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.