As each new game is played, we get more and more data about how teams are performing, and we’re getting to the point where we can make sense of what we’re seeing. It’s all about sample size! Wins and losses are a terrible stat—with only 16 data points, one flukey result can throw a whole season off. Considering the result of every play gives you a better idea of who’s playing well, but even then, it takes about half the season to really be sure. I like to use the numbers to guide my analysis, but statistics, no matter how advanced, are no substitute for actually watching and enjoying the games.
The NFL should become more predictable from here on out—for the most part. When trying to make sense of the first five weeks of the season, it’s helpful to look at three things: not only the overall level of a team’s performance (1), but the variance of that team’s performance (2), as well as the strength of schedule they’ve played, and are scheduled to play (3). Placing wagers on the most consistently good performers such as Baltimore, New Orleans, and the New York Jets, and against the most consistently bad performers such as Buffalo, Carolina, and Cleveland might be prudent. Be especially wary of teams like Arizona, Jacksonville, Seattle, and Houston, whose variance is so high their results sometimes seem totally random.
I use a lot of numbers and rankings this week, and I will continue to do so as the sample size increases and these numbers become more accurate. I use these overall team rankings, and offense and defense rankings. The overall team effiency ratings include offense, defense, special teams, and variance. The defensive efficiency rankings include splits breaking down defense versus specific receiver types, i.e. #1 WRs, #2 WRs, TEs, passes to RBs, which are immensely useful analytical tools.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles
Line: Eagles by 3
Andy Reid on Kevin Kolb: “He managed the game and then the defense as opposed to the week before when we saw primarily cover two this crew here mixed different coverages and blitzes and handled all those different looks and kinda took what the defense was giving him and let the offense work for him.” I thought he did a great job of that. So can you beat the eagles if you have play a good cover-2?
Atlanta doesn’t play much cover-2, but they are good at what they do anyway. Philadelphia has won against three pretty bad teams (Detroit, Jacksonville, and San Francisco) and lost to two good-but-not-great ones (Washington and Green Bay). Atlanta is their strongest opponent so far, and too many of Philly’s good but not famous players are hurt—pick Atlanta.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Line: Steelers by 13
Every fantasy “expert” says not to start Peyton Hillis vs the Steelers, but why not? It’s not like they are a magical unbreakable wall or anything. How else are the Browns going to move the ball? Somebody has to get yards. Still though, Cleveland is the most consistent team in the league so far—consistently bad—and Pittsburgh is a better team, even on a bad day. Take Pittsburgh to blow out that huge spread.
Miami Dolphins at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers will play, but there is no guarantee yet that he’s not all loopy in the head. Clay Matthews and half the defensive front seven won’t. Miami, on the other hand, should have all their starters playing
Miami’s defense is great against #1 and #2 receivers, but vulnerable versus tight ends. The Packers are weak against the run, which is Miami’s offensive strength. I expect to see a lot of Ronnie Brown and a little Ricky Williams. If Rodgers can tell you what town he’s in, and if Donald Lee can play like ¾ of Jermichael Finley, the Packers have a shot. But if Chad Henne can simply avoid blowing the game like he did against the terrible Patriots secondary, Miami should win on the road.
San Diego Chargers at St. Louis Rams
Line: Chargers by 8
San Diego, no doubt. They’re a good team, and this week their special teams won’t screw everything up for the rest of the guys.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Line: Patriots by 3
Bill Belichick on the Ravens: “They have a couple of new faces, but overall I’d say that their schemes are pretty much the same. They’ve got a couple of new faces on defense, a couple of new faces on offense. But they still try to do the same things.” Those things, of course, are running the ball and tossing up deep bombs on offense, and sending pressure from everywhere on defense to cover for their weak secondary.
Anquan Boldin and Derick Mason should look good on Sunday vs. the Pats defense, which can’t cover top opposing receivers. The Ravens struggle against tight ends and multiple receiver sets, which happens to be the Pats strength. It should be a close game. I’d take the Patriots simply because they’re at home, not because I’m especially confident or anything.
New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Line: Saints by 4 1/2
Tampa Bay is 3-1 on the strength of a weak schedule. This is a weird year for schedule equality in the NFL, and I’m afraid of seeing a mediocre team like the Buccaneers “earn” a wild-card spot in the playoffs, over a much more talented team who plays a much more difficult schedule. If it happens that way, nobody will be happy except Bucs fans, and even they will be unhappy after their team gets blown out of the playoffs in the first round.
New Orleans fans are panicking because of a perceived off year for Drew Brees, but I’m not buying it. He’s still completing 72% of his passes; no other QB is over 70%. If they’re suffering from anything (except injuries to their RBs), the Saints are like the Cowboys, missing that one go-to guy on offense and trying too hard to get everyone involved. Lance Moore and Jeremy Shockey have been their best receivers so far, though Marques Colston is getting the most targets. Once they sort out their passing priorities, they will be fine.
I’ve been writing about how bad the Bucs are and how good the Saints are, but this is a particularly interesting match up. If you were building a team specifically to beat the Saints, it might look exactly like the Buccaneers. Tampa’s defensive weakness is against the run, which New Orleans won’t be able to take advantage of. Even though The Saints are the better team in the long run, and they should beat the Bucs in week 17 when they have Pierre Thomas and/or Reggie Bush healthy, but the Bucs are likely to pull off an upset this Sunday. My money’s on Tampa.
Detroit Lions at New York Giants
Line: Giants by 10
The Giants are a highly variable team—they have dominated in their wins over bad teams (Carolina, Chicago, and Houston), but they were beaten soundly by Indianapolis and Tennessee. The Lions are better than any of the teams they’ve beaten so far, but not by a whole lot. The Giants have been playing the best pass defense in the league so far, but their numbers are likely inflated due to the debacle against Chicago.
In Shaun Hill’s four games as a starter, we’ve been able to see how good this offense can be with a league-average quarterback. It will be very interesting to see how Matthew Stafford does with the same team in comparison when he returns after the bye. There should be no doubt after this season whether he’ll be a successful NFL QB or a bust.
Detroit’s offensive strength is passing to tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Denver cast-off Tony Scheffler, but defending passes to tight ends is the Giants greatest strength. The Giants are weak against #1 receivers though, so expect to see a lot of Calvin Johnson. Sunday. They’ll score points but not enough—I’m picking the Giants to win, but betting on Detroit to beat the spread.
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
Line: Texans by 4 1/2
If you play fantasy, play every team’s #2 receiver against the Texans. #2 targets are averaging 100 yards and a TD against the Texans. Opposing tight ends are averaging about the same—that means you, Tony Moeaki. The Texans are actually good at stopping the run, so we’ll see if Chiefs coaches decide to gain yards with Jamaal Charles or get stuffed at the line with Thomas Jones.
Kansas City’s stars on defense are cornerback Brandon Flowers and linebacker Tamba Hali. Flowers and Hali sound like something you would bring your girlfriend before a date, but they are solid cornerstones to this very good defense. They will be able to shut down Andre Johnson and Arian Foster Sunday. Bet on the Chiefs, who should win 9 out of 10 match ups against the Texans.
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Line: Bears by 6 1/2
Seattle’s defense isn’t bad, but they’re only good at stopping the run, something Mike Martz and the Bears aren’t going to lose sleep over. Seattle’s pass rush will keep it close, but they won’t stop Julius Peppers on the other side of the ball. Chicago.
Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers
Line: 49ers by 6 1/2
Both teams are improving, but neither has improved to “average” yet. In a game where both team’s top offensive targets are tight ends, the winner ought to be the team that’s better at defending passes to tight ends. San Francisco is the 3rd best in the league at stopping passes to tight ends, and Oakland is dead last. Take the 49ers.
New York Jets at Denver Broncos
Line: Jets by 3
“I’d definitely trade in passing yards for offensive balance,” Josh McDaniels said. No, no, no! Why doesn’t he just say, “I’d definitely like the team look good running my system and lose the game, than to have to make adjustments and end up winning the game.” It’s the same thing. Why does he care whether they run or pass, as long as they’re gaining yards and winning games? Josh McDaniels is like a little cry baby. No wonder he didn’t get along with Cutler—that would be two crybabies in one locker room!
Denver has made it through the first five weeks with a 2-3 record after facing the 5th toughest schedule in the league. Their remaining 11 games figure to be much easier for them—their future schedule ranks as the 25th toughest in the league.
