Confidence is an NFL gambling preview, using advanced statistics, matchup analysis and other metrics to create predictions readers can use at their discretion.
“Confidence” is about knowing the players, the numbers, the history, and the line, putting them all together and delivering predictions on this week’s NFL games. Delving deep into advanced statistics and player grades, “Confidence” helps when trying to beat the experts in Vegas.
Thursday Night Review
I had “Confidence” that Pittsburgh +9 was a strong teaser candidate, but things did not go according to plan. As readers of Confidence: Thursday Night Preview learned, Baltimore QB Joe Flacco is a high-variance player and that factored heavily into my analysis. Flacco was on his game last night and made the Steelers pay for their turnovers.
The Ravens finished 2011 with the 2nd-highest variance and were only marginally better in 2012, ranking 9th. Last year they were remarkably consistent. Of course, being 5th-lowest means they were consistently bad. Unfortunately for my prediction, the good Flacco (with his 105.0+ QB-rating) Flacco showed up. His successful incarnation only appears 20.8% of the time, but when it does, it’s…
The only hope for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers was to match the Ravens point-for-point. That hope faded quickly. The first Pittsburgh drive ended with a turnover in the red zone while their next was a three-and-out. On the third Steeler possession they gained chunks of yardage but stalled on the Baltimore 7-yard line. There they chose to kick a field goal rather than risk going for it on 4th and 3. Kicking the FG was the correct decision though the difference in expected value between going for it and kicking the FG is nearly zero. Their final drive of the first half took them to the Ravens 36 before penalties and a 4th and 9 “forced” them to punt. The win probabilities added for going for it or punting in this scenario were nearly identical which makes the decision a coin flip. Because the Ravens started with the ball in the second half, the Steelers should have attempted to convert on 4th down. In reality The Steelers had three chances in the first half to match Baltimore on offense and take a lead. Instead, Pittsburgh limped to the locker room down 10-3 and their uninspired, sloppy play in the second half sealed their fate.
The big question from this game is why the Steelers didn’t try to go deep. Roethlisberger’s longest pass attempt was 19 yards. Of his 36 tries (excluding one throw-away), 72.2% were tossed for 9 yards or fewer. Compare that to Matthew Stafford in Week 1 against the Giants, again omitting any balls obviously heaved away; only 54.8% of Stafford’s passes were thrown that short. The Steelers need to utilize their deep threats more because the talents of Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton are wasted every time they fail to do so. Having an established deep game completely changes the Steelers offensive efficiency. With a deep game the Steelers’ offense runs like a Bentley. Without a deep game, that aforementioned Bentley becomes a Buick; the Steelers should still be able to grind out wins but the offense is far less potent.
Teams don’t cover when they fail to finish drives in their opponent’s half of the field, lose the turnover battle 0-3 (including two in the red zone), and allow the other QB to play like a Hall of Famer (as Flacco did, compiling a 109.3 QB rating). Look out for Baltimore as a variance leader this year and proceed with betting for or against them with caution. Remember, the more variance the less “Confidence”.
Teams and/or Games to Stay Away From: The NFL Gambling Preview
Indianapolis -3 vs. Philadelphia (Monday Night Football)
Two explosive teams, both with holes on their lines. Both already look like they will again end up in the Top-5 for highest variances of the year. I have this line as Philadelphia -1. As a teaser, PHI +9 looks like a nice candidate, if only these teams weren’t so volatile. There will not be a Monday Night Football preview as not all games earn “Confidence”.
Reluctant call: Philadelphia +3.
Carolina -2.5 vs. Detroit
This game is Detroit’s first real challenge for new head coach Jim Caldwell. I don’t think much of him, so I want to see how his team fares against solid competition on the road before I get on-board the Lions’ bandwagon.
Reluctant call: I like Detroit doing enough on both sides of the ball to cover in a close one. Detroit +2.5.
Teams to Tease in Order of “Confidence”
Denver -12 (-6) vs. Kansas City
This one is simple and needs little non-statistical analysis. The Broncos are one of the NFL’s best teams and are playing at home. The Chiefs are a bottom ten team this year, were a below-average team on the road last season, and already have injuries piling up. Denver has the advantage on both lines of scrimmage along with better skill personnel than Kansas City, and they feature future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. As for the Chiefs, taking snaps from center is the thoroughly mediocre Alex Smith.
Like Charlie Chaplin’s lovable tramp, Smith dresses for the part but can’t seem to live up to the image. He tries hard and is, by all accounts, a good teammate. However, like the tramp, Smith is pitiable. His lack of arm strength and his spotty decision-making render him an adequate game manager at best. The bottom line is Smith simply doesn’t have the necessary skills to be a consistently successful starting NFL QB.
DVOA ranks the Broncos 9th overall at 29.0%, with the defense 10th at -10.5% and the offense 5th at 30.8%. DAVE has the Broncos 1st overall at 24.5%, with the defense 6th at -3.5% and the offense 1st at 23.7%.
DVOA puts the Chiefs 29th overall at -50.6%, with the defense 25th at 19.1% and the offense 29th at a whopping -39.1%. DAVE ranks the Chiefs 27th overall at -11.7%, with the defense 26th at 3.6% and the offense 27th at -9.1%. By the eye test and by the numbers, this is a big edge to the Broncos.
The Call: This is a high “Confidence” pick. Broncos -6.
Seattle -6 (PK) at San Diego:
Last year the Seahawks had only a small drop-off in performance on the road. The Chargers performed evenly last year both at home and on the road so location will likely not be a factor here. It comes down to matchups and the Seahawks have favorable ones on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
When the Seahawks Have the Ball:
The Seattle offensive line is a mixed bag. It includes a pair of solidly above-average starters in left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger, a rookie at right tackle in 2nd-round 2014 draftee Justin Britt, and two below-average starters at the guard positions in James Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy. Despite their limitations they still project to have success against the Chargers’ awful front seven. Aside from Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney the San Diego starters are below average as a group. The Chargers’ secondary is stronger than last year’s unit, but I expect the lack of a San Diego pass rush to give Russell Wilson and his receivers too much time.
When the Chargers Have the Ball:
San Diego’s offense is their strong suit but they will be opposed by the best defense in the league. The Seahawks’ front seven should overwhelm the Chargers’ O-line, especially replacement-level right guard Johnnie Troutman. The individual skill position matchups make this game a must-see. In the passing game, there will be a chess match pitting the Chargers’ wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs against Seattle’s linebackers, safeties, and corners. I like the Seahawks’ chances here considering the advantage their pass rush figures to hold over the Chargers’ offensive front.
DVOA ranks the Seahawks 1st overall at 61.0%, with the defense 8th at -18.3%. Because DVOA isn’t adjusted, it is important to note that means they had the 8th best defense based on Week 1 even though they faced a quality opponent in Green Bay. The Seahawks’ offense is 3rd at 43.3%. DAVE has Seattle 2nd overall at 20.8%, with the defense 1st at -11.6% and the offense 8th at 7.5%.
DVOA ranks the Chargers 26th overall at -37.6%, with the defense 21st at 9.6% and the offense 27th at -33.2%. DAVE puts the Chargers 9th overall at 5.8%, with the defense 28th at 5.9% and the offense 3rd at 11.3%. The Chargers had a bad Week 1 against a tough NFC West defense. Have “Confidence” that this occurrence becomes a trend in Week 2.
The Call: This is a high “Confidence” pick. Seattle PK
New Orleans -6.5 (+0.5) at Cleveland:
Before we even begin to get into this analysis, the following needs to be said: New Orleans had one of the smallest statistically significant home/road splits in 2012. Their drastic home/road splits in 2013 should be seen as an aberration. Their defense didn’t have a strong showing in Week 1 against the Falcons but much of that can be explained by the Saints’ questionable defensive schemes. This New Orleans team is much better defending the pass than what they showed against Atlanta. As I explained last week, the Browns’ only success against the Steelers came while running the no-huddle in the second half of the game. That approach should not work against the Saints.
When the Saints Have the Ball:
This offense is deep and loaded. Their front line is a top-10 unit, Drew Brees is a top-5 quarterback, and their skill position players are numerous and deadly. If the Saints have a weakness it is their lack of a reliable #2 receiver, but look for Kenny Stills to emerge in that role starting this week as he returns from a quad injury. The Browns’ front seven is average aside from three of the linebackers in their 3-4 alignment: near-elite RILB Karlos Dansby, solidly above-average ROLB Jabaal Sheard, and, if he bounces back, Paul Kruger at LOLB. The Browns’ secondary has a diverse mix of talent levels. Cornerback Joe Haden and safety Donte Whitner are on the cusp of elite status at their positions. Like many first-year players at the position, rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert struggled in his opening game. Cleveland’s other starting defensive backs, free safety Tashaun Gipson and slot cornerback Buster Skrine, are both below-average players. The Browns simply do not have the personnel to stop the Saints.
When the Browns Have the Ball:
Cleveland has the foundation of an offensive line in place. Left tackle Joe Thomas is elite. Rookie left guard Joel Bitonio performed well in week one. Alex Mack is a perennial All-Pro candidate at center. Right guard John Greco and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are average starters and the only soft spot on the line. The Browns have only two above-average players on offense who aren’t part of the O-Line: suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. Their starting running back, Ben Tate, is average but has a chance to be more than that with help from the O-Line. Replacement level starting quarterback Brian Hoyer struggled against the Steelers and is not the long-term answer for the Browns. The Browns skill players on offense, aside from Gordon, Cameron, and Tate are all below average or rookies.
The Saints run a 4-3 defense and all members of their defensive line are above average starters lead by near-elite left-end, Cameron Jordan. The Saints linebackers are the polar opposite; all are below-average starters overall and they are particularly vulnerable in pass coverage. The linebacking problem lead to conservative zone schemes underneath, with safeties playing 10-15 yards deep. Even that did not help as they were ruthlessly picked apart by the Falcons. Fortunately for the Saints, the Browns do not have enough weapons or skill in the passing game to exploit this weakness.
The Saints are stocked at safety with second year pro Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd. Byrd is either the best free safety in the game or he is in the top three. However, cornerback is a question-mark for the Saints. Keenan Lewis is near-elite and slot corner Corey White is average with a low ceiling. Patrick Robinson is the other Saints’ starting corner and he is coming back from a serious leg injury. He was inconsistent before his injury and had a poor Week 1. Right now, he is a below average starter and a major deficiency in the Saints’ secondary.
Because the Saints personnel is weak in coverage they rely almost entirely on their pass rush to slow down the opponent’s aerial attack. To stand any chance, the Browns need their offensive line to stifle the Saints pass rush. But, even assuming the Browns can muster 24+ points on the Saints, it will not be enough.
DVOA rates the Saints 23rd overall at -27.2%, with the defense 32nd at 53.3% and the offense 8th at 18.8%. DAVE rates the Saints 6th overall at 8.4%, with the defense 23rd at 1.3% and the offense 5th at 9.3%.
DVOA rates the Browns 17th overall at -1.6%, with the defense 27th at 26.3% and the offense 6th at 28.7%. DAVE rates the Browns 28th overall at -12.4%, with the defense 29th at 6.6% and the offense 24th at -6.3%.
The Browns DVOA in rushing ranks 3rd at 27.8% and they rank 11th in passing at 29.8%. Those kinds of crazy numbers demand context. In 2013 the Browns finished the season ranked 22nd in rushing at -7.0% and 25th in passing at -9.2%. The top team in rushing was the Eagles at 23.6%, which was double the number put up by the second ranked Chiefs’ 11.1%. In other words, expect the Browns to regress significantly.
The Call: This is a game where the statistical advantage slightly exceeds the scouting advantage. Because of that I only have medium-high “Confidence” in this pick. Saints -0.5
Tennessee -3.5 (+2.5/+3.5) vs. Dallas:
Tennessee was my pick to win the AFC South this year. Tennessee played much better at home last year and Dallas was unreliable on the road. Both offenses have the advantage over the opposing defenses when they have the ball, however, and the Titans should have the bigger edge due to the Cowboys’ defense, or utter lack thereof.
When the Titans Have the Ball:
The Titans have excellent starters at left tackle, Michael Roos and left guard Andy Levitre, a below-average center Brian Schwenke, an average right guard with a high ceiling Chance Warmack, and a future controversy at right tackle. The starting right tackle, Michael Oher is below-average and the Titans have 2014 1st round pick Taylor Lewan waiting in the wings. The Titans’ weak right side of the line is mitigated by the terrible Cowboys’ defense. Notice that I didn’t write “mitigated in part.” The Cowboys defense is truly that bad. Aside from Henry Melton and the possible resurgence of Rolando McClain, there is not a single above-average player on defense. I expect Kendall Wright to thrive against the Cowboys secondary. The Cowboys have one chance to stop the Titans: if the Cowboys can exploit the weak right side of the Titans O-line they might be able to pressure Jake Locker into poor decisions. Even that is no sure bet for Dallas as Locker has the ability to scramble and make plays outside the pocket.
When the Cowboys Have the Ball:
The Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the league. Left tackle Tyron Smith earned every dollar of his eight-year $98M extension. The weak spot in the line is left guard Ronald Leary. The Cowboys might experiment again with Mackenzy Bernadeau if Leary continues to struggle. Travis Frederick had a strong rookie year and should continue to improve at center. There are high expectations for 1st round pick Zack Martin at right guard. Doug Free’s performance has vacillated over the years from below-average to above-average. The challenge for the Cowboys o-line will be to contain three good Titan pass rushers: Akeem Ayers and Derrick Morgan from the edge and Jurrell Casey up the middle. The Cowboys receiving corps is top-heavy featuring wide receiver Dez Bryant and veteran tight end Jason Witten. Look for the Cowboys and DeMarco Murray to run the ball more this week. Because the Titans will look to lock down Witten and Bryant, the Cowboys secondary receiving options Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams might be Tony Romo’s main targets. This is not a good matchup for the Titans’ defense; the combination of the Cowboys strong offensive line, quarterback, and three high quality skilled players in Bryant, Witten, and Murray should be able to score frequently against the Titans unless they can counteract the Cowboys dominance on the offensive line.
DVOA rates the Titans 4th overall at 54.0%, with the defense 3rd at -40.7% and the offense 9th at 18.5%. DAVE rates the Titans 16th overall at 0.2%, with the defense 17th at -0.4% and the offense 16th at 0.7%.
DVOA rates the Cowboys 30th overall at -68.7%, with the defense 31st at 39.9% and the offense 25th at -18.7%. DAVE rates the Cowboys 31st overall at -13.8%, with the defense last in the league at 9.5% and the offense 18th at -3.2%.
I do not believe the Titans are that good overall and the Cowboys offense is not that bad, but the Titans have the statistical advantage.
Final note: Paying a small premium to get this at +3.5 might be advisable depending on the cost, though if the vig is greater than .22 I would advise against it.
The Call: This is another game where the statistical advantage exceeds the scouting advantage. Because of that I only have medium “Confidence” in this pick. Titans +3.5
Week 2 is a difficult week as the season is still young and there will be more upsets. If you’re feeling brave, tease the Patriots. I suspect they will rebound on the road against the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings; the Patriots would have been my next teaser choice. I also like the Bills chances as their personnel on both sides of the ball matchup favorably against the Dolphins. The advanced stats sites predict it will be a close game, and teasing a PK is not an ideal betting strategy so I’m not going to recommend it, but my model is slightly more bullish on the Bills in this game so I look forward to seeing what happens. When in doubt be conservative this week.
IMPORTANT PROGRAMMING NOTE: There’s no “Confidence” in the Monday Night game; it is one of the games to avoid this weekend. This column will return on Thursday to recap the week that was and to look at the Thursday Night clash featuring Tampa Bay at Atlanta.