. His sub, Aaron Rodgers, then broke his ankle, and is gone for the season, leaving rookie Ingle Martin next in the QB line. They say Favre will return to action here, leading a 4-6 team that can beat the lesser teams but has trouble against marquee squads. Seattle RB Shaun Alexander returned to the lineup last week and didn't do much, but he put his injured ankle through an important test. QB Matt Hasselbeck is expected to return as well for the ‘Hawks (6-4), who come off a loss to the 49ers and have yet to exhibit the dominance of 2005 this season. Prediction: Seahawks.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

NFL Week 11 ATS: The Myth of Sisyphus

I used to think that handicapping NFL games could be done successfully by sharp analysis, using a deft blend of observation of the teams at play, staying abreast of injuries and roster changes, and keeping a close eye on important statistics likes turnovers, time of possession, sacks, etc. Then there are other factors like home-field advantage and team histories versus each other. But picking winners is one thing—any shlub in a weekly office pool can get 10 or 11 correct out of 16. Picking winners against the spread is a totally different world. And if parity was supposed to be a boon to the fan watching at home, how great has it been for oddsmakers? Nothing is very predictable, few games are gimmes, and teams that grab expected wins often don’t do it according to the spread.

Consider last week. Denver favored by 9 ekes out a 4-point victory over lousy Oakland. Indianapolis favored by 12 barely scrapes by lowly Buffalo, 17-16. The Ravens, 7-point favs, nip the woeful Titans, 27-26. Seattle, favored by 3, beats St. Louis by 2. Then you have mystery teams like Jacksonville, favored (quite rightly, based on history) by 10 at home against the stinky Texans, only for Houston to actually win the game. Atlanta, Minnesota, New England and Detroit were other home favorites reasonably expected to win, but not a one did.

It’s a jungle out there. Someone’s getting rich, but it sure ain’t me. That said, I still believe in my analysis. So, like Sisyphus of mythological fame, I’ll continue to roll my boulder up the hill, in the hopes that it doesn’t roll down—at least not all the way to the bottom.

We’re 52-55-5 on the year, but it ain’t over till the fat head coach sings. Spreads, as always, are courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. OAKLAND @ KANSAS CITY (-9.5) Trent Green is set to resume his duties at quarterback for the Chiefs (5-4). If he sticks to handing the ball off to Larry Johnson, he should make out okay. The 2-7 Raiders kept things close last week versus Denver, but there’s been some subsequent infighting about offensive direction between QB Andrew Walter and coach Art Shell. Aaron Brooks, recovered from early-season injury, may get the nod under center for Oakland. KC needs this one to stay in the playoff hunt. (Of course, they needed last week’s game for the same reason and lost to the Dolphins.) After a good game in a losing cause, look for the Raiders to revert to form: a bad game in a losing cause. Prediction: Chiefs.

2. INDIANAPOLIS (-1.5) @ DALLAS This looks like a good match-up. Tony Romo is playing well at QB for the Cowboys (5-4), and RB Julius Jones might be ripe to pierce that Colts’ run defense for serious yardage. The ‘boys also have some young defenders who might be able to pressure Peyton Manning. Colts (9-0) are due to lose one, and this could be it. Prediction: Cowboys.

3. CINCINNATI @ NEW ORLEANS (-3.5) The Bengals are now 4-5 and fighting for their playoff lives. Their defense is porous, while their offense finally showed its former spark last week against San Diego. The Saints (6-3) still look to be for real, despite dropping one in Pittsburgh last week. Tough pick, but Saints at home and presumably hungry. Prediction: Saints.

4. PITTSBURGH (-3.5) @ CLEVELAND The amorphous Browns are 3-6 and coming off a surprise victory at Atlanta. Steelers, also 3-6, looked very good against the Saints. Look for Steelers to maintain winning ways. Prediction: Steelers.

5. TENNESSEE @ PHILADELPHIA (-13) Last time Tennessee (2-7) visited an NFC East team, they beat the Redskins. But last time they were on the road, they got swamped by the Jaguars. Their futility is trumped only by their unpredictability. McNabb could eat ‘em alive, though. Eagles at 5-4 need the “W” to stay in the tough divisional race. Prediction: Eagles.

