Football Fantasy! Jadeveon Clowney and Chandler Jones play chess in week 13 while Jimmy Garoppolo spins his pinwheel

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The folly of picking favorites to cover large spreads, drunk Chuck Pagano and the Little Brother Bowl

Note: If you came looking for fantasy football recommendations, I don’t have anything for you. This season, Football Fantasy! here at Field Gulls will offer a recurring daydream considering the weekly football schedule from a perspective of entertaining narratives and wished-for results across the non-Seattle Seahawks landscape. Here, we welcome storylines and silliness to topple other interests from week to week as we deliver the lowdown on the rest of the league from the land of make believe. For more detailed explanation of the picks, look here.

One of the polices at Football Fantasy! is to provide a fair framework to compare the desired results which mostly go lost during the football season, like pennies at the bottoms of fountains, against some kind of reasonable standard. Outcomes organized around the gambling lines are supposed to even the deck, because Vegas determines those handicaps to approximate equally likely outcomes, but the hardest of these to predict are the widest point spreads: because there’s little in-game incentive for teams to outscore opponents by more than a touchdown and likewise slightly less motivation for losers to score specifically within that range (leading to failed fourth-down tries, say, when a field goal might reward a cover).

For this reason, for spreads of more than a touchdown I tend to side with the underdog as a rule because even though blowouts are usually as likely to occur on average as not (50.2 percent of all games featured a differential of eight or more since 2010), they’re much harder to nail down: Vegas only pegged 16.4 percent of all games for spreads that large, and the underdogs covered most of them with a record of 172-159-5 according to Pro-Football-Reference.com even though favorites are minimally ahead overall in that same period.

The ratios are even more dramatic in 2017: 56 percent of games finished with wide margins (so much for parity) and favorites are now 90-77-7 on the season (ibid.), but Vegas only plucked 28 games out of 176 total (15.9 percent) to turn out that way and was wrong 17 of those times.

In fact, week 12 included a whopping six of those big lines (that’s nearly one quarter of all such point spreads on the year), featuring handicaps of 13.5, 14 and 16.5! What’s even wackier, favorites by more than a touchdown last week actually held up, going 4-2—meaning Football Fantasy!’s “sharp picks” went 2-4 on those games. I’m not complaining, for the same probabilistic reasons I wasn’t worried about the parity fad to begin with: 4-2 is not statistically more meaningful than 3-3 or 2-4 at that sample size. But it is interesting to note how teams have covered only 11 spreads wider than eight points all year, and four of them happened last week. So if you were feeling bent out of shape by too much holiday food, you weren’t the only one.

Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys

These dishonorable franchises exist purely for the potential for misdirected historical reparation in this too-frequent matchup.

My choice: Redskins

Sharp pick: Dallas (+1.5)

Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons

I’ve been writing for a month about the vicissitudes of the late NFL season, when one week your enemy will be next week your friend—and these are the consequences of Minnesota having beaten the Los Angeles Rams back in week 11: Now the priority is hoping a team with a Wild Card tiebreaker over the Seahawks, but likely stuck in the quicksand of its challenging division, can get the best of the clear NFC North frontrunner who would best Seattle in case of division-titleist seeding.

Bonus benefits: An Atlanta win might hasten the cuddly return of Teddy Bridgewater, which could turn a successful Vikings playoff run into a movement in glory.

My choice: Falcons

Sharp pick: Minnesota (+3)

Detroit Lions at Baltimore Ravens

The Lions’ defense, which had been really stingy against the run through the first eight games (less than 90 yards per game, which would be top five), has since given up 559 yards on the ground in three contests. Looking back, the slide probably started when Haloti Ngata went on injured reserve after a loss in which Detroit allowed just 28 rushing yards to the Carolina Panthers (averaging 129 yards per game) and then surrendered 193 to the New Orleans Saints a week later. With two 200-plus yard scorchings in recent weeks, Alex Collins could end up feasting Sunday.

My choice: Lions

Sharp pick: Baltimore (-3)

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills

A rejuvenated Bills squad after the return of Tyrod Taylor last week has a wholesome opportunity to play spoiler in the AFC in December with two games against its red, blue and white rivals. But it’s really the Buffalo defense that righted itself, granting the Chiefs just 10 points which is more aligned with its top-10 performance from the first seven games of the year, before the 135-point debacle of weeks nine through 11. Sharp pass coverage in particular should keep New England low-scoring and give Ronald Darby and Micah Hyde a chance to pick off a victory at home.

My choice: Bills

Sharp pick: Buffalo (+8.5)

San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears

It’s difficult to choose between wanting to crush Jimmy Garoppolo’s skull before it grows and hoping he tricks John Lynch into trading the organization’s youth movement for a costly fifth-year project quarterback by unloading a Golden Gate’s worth of cap space or a franchise tag onto the unproven former Patriot. Remember, Garoppolo is only two years younger than Russell Wilson.

My choice: Bears

Sharp pick: San Francisco (+3)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers

With three road visits in its final four games, I don’t think the Packers have much chance at the playoffs even if Aaron Rodgers comes back for the last three—which is the soonest he is eligible. All three of those games will be against NFC teams vying for Wild Card spots for which Green Bay’s six losses may already be too many. And yet, watching the Packers implode against Tampa, or better yet the winless Browns next week, would bring so much year-end cheer. Remember:

My choice: Buccaneers

Sharp pick: Green Bay (+1.5)

Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars

This week Chuck Pagano gave a press conference that would have made Robert Irsay proud.

My choice: Jaguars

Sharp pick: Jacksonville (-9.5)

Denver Broncos at Miami Dolphins

These teams have lost a combined 12 games in a row and either one of them could have made the playoffs in this AFC with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.

My choice: Dolphins

Sharp pick: Denver (-1.5)

Kansas City Chiefs at New York Jets

As predicted, Jermaine Kearse had his best game of the season against Carolina, flying higher than 100 yards and scoring his fifth touchdown of 2017, but he’s been limited in practice this week after hurting his shoulder against the Panthers. If Kearse can’t go, Josh McCown will be short on options and New York may be inclined to rely more on Bilal Powell, who hasn’t been much a part of the offense since a surprising early October win over the Jaguars. The Chiefs are worse than all but Atlanta at defending the run, and Matt Forte looks unlikely with a knee problem of his own, so Powell may get extended opportunity to turn the air raid into biff—boff—pow.

My choice: Jets

Sharp pick: Kansas City (-3.5)

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans

Did you hear Jadeveon Clowney is substituting at inside linebacker on certain downs now? I challenged Mike Vrabel’s use of Clowney purely as an edge defender (OLB in the Texans’ 3-4 scheme) earlier in the season because he was a force replacing J.J. Watt at three- and five- technique defensive end in 2016, so it’s cool to see Vrabel getting creative again with Clowney’s talent. Look at the quickness of him slaloming off centers and guards in this clip from Monday Night Football:

My choice: Titans

Sharp pick: Houston (+7)

Cleveland Browns at Los Angeles Chargers

Since week four, when these teams shared the bottom of the AFC at 0-4, Los Angeles is 5-2 while the Browns are … well the Browns are 0-7. Anthony Lynn has the Chargers’ offense humming lately and Cleveland’s stout run defense has fallen off slightly from its former perch as the best in the league. Plus the winless Browns are also 0-4 in their last four against the spread, but I still can’t justify laying 14 points on a professional game.

My choice: Browns

Sharp pick: Cleveland (+14)

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

Are the Panthers the quietest 8-3 team in the league? I’ve been touting New Orleans for two months almost, but now Carolina is winner of four straight and I can’t ignore my own counsel and refuse to look at the schedule, which pits the Panthers against the 9-2 Vikings a week from now. It’s in the Seahawks’ interest for all these teams to collect losses, and it has to happen in the right order to count for anything. So for one week at least, you can be comfortable watching Drew Brees choose his poison at the line of scrimmage and Alvin Kamara weave through tacklers beyond it.

My choice: Saints

Sharp pick: New Orleans (-4)

Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals defense did Seattle a favor by demonstrating certain Jacksonville vulnerabilities in their upset a week ago, and have a second straight chance to do the same while hosting Los Angeles. Although it’s borderline heresy to welcome any result that doesn’t lead straight to Bruce Arians fleeing his responsibilities in Arizona, here is an example where the divisional standings take priority. Chandler Jones leads the league in sacks (12) and tackles for loss (20)—he does it mostly by himself, so it will require Jones limiting Todd Gurley’s rushes and keeping Jared Goff on the turf for Big Red to keep pace in the NFC West.

My choice: Cardinals

Sharp pick: Los Angeles (-7)

New York Giants at Oakland Raiders

The Little Brother Bowl! Did you know David Carr backed up Eli Manning on the Giants for four of his 11 NFL seasons? Manning’s departure from the lead role for New York at last opens up the job for Geno Smith—a rare fantasy come true from these pages all the way back in week 2!

My choice: Raiders

Sharp pick: New York (+9)

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals

Pittsburgh owns the Bengals, having won all but one of the last nine against its Ohio River buddies, and 61 of 96 all time—with fully 43 percent of Cincinnati’s wins in the 48-year series coming during the 1980s. So the freshest thing for this rivalry would be the return of exciting young defenses we may see blossoming on the same field Monday. The consensus will call it boring, but I applaud the persistence of rugged AFC North football.

My choice: Bengals

Sharp pick: Cincinnati (+5.5)


On the year:

My choices (straight up): 62-103 (7-8 last week)

Sharp picks (against the spread): 75-78-4 (7-8 last week)

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