Measuring Emotion in the NFL
I remember watching the underdog Saints blow out the favored Falcons five years ago on the night the Superdome re-opened after Hurricane Katrina. It was a Monday night game, and Atlanta ran into a team playing as if possessed in front of a national audience. It was clear that the emotion of the occasion took the Saints to a different level.
Or was it?
The Saints wound up going to the NFC title game that year, and with Drew Brees at quarterback and Sean Payton coaching the Saints have won a Super Bowl and been perennial contenders since. Maybe the Saints were simply the better team, and we just didn't know it at the time, so it seemed like they won due to the emotional lift of the occasion. Similarly, the Giants blew out the Redskins 36-0 the week team owner Wellington Mara died, Brett Favre passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns on Monday night football the day after his father died and this week, the Raiders upset the Texans in Houston days after owner Al Davis passed away.
Even on less momentous occasions, the emotional status of teams is given importance and serves as an explanation for what happens after the fact. When the Giants lose to the Seahawks at home after road wins in Philadelphia and Arizona, it's a "letdown" game. Is there any truth to this? Should we set our fantasy lineups or adjust our office pool or survivor picks accordingly? Should we anticipate letdowns and bouncebacks and be wary of going against desperate winless teams?
I don't think there's a whole lot of evidence for it. For every home dog on national television rising to the occasion, there's the Atlanta Falcons squandering a 14-point league at home against the defending Super Bowl champs who knocked them out of the playoffs last year.
But absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. Just because there's no rigorous way to quantify or prove the effect of emotional factors doesn't mean those factors don't exist – at least in certain circumstances. Our ability to discern them might be limited, and in most cases, you're probably better off not even going there at all. But every now and then, something about the setup of a game, the history between the teams, the circumstances in which they find themselves jumps out at you. It reminds you of a similar situation you've seen before. For some reason you have a hunch a certain player's going to go off, or an underdog's not only going to cover but win outright. I think it's worth paying attention to those hunches, tracking how they pan out and keeping an eye out for them.
Game of Adjustments
Last week, you'd have thought the Texans-Raiders game would be a slugfest on the ground between two top-ranked rushing attacks. Arian Foster was finally healthy and coming off a big game against the Steelers, while Darren McFadden was leading the NFL in rushing. Moreover, Oakland was allowing 5.9 yards per rush, while Houston was just under 5.0 yards. As it turned out, the two backs combined for 119 yards on 38 carries (3.1 YPC).
How is that possible? When you have top options at running back going up against weak run defenses, you're supposed to get big performances. But if we know McFadden and Foster are the focal points of their respective offenses, then the opposing coaches know that, too. And sometimes they'll game plan to stop them, especially – as was the case Sunday – when the Texans were without Andre Johnson. This isn't something you can necessarily predict – what the coaches will do, especially when the flow of the game will often dictate much of the playcalling. And I certainly wouldn't expect similar duds on the ground (Foster had a huge game as a receiver) if these teams were to meet again next week. But it's something to keep in mind – the obvious result doesn't always obtain, and the analysis can't begin and end with year-to-date rankings against the pass or the run.
Jay Cutler vs. Matthew Stafford
Watching the Bears-Lions game on Monday night, it occurred to me how different the circumstances are for these two franchise QBs. Anyone would take Stafford over Cutler in fantasy, and possibly even in real life, but is there any doubt Cutler wouldn't be a monster with a little protection and Calvin Johnson catching his passes? Cutler is known as a whiner, and he got flack for leaving last year's NFC title game with a knee injury, but how many quarterbacks would survive what he has in Chicago the last two seasons – running for his life on virtually every play and throwing to arguably the league's worst collection of receivers? Unfortunately, I'm not sure it's going to get a lot better for Cutler. Maybe the Bears will protect better, but Mike Martz has never been known for keeping his quarterbacks upright, and I don't see a whole lot of upside from this current group of receivers.
Things to Take Away from Week 5
• The Giants can't run block or play defense right now, so Eli Manning is going to put up big numbers every week, especially with the emergence of Victor Cruz. The Giants are still a viable fantasy defense, thanks to Jason Pierre-Paul (7.0 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (3.5 sacks in two games) picking up the slack for an injured Justin Tuck.
• If you lost in Survivor with the Giants, please take a look to see how well set up those who avoided the Giants this week now are. And remember that next time you're deciding between the bigger favorite and the better equity expectation.
• Raiders head coach Hue Jackson is a rare risk taker in a profession rife with cowards. Jackson went for a two-point try in the first half, threw downfield from his own end of the field with 33 seconds left in the half, faked a punt early in the fourth quarter and also targeted Denarius Moore deep with 2:40 left in the game and a five-point lead, all four of which you almost never see. Bill Belichick, Sean Payton and Mike Tomlin are similarly aggressive, and not coincidentally, have all won Super Bowls.
• Sebastian Janikowski is a ridiculous weapon and makes the Raiders especially dangerous in close games.
• Fred Jackson is on pace to set the record for most yards receiving via the shovel pass.
• Is Pierre Garcon blowing up with Curtis Painter an instance of a second-team receiver playing better with a backup QB because they've practiced together more? Steve Johnson and Ryan Fitzpatrick did a similar thing in Buffalo last year.
• Alex Smith is playing at a Pro Bowl level more than a quarter of the way through the season. Having Jim Harbaugh as a coach is a big plus, and once Braylon Edwards gets back, he'll have a stronger receiving corps, though Josh Morgan is out indefinitely.
• The Titans were fine without Kenny Britt in Week 4, but it caught up to them in Week 5.
• After allowing TDs to the Falcons on their first two drives, the Packers' defense completely shut down Matt Ryan and looked more like last year's elite unit than this year's shaky one.
• Matt Ryan is an average NFL quarterback – Joe Flacco with a little less arm strength and mobility.
• Kyle Orton owes me an apology for his fantasy stats this past week.
• Matt Schaub had 416 passing yards, but only 99 were to wide receivers.
• Say what you want about Tim Tebow, but the guy didn't make a peep about being demoted to 5th string, and is always ready when they ask him to sub in. He could be a poor man's Cam Newton going forward.
Things to Look for in Week 6
• The Cowboys try to bounce back from a devastating loss in New England
• The 4-1 Niners take on the 5-0 Lions
• Eli Manning gets to shoot it out with the Bills at home this week
• The Bucs look to rebound from their annihilation in San Francisco at home against the Saints.
Beating the Book
Saints -4.5 at Buccaneers
It's a good time to buy low on the Bucs as a home dog after they were throttled by the Niners in San Francisco. The Saints look like a top-five NFL team, but the Bucs should be able to move the ball consistently against them, especially at home. I expect this game to be close. Back the Bucs who cover and possibly win outright.
Buccaneers 24 – 23
Last week we lost with the Titans to go 3-2 in this forum, 6-7 on the week and 37-38-2 overall. We were 10-7 in this forum last season and 40-27 over the four years of the column (we skipped Week 17 in 2007). From 1999-2010 we've gone 1565-1387 against the spread (53%, not including ties). The full article comes out Wednesday night.
Surviving Week 6
I'm never happy to see the Giants lose, but if they were going to, it was good to see them take down two entire pools in Survivor, and advance me near the end of several others. I laid off the Giants not because I didn't think they'd win – in fact, I had them at 82 percent – my biggest favorite on the board – but because so many people were on them. If you had the Giants and lost, please do yourself the favor of seeing how well positioned those who avoided them are in your pools heading into Week 6. (My bet is that only 10-20 percent of most pools are still alive, meaning their pool equity is between five and 10 times what it was at the beginning of the year.)
It's a good reminder of two things: (1) There's no such thing as a lock in the NFL, i.e., every team is risky; and (2) It's not simply about surviving to Week 10 or 12 or 13, but surviving while others do not. It's about building your equity until it equals 100 percent of the total money in your pool. And taking whatever risks you need to as long as they're justified by the payout.
All that said, most pools are not finished yet, so let's take a look at this week's games:
|Team||Opponent||% Picked*||Vegas ML**||Vegas Odds|
My first inclination is to avoid the Jets who can't block and are playing against a desperate Miami team. As for the other three, I think it's a very close call, as the Pats and Ravens look like top-five NFL teams, and the Bengals play arguably the worst team in the league. For now, I'll go Baltimore – unless Andre Johnson miraculously returns, it's going to be tough going against that defense, and the Ravens should move the ball consistently. Dallas is capable of terrible things, but also has quite a bit of upside as they showed in the first half against Detroit, especially with Miles Austin back. And as bad as the Colts are, I'm not sure I want to rely on a rookie QB and skittish head coach Marvin Lewis. So it's the Ravens for now, but I reserve the right to change my mind when the full article comes out Thursday night.
You can follow me on Twitter at @Chris_Liss