6. ATLANTA @ BALTIMORE (-4.5) The Falcons (5-4) are probably the most annoying team in the league where handicappers are concerned, and Michael Vick is the chief purveyor of the inconsistency that continues to drag them down. Losing last weekend to Cleveland in Atlanta is basically unforgivable. The Ravens, at 7-2, grabbed a win last week at Tennessee even while playing at low throttle. Unless superstar Vick makes an appearance, this one goes to Baltimore. Prediction: Ravens.

7. ST. LOUIS @ CAROLINA (-7) At 5-4, Carolina has yet to display dominance. They seem capable of that in theory, but it hasn’t been an easy season given their tough schedule. The Rams (4-5) are coming off another tough, close loss to the Seahawks and it seems doubtful that another hard road game will help their flickering playoff chances. Carolina needs to keep pace with the Saints in the NFC South, and they ought to take advantage of the home field. Prediction: Panthers.

8. BUFFALO @ HOUSTON (-2.5) In their past two games, the Texans (3-6) have lost a close one on the road to the Giants, and then beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. It’s encouraging work. Now they come home to face a Bills team that gave all in a one-point road loss to Indy. Texans definitely play better at home, and this is an opponent they can beat. Prediction: Texans.

9. NEW ENGLAND (-6) @ GREEN BAY If most any other team loses two in a row, we hardly notice. When the Patriots do, it’s news. But at 6-3, they’re still formidable. The Packers are a surprising 4-5, but they haven’t beaten anyone of note. Pats should get back on winning track. Prediction: Patriots.

10. WASHINGTON @ TAMPA BAY (-3.5) Remember last year’s playoff game between these two teams? It was a barn-burner, a physical defensive struggle between two teams desperate to advance. Look at ‘em now. Skins are 3-6, Clinton Portis is gone for the year, and QB Mark Brunell is benched in favor of second-year man Jason Campbell. The Bucs are 2-7, and not showing improvement. It’s anyone’s game, but Tampa probably wants to win it more. Prediction: Bucs.

11. CHICAGO (-7) @ NY JETS The Jets are 5-4 after beating the Patriots on the road. Now they entertain the Bears (8-1), who are making their second straight excursion into Gotham after sticking it to the Giants last Sunday night. This could be interesting for a while, but the Bears look awfully good. Too good, in fact. Prediction: Bears.

12. MINNESOTA @ MIAMI (-3.5) After looking good early, the Vikings are running a low-octane offense and facing the reality of a three-game losing streak, though their 4-5 record is still in wild-card territory in the NFC. Dolphins are 3-6, but feeling good about two wins in a row against the Bears and Chiefs. They should be able to extend the streak to three. Prediction: Dolphins.

13. DETROIT @ ARIZONA (-2) The dawg o’ the week pits the 2-7 Lions against the 1-8 Cardinals. Even giving two points, the Cards can win this one. Honest. No, really! Prediction: Cardinals.

14. SEATTLE (-6.5) @ SAN FRANCISCO The Niners are playing aggressive defense of late and Frank Gore is running well. At 4-5, they are a genuine surprise, though they haven’t beaten anyone of note. Here’s their big chance, the 6-3 division-leading Seahawks, who might be getting RB Shaun Alexander and QB Matt Hasselbeck back into the lineup. Seattle hasn’t really busted out against anyone this year, and if the vets play they could be rusty. ‘Hawks WR Bobby Engram will not be in uniform. Prediction: 49ers.

15. SAN DIEGO @ DENVER (-2.5) Clearly the game of the week. Schottenheimer vs. Shanahan. An intradivisional matchup with big implications. Both teams are 7-2, tied for the AFC West lead. No one in the league is scoring points like the Chargers (297), and no one in the league is stingier giving ‘em up than the Broncos (111). So let’s look at the other side of the ball. Sometimes the Chargers’ defense is awesome; they can get a lot of pressure from their front 7, which might not be good news for Jake Plummer. The Broncos’ offense has been ragged; for example, they’ve scored fewer points than the 49ers. Chargers coming off huge win at Cincy; Broncos coming off lackluster victory over the Raiders. It’s a nighttime game in Denver, so the weather will be cool, projected at 36 degrees or so. It’s up to the Denver D and the emotion of a vocal home crowd, but the Chargers coming in as a road underdog look too attractive a choice. Prediction: Chargers.

