Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (0-0) at Cleveland Browns (0-0)

The Dolphins were hailed by the media as the winners of the off-season, after all of the millions they spent, but like previous “winners” of the off-season, they should disappoint. The Buccaneers were the “winner” of last off-season, after shelling out big money for Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson, and Eric Wright, but managed just 7 wins. The “Dream Team” Eagles came before them and they won just 8 games. Dan Snyder and the free spending Redskins came many a time before them, but largely produced no results.

The well run teams who sustain consistent success, the Packers, Patriots, Giants, 49ers, Ravens, Steelers, Falcons, Saints, etc. of the world, almost never make a big move on the first day of free agency. They instead focus on strong drafting, developing and re-signing their own guys, and letting the market come to them and filling holes with solid starters on cheaper deals on later days in free agency. They never make panic signings early in free agency.You can say it’s because they are already good or because they don’t have a lot of cap space, but none of those teams was built through big free agency signings. No consistently good team ever was.

I don’t know how much better of a team the Dolphins are as a result of this off-season. Mike Wallace was the big signing, signing this off-season’s biggest contract, getting 60 million over 5 years from the Dolphins. He’ll undoubtedly be an upgrade on the outside opposite Brian Hartline, but he’s overrated and not worth what he was paid. In 2010 and 2011, Wallace was one of the best receivers in the league, catching a combined 132 passes for 2450 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, Wallace held out long into Training Camp last off-season, putting himself above the team and was not the same all season. He caught just 55.2% of the passes thrown his way and averaged just 13.1 yards per catch. They also added Dustin Keller and Brandon Gibson in the receiving corps, but the former is out for the year with a knee injury, while the latter is a pure depth caliber receiver with very limited slot experience.

On the defensive side of the ball, the two big signings they made were linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Ellerbe displaced Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker, while Wheeler displaced Kevin Burnett on the outside. They may be upgrades over what the veterans would have been this season, but both veterans actually had great seasons last year so it’s hard to see them being better than that. On top of that, they are both much less proven and the Dolphins are essentially paying for one year wonders. Prior to last season, Ellerbe had played 917 career snaps in 3 seasons and graded out below average in all 3 seasons. Wheeler, meanwhile, had topped out at 537 snaps in a season in 3 years as a part-time base package linebacker in Indianapolis, prior to last year’s breakout year.

On top of that, they had serious losses this off-season, losing running back Reggie Bush, cornerback Sean Smith, and most importantly left tackle Jake Long. They’ll attempt to replace those 3 with in house Lamar Miller, free agent Brent Grimes, and free agent Tyson Clabo respectively. I like Miller’s chances and Grimes could be good if they stay healthy, but, as good of a player as Clabo is, his presence moves Jonathan Martin to the blindside, where he was awful last season in 5 starts there. He wasn’t good at right tackle, but he was awful on the left side. That could make it tough for the Dolphins to set up the deep strikes to Wallace they would like.

I don’t think the Dolphins and Browns have serious talent disparities or anything. The Browns have a great offensive line, a strong and deep front 7, and the potential to be a very good running team depending on how Trent Richardson plays and how healthy he stays. Brandon Weeden is awful under center and the presence of shutdown cornerback Joe Haden could be wasted by the fact that they really lack cornerback depth and have plenty of other guys who can be picked on in the secondary. That being said, I do think the Browns will win here at home, against a pick ‘em line. I can’t bring myself to put anything on it though.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Cleveland Browns 16 Miami Dolphins 13

Pick against spread: Cleveland PK

Confidence: None

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Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (0-0) at Washington Redskins (0-0)

When this line opened at -5, it was one of the few lines I really had no idea on. I was just going to take the points because I felt the Redskins were being overrated. They won’t recover a league best 67% of their fumbles again. Robert Griffin won’t have an interception rate of 1.0% again. And while their overall injury situation should be better, especially with the return of Brian Orakpo and Pierre Garcon, Robert Griffin’s injury and how it could change his game can’t be overlooked at all. They also were without a first round pick to add much needed help to their defense.

However, this line shifted to -3.5, through the key number of 4, because the Eagles’ strong pre-season and I don’t think that’s right. The Eagles will have fewer injuries this year, especially on the offensive line, where they return Jason Peterson, Todd Herremans, and Jason Kelce, to go with rookie Lane Johnson to give them essentially 4 new starters on that unit. They’ll also have a better turnover rate than their league worst -24 from a year ago, largely due to a poor fumble recovery rate.

