Only a shrink could tell exactly why, but I’ll be damned if I don’t double-bogey a lot of holes right after making a par or birdie.
The syndrome doesn’t go away when I closet my golf clubs and sit down to handicap football.
It’s bad news when handicappers get too confident. Earlier this season, I hit 5 out of 5 NFL picks for WagerBop and started feeling pretty good about my punditry skills. You guessed it – a (thankfully brief) losing streak was soon to follow.
Maybe now isn’t the time to go for broke. I’m fond of what the Baltimore Ravens are doing with their playbook this season, for instance, and predicting Ravens games has turned into a ton of fun. That could be a double-whammy of disaster at the sportsbook. You don’t want to get cocky and carry partisan feelings for a football team at the same time.
But despite the red flags, I’m going to go against a time-honored rule of NFL betting and tout some favorites to win and cover in Week 16.
The conditions seem just right for favored clubs. Several steep underdogs are eliminated from playoff contention and suffering horrendous injury problems. Weather is predicted mild and dry for a plurality of David vs Goliath match-ups, removing another wild-card variable (excuse the pun).
Last but not least, the tendencies of teams like Seattle to win in nail-biting fashion may be causing gamblers to overlook factors which could finally produce blow-outs.
There’s an exception to the rule, though – isn’t there always?
Ironically, my lone underdog pick this week is for a scenario in which nasty winter weather on the gridiron is literally impossible.
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
Baltimore has torn-up quality NFL defenses with a Sun Belt-style option offense in 2019. Against the New York Jets in Week 15, the Ravens decided to show they can spread ’em out and pass all night as well.
By indulging in a breathtaking aerial assault against woeful New York, leading MVP candidate Lamar Jackson showed once more that he’s far from a 1-trick pony. Teams that try to play 8 or 9 men in the box to stop the Ravens’ rushing attack are likely to be murdered with long tosses down the field. That’s bad news for the Cleveland Browns, whose defense may be stuck between a rock and a 4-touchdown opposing QB performance this Sunday afternoon…and who have no comparable QB to retaliate in kind.
The 12-2 Ravens have already clinched the AFC North, leaving the club’s remaining motivation up to the quest for home-field advantage in potential showdowns with the Patriots or the Chiefs. However, there’s another motivation that could play an equally-key role in Week 16. John Harbaugh’s squad will have a chance to avenge its last loss, a 45-20 drubbing from Cleveland in late September. Few fans would have imagined then that the Browns would look like a potential blow-out victim in a December rematch against a Baltimore team which has won 10 straight games. Nick Chubb ran wild on the Baltimore defense, rushing 20 times for 165 yards and finding the end zone 3 times. But the Browns went on to lose 4 straight following that win and are currently 6-8, out of the NFL playoff mix.
So why a relatively-tight (-7) spread? Maybe it’s a product of Cleveland’s form at FirstEnergy Stadium. Freddie Kitchens’ roster has won 4 straight times in front of a friendly crowd (well, not so friendly during the losing streak earlier in fall, but you understand). On the road the Browns have been dreadful. Cleveland couldn’t keep pace with Arizona last week in Glendale, as the Cardinals cruised to a 38-24 victory. The Browns had no answer for Kenyan Drake and played run defense much like the Ravens did in Week 4.
Cleveland ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in points scored and in points allowed. Baker Mayfield hasn’t gotten any better, sporting a QBR below 80 and TD/INT ratio of 17:17. Odell Beckham Jr. has somehow taken a back seat to Jarvis Landry, and Myles Garrett lost his cool swinging a helmet at Mason Rudolph and will not take the field again in 2019.
Jackson, meanwhile, improved his ratio to 33 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions while rushing for 10+ yards per carry against the Jets last Thursday. The only thing that could curtail the Baltimore phenom’s offense at this point would be another swoon from the defense, but that unit ranks top-5 in points-allowed. My only question prior to touting the Ravens ATS this week is how well the front-7 is playing in road games, when the roar of the crowd cannot help the 3rd-down pass rush. Looking at early December when Baltimore traveled to face the excellent offensive line of Buffalo in a hostile environment, it would appear that Harbaugh’s mighty club can potentially dominate with 2 or 3 units no matter where they’re playing. Jackson didn’t have a big day in Buffalo, and the Bills held Baltimore’s backfield to just over 100 yards on the ground. Baltimore’s defense was lights-out, however, punishing Josh Allen and allowing neither a 100-yard rusher or a 50-yard receiver.
The only thing that would stop Baltimore from beating Cleveland by at least 2 touchdowns is an emotional letdown, and that’s unlikely to happen to a team with plenty of veterans on-board. Harbaugh wants the Brady Bunch at home in the postseason and so do his players.
Pick: Ravens ATS
Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos
Detroit fans have had a ton of excuses for the Lions only winning 3 games this season, but there’s at least 1 valid excuse in the lot. The injury bug has hit the Lions about as hard as any other team in the NFL, and GM Bob Quinn has already given Matt Patricia a vote of confidence that the latter will be back as head coach in 2020.
Not that things are going any better on the gridiron. Detroit’s offense is on its 3rd quarterback in David Blough, and it is safe to assume the Lions are looking ahead to next year. Matthew Stafford and Marvin Jones Jr. are both on IR, though the offense should get a boost with running back Kerryon Johnson expected to return on Sunday. Even though Johnson has missed 6 games with injury, he is still the Lions leading rusher with just 308 yards…which probably illustrates the broader problems with the team better than anything. Patricia has fallen into the trap of building around Matt Stafford and a pass-blocking OL that can’t run-block and is therefore ineffective in the long run (or long pass).
Another bright spot for Detroit has been the emergence of 3rd-year wide receiver Kenny Golladay. The last pick of the 3rd round in the 2017 draft, the Northern Illinois product has doubled his touchdown total of 5 last year to 10 in 2019, and has exceeded 1,000 yards receiving in back-to-back seasons.
For Denver, the last 2 games of the season will serve an evaluation process of whether or not rookie Drew Lock is the quarterback of the future. After an impressive 22-for-27, 300+ yard performance with 3 passing touchdowns against Houston, Lock struggled at Arrowhead Stadium last week. The 2nd-round pick out of Missouri was just 18-for-40 passing with 208 yards and an interception in the Broncos’ 23-3 loss.
Weather is expected to be mild and calm at Mile High, which could make host PK Brandon McManus all but infallible. Lock will also be playing against a team that can’t control the ball and doesn’t have a very good pass rush. He may not be come the next franchise QB in the Rockies, but there’s a host of factors that should help him have a better outing this Sunday.
Pick: Broncos (-310) or ATS (-7)
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
Arizona was able to snap a 6-game skid with a 38-24 win over Cleveland last week. New addition Kenyan Drake scored 4 touchdowns and was given a huge workload in a rare run-heavy game script from Kliff Kingsbury, and the outcome left little doubt that Drake, and not David Johnson, is now the 1st-string back in Arizona.
Kyler Murray has given the Cardinals hope with an inspired rookie campaign. Murray is completing 65% of his passes, a number that has steadily improved all season, but his 10 interceptions are keeping his QBR under 90. Murray is also leading the Cardinals in rushing with 504 yards. That’s a surprising number considering the majority of his runs are not by design. Pass-rushing remains an encouraging department for the Big Red. Cardinal defensive end Chandler Jones sacked Baker Mayfield for his 15th sack of the season last week, good for 2nd in the NFL behind Tampa linebacker Shaq Barrett.
At 11-3 overall, Seattle must be careful not to look ahead to a hotly-anticipated Week 17 tilt with San Francisco. Carolina gave a solid effort against the visiting Seahawks last week, but Seattle was able to prevail 30-24 behind a 133 yard, 2 touchdown effort from running back Chris Carson. Russell Wilson was impressive once again, completing 20-of-26 passes and finding wide receiver Tyler Lockett 8 times for 120 yards and a score. Lockett had been struggling since incurring a minor injury, and snapped a 4-game scoring drought with the receiving touchdown.
The Seahawks will be without a key cog in the secondary as Quandre Diggs is nursing a high-ankle sprain. Neither is Javeveon Clowney likely to be on-field to chase Murray around. But there are other game-altering factors in the strategy department.
Kingsbury is going to stick to a run-focused offense because it’s a stupid risk to let Murray keep dancing around and throwing at this point. Arizona can’t run for 200+ yards on the Seahawks in a road game, and a wide-open contest would give the Cardinals a better chance to win. But with the #1 priority being the future and not the present, coaches have no better choice but to stay conservative. Against Seattle that means taking a 24-7 or 30-6 loss in stride and keeping an eye on the big picture.
Pick: Seahawks ATS (-9) and/or Under (51)
Monday Night Football: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Chances of the 10-4 Vikings pulling ahead of the 11-3 Packers and winning the NFC North are slim, and a successful quest has to begin with a win on Monday Night Football.
But despite the pressure and the likelihood of a Wild Card scenario instead of a division title, Las Vegas is touting Minnesota as a (-235) favorite to prevail in prime-time and at least reach Week 17 with a shot to spoil the Cheese.
The task might not feel so daunting if all hands were on deck.
Mike Zimmer’s club will be without star running back Dalvin Cook, and the status of backup Alexander Mattison remains in doubt as he deals with an ankle sprain. Not many teams can boast a tailback trio like Minnesota can, however, and 3rd-string running back Mike Boone was able to find pay-dirt twice in the Vikings 39-10 rout of the host Chargers last week. Boone has shown flashes in the preseason over the last couple of years and is now a proven commodity under fire, but needless to say he could have an awful lot of responsibility on his shoulders this Monday.
Green Bay won the first meeting between the rivals at Lambeau Field way back in Week 2. Kirk Cousins tried to force a pass in the end zone that resulted in an losing interception, later admitting that he should have thrown it away. Cousins has been no less than brilliant ever since, but he’s still more likely to throw a crucial pick than laser-accurate Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“Rah-jahs” has been aided tremendously by an improved Green Bay ground game as former UTEP star Aaron Jones has scored 14 times. Complimentary back Jamaal Williams has emerged within a well-blocked scheme, making his mark as a handy ball-carrier as well as a crack 3rd-down receiver. Williams currently leads the Pack with 5 receiving touchdowns, a testament to Rodgers’ ability to squeeze efficiency out of the offense from all angles. Meanwhile the off-season acquisitions of veteran LBs Preston Smith and ZaDarius Smith have been key to an improved Packer defense. The edge-rushing pair has combined for more than 20 sacks in 14 games.
Speaking of pass-rushers, it would be ill-advised not to mention Viking defensive end Danielle Hunter. The now 25-year-old stalwart was among the youngest players in the league when drafted in 2015. Hunter was raw back then, but has developed into a fearsome athlete and Minnesota’s top QB hunter with nearly a sack per game in 2019.
Minnesota and Green Bay each rank top-10 in the NFL on defense and feature ball-hawking secondaries. It’s not hard to imagine that a big turnover of some sort will play a key role in this Monday’s outcome. Moreover, given the lack of depth in the Viking backfield right now, the outcome feels like a toss-up. In any toss-up scenario the underdog is always the right wager.
Pick: Packers (+195)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.