Can you believe it? We are almost halfway through the 2018 NFL season. Halfway through one of the most fun years we have had. Halfway through another season in which this column would rank in the top-three of experts against-the-spread at NFLPickwatch. And halfway through a season in which we just had our first losing week – and by a single game, at that.
Not coincidentally, we are also halfway through a season in which the ‘popular’ teams have emerged and were incredibly profitable in Week 7. As I write on a yearly basis whenever this happens, continually going to the metaphorical well and expecting the same returns is a recipe for disaster. This was also the focal point of Episode 4 of my podcast – also embedded below.
The beauty of how this season has unfolded is that a healthy number of ‘traps’ or sneaky plays have been present every single week. And they’ve delivered. Even when the Chiefs or Rams continue to win and cover spreads, the Chargers and Falcons are there to fail in spectacular fashion.
This is the way picking against-the-spread is supposed to go, and we should relish the opportunity to recognize it while we are in the middle of it. Because we have seen what it’s like to get caught in the outlier season, and we had confidence that it will swing back to our direction.
Right now, we are halfway through the type of year built for our style of picking games against-the-spread.
Listen to Episode 4 of our free podcast here:
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. An asterisk denotes a confidence pick.
*Confidence Picks – 2018 Season: 29-15-3 (Last Week: 3-1-1)
(2017 Season: 53-48-4) (2016 Season: 53-67-3) (2015 Season: 69-45-2) (2014 Season: 61-46-2) (4-Year Total: 236-206-11)
All Picks Against Spread – 2018 Season: 58-41-8 (Last Week: 6-7-1)
(2017 Season: 137-119-11) (2016 Season: 123-136-8) (2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4) (4-Year Total: 552-486-30)
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
When is a trend too strong for its own good?
Last week, we saw the first international game since 2016 decided by fewer than seventeen points when the Titans and Chargers played to a 20-19 final score. That spanned five consecutive games. Until it was broken.
On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play host to the Cleveland Browns with two extended trends in-play.
Pittsburgh will be returning from a bye week, which normally gives a team a perceived edge. Not the Steelers. In their last seven games that followed a bye week, Pittsburgh is a mediocre 4-3. But, what’s more concerning is that just one of the four wins was by more than four points. Put another way, the Steelers would not have covered a spread of five or more in six-of-their-last-seven post-bye games.
And then there’s the head-to-head matchup with the Browns. Regardless of how disastrous Cleveland has been in the past – you might recall a 1-31 record over the previous two seasons – it manages to routinely play its best against the Steelers. While Pittsburgh has not lost to the Browns since 2014, the last four meetings were decided by four points or less. Two went to overtime and one – this season’s Opening Day game – resulted in a tie.
By virtue of following a pattern, the Steelers and Browns should play a close game decided by less than a touchdown. Simple, right?
Of course not.
Just like the Titans and Chargers playing in London, last week, there were too many converging factors to cause a trend to break, not strengthen. The same is true for Sunday’s meeting between the Steelers and Browns. Otherwise, how else can we explain the spread growing to more than a touchdown?
Pittsburgh might not be the same powerhouse we have come to know in recent years, but it is no longer in position to take a team like the Browns lightly if it has any hopes of winning the crowded AFC North. And, with a head-to-head loss to the Ravens and a tie with the Browns already on the Steelers’ resume, it cannot afford to let another division game pass without a win.
The Steelers take control of a game in convincing fashion, winning by fourteen and beating the spread.
Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers (-8)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals
I feel like football fans deserve a bit of credit. After watching the Cincinnati Bengals look absolutely horrendous on national television, it does not appear to be hurting the perception of the team against the Buccaneers. Cincinnati is growing as one of the most popular favorites of the week.
What’s not growing, however, is the spread. Which should send a blaring alarm for us to pay attention.
The Bengals were absolutely awful when they last stepped on the field, but it is easy to forgive such a performance when the opponent was the now-6-1 Kansas City Chiefs. After all, every single team has lost to Kansas City except for the Patriots – who needed a last-second field goal to win at home. Therefore, Cincinnati is being given another chance.
When have we seen this before?
Basically, any time the Bengals have gained the trust of the football-watching world. And, almost every time, Cincinnati crushes the hearts of those who supported it.
As I have written numerous times throughout the first half of this season, the Bengals continue to burn those who jump aboard late and reward those who are ahead of the curve. On Sunday, we will see the rare example of people trying to perfectly time the recovery from a painful loss.
Which means we will also see the next installment of the Bengals’ bandwagon emptying.
The obvious reason for Cincinnati’s support would come from its expected ‘bounceback’ on offense coupled with Tampa Bay’s terrible defense. But, the flaw in this thought path is that the Bengals just faced one of the worst defenses in football and were completely ineffective. Then, if we flip to the other side of the ball, we can see that Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, while not outstanding, has led his team to back-to-back games in which it scored at least 26 points. 26 points would be enough to beat the spread against the Bengals in all but one of their last five contests.
Based on the positive correction the Bengals are likely to experience on Sunday, they will be able to outpace a frenetic Buccaneers team. They just won’t run away and hide.
Cincinnati wins by a single point, but Tampa Bay beats the spread.
Confidence Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+5)
Click here to sign up for Sporfolio to see the rest of Mario Mergola’s NFL picks against the point spread. Mergola finished with the highest total of correct NFL picks against the spread for 2015 and 2016 – tracked by NFLPickwatch, and finished 2015 with an accuracy of 60.53% for his confidence picks. His 4-year record for all NFL games against the spread is 552-486-30!
Photo Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr C.C. 2.0