However, their defense figures to still be a mess, even if they do get more takeaways. The foursome of new starters in their secondary isn’t nearly as big of an upgrade as they needed and one of them, safety Kenny Phillips, has already been cut with injury problems. In the front 7, they are changing to a 3-4 scheme that doesn’t fit their personnel, especially top players Brandon Graham, Trent Cole, and DeMeco Ryans. The mediocre Connor Barwin comes in and will see significant snaps at rush linebacker over the superior Cole and Graham.

I like Chip Kelly, but I don’t think he has the personnel to fit his fast paced system. Their offense doesn’t have the personnel to consistently convert 1st downs, which will lead to a lot of quick drives and a lot of field time for a gassed and already overmatched defense. Michael Vick looked great in the pre-season, but I don’t put much stock into that. He’s still 33, injury prone, and predictably declining. He’s more reliant on athleticism than any quarterback of the last decade, so it makes sense that he’d aged like a running back or wide receiver. Once the games really matter and defenses are less vanilla, he’ll struggle and probably turn the ball over a lot. They’ll put up nice fantasy numbers offensively in this scheme, but they won’t win a ton of games. I hate overreacting to the pre-season so I’m switching over to the Redskins on this one, but I’m not confident either way.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Washington Redskins 31 Philadelphia Eagles 27

Pick against spread: Washington -3.5

Confidence: None

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Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (0-0) at St. Louis Cardinals (0-0)

The line used to be -6 in favor of St. Louis, but, unfortunately, it’s dropped down to -4.5. I would have taken Arizona +6, but I’m not as confident in Arizona +4.5. That being said, I think these two teams are much more evenly matched than they’re given credit for. Everyone assumes the Rams will improve their win total this season because they have more talent, but I’m not so sure about that.

Football is a game of parity. A team sees an average change of 3 wins per season in either direction and teams that have big improvements on average regress about half of that the following season and vice versa. The Rams have been doing quite a bit of bouncing around in the past few years, going from 1 win to 7 wins to 2 wins to 7 wins and a tie. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to bounce into the playoffs at any point and if history is any indication, they are due to bounce back down, at least a little bit.

There were a couple unsustainable things that led to the Rams’ win improvement last season. They were 6th in the league in adjusted games lost, meaning they had significantly fewer injuries than the league average. This was a season after they ranked dead last in that category in 2011. They also exceeded their Pythagorean Expectations by a whole win (assuming a half win for the tie) as they were outscored by 49 points on the season and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, 23rd in the NFL. They did have a really tough schedule last season, but things don’t look much easier this season.

The Rams will have to hope that all of the talent they’ve added through free agency in the past few off-seasons have paid off and that they will continue climbing the wins ladder because they are legitimately a more talented team. They’ve signed Harvey Dahl, Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells, Kendall Langford, Jake Long, and Jared Cook to significant contracts in the last 3 off-seasons, to go with Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Alec Ogletree, and Tavon Austin added in the first round of the last 3 drafts. Austin, Long, and Cook are the big additions of this off-season as the Rams made surrounding Sam Bradford with more talent the single primary concern of their off-season.

The Rams are undoubtedly a more talented team this season, but they would have probably seen another bounce down (at least a few games) this season if they hadn’t added the extra talent. I just have a hard time seeing them improve on last year’s record in the loaded NFC. They have talent, but they’re not a great team or anything and you look at the rest of the NFC, I don’t know if there’s a single NFC team that you can say, they’re definitely worse than the Rams.

That includes the Cardinals. Remember, they were 4-0 to start last year and Kevin Kolb, their only competent quarterback, was 4-2 with this team. Carson Palmer isn’t great or anything, but he’ll look like Joe Montana compared to the Ryan Lindley/John Skelton/Brian Hoyer combination that combined to throw 3 touchdowns to 18 interceptions. They only game they won involved numerous big special teams plays and return touchdowns. If you had played another 16 games after the end of last season, the Cardinals would have been lucky to win 2 of them.

