NFL Picks - 1/15/2012

Last Updated: 1/18/2012 2:00 PM ET
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January 14: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
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Paul's Pick: Houston +7.5 @ Baltimore (Covers 60.1%)
It would be difficult to state that Houston is better now (without quarterback Matt Schaub - though the Texans do have wide receiver Andre Johnson back and running back Arian Foster has presumably gotten healthier than he was earlier in the season) than it was when the team lost, 29-14, at Baltimore in Week 6, but this game between two great defenses, two strong run offenses and two relatively weak passing attacks should not be played at a pace or fashion that would warrant a team to be favored by more than a touchdown. Plus, Houston was actually leading the first game, 14-13 (not all that dissimilar to what we expect out of this game), with 3:30 left in the third quarter, so a competitive game throughout is not out of the question.

Houston is currently 11-6 straight-up and has played the easiest schedule in football. The team is 12-5 against-the-spread, while the Predictalator is 14-3 ATS in the Texans' games. Houston is 3-3 SU and 4-2 ATS with T.J. Yates as its starting quarterback, but the final three regular season games came after the team had already clinched a division title (and clearly was not playing as well or as hard as it did last week or that it did in the previous weeks). With linebacker Mario Williams and Matt Schaub healthy, this team would be our AFC favorites (as they would likely have earned the top seed in the conference with that lineup). That may not mean much now, but it does speak to the strength of the other players on this roster. As currently constructed, Houston ranks as the best overall defense in the league and most efficient against the pass, while still being above average against the run. Offensively, the line is tremendous (the best in the NFL), while the running game is also very good and the passing game has proven to be adequate.

The scouting report for Baltimore is similar, though without the significant injuries (at least the injuries that will keep players from the game - the fact that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are playing banged up cannot be good for Baltimore). The team is 12-4 straight-up against the 28th most difficult 2011 NFL schedule. The Ravens won all eight games at home, yet only covered the spread in four of those. Moreover, Baltimore was a seven point or greater favorite in six games and only covered in one of those games (which did happen to be Week 6 against Houston). The Ravens rank as our fourth best team against the pass and third against the run on defense. On offense, while Ray Rice is a dynamic playmaker, the team is just 26th in passing (not much better than Houston) and 23rd in rushing efficiency (notably weaker than Houston). The only thing that Baltimore does significantly better than Houston is defend the run - which was on full display in the first matchup of these teams and makes a difference with the high frequency at which Houston runs - but the advantage is not enough to justify a spread greater than a TD, especially when Houston put up 188 yards on 35 carries (5.4 yards-per-carry) against what was at that time the third-best run defense in the league in Cincinnati.

According to 50,000 simulations by the Predictalator, Baltimore wins at home over Houston 62.6% of the time and by an average score of 19.1-14.7. As 7.5 point favorites, however, the Texans cover the spread 60.1% of the time, which would warrant an $81 play from a normal $50 player. Even with a total line that is almost two touchdowns lower than any other total this week, the UNDER (35.5) still covers slightly more often than not to be weak, but playable.

Paul's Pick: New York +8 @ Green Bay (Covers 57.8%)
Yes, we are picking all four underdogs to cover this week. In fact, three of them are "normal" picks, all with greater value than any pick last week. For a league where the popular perception is that offenses provide all of the relevant headlines and there are only three elite teams (with elite offenses), those elite teams and those teams with the offensive edges are overvalued. All four underdogs provide unique and significant challenges to their opponents that should keep them in their games and give them a strong chance to win outright. In no circumstance is the phenomenon more noticeable than in Green Bay. Last season, we picked up on the strength of the otherwise undervalued Green Bay Packers early - choosing them to win in upsets in their first two games and then as slight favorites in the conference championship and Super Bowl. Now, after that Super Bowl win and a 15-1 regular season, the Packers are getting a little too much credit.

In the first meeting between these teams in Week 13 (December 4), Green Bay won at New York 38-35 in a game that was tied with three seconds remaining and was ultimately indicative of the peripheral stats for each team. The Packers had two more total yards on 16 more plays, with one fewer turnover and 25 fewer penalty yards. Both quarterbacks, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers, attempted 40+ passes for 8.0+ yards-per-attempt and one interception and neither running game tallied more than 100 yards (though the Giants had considerable more success, 5.0 yards-per-carry to 3.2 yards-per-carry, on a per-play basis on the ground). The Giants, as is their gameplan, had eight tackles for loss and six quarterback hits, but also gave up more big plays, particularly on Aaron Rodgers scrambles to avoid pressure and either run or throw deep. These two teams were about as even as they could be on that day. It was the most impressive performance that we had seen out of the Giants all year. For the most part, New York has improved steadily since then, while the Packers, after dealing with some injuries and then getting those guys healthy, are relatively the same team they were at that point.

The Giants are 10-7 straight-up against the sixth toughest NFL schedule this season. In our up-to-date NFL Team Rankings (through Wild Card weekend), New York ranks as the fifth-best overall team and the third-best in the NFC (one spot ahead of San Francisco in both rankings). The Giants rank fourth in passing efficiency, 30th in rushing efficiency (improving from last three weeks ago), 12th against the pass (with the third-best pass rush) and 17th against the run. Aside from passing efficiency, where Eli Manning and company have consistently ranked as one of the top five teams in the league, New York has steadily improved across the board in the last three weeks (and in six of the last seven weeks - what happened against the Redskins?). This is a team that has proven it can play well against the elite teams in the league (8-3 against-the-spread in games against .500 or better teams/5-1 ATS in those same games played on the road).

