Real and spectacular Week 5 picks

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 08, 2009

Our picks may be real, and they're certainly spectacular. But the schedule itself this week is anything but the spitting image of Teri Hatcher's bosom. In fact, there are so many dogs barking as we head into Week 5 that we swear one of Michael Vick's homeboys prepared the schedule.
  • There are six home underdogs this week, something you don't see often in a season.
  • There are three homes teams who are more than one-touchdown underdogs, including two by double-digits, something that you don't see often in a lifetime.
  • There are seven games, half the weekly schedule, that are true dogs in terms of public appeal – they either pit two mangy trash-picking mutts (Washington-Carolina) or two unequal species, like a Rotweiler vs. a pigskin poodle (Giants-Raiders).   
  • Finally, there's our streak of picking road underdogs on the line.
As you might remember, we had picked five road dogs to win outright heading into Week 4. All five covered and four of them won outright – impressive marks by any measure.
But if you play too long with the big dogs, sooner or later they'll bite.
We picked two road dogs to win outright in Week 4 – Ravens over Patriots and Packers over Vikings. Both failed to win and both failed to cover. That makes us 5-2 ATS this year and 4-3 straight up picking road dogs to win outright.
Overall, our real and spectacular picks are still in contention for a ribbon from the Westminster Kennel Club of gridiron analysis. We went 10-4 straight up and 8-6 ATS last week, our third winning results in both categories in four weeks. Those numbers put us at 42-20 straight up this year and 33-29 ATS. 
Now, on to seedy of dog-eat-dog underworld of pigskin prognosticating.
Cincinnati at Baltimore (-8.5)
It seems inconceivable to give 8.5 points to a team that's one play away from being undefeated four games into the NFL season. Each club has lost its only game against a Quality Opponent – the Ravens last week against a New England team that still seems to be struggling to find its statistical groove; the Bengals with the miracle loss to the high-flying Broncos, a team that's the toast of the NFL right now.
The gut instinct, not to mention all of our Quality Stats (every one) tell us that the Ravens are clearly a superior team. But a 2-1 record in hard-fought games against good teams (before edging out Cleveland in Week 4) tell us that  the Bengals have enough guts to stick around for a while.
Baltimore 26, Cincinnati 23
Cleveland at Buffalo (-5.5)
Wow. This battle of the league's two mistakes by the lakes is a tough one to call.
The 2009 season started out bad for the Bills – with a patented Buffalo-style nut-kicking loss in Week 1 – and has only grown worse: a win over a very bad Tampa team, a 20-point loss to a very good New Orleans team, a 28-point loss to an average-at-best Miami team. So it's a lot to ask them to cover 5.5 points against anybody.
On the other hand, the Browns are so polluted by failure that they might spontaneously combust at any moment. Call it the Curse of the Cuyahoga. In fact, we think we're on to something. Allow us to meander like the crooked river for a moment: 
Cleveland was a great pigskin power when its river was  befouled by burning filth. But it has enjoyed nothing but misery since the do-gooders decided to clean up the toxins. In fact, from the team's creation in 1946 until the final time the Cuyahoga ignited in 1969 (spawning the creation of the EPA), the Browns had suffered just one losing season and won eight pro football titles (four in the NFL).
Since that effort to clean the Cuyahoga began? The Browns have won just four playoff games and zero pro football titles. 
Here in 2009, the Browns have been blown out twice on the road – but those were against Quality Teams in Denver and Baltimore. In fact, the Browns are the only team in football right now who's played every game against a team with a winning record. They keep it respectable this week against a soft opponent.
Buffalo 21, Cleveland 17
Washington at Carolina (-3.5)
We tried to buy tickets to the scheduling lottery this year. But we spent our last pan-handled roll of quarters on Backwoods cigars. So the victory in the scheduling lottery went to Washington: after opening with a loss to the Giants, they've now faced St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa and, this week, Carolina. Amazingly, the 'Skins also bumble into Kansas City next week. That's five straight games against teams that are a combined 1-18 right now.
The only victory among that list of losers? Yup, that's right, Detroit's win over Washington two weeks ago.
The Redskins are really bad, in other words, despite the respectable 2-2 record. Carolina, meanwhile, might be really bad, too. They're 0-3. They have a dreadful Passer Rating Differential of -44.5 that's better only than Detroit's. But at least they've played good teams.
We're guessing that, like the Lions two weeks ago, this battle of two punchless offensive "powers" allows Carolina to get on track with their first W of the season.
Carolina 6, Washington 2
Pittsburgh (-10.5) at Detroit
We know Pittsburgh has been up and down and they're playing on the road and 10.5 points is a lot to cover. But c'mon: it's defending Super Bowl champs vs. defending 0-16 chumps. The Lions, once again, have the worst pass defense in football, with a 118.8 Defensive Passer Rating that puts them on pace to break last year's record for pass-defense futility. The Steelers, meanwhile, are passing the ball extremely well.
The team's 100.5 passer rating on offense is among the best in football (fourth). Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, is having a career year: 98.1 passer rating (eighth), 1,193 passing yards (fourth), 8.4 YPA (third) and an awesome 73.2 completion percentage (first).
Sure, some people feel you should show sympathy for the down and out people of economically destitute Detroit by cheering for their sports teams. But not us. That's a loser's mentality. Detroit (whether the city or the so-called "football team") should get its sh*t together, first, if it wants any sympathy from us.
In the meantime, this has ugly written all over it. Big Ben has a Big Day and the Steelers humiliate the Lions in a manner befitting their status as NFL low-lifes.
Pittsburgh 63, Detroit 14
Dallas (-8.5) at Kansas City
Tony Romo and the Cowboys are like the Colts of the early 21st century, feasting on bad teams, piling up points and padding the stats that make the season look better than it really is. The 2009 season is no exception. The Cowboys are 2-0 against winless clubs (Bucs, Panthers) but 0-2 vs. Quality Teams (Giants, Broncos).
So this is the type of game where the modern Sunshine Superman shines. He'll have a big day against the Chiefs. But note this: Kansas City is actually quite a bit better than Dallas in the critical Passer Rating Differential category and will find a way to keep it close.
Dallas 26, Kansas City 21
Oakland at N.Y. Giants (-15.5)
We haven't seen a mismatch this ugly since Ric Ocasek-Paulina Porizkova – a couple which reminds us of what the Raiders need to compete against the NFC heavyweight on Sunday:
show video here
As noted elsewhere this week, JaMarcus Russell and the Raiders are so bad in the passing game that they're literally setting the sport back to its offensive Stone Age. Even Bronko Nagurski passed the ball more effectively with the 1932 Bears than Russell does here with the 2009 Raiders (dreadful 43.9 passer rating).
Keep in mind that the biggest blowout in NFL history was a 73-0 victory by the Bears over the Redskins in the 1940 NFL title game – the game that introduced Chicago's modern new T-formation offense to the nation and marked the end of the NFL's offensive Stone Age. This week's clash of modern vs. Stone Age offense sets a new standard for one-sidedness.
N.Y. Giants 74, Oakland 0
Tampa Bay at Philadelphia (-13.5)
We noted above that the Redskins won the scheduling lottery this year. But the Eagles came in a close second. They entered their bye last week with an easy home victory over the Chiefs. They emerge from the bye this week with another game against a winless club. The next two games are on the road at Oakland and Washington, two airy little puff cakes.
The Eagles are 2-1 but have little to hang their hat on this year: wins over winless Carolina and winless Kansas City were sandwiched around a not-ready-for-primetime 26-point loss to the Saints.
On the other hand, the Bucs are so bad they've already been sent to the principal's office four times this season and are already 0-3 against the NFC East. Their passing game is in big trouble, and this week they face a defense that forces negative pass plays more often than any team in football and is also No. 1 in third-down defense.  
The Eagles may not be as good as they think ... but Tampa is definitely as bad as we think.
Philadelphia 21, Tampa 3
Minnesota (-10.5) at St. Louis
As noted earlier this week, the Rams are a league-worst 5-31 since the start of 2007. To put that into perspective, consider that New England's Tom Brady has lost just 27 games in his entire career, including playoffs.
The Vikings are feeling real good after their quiet win over the Packers that flew under the radar screen of national attention. They follow up that feast with a tasty little morsel of stat-fattening victory over the worst team in football.
Bold prediction of the week: After a day getting humiliated by Jared Allen, Alex "False Start" Barron and Kyle "At least my YPA average is better than JaMarcus Russell's" Boller are overheard in the huddle in the fourth quarter wishing they had never been born.
Minnesota 31, St. Louis 3
Atlanta at San Francisco (-2.5)
One of just a handful of games with any kind of appeal to the general public. The Falcons were the upstart darlings of the NFL last year. The 49ers are looking to become that team here in 2009.
