PREVIEW: Patriots versus Steelers Sunday December 17

For all intents and purposes, we all know that Sunday afternoon’s game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers will determine which team will clinch the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and secure home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Interestingly enough, the Steelers enter this game as the underdog (the latest lines have the Patriots as three-point favorites in the football odds for Patriots game), despite the fact that Pittsburgh is not only riding an NFL-high eight-game winning streak and has the best record in the conference, but also has generally played a bit better in the friendly confines of Heinz Field, versus on the road (they’re 11-2 at home, compared to 11-3 on the road, since the start of 2016).

But then again, we’re talking about the Patriots. Even with the ugly loss against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday evening, New England is still the highest scoring team in the AFC (averaging 28.3 points per game), but also has the second-highest point scoring differential in the conference as well (+118). With the season-ending injury to Carson Wentz last Sunday, Tom Brady may have found himself in the proverbial driver’s seat for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, which would move him into a tie with Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, and Kurt Warner as the only individuals to win the award three times over the course of their career.

New England’s famous modus operandi of attacking opponents is described as “making their opponents play left-handed.” In other words, they identify what the opposing team does best, devotes their top resources towards eliminating the opponent from relying on that, and forcing them to have to rely on “Plan B.”

But in terms of the Steelers, which “poison” is the Patriots comfortable with picking? Do they focus on stopping wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is in the midst of an MVP campaign of his own? Or do they worry about stopping running back Le’Veon Bell, who leads the NFL in both rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage?

That’s the challenge the Steelers present. Bell’s patience, vision, and ability to rip off chunks of yards time and time again is absolutely demoralizing to opposing defenders, and he could make life very miserable for a Patriots rushing defense that’s ranked 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, and dead last in the league in average yards per carry allowed by opposing runners.

And then there’s Brown, who is not only on pace for his 5th consecutive season with at least 100 receptions, 1,200 yards receiving, and nine touchdowns, but has averaged almost 10 catches for over 130 yards and more than one touchdown over the last four games. Brown has easily distanced himself from all other peers at his position, and sits alone atop the “best wide receiver in the NFL” discussion.

Of course, it’s not like the Patriots’ defense will be the only unit with the totally unenviable task of stopping the opposing offense; the Steelers offense will spend all week answering the nearly-unanswerable question of “how do we slow down Brady?” Pittsburgh’s pass defense was already something of a question mark, and with the loss of speedy linebacker Ryan Shazier (to a very scary spine injury on December 4th), that could open up spots on the middle of the field, which Brady is lethally effective at exploiting.

Plain and simple: in this battle among the AFC’s top heavyweights, expect an old-fashioned shootout between two of the best offenses the conference – and the league in general – has to offer.

PODCAST: How to Win Your NFL Pickem Pool

In the show, Ed Feng  (powerrank.com) describes:
 
  • How to assign confidence points to the 16 NFL games
  • The 3 games in which you should have a lot of confidence this week
  • How to find contrarian choices, essential for pools larger than 30 peopl
​​​​​
 
To listen on iTunes, click here:
 

Washington Versus Dallas: Thursday Night Preview

FF-Winners.com AI Program has Dallas winning 24-23 based on a weak Washington defense. What do you think?

How to Mathematically Create and Use NFL Power Rankings

This article may give you some ideas you can use to
develop your own NFL forecasting system:

Click here

PODCAST: Issues in Predicting College and NFL Football Games

On this episode of The Football Analytics Show, Bob Stoll, founder of Dr. Bob Sports and true analytics pioneer, joins Ed Feng for a wide ranging conversation. Bob has been using analytics in his handicapping for 30 years.
Among other topics, we discuss the following:
  • How Bob first started running numbers on the NFL, and how different it was back then
  • The definition of a tout, and why Bob chooses to show his long term record
  • How Bob makes player adjustments for his college football model
  • The machine learning method he is applying to the NFL
  • Whether linebackers or defensive backs are more important to the defense
To listen on iTunes, click here:

Game Preview: Arizona Cardinals versus Los Angeles Rams (London, Sunday, October 22, 2017)

This Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams travel to London for their game. NFL betting for the Cardinals vs Rams game  has the Rams as the 3.5 point favorite  with a total score of 47. However, FF-Winners AI-generated prediction (52-33 ATS this year) favors Arizona by 2 with a total of 44.

We’re now over one-third of the way through the 2017 NFL season, and the Los Angeles Rams are sitting atop the NFC West with a 4-2 record. Before the season started, if you had told any NFL fan that this is how the first six games of the season would go down in that division, they would have thought you had never watched football before.


Over the last three weeks, the Rams have been scoring an average of over 34 points per game, thanks to the innovative play designs of first year head coach Sean McVay, and the hard running of a rejuvenated Todd Gurley. This past Sunday, the Rams headed to Florida and picked up a very quality road win against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that has been one of the more fun stories in the NFL this season. The Rams put up 27 points on a team that was holding opponents to less than 17 points per game this year.
This Rams team looks like it’s legit. If they can get a defense that’s ranked 27th in the NFL in opposing yards per game to come together, this could be a fascinating team to watch down the stretch of the season.

After a big win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, the Arizona Cardinals seemingly got their season back on track, pulling back to a 3-3 record halfway through October. They’ll travel to London this week to take on the Rams, hoping they can snap the trend of playing poorly away from home; they’re 2-0 at home this year, and 1-3 on the road.

Expect the Cardinals to feature another heavy dose of the newly acquired Adrian Peterson, similar to what they offered Tampa Bay last week. Peterson went for 134 yards rushing and two touchdowns last week, looking reminiscent of the Peterson we remember from five years ago. This week, he — and the Cardinals — will face a Rams defense that’s 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, while allowing an NFL-high eight touchdowns this season.

Ironically, while the spotlight was on Peterson after last Sunday’s performance, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer also enjoyed his best performance since his MVP-caliber season in 2015, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns while completing 81.8% of his passes that day. He threw the ball in the direction of the guy who still might be the most reliable wide receiver in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 10 passes for 138 yards, and is currently 6th in the NFL in receiving yards.

It’ll be up to the Rams’ defense to keep the football away from the Arizona offense, and ensure that Peterson doesn’t slow down the game by keeping the Rams’ offense off the field. Arizona’s defense is still very talented, but the way McVay has been calling plays for the Rams, if there’s an opening somewhere, he’ll certainly find it and exploit it. The Cardinals also don’t play very well when they’re away from home, so Los Angeles has to do whatever it can to continue to make life uncomfortable for Arizona.

Game Preview: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, October 15, 2017)

Riding high after their huge victory against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers are riding high as they enter brand-new U.S. Bank Stadium this Sunday, as 3.5-point favorites against the Minnesota Vikings according to NFL betting odds for Packers vs Vikings gameAnd that’s exactly why they could be in position for a big upset this weekend…

When we think of the Vikings, we first think of their defense, thanks to the organizational philosophy laid down by head coach Mike Zimmer. Minnesota enters Week 6 of the NFL season with the 11th-ranked defense in the NFL. They have star players at every level of the defense. Defensive end Everson Griffen is third in the NFL in sacks (six). Cornerback Xavier Rhodes has been one of the best in football this season. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr is a freakish athlete that does so many things for them.

But even with the in-and-out from Sam Bradford due to various injuries, this offense has been deceptively good as well. Minnesota actually averages more passing yards per game (357 — 5th most in the NFL) than Green Bay (336.6 — 11th most in the NFL). It’s even more disparate when you look at each team’s rushing attack: Minnesota averages 118.2 yards per game (#11 in the NFL) versus Green Bay’s 91.6 yards per game (22nd in the NFL). In place of promising rookie Dalvin Cook, who was lost to a season-ending injury to his ACL, Jerick McKinnon provided a spark to Minnesota’s offense, evidenced by his 146 total yards against the Chicago Bears on Monday night. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is in the midst of a breakout season of his own, sitting in 5th place in the NFL with 395 receiving yards. And the Vikings are just as likely to spread the ball around to the rest of their offense, as they are to force-feed their stars. On Monday evening, quarterback Case Keenum — playing in place of the injured Bradford — threw 16 of his 21 passing attempts to his running backs and tight ends.

Of course, the great equalizer in this entire game — or any game Green Bay plays in — is Aaron Rodgers. At some point, it just feels like we’re going to run out of superlatives to describe his level of play. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time right now, but Rodgers is the best in the game as of today. His stats don’t tell the whole story (although his league-leading 13 touchdown passes certainly help), but the way he puts the Packers on his shoulders, week after week, is unlike anything we’re seeing in the league today (this side of New England, anyway).

Minnesota’s defense has held Rodgers to less than 220 passing yards in each of the last three games these two have played in Minnesota. Of course, the Packers are 2-1 in in those games, thanks to the balance provided by the Packers rushing attack.

Minnesota handled two very potent offense at home already: New Orleans in Week 1, and Tampa Bay in Week 3. They should be well aware of this, given that they play them twice a year, but if Green Bay is not careful, they could have their hands full.

But as of right now, Green Bay looks like they’re one of the two best teams in the NFC, alongside the Atlanta Falcons. While this game should be a really good matchup, the Vikings aren’t quite as dangerous as the Packers… or as Rodgers, anyway.

My Pick: Green Bay.

 

ALERT: FF-Winners.Com Warns On the 2017-8 Falcon Team: TAKE THE UNDER!

Some Las Vegas oddsmakers have sent the “over/under” on the win total for the 2017 Atlanta Falcons at 9.5 wins. At least initially, that number seems ridiculously low, given the fact that this team finished with an 11-5 record last season, and beat the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers en route to representing the NFC in Super Bowl LI this past February.

And yet, we’re not only telling you to bet the “under,” wagering that the Falcons will win less than 9.5 games this year, but we’re also saying that the 2017 Atlanta Falcons will not only fail to win the NFC South division this year, but also fail to make the playoffs.

Here’s a fact for you: over the last 20 years, the team that lost the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs 9 times. Over the last 15 years, the Super Bowl loser failed to make the playoffs the ensuing year. In other words, it’s basically a 50/50 chance that if you lose the Super Bowl, you’re not making the postseason the following year.

But specifically, in terms of the Falcons, there are two big reasons why we’re confident enough to make such a statement:

1. We think everyone overlooked an Atlanta defense that really wasn’t all that great

2. The difference between Kyle Shanahan’s offense and Steve Sarkisian’s offense is going to be jarring, in a really, really bad way if you’re a Falcons fan.

While the offense was busy putting up franchise-best numbers last season, the defense finished 26th in defensive DVOA last season, 25th in total yards allowed per game, and 28th in passing yards allowed per game. They allowed the fifth-most touchdown passes in the NFL to opponents last year, and didn’t have anyone on the entire team (outside of Vic Beasley Jr.) register more than five sacks. Does that sound like a “good defense” to you? In fact, name a player on the Falcons defense, outside of maybe Beasley, who opposing teams really need to worry about. If you polled 100 relatively knowledgeable NFL fans, could they name more than three players on the Falcons defense?

Atlanta plays in a division where they’ll face Drew Brees, Cam Newton, or Jameis Winston in more than a third of their games this year; that’s not even mentioning the fact that Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson are all on teams who are on the Falcons’ schedule this year as well.

And before you say: “well, Atlanta can win those games in a shootout,” that brings us to the Shanahan-Sarkisian issue, with that issue specifically being the fact that the Falcons are replacing one of the BEST offensive minds in the NFL with someone who has NEVER called plays or ran an offense in the NFL at any point in his career.

What Shanahan did for the Falcons offense last year was his career’s magnum opus. He found a way to masterfully utilize Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, the incomparable Julio Jones, and a veritable pupu platter of tight ends, taking all of those random ingredients and concocting an offering in a way that would’ve made an Iron Chef proud.

But Shanahan is gone, and being replaced by Steve Sarkisian. Here’s what you need to know about about Sarkisian: 1) the last time he was a head coach, he was fired because of a history of alcohol abuse; and 2) Sarkisian has never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL.

In the three seasons prior to 2016, Atlanta finished 21st, 12th, and 20th in the NFL in points per game. So tell us what sounds more realistic: Sarkisian implementing another league-leading, well-oiled offensive juggernaut? Or Atlanta’s offense reverting back to the mean, thanks to a coordinator who was so toxic that most college programs gave tremendous pause to the idea of hiring him?

So, scoff at our less 9.5 wins projection. Go ahead and overlook the fact that, in the three seasons before last year, Atlanta failed to reach nine wins, or the fact that they’ve ranked in the bottom six in the NFL in points allowed per game in three of the past four seasons.

We stand by our prediction that the Falcons will be suffering the “Super Bowl loser hangover” this upcoming season.

FF-Winners.com’s 2017-8 AFC West Preview

For all the buzz around the other teams in the division, it gets easily overlooked that the Kansas City Chiefs are the reigning division champions, coming off a 12-4 record last year. But the question around the Chiefs is whether this team can take that next step forward and make a deep postseason run, or will they take a step back given all the questions they have on offense. The defense shouldn’t miss a beat, with as many as five Pro Bowl-caliber players on defense — cornerback Marcus Peters, safety Eric Berry, outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson — along with an emerging stud in defensive end Chris Jones, and a very solid free agent acquisition in defensive tackle Bennie Logan. But the offense, which ranked in the bottom half of the league in total yards (20th) and passing yards (19th) per game, has plenty of questions left to be answered this season. How does the Chiefs selection of quarterback Patrick Mahomes with their top pick in the 2017 NFL Draft affect the play of quarterback Alex Smith, whom Mahomes was drafted to replace? How will the Chiefs running game fare with rookie Kareem Hunt (the team’s 3rd round pick) taking over for Spencer Ware, who was lost to a season-ending injury in the preseason? And does the team have any receiver they can reliably trust, outside of Tyreek Hill, after releasing Jeremy Maclin in the offseason? It’s going to take every ounce of guidance that head coach Andy Reid can muster to get this team to the heights that many believe they’re capable of, given the aforementioned challenges.

Nobody will question whether the Oakland Raiders will have the capability to move the football and score a lot of points with their offense. Derek Carr is one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league. Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper are one of the most productive wide receiver duos in the NFL. The offensive line doesn’t get quite as much credit as it should, but it’s easily one of the three or four best units in the league. The unretired Marshawn Lynch should, at least in theory, provide some punch to the running game. No, the thing that everyone will question is whether Oakland can stop anyone from moving the football up and down the field against their defense, which finished last season giving up the seventh-most yards per game in the league last year. While the team used six of their nine draft picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on defensive players, the unit remains largely the same as the group from last year. Will the continuity, coupled with the addition of John Pagano as the Assistant Head Coach — Defense, be enough to get a serviceable performance from that side of the ball?

Less than two years removed from winning the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos now find themselves amidst a major transition in the team’s direction. Gone are surefire Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, head coach Gary Kubiak, and venerated defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. New head coach Vance Joseph seemingly has his hands full, with a team that has a bevy of talented players, but a roster that’s been slowly depleted because of free agent defections and ineffective draft classes. The team’s calling card will remain its defense, considering the team still has the best pure edge rusher in the NFL (Von Miller) and the best pair of cornerbacks in the league (Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr.), but it may not be safe to assume they’ll be just as dominant has they have been in years past, considering how many key veterans they’ve lost from that group in recent years — most recently safety TJ Ward, whom the team released just days before the 2017 roster cut down date. On offense, the team still has yet to find it’s answer at quarterback, as they’ll continue to start Trevor Siemian under center, behind an offensive line that still has plenty of questions of its own.

The Chargers, who officially moved to Los Angeles this past offseason, will also have a new head coach along with a new home town. After parting ways with Mike McCoy, they brought in Anthony Lynn — the former interim head coach of the Buffalo Bills — as the new lead man, along with Gus Bradley as the new defensive coordinator. Lynn helped guide the Bills to the top-ranked rushing offense in the NFL in 2016, which only bodes well for running back Melvin Gordon, who enjoyed a breakout season of his own last year. On defense, Bradley will oversee a defense featuring breakout edge rusher Joey Bosa — the Defensive Rookie of the Year last year (voted by his peers) — and Melvin Ingram, along with cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward (the latter of whom led the NFL in interceptions last year). With Philip Rivers under center, the return of Keenan Allen at wide receiver, and second year tight end Hunter Henry emerging as yet another red zone weapon, the Chargers could be the biggest wildcard of this division, and a darkhorse playoff contender.

FF-Winners.com’s 2017-8 AFC South Preview

There’s a reason why many people believe that the AFC South is essentially the Junior Varsity division of the NFL. All four teams have plenty of interesting young players and essential pieces needed to build a successful team, but they have even bigger questions that are hindering them from truly being among the contenders in their conference.

Perhaps no team in the NFL fits the “this team could be really good if they just had an answer at quarterback” description more than the Houston Texans. Needless to say, the $64 million gamble they took on quarterback Brock Osweiler last season turned out to be an utter catastrophe, to the point where they actually gave Cleveland a 2nd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, in exchange for the Browns taking Osweiler off the Texans’ hands. If they can even get replacement-level play from under center, courtesy of either Tom Savage or first round pick Deshaun Watson, this team has a lot of interesting pieces assembled. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most lethal wide receivers in the NFL. Lamar Miller is a very capable running back. There might not be a defense in the AFC with a better front seven than that of the Texans, and no team in the NFL has three fear-inspiring pass rushers like Houston has with Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and the return of JJ Watt. If Houston’s offense doesn’t do its job this season, the seat that head coach Bill O’Brien is currently sitting on may begin to get uncomfortably warm.

The Tennessee Titans have become one of the “trendy” picks to win the AFC South and/or make the playoffs in 2017 by the media and fans, especially given the fact that they finished the season with a 5-2 record over their last seven games, en route to a 9-7 record overall. But for all the intrigue around the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota, the “exotic smash mouth” running game featuring Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry, the bevy of pass catchers this team has assembled, and a workmanlike group of defenders on the other side of the football, this team still has a lot to prove before they’re anointed as the next up-and-comer in the NFL. Mariota has sustained season-ending injuries over each of the past two seasons. Head coach Mike Mularkey has a career head coaching record of 27-46, and has never taken a team to the postseason. Murray is a few months away from his 30th birthday, the age when running backs start to fall off the proverbial cliff. The secondary was one of the worst in the NFL last season, and while they invested in the cornerback spot via free agency (signing Logan Ryan) and the draft (taking Adoree’ Jackson from USC), it’s far from solved. So, while t wouldn’t be that big of a surprise to see the Titans usurp the AFC South crown from the Texans, it wouldn’t be any surprise if they fell surprise if Mularkey’s crew fell short of expectations either.

The darkhorse team in this division is undoubtedly the Indianapolis Colts, but the entire outlook of their season rests on the surgically-repaired shoulder of Andrew Luck. Only days away from the start of the 2017 regular season, head coach Chuck Pagano claims that he hasn’t seen Luck throw the football normally this year. Indianapolis is planning to start backup quarterback Scott Tolzien in their season opener against the Los Angeles Rams, but how long will Tolzien have to continue to play in place of Luck? That’s a question that virtually nobody in and around the team has been able to answer, and that dark cloud of uncertainty has cast a big shadow over what was otherwise a promising offseason. The Colts finally rid themselves with the general ineptitude of former General Manager Ryan Grigson, and replaced him with well-respected personnel czar Chris Ballard. In Ballard’s first draft, he took three guys who can help the perpetually beleaguered Colts defense immediately: safety Malik Hooker, cornerback Quincy Wilson, and edge rusher Tarell Basham. Running back Marlon Mack, whom the team also took in this year’s draft, presents an interesting change-of-pace option for the ageless Frank Gore as well. But as long as the cornerstone of this franchise is standing on the sidelines and not wearing a uniform, this team is still running in place.

Ironically, who continually rounds out the bottom of the AFC South — the Jacksonville Jaguars — find themselves in the same boat as the team that won this division last year. Blake Bortles was supposed to be the franchise quarterback for this team, and yet he’s turned into a quarterback version of Benjamin Button: he only gets worse with more experience. There have been plenty of headlines this offseason about Bortles’ teammates making their displeasure towards his poor caliber of play publicly known, to the point where the team seriously considered replacing him with backup quarterback Chad Henne; Henne didn’t get the job because he played equally as terrible in the preseason, during what was presumably his audition to be the starting quarterback. The mess under center overshadows what is otherwise a deceptively loaded roster. The depth this team has at both the running back (Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, and TJ Yeldon) — and wide receiver (Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, DeDe Westbrook) positions would be the envy of many teams around the league. The defensive front four has the potential to be one of the very best groups in the league. They have two Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks (Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye) and a pair of the rangiest linebackers in the NFL (Telvin Smith and Myles Jack). But the sheer incompetence this team has received from the quarterback position is the main reason they have never been able to finally emerge from the basement of this division.