The Green Bay Packers are the best team in the NFL and have the best chance to win the Super Bowl (see below). While putting up numbers that make them seem pretty dominant, it is still difficult to trust this team to win by more than a touchdown against a very good team. The Packers went 15-1, yet played just the 26th toughest schedule in the league. In their five games against teams with winning records, Green Bay only won by more than eight points (the amount needed to cover) twice. The Packers struggles defensively are not solely related to the pace at which the offense plays. Even in our strength-of-schedule and tempo-adjusted efficiency metrics, the Packers rank as a below average team against the pass (17th) and the run (26th). And offensively, the team is just league average (16th) in running. Aaron Rodgers put together the greatest all-around performance we have ever seen at the quarterback position. That should be enough to win the Packers this game (especially since the weather is supposed to be calm and cold, but not quite as cold as it generally is at Lambeau Field in mid-January), but the advantage is not enough to win by more than a touchdown against an opponent that has an emerging defense and a strong passing attack of its own.

According to 50,000 games played, the Green Bay Packers win over the New York Giants 61.0% of the time and by an average score of 32.0-27.2. As eight point underdogs, the Giants cover the spread 57.8% of the time, which is strong enough to justify a $57 play from a normal $50 player. With the two great offenses (and tame weather)in this contest, the OVER (52.5) covers 59.0% of the time, which is also "normal" like the side.

NFL Playoffs
The Predictalator uses current rosters and strength-of-schedule-adjusted team and player stats to play, one play at a time, the NFL Playoffs bracket 50,000 times before it's actually played. For this analysis, we are tracking how likely a team is to make it to any level of the NFL Playoffs. The rest of the NFL Playoffs are played all the way through individually, with the team that wins each game in that instance advancing. The percentages in the table below represent the team's likelihood of advancing to that round.

The Green Bay Packers are still our favorites to win the Super Bowl, though, with strong teams in the conference still around (and looking even stronger than expected), the team's Super Bowl chances have slipped slightly from winning 23.7% of the time to winning 22.9% of the time (had all favorites won last week, than number would have gone down even more). Green Bay, which will get two home games before the Super Bowl if they keep winning, are followed in the conference by the third seeded New Orleans Saints, who we are projecting to win the Super Bowl (15.9%) almost twice as often as the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers (8.7%). New Orleans ranks as the fourth-most likely Super Bowl champion overall and could have jumped up higher had Denver not won over Pittsburgh and the path been more difficult for the AFC's top two seeds. The remaining NFC playoff participant, the New York Giants, who dominated the Atlanta Falcons in last week's 24-2 victory, rank just behind the 49ers with an 8.1% chance to win the Super Bowl. The Packers still win the Super Bowl more than Denver, the New York Giants and Houston combined. Overall, with the loss by Pittsburgh, a potential AFC favorite had the team won (and no upsets within the NFC thus far), the NFC is now 55.6% likely to win the Super Bowl, which is up from 51.3% last week. Green Bay, New Orleans and New York are currently at least 50% likely to win the Super Bowl if they get there. At this point, no AFC team is greater than 50% likely to win the Super Bowl if it gets there.

There is a change atop the AFC ranks due to an upset last week that prevents what would have likely been a predicted "upset" this week. The best AFC team with respect to its likelihood to win the Super Bowl is now the New England Patriots, which win it all 18.9% of the time, the second-highest total overall. Getting to play Denver this week is a much easier draw than Pittsburgh would have been, accounting for that shift. The Patriots are closely followed by the Baltimore Ravens at 15.8% - almost identical to their chances going into last week. The Houston Texans face a tough road, literally, with two likely road games against formidable opponents very likely standing in the team's way before the Super Bowl (a Denver @ Houston AFC Championship Game is only 8.1% likely), yet still win the Super Bowl 7.5% of the time. Denver which was a 3:1 underdog in our numbers last week, tripled its likelihood to make and win the Super Bowl with the Broncos win over the Steelers. Still, the Broncos only have a 1.4% chance to win it all. Either New England or Baltimore represents the AFC in the Super Bowl 76.7% of the time.

Interesting Super Bowl matchups and their relative likelihoods include: Most Likely - New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers occurs 15.9%, All-Harbaugh - Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers occurs 6.7%, Highest-Scoring - New England Patriots vs. New Orleans Saints occurs 11.2%, Lowest-Scoring/Western Teams - Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers occurs 1.0%, East Coast Showdown/2008 Rematch - New England Patriots - New York Giants occurs 6.6%, Least Likely - Denver Broncos vs. New York Giants occurs 398 of 50,000 times.

NFL Playoff Odds (based on rest of 2012 NFL Playoffs played 50,000 times)

Team Super Bowl Super Bowl Win
Green Bay Packers 38.1% 22.9%
New England Patriots 41.8% 18.9%
New Orleans Saints 26.8% 15.9%
Baltimore Ravens 34.9% 15.8%
San Francisco 49ers 19.2% 8.7%
New York Giants 15.9% 8.1%
Houston Texans 18.3% 7.5%
Denver Broncos 5.0% 1.6%
NFL Picks Pages:
January 14: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
January 15: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
Customize the Predictalator - Play the Games with Any Lines
Buy Picks