NFL Week 7 Picks: It Can Only Go Up From Here
Week 7 can’t be worse than Week 6. Well, it would be very difficult to be worse than Week 6. I was victimized by two of the week’s three pick-sixes in the final seconds of games that turned a winning side into a loser (while also pushing the totals in those games from an under win to an over win). Geno Smith’s pick-six in the Jets-Broncos game won Floyd Mayweather, who has mysteriously never lost a sports bet, $600,000. I know I’m not going to suddenly become a winning bettor, and the picks are really a backdrop to talk about actual football stuff, but I think this column’s lack of luck is beginning to wear off on me.
As always, home team in CAPS. Lines are the consensus odds posted at VegasInsider.com.
COLTS (-3) over Bengals
You may have noticed that Andrew Luck is getting a lot of work this year. He leads the league in pass completions (172), pass attempts (260), passing yards (1,987), and passing touchdowns (17). Some of that is because the Colts haven’t had their bye and other teams have, but Luck also leads the league in passing yards per game (331.2). He’s thrown the sixth-most passes in the first six games of a season since 1960.
You might also figure this is a sign that the Colts have finally moved to a pass-first offense under frustratingly run-oriented offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. I am sad to say that isn’t true. The Colts went with a pass play on just over 60 percent of their attempts in 2012 (with Bruce Arians) and 2013 (in Hamilton’s debut). In 2014, that figure has fallen to 59.3 percent. They threw the ball 53.5 percent of the time on first-and-10 in two-score games under Arians in 2011, a figure that rose to 55.7 percent a year ago and has stayed almost entirely stagnant at 55.8 percent this year.
They’re not throwing a larger percentage of the time. They’re just doing everything more frequently. The Colts have run 460 offensive plays this year. That’s insane. It’s 50 more plays than the second-place Eagles,1 who have the reputation as football’s fastest team. The Eagles are closer to being below the league average of 366.7 plays than they are to matching Indy’s total. Even on a per-play basis, the Colts are running a league-high 76.7 plays per game, more than six plays per game ahead of the second-place Saints (70.3).
What does that mean? Well, for one, that they’re maximizing the amount of time Luck spends on the field, which is good. They’re third in offensive plays per drive and fifth in defensive plays per drive, so the offense is staying on the field while the defense gets off quickly. I think every Colts fan would rather have things that way.
The hidden benefit comes with fantasy football. The Colts are running 12.3 additional plays per game versus a league-average team. That’s an enormous difference; over the first six games, it’s been like getting an extra week of performance out of the Colts for free. With Indianapolis currently averaging 5.8 yards per play, that’s 71.3 yards per game to go around to various players on its offense.
I don’t know if the Colts will continue to keep up such an extreme pace, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them remain among the league leaders in plays per game. And that should keep Luck in the running to lead the league in most cumulative passing categories, which should boost his MVP stock in a tight race with Philip Rivers and DeMarco Murray.
Dolphins (+3) over BEARS
Seahawks (-7) over RAMS
JAGUARS (+5.5) over Browns
At 0-6, the Jaguars have the worst record in football.2 I don’t think they’re the worst team in football by any appreciable margin, and they’ve been better with Blake Bortles replacing Chad Henne, but they’ve been outscored by 104 points in six games, meaning their average loss has come by more than 17. That’s the 21st-worst point differential for a team through six games since the NFL merger in 1970. It’s been pretty ugly.
One place where the Jaguars have been unspeakably bad and can likely expect to get better is field position. We all know that field position is valuable in an abstract sense, but it’s impossible to track how good or bad your favorite team’s field position is in the context of the broader league without sitting down and actually running the numbers. Fortunately, Jim Armstrong does just that for Football Outsiders.
Despite possessing a punting asset in Bryan Anger and running a relatively conservative offense that’s happy to settle for completions short of the sticks on third down,3 the Jaguars have been up against it on both offense and defense. They have the worst average starting field position in football on both sides of the ball:
The Jaguars have to pick up about 5.5 yards more on offense and defend 5.5 more yards on defense than the average team, let alone the best (or luckiest) teams in football, the Dolphins offense and the Browns defense. That doesn’t sound like much. It’s only an extra pass per drive or so, right?
