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NFL Picks of a Thoughtful Fool, Week 17

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So that was Christmas. And what have we done?

Not much. The playoff picture is only slightly less murky. And now we are entering the final week of the NFL, also known as the Week of Shame. This is the week that teams throw games.

OK, not literally throw games, but a team with nothing to gain has absolutely no incentive to play starters or even give 100%. You paid hundreds of dollars for tickets, parking and flat beer? Sorry, the team’s taking the day off. Caught in a do or die playoff hunt with a hated rival? Sorry, your rival’s playing the top seed but they’ve already locked up home field advantage, they may as well be playing the Lions. Have a website where you painstakingly track games and monitor statistics in an effort to get an idea of who the strongest teams actually are? Sorry, the better the team, the more likely they can sleep through the weekend and screw up your stats.

Last year at this time was a real mess — remember, the Colts went on cruise control as soon as the lost their shot at the undefeated season, and the Pats executed a drop kick — it seemed like everyone was taking a little personal time.

This year, the Bears had nothing to play for last week, but they were playing the Lions, so it was six of one, half-dozen of the other. This week they play the Pack, who are technically still alive for a wild card (which caused me to do a double take). A holiday gift for the Pack.

The Saints have locked up the other NFC bye and they play the Panthers, who are also still alive for a wild card. A holiday gift for the Cats.

The Seahawks managed to clinch their so-called division when the Cards beat the 49ers. They play the Bucs in an entirely inconsequential game. It will be interesting to see if the ‘Hawks play their scrubs. Even though there is no benefit to winning, are they shameless enough to take their division at 8-8?

Over in the AFC things are better. The only division winner that cannot improve their position with a win is New England. They have the division locked up but no chance at a bye. A holiday gift for the Titans, who need a win and Festivus miracle to catch a post-season berth.

Of course, to truly understand the various wild card possibilities you need slide rules, Gantt charts, 3-D modeling software, and even then it could come down to a coin flip. That aside, at least we know who has a reason to fight and who doesn’t, right?

Yes we do, until about 4 p.m. on Sunday. Teams can go from a fighting chance to drawing dead in the late games based on what happens in the early games. For example, if Detroit happens to top Dallas in the 1 p.m. game (absurd, but bear with me), then Philly wins the NFC East and cannot improve with a win in the later 4:00 game. How fast do you think the Eagles starters come out if the Cowboys loss is final at say 4:30? 4:30:01? How is a fella supposed to gamble in such an environment?

There are worse examples. Here is Green Bay’s current playoff scenario according to ESPN.com, who presumably have the capital budget to afford the mainframes needed to track all this:

Green Bay can clinch a playoff berth with:

1. A win plus a NY Giants win + GB clinches strength of victory tiebreaker over NYG, or

2. A win plus a NY Giants loss or tie plus a St. Louis loss or tie, or

3. A win plus a NY Giants loss or tie plus a Carolina win, or

4. A win plus a NY Giants loss or tie plus an Atlanta win, or

5. A tie plus a NY Giants loss plus a St. Louis loss plus an Atlanta loss or tie plus a Carolina loss or tie

The Giants play the Redskins on the first game of the week on Saturday night. Green Bay plays Chicago in the last game of the week on Sunday night. Their fate could be sealed, unsealed, and resealed before kickoff.

The Giants should win. Even as dysfunctional as they have been they should beat the Redskins, right? The Pack should win also, practically speaking. The Bears have no reason to start anyone with any talent on defense, and they beat the Lions only via a late game turnover last week. So if they both win, we go to a “strength of victory” tie-breaker.

The strength of victory tie-breaker is the combined winning percentages of all the teams that each team has defeated this year. This, of course, won’t be known until the week’s games are over. But if it’s close, how well off are the Packers for having a bonus victory against a hibernating Bears team with a top winning percentage versus a 5-10 Washington team? A brief description of the situation from Madison.com:

[T]he teams the Packers had beaten were a combined 33-72. The teams the Giants had beaten were a combined 46-59, giving New York an advantage of 13 games.

Given Chicago’s NFC-best record, a Packers victory would help Green Bay’s strength-of-victory chances immensely.

The Packers would then be rooting for the teams they beat to win their games (Detroit to beat Dallas, Minnesota to beat St. Louis, Miami to beat Indianapolis, Arizona to beat San Diego and San Francisco to beat Denver) and the teams that New York beat to lose (Dallas to lose to Detroit, Carolina to lose to New Orleans, Tampa Bay to lose to Seattle and Houston to lose to Cleveland).

How convoluted is that? I hope all the little ten-year-old cheeseheads have brushed up on their spreadsheet skills for this weekend. The whole thing just makes you yearn for the straightforward clarity of the BCS.

Tiebreakers bring to mind a word that begins with “cluster” and rhymes with fire-truck. You can rid yourself of tiebreakers through tournament-style, neutral-field play à la the NCAA tourney, but I can’t imagine the NFL going for that, especially the neutral field part of it. Think of all those publicly financed stadiums losing out on playoff revenue.

And that still doesn’t resolve the Week of Shame. If you’re locked in before the regular season is over, there is still no incentive to play all-out in your throwaway games. The only thing that would do that was if your seeding was determined by quality of play rather than won-loss record and tie-breakers. It would require a measure that places value on every play of every game, regardless of outcome. One that takes into account opponent strength. One that is not influenced by popularity. One like DVOA.

Per DVOA, the top seeds in the AFC are the Chargers and Ravens. That rates a big fat “duh.”

In the NFC, the Bears are still on top, although there has been a measurable slackening over the past three weeks (not just the trash time versus the Lions last week). Instead of the Saints at number two, DVOA puts the Eagles there. That’s a tough call, but it is arguable that the Eagles have fewer holes than the Saints, who have an exploitable pass defense. It’s not airtight, but it’s not unreasonable either.

In fact, a quick scan of the latest DVOA ratings suggests a pretty high correlation between teams making the playoffs and those with high DVOA. The biggest anomaly is the Seahawks. DVOA marks Seattle as the 26th ranked team in the league; the 7th worst. How did they get a home game in wild card weekend? Location, location, location.

At the moment, the DVOA based playoff slate would be San Diego, Baltimore, New England, Jacksonville, Indy, and Cincy in the AFC. Chicago, Philly, New Orleans, Dallas, New York Giants, and Carolina in the NFC. That’s not a bad line-up; most importantly there’s no undeservings like Seattle. More importantly, everyone would have to be sure to play hard this week or risk losing their seeding.

OK, yes, I know. I would like the NFL to have a DVOA based objective so my DVOA based picks would be better. So sue me.

But what does DVOA say about the actual current playoff situation? Well, if you take DVOA as an accurate measure of the relative superiority of the teams, you can run a simulation of the upcoming week’s games to see how things play out.

The Mike Harris Playoff Odds Report has done exactly that — 50,000 times, in fact. The results indicate that the AFC wild cards are extremely likely to be the Broncos and Jets with Cincy as a dark horse possibility. Leaving the Jags, Titans and Chiefs with only a tiny fraction of outs.

In the NFC the Giants are strongly expected to stumble into the wild card spot that isn’t taken by Philly or Dallas. And Philly is strongly favored to take the NFC East.

I’ve wandered far a field here and not surprisingly lurched into some stat geekery, but you expected that by now. The point is that the Week of Shame is ruled by emotion and circumstance not rational analysis. When winning games or even playing your best is not necessarily the goal, we need to be extra careful making picks.

But first, let’s do the house cleaning.

Results
3-3 versus the spread. Another sub-mediocre performance. I have had one decent week against the spread this year. The rest of the time it has been grinding losses and sister kissings. For the year we are 27-32, giving a net loss of $820. Good riddance 2006, don’t let the door hit ya.

I panicked last week when the formula kicked out 12 money line picks, putting my entire season of solid money line success on the table. Well guess who is whistling a happy tune now. 9-3! Sweet Fancy Moses! $2305 back from a $1200 layout gives an $1105 gain for the week and nearly doubles the annual profit to $2216.92. So sad to see you go 2006, please come back soon.

Other Notes

• In the likely instance that the Bengals don’t make the post-season, they have the special torture of being able to point to one single moment that cost them their berth. No, it’s not fair or accurate but there it is. When Brad St. Louis looks in the mirror, Bill Buckner is looking back. Worse still, that final drive for the touchdown was one of the finest I have ever seen. Carson Palmer must feel like a guy who is about to score with one of the hottest chicks ever, only to have some dweeb interrupt to say her Mom called and said she had to come home ’cause it’s a school night.

• Speaking of the Bengals, they recently put former Iowa State defensive lineman Jason Berryman through an exploratory workout. Berryman sat out the 2004 season as he was serving 6 months in jail for theft and assault. The Bengals should be a perfect fit.

• Did the Bears sleep through the Lions game? Normally I’d say yes, but it turns out their performance fits a disturbing trend. From Aaron Schatz, DVOA Poobah:

The Bears had an above-average defensive DVOA in every single game until three weeks ago. Not only have they had below-average defense for three straight weeks, but each game is worse than the previous one.

Like I said last week, they are a very beatable top seed.

• Miami played Chet Lemon at QB in the second half Monday night (that’s a joke for any old Detroiters) and will likely start him on Sunday. If he plays well, speculation is that either Harrington or Culpepper will need to update his resume.

• Tom Coughlin is a disaster. This guy is world renowned disciplinarian, whose team plays like a Madden team controlled by a spastic. It’s been obvious for a while now that he is unclear on the difference between disciplined and draconian, and he usually gets it wrong. This contributes to the bad atmosphere and sniping on the team. But this business of replacing the offensive coordinator in Week 17 is beyond the pale.

There are two things to say about this. One, it smacks of desperation. He’s bet his remaining bankroll on one spin of the wheel. If the Giants win he can go before the Giant higher-ups and plead for his job saying he figured out the problems and he’s ready to win next year. Accorsi or Casserly or whoever happens to be GM, would be an idiot to buy that, but what does he have to lose?

Second, even in desperation he’s still Tom Coughlin. He is going to let QB coach Kevin Gilbride — The Man Who Ruined Eli — call the plays. Brilliant. Look for the Giants to improve next year without him.

• I’ve developed a somewhat perverse fascination with how Matt Millen is going to screw up the first pick in the draft. Most everyone in the world will assume he’ll take Brady Quinn. He shouldn’t. He should take Joe Thomas. He needs O-line help more than QB help.

Even if he is smart enough to see that, he has to be careful. Ideally he could trade the first pick to someone who would take Quinn, but the Raiders pick second and while they certainly need a QB, they are equally desperate for O-line help. Maybe Al Davis’ disembodied brain would pony up some quatloos for a sign and trade giving him a certain Brady Quinn and the Lions Joe Thomas and a later draft pick. That’s a long shot though.

Another way to play it would be to trade the pick outright and hope you are still high enough to grab say, Justin Blalock and Troy Smith when they come around, but you better get something serious in return.

The smart thing to do is just pick Thomas and if you want to mess around, trade your second rounder for some lates. So figure that to not happen. After seeing a back up QB and a converted safety play wide receiver this season, how much do you want to bet Millen goes in that direction again and picks Dwayne Jarrett and he ends up being a Mike Williams clone. Mike Martz would head for greener pastures and Millen would probably get another contract extension.

Monday Night Football capsule review
Theismann said being short is a huge advantage for the ball carrier on a shovel pass. Earlier in the year, he claimed short pass receivers were better than tall ones. How much you wanna bet he spends a good deal of time watching midget wresting videos?

Having inflicted damage on the careers of everyone from Jim Belushi to Barack Obama, they apparently had to stoop to ordering one of their own employees, Steve Young, in as first half guest. Steve was presumably promised a couple of extra personal days and a better parking space in return. Of course, he promptly screwed the pooch by dissing Daunte Culpepper, claiming that he had been “missing meetings.” Culpepper, who was in attendance, hunted him down and squared him away. Just another Monday Night Fiasco.

But all that was balanced by the fact that they were masochistic enough to bring back Jimmy Kimmel back at half time, who trounced them again. I will acknowledge that this final show of the year was the best. It must have taken Herculean effort, but the Stooges finally achieved inoffensiveness. Way to reach for that star, guys.

On to the last picks of the season. (*wipes a tear*)

Point Spread
In honor of the Week of Shame, we’ll forgo our typical systematic search for poorly set spreads. Let’s start with the games with potential for being thrown and then see what’s left.

The betting public believes that Seattle is going to snooze their season finale. That would explain why 4-11 Tampa Bay is giving them 3 points. Well, when you combine the fact that Seattle is a lousy team, they have nothing to play for, and the game is in Tampa Bay, three points is not such a bad deal. Let’s go with the public on this one. Pick: Bucs -3

Similarly, the Panthers are giving 3 points to the Saints in New Orleans. Normally that would be a ridiculous spread, but the Panthers are in the hunt and the Saints are set. In this case we have two other circumstances to consider. One is the ongoing sentimental pride of the Saints in their season. Set or not, I don’t think they’ll be keen on writing off a home game in front of their loving fans. The other thing is that if the Giants win on Saturday. The Panthers are drawing dead — so much for their incentive. We’ll buck the public on this one. Pick: Saints +3

The Pats are in Tennessee with no reason to play so again, despite their superiority, they are getting 3 points. The Titans are just barely breathing with respect to the post season, but they are also having a good time playing behind Vince Young. Who knows what we’ll get from the Pats, another drop kick? Again, I’m going to go with the guys who have a reason to play. Pick: Titans -3

Lastly, Da Bears. Bucking the trend here, the Bears with nothing to play for are giving the Pack three. Makes no sense to me, in light of the spreads in the other shame games. As with Carolina, if the Giants win the Pack may be drawing dead (depending on how that strength of schedule thing works out). But you know what, even if they are, there is the potential for this to be a last chance to rally round His Royal Favreness. I’m going to take the points on the belief that the Bears will sleep and the Pack will be motivated for some reason. Pick: Packers +3

That takes care of the potential Games of Shame.

The Chiefs are giving 2.5 to the Jags in KC. Both these teams are alive provided they win and three other teams lose. If the good Jags show up, they should handle the Chiefs easily. Let’s assume that if there was ever a reason for them to show up it’s now. Pick: Jaguars +2.5

The Giants are giving 2.5 to the Skins in DC. You know, even though they will be without Michael Strahan and (possibly) Jeremy Shockey, I really can’t see them losing this game. Maybe they can just ignore Coughlin and come up with their own game plan. Maybe Tiki won’t be ready to let this to be his last game. It would make Sunday a lot more interesting if they lost, but I gotta figure they beat the sorry Redskins by at least a field goal. Pick: Giants -2.5

St. Louis has exactly a snowball’s chance in hell of making the post season. They need everybody and their Auntie Emma to lose including, the Giants, which means there is the potential for them to be drawing dead. They are giving the eliminated Vikes 2.5 in Minnesota and the Vikes are the better team. Pick: Vikings +2.5

Lastly, because if I make and win eight spread picks I can redeem my season, I’m going to make a pick in the only game where both teams have been eliminated. Houston is giving 4 to the Browns down in Texas. The Texans are probably feeling a little more positive considering they just beat the Colts, whereas the Browns just dropped a groaner to the Bucs. Plus, I think the Browns are a bit more banged up. Pick: Texans -4

Money Line
Part of the beauty of betting the money line is that the bets are based on won-loss straight up. The gambler and the team he bets on have the same goal. That is not the case with the spread. But unfortunately, it is also not the case during the Week of Shame. Oh well, I reserve the right to asterisk these for posterities sake. See the recap for the picks.

Pick Recap

Point Spread
Buccaneers -3
Saints +3
Titans -3
Packers +3
Jaguars +2.5
Giants -2.5
Vikings +2.5
Texans -4

Money Line
Washington, $125
Pittsburgh $225
Jacksonville $120
Minnesota $130
New Orleans $125
Oakland $600
Seattle $170
New England $160
San Francisco $475
Chicago $68.97

And the bell rings for the final round. And with that I guess I’ll see you next year.

(Don’t ya hate people who do that?) Next week: season wrap-up and playoff preview.

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About David Mazzotta

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    Why didn’t you pick Dallas over Detroit on the Money Line? Dallas needs to win, and Detroit wants to lose.

    Hell, even I picked the Lions to lose!

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    Er, please delete comment #1… :-/

  • david mazzotta

    Oh, RJ, so sad. Now we don’t get to see how Millen screws up the first pick.

    Fittingly for this season I finished with a grinding loss of 3-5 against the spread.

    Also fittingly, though the money line was only 4-6, the big payoffs mean I came out up. Woot!

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Exactly how much is the editor’s cut?

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    Yes, but looking on the bright side, we get to see how will Millen screw up the 2nd pick!