New Head Coach Bruce Arians put Carson Palmer in a position to throw downfield to an underrated trio of receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and Andre Roberts. Their failure to drastically improve the offensive line, especially with 1st round pick Jonathan Cooper out for the season, as well as some losses defensively, including Daryl Washington for the first 4 games of the season with suspension, will hold them back from being as good as they looked at the start of last season, but they’ll be an improved team this year. I see a field goal game here, but I’m not confident enough to put anything on the Cardinals.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

St. Louis Rams 16 Arizona Cardinals 13

Pick against spread: Arizona +4.5

Confidence: None

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New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (0-0) at Buffalo Bills (0-0)

A few weeks ago, this line was at -7.5 in favor of New England. However, EJ Manuel got hurt and the line shot up as it looked like undrafted free agent backup Jeff Tuel (originally the 3rd stringer before Kevin Kolb’s season ending injury) would become the first undrafted free agent to start week 1 since 1967. That put the line into double digits. Manuel is going to play in this one, but the line is still in double figures as there are questions about how well the mobile Manuel can play after minor knee surgery, as well as injuries to shutdown cornerback Stephon Gilmore to elite safety Jairus Byrd that have sunk the Bills’ secondary from passable to laughable.

The injuries in the secondary certainly do make it a lot tougher for the Bills to stop Tom Brady. Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, and Justin Rogers will be their top-3 cornerbacks, while Aaron Williams and Da’Norris Searcy will get the start at safety. However, this line is still huge and we’ve lost all line value. I originally liked the Patriots in this spot because of how well they do week 1 (never lost in the Belichick era), because of how well they do against rookie quarterbacks (13-4), and because the Patriots will have a chip on their shoulder going into this season largely overlooked as a Super Bowl contender with guys like San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver all getting much more attention from them.

That being said, I can’t take the Patriots as double digit road favorites here. There were only 3 instances of double digit road favorites last year. Two were the Broncos against the Chiefs and Raiders, while the other was the Patriots against the Jaguars. Basically, they involved the 3 teams that had the top-3 picks in the draft. I don’t think that’s quite what we’re dealing with here. On top of that, going back to 2011, double digit road favorites are just 1-8 ATS, while 7.5+ road favorites are 2-15 ATS. I can’t put anything on the Patriots for that reason, especially with most of the public action on them, but I do think they’re the right side and that we’ll see a blowout.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

New England Patriots 37 Buffalo Bills 20

Pick against spread: New England -10.5

Confidence: None

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Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Green Bay Packers (0-0) at San Francisco 49ers (0-0)

The 49ers beat the Packers in Green Bay last season as underdogs in what was a statement game for a team that would go on to prove that their 2011 season was no fluke. This season, the situation is completely flipped. The 49ers are the ones favored by more than 4 points at home, while the Packers are the ones who need a statement win. They lost both games to the 49ers last year, including an embarrassing loss to the 49ers on this same field to end their season in the post-season. Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers was caught embarrassingly unprepared, not expecting the 49ers to run nearly as much pistol and read option after they went away from that late in the season to catch any potential playoff opponents off guard.

The 49ers won’t catch the Packers off guard this time. I just feel like the Packers have been stewing on that loss all off-season and will be as prepared as they can be for the 49ers’ offense. The 49ers will still put up points. They have talent. They’re not just a gimmick team. However, I do think the Packers will turn the tables on the 49ers, much like the 49ers did last season. In recent years, we’ve seen the Ravens and Cowboys come out of the gates and beat a team that was previously unbeatable for them and that had previously ended their season in the Steelers and Giants respectively.

This game actually has some parallels to that Ravens/Steelers game, as the 49ers will be coming off a Super Bowl loss. Teams coming off a Super Bowl loss have not done well week 1 in recent years, going 4-15 ATS in their last 19 instances. I’m not saying this game isn’t going to be important for the 49ers too, but I think the Packers have the situational edge here, especially with the 49ers having a visit to Seattle the following week, which could be their biggest game of the season the way Seattle blew them out in the 49ers’ last visit.

I also like getting more than 3 points with Aaron Rodgers, who is 6-1 ATS as an underdog of more than a field goal in his career. The Packers have lost just 6 games, including playoffs, by more than 4 points dating back to the middle of the 2009 season, a 64 game stretch. One of those losses was in overtime. If the Packers lose here, I have confidence that it’ll be a field goal game. I originally had this as a higher confidence game but the Packers will be without key nickel back Casey Hayward with injuries, while middle linebacker Brad Jones and safety Morgan Burnett will be game time decisions (though they sound like they’re expected to play).

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Green Bay Packers 27 San Francisco 49ers 24 Upset Pick +185

Pick against spread: Green Bay +4.5

Confidence: Medium

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Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (0-0) at New Orleans Saints (0-0)

I expect the 2013 Saints and Falcons to largely resemble the 2011 versions of their teams, when the Saints won 13 games and the Falcons 10 games. The Falcons’ 13 wins last year were done largely with smoke and mirrors and in a way that won’t be sustainable into 2013. 7 of those 13 wins came by a touchdown or less as they went 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, something that tends to even out in the long run.

While they did outscore opponents by a total of 120 points on the season (not unimpressive, though it was surpassed by San Francisco, Seattle, New England, and Denver), they actually outgained opponents by 57 yards total on the season. For example, while they ranked 5th in the NFL allowing 18.7 points per game, they were 20th in the NFL in YPA allowed, 29th in YPC allowed, and 24th in total yards allowed. On a per play basis, they were actually outgained on the season, allowing 5.9 yards per play, as opposed to just 5.8 yards per play gained.

A lot of this had to do with their superb turnover differential as they had 13 more takeaways than giveaways. That tends to be unsustainable on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). Just look at safety Thomas DeCoud, who led the Falcons with 6 interceptions last season. In his previous 3 seasons as a starter, he had 8 interceptions total. We’re talking about what players do on a tiny fraction of their snaps so it’s going to be inconsistent.

While I don’t expect Matt Ryan to see his interception total suddenly balloon, it’s very unlikely that the Falcons lose just 4 fumbles all season in 2012. It’s also unlikely that the Falcons recover 64.3% of fumbles that hit the ground next season. The Falcons also face a tougher schedule in 2013, which should help neutralize that turnover advantage. In 2012, the Falcons faced just 2 playoff teams in the regular season. The Falcons also lost a lot this off-season. They return just 2 starters in their original spot on an offensive line whose biggest strength was continuity, with the loss of right tackle Tyson Clabo being the biggest. They downgrade from John Abraham to Osi Umenyiora and also lost defensive tackle Vance Walker. The only real addition was the upgrade from the washed up Michael Turner to the almost washed up Steven Jackson at running back.

The Saints, meanwhile, should be heading in the opposite direction. Ordinarily, we can expect teams that have big win changes to have an opposite change of about half the following season, so a 6 win decrease is, on average, followed by a 3 win increase. This is because the NFL has such a short season that, when teams have big win changes, it has more to do with bad or good luck than an actual change in talent level. Sean Payton returns this season to help an offense that wasn’t actually that bad last season and they have a very good chance to get back over 30+ points per game. Defensively, they can’t possibly be as bad. They upgrade from Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan at defensive coordinator and switch to a defensive scheme that fits guys like Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Junior Galette, and Martez Wilson much better. Off-season additions of Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro should help their secondary.

I don’t think either of these teams will reach their 2011 win total because they’re both a little worse defensively and because the NFC, and particularly the NFC South, is so much tougher now than that. Once divisional doormats, Carolina and Tampa Bay will both be very tough wins at worst this season. However, they’ll both resemble their 2011 version much more than their 2012 version. In 2011, the Saints won both games in this matchup so that needs to be taken account, especially considering they delivered a 45-16 ass-whooping at home week 16. The Saints didn’t lose a game at home in 2011 as well, including post-season. For that reason, I like the Saints’ chances to win here, and cover as 3 point favorites. There will be a lot of points scored on each side, as neither of these teams plays good defense, and I would be shocked if either team won by 29 again, but I have some confidence in the Saints here.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

New Orleans Saints 34 Atlanta Falcons 27

Pick against spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Low

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Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (0-0) at Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0)

The Chiefs were no ordinary 2-14 team. They had 6 Pro-Bowlers last year. That might sound baffling, but it’s not. Only Eric Berry and maybe Tamba Hali (who had a down year) didn’t deserve it, but they could have easily been replaced by Brandon Flowers and Justin Houston. They have 8 of my top-200 players, significantly above average (Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers).

Unfortunately for them, football is a team game, not a contest of who has the highest amount of good players. This team was the perfect example of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. If you’re as poorly coached and poorly quarterbacked as the Chiefs and lose the turnover battle at a near record rate, you’re not going to win a lot of games. I don’t care how many talented players you have.