Both these teams are solid when measured by our Quality Stats. Both, for example, are in the top 10 in Passer Rating Differential, a key indicator of success. But the big difference is on the defensive front. The 49ers rank seventh in our Defensive Hog Index and are solid across the board. The Falcons are a woeful 31st, better than only Houston, and obviously have not fixed the one major statistical wire hanger they had last year.
The underrated Shaun Hill and the rest of the 49ers offense find ways to exploit this unit as San Francisco holds the fort at home and serves notice that they're officially contenders in the NFC playoff race.
San Francisco 24, Atlanta 20
Houston at Arizona (-5.5)
Both teams feature offenses that can put points on the board. But only the Cardinals have a defense. Arizona is a surprising ninth on our Defensive Hog Index while Houston is dead last in the indicator and bad across the board.
Arizona is actually winless at home (0-2, losing to San Francisco and Indy). But both those clubs are clearly superior to the Texans.
Arizona 31, Houston 24
New England (-3.5) at Denver
The Broncos enter the game of the week with everything in their favor: they're better than New England in almost every traditional stat and in our Quality Stats, they're undefeated and they're playing at home against a team that they've owned for years.
Their defensive turnaround, meanwhile, which we've chronicled here and on this week, is the great statistical story of the first quarter of 2009.
But the public still isn't sold on Denver's SI cover boys, at least in this game. And perhaps for good reason: the "Just Win, Baby" Patriots are surviving right now on guts and guile and nobody seems to doubt their institutional ability to muscle out victories against tough opponents – a reputation they earned as the best big-game team in a generation and that they've reinforced with wins over otherwise unbeaten Atlanta and Baltimore in recent weeks.  
Our instinct tells us that Patriots can pull this one out, with the master serving notice to student that he still has a lot to learn. But the data, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, say otherwise. And you know which we way go when instinct clashes with the harsh, inalterable reality of raw numbers.
Denver 17, New England 16
Jacksonville at Seattle (pick 'em)
Sadly, this game passes as one of the better battles in the Week 5 dog kennel.
Jacksonville is a better team right now, and fresh off an explosive 37-17 win over the Titans. Seattle, meanwhile, has suffered three straight losses to Quality Opponents since blanking the pathetic Rams in Week 1.
But it'd be a mistake quite yet to label the Jaguars a good team. They still have plenty of problems on defense, 27th in both our Defensive Hog Index and in Defensive Passer Rating. Plus, cross-country treks always seem to be detriment.
Seattle 24, Jacksonville 23
Indianapolis (-3.5) at Tennessee
Call this 3.5-point spread a line of disrespect. The Colts – certainly on offense but also as a team – are playing as well as they have at any time in the Peyton Manning Era. They are paced, of course, by the quarterback's amazing 9.75 yards per attempt (an even more amazing 9.5 YPA using our formula that calculates the impact of sacks), both easily record paces. In fact, the 9.5 Passing Yards Per Attempt is two yards better than the second best team in football right now, an amazing distance from No. 1 to No. 2.
The 2009 Titans, meanwhile, have gone down faster than our 10th-grade girlfriend during keg parties at the Crusher in lovely Houghs Neck, Mass. They suddenly can't stop anybody in the passing game, as evidence by their dreadful 107.1 Defensive Passer Rating – only the Lions are worse.
Manning and the Colts have a field day.
Indianapolis 33, Tennessee 20
N.Y. Jets (-1.5) at Miami
The Jets crashed back to earth faster than Skylab last week, with their punchless 24-10 defeat to the heavyweight Saints. The Dolphins, meanwhile, finally got in the win column after facing three tough opponents, with a crushing 38-10 win over the Bills.
The Jets are probably not quite as good as they thought they were after their 16-9 win over the Patriots in Week 2. Their Offensive Hogs, for example, have not played well. And the ability of Rex Ryan's defense to get after the quarterback is definitely overstated in the mainstream pigskin press: simply look at our Defensive Hog Index, where the Jets rank a mere 28th in forcing negative pass plays. Yup, that's right, 28th. Believe it or not, the Dolphins are among the best in the league (sixth) at forcing negative pass plays.
The Jets are also 19th against the run, surrendering 4.22 YPA. They now try to go on the road and stop a Miami offense that averages nearly 5.0 YPA, an awesome rate.
Our take? The Jets are probably a bit better in the eyes of the public than they are in reality.
Miami 24, N.Y. Jets 23

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