Tennessee Titans (1-3) at Minnesota Vikings (3-1)
If it wasn’t for Arizona, Minnesota would be the surprise team of the year. In fact, I think they have a lot more staying power than the Cardinals. Despite Arizona’s record, they rank 27th in the league in yards per play differential, which I think is more indicative of their ability. Minnesota, meanwhile, ranks 9th in that category. One team every year goes from 5 win or fewer to a playoff spot. Minnesota is the only candidate who ranks as high as they do in yards per play differential. In fact, Cleveland is next closest in 23rd.
Christian Ponder seems to be the most improved 2nd year quarterback. Percy Harvin is now being used properly and has emerged as a legitimate #1 receiver. Kyle Rudolph has stepped up as a complimentary option and Jerome Simpson looked good as well in his first game back from suspension. The offensive line, anchored by 1st round pick Matt Kalil, has been much better and ranks 6th in the league in pass block efficiency.
Meanwhile, their defense is also much improved, thanks to the return for Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook at cornerback from injury and suspension respectively. Both were missed last season. Rookie safety Harrison Smith is playing great football and Brian Robison and Erin Henderson have stepped up big time. Henderson, who has missed the last 2 games with a concussion, is expected to play this week.
However, like Arizona last week, the Vikings could be due for a letdown thanks to a dynamic change. After back-to-back wins as a dog, the Vikings are now favorites. The Cardinals were coming off three straight upset wins, which is a stronger trend (7-13 ATS), but the Vikings are coming off two straight upset wins before being underdogs, which they should be in Washington next week. Teams in that situation tend to see the game in which they’re favored as a breather game. Teams in that situation are 17-32 ATS since 1989.
Speaking of those underdog Titans, they are without starting quarterback Jake Locker in this one. However, I don’t know if that’s necessarily a negative. It’s not a good thing long term, as this 1-3 team would probably rather get their young quarterback reps rather than potentially have a better chance to beat the Vikings this week, but Locker is inconsistent, as young quarterbacks are, while Hasselbeck led this team to a 9-7 record last year. He’s not great or anything, but he can game manage this team. Despite this, this line has still moved 1.5 points from -4.5 to -6 from last week to this week, with Locker going down, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. That might not sound like a big line movement, but only 3 games saw line movement greater than that this week, so it’s significant enough.
One difference from last year to this year for the Titans has been defensive play. An 8th ranked defense in 2011, they are currently allowing the most points in the league. It’s easy to point to the loss of Cortland Finnegan as the reason behind that, but there are several others. First, look at the teams they’ve played: New England, San Diego, Detroit, and Houston. That’s 3 top-5 offenses and one top-10 offense. In spite of that, they do rank 21st in yards per play allowed, so they haven’t been awful on a per play basis.
They’ve also been without 2nd year linebacker Colin McCarthy since early in the New England game. Not a lot of people know about him, but he’s a great young linebacker. He’s also a captain and the signal caller. Getting him back should definitely help this young defense (7 of 11 drafted since 2009). The Titans are also in a good spot as road dogs coming off a loss as road dogs. Teams are 59-38 ATS in that situation since 2008. The public, meanwhile, likes Minnesota and I love betting against the public.
It’s not a big play because I do like Minnesota and because I think they’re properly rated according to this line (for those who know the “real” line formula I always mention, the “real” line in this one is -6.5). However, I think Tennessee is the right side. I’m not going to pick them to win outright, but it’s a small play on them to keep this within 6.
Public lean: Minnesota (new thing I’m adding, siding with the odds makers on bets is not a bad thing to do since they make so much money, so I’m listing this here to allow readers to “fade” the public, if they so choose, in this example, the odds makers win if Tennessee covers)
Sharps lean: TEN 30 MIN 9
Final update: That is NUTS. Out of 60 sharps, 30 picked Tennessee +6 as one of their top 5 plays of the week, as opposed to only 9 for Minnesota -6. I liked Tennessee before and I like them even more now. I’m adding a unit.
Minnesota Vikings 27 Tennessee Titans 24
Pick against spread: Tennessee +6 (-110) 3 units