Because they were no ordinary 2-14 team, the Chiefs took a different approach to the off-season than most teams coming off of seasons with similar records do. Instead of rebuilding, the Chiefs acted as contenders, bringing back their top two free agents Dwayne Bowe and Branden Albert on a lucrative multi-year deal and the franchise tag respectively.

They also signed four players to multi-year deals, adding Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith to shore up holes in the secondary, Mike DeVito to shore up a hole on the defensive line, and Anthony Fasano to likely be their starting tight end. They brought in a veteran Head Coach in Andy Reid and, rather than using an early draft pick on a quarterback for the future, they sent a 2nd round pick to San Francisco for veteran Alex Smith and used the #1 overall pick on a more NFL ready player in Eric Fisher, who will plug in at right tackle immediately.

I think, overall, their moves made a lot of sense this off-season. They might have overpaid a few players, but I like the strategy and I think they’ll be a much improved team this season. Not only are they more talented, but the additions of Alex Smith and Andy Reid will fix the three things that were holding them back last season, quarterback play, turnovers, and coaching and let the rest of their talent shine.

Reid wore out his welcome in Philadelphia, but he also managed to keep his job there for 14 seasons, which is saying something. Over his time there, he made basically every quarterback he had look better than they were, allowing the Eagles to ship off Kevin Kolb, AJ Feeley, and, eventually, a washed up Donovan McNabb for 2nd round picks, even though none of the three ever did anything of note for their new team. He also revitalized the careers of Jeff Garcia and Michael Vick, who both came to Philadelphia as backups on cheap one year deals.

Reid should continue his fine work with new quarterback Alex Smith, a great fit for Reid’s West Coast offense. Smith was not as good as he looked in San Francisco with Jim Harbaugh. Their supporting cast made life very easy for him, especially their defense, as Smith had an excellent win-loss record despite only leading a talented offensive bunch to 23 points per game in 1 ½ years under Harbaugh.

However, I don’t think you can say he’ll immediately regress to the borderline starter he was before Harbaugh. I believe he’s legitimately an improved quarterback over the one he was 2 seasons ago. Plus, with Reid and Kansas City’s supporting cast, he’s not going into such a bad situation in Kansas City. He’ll also see a much easier schedule than he did in San Francisco. He’s physically limited and can only lead teams deep into the playoffs in absolutely perfect situations, but at the very least he’ll stabilize the turnover margin.

Speaking of that turnover margin, it was a league worst -24 last season, which was actually one of the worst in NFL history (-30 by the 1965 Steelers is the worst in NFL history). It made it very tough for them to win games and affected both sides of the ball, especially defensively, where they were not nearly as bad as the 26.6 points per game they allowed would have suggested.

Turnover margin tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). Alex Smith should cut down on their interceptions. They should recover more than the 33.3% of fumbles that hit the ground that they did last season, 3rd worst in the NFL. And their talented defense should get their hands on a few more interceptions as well. With almost the same defensive unit in 2011, they had 19 interceptions. Last year, they had 7. That’s how inconsistent this stuff can be. That will go a long ways towards letting their talent show through and improving their record.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon opinion. Most people expect them to be much improved this season. This is a pretty big line for a road team as the Chiefs are favored by 4. That being said, the Jaguars are terrible. They need to get used to losing by more than four because it’s going to happen a lot the rest of the season. They might be better than the Raiders, but only by default. I actually like what they did this off-season, hiring Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell as Head Coach and GM respectively, purging themselves of overpaid veterans, even at the expense of their current salary cap (their 27 million in dead money on the cap is only behind Oakland), and not reaching for a quarterback in a draft that didn’t have a good one, instead taking the best available in Luke Joeckel.

That being said, it won’t help them win this season. Only Oakland has less talent as they’ll be starting 3 rookies and they filled holes on defense with mediocre veterans like Sen’Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Geno Hayes, and Alan Ball. Blaine Gabbert remains overmatched under center and will continue to prove why they never should have spent a top-10 pick on him in the first place.