16. NY GIANTS @ JACKSONVILLE (-3.5) Normally, the Jaguars (5-4) are dominant at home. Then they went and lost last week against the Texans. The Giants (6-3) are licking their wounds after the Bears took it to ‘em in New York. Another road underdog that looks too tempting to pass up. Prediction: Giants.

Friday, November 10, 2006

NFL Week 10 ATS: Big Slate, Big Games

The second half of the NFL season kicks off with 15 games, almost all of which have serious playoff implications. Only the Bears and Colts can afford to lose games at this juncture without risking potential serious damage to their postseason status. Other better teams like Denver, Baltimore, New Orleans and the Giants have played well, but they have divisional foes close enough to them to matter if they should falter.

As for the SMA swami, well, 47-44-5 on the season only makes us slightly better than, say, the Carolina Panthers, who are 4-4 but still have what it takes to make a run in the second half. Let’s hope we do too.

Spreads courtesy of FootballLocks.com.

1. KANSAS CITY (-1) @ MIAMI Thirty-five years ago, this would‘ve been a classic, with Hank Stram’s recent Super Bowl-winning Chiefs versus Don Shula’s soon-to-be-champ Dolphins. Now it’s only a puzzle for the handicappers. At 5-3, the Chiefs have been winning and are angling for a wild-card berth. The 2-6 Dolphins are coming off a big win in Chicago, in which their running game put up serious numbers against the Bears’ vaunted D. This is an interesting play for those who like home underdogs, but the Chiefs aren’t giving enough points to provide any comfort level. Prediction: Chiefs.

2. HOUSTON @ JACKSONVILLE (-10.5) The Jags don’t just win at home against weak sisters: they demolish ‘em. No reason to think that’ll change. Prediction: Jaguars.

3. SAN DIEGO (-1.5) @ CINCINNATI Chargers are 6-2 and challenging the Broncos for AFC West superiority. Bengals are 4-4 and looking ragged, especially on offense, their obvious strength. Bengals have all the incentive to stay in the playoff hunt, plus a home crowd. Prediction: Bengals.

4. CLEVELAND @ ATLANTA (-8.5) The 5-3 Falcons have the talent to cover this spread, yet their will is often seemingly lacking. The 2-6 Browns are worse than mediocre, though, and they’re in foreign territory. It could be closer than expected. Prediction: Falcons.

5. BALTIMORE (-7) @ TENNESSEE Homecoming week, as former Titans QB Steve McNair returns to the scene of many professional triumphs and to a town where thousands still admire him. The Ravens are 6-2 and making serious playoff overtures, with a punishing defense and a productive-enough offense. Titans (2-6) returned to their confused youthful ways last week in getting trounced by Jacksonville, and only the Bucs and Raiders have scored fewer points this year. Despite the emotional component here, the Ravens simply look too good. Prediction: Ravens.

6. BUFFALO @ INDIANAPOLIS (-12.5) The only question here is by how much will the 8-0 Colts beat the 3-5 Bills. I suppose the Colts could have a letdown after impressive road wins at Denver and New England. They could also put on an offensive fireworks display for the home crowd. Prediction: Colts.

7. NEW ORLEANS @ PITTSBURGH (-4.5) Somebody keeps believing in the 2-6 Steelers. In the standings, they’re as bad as Oakland, Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit and Tampa Bay, yet they’re giving a generous 4.5 points to a 6-2 Saints squad. I guess the trick is not in surmising that B-Roeth & Co. get it together, it’s in determining how strongly the Saints can respond. Difficult play. Here’s hoping “somebody” is right. Prediction: Steelers.

8. WASHINGTON @ PHILADELPHIA (-7) Eagles are 4-4 coming off their bye week. When last seen, they were losing at home to the Jaguars. Redskins, at 3-5, still trying to establish credibility after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat versus Cowboys. I think the Eagles will win, but I think it’ll be close. Prediction: Redskins.

9. CHICAGO @ NY GIANTS (Pick ‘em) Even as late as Friday morning, FootballLocks.com wasn’t offering points on this one. It’s a pick ’em situation, so winner takes all. Giants (6-2) are without Michael Strahan, and that could hurt. The 7-1 Bears’ offense still holds question marks. Prediction: Giants.

10. GREEN BAY @ MINNESOTA (-5.5) Vikings have trouble beating anyone by five points, but at 4-4 they’ve proved resilient. The Packers, at 3-5, are grateful they’re not 2-6. This’ll be close probably, mainly because the Vikes’ offense is pretty lame. Prediction: Packers.

11. NY JETS @ NEW ENGLAND (-10.5) Jets (4-4) have trouble on the road. On the other hand, this is a divisional tilt with history and emotion, and Jets coach Eric Mangini is a Belichick disciple. Jets have all the incentive in the world to give all. At least enough to cover. Prediction: Jets.

12. SAN FRANCISCO @ DETROIT (-6) Two also-rans in probably the least significant game of the week. Niners beat the Vikings last week, 9-3, while the Lions won at home versus the Falcons. Lions need to take advantage of the home field whenever they can. This may be a sucker’s bet, but maybe Jon Kitna can stay consistent. Prediction: Lions.

13. DENVER (-9) @ OAKLAND A pretty easy theoretical play. If the Raiders thwart the spread, it’ll just be luck or bad biorhythms on Denver’s part. Prediction: Broncos.

14. ST. LOUIS @ SEATTLE (-3.5) The Seahawks are still dealing with injuries to key players. The Rams missed a chance last week to grab a precious win at home. A big divisional game, and the ‘Hawks barely won the first matchup this season in St. Louis. Rams’ inconsistency makes this an easier choice. Prediction: Seahawks.

15. DALLAS (-7) @ ARIZONA Cowboys (4-4) are the uppest and downest team around. It doesn’t behoove them to make this one close, ‘cause they might blow it at the end. The Cards (1-7) are praying that Matt Leinart can save them from absolute disgrace. The Cowboys oughta win it, but this could be one of those games. Let’s hope it’s not. Prediction: Cowboys.

16. TAMPA BAY @ CAROLINA (-9) Bucs still have no offense. Carolina looking to jump-start their season with a big win at home. It’s a hefty spread, but the Panthers have the ability and the incentive to do this. Prediction: Panthers.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

NFL Midseason Progress Report: Only a Few Really Making the Grade

Just like schoolchildren all across America, the NFL teams are due for their midterm progress reports. Some of the students are doing quite well indeed. Others have improvement needed. And yes, some of the kids are headed for failing grades if they don’t get on the ball and turn things around by Christmas. Here’s a look at the class, division by division.

1. New England (6-2) Depite the recent loss to the Colts, the Pats are doing well indeed. They’re beating who they ought to beat in building a playoff-bound record, and Tom Brady seems better than ever. The defense still plays with heart, and Belichick has tweaked the lineup with remarkably good results.

2. N.Y. Jets (4-4) A surprise at 4-4, with rookie coach Eric Mangini making the most of the talent limitations he’s been handed. Chad Pennington proving he’s still a first-rung QB.

3. Buffalo (3-5) Things could be worse in Buffalo. Injuries on defense and J.P. Losman’s somewhat plodding development have hampered things. They don’t figure to improve much but may pull an upset or two along the way.

4. Miami (2-6) The recent upset of the Bears is the only legit bright spot in a disappointing season. The Fins were 9-7 last year, with hopes for doing even better in ‘06. But QB Daunte Culpepper has not moved forward from injury, and the team’s big off-season acquisition was a gamble that didn’t pay off. They still have a semblance of a running game and a few stars on defense. Mediocrity appears to be their fate.

1. Baltimore (6-2) The dangerous Ravens defense is back, and offseason acquisition Steve McNair looks to be the man for the QB job. Ravens looking strong for the postseason.

2. Cincinnati (4-4) For a team with playoff aspirations, .500 isn’t gonna cut it. Carson Palmer has come back from injury and looks good, but the Bengals’ high-powered offense has been stuck in second gear. Plus, they’ve had to deal with a welter of off-the-field problems with immature players making bad personal decisions. They better find their mojo fast or even a wild-card berth looks elusive.

3. Cleveland (2-6) There are so many holes on the Browns, it’s a miracle they’ve won two games. Plus, they had to replace their offensive coordinator in mid-stream. It’s a waiting game here, to see if young players emerge and to hope that sheer effort will win a few more games.

