Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Week 11 NFL Picks: A World Without Defense

Last week, 13 different NFL quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards, a new record for a single week in the league's 80-year history... and the question isn't why it happened, but why there weren't more. With the gazelle wideouts in an increasingly hitting DB lion-free environment, penalties and life-changing fines looming over every seam route, and the constant cheerleading for more and more scoring, we're in a situation where a half-dozen teams or more are expected to play a pinball game for you. And for the most part, they do.

Some of this is, of course, historic talent. The Eagles under Michael Vick in particular looked unreal, and seemed to care not a whit that their opponent was at home, rested, and playing in a monsoon. But most offenses were like the nearly 500 yards of Matt Cassel (Matt Cassel?) Chief Losing, or the simple dink, dunk, and out work from the Tom Brady Patriots. You can argue that the defenses need to do more to get pressure on the QB, but if you touch that guy late or on the head, it's 15 yards now. So it's not like bringing the house is a really appealing option. Increasingly, the league just comes down to whether the offense is making mistakes; if they aren't, they score. Nothing more than that.

The league, seeing a ratings gain in a fragmented and recessionary media market, can't get enough of it. And I'm here to tell you that the bubble hasn't even come close to bursting. Pinball games are more fun for fantasy leaguers, heighten the taste for longer highlight reels, keep everyone from thinking about concussions and brain damage, and allow us all to think that our game of vice and more vice is as safe as a casino in every city. We're all grown-ups here, and we've all been hoping that our favorite laundry could put up 50 points on any given Sunday. Put another scoop of sugar on the ice cream and let's eat.

(And if you don't believe that offense sells tickets and defense sells nothing, consider this: Arena Football has existed for something like 20 years with basketball-esque scores. The XFL, which prized hard hitting over everything else? One year and done. Back to the column.)

Don't expect the weather to save the defense, either. Last night's MNF scoregasm wasn't just a pinball game on one side; the inclement weather didn't change either teams' playcalling one whit. Climate change means that the winter games are less wintry, and new stadiums mean that many of those games will be played in pristine conditions. Balls are cycled out fast enough that they can't become waterlogged, and the new yards, for the most part, enclose the stadiums to protect the swells from wind. Everything's coming up pinball.

Is there anything that can be done to get the balance back? No, but I'd push for two changes right away. The first is that there is no reason why offensive pass interference isn't penalized as severely as defensive pass interference. If we're ready to give 40-yard penalties in one direction, the same should go the other way. The offenses can convert any down and distance in the current climate, anyway. And the second is that if an offensive player flops, that should be 15 yards, an ejection, and the immediate removal of any and all commercial endorsements, and possibly their man parts. Because we're about five minutes away from wideouts flopping like concussed salmon for calls in crunch time, and getting them, and Euroball breaking out. And no one wants that.

So in the interim... my betting advice is to bet the over. After that, bet the over. Then bet the over some more. And try not to think too badly of the defender when they look anemic at contact, or have their arm tackle ran through. If your game check and livelihood was on the line every time you got near a wideout, you'd be doing the same thing.

And with that... on to the picks!

CHICAGO at Miami (-1.5)

A short week for both teams as the NFL Network's reign of Thursday Night Terror continues. The Bears are poised to be the worst division leading team this side of the NFC West, while the Dolphins are reduced to third-string QB Tyler Thigpen, who is experienced at providing numbers in blowouts from his time with the Chiefs. Chicago kept QB Jay Cutler clean for last week's home game against the DOA Vikings, while the Dolphins gutted out a win despite the M*A*S*H* routine. This week, in a moment of hold your nose, pick a team and hope, I'm counting on the Bears defense to force more errors than the Dolphins collect, especially with LT Jake Long questionable. I'm also counting on you not minding, at all, that your cable sysetem won't carry this game.

