NFL Picks - 12/23/2012

Last Updated: 12/23/2012 9:37 PM ET


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December 22: Predictalator Picks  
December 23: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
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For each Sunday during the NFL season, Paul Bessire thoroughly breaks down the top ATS plays. See Predictalator Picks for these games.

ATS Lock of the Week: Cincinnati +4.5 @ Pittsburgh (Covers 58.4%)

With the crucial NFC East battle between Washington and Dallas taking place next week, Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh is the most critical game between two teams with legitimate divisional and Wild Card aspirations this week. As it stands, the Bengals would be in the playoffs with the sixth seed. Looking ahead with our NFL Playoff Probability simulations, Cincinnati, which gets Baltimore at home next week, is 9.4% likely to win the AFC North and 60% likely to earn a Wild Card berth. At  10.7%, Pittsburgh is slightly more likely to win the division, yet there is a good chance that the Steelers miss the playoffs altogether as the team only wins a Wild Card spot 19.4% of the time. This game will obviously go a long way towards clarifying the AFC Playoff picture.

Right now, with the way that the teams are playing and given the health of the rosters, Cincinnati is the better team in this matchup. Given home field advantage, that does not necessarily mean that the Bengals should win the game over the Steelers, but it is incredibly close. Pittsburgh does not warrant being more than a field goal favorite in this situation (which would suggest that the Steelers are at least a point better than Cincinnati on a neutral field). 

While it is easy for the public to note the better quarterback in a matchup, the market generally misses the value of and the relative difference in the teams' pass rushes. In the last 17 consecutive games of our (20-3 ATS all-time) NFL playoff picks, we have picked the team with the better pass rush to cover. When the game slows down and every down means more, getting to the quarterback is just as important as having a quality quarterback. With Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson all healthy and playing well together right now, Cincinnati has the league's second-best pass rush and best defensive front four (the second unit that includes Robert Geathers, Pat Sims, Devon Still and Wallace Gilberry is very good as well). 

By the numbers, Cincinnati is 8-6 straight-up and 7-6-1 against-the-spread versus the easiest NFL strength-of-schedule in the league thus far. The Bengals have won five of the last six games both straight-up and against-the-spread with a defense that has helped keep five of those games under leading the way. 

For Pittsburgh, the story of an underperforming season has been injuries. The Steelers treaded water early in the year while productive starters Troy Polumalu (S), Rashard Mendenhall (RB) and James Harrison (LB), among others, healed from significant injuries. By the time those players got healthy and the team looked ready to roll, the injury bug struck again - this time to the cornerbacks, wide receivers and offensive line. Going into this game, though the three players we just mentioned should be available to play, starters Ike Taylor (CB), Emmanuel Sanders (WR), Mike Adams (OL), Willie Colon (OL) and Marcus Gilbert (OL) are all likely to miss this crucial contest (and potentially the rest of the season). Meanwhile, as if the Taylor injury had not been bad enough to the defense, the CBs that were likely to fill in - Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis - are both dealing with hip pointers (one of the tougher injuries to play through for a cornerback). The Bengals may have lost to Pittsburgh by a touchdown in Cincinnati (Week 7), but they are getting the Steelers at the right time to capitalize now.

Pittsburgh is 7-7 straight-up and 5-8-1 against-the-spread versus the fourth easiest NFL schedule of 2012. As presently constructed (i.e. with current injuries), Pittsburgh ranks 15th in our NFL Power Rankings and only ranks in the top 15 NFL teams in run defense (#5) in our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency rankings. Bengals' running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis may not have a great game, but just about everyone else on the team, especially wide receiver A.J. Green, should be in good shape against Pittsburgh. 

According to 50,000 games played, the Pittsburgh Steelers win at home over the Cincinnati Bengals just 53.6% of the time and by an average score of 21.3-20.1. As 4.5 point underdogs that lose by just a point on average, Cincinnati covers the spread 58.4% of the time. With 52.38% needed to turn a profit against -110 odds, this confidence would warrant a $63 play from a normal $50 player. The UNDER (43.5) is also playable at 53.7% and would justify a $14 play from a normal $50 player. 

Like the last two weeks discussions, this pick is not significantly stronger than others, so we are again recommending diversification for Week 16.  In fact, the separation between this top play on Sunday and the seventh strongest ATS or O/U opinion is just 2.2% in confidence (or about $20 in wager recommendations for a $50 player). It is not surprising that the lines have gotten sharper later into the season, but it is good to see that pick performance has also improved. Over the last three weeks, all sides in the NFL are 30-17 (64% ATS) and Paul's Picks are 9-3 (75% ATS).

Other ATS Top Play: Indianapolis -6.5 @ Kansas City (Covers 58.2%)

It's all "@s" in the Paul's Picks as last week's blowouts seem to have inflated the market for home teams (as well as favorites), which has led us to finding value in nine road teams (including our top eight playable ATS picks) and 14 underdogs out of 16 games on this Week 16 slate. In this rare case, the Predictalator sees value in a less than a touchdown favorite that should be able to win by a touchdown or more over one of the weakest current rosters in the NFL (the weakest overall according to our NFL Power Rankings). 

While Brady Quinn will start again for the Chiefs this week, that's not necessarily a ringing endorsement for this offense. In Quinn's six starts this season, Kansas City has scored a total of 59 points and its lone win, a 27-21 victory, came in an inspired performance the day after the tragic Jovan Belcher events (where the team committed just one, five-yard penalty and did not turn the ball over). Save for the Carolina game, the Chiefs are averaging just 6.4 points-per-game in Quinn's starts. Last week, with a deteriorating offensive line (both in actual health and on-field performance) and without Dwayne Bowe  in the lineup (who is now on Injured Reserve), Kansas City scored zero points against the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders had allowed 30.9 points-per-game in 13 2012 games before that. 

Indianapolis is 99.9% likely to make the playoffs. This game is not vital to the Colts, but they have not played exceptionally lately (or, really at all this season), so a blow out win would likely be appreciated as they head into the postseason. If the Colts are legitimately a playoff team, they should be able to win over Kansas City by a touchdown or more. On the year, Indianapolis is 9-5 straight-up and 8-6 against-the-spread versus the 30th ranked 2012 NFL strength-of-schedule. The Colts, who rank just 20th in our NFL Power Rankings only have two wins by a touchdown or more on the season. However, those have come against teams ranked 26th (Buffalo) and 31st (Jacksonville) in our NFL Power Rankings, the worst two opponents that the Colts have faced previous to this game. 

Ultimately, this is a fade of the Chiefs more than anything. Kansas City is just 2-12 SU and 5-9 ATS on the year. As less than a touchdown underdogs, the Chiefs are 2-8 ATS. The Chiefs rank among the bottom four in the league in all of our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency metrics except for run offense (#9). This is not a productive way to compete in the NFL.

In 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, Indianapolis wins over Kansas City 73.7% of the time and by an average score of 25.9-16.6. As 6.5 point favorites, the Colts cover the spread 58.2% of the time, which justifies a $61 wager from a normal $50 player. The total (42) is appropriate and not playable. 

Other ATS Top Play: Buffalo +4.5 @ Miami (Covers 57.3%)

In a Thursday night game in Buffalo on November 15, the Bills won 19-14 over Miami in a contest that the Bills led 19-7 midway through the fourth quarter and in which the home team dominated with 1.3 more yards-per-play and 97 more total yards than its opponent. Not enough has changed to the rosters or to the expected styles of play from either of these teams to expect a double-digit shift in the outcome. Even if we assume closer to a four point home field advantage than 2.5 or three points considering that the game was on a Thursday, this should still be a field goal line at most. Being destroyed by Seattle will do that to a line...

Buffalo is 5-9 SU and 6-8 ATS against the 17th ranked NFL schedule of the year. The Bills currently rank 26th in our NFL Power Rankings. They have one of the worst run defenses in the league, yet are among the best running teams in the NFL (even with Fred Jackson out - as he was the first time these teams met) and are a little bit better than average against the pass. 

Miami is 6-8 SU and 7-6-1 ATS against the NFL's 21st toughest schedule. The Dolphins started the year strong and looked like a legitimate playoff team after beating the Jets in Week 8. Since then, Miami has lost to Indianapolis, Tennessee and Buffalo (as well as New England and San Francisco). The Dolphins did somehow win over the Seattle Seahawks at home in Week 12, but that appears like more of an anomaly than otherwise. Plus, half of the team's wins have come by less than 4.5 points on the year. Looking at the matchups, Miami, our 22nd ranked overall team, has a decent chance of containing C.J. Spiller and the Bills' ground attack, yet there are no actual matchups that the Dolphins win head-to-head (aside from home field). 

According to the Predictalator, Buffalo @ Miami played 50,000 times, the Dolphins win just 54.6% of the time straight-up and by an average score of 22.6-21.0. As 4.5 point underdogs, Buffalo covers the spread 57.3% of the time, which is confident enough to recommend a $52 wager from a normal $50 player. The OVER (41.5) is barely playable.

Other ATS Top Play: Tennessee +13 @ Green Bay (Covers 57.0%)

With no Monday night games this week and no real opinion on Saturday's game, our fourth-strongest Sunday play becomes our final Paul's Pick for the week. While it rounds up to covering 57.0% of the time, this is technically our first non-"normal" Paul's Pick of the season. It's also a game which the Green Bay Packers should win handily - just not by two touchdowns or more over the Tennessee Titans. 

Yes, the Green Bay Packers are a strong team (#6 in our NFL Power Rankings), but they just clinched the NFC North division, have minimal chance of improving their NFC playoff seeding and saw their starting quarterback and 2011 NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers, slowed by an ankle injury last week. Layer in things that are a little more important to how we simulate this matchup - like the fact that teams are rarely expected to win by two touchdowns or more in the NFL and that the Packers greatest weaknesses (run defense and run offense) line up with Tennessee's greatest strengths - and this should be a closer game than the line.

By the numbers, the Packers are 10-4 straight-up and 7-6-1 against-the-spread versus the fourth toughest NFL schedule. Green Bay ranks sixth overall in our NFL Power Rankings and is in the top ten in both pass offense and pass defense, while ranking well below average in run offense and run defense efficiency (not to mention a below average kicker). On the season, the Packers have only won two games - at Houston (Week 6) and vs. Arizona (Week 9) - by more than 13 points.

Tennessee is 5-9 SU and 6-8 ATS against the 18th ranked NFL schedule. The Titans rank 23rd overall in our NFL Power Rankings, yet are  not actually a bottom ten team in the league in any of our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency rankings. Plus, the Titans are sixth in run efficiency, which could lead to a solid performance from Chris Johnson (I would say "and company" but it's pretty much just him right now). 

In 50,000 games played, the Green Bay Packers win at home over the Tennessee Titans 77.1% of the time and by an average score of 28.8-17.5. As 13 point underdogs, the Titans cover the spread 57.0% of the time, which narrowly misses the threshold for a "normal" play and would warrant a $48 play from a normal $50 player. The total (46) is unplayable. 

NFL Picks Pages:
December 22: Predictalator Picks  
December 23: Predictalator Picks  Paul's Analysis
Play Analyzer - View Updated Picks on Current Consensus Lines
Customize the Predictalator - Play the Games with Any Lines
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