4. Pittsburgh (2-6) The SMA preseason prognostication on the Steelers was 8-8. They had lost a few good players in the off-season, and Roethlisberger was recovering from a motorcyle accident. But things got even worse. At the rate they’re going, they’ll only win 4 games. It seems likely that the Steelers will get back on the beam. There’s too much talent here for the entire season to go down the drain. They can forget the playoffs, though.

1. Indianapolis (8-0) It may be the most imperfect perfect record you’ll ever see, but the Colts are beating everybody, good teams and bad teams alike. Their defense is porous against the run, but Peyton Manning brings ‘em back on offense with such brilliance that it doesn’t seem to matter what the D does. They’re vulnerable in the same way they’ve always been: If someone’s pass-rush can get to Manning, the Colts can be slowed. Yet no one seems able to do that. Super Bowl contender.

2. Jacksonville (5-3) Still a bit of a mystery, the Jags probably will have to be reckoned with in the postseason. They’ve switched QBs, from Byron Leftwich to David Garrard, and who’s to say it’s not a good move? Fred Taylor has been running well, and if the excellent defense can recover from some key losses to injury, the Jags will challenge for a wild card.

3. Houston (2-6) They were hoping in Houston that the Texans were better than this. They‘re up one week with a decisive victory over Jacksonville, then shooting themselves in the foot against lowly Tennessee the next. David Carr is putting up the kind of numbers that get you bonus payments in your contract but don’t apparently win games. The once-dismal O-line has upgraded to dismal every other week. They’re still struggling to find a consistent runner, though rookie Wali Lundy has shown some ability. Still, they look headed for 4-12.

4. Tennessee (2-6) The same goes for the Titans. Vince Young’s struggles at QB pretty much guarantee more losses down the road. They have some talent in places, but they’re simply going to always have difficulty facing better, deeper, more developed teams.

1. Denver (6-2) The Broncos are a very gool team. They are exceedingly well coached and they play tough fundamental football. Whether Jake Plummer can take them to the Super Bowl is a whole other matter. They appear capable of beating anybody in the AFC, and that’s where all the good teams are. But they’re being stiffly challenged in their own division, and that’s never any fun. Playoff-bound.

2. San Diego (6-2) A fine team that needs to overcome various jinxes. First, Marty Schottenheimer has never won the big one. Second, off-the-field shenanigans have hurt their depth. Third, they have a virtual rookie at QB, who has nonetheless played very well and seems to be getting better with every game. LaDainian Tomlinson helps their chances mightily. The Chargers are an exciting team, but historically they go soft. We shall see.

3. Kansas City (5-3) The Chiefs are feeling their oats these days. Even losing QB Trent Green to injury hasn’t hurt ‘em, with Damon Huard proving to be a capable backup. Larry Johnson is a great runner. Defense has been their Achilles heel for a long while, and they still give up too many points. But they could grab a wild-card berth if teams like Cincinnati or Jacksonville falter.

4. Oakland (2-6) A bad team that looks rudderless (as opposed to bad teams like Houston and Tennessee that have some hope). We had ‘em at 4-12 to begin the season. That looks about right.

1. N.Y. Giants (6-2) At this juncture, the Giants look like the class of a supposedly very good division that maybe isn’t that good after all but is certainly competitive. A good but vulnerable team that’s sufferd injuries and still has a lot to prove.

2. Dallas (4-4) After they beat Carolina behind young QB Tony Romo, the scribes were heralding the return of America’s Team. Then the Cowboys went to Washington and played themselves right out of a victory and a chance to pull within a game of the Giants. If they were a really good team, the Cowboys wouldn’t have let that Redskins game slip away, and if they keep doing things like that, they’ll be 8-8. (SMA pegged ‘em at 9-7 at the beginning of the year.)

3. Philadelphia (4-4) Another NFC East mystery team. If they were as good as people said they were, they’d be better than 4-4. Donovan McNabb has returned to top form, which is good news, but the Eagles have played poorly on occasion. The tough schedule doesn’t help. On the other hand, the NFC is such that, if they can get on a run, they can make the playoffs.