Bears 24, Dolphins 20

CINCINNATI (-4.5) at Buffalo

The Bills finally won a game last week, and have another very winnable one this week, as the woebegone Bengals come to town. Last week, Cincy became the first team with a known running back to have trouble running the ball against the Colts, mostly because RB Cedric Benson has reverted to his earlier persona as Three Yards And A Cloud Of Suck. I've been wondering why coach Marvin Lewis has been so anxious to become a losing team that throws the ball all the time, since QB Carson Palmer is an affront to the eyes that needs to be a bad back-up at this point in his career... and well, OK, apologies to Marvin. At least when you throw it this much, points eventually happen against the late-game prevent defense, and right now, Palmer looks more likely to have a career renaisance that Fat Ced. What a train wreck.

For Buffalo, they barely hung on against the Lions, and continue to try to prove to the world that RB CJ Spiller wasn't just a bad use of the pick given the talent that was on the roster, but a bad football player all around. This franchise is just special. Short bus special. So give me the Bengals, for only one reason: Terrell Owens to have a vengeance game at the only franchise that he ever played for that doesn't care enough to boo his return. Bills Fan is too busy pricing ovens to put his head in for that sort of thing.

Bengals 27, Bills 17

Detroit at DALLAS (-7)

Our annual Thanksgiving teams (WHY, NFL, WHY? WHAT HAS TO HAPPEN TO CHANGE THIS?) square off in a battle of frisky 2-win teams. Dallas appears to have a pulse after last week's shocking win in New York, with interim coach Jason Garrett making his bid to be the latest fad for owner Jerruh Jones to project about. From where I sat, it looked more like the biannual game where QB Jon Kitna looks acceptable, against a highly suspect Giants secondary that's entirely dependent on the defensive line to avoid being exposed... but it's not as if that doesn't describe Detroit, too. I'm still mad tht this team got WR Dez Bryant in the draft, even if they desperately needed offensive linemen instead.

The Lions can't run the ball, can't avoid turning it over when they pass it, and give up too many big plays, especially on the road. Even here, even now, the line is warranted. Besides, now that Dallas is trying again, they are good and rested. Kitna Will Have His Revenge!

Dallas 31, Lions 20

WASHINGTON at Tennessee (-6.5)

The million dollar question: how much of the Monday Night Massacre was the Eagle offense playing at Killing Speed, and how much of it was the Redskins being the hapless jabronie that's there to put opponent over? I'm betting more on the former, especially if Washington doesn't have a repeat auto-abort of its starting RB in pre-game, and if QB Donovan McNabb can continue to make former Arena Leaguer Anthony Armstrong look like a real live NFL wideout. McNabb earns his money, folks. Besides, this might be the one game a year that Albert Haynesworth tries to earn his game check. Or then again, maybe not. Woof.

Redskins 23, Titans 16

KANSAS CITY (-7.5) at Arizona

Man, the wheels fell off the Chiefs in a hurry, didn't they? From a road loss to the Raiders where they had the game in their grasp but let it slip away, to a blowout stat pumper effort against the Broncos where they stared at the ceiling for Jebus Tebow. That'll leave a taste. The Cards have only another half dozen games to lose before they are eliminated in the West, and the league's worst QB situation is there to lead them every step of the way. I'm kind of amazed that WR Larry Fitzgerald hasn't developed a convenient injury to get himself out of this mess yet. The Chiefs will run the ball well on short fields.

Chiefs 27, Cardinals 13

GREEN BAY at Minnesota (+3)

Here comes Aaron Rodgers, like Samuel Jackson in "Pulp Fiction" quoting his avenging angel Scripture, to rid the world of the Favre Problem once and for all. Please, Aaron Rodgers, show no mercy.

The Pack come off a bye to face the Coach Hating And Ready To Die Vikings, who might be pinning their hopes at avoiding embarrassment on the return of WR Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice. The only problem is that Berrian's horrible and Rice's not really back yet, and this team doesn't have problems at wideout; it has them just about everywhere else. Our long national nightmare is nearly over, assuming your nightmares don't involve Tarvaris Jackson. Me, I see that more as comedy than horror. (And if you want to know exactly when the Vikings have mailed in the year, just check to see when RB Brandon Jackson is carving up yards on the ground. That's the litmus test of quit.)

Packers 34, Vikings 17

Houston at NEW YORK JETS (-5)

Yeesh, what a hateful line. The Jets play to everyone's level and should never be considered anyone's idea of a safe cover; they've spent the last two weeks on the road, letting inferior teams take them to overtime, then capitalizing on brain farts for wins. The Texas are 4-5, on a 3-game losing streak, and just spit the bit on a fumble in field goal territory leading to a gut-breaking divisional road loss on a Hail Mary. They probably have enough to hang around this game and get the cover with a dispiriting late loss, especially against a Jets team that will be missing WR Jerricho Cotchery, and enduring the not very surprising erosion of RB LaDanian Tomlinson. If QB Matt Sanchez is hobbled, that also doesn't help. But none of it will matter, because it's the Jets' year, and more importantly, really not Texans coach Gary Kubiak's. And the Jets will do as much as anyone in the league to take WR Andre Johnson out of the mix.

Jets 27, Titans 20

OAKLAND at Pittsburgh (-9)

To the great joy of superstitous Zinzer fans, I'm off them with this big number. The defense has taken a clear step backward (age?), the offensive line is patchwork, and QB Ben Roethlisberger is going back to his old "I'll Hold The Ball Long Enough To Do Something Heroic" routine that produces more sacks than anything else. The Raiders are good at getting after the QB, excellent at running the ball (and did you notice how Patriots RB Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis had some serious yards? Telling), patient enough to stick with a game plan as the game stays close, and absolutely playing with house money, since they are coming off a bye and a heavy dog. At least the Steelers finally ran K Jeff Reed, so that their last-minute field goal will make them winners. Just not against the spread.

Steelers 24, Raiders 21

BALTIMORE (-10) at Carolina

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the very worst team in the NFL; your underpaying and ready to roll up the sidewalks Panthers. Unable to find a QB that even resembles a professional body, unable to keep either of their plus running backs healthy, with a defense that's reaching Discouraged Worker status, a lame-duck coach and an ownership situation that's cutting corners and looking forward to Nuclear Winter Lockout. What a seamy place Charlotte has been with pro sports; from Rae Carruth to Fred Lane to Bobby Phillis, George Shinn, the Hornets leaving and the Bobcats behaving more like a welfare franchise than an entrepenurial enterprise... well, it's been about as bad as any sports situation in the last 20 years, but since it's a media backwater and new, no one notices or cares.

Look for the Ravens to paper over their serious secondary issues for a week, and provide nice fantasy goodness for once for their offensive players. They aren't as good as their record, and in reality I'm pretty discouraged by this squad, but none of those holes will be found by a squad as motley as these cats.

Ravens 31, Panthers 6

Cleveland at JACKSONVILLE (-3)

The Little Team That Doesn't against the Zombie Playoff Cruds, in a matchup that's a single question test for whether or not you have a gambling problem. I have no idea which Jags team will show up, and you have to think that Browns QB Colt McCoy will respond well to finally facing an opposing team that doesn't have recent Super Bowl rings... but there's also the inevitable letdown that the Mangini should feel after last week's brain fart against the Jets. Also, CB Sheldon Brown going down really doesn't help. Give me the Jags, a B12 shot, and take away my 1-day chip.

Jaguars 24, Browns 19

ATLANTA (+3) at St. Louis

The rising Dirty Birds travel to a relatively friendly road dome to oppose Rookie of the Year candidate Sam Bradford and the not ready for winning time Rams. If the Falcons are the team we think they are, they'll take care of an inadequate but game team on the road, probably by controlling the clock with RB Michael Turner, then getting big plays from WR Roddy White (clearly the best fantasy play in the league today, and it's not even close) and TE Tony Gonzalez. But what they really need is for QB Matt Ryan to be the guy on the road that he is at home. If and when that happens, this might be the best team in the NFC. If not, they'll just win their division. Really not much that variance at work here.

