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

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

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

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

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, 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.