After last Sunday’s game, McDaniels hinted that the loss wasn’t his fault. “We didn’t play as tough as certainly you’re going to need to against a team like this,” he babbled. Well, Josh, I hope I’m not getting repetitive pointing this out two times a week, but if you wanted tougher players, maybe you should have kept guys like Peyton Hillis, and drafted someone to help out your defense rather than going for eye-candy like Knowshon Moreno and Tim Tebow. Maybe you could have given Alphonso Smith a chance, rather than desperately trading for the first Gronkowski you could find. But what do I know about football?
This week the Broncos are without three defensive starters: Robert Ayers, Brian Dawkins, and Andre Goodman, being replaced by Jarvis Moss, Davin Bruton, and Nate Jones. I think it’s just as well they get a chance to play some different players, since it’s not like their starters were any good. Champ Bailey has been awesome this year, and the Broncos strength on defense is stopping passes to opposing #1 receivers. That means don’t expect much out of Braylon Edwards, but look for Mark Sanchez to hit everyone else not covered by Bailey. The Jets are no good at stopping passes to wide receivers, so the Broncos should score enough to make this a shootout. I’d go with the Broncos since they can score more in a shootout, but I’d avoid putting money on this one.
Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
Line: Vikings by 1 1/2
You have no more bye weeks to save you, Cowboys fans! Behold the Cowboys, in all their atrocious achromic glory! Seriously, why do the Cowboys wear their white away jerseys at home, allowing the visiting team to flaunt their team colors all around Texas stadium? Does that have anything to do with them losing at home? It’s a psychological advantage that’s impossible to measure, but I think it does.
Dallas’s strategy on offense is to get everybody the ball immediately! They’ve been a little more sane the last two weeks, but they still love those stupid screen passes to Dex Bryant a little too much. Look for Randy Moss and Miles Austin to have big games, and for Roy Williams and and Jason Witten to disappear. Dallas might hold Adrian Peterson to pedestrian numbers, but Minnesota will win and show Dallas what it’s like to be 1-4.
Brett Favre’s pecker the talk of the town. WARNING! This video is awesome. Apparently in Taiwan, people only watch news in CGI cartoon form. Be sure to watch through to the end when Favre meets Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton.
Indianapolis Colts at Washington Redskins
Line: Colts by 4
“I’m not a DB, but I’ve been learning on the fly. One of the biggest things is that guys eyes get real big when they are about to catch a pass.” –Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander
The Redskins are one of the hardest hitting teams you will see in the NFL. They want other teams to know that they’re getting into a fight when they play. Keep an eye out for #30, LaRon Landry. He’s having a career year, and he’s been the best safety in the league this side of Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu.
The Redskins offense depends on completing a couple deep balls to secondary targets, i.e.anyone not named Santana Moss. The only game McNabb was unable to get the ball to Anthony Armstrong or Joey Galloway down field was coincidentally the only game that wasn’t close. This is especially important this Sunday. The Colts are the best in the league at shutting down #1 receivers, but have been terrible at covering all other passing targets. The Redskins pass defense is a mirror image of the Colts. They are great at covering everybody except the opposing #1 WR, so expect Reggie Wayne to get his share of balls Sunday.
The Colts offensive line has been pregnable this year, but they don’t take a lot of sacks because Manning can get the ball out posthaste. The Redskins defense has been great at crumpling up offensive lines, but haven’t registered too many sacks because of opposing QBs making some nifty scrambling moves to get away from pressure. Manning doesn’t have the quickness of Kevin Kolb or Aaron Rodgers, and he will be forced to either take some hits, or throw into coverage. The Redskins offensive line hasn’t been faring any better than the Colts line, but they haven’t given up too many sacks because McNabb is so mobile in the (non-)pocket. If he can scramble away from Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Redskins should be able to pull off this “upset.” The Colts may be a better team, but the Redskins match up well against them.
Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars
Line: Titans by 3
The Jags pass defense is one of the worst in the NFL this year. The Titans pass defense is strong against everyone except running backs and #1 receivers. Jaguars receivers with hyphenated last names (Maurice Jones-Drew and Mike Sims-Walker) should have good games in a losing effort. The Jags will slow down Chris Johnson somewhat, but the Titans will win by more than three.
Byes: Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers.