Before diving into some of my favorite NFL season predictions and wagers, I should briefly discuss a couple stat measures that will pop up a few times below. A lot of Vegas pros like to use yards per play as a metric in determining actual performance on the field versus just points for and against. I’ve used that metric a lot over the last few years and it has been helpful in weeding out some of the contenders and pretenders in the NFL. Another metric I started to look at recently which is pretty similar to yards per play is first downs per play, where you can find thanks to the great website at http://www.teamrankings.com. Both are highly correlated to win percentage- yds/play (73.1% since 2006) but first downs per play is slightly more correlated (74.5% since 2006). It’s an ever so subtle difference in measurement but it does eliminate “cheap” yards after penalties and doesn’t punish offenses who get short fields to work with and attempt more goal line plays than normal. Remember, teams get credited with a first down on a touchdown, no matter how short the score. So in a goal line situation teams can score a touchdown and be negatively affected on a yards per play basis but get rewarded in a first down per play metric when they can punch it in. Offenses should be rewarded and not punished for goal line opportunities. Of course the same applies defensively and a defense could be a bend but don’t break defense and allow big yards but not allow touchdowns which would help their defensive first downs per play stats. After anaylzing the data since 2006, I was able to create a uniform distribution of win expectations based on historical first downs per play team statistics. I took that data and teams that underperformed their win % expecatations by multiple games typically improved the following season and vice versa. For example, for those teams that underperformed their win expectations by at least 1 gm (36 teams since 2006), 30 increased their win totals the following season (83%). Those 30 teams increased their Ws by avg of 2.26 games the following season. Two such teams that underperformed their win expectations lead my favorite Over bets this season.
Favorite Over/Under Win Wagers:
1. Carolina Panthers Over 7 (-170): The Panthers were everyone’s darlings in the preseason last year. They were expected to take it to the next level but Cam Newton seemed to have read his own clippings a bit too much and they really struggled early in the season. Cam’s season splits were pretty divergent:
First 8 gms: (2-6 team record), 57%, 6 td, 8 int, 1701 yds, 51 rush 310 yds.
Final 8 gms (5-3 team record), 58%, 13 td, 4 int, 2168 yds, 76 rush 431 yds
His yards per attempt were pretty steady throughout the year but as you can see above his caretaking with the football saw a dramatic reversal and it isn’t a surprise Carolina’s record improved accordingly. I think in his 3rd year this is the time Cam develops into an MVP candidate. And when you look at that schedule yes the NFC South is probably the toughest in the league but he goes against really bad pass defenses in New Orleans and Atlanta 4 times along with a fairly soft out of conference schedule including the weak AFC East. I would’ve liked to have seen Carolina add another weapon on the outside to assist Steve Smith but for now Brandon LaFell and the potential sleepers in Domenik Hixon and David Gettis can step up. I think they have enough in the run game with one of Deangelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart along with a sleeper in rookie Kenjon Barner, who can slide into 3rd down situations with the read option and catching passes out of the backfield as he did at Oregon. Defensively, I loved their first round draft pick in Star Lotulelei and he should be able to step in and cause havoc inside. The linebackers are really solid but the biggest question mark is still in the secondary.
If you look at the 2012 stats for the Panthers you will see a disconnect between performance and win outcome. Carolina finished 7th in offensive yds/play, 14th in defensive yds/play but 5th in overall net yds/play in the NFL. Those are playoff team figures in a normal year and for a team that only won 7 games the Panthers underachieved based on those stats. Only two teams in the top 11 in net yds/play failed to make the playoffs- Carolina and Pittsburgh. In terms of first downs per play, Carolina underperformed their win expectations by 1.06 games. They fall into the underperforming category I mentioned in the introduction and a 2+ win jump is not out of the question. A big reason for why Carolina didn’t win as many games as their statistcal output suggests is their 1-7 record in one score games. Just assuming a semi regression towards the mean and they go somehing like 3-4 in one score games, 9 wins is within reach. I have Carolina going 9-7 and competing for a wildcard birth and if Cam makes the big leap I expect, they could win the NFC South and have a shot at a deep playoff run. Remember too that since 2002 the NFC South has not seen back to back division champs. Fyi, I also took a small wager of 33-1 for Carolina to win the NFC.
2. Detroit Lions Over 8 (-125): Detroit finished 7th in net first downs/play, ahead of playoff teams such as Houston, Seattle, Washington and Baltimore. In fact nobody outside of Detroit in the top 12 had a losing record and the Lions only had 4 wins!! The Lions terribly underperformed versus their win % expectation by 5.2 games. Since 2006, 88% of teams that have underperformed their win expectation by at least 2 games have increased their win total the next season an average of 3 games the following season. Since 2006, at least one team that underperformed their win expectations by at least 2 games has made the playoffs the following season. The only teams that fit that criterion this season are Detroit, Kansas City and Philadelphia.
So why did this occur for the Lions last season? Well, outside of bad luck, the biggest reasons would be that they ranked 30th in the NFL in turnover margin at -1 per game and ranked dead last in opponent’s non offensive touchdowns per game (special teams and opponents defensive tds). If the Lions tighten up both the turnover margin and special team’s defense, they should be able to win many more games than last season. Also count me in as one of the people who loves the addition of Reggie Bush to the already explosive offense. If you’ve watched the Lions you know that Matt Stafford absolutely loves dumping the ball off to his running backs especially when defenses sit back in coverage rotating to defend Calvin Johnson. Stafford threw a pretty astonishing 133 times to their three top running backs (Leshoure, Bell, Smith). Detroit often uses the short passing game as a substitute for a lack of a running game. I expect a monster season out of Bush and it wouldn’t shock me if he returned to a similar pass game role as he had in New Orleans where he was targeted 403 times in 60 games (6.7/game). Add in the fact that Bush proved he could run in between the tackles with at least moderate effectiveness in Miami (4.7 ypc) and he adds a dimension the Lions haven’t had in the Stafford era that should make Detroit a serious offensive juggernaut. The defensive side of the ball is still a question mark although the Lions still have an excellent front four and hoepfully FA signing of Grover Quinn can at least settle down the secondary to adequate levels. Detroit’s schedule isn’t necessarily a cake walk but the good news is that their toughest games take place at home when you consider Green Bay, Baltimore, New York Giants, Dallas and Chicago all are home games.
3. Baltimore Ravens Under 8.5 (-105): The personnel turnover, especially on the defensive side of the ball for Baltimore, is well documented so I won’t touch too much on that. The talent loss itself from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed isn’t really an issue as both were over the hill but I really think the loss in the locker room will be felt more than most expect. Offensively it was bad enough to lose Anquan Boldin but when Dennis Pita went down that really hurt the Ravens. Pita was turning into a top 5-7 TE in the NFL and was expected to be a top target of Joe Flacco. Instead they’ll have to rely on the two headed monster of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Torrey Smith will have to step into the #1 WR role and I don’t believe he is good enough for that. Add in the fact that they are bare when it comes to any other reliable WR options and this offense will really struggle in a tough AFC North. Remember, even at full strength last season they were one 4th and 23 away against SD from not even making the playoffs let alone winning the Superbowl. They were a fairly mediocre regular season team and Flacco wasn’t anything special until he turned in a spectacular playoff performance. The Ravens only ranked 16th in net first downs/play and didn’t distinguish themselves at all. They finished 5th best in turnover margin where they recovered an extremely high rate of their offensive fumbles and recovered a high rate (6th best) of their opponents’ fumbles. As talked about here by Bill Barnwell at Grantland (http://www.grantland.com/blog/the-triangle/post/_/id/39547/the-hidden-factors-for-winning-in-the-nfl) recovering a high rate of fumbles is random and typically reverses itself the following season. Baltimore also faces a tough schedule even outside the difficult AFC North. I have them as underdogs in 7 games on their schedule and only slight favorites (<3.5) in games at home against Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati and on the road at Miami and Cleveland. I really think you add it up and this is a season where Baltimore regresses a bit and becomes a 7-9 type of team.
Others that I consider “half plays”:
STL Over 7.5 (-130)- Offense still suspect but there’s potential to improve significantly with Tavon Austin and speedy back Darryl Richardson to go with an improved offensive line with new LT Jake Long. Rams have the most underrated defense in the NFL with an excellent front 7 and playmaking cornerbacks.
Oakland Under 5.5 (-135): A horrible roster and a suspect situation at QB with Matt Flynn spells doom for the Raiders. Their offensive line was horrific last year and just got much worse with the recent loss of their LT. Respected football analyst Evan Silva (great twitter follow) called the Raiders the worst roster he has ever seen. I count a minimum of five games where they could be double digit underdogs. This is a 3-13 team.
Atlanta Under 10 (-145): Good talent of course at the skill position for the Falcons but their offensive line struggled last season and should do so again this year. They simply can’t run block well enough for even a veteran like Steven Jackson to succeed. Also relying on another All-Pro type performance out of Tony Gonzalez yet again is a lot to ask for, especially considering he wanted to retire in the offseason. Atlanta’s defense was very mediocre last year and is going to struggle yet again as they didn’t make any major upgrades at LB and the secondary only added a rookie in Desmond Trufant. Vegas sharps really dislike the Falcons since as they completely outperformed their stats. This was a team that actually had a negative net yds/play output (ranked 26th in defensive yds/play) yet won their division and was undefeated for a decent portion of the season. Considering the tough NFC South, their o-line issues and mediocre defense I believe it will be tough get to double digit wins yet again.
Dallas 25-1: Enough talent to win it all, especially if Dez Bryant continues his torrid 2nd half to last season and Miles Austin is healthy. The addition of a rookie WR that I like out of Baylor, Terrance Williams, could provide a very nice 4th option in the passing game with veteran Jason Witten at TE. After being the pre season fantasy RB darling in 2012, Demarco Murray has all of the sudden become undervalued in my opinion this season. While it’s tough to expect 16 full games out of him, I think 13 starts would be acceptable and should put up better numbers this year with an improved interior of the offensive line led by rookie 1st round pick Travis Frederick. I finally expect Tony Romo to get the playoff monkey off his back and propel Dallas into and thru the playoffs. The defense is good enough but let’s be honest, getting hot at the right time is all teams need to get to the Superbowl and the Cowboys have the capability to do so.
• Most Rushing Yards:
CJ Spiller 20-1
Chris Ivory 100-1
Both of these guys will get the full load of carries for their respective teams. Spiller after being shackled under Chan Gailey will finally be the go to guy instead of just a change of pace back. New head coach Doug Marone has publicly stated that they are going to feed him “until he pukes”. This bodes well for his potential to lead the NFL in rushing especially considering he has averaged 5.7 yards per carry in 314 carries the last two seasons. Whatever you think of EJ Manuel as a passing QB, he does have excellent running skills and out of the shotgun, Manuel will be a threat to take off. This will add just another dimension for defenses to worry about and potentially open up even more lanes for Spiller who I consider this generation’s Marshall Faulk. Chris Ivory will also be the number one running back on the Jets and he too brings a gaudy 4.9 yards per carry average the last two seasons, albeit in a much smaller sample size of only 119 carries with New Orleans. It will be interesting to see if he can continue his impressive statistical output as he did in limited action with the Saints. He has received double digit carries 12 times in his career posting very impressive numbers- 177 carries for 947 yards, a 5.3 yards per carry output. And we all know Rex Ryan loves his “ground and pound” style of football and will definitely make Ivory a workhorse if he’s effective. As bad as Shonn Greene is as a running back, he did get 17.3 carries per game last season. For a guy who could only muster a measly 3.8 yds per attempt, Rex had no trouble continuing to give him the ball. As long as Ivory can stay healthy (a big if), 100-1 is tremendous value to win the rush title based on his skill and opportunities in that offense.
• Defensive ROY: Tyran Mathieu 15-1I don’t have a lot to say about this selection. We all know the Honey Badger is a playmaker and if he keeps himself clean off the field, there’s little doubt those skills will be able to translate in the NFL. And don’t be fooled, voters for defensive ROY won’t care if he struggles as a shutdown corner or pass defender as a Safety as long as he creates enough turnovers and potential defensive touchdowns to be impactful enough to win this award.
• AFC Surprise Team that Nobody Expects: Buffalo BillsI really went back and forth here between the Bills and Chiefs as the AFC surprise team but since most of the football prognosticators seem to have a love affair with KC as the biggest potential surprise team they really don’t qualify anymore. So instead I’ll take a shot in the dark with Buffalo. Let me first say that I didn’t necessarily love the draft choice of EJ Manuel in round 1 (thought he was a perfect round 2 value) but I think in this scheme and with an explosive runner like CJ Spiller, Manuel has the chance to really show some good things in his rookie year. Outside of the talent question with Manuel, by all accounts leading up to the draft and in training camp, he seems to be a really good team leader and the veterans respect him in the huddle. I think Buffalo at the very least will be a fun offensive team with the up-tempo offense they are expected to incorporate with the skill position players they have assembled. I am also a big fan of their 2nd round selection in WR Robert Woods. He went from a top 10 pick as a Junior to a 2nd round selection after his Senior season mainly due to a “lack of speed” and being overshadowed at USC by Marquise Lee. I think he will be a fine pro and starting out as a #2 WR could be a fantasy sleeper alongside Stevie Johnson. Toss in the speed demon returning kickoffs in Marquise Goodwin out of Texas and that adds yet another dimension and could create much shorter fields for that offense. The biggest issue with the Bills will be another poor defense. They do have a really nice secondary with budding star in Stephon Gilmore and Jarius Byrd along with the potential for a strong front 4 (or 3 at least) with Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus and Mario Williams. Their linebackers are atrocious and are relying on rookie LB Kiko Alonso to make a ton of tackles and be the quarterback of the defense. At bare minimum, the Bills will be in a bunch of shootouts but with a weak AFC East schedule and very winnable games against the Browns, Jaguars and Chiefs, the Bills could easily get to 8 wins and possibly compete for a wildcard.
• Playoff Predictions:
AFC: New England, Cincinnati, Houston, Denver, KC, Pittsburgh
o NFC: Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina
o AFC Title Game: Cincinnati vs. Denver
o NFC Title Game: Dallas vs. Seattle
o Superbowl: Denver over Dallas
Browns Record: As a lifelong Browns fan I’m obligated to predict their record. And I feel like I am centered enough that I don’t ever let my fandom dictate my predictions and expectations for the Browns. A couple of things on their side when you consider the 2012 season. The Browns unperformed their win expectation by 1.2 games based on the Pythagorean Theorem (Barnwell does a nice job explaining the Theorem here http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8284393/breaking-best-nfl-stats). The Browns struggled in close games going 3-5 in games decided by 7 points or less. If anyone watched those games some of the struggle had to do with being a young team but a lot also had to do with pretty awful coaching from Pat Sherman. Any new head coach is probably worth 1 win alone let alone the additions of the top coordinator combo in Norv Turner and Ray Horton, although it’s a good thing Norv is not involved in clock management. I love the defensive upgrades by the Browns and think the offense will be just good enough to win 7 games.
• Early Season Betting Notes:
o I believe in Chip Kelly’s offensive system and think that at bare minimum should do well early in the season before teams will be able to adjust. Considering that, along with the fact that Philadelphia still has tons of offensive talent, I will most likely be taking the Eagles ATS early in the season. Also, with Chip’s offense running the up-tempo Oregon style offense, as well as a suspect defense, taking the over early in Eagles’ season may be a good wager as well.
o Whether or not you agree with me that Buffalo will be improved, at a minimum their games will be high scoring enough to test the over in their early season schedule.
o I love the competitiveness of the NFC as there is very little separating many of these teams. I’ll go on record as saying that if you blindly bet all underdogs ATS in head to head NFC team games you will come out ahead. Home dogs especially in the NFC looks to be a good bet in my opinion.
• Fantasy Tid Bits and Predictions That are Sure to be Incorrect:
o Most people use 2012 stats to rank 2013 fantasy players. Problem is historically there is very little correlation between the two, especially at RB where there is >50% turnover in the top 10 and rookies almost annually make an appearance but are completely under drafted. Here is my best stab at RBs who will have a chance to finish in the top 10 at season’s end who are currently ranked outside the top 10: Chris Ivory, Leveon Bell, Monte Ball, Lamar Miller, Demarco Murray, MJD.
o Two major WR bounce backs this season- Larry Fitzgerald and Dwayne Bowe. Both will finish in the top 10 at the end of the season.
o Stefan Taylor will eventually be the full time RB for Arizona. Rashard Mendenhall stinks and Taylor has played in a pro offense the last two seasons at Stanford. He can already pass protect.
o Dez Bryant takes over for Megatron as the #1 fantasy WR
o Lemichael James becomes Darren Sproles 2.0 and catches 60+ balls for SF
o One of Russell Wilson and Colin Kapernick disappoints this season and finishes outside the top 15 QBs.
o EJ Manuel will not get drafted in many leagues but quickly becomes the #1 FA pickup after a big week 1 debut vs. NE with big garbage time stats. Personally I think he’s an excellent sleeper as a backup QB with so many surefire top 10 QBs.
o Finally healthy for a full season Antonio Gates once again becomes a top 3 TE and Rob Housler is the top TW sleeper as this year’s Brandon Myers, catching a bunch of garbage time passes from Carson Palmer.
o One of CJ Spiller or Lesean McCoy ends up as the #1 fantasy RB this season and is preseason #1 next year.
o Last year I pegged Seattle as my biggest fantasy defensive sleeper. Essentially they won me a fantasy title. This year I’m going with the same division but different team- St. Louis Rams. Ferocious front seven that includes four #1 draft picks plus James Laurinaitis and a secondary with excellent corners in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins.