Weekend Football Review (9/19/11)

By Paul Bessire

Monday, September 19 at 11:45 PM ET
I will always recap each football weekend (usually on Mondays - though there will be no blog on Monday, October 3 and may not be any blog that week due to travel and additional content schedule related to the MLB Playoffs). It is very important to us to be transparent and honest about our picks. At this point, through Monday, Paul's Picks, which include the top three ATS plays Saturday and Sunday as well as the top weekday college against-the-spread (ATS) plays and the Monday Night play, are 14-5 ATS (74%) to start the season, the ATS Top Plays of the Day, the strongest opinion ATS each day overall in football are 9-4 ATS (69%) and the "Locks of the Week" are 3-1 ATS (75%, note Baltimore -6 was our first football Lock of the Week loss since Week 17 in the NFL, a string of eight Locks without a loss). Including last season, this brings our all-time record during football to 112-68 ATS (62%) for Paul's Picks, 82-40 ATS (67%) in ATS Top Plays of the Day and 31-13 ATS (70%) for Locks of the week. Of the four Paul's Picks losses, three were decided (against-the-number) in the final minute (technically, final 1:30), so it seems some of the tough luck we had from previous weeks (Michigan, West Virginia, Oklahoma-Tulsa and Miami in Week 1, Utah, Hawaii and Michigan State-FAU in Week 2, etc.) has spilled into the Paul's Picks. Even with the even Paul's Picks 4-4 ATS record, it should have been a solid week for most of our subscribers as most of the lines that moved in our favor and were highlighted by the Play Analyzer performed well, especially in the NFL. We'll dive deeper into those records, performance with our other picks thus far, best and worst of the weekend in college and the NFL. Please review last week's blog to see thorough commentary on money management, managing expectations, leveraging previous blogs and making the most out of the Play Analyzer (which now includes the ability to sort and will soon include, initial sort, the Paul's Picks icon and Exporting to CSV).

As a reminder, soon after the last game of each day, we make all of our subscriber content available for free for registered users. We're never going to hide anything. So even though we have to swap out articles in the archive to focus on new ones, articles never go away. Just make sure to use the correct week and date in the URL - or ask us for the link...

The Football Numbers:
Here are our win/loss stats from Week 3 in College Football and NFL Week 2 using playable picks (53%+ to cover) from our published articles (Play Analyzer/Customizable Predictalator plays appear to have provided even better results and stronger plays, especially in the NFL, where New Orleans -5 was the top ATS play on Sunday morning, covering 64% of the time):

  • All Playable Games ATS: 55% (24-20)
  • All Playable Games O/U: 57% (25-19)
  • Paul's Picks ATS: 50% (4-4)
  • Lock of the Week: 50% (1-1)
  • ATS Top Plays of the Day: 60% (3-2)
  • Picks that Cover 60%+: 60% (6-4)
  • Normal+ Picks (57%+): 50% (16-16)

And here are the combined numbers for the season thus far:

  • All Playable Games ATS: 55% (59-49)
  • All Playable Games O/U: 55% (61-50)
  • Paul's Picks ATS: 74% (14-5)
  • Lock of the Week: 75% (3-1)
  • ATS Top Plays of the Day: 69% (9-4)
  • Picks that Cover 60%+: 64% (14-8)
  • Normal+ Picks (57%+): 52% (43-40)

College Best and Worst:

Best Wins: Our first installment of the Best and Worst weekly recap starts with an easy win by one of the best teams in college football. In today's updated College Football Team Rankings, Stanford has moved up to number three in our Power Rankings and is home to a top-three defense (even without linebacker Shayne Skov, who may be out for the year with a leg injury) and the most efficient passing offense in the country (with tight end Coby Fleener and wide receiver Chris Owusu, who were also banged-up this weekend, yet should not be seriously affected by those injuries). This team is not all Andrew Luck. Against Arizona, in the last scheduled game on Saturday night (Oklahoma State-Tulsa started three hours late due to weather), the Cardinal defense held the Wildcats to just 3.7 yards-per-play, while the offense got 153 rushing yards out of junior running back Stepfan Taylor in addition to Luck's 325 yards passing en route to the easy 37-10 victory. In a time when Oregon is still dominating headlines with its speed and ability to spread the field, Stanford is the most physical and best team in the Pac-12. Stanford was already our favorite to cover a 9.5-point line (which dipped to nine and even 8.5 in some places before kickoff) by a score of 37-20, so this performance in which the Cardinal scored the final 24 points of the game and shut out the Wildcats in the second half ultimately exceeded our expectations. It was a great way to cap off the night. After taking back-to-back elite road teams against 9.5-point lines (Alabama was our Lock of the Week at Penn State), it will be interesting to see if the linemakers undervalues the elite teams going forward.

Elsewhere... West Virginia, our 14th best team in the nation and clear Big East favorite despite USF's strong play and the Mountaineers upcoming matchup with LSU, is better than Maryland regardless of the Terrapins suspensions, homefield advantage and late comeback. By Saturday morning, after the news of suspensions to Maryland's top-two receivers, West Virginia was favored, but we believe they should have been all along. I'm not necessarily a fan of Dana Holgorsen the person or even the head coach (rather than simply an offensive coordinator), but he seems to get the most out of his offenses, especially at quarterback with previous pupils like Graham Harrell, Case Keenum and Brandon Weeden. He calls current West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith "perfect" for this system and he may be right. If Smith can put up big numbers against the LSU Tigers this Saturday, we may be calling him a Heisman winner in December... I know it's Vanderbilt, which had not been favored in SEC play since September 9, 2009 (against Mississippi State where Vanderilt was an 8.5-point favorite at home and lost by 12), but it was still very surprising to see the Commodores as underdogs at home against Mississippi. Vandy's defense is good and the offense is good enough. That was a strong SU, ATS and O/U win for us as the ATS and O/U plays were both amongst our top 15 overall college plays for the week when published Wednesday and re-run using the Play Analyzer on Saturday morning... Florida has figured things out surprisingly quickly under Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis. Tennessee is not terrible, but that was such a tough spot to be in for such a young team. The Volunteers could easily be our favorite to win the SEC East in 2012, Tyler Bray's junior season... I may have to back down a little from the comment last week that Toledo is the best MAC team. Ohio looks pretty good too. Marshall does not... Wisconsin has had a tough time in the past several seasons covering against non-conference opponents. That may have worked in our favor as the Badgers, a top-five team now in our rankings, destroyed Northern Illinois at Soldier Field... What happened to BYU? Fortunately, we've adapted quickly and were strongly favoring Utah to cover, but, with ten starters back on offense including a highly-touted quarterback in Jake Heaps, this Cougars team looked primed for a big year - not so much... Notre Dame has remained in our top-20 throughout the regular and preseason... We got lucky with the late Washington cover against Nebraska. But, with as strong a play as we had against Washington last week and with this only being a weak play, the Huskies still owe us. Washington's offense is looking much better than expected without Jake Locker. The defense is still not good... Go Pokes! We didn't have an opinion ATS (a lot of people were on Bowling Green), but at least I get that line. With two fast-paced, spread offenses that had averaged 42.5 points-per-game on offense going into Saturday, I'm still not sure how Wyoming @ Bowling Green was only expected to reach 50.5 points. We may have been lucky to cover that (though it would have gone way over had the extra point been good), but that line was still surprising. We weren't the only ones surprised - the line moved four points (to 54.5) by kickoff... The most fulfilling wins for me came at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati where I watched the Bearcats not only cover the spread (-33.5 on Saturday morning), they single-handedly covered the OVER (56.5 when published and on Saturday morning) with a 59-14 (59-0 before my wife and I hit up the adjoining Catskeller bar - a great beer bar and one of the best on-campus bars I've seen - to catch the Tennessee-Florida, Michigan State-Notre Dame and Washington Nebraska games, all ATS wins as well). UC had seven less total yards of offense than Akron, yet had three defensive touchdowns in the rout... Our best ATS weekday play was very unlucky to lose, but we actually got very lucky to win our best overall weekday play - Iowa State @ UCONN UNDER (44.5) - when neither team scored in the final nine minutes of play... UAB is horrible...

Toughest Losses: Arizona State, a "sleeper" top-20 team in our Power Rankings throughout the first two weeks and preseason, out-gained Illinois in Champaign by 122 yards and the teams were even in turnover margin. That's usually a recipe for a win, but the Sun Devils' turnovers were poorly-timed, penalties were again an issue for the team and ASU missed a 32-yard field goal. Interestingly, what was a +1.5 line for Arizona State actually became +3 by the 7:00 PM ET start time, which strengthened the pick, but also resulted in a push. I have a hard time definitively saying that Arizona State is not as good as Illinois, but I can easily admit that we have not been as high on the Illini as we should have been... Technically, it's right to lead with the strongest Paul's Pick/published pick that lost, but the toughest loss for most on Saturday was likely Northwestern @ Army. The Wildcats were nine-point favorites on Wednesday night with speculation that Dan Persa may play at quarterback for the team. We had Northwestern (without Persa in our simulations) as 57.5% likely to cover that line, our weakest normal+ pick (57%+) of the week. By kickoff, Northwestern was anywhere between a four and six point favorite, making the play one of the strongest (potentially the strongest depending on the Stanford line at the same time) of the week in college football. We had been right with backup quarterback Kain Colter at Boston College and, while Army had also handed us our only Paul's Pick loss before this week, we still felt confident about that play. Colter came out flat and Army, despite completing just ONE pass, won the game outright. We champion the Play Analyzer and, on the whole, it seemed to be a success this weekend (most notably in the NFL), yet this loss stung to those who were (rightfully) using and following the Play Analyzer's recommendations. Again, it's very difficult to say that Army is definitively the better team than Northwestern, but, at home, the Black Knights were able to hand us our second consecutive top loss of the weekend.

Toledo (+20) against Boise State was our other Paul's Pick loss of the week. Even though it was not quite strong enough to be considered "normal" or better (the play covered 56.5% of the time), it was still our best college ATS play from Thursday or Friday. Between Arizona State and Toledo, our Paul's Picks college losses gave up the ball three times within the opponent 15-yard line. Those plays lost by a total of 5.5 points. While it was the turnovers that most hurt the Rockets' chances of winning or covering (warning: first big rant of the season coming...), it was an absolutely ridiculous coaching decisions that ultimately cost us the play. Down 24 points with 4:33 left in the game, Toledo scored a touchdown to pull within 18 points pending the two-point conversion attempt. Wait, no two-point conversion attempt? Before the touchdown, Toledo was down three possessions to Boise State. By attempting an extra point (whether it's good or not) instead of a two-point conversion, Toledo was guaranteed of still being down three possessions. That head-scratching decision seemed to imply that head coach Tim Beckman and Toledo were giving up since they were still down by as many possessions as they were before the TD and did not try to change that. On the ensuing kickoff though, the Rockets attempted an onside kick. They gave up and then pretended they had not given up to save face in front of the home crowd. With the ball on the Toledo 43 yard-line, Boise State ran six consecutive times to get in the endzone and go up 40-15 with 1:30 left to play. Had the kickoff been a normal kickoff, it likely would have taken more than 1:30 off the clock to travel the extra 37 yards or so the Broncos would have needed to go. Instead, a garbage TD from Boise State gave the Broncos a cover and us a frustrating loss... What in the name of Case Keenum? There is a reason we added logic to return less confidence in games between less consistent teams (from weaker conferences) than in other games (generally between BCS-AQ schools). Last year we would have been 12-2 (instead of 10-4) with our Locks of the Week under the new engine and we would have eluded other big plays like this which very likely would have been a Paul's Pick. We are still as confident as we publish and always hope to be, but teams like Houston, Colorado State and Hawaii are clearly more susceptible to "off-days" than more talented and consistent teams (like Alabama and Stanford, etc.)... So if FIU can beat UCF and Louisville and Louisville and UCF can beat Kentucky and Boston College, how good is FIU? How bad are all of those other teams? We had FIU winning the Sun Belt, but Louisville and UCF are still much better than most Sun Belt teams. Credit must be given to Golden Panthers' (that's FIU's mascot) Mario Cristobal for turning the young program around so quickly... Of course, if you play the "if Team A beat Team B game" (not one I necessarily subscribe to), things will get interesting if Sacramento State, which beat the Pac-12's Oregon State, continues to lose to schools like Weber State that got beat up by FBS teams. In other words, Wyoming clearly belongs in the Pac-12 (or Pac-64 or whatever it's going to be)... It looks like Texas (finally) made the right choice by moving away from Garrett Gilbert at quarterback. The Longhorns have a ridiculous amount of talent and could be scary good if their young, inexperienced players evolve quicker than anticipated...

Week 4's Most Interesting Games: NC State @ Cincinnati (Thurs. No, I will not be at that one; I've got work to do - for you - on Thursdays), UCF @ BYU (Friday), San Diego State @ Michigan, UNC @ Georgia Tech, Temple @ Maryland, Arkansas @ Alabama, Oklahoma State @ Texas A&M, Colorado @ Ohio State, Kansas State @ Miami (FL), Vanderbilt @ South Carolina, Missouri @ Oklahoma, LSU @ West Virginia and USC @ Arizona State

NFL Best and Worst:

Best Wins: I've been saying that Houston looks like New England light, but they may have the better defense of those two teams. Either way, the Texans are a legitimate threat to get to 11 or 12 wins and are significantly better than Miami. It was not quite the shootout that we expected it to be, but it was tough to see Ben Tate and Daniel Thomas stealing the show in that game. Fantasy football-wise, it will be surprising if either flirts with 100+ rushing yards every game, but, with Arian Foster's lingering injury, it looks like Tate is actually the better own/pick-up than Thomas... We've been teasing the strong day in the NFL from the Play Analyzer so I need to expand the mention of New Orleans (-5) in the opening NFL paragraph. On Sunday morning, our best overall NFL play of the day, even better than Baltimore (-5.5), was the Saints as five-point favorites, which covered about 64% of the time (warranting a $121 play from a $50 player). The extra point and a half did not matter, fortunately, as the Saints rolled over the Bears 30-13. With an offense that spreads the ball around and is incredibly fast, the Saints possess one of the better homefield advantages in the league. The Bears' defense is good, but they lack the explosiveness on offense to compete with teams like the Saints (maybe that's why Soldier Field is in in such tough shape - it's the anti-turf in a dome strategy).

In all, according to the Play Analyzer snapshot we took for consensus lines at 12:30 pm ET on Sunday, we hit five of the top seven sides (a reasonable number of daily plays as we discussed last week), which returned +$269 for a $50 player. This included New Orleans (-5), Baltimore (-5.5, a loss) and the New York Jets (-9) all as "green" plays worthy of two times a normal play. Among those seven, the Saints, Jets, Texans, Raiders and Cardinals were all solid wins... While we fell victim to getting the "wrong" games wrong (the Lock of the Week, a Paul's Pick, the free pick and the Sunday Night pick), we actually hit every other game ATS to go 8-4 ATS (67%) on playable picks on Sunday. While getting the "wrong games wrong" is not ideal for not ideal for business strategy, it does illustrate the power of this technology to provide such strong overall results so early in the season... Similarly, we lost three of our top four totals, yet still went 7-4 O/U overall yesterday. We don't want you to feel as though you have to or should play that many games and it can be frustrating to see many wins after some stronger losses (after the 1 pm ET games, were 0-2 in Paul's Picks and 11-1 with all of our other playable picks), but it is definitely not a bad sign for the Predictalator going forward... I offered the aggregate records rather than going through each individual win, but there was an interesting conversation that came out of the Cincinnati @ Denver game, which we got right on the side (CIN +4.5), but not the total (UNDER 40). My wife noted (correctly) that Bengals' quarterback Andy Dalton was playing as though he wanted to and was trying to win the game for all 60 minutes, even though Cincinnati trailed for that amount of time. That was rarely a characteristic that Carson Palmer had. Through his facial expressions, body language and play, he would seemingly quit in games where the Bengals got behind even if the score remained close. Some may say he was "Bengalized" and I do personally applaud him for standing up against the most ridiculously pitiful, closed-minded and short-sighted owner in professional sports, but it is/was refreshing to see a quarterback who may not be as skilled as Palmer keep his team in the game and almost pull off a victory - while Palmer has finally quit on his team for good. This is a great example of how people attribute numbers simply to talent and think that we cannot account for "intangibles." The Bengals are better off at quarterback with a Carson Palmer who cares than an Andy Dalton who cares, but, since it simply is not in Palmer's on-field make-up to always care as much as is needed to win (or at least try to win), the gap between the Bengals with Palmer at the helm and the Bengals now is not nearly as great as many assumed. There are reasons teams win that go well beyond height, weight, speed and how far a guy can throw the ball which we can find that in the numbers. We saw that yesterday. Carson Palmer's Bengals would not have been as likely to cover at Denver...

Toughest Losses: While it was not the roller coaster of some of our other NFL losses (more on that in the next section), Baltimore (-6) @ Tennessee was the toughest and most baffling loss of the weekend. The Ravens were 61.6% likely to cover that line in our numbers and that confidence grew as the line moved in our favor throughout the week (settling at -5.5). Baltimore succeeded in stopping Chris Johnson and the Titans' running game, but was surprisingly poor (especially after last week's performance at home against a much better team) at defending Matt Hasselbeck, Kenny Britt and Tennessee's passing offense, which put up 358 yards on the Ravens. At least as surprising was the Ravens inability to move the ball effectively against the Titans (one of the weakest defenses in the league by our metrics). Joe Flacco is not a young, inexperienced quarteback anymore; he played like one on Sunday. When these teams went to the half with the score tied at ten, one touchdown from the Ravens would cover, so I did not feel too bad (not nearly as bad as I felt about the other Paul's Pick at that time). Tennessee, which looked like the better team in the first half, dominated the rest of the game and put this game away early. For the second week in a row, Baltimore was our most surprising team.

So, Cam Newton had over 400 yards passing again. The odds were not even in his favor to do that again in his career. We had him graded as the best quarterback from the past three drafts, yet that was obviously not with the expectation that Newton would be throwing the ball 40+ times a game to start his career (or even necessarily that he would be the starter in Week 1 of his rookie season). But, while Newton did look pretty good, the Packers' defense, which was playing without cornerback Tramon Williams, did not look like a top-five pass defense in the league, especially for in the first quarter. It was actually Green Bay, playing with injuries and several rookies in key roles, that needed time to settle into this game. By then, it was almost too late for the double-digit win needed to get the cover. Then, Jordy Nelson happened (a huge moment in our household as my wife and I are Packers' fans, we really needed/wanted what had appeared to be an unlikely cover, and my wife has Nelson in a PPR fantasy league where we have a Brazilian steak dinner wager on the line with another couple - that play was worth 15.4 fantasy points and potentially all you can eat picanha). Then Newton to Steve Smith (with no Nick Collins on the field due to a season-ending neck injury) happened for 62 yards. Then we got backdoored with 37 seconds left. In the context of that game, we probably did not deserve the cover. But in the context of many of the bad beats we have taken recently, we could have used it... Add San Diego and Philadelphia to the list of big plays for us that turned the ball over in the red zone. It is difficult to say that, at full strength especially, Atlanta at home is better than Philadelphia on the road or that New England at home is more than a touchdown better than San Diego on the road. Those picks just did not go our way (on the sides of the total) and that can hurt, especially for the two most high-profile games (and our free and Sunday night picks). The method to choosing free picks is always the same. Ideally, we take a strong pick that is normal+ on the side and the total (the side being more important than the total) outside of the Paul's Picks, which has broad appeal. Obviously, we want those to be strong picks. I'd love to win them all...

Week 3's Most Interesting Games: New England @ Buffalo, Detroit @ Minnesota, Houston @ New Orleans, New York Giants @ Philadelphia and Green Bay @ Chicago.

MLB Results:
With so much football dominating the sports conversation and content on this site, I have not meant to neglect (or potentially give the impression that I am neglecting) our MLB performance and upcoming MLB content schedule. In reality, baseball has been very much on our radar and the subject of many internal discussions as performance in September has not lived up to the high standards that were set during profitable months in June, July and August. As this is our first year picking baseball games against the number/relative to money-lines, we are very proud of the progress made by the engine and our analysis to yield consistently profitable results after and up-and-down first six weeks of the season. Unfortunately, September has been up-and-down in its own right, and more down than up. From a profitability standpoint, we have had our best and worst individual days of the year within September, which is indicative of this month where we have not been able to consistently provide profitable information. The normal+ picks are 5-3, but that even comes off as a negative because there have only been eight strong opinions through 18 days of the month, which is far fewer than usual. In general, we are very conscious of these results and, while doing everything we can to rectify the results, will do our best to make right by September MLB subscribers. (And, of course, as I finish writing this blog, we are +$209 for a $50 player on 16-6 picking with three plays left to complete. That does not erase the month to this point, but it also doesn't hurt.)

Rationalizing our performance comes from unfortunately obvious avenues. Inconsistent lineup, roster and pitching matchup information (particularly in the rash of double-headers this month), bad luck and a lack of motivation are likely the culprits. Given the times we have set to post our picks and with expanded rosters, projecting accurate lineups has been incredibly difficult. And with simulation, like most analysis, the output is only as good as the input. We work very hard to gather the information needed to get everything right and knew that this could be an issue (some of our users even inquired about it), but we never realized how inconsistent and unreliable our information and expectations for lineups and pitchers could be (though the pitching concerns can be addressed by marking the starting pitchers that must play for the game to count if this is an option). With future seasons, while the noon or two hours before the first game timeframe (whichever comes first) works well throughout the rest of the season, as we did with basketball, we may want to move that later when possible for months like this. Lineups have had played some role, yet I don't want to sound like that is the biggest culprit. It's actually part of a bigger issue. To a degree, the entire month of September is like Week 17 in the NFL, where not every team, manager or player is motivated to do its/his best to win every night. That makes this task difficult. We were prepared for and warned about it in the NFL last year and will definitely be ready come next September. Motivation is a weird thing in baseball where each player only gets a few chances to play a role in his team's chances to win and everything is so grounded in the numbers, but I think it is safe to say that some teams (first and foremost) and players just do not try nearly as hard (to win) once we get to this point in the season and games have minimal impact on the final season outcome.

MLB Playoffs
Fortunately, we don't have to worry about this in the Playoffs! In the MLB Playoffs, every team has a 25-man roster, sets its rotation well in advance and is motivated to win every game. As we have seen in other postseasons, I would expect our performance to pick back-up at least to the levels of June, July and August once October starts (literally, October 1 is the first day of the MLB postseason). Look for the MLB Playoff product and announcements coming soon, with the Playoff Odds available to all next Thursday (September 29) after the season ends on Wednesday, September 28.

If everything goes according to our projections, the Philadelphia Phillies (104.1 projected wins), will have the best record in the league and face the Arizona Diamondbacks (93.1 projected wins) in the first round of the NLDS. In the other NLDS series, the Milwaukee Brewers (95.5 projected wins) will host the Wild Card-winning Atlanta Braves (91.6 projected wins). In the AL, the top-seeded New York Yankees (96.2 projected wins) will take on the Texas Rangers (93.3 projected wins) and the Boston Red Sox, who win the AL Wild Card with 92.0 projected wins (over the Tampa Bay Rays with 89.7 wins), will go on the road to play the Detroit Tigers (94.2 proejcted wins).

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