4. Washington (3-5) Take millions of owner Dan Snyder’s money, buy high-priced free agents, turn ‘em over to a Hall of Fame coach and an extravagantly paid staff of assistants, and what’ve you got? An inconsistent offense led by an aging quarterback and a bruised running back, and a defense that has yet to show the fire of 2005. The Redskins lost to the Titans—in Washington, for Pete’s sake. But they also beat the Jaguars and the Cowboys. It’s anybody’s guess how the Skins will respond in the second half. They have talent, but they seem fated to underperform. The chances of them catching fire for a late-season run like last year seem remote.

1. Chicago (7-1) Put a hold on that lock for the Super Bowl. Sure, the Bears are good. But they’ve also played a wimp schedule. Plus, their QB, Rex Grossman, is still learning. They can’t have a complete meltdown because the schedule won’t allow it. So look for them in the playoffs. It should be pretty interesting.

2. Minnesota (4-4) Up and down, up and down. If you’re a Vikings fan, you’re likely to toss your cookies from the rollercoaster ride. But playing .500 is a step in the right direction for them. Their defense has played very hard, and that’s helped to counteract a pop-gun offense led by Brad Johnson, who doesn’t seem able to throw a pass longer than 20 yards anymore. Chester Taylor has supplied some hope at running back, but the Vikes are gonna have to keep putting forth maximum effort to have a shot at the playoffs. It could happen, but it probably won’t.

3. Green Bay (3-5) The epitome of mediocrity. Not much else to say. If they keep playing like they have, they’ll wind up 6-10, which is exactly what we said they’d do back in August.

4. Detroit (2-6) As a testament to “any given Sunday,” the woeful Lions went out in their last game and beat the Falcons. Don’t look for them to beat another playoff contender this year. We had ‘em at 5-11 as a preseason prediction. Thanks, Lions, for making us look so smart.

1. New Orleans (6-2) Okay, we’ll cry “Uncle” on this one. The Saints have already won two more games than we predicted for their entire year. Drew Brees looks very good at quarterback, but more than that, the Saints have been performing well on both sides of the ball. Only time will tell if this is a fairy tale or not, but the Saints look for real. Divisional competition is stiff, though, and a playoff berth is not a gimme at the moment. They’ll have to keep winning.

2. Atlanta (5-3) Beat Carolina on the road, lose to the Giants at home. Beat talented Cincinnati, then lose to the awful Lions. There’s nothing worse than a good team that doesn’t know how to win. And then there’s the Vick Factor. The Falcons’ QB must be a Gemini. You can’t predict which Vick will show up. The Falcons have the talent to make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t necessarily put money on it.

3. Carolina (4-4) Another talented team trying to find itself. The mid-term report card has a notation from the teacher: “Mr. Fox and his associates need to work a little harder. With just a bit more effort, they could go very far.” Their tough schedule has hampered consistency. Look for them to be in the hunt for a wild card at the least.

4. Tampa Bay (2-6) Even more disappointing than the Redskins, the Bucs have struggled on both sides of the ball, their defense looking suddenly too old, and their offense led by rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski. They’ll aim for .500 for the year, but the schedule won’t let that happen. Tough year for Chucky.

1. Seattle (5-3) Injuries are rife but the ‘Hawks have still managed to lead their division. When Hasselbeck and Alexander return, this instantly becomes a much better team. And, with the NFC as weak as it is, they could still emerge as a postseason favorite.

2. St. Louis (4-4) SMA’s preseason prediction was 8-8. For a few weeks there, the Rams were threatening the ‘Hawks’ divisional superiority. Hard to know if reality has set in. They have an exciting offense. They play some D, some of the time. A team worth watching for at least a little while.

3. San Francisco (3-5) Even at a languid 3-5, you’d probably have to list the 49ers as one of the surprises of ‘06. QB Alex Smith is improving, and the team as a whole has responded to Coach Mike Nolan’s intensity. One more win and they equal our preseason guesstimate on their fortunes.

4. Arizona (1-7) Cards coach Dennis Green gets style points for that classic post-game tirade after his team choked against the Bears on Monday night. Very entertaining stuff, Dennis. After you get fired, you might consider a stand-up career. The hope here is that rookie Matt Leinart keeps improving at quarterback, and that Edgerrin James somehow can keep his running average above 3.0 yards per carry. Yet the Cards are so deep down a black hole that it’s hard to see them emerging for quite a while. A promising season shot to hell. At least their new stadium is impressive, even if the record is not.