They did have a ridiculous amount of injuries last season, but only Maurice Jones-Drew returning from injury has the possibility of really impacting their season. The rest of those guys are either no longer with the team or mediocre at best starters. They only have two of my top-200 players and they don’t really have many solid starters after them, especially with Marcedes Lewis and Justin Blackmon out in this one. I feel pretty confident taking the Chiefs to win by more than 4 here.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Kansas City Chiefs 23 Jacksonville Jaguars 12

Pick against spread: Kansas City -4

Confidence: Medium

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New York Jets: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0) at New York Jets (0-0)

Buccaneers games might be the toughest to predict in the NFL because of how inconsistent Josh Freeman is. He used to just be incredibly inconsistent on a year to year basis. Josh Freeman posted a touchdown to interception ratio of 10/18 in 2009, 25/6 in 2010, and 16/22 in 2011. They went 3-13, 10-6, and 4-12 in those 3 seasons respectively. However, last season, he was at the point where you didn’t know what you were getting from him on a weekly basis.

Last season must have felt like 4 different seasons for Buccaneers fans as it was a microcosm of Freeman’s career. They started 1-3, after losing their last 10 to finish 2011, and it looked like more of the same. However, after the bye, they ripped off wins in 5 of 6 games and looked like a potential playoff team. They lost a close one at home to Atlanta and then in Denver, but those were two of the best teams in the league so they still looked like they were in good position. That was until they lost at home to the lowly Eagles, and then got blown out by the Saints and Rams, to push their losing streak at 5. They finished out their season with an impressive win in Atlanta.

Freeman started the year with a 5/4 TD/interception ratio in their first 4 games, then had a 16/3 ratio in their next 6, and then a 5/9 ratio on that 5 game losing streak, before having a decent game against Atlanta. In wins, he had a 97.6 QB rating, which is comparable to Tom Brady’s and Ben Roethlisberger’s. In losses, that rating was 71.4, which is comparable to Chad Henne and Mark Sanchez. The Buccaneers have more talent around Freeman this season, even with Carl Nicks still out with injury, but Freeman makes this team very tough to predict and he should end up being the limiting factor.

They have not seemed confident in Freeman this off-season, drafting Mike Glennon in the 3rd round, symbolically putting Freeman on the hot seat, and then calling out Freeman publicly and literally putting him on the hot seat. The cherry on top is they took away his captaincy right before the season starts. That’s incredibly rare. I’ve never heard of that happening. Quarterbacks aren’t always a captain on a team, but once a player is captain, he usually stays captain as long as he’s with the team. It’s just a further sign that Freeman will probably be benched at some point this season, unless he surprises. They just seem sick of being unsure what they’ll get from him on a weekly basis, even if his career numbers and overall performance average out alright.

As for this game, I do lean towards taking Tampa Bay, just based on NFC supremacy. The NFC went 37-26 against the AFC last season, and, even though they lost the one that mattered, the Super Bowl, they were the clearly better conference. This season, the talent disparity might be even bigger. I have the Buccaneers winning just 6 games, but if they were in the AFC, they might make the playoffs, even with all of their quarterback problems.

They added Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to their secondary this off-season and could get big seasons from youngsters Johnathan Banks and Mark Barron back there as well. They return Adrian Clayborn, Davin Joseph, and Carl Nicks from injury, though the latter is still out with a staph infection. The loss of Michael Bennett hurts them, but he was their only serious loss. Of my top-200 players, they have 7, which is above average (Revis, Goldson, Nicks, Vincent Jackson, Doug Martin, Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy). They should cover this game, but I’m not confident enough to put anything on it.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17 New York Jets 9

Pick against spread: Tampa Bay -4

Confidence: None

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Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (0-0) at Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0)

A lot of people are really down on the Steelers right now, but I like their chances to have a bounce back year, as teams normally do after a significant win decrease. Teams that decrease by 4 wins, on average, have a win increase of about 2 the following season. Sure, they’re getting older and they lost guys like James Harrison and Mike Wallace this off-season, but neither was what they once were last season. Harrison definitely showed his age and should be replaced easily by Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, while Wallace was not himself at all coming off an extended holdout. He caught just 55.2% of the passes thrown his way and averaged just 13.1 yards per catch.

The Steelers should also have better injury luck, after having the 7th most injuries last season, according to adjusted games lost. Sure, they’re already without Le’Veon Bell and Heath Miller in this one, but they’re still in better shape than they were last season. Remember, they were 6-3 last year before guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Ike Taylor got hurt. And that was with guys like David DeCastro and Troy Polamalu barely playing.

Polamalu’s return is the biggest deal. Troy Polamalu has missed 22 games over the past 4 years and in those 22 games, the Steelers have allowed 20.2 points per game. With him, however, they allow just 15.5 points per game. As good as their defense is, he might be their single most important defensive player when healthy because he can impact the game with his mere presence. He’s only going into his age 32 season, so he shouldn’t be done and luckily injuries haven’t sapped his abilities when he has been able to suit up. He’s still been very effective when on the field. It’s just a matter of staying healthy, which he will be for this game. That’s a huge deal.

Given that, I think this seven point line is too low. The Titans are not that good of a team. I think most people would agree with that, but the Steelers shouldn’t have much trouble beating. On top of that, the Steelers are a much better home team than road team over the past few seasons. Over the past two seasons, they outscore opponents by 9.5 points per game at home and 2.5 points per game on the road. I have some confidence that this will be a double digit win.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 Tennessee Titans 12

Pick against spread: Pittsburgh -7

Confidence: Low

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Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: 2013 Week 1 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (0-0) at Detroit Lions (0-0)

The Lions and Vikings are among the teams I picked to have big win changes, the Lions in a positive direction and the Vikings in a negative direction. Part of this has to do with the fact that the two teams did the opposite last season, with the Lions going from 10 wins to 4 and the Vikings going from 3 wins to 10. Ordinarily, we can expect teams that have big win changes to have an opposite change of about half the following season, so a 6 win decrease is, on average, followed by a 3 win increase. This is because the NFL has such a short season that, when teams have big win changes, it has more to do with bad or good luck than an actual change in talent level.

However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Both teams have other signs of impending win changes. The Lions won just 4 games last year despite outgaining opponents by the 2nd most yardage in the NFL, by over 1000 yards. This is largely because they surrendered a ridiculous 70 points on return touchdowns, without scoring once in that fashion. If you take that out of the equation, the Lions would have outscored their opponents on the season (they also were terrible in close games, something that should turn around in 2013). That alone should get them to 8 wins.

That return touchdown margin should even out for 2 reasons. The first is that their special teams, which were responsible for 4 of those return touchdowns allowed, should improve. That type of thing is inconsistent on a year to year basis largely because special teams personnel is inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. The Lions have changed their punter, kicker, and both of their return men. The rest of their special teams personnel should look largely different as well. I’m not worried about their special teams being as bad as they were last season and that won’t just help eliminate that 10 touchdown gap, but it’ll help give them better field position.

The second reason is that I think they’re unlikely to allow 6 return touchdowns on 33 turnovers again, a ridiculous 18.2% rate. Ordinarily, teams who turn the ball over 33 times allow an average of 2 return touchdowns off of them over the course of the season. They’re probably score at least once or twice on return touchdowns this season, something they didn’t do last season. Add in the fact that the Lions suffered the 9th most injuries in the NFL last season and recovered the 2nd lowest percentage of fumbles recovered on the ground and this is a team that will be much closer to the 10 wins they had in 2011 than the 4 wins they had in 2012.

Minnesota is in the opposite situation. They excelled in close games, winning 5 out of 6 games decided by a touchdown or fewer. As a result, they won 10 games despite a point differential of +31 and a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.8 wins. Record in games decided by a touchdown or less tends to be very inconsistent and almost always evens out in the long run. For instance, they were 2-9 in such games in 2011.

There’s no reason to believe they’ll be that bad again in 2013, but at the same time there’s no reason to believe they’ll be as good as they were in 2012 again either. In terms of DVOA, they ranked 14th in the NFL last season and most importantly for their chances of making the post-season again in 2013, they ranked 9th in the loaded NFC in DVOA. I think that’s a more accurate assessment of their 2012 season: that they were the 9th best team in the NFC, but snuck into the 6th seed because of some “clutch” close wins.

I have reason to believe they won’t even be the 9th best team in the NFC this season. Keep in mind, the teams ranked 15th-17th in DVOA were also NFC teams, as were the teams ranked 19th-20th. The difference between being the 9th and the 14th best team (Tampa Bay) in the NFC last year was not very significant and if a few more things don’t go quite the Vikings’ way, they could be one of the worst teams in the NFC.

One thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again is injuries. Last year, they were 2nd in the NFL in adjusted games lost, essentially losing the equivalent of over 2 important players for the entire season fewer than the average NFL team. That tends to be unsustainable so the Vikings should suffer more bad luck in terms of injury in 2013. They’re already without defensive tackle Kevin Williams for this game, as well as key fullback Jerome Felton. It also doesn’t help that they lost Antoine Winfield, who was an invaluable member of their secondary last season, to free agency (as a cap casualty) and then eventually retirement.

The other thing that probably won’t go quite the Vikings’ way again this season is the MVP, Adrian Peterson. Peterson played at a non-human level in 2012, coming up 9 yards short of the single season rushing record and becoming the 2nd running back since 1982 to average 6.0 yards per carry or more and carry the ball 300 or more times. It was arguably one of the best single seasons a running back has ever had. It’s a season that no running back will probably match for a long time and unfortunately for Vikings fans, that probably includes Peterson.

No running back in NFL history has ever rushed for 2000 yards twice in a career. No running back has even rushed for 1900 yards twice in a career. Among the top-16 in single season rushing yard totals there are 15 unique names. Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, and OJ Simpson have both rushed for 1800 yards more than once in their career, but only Dickerson did it in back-to-back seasons and he was 23-24 in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. Peterson is going to try to do it when he’s 27-28.

Furthermore, of the 28 other players to ever rush for 1700+ yards in a season, only 3 exceeded their rushing total the following season. In fact, the average 1700+ yard rusher rushed for 615 fewer yards the following season. Sure, some of them got seriously hurt, but it’s not like it would be impossible for Peterson to get hurt and even when you take out the 4 players who didn’t make it to 200 carries the following season, they still averaged 474 yards fewer the following season. On top of that, those players also averaged 7/10ths of a yard fewer per carry, going from 5.1 yards per carry to 4.4 yards per carry. Finally, only 5 players in NFL history have had 3500 rushing yards in a 2-year stretch and only 2 have had 3600.

Now, Peterson is definitely not going to have a bad year. In fact, he’s still my pick to lead the NFL in rushing, but you can lead the NFL in rushing with 1600 yards. I think there’s a decent chance that Peterson gets to 1662 rushing yards, which would give him the 2nd most rushing yards all-time in a two year span, but either way there’s a very good chance Peterson is rushing for at least 400 yards fewer this season. Plus, remember, in Peterson’s 6 year NFL career, he’s rushed for fewer than 1400 yards 4 times. Last season was the best of his career, but he didn’t suddenly become a significantly better player.

Christian Ponder largely was a game manager for the Vikings last season, averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt, hitching his wagon to Peterson and having him drag him into the post-season. How improbable was it that the Vikings made the playoffs despite this kind of quarterback play? Well, since 2006, 22 teams have averaged 6 yards or fewer per attempt. Of those 21 teams, 20 won 5 or fewer games, none won more than 7 and as a group they averaged 4.0 wins per season and 14.8 points per game. The Vikings won 10 games and averaged 23.7 points per game. I know the Vikings technically averaged 6.1 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 1/10 of the yard was what got them the extra 6 wins. That’s why Peterson got my support for MVP, even though it’s near impossible for a running back to truly be the most valuable player in today’s NFL. Peterson was last year. He probably won’t be this year.

However, without Peterson rushing for an absurd amount of yardage this season, the Vikings could be in a lot of trouble if Ponder doesn’t improve statistically. Ponder could be a better quarterback going into his 3rd season in the NFL, but he was a very NFL ready quarterback coming out of Florida State. He was never a quarterback who had a lot of issues with the non-physical parts of the game (touch, accuracy, decision making, reading defenses), but he’s physically limited and that’s not something that really improves as your career goes along. He’s averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt throughout his career and considering how much he struggled last season without Percy Harvin, he could be even less than that this season. Harvin went down for the year midway through the 9th game of the season and Ponder averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt in games 9-16 last season. Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson come in, but the former has been very injury prone of late, while the later might not even start as a rookie.

The Vikings could easily be this year’s team that goes from the playoffs to 5 wins or fewer and the Lions could easily be this year’s team that does the opposite. Unfortunately, the odds makers seems to know this as well, which is why Detroit’s over/under win total is actually higher than the Vikings’ and why this line is Detroit -5. It takes away a lot of the line value here, but it also re-affirms my stances on these two teams. The odds makers usually know what they’re doing. It’s not a big play, but the Lions should win this game by at least a touchdown so I will make a play on them.

Also, one note, I’m changing how I do picks this year. I’ll be grouping my picks into high confidence, medium confidence, low confidence, and no confidence picks. I’ll also have one pick of the week.

Detroit Lions 23 Minnesota Vikings 13

Pick against spread: Detroit -5

Confidence: Medium

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