Well, that adds up very quickly. We can plug those starting yard lines — rounding the Jags up to the 22- and 33-yard lines on offense and defense, respectively — into a point expectancy model to figure out what those yards are worth.
On offense, the difference between taking a drive in an unleveraged situation (like the beginning of the first quarter) on the 22-yard line as opposed to the 27-yard line is, per Brian Burke’s model, 0.3 points. The Jags have run 72 drives , so that gap between their awful field position and even an average team’s field position has cost them more than three full touchdowns, 21.6 points.
The difference is about the same on defense, where an average team is allowing 0.72 points per drive from the 27-yard line and 1.05 points per drive from the 33-yard line. With teams running 67 possessions against the Jaguars, that difference of 0.33 points per drive in field position adds up to 22.1 points of field position. Put those two figures together and you get a staggering sum; our estimate is that subpar field position has cost the Jaguars 43.7 points versus an average team over their first six games, more than a full touchdown per contest.
The good news for the Jags, I suppose, is that their field position is unlikely to stay this bad. Jacksonville actually had pretty good average starting field position last year, when they started with the 11th-best field position on offense and the 16th-best field position on defense.
PACKERS (-7) over Panthers
If I had to pick somebody as the most spectacular quarterback in football, I’d have to choose Aaron Rodgers. It’s surreal to see what Rodgers can do sometimes; nobody snaps off 40-yard passes while his body’s moving in the opposite direction in between steps like Rodgers. The touchdown pass he threw to Randall Cobb last week was just unfair, which is classic Rodgers.
You know who might represent a pretty good competitor for Rodgers? Cam Newton, who has been one of the best quarterbacks in football this year with virtually nothing around him. All of his running backs are hurt. His offensive line sucks. Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin, his two best receivers, are dealing with injuries. That should be a problem for Newton. It’s not, because he isn’t operating in a space where things that are typically problems matter. Let’s look at a critical fourth-quarter drive from last week’s tie with the Bengals to see how that works.
It’s normally a problem if your right tackle disintegrates into ash in front of you on third-and-7, right? Not so much if you’re Cam Newton.
That’s incredible. The Bengals have Carlos Dunlap treat right tackle Nate Chandler like he’s a prop and green-dogging linebacker Vontaze Burfict run past stumbling right guard Trai Turner. If Newton takes one false step, he’s toast. Instead, with the entire right side of his offensive line on their ass, Newton casually takes a half-step back from Dunlap, scrambles intelligently away from what is now a flock of four Bengals, blows up Wallace Gilberry’s angle of pursuit, and casually glides to the sticks for a huge first down.
You like passes? What about passes on fourth down? Those are even more fun, right? Here’s Newton at the helm of the riverboat:
That’s insane. I chose the broadcast angle over the All-22 angle for the GIF because I wanted to point out that even the hard camera operator couldn’t believe this pass got through. The Bengals have the exact play call they were hoping for here, with man coverage with several underneath zones designed to take away the throwing lanes for a slant. They get a pair of slants on the strong side. The defender on the inside slant, recognizing that Newton is going for the backside slant to Benjamin, comes off his man to try to jump the route. The zone defender sees the pass developing and tries to get over. Even Terence Newman, the cornerback in coverage on Benjamin, can see the pass coming.
And none of it matters one bit, because Newton fires a slant in to Benjamin so hard and with such perfect timing that there’s nothing anybody can do. The pass has such velocity that the defenders trying to tip it away don’t make it into the air for their despairing dives until the ball is already past them. The hard camera does a double take. Newman doesn’t even have a prayer of getting in the way of the pass. The only hope is that Benjamin drops the pass or that George Iloka can jar the ball out with a big hit, and Newton puts such zip on the pass that Benjamin has enough time to catch it and brace himself for impact.
This isn’t last year’s Panthers. The defense, third in DVOA last year, is 28th through six weeks. Injuries and retirements have slowed the running game, Newton aside, to a crawl; after averaging 3.9 yards per carry last year, Carolina’s assorted running backs have produced just 2.8 yards per rush this year. They’re a flawed team in a flawed division. Given that they needed a missed chip shot to come away with a draw in Cincinnati last weekend, they’re probably lucky to be 3-2-1. Of course, they’re also lucky to have Newton as their quarterback.
