Beating the Book
By Christopher Liss
RotoWire Managing Editor
We went 6-8-2 last week to finish at 124-122-10 on the year. It's particularly disappointing after our strong start, but it does mean that we've been over .500 for nine of the 10 years we've written the column, the lone exception being in 2001 when we went 118-119. I won't get into what we might have done differently in this week's edition - we have all offseason to figure that out.
As for this week's Wild Card games, Damon and I initially were going to take all the road teams except the Colts as the lines were small enough that we wanted to go with the teams we genuinely believed were better in the playoffs. The Colts-Chargers was close, and so we opted to go with the home team, which incidentally has played well against Indy over the past few seasons. That was on Tuesday. Damon and I talked again today to confirm, and we agreed, and I was all set to write it up. But then he sent me this article.
So we discussed it again, and in the meantime confirmed that in fact the public was all over the road teams. In the end, we decided that as much as we think the road teams are better, that's what everyone thinks, and the Book knows that, so the home teams probably offer better value. Otherwise, why not set the lines even higher? So I was all set to write up the games once again, but got to the Chargers-Colts and couldn't bring myself to justify the Chargers. I'm not sure why - it just felt false. So I called Damon back and said, "Let's switch the Colts-Chargers. I don't care if it's the sucker play, I just have a Colts feeling." And he said, "that's no problem - I don't like the Chargers much, either."
So there you have it. We've just convinced ourselves to take the exact opposite of what we had planned to do on Tuesday. The truth is we don't have a strong feeling about any game in this week's slate. The road teams are obviously better, but the home teams are most likely the better values.
Falcons -2 at Cardinals
The Falcons are a great story in large part because that story is still going on. It's common to see a team that was bad last year make strides but eventually realize its place as a future rather than present contender, but the Falcons have steadfastly refused that narrative. In fact, had the Panthers not executed a last-minute drive to beat the Saints last week, Atlanta would be resting comfortably with a first-round bye. The Falcons have played well all season, and their rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, is already one of the top young signal callers in the league. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are not a good story - who wants to read about a team fattening up against poor competition in a weak division, clinching a playoff berth early, then largely mailing it in down the stretch. Arizona has almost no running game to speak of (just 3.5 YPC) and their pass defense (7.22 YPA) was 22nd in the league. But the Cardinals were 6-2 at home this year (and one of those losses came to the Vikings after the team had locked up the division), while the Falcons were just 4-4 on the road. Everyone's backing Atlanta, but we'll take our chances with the home dog. Back Arizona.
Cardinals 31 - 30
Colts -1 at Chargers
The Chargers might be the better team on paper with superior net YPA numbers and all the other stats that determine who's more efficient and consistent on a per-play basis. And they've played well against the Colts in recent seasons, most notably knocking them out of the playoffs in Indy last year in a major upset. The Colts won the game in San Diego between the two teams this season, but it was close and might have gone the other way but for some horrendous clock management by Norv Turner. But you have to wonder about an 8-8 team that needed the Bills to knock off Denver on the road in Week 16 even to be here. Yes, San Diego has played well down the stretch, winning what seemed like a very tough game in Tampa, but how tough does that game look in retrospect now that the Raiders went in the next week and did the same thing? The Colts beat the Steelers and blew out the Ravens, so there's far less doubt about their capacity to handle elite opponents. In the end, this game should be close, but we trust Peyton Manning just a little bit more than Philip Rivers at this stage, and unlike last season, the Chargers don't have the better defense. Back Indy.
Colts 27 - 24
Ravens -3.5 at Dolphins
The Ravens look like an elite team most weeks, slugging it out with the Steelers and Titans on equal terms and blowing out weaker competition with ease. The Dolphins, on the other hand, look like a team that gets the most out of its modest talent while minimizing mistakes, the combination of which has been enough navigate an easy schedule. So it's no surprise that Baltimore is a sizeable road favorite in this game. We watch the same games that everyone else does, so we were initially inclined to lay the points, assuming Baltimore would roll. But Miami shows up for every contest, they're getting more than a field goal and they're facing a rookie quarterback at home. Back the Dolphins who keep this one close.
Ravens 20 - 19
Eagles -3 at Vikings
The Eagles are a dangerous wild card team because they're strong in all the key phases of the game. They can run the ball, throw downfield, rush the quarterback and stop the run. They had no trouble handling the Giants in the Meadowlands a few weeks ago or Dallas last week, and they even won an early season home game fairly easily against the Steelers. The problem for the Eagles is consistency - they were blown out in Baltimore more than a month ago, but perhaps more troubling was the loss in Washington just two weeks ago with their season very likely on the line. It's always hard to evaluate a team that looks great on paper, but doesn't deliver often enough in key spots. Is it just bad luck, or is there a lack of collective will or team cohesion necessary to get it done. The Vikings, on the other hand, are poorly coached, and have an untested and erratic quarterback. Few people think they're a threat to do serious damage in the playoffs. But the Vikings should get Pat Williams back to fortify their very stout defensive line, they have the league's most dangerous home run threat at running back, and Tarvaris Jackson, who is capable of escaping the Philly pass rush, has played decently since Gus Frerotte went down. The Eagles are the better team, but this line assumes we'll see the version that beat up on Dallas and the Giants and not the one that lost to the Redskins. That's not an assumption we're willing to make. Back the Vikings.
Vikings 24 - 23
We were 6-8-2 in Week 17, to put us at 124-122-10 on the season. We were 127-120-9 last season. From 1999-2007, we were 1184-1018 - not including ties - (53.8 percent).
Article first appeared 12/31/08