St. Louis Rams (0-0) at Detroit Lions (0-0)
For those if you who didn’t follow me in the offseason, I did a lot of work in an effort to find the 5 most underrated and 5 most overrated teams going into the season. The idea is simple. Every year, 5 teams that didn’t make the playoffs the year before make the playoffs, including one team with 5 or fewer wins the previous year and roughly 25% of teams who won 6 or fewer games the previous year. Likewise, one team goes from in the playoffs to 5 or fewer wins. One team goes from a 1st round bye to out of the playoffs and vice versa. In fact, on average, a team’s record changes by 3 wins in either direction each season. I termed this change “points of parity.” 1.8 teams change by 7+ points of parity, 4.4 teams have 6+ points of parity, 7 have 5+ points of parity, 11.3 have 4+ points of parity, 15.5 have 3+, etc. For more on this in a 7 part series, click here.
What you see below are some Vegas odds from weeks 1-3 last season.
Detroit (+1) at Tampa Bay
Indianapolis (+9) at Houston
Cincinnati (+6.5) at Cleveland
Tennessee (+3) at Jacksonville
Seattle (+5.5) at San Francisco
Chicago (+7) at New Orleans
Houston (-3) at Miami
Dallas (-3) at San Francisco
San Diego (+7) at New England
St. Louis (+4.5) at NY Giants
Philadelphia (-3) at Atlanta
San Francisco (+3) at Cincinnati
NY Giants (+9) at Philadelphia
Kansas City (+15) at San Diego
Baltimore (-4) at St. Louis
Green Bay (-4) at Chicago
Those look comical to us now, but they were once legitimate lines. If you had predicted beforehand that teams like Detroit, San Francisco, Houston, Tennessee, and Cincinnati would exceed expectations and teams like Tampa Bay, Chicago, St. Louis, San Diego, Philadelphia would do the opposite, that’s 15 wins (and one push) for you in 3 weeks easily. Unfortunately, I got screwed over, at least for the first week of the season. Two of my underrated teams (Chicago and Indianapolis) are playing each other this week, as are two of my overrated teams (Baltimore and Cincinnati).
This game I lucked out with as it has one of my underrated teams facing one of my overrated teams. If you’ve been following me this offseason, you know why I think the Rams are underrated and the Lions are overrated, but I’ll repeat myself here for anyone who hasn’t been following. For Detroit, in order to improve on their win total, the Lions would have to improve their win total for the 4th straight season. In the up and down NFL, that rarely happens. Their running back depth chart is basically the same as their inactive list. They finished last season 5-7, including playoffs. They had a distraction filled offseason and they needed an NFL record 4 comebacks of 13 points or more to even win 10 games last year, because of how bad their defense is. It’s not any better this season and if the offense doesn’t bail them out at a record rate again, they could regress.
For St. Louis, they improved 6 games in 2010, but, as could have been predictable, regressed 5 games last year. Teams that have a large improvement in win total typically regress the following season and vice versa. They should bounce back this year. Teams that regress 5 games win an average of 1.6 more the following season. The Rams were destroyed by injuries last year and should have better health in the secondary and on the offensive line, where they also added key free agents. A healthier offensive line should lead to a healthier and better Sam Bradford under center, while, on the defensive side of the ball, they have one of the league’s best defensive lines and should be able to win some games with strong defense, running the football, and decent quarterback play.
The fact that this line is so low, -7.5, solidifies my belief that the Rams are underrated and the Lions are overrated. I believe this is what’s called a trap line. Trap lines are when odds makers want the public to bet one way or another so they make a “too good to be true” line. Typically when odds makers want you to do something, it’s a good idea not to do it. The two signs of a trap line are a suspiciously low line and a line that drops even though the majority of the public is betting it. Right now, about 80% of the money is on Detroit, yet the line has dropped from -9 when it opened (already suspiciously low) to -7.5. They really want us to bet Detroit. The odds makers seem to agree that St. Louis is underrated and Detroit is overrated and that these two teams are more evenly matched than you’d think and they’re not a bad group of guys to have agree with you. They’re not stupid. That’s why they make money every single year.
I’m not saying St. Louis is better than Detroit. I have St. Louis winning 9 games with an easier schedule and Detroit winning 7 with a harder schedule, but it could easily be the other way around if the schedules were switched. Still, there’s a lot of line value and I think at the end of the year, we’re going to look back at this line and wonder why it wasn’t Detroit -3 (which, because Detroit is at home, would suggest they’re evenly matched).
Detroit obviously has the better passing game, but that’s about it. As good as Detroit’s defensive line is, St. Louis’ defensive line is comparable with 2nd year player Robert Quinn, who excelled in a situational role last year, stepping into the starting lineup opposite Chris Long, one of the game’s best pass rushers. Inside, they have Kendall Langford, a solid starter and free agent acquisition, and 1st round rookie Michael Brockers, though the latter is out for this game with a high ankle sprain.
As bad as St. Louis’ offensive line was last year, they should be better this year. They get Rodger Saffold back from injury on the left side and add Scott Wells at center, leaving left guard and right tackle as the only two holes. It’s not great, but it’s not as bad as it seems and the new quick throw offense that the Rams are putting in, similar to the one Bradford played well in as a rookie, will make life easier for Bradford and the offensive line. Their offensive line is comparable to Detroit’s decent offensive line, which has an aging Jeff Backus at left tackle, a mediocre Gosder Cherilus at right tackle, and an interior offensive line that struggles to open up holes on the ground.
Whatever huge advantage Detroit has at quarterback and wide receiver is nullified by St. Louis obvious advantages on the ground and in the secondary. The Rams secondary was ravaged by injuries last year, but adds Cortland Finnegan, one of the league’s top cornerbacks, through free agency, as well as two promising rookies in Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, and returns former starter Bradley Fletcher back from injury. Detroit’s secondary was torched all throughout last year and will continue to be torched this season, especially now that starter Eric Wright is gone and replaced with either 3rd round rookie Bill Bentley, or veteran Drayton Florence, cut by the Broncos earlier this week. Also likely gone for this game are safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston with injury, leaving them without a capable starter in the secondary.
On the ground, Detroit is without Jahvid Best (injury) and Mikel Leshoure (suspension), leaving Kevin Smith, a mediocre runner who has a career 3.9 YPC, to start against an improved Rams run defense, even without Michael Brockers. Steven Jackson, meanwhile, remains the workhorse for the Rams until he gets hurt and he should have a huge game against a Detroit run defense that ranked 30th, allowing 5.0 YPC last season. That, along with the defense holding the Lions’ offense in check, will make life easier for Sam Bradford as he tries to move the ball against a very poor secondary, which he should be able to do, even without much talent at wide receiver. The running game will also force the defensive line to respect the run and will help the offensive line pass block a talented Detroit pass rush.
The Rams are my pick of the week. For one, I picked Detroit as one of my overrated teams before the season and St. Louis as one of my underrated teams before the season. Two, I love doing the opposite of what the odds makers want, which is clearly to bet Detroit in this one. Three, I feel these teams are evenly matched and therefore there’s a lot of line value, even at -7.5 in Detroit. I’m taking St. Louis to win and cover, though I’m much more confident about the latter than the former.
St. Louis Rams 24 Detroit Lions 23 Upset Pick (+290)
Pick against spread: St. Louis +7.5 (-120) 5 units