Saints (+2.5) over LIONS
Chiefs (+4) over CHARGERS
Giants (+6.5) over COWBOYS
Cardinals (-3.5) over RAIDERS
Of all the teams in football, the Cardinals are somehow the only one to go all season without throwing an interception. These are the same Cardinals who have given three quarterbacks the opportunity to throw passes. Oh, and even Ted Ginn got to throw a pass. In Arians’s wild downfield attack, Arizona’s average pass has traveled a league-best 10.7 yards in the air. Passes are more likely to be intercepted as they travel farther downfield, so if anything, the Cardinals should throw picks on a higher percentage of their passes than the league average. And I haven’t even mentioned the names Palmer or Stanton yet!
As a conservative guess, I ran through Arizona’s attempts by passer and used their interception rate on passes before 2014 to estimate the chances Arizona would have gone 178 passes without a single interception.4 Even without using the information that Arizona throws deeper passes than anybody else in the league, the chances that the Cardinals would go these 178 passes from those four passers without an interception are 0.08 percent. It’s about a 1,193-to-1 shot.
While Arians deserves credit for coaching up his quarterbacks, and the Cardinals do possess a large group of wideouts who would be capable of making a play on most contested passes, this is mostly luck. The Cardinals won’t go much longer without throwing interceptions. Then again, the Raiders have picked off opposing quarterbacks only twice in 151 tries, so while those picks are coming, they might not show up this week.
By the way, the last team to start the year without throwing at least one interception during its first five games? The 2010 New York Jets! Mark Sanchez didn’t throw a pick in any of those first five games and then proceeded to throw 13 picks in his 11 remaining regular-season starts. In fact, Sanchez would throw interceptions in 32 of his 41 remaining starts with the Jets. Splits happen.
WASHINGTON (-5.5) over Titans
You played SimCity, right? You know, the original SimCity, the one you had on a gigantic 5.25-inch floppy disk, that SimCity. Do you remember how bad your attempts at a metropolis were when you played SimCity as a little kid? They were bizarre, nihilistic works of art.
Residential buildings just slapped next to smokestacks. A decaying commercial zone, victimized by a statistically improbable number of simultaneous earthquakes and Godzilla attacks. Electrical lines building a grid totally unconnected to any power plant. For public safety, six police stations and six fire stations placed directly next to one another next to a road that never loops back on itself and just runs out in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and the totally useful sports stadium, presumably attended by the one poor, confused family who showed up to live in one of your residential zones for a couple of in-game seconds before immediately leaving in a terrified huff.
Washington vs. Tennessee is the football equivalent of that city you created.
Vikings (+5.5) over BILLS
Teddy Bridgewater took eight sacks and was knocked down 12 times during Sunday’s 17-3 loss to the Lions. While Bridgewater was slow to get the ball out at times during the first half, much of the blame for those problems belongs to Minnesota’s offensive line, which had an awful day against a deep, talented Detroit front seven.
The likes of Vlad Ducasse and Phil Loadholt were hardly impressive during the loss, but the most notably disappointing game belonged to left tackle Matt Kalil, who has been a mess for most of this season. Kalil, who made the Pro Bowl during an impressive rookie season in 2012, was just whipped by 2013 first-rounder Ezekiel Ansah on Sunday.
Want to see just how bad Kalil has been this year? Reddit user skepticismissurvival put together an incredibly comprehensive post detailing Kalil’s disastrous 2014 campaign, including dozens of GIFs, both good and bad. I’ll just point out this strip-sack, in which Ansah just shrugs Kalil off like he’s not even there.
It can be difficult and occasionally impossible to judge who on an offensive line is at fault for a given play without knowing the protection, but the proof comes when you see a player getting beaten time after time and situation after situation. While the Vikings were rebuilding heading into this year, Kalil was expected to be part of the solution. Now, he seems like one of Minnesota’s long-term problems. Buffalo’s dominant defensive line should give him fits Sunday.
BRONCOS (-6.5) over 49ers
It’s possible Peyton Manning could claim one of the most notable records in football on Sunday. Manning, sitting on 506 touchdown passes after throwing for three scores against the Jets, is just two behind Brett Favre’s career mark of 508. Manning has at least two touchdown passes in 20 of the 21 regular-season games he’s played since the start of 2013, so at the very least, it seems likely we’ll see him tie Favre’s record at home this weekend.
