What a week.
I can’t tell if it should be considered ‘eerie’ or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either way, it was critical. And it’s more critical that everyone understands why it’s so critical.
Last week’s introduction focused wholly on approaching picks carefully after big wins. The key was that, when we regress – because we will regress – we need to protect ourselves. So, there were fewer confidence picks, and these became the ones where either trends or perceptions mattered most.
And we won.
Even if we had ended with a slightly losing record for the week, we won in two key areas. The first in the confidence picks, which should always be weighed more highly than the others. The second – which may only matter to some of you – is in the competition against others. If you play in a pool, go look at the average score for last week. Look at where people are starting to settle. And then look at how important it is to tread water.
Last week was a disaster for most who pick games against-the-spread. It was a major regression that wiped out many. Those “many” weren’t random. They were the ones who had started off this season on a hot streak. They were the ones who became overconfident. They were the ones who weren’t careful.
I don’t write this to knock anybody. I’ve made plenty of mistakes that have wiped out positive momentum. I write it because it has to be repeated again and again just how thin the line is between failure and success. Failure, here, is negating a good week with a terrible one. Success is slowly staying upright in the fight long enough to deliver the winning punch.
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 – 2019 Season: 17-10-1 (Last Week: 4-2)
(2018 Season: 63-48-4) (2017 Season: 53-48-4) (2016 Season: 53-67-3) (2015 Season: 69-45-2) (2014 Season: 61-46-2) (5-Year Total: 299-254-15)
All Picks Against Spread – 2019 Season: 35-27-1 (Last Week: 8-7)
(2018 Season: 137-118-12) (2017 Season: 137-119-11) (2016 Season: 123-136-8) (2015 Season: 143-117-7) (2014 Season: 149-114-4) (5-Year Total: 689-604-42)
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Timing is everything in the National Football League.
I’m not the first to share that thought, nor is it the first time I have written it. But can we get a better example of it than the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens? I think not.
Even if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were healthy enough to play, imagine if these two teams met in Week 2. It would be the Ravens, fresh off a 49-point victory against the Steelers, who were just beaten up by 30 points on national television. Two complete opposite sides of the coin.
Or what if the two met the following week? After the Ravens improved to 2-0 and the Steelers fell to 0-2? The spread would be even bigger than the hypothetical Week 2 matchup.
Instead, the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh after dropping back-to-back games and evening out at 2-2 while the Steelers, still one game behind in the standings, avoid a complete and utter disaster by holding serve at home, improving to 1-3.
Timing is everything.
And now, projecting ahead, imagine the fallout if the Ravens lose again. They would have gone from 2-0 to 2-3 and dropped both division games along the way. Conversely, the Steelers would go from 0-3 to 2-3 – so, not better than Baltimore – but have a 2-0 division record.
The struggle we face for Sunday’s game is not actually about the two teams – not yet, anyway. It’s about the spread and how it should tell the story for this specific contest. Not a Week 2 meeting. Not a Week 3 matchup in which the two teams were at their farthest points from one another. A Week 5 game that followed extreme movements in one direction, then a reverse course back toward the mean.
If we dropped these two teams into any random game, how can we ask quarterback Mason Rudolph to beat the Ravens? Especially since the Steelers barely asked Mason Rudolph to beat the Bengals. Pittsburgh couldn’t trust its quarterback enough to keep the ball in his hands and, instead, opted to run plays out of the ‘Wildcat’ formation just to prevent exposure to Rudolph. That works against Cincinnati. Not against Baltimore.
The Ravens may not be the best team in the division when the dust settles, but they are still the reigning champions who went from playing the Dolphins and Cardinals – now with a combined 0-7-1 record – to the Chiefs and Browns – now with a combined 6-2 record – in a four-week stretch. Baltimore was overmatched by Kansas City and caught napping against Cleveland. That won’t happen in Pittsburgh against the fourth-worst offense in the league – in yards-per-game.
The Ravens win by six points and cover the spread.
Prediction: Baltimore Ravens (-3.5)
Jacksonville Jaguars at Carolina Panthers
Sunday’s matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers features neither team’s original starting quarterback for the season. And yet, there is excitement surrounding each squad.
Over the last two weeks, Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew and Carolina’s Kyle Allen – respectively filling in for Nick Foles and Cam Newton – are a combined 4-0. But, it isn’t the record that is impressive. It’s that both quarterbacks have looked good in the process. Normally, I wouldn’t write such a subjective comment, but the reality is that the two quarterbacks are going head-to-head, so applying opinion to one is fine as long as it’s equally applied to the other.
And, it isn’t only about the quarterback.
With the emergence of these two young passers, each team’s defense has shouldered a larger responsibility. Jacksonville entered the year with high expectations defensively, but Carolina is clearly thriving because of its ability to limit opponents. But, if we actually look at the numbers, we can find something that pushes my earlier comment past opinion and into a category where we need to take notice.
I am certainly willing to buy into each quarterback, and I have actually picked Kyle Allen’s teams against the spread in each of his three career starts – he has been so kind as to reward us. But, as much as I like Allen, he is getting tremendous support from his defense. Carolina has allowed 290 yards or fewer in each of the last three games, including both started by Allen.
Jacksonville has allowed no fewer than 340 yards in each of the last two games. Minshew and the Jaguars’ offense have a combined 747 yards – granted, most came in Week 4 – over the last two weeks.
The Panthers might be playing better defensively, but the Jaguars are playing well and have room to improve. They also have an opponent in Carolina making its first-ever trip to London following this week’s game.
The Jaguars win by a field goal and beat the spread.
Confidence Pick: Jacksonville Jaguars (+3.5)
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 2018 with an accuracy of 56.8% for his confidence picks. His 5-year record for all NFL games against the spread is 689-604-41!