Falcons 27, Rams 17

Seattle at NEW ORLEANS (-12.5)

Two teams that have destroyed me all year when it comes to picking their games. The Seahawks are somehow 5-4 despite being a terrible road team with quarterback health issues, mediocre at best running backs, and line play that doesn't really do much for anyone. They lead the worst division in NFL history, mostly because someone has to, and from starting off 3-1 in the division. In weeks 7 and 8, they lost two games by a combined score of 74-10, and they are the only division leader to allow more points than they have scored.

The Saints are 6-3 despite being a clear step behind what they were last year, with an offense that's purely ordinary in terms of points per game, with near losses to terrible teams like the Niners and Panthers, and actual losses to the Browns and Cardinals (Cardinals?). They finally looked like themselves last week in Carolina, but beating Carolina right now is only slightly more difficult than showing up to play the game.

This week, I'm looking for the home team to continue the mojo, and the Seahawks to fulfill their destiny of being a terrible road team. Mostly because it's November, and it's time for teams like the Saints to show their pedigree.

Saints 31, Seahawks 16

TAMPA at San Francisco (-4)

Testing time for the upstart Bucs, who have been riding QB Joshua Freeman to a winning record despite being in the toughest division in the NFC. They get a road trip to San Fran, where the Niners have a 2-game winning streak after a 1-7 start, which in the NFC West means that they are about two good weeks from being at the top of the division again. Behind retread sparkplug QB Troy Smith, who exploded for 356 yards in a season-saving win last week against the Rams, they seem to have a purpose again... but the bar is higher against the Bucs, and there's a reason why Smith was freely available talent, after all. This week, he'll remind everyone why.

Bucs 20, Niners 17

Indianapolis at NEW ENGLAND (-3

Gahhh. Just when it seems like the New England engine had run aground into a cold and brutal NFL world of people who smack their itty bitty whitey wideouts around and run it down their sweet little throats, up from the ashes come the Belichicks to play their best game of the year. It's just plain maddening, really. And with a home win this week against the smoke and mirror Colts, who can't seem to hold a practice without losing another key weapon, things are looking particularly rosy. The Colts were lucky to escape the Bengals last week with a home win, one week after getting bottled up for most of a road loss to Philly. They can't run the ball, have the usual light in the loafers defensive issues, and don't seem too urgent about winning games, since their division is comprised of three teams they always beat when the money is on the table. But betting against Peyton Manning is usually about as much fun as... betting against the Patriots. Gahhh. Look for the home team to control the clock and get the win. And there's also this: it's a day game. Manning usually isn't as good in those.

Patriots 24, Colts 20

New York Giants at PHILADELPHIA (-3)

The over on this game started at 47.5 and went to 49 in a heartbeat; I'd take it up to 55.5, personally. Both teams have gaping holes in the secondary, erratic pressure from the front four, and are facing an offense with exceptional talent at the offensive skill positions. Unless this game is played in a sandstorm, the points will flow, and it will come down to which team makes the mistakes. Right now, that's not Michael Vick, who has 11 TDs, 0 INTs, a 62% completion percentage, 1 fumble and nearly 8 yards a carry. Good grief.

Adding to the good Green feelings is the fact that the Giants will be without third-down safety blanket WR Steve Smith, and prototype red zone size monster WR Ramses Barden. So that means that WR Mario Manningham will have to come up big, and while he does have talent, he doesn't have the most consistent hands. Provided the Eagles can get Vick to finish the game, and assuming that the Giants ground game doesn't go for 200 yards, the home team wins. Which also means they should cover.

Eagles 34, Giants 30

Denver at SAN DIEGO (-9.5)

I truly hate this line; the Chargers have been a terrible favorite this year, and the Broncos are capable of big numbers. Adding to the fun is the fact that the home team doesn't seem to be capable of getting through a game without a punt being blocked, and that lifeblood TE Antonio Gates is still questionable due to injury. At least they get back prodigal WR Vincent Jackson, and are coming off a bye. They have also got a history of late season surges, and a truly terrible opponent this week, albeit one that can put up numbers in the passing game. It'll be a shaky cover, but a cover nonetheless.

Chargers 34, Broncos 24

Last week: 6-8

Year to date: 60-73-12

Lifetime 340-350-23

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