After Manning’s otherworldly 2013 season brought him to 491 career passing touchdowns, it was pretty clear that retirement was the only thing capable of keeping him from getting to 509. That wasn’t always the case. It was only a couple of years ago that a decline in Manning’s performance (which would eventually lead to his neck surgery) and the seemingly endless career of Favre left Manning with little chance of claiming the touchdown record.
We can estimate Manning’s chances of claiming the touchdown record by stealing a tool from baseball. One of the many tools sabermetrics don Bill James created was the Favorite Toy, a methodology that uses a player’s most recent performance and his age to estimate his future output in a given category. You can read more about James’s creation and how it estimates future performance here.
I’ve gone through Manning’s career and applied the Favorite Toy methodology to his numbers at the beginning of each season. The process requires three years of performance to start predicting a player’s chances of hitting a given threshold, so I’ve started looking at Manning’s chances as of 2001, his fourth season in the league. While Dan Marino was in the clubhouse with the touchdown record at 420 scores during that 2001 campaign, a 30-year-old Favre was already at 255 and likely to move the uprights on his own before Manning ever threatened the title.5 Therefore, let’s estimate what Manning’s chances were of finishing his career with 509 or more touchdowns from 2001 on:
You can see the sudden leap forward that Manning took after 2013, thanks to a 55-touchdown campaign that marked his best performance ever. Because Manning had a zero-touchdown season in 2011, the methodology projected him to throw for just 24.8 touchdowns per year over his 1.8 remaining seasons after the 2012 campaign. Manning more than made up for lost time with his banner year, and he’s on pace to throw for another 48 touchdowns this season.
More than anything, you see just how difficult it is for a quarterback to achieve what Manning is about to do. Manning was basically the consensus greatest quarterback alive for most of his career while playing in both a weather and scoring environment conducive to passing touchdowns. And despite all of that, it took a record season at 37 to give him anything higher than a 37.3 percent chance of throwing 509 touchdowns. Setting records is tough. Especially when you have to try to find a way to beat Chris Borland.
Texans (+3) over STEELERS
OK. It’s time to talk about this ubiquitous J.J. Watt commercial that’s taken over television in the past two weeks.
1. Why is the fall dance for this school on a football night? It’s too early in the year for an NFL game to be on a Saturday, which means that it was either a Thursday-, Sunday-, or Monday-night dance. For all the decorations and lighting rigs this school seems to have, I have serious questions about its scheduling.
2. I’m also worried about its security. How did J.J. Watt just sneak into this school dance? As far as I know, Watt is not a parent. That can’t be safe.
3. Why is J.J. Watt in his Texans uniform and pads? You know what — that actually makes sense after reading Robert Mays’s profile of Watt, but why wasn’t he wearing his elbow brace? We’ve already covered the possibility that Watt draws his power from his elbow brace like he’s Bane in the past; the absent elbow brace probably explain why he isn’t slicing and swimming through random people at this dance for sacks.
4. How did this teacher whose job, presumably, is to chaperone and keep a watch out for what’s going on at this dance not notice a 288-pound famous person in a football jersey dancing no more than five feet away from her?
5. It’s not a surprise that this woman would know who J.J. Watt is. But how does J.J. Watt know her name? Is it possible that Watt isn’t really there and this teacher is hallucinating?
6. Isn’t the whole point of chaperoning to watch what’s going on as opposed to, say, staring down at your phone?
7. The second-best part of this commercial is the outfit the redheaded kid is wearing:
That’s amazing. He’s dressed like he is an adult who went straight to the dance from work and couldn’t change. I can empathize because this is exactly what I wore to my elementary school dance.
8. The best part of the commercial, of course: Helen!!! The commercial wants to paint Helen like she’s the joke and we’re above her, but Helen is awesome. She boogies, she’s having fun, she’s engaging with the students, and probably doing her job better than this lady who just wants to stand on the side all terse and watch football next to the chips. What’s Helen’s game? Can anybody play?
Falcons (+7) over RAVENS
Steve Smith quit Twitter because he didn’t think he was setting a good example for his kids. Here’s what he had to say about the medium:
Well, nobody’s topping that.
Last Week: 4-9-1
Three-Week Total: 18-20-2
Filed Under: NFL, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals