The first four weeks of any season operate like the first quarter of a football game — teams are trying to establish their position and opponents are getting a feel for one another. The same is true for the perception of a given franchise.
Entering a new season, it is nearly impossible to separate a franchise’s past from its projected future. A team is built on coaching and players, and most of those who will appear this year had some type of impact — good or bad — in the past. As hard as we might try, this will always spill into the perception the following season.
This is where the spreads come into play.
Comparing a few games in 2015 to the past handful of years, the first four weeks of the season featured spreads largely based on historical context. The New Orleans Saints, for instance, are nowhere near the powerhouse they have been, while the Seattle Seahawks, despite a 2-2 record, are 1-3 against the spread. As the year goes on, the numbers will adjust to reflect what the team has done, this season.
Now, with a little more recent history by which to gauge a given team, there can be a comparison between its performance over four games and the complete package of the past few years. Finally, we can get a sense of which version of the team will perform for the foreseeable future.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team.
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 14-13 (Last Week: 4-3)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 33-29-1 (Last Week: 7-8)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans (PK)
The quarterback is the most important singular position on the football field. When Andrew Luck missed the Colts’ Week 4 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars, not only did Indianapolis struggle on the field, but the spread moved dramatically as the news broke.
While this seems logical, it is actually not the norm. Often times, the spread on a game in which a quarterback has a realistic chance to be inactive already factors in the possibility of such an event. Too many times, a quarterback’s status changes before a game, but the line hardly reacts. Usually, this is because the quarterback’s impact is actually less than the movement in the numbers. Naturally, the inclination is to flip the pick to other side. And lose.
As of this writing, the status of quarterback Andrew Luck for Thursday night’s game is uncertain. There have been no clear indications in either direction, and there has not yet been a universally accepted spread. With that, we can only read into what has been determined.
In their first three games — with a seemingly healthy Luck — the Colts were 1-2, averaging an unimpressive 18.7 points per game. Questions regarding the offensive line and a nonexistent defense proved to be glaring weaknesses for Indianapolis, and the team has looked nothing like its 2014 counterpart. Quite frankly, the Colts are not a great team, and a poor offensive line should get exploited by the Texans’ defensive front. Even if Luck plays, he may not be a factor.
Houston has struggled offensively, all season, but running back Arian Foster should be operating at full-throttle on Sunday. The Texans finally get their spark, and the matchup is now in their favor.
Houston wins by a field goal and covers.
Chicago Bears at Kansas City Chiefs (-9)
It takes quite a bad opponent to allow a 1-3 team to be favored by nearly ten points, but the Kansas City Chiefs will be hosting one of the worst teams in the league on Sunday when the Chicago Bears come to town. Indeed, the Bears are up to the task of being a horrible underdog, and it would not have surprised many if the team entered the game with an 0-4 record.
The best thing that could have happened for the Chiefs is that the Bears won in Week 4, narrowly edging the Oakland Raiders. There is incentive to win every game in the National Football League, but a winless franchise with nothing to lose is among the most threatening. With a victory under their belts, the Bears will have significantly less fervor as an encore. In addition, the Chiefs played the Packers, Broncos, and Bengals in consecutive weeks, and they are in desperate need of a punching bag.
The Chiefs beat up the Bears, winning by three touchdowns and covering the spread.
Seattle Seahawks (+3) at Cincinnati Bengals
The Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals are the epitome of historical perception. For the past few years, both franchises have enjoyed success, but only Seattle has been crowned a ‘champion.’
While Cincinnati has earned a remarkable four consecutive playoff berths, it is hardly treated with the same reverence as the Seahawks. For too long, the Bengals have been disrespected, and it typically is reflected in the spread.
The Bengals are a perfect 4-0 against the spread in 2015, proving that, once again, the perception of Cincinnati does not correlate with its actual ability. As the season progresses, the number will better represent the quality of the team. When this happens, the Bengals will likely cover the spread in a lower percentage of games.
The best catalyst for a shift in perception is when one team with a stable image beginning to change — Cincinnati — plays another that is rapidly fluctuating. Less than one week removed from a nationally televised home win that was anything but secure, the Seattle Seahawks are suddenly and quickly losing favor in the eyes of the football world.
The Seahawks, coming off a lackluster performance on Monday Night Football, facing a Bengals team that is finally getting respect presents a perfect opportunity for regression. The Bengals are a good team that is actually exceeding expectation while the Seahawks have yet to hit their stride. This changes on Sunday.
Seattle wins by four on the road and beats the spread.
St. Louis Rams (+9) at Green Bay Packers
How is it possible that the St. Louis Rams can beat the Seahawks and Cardinals, yet receive nine points as an underdog in Green Bay? Obviously, the Packers are an elite team, but haven’t the Rams proven that they are capable of knocking off some of the league’s best?
The Packers’ high-flying offense took a break in Week 4, scoring a season-low 17 points after reaching at least 27 points in each of the team’s first three games. The setback was inconsequential, as San Francisco was unable to do anything offensively against Green Bay.
Statistically, the Rams have the worst offense in the league. By the numbers, if St. Louis falls behind, it has no ability to catch up. What the early season statistics do not reflect is that rookie running back Todd Gurley is finally healthy, and brings a dynamic presence to an offense that had been lacking. In addition, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is one of the most forward-thinking in the league, and he is generally able to find points where they would otherwise be scarce.
Green Bay simply doesn’t lose at home, and it won’t on Sunday. It will, however, face a Rams team that continues to look better than it has in recent years. Green Bay wins by six, but the Rams beat the spread.
Washington Redskins (+7.5)* at Atlanta Falcons
What are the 2015 Washington Redskins? Are they good? Bad? Sneaky? Lucky? Whatever the answer, two teams have already failed to figure it out. At least, Atlanta, a known commodity, should be up to the task.
The Falcons have looked excellent in the first quarter of the season, jumping out to a 4-0 record, including 4-0 against the spread. Like the aforementioned Bengals, the Falcons have blown through all expectations, and they don’t appear to be slowing down in the near future. With the Redskins visiting, the Falcons can conceivably sleep their way to a 5-0 record.
A ‘trap game’ is in the works.
When Atlanta hosted the Houston Texans in Week 4, the concern for the Falcons was the Houston defense — Atlanta made light work of them, posting 48 points. Therefore, there should be little worry as to how the Falcons will handle Washington. If they avoided a letdown once, why can’t they do it again?
The Falcons have increased their margin of victory in each game, this season. Like the Arizona Cardinals, last week, the Falcons are over-extending themselves and a natural pullback is required. Complacency starts to set in, and the Redskins, rejuvenated by a division win in a winnable NFC East, have proven capable of striking when it is not expected. Most importantly, without knowing what the Redskins actually are, they may simply not be a bad team.
The Falcons are still better, and they do improve to 5-0, but not without a fight. Atlanta wins by a single point, but the Redskins beat the spread.
Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans (+2.5)
The Buffalo Bills entered Week 4 as a relatively big favorite. They lost outright, at home, to the New York Giants. The outcome begs two obvious questions: are the Giants better than they looked in the first three games or are the Bills worse?
Buffalo’s two wins appeared impressive, at the time. Both the Dolphins and Colts were projected to be better than they have played, but each has proven to be a disappointment, relative to their expectations. Perhaps the Bills just beat up on bad teams at the right time.
The same would appear to be true for a Titans team that has not particularly proven anything, yet. Its only win came against the overwhelmed Buccaneers on Opening Day, and the Titans arguably have more question marks on their scorecard than Buffalo.
The difference between the two teams is that Buffalo’s 2-1 start looked impressive, possibly leading to a false sense of security. The Titans are a young team trying to develop rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, and nearly anything is possible. Most notably, the Bills consist of veterans at the most important positions, and the history of the players must be weighted higher than the recent performances. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor spent four years as a backup for a reason, and his early-season success was bound to end.
The Titans will be coming off a bye week when they host the Bills on Sunday. The extra preparation should do wonders when facing a team that may not be as good as it has played. Tennessee wins by a field goal and beats the spread.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles (-4.5)*
Considering the amount of changes the Philadelphia Eagles underwent prior to the 2015 season, the team is still relatively unknown. Should they have a dangerous offense? Yes. Should they win games by tiring out defenses? Yes. Are they still a complete risk? Of course. The Eagles are 1-3.
The New Orleans Saints are a known entity. The offense features one of the top quarterbacks of his era in Drew Brees, and head coach Sean Payton is widely regarded as one of the best in the game. The Saints have consistently been a winning organization under the guidance of Brees and Payton.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, the ‘winning Saints’ are now a thing of the past.
New Orleans is not a good football team. For the second consecutive year, the Saints have posted a 1-3 record by the season’s quarter-point. In 2014, they never truly recovered, ending with a 7-9 record. Why should this team, without tight end Jimmy Graham, be expected to do better than last year’s?
The same flaws of 2014 — a horrible defense — are revived again in 2015 — the Saints rank in the bottom-third in the league for point and yards allowed — and their opponent on Sunday is built to put points on the scoreboard quickly. Philadelphia has yet to explode — it has not broken the 24-point barrier, all season — and the Saints look like the perfect defense against which the Eagles have their day.
Philadelphia wins by seventeen and covers.
Jacksonville Jaguars (+3)* at Tampa Bay Buccanneers
While the Jaguars and Buccaneers each share 1-3 records, the two teams have had vastly different experiences on the football field. The Jaguars’ worst loss occurred in New England, while the Buccaneers have been blown out by the Titans and Panthers. Both games were in Tampa Bay.
The growth of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston has brought a roller coaster ride to the team, and Tampa Bay has largely fallen victim to his inconsistency. When the Buccaneers host the Jaguars, they will get a firsthand view of what a developing quarterback should look like when second-year passer Blake Bortles lines up against them.
The record has not agreed, but Bortles and the Jaguars are nowhere near the bottom-dwellers that have frequently resided in Jacksonville. The team has talent and, with Bortles, stability at its most important positions. It is one year ahead of Tampa Bay in all regards.
Jacksonville has not had the luxury of playing too many games where it is arguably the better team. This time, it does. The Jaguars win by ten and beat the spread.
Cleveland Browns (+6.5)* at Baltimore Ravens
Considering the finishes for the Ravens and Browns in their respective Week 4 matchups, the roles could have easily been reversed, where a 2-2 Cleveland team would have been traveling to face the winless Ravens. As field goal kickers apparently conspired to ensure otherwise, the Browns lost an inspired contest in San Diego while the Ravens somehow survived Thursday Night Football with a division win.
The AFC north has a tendency to produce tight games. In order for one team in the division to be favored by nearly a touchdown worth of points over another, it would have to be an undeniably better squad. That cannot be said of the Baltimore Ravens.
Records aside, the Browns, not the Ravens, have been the more impressive of the two, constantly battling through games in which they have no right competing. Baltimore was a sinking ship before Week 4, and the hole was plugged, not fixed, when the team got in the win column.
The Browns are currently the better team, and they prove it with a four-point win on Sunday, beating the spread.
Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions (+2.5)
In back-to-back weeks, the Arizona Cardinals will have played games against generally weaker opponents, but had the numbers against them. Entering Week 4, the Cardinals were playing at such a high level that any sort of dip in production appeared impossible. Naturally, the Cardinals stumbled, and the visiting Rams pulled off the upset, handing Arizona its first loss.
The Cardinals suffered from being on too high of a trajectory last week. This time, they face a different problem — their opponent is the only remaining winless team in the league.
Detroit was inches away from scoring a late touchdown in Seattle that would have positioned the Lions for a possible upset. Instead, a fumble turned into a penalty that wasn’t called — it was barely known — and the Lions ended yet another game without a win.
At 0-4, the Lions clearly aren’t a good team. But they have played well enough to be within striking distance in three of their four games. The Cardinals are clearly in a class above Detroit, but a winless Lions team, at home, will not simply lie down. In addition, the difference in talent between the two teams should have forced the spread to be bigger. The fact that it remains small is telling.
Detroit finally gets a win by knocking off the visiting Cardinals. The Lions beat the spread, winning the game by a field goal.
New England Patriots at Dallas Cowboys (+9)*
At this point, does anyone even think before penciling in the New England Patriots as the winner for nearly every game? New England has won all three of its games by a margin of victory no smaller than seven points, and ranks second in the league to Arizona with a point differential of 49. To top it off, the Patriots have scored the fourth most points in the NFL, despite playing one fewer game than 28 other teams.
The injury to quarterback Tony Romo has proved to be a bigger hit than the Dallas Cowboys could withstand. Indeed, the play of backup quarterback Brandon Weeden has not been the sole reason for the Cowboys losing both games he started, but the inability to pose a legitimate threat through the air cannot be overlooked.
Good thing Dallas can beat the Patriots on the ground.
The Cowboys found success in 2014 behind an otherworldly offensive line. Because of this, the organization felt it could lose running back DeMarco Murray and not necessarily miss a beat. While Joseph Randle is not the same talent as Murray, he, too, has been more of an answer than a question.
In addition to the spread being entirely too large for a road team, the Patriots lack the familiarity of playing the Cowboys. New England thrives when facing teams on a regular basis — even the Colts and Broncos, with whom they do not share a division, but typically face on a yearly basis. It will be hard to find a bigger ‘trap game’ than this.
When Dallas welcomes back Greg Hardy from his four-game suspension, he will be added to a defense that allows the sixth-fewest touchdown passes in the league. The Cowboys will keep the Patriots in check, force a low-scoring game, and shock New England with an upset. Dallas wins by four and beats the spread.
Denver Broncos (-5) at Oakland Raiders
In any other situation, this game would be considered a ‘trap’ for the Denver Broncos. Playing on the road, in the division, against a team that just lost a heart-breaker, is one of the tell-tale signs of a game that will not be won as easily as normal. However, the Denver Broncos are not a normal team.
Despite a 3-1 record against the spread, the Broncos have won only one game by more than a touchdown. By contrast, eight of the team’s twelve wins in 2014 were by a margin of victory greater than one touchdown.
The spreads have remained favorably small for a team with a history of blowing out opponents. There is justification to the number, as Denver has not been as dominant, this season. In addition, the amount of points by which the Broncos have been favored this year has not dramatically dropped.
Denver currently has a seven-game winning streak against the Raiders, and the closest game was a thirteen-point Broncos victory in 2012. Denver has Oakland’s number, and is due to put up points. The Raiders will comply, as they have the second-worst defense in the league.
Denver wins by ten and covers.
San Francisco 49ers (+7)* at New York Giants
After the way in which the Giants lost their first two games — late collapses after holding double-digit fourth quarter leads — nothing seems safe. The organization has now made it a point of emphasis, and it is unlikely that the Giants will take anything lightly as the clock winds down on a game. Doesn’t that just mean they will be more conservative? Won’t they be too conservative?
Considering the Giants have now allowed a fourth quarter touchdown in every game, this season, their focus on preventing an opponent’s comeback has only drawn attention to it, not necessarily stopped it. In Week 4, New York was able to hold off the Bills’ late game attempts, but the Giants were a broken play — missed tackles that led to a touchdown for running back Rashad Jennings — from clinging to a one-score lead.
San Francisco has shown absolutely nothing since its Week 1 Monday Night Football victory — and for large portions of that game, the team looked lost. In the past two weeks, the 49ers have combined for ten points, while allowing 64. They did, however, play the Cardinals and Packers in the two games.
The New York Giants may be recovering from an 0-2 start, but, had they been a better team, they would not have fallen apart and dropped either game. They are not yet in the same class as the Cardinals and Packers, and the 49ers will welcome the opportunity of playing a more reasonable opponent.
The Giants have a renewed focus that will ultimately result in a win, but they are not the type of team to routinely blow out opponents. The 49ers battle to the end, but lose by four, beating the spread.
Pittsburgh Steelers at San Diego Chargers (-3)
For all intents and purposes, Steelers quarterback Mike Vick filled in nicely for the injured Ben Roethlisberger in Week 4’s Thursday Night Football game. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger’s presence was missed when Vick overthrew an open Antonio Brown in overtime. Naturally, there were a number of other plays and circumstances that led to a Pittsburgh loss, but the Steelers were hardly inept.
As close as the Steelers came to improving to 3-1, the Chargers were similarly at risk of falling to 1-3. Trapped in a dogfight with the visiting Browns, San Diego barely escaped with a win, and avoided a massive letdown in Week 4.
When the two teams meet on Monday Night Football, the logical regression is that the Chargers — worthy of losing their last game — will fall while the Steelers — two missed field goals in Week 4 — will recover. More importantly, the Steelers have extra days of preparation, playing two games eleven days apart. Certainly, this should benefit an offense that needs time with Mike Vick prior to the team’s next game.
The oddity in this matchup is that, while the Steelers are coming off a loss, Vick had already played a solid game — the aforementioned pass notwithstanding — completing 19-of-27 passes without turning the ball over. Even at his ‘best’ — at least, what his best should be at this point in his career — he was unable to get his team a victory, and, while the Chargers are not necessarily world-beaters, few teams have opened the season looking as bad as the Ravens — making Pittsburgh’s loss even less acceptable.
The Steelers, Chargers, and the trends of Monday Night Football have all been one-sided, so far. Pittsburgh is 2-1-1 against the spread — although occasionally listed as 3-0-1 — while San Diego is 1-3 against the spread. Each team has fallen mainly on one side of the perception coin, even though neither are particularly great, nor terrible. In addition, underdogs are an impressive 4-1 against the spread on Monday nights, including the two games from the season’s opening weekend.
As Vick takes a step backwards against the tenth-best passing defense, and the Chargers build off their tight victory, San Diego steps up. The Chargers win by a touchdown at home, covering the spread.